I am catching up on my Scripture reading after a 9-day vacation in the north woods where my reading was sporadic. I am reading through the Bible chronologically. I am in Isaiah and Hosea as the prophets begin to address the coming doom for Israel and Judah who have continuously wandered in their faithlessness to God since they left Egypt.
Their’s is a spotted history, marked more by failure than success. The began grumbling and complaining soon after God led them miraculously out of Egypt. They made an idol of a golden calf even as Moses was meeting God on the mountain to receive God’s covenant. They failed to drive all the wicked people out of the promised land as God instructed, and they were influenced by them all the days they inhabited that land.
They set up idols in the high places where they offered sacrifices to the foreign gods despite all the efforts of God to establish a people for Himself to whom He could pour out His blessings and, through them, bless all the nations of the earth (such was His promise to Abraham). The cycle of sin and straying from relationship with God was growing ever worse as God raised up prophets to warn them.
The promised land, filled with milk and honey and all good things as it was, afforded the people wealth and comfort. In their abundance, they wandered further still from God.
“Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit. The more his fruit increased, the more altars he built; as his country improved, he improved his pillars.” (Hosea 10:1)
Those altars were the structures on which they sacrificed to gods – idols. The practice of sacrificing on altars seems strange to us today. We don’t make golden calves or build altars to gods. We aren’t like them. Right?
Tim Keller is fond of saying that any good thing that becomes an “ultimate thing” that we desire in place of God is an idol. We don’t recognize them always for what they are. We don’t always realize how much of ourselves we have sacrificed to our idols.
Our idols are more sophisticated and nuanced. We don’t trust in golden calves or sacrifices we make on altars to foreign gods. We trust in stock markets, careers, education, accumulating things, political platforms, sexual identity, romantic love, a perfect family, physical fitness, accomplishment, acceptance or whatever takes the front and center position in our hearts.
Our idols are no less real, and we spend no less time and effort sacrificing to them. We are as prone to wander from God in our hearts as the people of Israel. The more we prosper, the more our fruit increases, the more we tend to wander from God, building up the structures on which we sacrifice to our idols.
All good things come from God. If we make those good things our ultimate thing (our gods), we lose the most important thing – our relationship with God, the Giver of all good things.
No thing, not even a good thing, can ultimately fulfill or satisfy us. We are made for relationship with God.
No thing other than God lasts. If we lay up our treasures on this earth where everything fades, decays and wastes away, we end up with nothing.
The universe itself is subject to decay. We call it entropy: the energy that sustains life is waning. It will peter out someday.
The story of Israel is a reminder of the tendency we have as humans to rely on created things, things with no lasting substance, rather than the unseen, eternal God. We are prone to wander from God. I see this tendency in myself too.
Until the things on which we rely are threatened or are actually taken from us, we don’t know the hold they have on us. We may not realize how much we have sacrificed to those things or how much of a hold those things have on us.
In this time of uncertainty due to COVID, economic instability, racial unrest, and political tension, many of our our idols are threatened. Our live entertainment, professional and college sports, dining out and other things have been shutdown. Jobs have been lost. The future is unknown. It’s time to take for a reset.
God is calling, waiting for each of us to stop our wandering and let go of the things that distract us from Him.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols.” (Hosea 11:1-2)
In some ways, not much has changed. We have only gotten more sophisticated in our hearts. We are prone to wander; yet, He loves us still, and He continues to call.
We are all prone to wander. Those words were immortalized in a hymn written by Robert Robinson who, himself, knew the wanderings of his own heart: