What is the definition of idolatry?

Dictionary definitions of idolatry speak of religious worship of physical idols or excessive reverence or devotion to something. In biblical terms, idolatry is worship of anything other than God. Colossians 3:5 links idolatry with covetousness; when we want something so much that we covet it, the thing has become an idol. We seek it rather than God.

God instructed His people, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:3-5a). Many of the Old Testament commands against idolatry refer specifically to physical idols, such as those that would have been present in the pagan nations surrounding the Israelites.

Because idol worship was such a threat to the Israelites’ purity, God even instructed His people to destroy the pagan nations they conquered and to refrain from intermarrying (Deuteronomy 7:1-5). They were to destroy the places built to worship false gods. Unfortunately, the Israelites did not always follow God’s commands, and fell into the trap of worshipping physical idols, even creating one of their own (Exodus 32). The Old Testament is, in some ways, a chronicle of the Israelites’ moves away from God and back to God.

We know that such physical idols are mere wood or stone (Deuteronomy 4:28). They are impotent; not gods, but human creations. Some religions still use physical idols or icons, perhaps as an image of a god they believe to be elsewhere. Biblically, we know that those other gods do not exist. There is One God (1 Timothy 2:5).

Even if we are not bowing down to physical images of false gods, idolatry is still an issue today. MacArthur defines idolatry, in part, as “anything which causes us to think less of God” (paraphrased). Now our idols are things like pride, money, popularity, body image, hobbies, and the like. Some of these things may in themselves not be bad. We need money in order to live (Matthew 6:31-33); caring for our bodies is appropriate (1 Corinthians 6:19-20); God is a giver of good gifts, and we can take delight in the hobbies He has given us (James 1:17; Psalm 37:4). However, when we begin to value something above God, to expect that thing to provide us with ultimate satisfaction (even if that expectation is not voiced), we have begun making it into an idol. God alone is sufficient for all our needs. The other things are gifts, not gods.