Breaking the Idolatry Cycle (Judges 2:6-3:6)

Last week we began looking at one of the most depressing and yet also one of the most hopeful books in the Bible, the book of Judges. One of the questions that we're forced to ask as we read this book is: how could the people of Israel have been so stupid? They had everything going for them. They had seen God act. God kept on raising up new leaders. He kept on bailing them out. And yet they kept on blowing it. They didn't just make small mistakes either. They really and absolutely blew it.

Today's passage lays out a pattern for the rest of the book. It's a cycle that repeats itself over and over. It's not so much a cycle as a downward spiral. Judges shows that Israel spirals downward further and further away from God and into trouble. What we're going to look at today forms a template for most of the book of Judges. We're going to see as well that the heart of this downward spiral is an issue that's just as much of a problem for us today as it was back then.

What I'd like to do today is to simply ask three questions:

  1. What is the downward spiral?
  2. What's at the heart of the downward spiral?
  3. How can we break this downward spiral?

What is this cycle, this downward spiral?

The downward spiral we're about to read about happens over and over in Judges, at least six times. Here's how it works.

Continually, the people of Israel fell into apostasy and did evil in the sight of Yahweh. Look at verses 11-13:

Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord's anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths.

They rejected the Lord. They still worshiped him, but they also added worship of Baal, the Canaanite storm god, and the Ashtoreths, the goddess of fertility.

As a response to this sin and idolatry, Yahweh sold them into the hand of their enemies. He gave them over, reversing their conquest. Israel's enemies had no power unless God allowed it. Verses 14-15 say:

In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress.

Then the people cried out in desperation for God's help. Verse 18 says: "The Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them."

In response, God raises up judges - tribal chiefs who rescues them from their oppression. He gives them a savior. Verse 18 says, "Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived." God then empowered those leaders and gave the enemy into their hands.

But it never lasted long. Verse 19 says, "But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways." In other words, they go right back to the beginning of the cycle and start all over again.

So they kept this spiral going, and things kept getting worse and worse. Rebellion, oppression, a cry for help, new leadership, and right back to rebellion again.

You read this and think, how could they be so stupid to get caught up in a pattern like this that repeats itself over and over with such tragic results? Why couldn't they break out of this pattern? If we're honest, we have to admit that we get caught in cycles just like this.

They couldn't break themselves out of this downward spiral, and neither can we. The reason is that there's s a problem at the heart of this cycle that still affects us today. It's a problem that pulls us into downward spiral as well.

So what is at the heart of the downward spiral?

And how do we get caught in the spiral as well?

If you look carefully, you'll see that at the heart of the downward spiral was the irresistible pull of idols. No matter how God delivered them, they couldn't resist the allure of idolatry, and neither can we. Their problem, in one word, was this: idolatry. As long as our hearts can't resist the pull of idols, we'll never break free from the downward spiral of idolatry.

I know what you're thinking: I've never worshiped an idol in my life. Well, I wish it was that easy. We are idolators today. In fact, idolatry is the sin behind all sins, the problem behind all problems.

Now, we don't have Baal or Ashtoreths anymore. We don't worship carvings or images. But idols aren't just images or carvings. An idol is anything we worship, anything we add to God, as a requirement to be happy. We do have idols today. Richard Keyes wrote:

An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as God. All sorts of things are potential idols, depending only on our attitudes and actions towards them...idolatry may not involve explicit denials of God's existence or character. It may well come in the form of an over-attachment to something that is, in itself, perfectly good...An idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero - anything that can substitute for God.

Whenever we value something more than God, we are committing the sin of idolatry. An idol is a substitute for God that one loves and worships and serves rather than the one true God.

That's why the apostle Paul wrote that you don't need an actual physical idol to be an idolator. If you look to anything for satisfaction, and If you have to have it, then you're an idolator. In Colossians 3:5 he writes, "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry." Do you see what Paul says? Greed is idolatry. It's the sin behind all sins. It's a chief vice: wanting more. It's the condition of our hearts that isn't happy with what we have, that's always looking for more - even to good things - for happiness and satisfaction. Augustine said that this is the essence of sin: inordinate desire, or making good things ultimate things. Whenever we do this, we're committing idolatry.

Now here's the thing. John Calvin said that our hearts are idol factories. The problem with the judges is that they could get rid of all of the idols, but they couldn't do anything about the idols in the people's hearts. The minute that we take our eyes off God, our heart begins to manufacture idols for us to worship, because we have to give our hearts to something. Right now you are giving, or being tempted, to give your heart to someone or something else other than God, even a good thing: a person, a career, a job. Right now you are being tempted by the same sin these people were powerless to resist, the sin of idolatry.

Your greatest danger isn't that you'll stop worshipping God and become an atheist. Your greatest danger is that you'll combine the worship of God with the worship of idols, and you won't even know it.

And when we do this, and we all do, it's ultimately unsatisfying. Verse 17 says, "Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them." The problem with idolatry is that it's a lot like prostitution. Prostitutes give themselves away without getting any real pleasure or love in return. When we serve idols, we enter into a relationship in which we give ourselves away but get very little back in return. We become completely vulnerable but become little more than slaves.

Cornelius Plantinga writes:

All idolatry is not only treacherous but also futile. Human desire, deep and restless and seemingly unfulfillable, keeps stuffing itself with finite goods, but these cannot satisfy. If we try to fill our hearts with anything besides the God of the universe, we find that we are overfed but undernourished, and we find that day by day, week by week, year after year, we are thinning down to a mere outline of a human being.

Sin is really like continually running from God to some far country and looking for substitutes for God, and never being satisfied.

We are caught in this cycle of idolatry. It's a downward spiral that we're powerless to resist, and as we'll see in Judges, it will destroy us. There are good things in your life that will destroy you, not because there's anything wrong with them by themselves. They'll destroy you because you'll be tempted to give your heart to your career or to technology or fitness or your children more than to God. You'll take these good things and make them ultimate things. It never satisfies and it ultimately destroys.

So how can we break this cycle of idolatry?

What isn't the solution?

Unfortunately, we can't deal with idolatry by getting rid of all the things we're tempted to worship as idols. It would be nice, for instance, if you are tempted by the idolatry of careerism to be able to quit your job and retire at the age of 30 so that you're not tempted to make your career a god anymore. But the reality is that you'll probably have to keep working. We won't be able to get rid of all the idols around us even if we wanted to. God said in verse 22 that he was going to leave these nations and their idols as a way of testing Israel. We'll never be free of the temptation to give into idol worship.

The solution isn't even for a change in our outward circumstances. We read in verses 16-17, "Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them." And then in verses 18-19:

Whenever the Lord raised up a judge [tribal chief] for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them. But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.

The problem isn't a change in outward circumstances.

That's why, by the way, religion can't cure idolatry. Religion is essentially about trying harder - to follow rules to please God. The problem with religion is that despite all of our efforts, nothing really changes.

That's why yelling at the people, "You shouldn't have idols!" would really do nothing. You can get rid of all the idols in your house, but if you still have idols in your heart you have a problem.

So what is the answer?

The answer is that we need a judge, a savior, who can not just change our circumstances but also change our heart.

Richard Armstrong was a Presbyterian minister from Ohio. He who went to New Orleans to free a slave before the Civil War. He went to a slave auction and saw a woman being put up for sale. He listened to the auction.

The woman was going for $400 they would pay. He thought about it and offered $500 - a lot of money in that day, all that he had - and bought her.

He led her outside. She didn't realize what he was doing. She spit in his face and said if she got a chance she would kill him. He had set her free, but he hadn't changed her heart.

But then he said, "You don't understand. I knew what those men would do to you. I have no use for a slave. Here are your papers; you're free." He walked away.

And as the slave woman understood that he had given everything to set her free, she ran after him and said, "Master, Master, I'll serve you for the rest of my life." When she really understood what this man did for her, she was not only set free, but her heart was changed as well.

This is the gospel: that God knew we couldn't break free from the cycle of idolatry ourselves. But God sent the ultimate Judge, who not only rescues us but changes our heart as well.

Let's pray.

The only two things you need to remember from this morning is that we have a problem. Our problem is one that we can't break out of ourselves. We are idolators. You can get rid of all the idols you like, but as John Calvin said, your heart will just make more. The problem isn't even the idols. The problem is our hearts.

But God in his grace has sent a Judge to break the cycle of idolatry that only leads to death. He sent his Son as the ultimate Judge, and he's not only set us free but changed our hearts as well.

Father, may we give our hearts only to you. Because Christ has set us free from both the penalty and the power of sin, and we are no longer slaves, may we live freely because of the gospel.

We confess our idols and lay them down before you and repent. Thank you for setting us free. In Jesus' name, Amen.