A snake, a monkey, an onion, a bit of rag

(J. C. Philpot, "The History of an Idol, its
Rise, Reign and Progress" October, 1855)

"Dear children, keep yourselves from idols." 1 John 5:21

is a sin very deeply rooted in the human heart.

We need not go very far to find the most convincing
proofs of this. Besides the experience of every age
and every climate, we find it where we would least
expect it—the prevailing sin of a people who had the
greatest possible proofs of its wickedness and folly;
and the strongest evidences of the being, greatness,
and power of God.

It is true that now this sin does not break out exactly
in the same form. It is true that golden calves are not
now worshiped—at least the calf is not, if the gold is.
Nor do Protestants adore images of wood, brass, or

But that rank, property, fashion, honor, the opinion
of the world, with everything which feeds the lust of
the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life;
are as much idolized now, as Baal and Moloch were
once in Judea.

What is an idol?

It is that which occupies that place in our esteem
and affections, in our thoughts, words and ways,
which is due to God only. Whatever is to us, what
the Lord alone should be—that is an idol to us.

It is true that these idols differ almost as widely
as the peculiar propensities of different individuals.
But as both in ancient and modern times, the grosser
idols of wood and stone were and are beyond all
calculation in number, variety, shape, and size.
So is it in these inner idols, of which the outer
idols are mere symbols and representations.

Nothing has been . . .
  too base or too brutal,
  too great or too little,
  too noble or too vile,
from the sun walking in its brightness—to a snake,
a monkey, an onion, a bit of rag
—which man has
not worshiped. And these intended representations
of Divinity were but the outward symbols of what
inwardly worshiped. For the inward idol preceded
the outward—and the fingers merely carved what the
imagination had previously devised. The gross material
idol, then, is but a symbol of the inner mind of man.

But we need not dwell on this part of the subject.
There is another form of idolatry much nearer home;
the idolatry not of an ancient Pagan, or a modern
Hindoo—but that of a Christian.

Nor need we go far, if we would but be honest
with ourselves, to each find out our own idol . . .
  what it is,
  how deep it lies,
  what worship it obtains,
  what honor it receives,
  and what affection it engrosses.

Let me ask myself, "What do I most love?"

If I hardly know how to answer that question, let
me put to myself another, "What do I most think
upon? In what channel do I usually find my thoughts
flow when unrestrained?"—for thoughts flow to the
idol as water to the lowest spot.

If, then, the thoughts flow continually to . . .
  the farm,
  the shop,
  the business,
  the investment,
  to the husband, wife, or child,
  to that which feeds lust or pride,
  worldliness or covetousness,
  self-conceit or self-admiration;
that is the idol which, as a magnet, attracts
the thoughts of the mind towards it.

Your idol may not be mine, nor mine yours; and
yet we may both be idolaters! You may despise or
even hate my idol, and wonder how I can be such
a fool, or such a sinner, as to hug it to my bosom!
And I may wonder how a partaker of grace can
be so inconsistent as to love such a silly idol
as yours! You may condemn me, and I condemn
you. And the Word of God, and the verdict of a
living conscience may condemn us both.

O how various and how innumerable these idols
One man may possess a refined taste and
educated mind. Books, learning, literature, languages,
general information, shall be his idol. Music—vocal
and instrumental, may be the idol of a second—so
sweet to his ears, such inward feelings of delight
are kindled by the melodious strains of voice or
instrument, that music is in all his thoughts, and
hours are spent in producing those harmonious
sounds which perish in their utterance. Painting,
statuary, architecture, the fine arts generally, may
be the Baal, the dominating passion of a third.
Poetry, with its glowing thoughts, burning words,
passionate utterances, vivid pictures, melodious
cadence, and sustained flow of all that is beautiful
in language and expression, may be the delight of
a fourth. Science, the eager pursuit of a fifth.
These are the highest flights of the human mind.
These are not the base idols of the drunken feast,
the low jest, the mirthful supper—or even that less
debasing but enervating idol—sleep and indolence,
as if life's highest enjoyments were those of the
swine in the sty.

You middle-class people—who despise art and science,
language and learning, as you despise the ale-house,
and ball field—may still have an idol. Your garden, your
beautiful roses, your verbenas, fuchsias, needing all the
care and attention of a babe in arms, may be your idol.
Or your pretty children, so admired as they walk in the
street; or your new house and all the new furniture; or
your son who is getting on so well in business; or your
daughter so comfortably settled in life; or your dear
husband so generally respected, and just now doing so
nicely in the farm. Or your own still dearer SELF that
needs so much feeding, and dressing and attending to.

Who shall count the thousands of idols which draw
to themselves those thoughts, and engross those
affections which are due to the Lord alone?

You may not be found out. Your idol may be so hidden,
or so peculiar, that all our attempts to touch it, have left
you and it unscathed. Will you therefore conclude that you
have none? Search deeper, look closer; it is not too deep
for the eye of God, nor too hidden for the eyes of a tender
conscience anointed with divine eye-salve.

Hidden diseases the most incurable of all diseases.
Search every fold of your heart until you find it. It may
not be so big nor so ugly as your neighbor's. But an idol
is still an idol, whether so small as to be carried in the
coat pocket, or as large as a gigantic statue.

An idol is not to be admired for its beauty, or loathed
for its ugliness—but to be hated because it is an idol.

"Dear children, keep yourselves from idols." 1 John 5:21