Driving Out Idols
On August 31st, 1983, Korean Airlines Flight 007 took off from Anchorage, Alaska in route to Seoul, South Korea. In just a few hours it would be shot down by Soviet military jets, causing the deaths of all 269 people on board. This tragedy was caused by many mistakes that can be tracked back to a simple error. It seems that the pilots forgot to change the autopilot settings. In the computer system for a 747, there are different types of navigation tracking. At some point they were supposed to switch from one to the other, but they never did. Due to this simple mistake, they flew off course, on the wrong heading, slowly but steadily, right into Soviet airspace. Two fighter jets were scrambled and sadly the airplane was destroyed.
This tragedy has a spiritual connection in that taking the wrong course, no matter how innocent the mistakes may seem, can lead to destruction. And we see that in Psalm 17, specifically as it relates to idolatry. Idols, no matter how harmless they seem, will lead us off course, they will steer us into the path of destruction. Therefore, we must be aware at all times of our heading, where we are going, what we are focused on in our hearts, to ensure we are going the right way, so to speak. Oftentimes we will need to be reoriented, because without even noticing it, we are being led astray. How we do that is our focus this morning. From Psalm 17 we learn that:
The heart of God should awaken us to the destructive power of idolatry and cause us to choose Him as our supreme love.
We are going to spend our time looking mostly at verses 14 and 15 as opposed to the entire Psalm as we really zoom into this topic of idolatry and how to counteract it and reorient our hearts.
1. The Destructive Power of Idolatry
As with most of the first section of the psalms, we are presented with a contrast between two groups of people; the wicked and the righteous. David is praying that God would save him and all who follow God from the wicked. And he speaks of these people who seek to do him harm in strong language. They are violent and deadly; they are like a lion eager to tear, lurking in ambush for their prey. And obviously when we read that we think, “these are bad people. These are people I wouldn’t want to follow or be around!”
But then verse 14 comes out of nowhere like a punch in the gut. Look how David depicts the wicked people there. And if you are reading from the NIV, your translation is going to sound totally different than all of the others. The Hebrew of this verse is difficult to translate and the NIV chose to interpret it in a way that other translations do not, and that I don’t agree with, so just a reminder that I am reading from the ESV. If you want to talk about that more after the service, I’d be happy to. Back to verse 14.
Does this verse seem strange to you? Think about what is being said. Instead of continuing to write about the brutality of the wicked, he describes them as what? Content families. He says they have good things! They have treasure from God! They have kids that make them happy! They work hard and leave an inheritance for their little ones. What monsters!
This should cause us all to pause and think a little more deeply about what is being said here. Why would David go from talking about the terrible things these wicked people are doing, to their happy, everyday family life? What is he getting at?
I think what he is trying to show us is the destructive power of idolatry. He is not saying that what these people who do not follow God have is bad. He says that it is good. It is treasure; treasure from God no less! They are satisfied, meaning they find contentment with, their families and in trying to ensure they have enough to leave with them when they are gone. That is not a bad thing. The problem comes with how those things are viewed in our hearts. That is where idolatry creeps in and destroys.
What, then, is idolatry? Idolatry is viewing created things not as a gift but as a god. It is a heart attitude where we put good things, gifts from God, in his place. Imagine a scale in your mind and heart and you put God on one side, and a good gift from him on the other. It could be anything, like in our passage here for instance, family. God on one side, family on the other. And in our minds and hearts we give more weight, we assign more value, to family, the gift, over God, the giver. As one author writes, “We become fixated and entranced on God’s good gifts, seeking in them something that we will never be able to find.” Our goal, our life trajectory, our highest love, comes off of God and is assigned to something else. And we seek in that thing something we will never be able to find.
So, what is it that we are trying to find in idols? That is in verse 14: “they are satisfied with children.” We are all looking to be satisfied, to be content, to feel at rest and peace in our circumstances. And where we try to find that contentment is where our treasure is; that is what weighs most heavily on the scales of our hearts, that is what rules our heart, that is our highest and supreme love.
And anything can be in that spot, fill in the blank with what you think will bring contentment, this feeling of peace and satisfaction. What comes to mind when you think, If I only had this, I would be content, or since I have this, I am content. Children, family, a spouse, money, good health, career, retirement, the approval or recognition of others, a political party being in power, food, drink, sex, a little bit of land, a house, vacation, entertainment, and on and on we could go. All of these things can be good things! All treasures and gifts from God; the problem is not in the gifts; it is in us and the value that we assign to them! These things were never meant to bring us true and lasting contentment. Instead they are meant to point us to the gift giver. And when we stop short of that, seeking in the gift the ultimate means of contentment, we have created an idol in our heart. We have made them our highest goal, our supreme love. And that is what the wicked people of Psalm 17 were doing, treasuring the gifts above the giver.
We may be tempted to think, “well, what’s the big deal? This verse seems to be describing good, upstanding, well-meaning people.” And I would agree. But idolatry is something we need to take seriously and war against in our hearts; it is sneaky, creeping in unnoticed, and it is destructive. One author says, “Idolatry isn’t a game; it’s a suicidal reality that wrecks our souls and awakens the wrath of a jealous God.”
Idolatry, seeking contentment in things over God, is a suicidal reality that wrecks our souls. Or as Jonathan Edwards, the Northampton pastor from the 1700’s said, it “contract[s our]soul to the very small dimensions of selfishness.” Idolatry contracts and shrivels up our souls and our hearts in its destructive grip. When we try to find satisfaction, meaning, peace and rest in the things of this world we will find the very opposite. We will never be satisfied and our hearts will begin to shrivel up and close off, like a grape that has fallen off the vine.
And we see that happen in our passage, in verse 10. Idolatry leads to the closing up of the heart. Instead of finding contentment, idols destroy the capacities of our hearts and minds, closing us off to being able to find any joy or love as all things and people become means by which we attempt to find contentment. We become selfish users and abusers of others and our ability to truly love gets smaller and smaller. This is the path that all idols lead us down; it is the way of destruction.
What then are we to do? Before I answer that I want to make it clear that this is a heart problem that we are going to battle for the rest of our lives. All of us, all people, are idol factories, as John Calvin once said. Our hearts want to make idols out of everything. What we need to keep doing, continue fighting for, is loving God supremely. We can’t stop our hearts at the gift, the good things, we need to look up from them, to where they came from, and we see that in verse 15.
2. Loving God Supremely
David now makes a contrast of his heart versus the wicked. The wicked are satisfied with the gifts, but David is satisfied with God. And again, remember, David is not condemning the gifts, the things the wicked are content with. No, what he is condemning is the heart attitude, the value that is being placed on those things. It is not that they have no value and need to be done away with. They simply need to be put in their proper place in our affections.
And I love how David describes how he does that, and it really helps me understand, again, how this is a lifelong, continual battle that we must engage and grow in. First, that phrase translated, “I shall behold,” is one word in the Hebrew and it could be translated as “I choose.” And it is a verb that is ongoing, it is in process and continuing. In other words he is saying, “I am choosing, I will keep choosing.”
What is it that he is continuing to choose? God’s face; which in the Old Testament was a way of speaking of someone’s presence. He is saying I will keep choosing to have my highest focus be on God over my idols. And I will keep choosing God in righteousness, as in, I will live rightly before him, I will choose him over my sin, over the sinful desires of my heart. I will choose God’s path for how I live.
And he continues and says that he will be satisfied, he will be content with, God’s likeness. To speak of someone’s likeness in the Old Testament was a turn of phrase, an idiom, that referred to a unique relationship between two people. David is saying I choose God over my sin, I choose God as my supreme love. And I am satisfied, I am content with what I have in him. If I have God, I have everything I need. Wherever he chooses to put me. Whatever gifts he chooses to bless me with, I will cherish them as treasures from the giver of good gifts. But the gifts don’t bring me ultimate peace, rest, satisfaction and contentment. Meaning I cherish and love the gifts, but if they were all removed from me, if I never get what I desire in life, I will still be content. I will still choose God; I will still trust God and rest in him because he is the supreme love of my heart.
Like I said before, that is the battle of the Christian life. That is the daily, sometimes hourly fight we are all engaged in, or at least should be. That is not easy, at all. Our sinful hearts will continually create and long for idols and we must keep coming back to God and begging him to help us choose him as our only source of real contentment. And this is true whether you are 8 or 108; this is the same fight for all of us.
How do we know how we are doing in that battle? How can we gauge where we are at, what trajectory we are on? A simple but oftentimes uncomfortable question can be helpful. One that we all would do well to honestly answer from time to time.
If I had everything I wanted in this life, but didn’t have God, would I be satisfied? If all of the things I think of when I day dream came to fruition, if the hopes and wishes of my heart were given to me, do I feel that I would finally be content, even if God wasn’t there? If the answer is yes, or I don’t know, then we have an idol problem. Then our hearts are more like the wicked than the righteous and we are on the path of destruction. We need God to help us change course, to rebalance the scales so we can have him and his gifts in the proper place in our hearts.
3. The Heart of God
So, practically speaking, how do we grow in loving God supremely and ridding our hearts of idols? The answer is to look to the heart of God. We will desire God more, we will grow in loving him above all else, finding our contentment in him alone, the more we know him and his heart. When we truly understand, think about, meditate on, the goodness of God, it will awaken our hearts, rebalance the scales and drive out idolatry. He will become our supreme love, a greater desire of our hearts than the things of this world. We will be content with him, with or without his gifts.
Why is that the case? Think about what David says in verse 8. In the Hebrew it doesn’t say, “apple of your eye.” That is the interpretation of the translators to put it into an English turn of phrase to make David’s point. David is revealing God’s heart for his people. He is saying that God tenderly cherishes and cares for his children, literally it says that he sees us as his young daughters. Meaning that each one of God’s children, are personally, intimately, affectionately at the center of his heart. He loves us with a wondrous, steadfast, never-ending, never-decreasing, love. He cares for us, like a gentle father towards his young daughter; hiding us under his wings, taking us into the center of his heart where we stay secure forever.
Which means that everything he gives me, and everything he withholds, is a gift from my loving father. The one who deeply desires for me to be satisfied, content, at peace in him always. Everything he gives me is a good and precious gift that I am to cherish and enjoy and be filled with gratitude for. They are from the One who tenderly loves me, who withholds nothing good from me; who gives and takes away as he sees fit because he knows what is best for me. That doesn’t mean it is easy, or without sorrow and pain when things are withheld or removed, far from it. But it does mean I can be at rest in my heart, and be content knowing God has me as the apple of his eye and everything that comes is from his good hands.
And the more I think about that, the more I dwell on that truth, reminding myself of it, and growing in understanding it and knowing and believing this is God’s heart for me, the more the idols will be driven away. I will grow in contentment in all situations in life. And my heart will grow, not shrivel up, as his love expands my heart to delight in him and to treasure and enjoy his good gifts in their proper place.
As the puritan pastor John Owen wrote, “Exercise your thoughts upon this very thing, the eternal, free and fruitful love of the Father, and see your hearts be changed to delight in him.”
And one of the best ways we can do this, to get a sense of God’s heart for us, to really see it in action, is look to Christ. See him in the pages of Scripture, see in his life, death and resurrection God’s love for his children.
Jesus Christ, God the Son, reveals the heart of God for us in tangible, physical form. He was not willing to let us go down the path of destruction, being led astray by our idols. But instead, he willingly gave up his throne in heaven, came into his creation, and took my sin and the penalty for it on himself. He took my idols on himself and suffered the jealous wrath of God that I deserved; that I invoked.
He had no idols, no sin, he loved the Father perfectly in all things. Yet he suffered and died in my place. His death was supposed to be my death and his resurrection became my resurrection. He took me with him out of the grave, out of my deadness in sin, so that I could live forever with him. He brought me into the heart of the Father with him. We are forever linked and now, how the Father sees and loves the Son is how the Father sees and loves me. This is true of all who come to him by faith, who take hold of Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
And we cling to that truth, to that steadfast love made clear in Jesus Christ. I hold onto and choose him, his heart, his life for me over my idols. And I keep doing that, again and again, as my heart seeks to make idols out of all of his good gifts. I look to Jesus and choose to trust him to satisfy me forever.