What do you long for? What do you desire? A relationship? Debts paid off? A big enough savings account so you’re not living paycheck to paycheck? A new car? New house? A different personality? Different looks? Good health? Healing? Success? Athletic ability? Artistic ability? A raise? What do you long for?
We all have desire. We all have longings. God created us to be people with desires. That means that desire is not wrong. Desire, all by itself, is neutral. Desire and longing is a normal part of what it means to be a human.
Desire can be good. It can drive us to achieve, to right what is wrong, to discover, to lead, to grow. But desire can also be bad. In fact nearly every bad thing that people do is rooted in evil desire, whether the tiniest white lie or the most awful crime.
This week we continue our study through Ezekiel with a five-part series on Ezekiel chapter 14. There we will meet people who have some longings, some desires.
In verse 1 we read that the elders visit Ezekiel. This is the second time the elders have had an audience with Ezekiel. The first was in chapter 8, when Ezekiel had a grand vision in which God transported him to Jerusalem. Now they’re back. It seems the elders identified Ezekiel as a prophet, and they would visit him likely to hear a word from the Lord. So even though Ezekiel was a prophet with a unique method of prophesying, using street skits, and he likely wasn’t taken seriously by many people, there must have been at least some understanding or agreement among the elders that Ezekiel was a true prophet of God. They show up at Ezekiel’s house to ask the prophet to inquire of God. What will God say to the elders?
We read in verses 2-3 that God says these men have two major problems. First, they have set up idols in their hearts, and second, they have put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. What does God mean?
We’re going to spend most of our time talking about that first one: they set up idols in their hearts. We’ve heard a lot about idolatry so far in the book of Ezekiel. There were idols in the high places, up in the mountains, of Israel. There were idols in the temple in Jerusalem. Idols were figurines made of stone, wood or metal. What, then, is an idol in the heart? We’re not talking about putting a little idol figurine inside a person’s blood pumper. No heart surgery going on here. The word “heart” used here refers to a person’s inner being. This is source of our emotion and feeling. It is similar to how we use the concept of mind or will.
God is saying that idolatry has taken root in their inner being. They are longing after something, and that something is not God. It is an idol, a false god, an idea. In the ancient world, the gods were conceived to be the source of protection, healing, fertility, wealth, and blessing. You would pay tribute to the gods, make sacrifices to gods, giving them money and animals and grain, all to earn their favor, believing that doing so would result in blessing. Do your crops need rain? Make a sacrifice to the gods. Are you childless? Make a sacrifice. Is your enemy attacking you? Make a sacrifice. Pagan gods were seen as having power, and people would grow within their hearts a desire to acquire that power.
In this sense, idolatry of the heart was very much like what we think of as lust. When we lust, we desire that which is not ours. That thing, whether it is another person, a possession, a version of ourselves, or a new job, if we let it, can become like an idol, a god we worship. Have you had that happen to you? If it’s a person, maybe you daydream about what it would be like to be with them. If it’s a house or car or vacation, you find yourself scrolling at pictures online thinking about how it will make your life so much better.
It is also very much like greed. It’s the belief that money is what will take care of us. The right training or education will lead to the right job which will lead to the right insurance and salary which will lead to the right possessions and home and investments and retirement and travel, and put it all together and we call it the good life.
At the center is desire. It is a craving for the new thing, the next thing, a better thing. So many things in our world promise us this good life. It could be a politician, it could be a preacher. If we believe them, we can grow idolatry in our hearts. It is a seeking for answers amidst the uncertainty of life, and believing those answers are found in nearly anywhere else but God. That is idolatry in the heart.
Idolatry in the heart is so dangerous because of where it is located, the center of our being, the foundation of our inner life.
I had poison ivy twice this summer. I get it so easy, and it seems to spread all over me. Both times I had to get prednisone to heal from the poison, otherwise it takes forever for it to clear up, and it is so itchy. But if prednisone wasn’t available, and I had to just deal with it, letting it run its course, I would be okay. Why? It’s on the outside. My vital organs are fine. But if I got heart disease, or if I had blockages in my blood vessels, or cancer, it would be a different story. Those things don’t just run their course. You have to take drastic action, or they will kill you because those diseases attack the organs that preserve your life. The principle is the same for our spiritual heart. When we have set up idols in our hearts, it is a critical condition, because it is affecting the deepest part our lives. We cannot set up idols in our hearts and be okay, with God, with others or with our world. Our relationship with everything around us will be impacted negatively. If we do not take drastic action to deal with the idolatry in our hearts, we will die spiritually.
Check back to the next post, and see what action takes place next and the surprising source of that action.