“I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the residents of Jerusalem. I will cut off every vestige of Baal from this place, the names of the pagan priests along with the priests; those who bow in worship on the rooftops to the stars in the sky; those who bow and pledge loyalty to the Lord but also pledge loyalty to Milcom.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I have some good friends, a married couple, who live in a divided house. What I mean is that one of them cheers for one college team, and the other cheers for their arch rival. Oh, they get along just fine. But when the two teams play each other things are just a little more interesting than usual. The thing about these divided-house situations, though, is that while each partner may tolerate living with fans of their rivals, they don’t usually start actually cheering for them. Instead, they tend to double down on their commitment to their own team…sometimes just to get under the skin of each other. Trying to cheer for each at the same time would just be weird. God agrees…sort of.
The situation in Jerusalem during the days of King Josiah was an interesting one. It was a bit of a divided house. On the one hand, when kings like Josiah came to power and encouraged (with the power of the state behind that encouragement) the people to worship Yahweh, the people would do that. But, while they would take down all the external vestiges of Baal worship (Yahweh’s chief competitor throughout much of Israel’s history), internally things weren’t quite so cut and dried.
You see, one king was not necessarily going to worship the same god as the king before him. And the next king might worship yet a different god. Yes, the kings reflected the state of their people to a certain extent, but they could always call an audible, and there was really no one to challenge them since they were the kings. Their word was law by definition. The people had to at least put on a show of faithfulness to whichever god they chose or pay a political price. Just because they changed their worship practices on the outside, though, doesn’t mean they changed their internal devotion; it doesn’t mean they were really faithful to the god the king chose.
People learn from experience. It is how we survive. We learn what works and we go with what works. We also learn by observation. When one king declared one god lord and had an outwardly successful rule and then another king declared another god lord and had an outwardly successful rule the people learned something. They learned that it really didn’t matter which god you worshiped just so long as you were faithful to that god. Over time, though, they tended to learn something else: why worship just one god when you can worship more than one to make sure you have your bases covered.
Here’s the problem with all of this as far as Judah was concerned: while they could get away with this kind of broadly pagan syncretism with all of the various gods that their neighbors worshiped, Yahweh wasn’t willing to put up with it. The reason for this was that none of those other gods really existed. They were just made up by people to explain how the world worked and then organized into a religious system that was generally rife with injustice and evil. Yahweh was eternal and revealed Himself to them rather than the other way around. He was as clear as He could be in His law that they were to worship Him and Him alone. He would countenance no sharing of devotion. None.
And the reason for this was pretty obvious. He claimed to be the only God. If the people acknowledged another god as such, they were guilty of trying to simultaneously hold two truth claims which were diametrically opposed to one another. If God was indeed the only God, then these others were not gods and should therefore not be worshiped. If these others were indeed gods and worthy of some amount of devotion, however small, then God wasn’t actually the only God as He claimed. Their worship of these other gods served to effectively call God a liar.
Do you like being called a liar? To your face, most certainly not. Does it make it any better to be called a liar implicitly, not by someone’s words, but by their actions? Yeah, not really at all. God feels the same way. He hated the idolatry of the people. People who worshiped other gods in Israel were an offense to Him. It was a profound statement of ingratitude and rejection of His character and generous graciousness to them over the centuries. But He was equally offended by those who would go through the motions of worshiping Him while also worshiping these other gods. At least the ones who rejected Him outright had the potential decency to acknowledge who He was even if they rejected Him. The ones who tried to play both sides got Him completely wrong. They didn’t have any idea who He really was.
And He wasn’t happy about it.
Here’s the challenge for us in all of this: Are we trying to do the same thing in our own life? No, we’re probably not bowing down to statues on the side just in case there really is something to them. But that’s not the only way to practice this dangerous syncretism. Here’s a question to bring some clarity to the matter: In what do you place your hope? God, sure, but anything else? To what do you turn when things get rough or tense? God, perhaps, but what else? Money? Some substance? An evil habit? Food? Exercise? Even a seemingly good habit can become a God-competitor if we are not careful.
The truth is that God is the Lord and there is no other. Anything we do, think, or say to deviate from that truth proclaims a lie, a lie that offends the very heart of God. That’s no way to live. Make sure that your life proclaims the truth about God and nothing else.