In Biblical terminology, an “Idol” can be anything we value, honor, or pursue more than we value, honor, or pursue God. It is anything that takes priority in our lives. We tend to think of idols as “evil,” as things that are themselves inherently bad. This thinking misses the point. The evil of idolatry is not in the object of our attention, but in our own misplaced priorities.
Number 21:4-9 provides the first, and I believe most compelling, example of God’s people turning a blessing into an idol. This is the account of the bronze serpent.
For those that don’t know the story, here is a quick summary. Once again, while wandering in the wilderness, the people of God complain about their condition. God sends poisonous snakes among them and a lot of people die. The people repent and ask Moses to pray for them so God will take away the snakes. Moses prays. God replies and tells Moses to make a bronze snake and nail it to a pole. He then tells Moses anyone who gets bitten by a snake should look at the bronze snake nailed to the pole. If they would do this, then the snake-bite won’t t kill them. So Moses, and the people did what God said, and they lived.
So, what is the problem? Was the bronze snake evil? No, God told Moses to make it. And God used the snake to provide salvation from the consequences of their sin; a symbol of ultimate salvation Jesus applied to Himself (John 3:14-15, you know, right before “For God so loved the world…”). The snake itself was a blessing God, himself, gave His people.
Scripture, however, mentions the snake again in 2 Kings 18:4. By this time in Israel’s history, several hundred years later, the Israelites had given the snake a name and were burning incense to it. King Hezekiah, while purging the kingdom of idolatry, destroyed it. The bronze snake became an idol. The object God had given them for their good, which pointed to their ultimate Savior, had to be destroyed.
As believers today, we are in no less danger of abusing the goodness of God’s blessings than the ancient Israelites. Whether that blessing is a godly leader, a loving small group, or a healthy relationship, unless we remember God alone saves and is the only Satisfier of our souls, we are at risk of corrupting the blessings.
God loves us enough to give us good gifts, but He also loves us enough to take those gifts away when they interfere with our love for Him.