March 22, 2015

Futile Wandering and Unreal Idols

Numbers 26:1–65, 1 Corinthians 8:1–9:27, Psalm 22:1–13

I’ve traced my family tree to two people in Scotland for whom I cannot find ancestors. From those two came more, but not a huge crowd. Our tree does not have uncountable branches, nor is it up into the six figures, unlike the children of Israel. They went into Egypt with 70 people. More than 600,000 came out, but only two of those survived the wanderings in the wilderness. The rest died and their children were now ready to enter the land God promised them.

“These were those listed by Moses and Eleazar the priest, who listed the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. But among these there was not one of those listed by Moses and Aaron the priest, who had listed the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. For the Lord had said of them, ‘They shall die in the wilderness.’ Not one of them was left, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun.” (Numbers 26:63–65)

What surprised me in this OT reading is the results of the census taken just as they were about to enter the land of promise. After 40 years of wandering, just over 600,000 were counted, and the first thought that came to mind? God’s people are not fruitful when we have said ‘no’ to God and then spend far too long wandering around, complaining besides!

The NT reading is not connected to genealogies and wandering about. It is about idolatry. The new Christians knew it was wrong, but they wondered what to do with the food offered to idols. Of course the idol doesn’t eat it, but is it okay for God’s people to eat it?

Paul answered their question: “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Corinthians 8:4–6)

Today’s idols are seldom statues of wood or metal. Americans tend to worship money, power, status, and sometimes put people on pedestals. Can we say these have “no real existence” as Paul did? Is it correct to think that anything I ‘worship’ is really not there, not in existence as an idol, only in my mind?

These idols are not puffs of smoke or imaginary, but I don’t think that is what “existence” means here. For an idol to have real existence, it has to have at least some of the power and qualities that its worshipers put on it. That is, if I worshiped the almighty dollar, then to be a real god, that dollar has to deliver what I expect of it. Otherwise it is not worthy of worship. Without getting into the power of money, I can easily agree with Paul; idols really don’t exist. They are gods of the mind, not gods of reality.

The difference between these idols of the mind, even those with substance or flesh and blood, is what they are compared to God. They are powerless, unable to meet our expectations. In that way, they are not real. As for God the psalmist says, “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.” (Psalm 22:3–5)

God is real and omnipresent. He dwells even in my praise, and unlike any idols I’ve ever considered, He hears and answers prayer. We can trust Him and He will never let us down — because He alone has ‘real’ existence. 

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