In modern times, biblical passages about idolatry get applied to any circumstance in which someone puts something as higher than God. It occurred to me not long ago that I'd never seen anyone argue for applying idolatry passages this way in our current setting. People simply say that this is what idolatry is now that we don't have literal idols that we think of as representing deities. The assumption seems to be that what's wrong with idolatry is also wrong with putting something as a higher priority than God, but is that enough reason for calling it idolatry? One might give a philosophical argument for saying they amount to the same thing, but I hadn't seen a biblical statement to this effect, and I'd never seen anyone even making the philosophical connection clear. I've now discovered at least two passages that make this line of reasoning seem thoroughly biblical instead of marginally so, as it had seemed to me in the past.
First I noticed something I hadn't picked up on before. Colossians 3:5 (NIV) says "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry." The ESV and NKJV have 'covetousness' instead of 'greed', but these amount to roughly the same thing. Peter O'Brien translates the Greek literally as "a desire to have more", which fits either translation. What's interesting for this issue is that greed is idolatry. What is Paul getting at?
David Garland puts it this way: "Greed refers to the haughty and ruthless belief that everything, including other persons, exists for our own personal amusement and purposes. Essentially it turns our desires into idols." Then he adds, "Idolatry had as its chief purpose to get some material advantage from the gods, and idol worshipers tried to manipulate them to that end. The lust for worldly possessions quickly elbows God from the center of our lives as it captivates our total allegiance."
Another way to put Garland's point is that idolatry is a form of greed, since it's a way to get things by means of a god, whereas greed is putting yourself as so much more important than anything else that in effect you've made yourself a god. So Paul connects these two without drawing all the connections to explain himself, but we can see these possible explanations for doing so. Jesus was making the same point when he said you can't serve two masters -- both God and material possessions (Matthew 6:24). The non-biblical intertestamental Jewish work The Testament of Judah (19:1) says "The love of money leads to idolatry; because, when led astray through money, men name as gods those who are not gods."
These are the connections that aren't always made when people talk about what things today are like idolatry was to those whose neighbors worshiped pieces of rock and wood that they called gods. What was disturbing to me was that I hadn't seen that connection made within the Bible itself. We've just seen that Paul does make the connection without explaining it, and Jesus gets to some of the same principles, but there's no direct explanation of how to think about idolatry in a context in which idolatry doesn't involve thinking of created things as representations of spiritual beings worthy of worship. This lack of connection didn't completely bother me, but I was hoping for something that connects them in the text and also explains why they're connected. Jesus and Paul, in the passages above, didn't do that.
I found what I'd been looking for earlier this week in reading through the text that will be covered in this coming Sunday's sermon for my congregation. I Samuel 8 is the famous passage in which Israel asks Samuel for a king. God tells Samuel to give them a king but to tell them ahead of time all the negative things that will come of the kingship in Israel and to warn them that in asking for this they are in reality rejecting God's kingship. Then God tells Samuel that they aren't rejecting Samuel but are really rejecting God. What he says in particular is what makes the difference here:
According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. (I Sam 8:8, ESV)
What they're doing right now is basically the same thing they were doing in the past when they served other gods (i.e. idolatry). What they're doing right now is rejecting God as king. God just got through telling Samuel that. This is one of the clearest places I've seen connecting idolatry not just with God's jealousy and wanting to be worshiped alone but in terms of actual rejection of God. Most of the other places that say that about idolatry don't then say that some other action that isn't outright worship of a piece of rock or wood is still idolatry. This passage does. It equates the idolatry of the past with their current action. God says it's the same action. That same action is rejection of God's kingship. So too our rejections of God's kingship over our lives, in whatever ways we may do so, are idolatry.