Idolatry is worshiping anything that ought to be used, or using anything that ought to be worshiped.

Hideyoshi, a Japanese warlord who ruled over Japan in the late 1500s, commissioned a colossal statue of Buddha for a shrine in Kyoto. It took 50,000 men five years to build, but the work had scarcely been completed when the earthquake of 1596 brought the roof of the shrine crashing down and wrecked the statue. In a rage Hideyoshi shot an arrow at the fallen colossus. “I put you here at great expense,” he shouted, “and you can’t even look after your own temple.”

First of all, what is polytheism? Polytheism is the worship of multiple gods, and in many cases it is the worship of hundreds of gods. With polytheism the gods can either be autonomous and acting individually, or they can be emanations of a creator god. In this second case it is believed that all the other gods flow out from the creator god and display different aspects of the creator god’s character.

One key aspect with Polytheism is that, despite what some may say, there is really no unity between the gods; and their characters are, in many cases, quite contradictory. They in no way represent a single absolute idea or uniform set of character traits/attributes. Even if they argue that their many gods are simply many emanations of a creator god, this creator god they are referring to is one that does not stand for any one set of principles, and is actually quite a fickle god, sometimes being filled with love and compassion and other times given to fits of rage. This sort of god would have someone living in fear and in constant suspense.

Using the example of the gods of the ancient Greeks, they had their twelve gods and these gods represented various aspects of the human experience. They actually had more than twelve gods, but in the times of antiquity the twelve supreme gods were rather fluid and the deification or honour of certain gods would change over time. This is evidence that these gods are merely an invention of the human mind because, according to the time or place, different gods were regarded as supreme. In addition, the same gods worshipped in different cities tended to take on slightly different characteristics, according to the regional preference.

Their god, Ares, was the god of war, bloodshed, and violence. Then you have Aphrodite, the goddess of love. You also have Dionysus, the god of wine, parties, festivals, and chaos. Then you have the goddess Athena who is the goddess of skill, intelligence, and peace. These are very contradictory character traits and attributes. And if you look at the 12 gods/goddesses of the Greeks closely they sum up all parts of the human experience, and all the human emotions one could feel. It is clear that they are inventions of the human mind because they take on human attributes. The human mind could logically only create gods that they could understand in human terms, and by giving these gods human characteristics they are easily understandable to the average person. This is a far cry from the God of the Bible who says, My thoughts are higher than your thoughts and My ways higher than your ways (Isaiah 55:8–9). A far cry from the God of the Bible whose ways are often mysterious to us.

The Christian religion has been accused of being a polytheistic religion because they have God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Christians state that they are Monotheistic, but their opposers say that three Gods certainly seem to imply plurality. The truth is that the Christian faith has no similarity to the polytheistic religions, because the true God is perfectly united within the Godhead and all work in perfect unity together, standing for the same one belief system, the same code of morals and ethics, the same doctrinal basis, and the same standards and expectations. Serving this God is pure joy, because you never have to fear or be in suspense or wonder what is coming next. A fickle nature is the territory of humans and all false gods.

We will now use the example of Nebuchadnezzar, this great king who we believe will be saved. What a stunning picture we have of King Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful man on earth in his time, reduced to eating grass as an ox (Daniel 4:30–33). Do you think it would make headline news if President Obama was reduced to this same level?

We can only speculate as to what Nebuchadnezzar’s exact diagnosis was. Was this a somewhat common malady at the time, or was it a unique experience? One thing we do know for sure is that there is one example in the archeological record of a man in ancient times, who ate grass like a cow, and this is on an unpublished cuneiform tablet in the British museum.

Why did Nebuchadnezzar have to go through this terrible experience? Many of us know the answer to this and say that he was clearly lifted up in pride, and it was necessary for him to go through this experience in order to humble himself and recognize the authority of Jehovah. But I believe we can go a little deeper than that. What caused him to be so lifted up in pride in the first place? People do not get lifted up in pride in a moment, there is a process that occurs before someone gets so lifted up in pride that God must bring them down through specific experiences, in order to humble that pride. When an individual goes through these experiences they can either fall on the Rock that is Christ and be broken, or they can resist God’s call to mercy and allow these experiences to crush them. So what exact process did Nebuchadnezzar go through that caused him to be so lifted up in pride?

Firstly, King Nebuchadnezzar was extremely thankful that Daniel was able to interpret his dream of the image that had troubled him so much (Daniel 2:47-48).  Nebuchadnezzar then refers to the fact that Daniel’s God is a God of gods, and a Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets. What we can imply from Nebuchadnezzar’s exact words is that, in his mind, this God of Daniel’s was only one God amongst many. Saying that he is a God of gods may even suggest that He is in the upper echelon of gods, but certainly not the only god or the one true God.

From Nebuchadnezzar’s words that Daniel’s God is the Lord of kings and a revealer of secrets (seeing as how He was able to reveal this secret) we see that he is trying to find a niche for this new God, alongside and within the framework of all the Babylonian gods. He is trying to identify the character traits and attributes of this God in order to pigeon hole God.

In the very next chapter (Daniel 3) we find Nebuchadnezzar building this image to himself in order to bring honour and glory to himself and the gods of Babylon, suggesting that his kingdom will last forever. If Babylon was to last forever the natural implication is that God’s kingdom, as represented by the stone cut out without hands, will never come. This whole scenario was a very pro-active measure on the part of Nebuchadnezzar to put man’s authority and the authority of those gods created by man over God’s authority.

The result of this whole scenario was that the three Hebrews, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were cast into the fiery furnace because they showed their faithfulness to the one true God by refusing to bow the knee before the authority of man, and all that is created by him.

But God had other plans. “Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonied, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counsellors, Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered and said unto the king, True, O king. He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.”  Daniel 3:24-25. These words are very powerful because they tell us what results when man tries to exert his authority. The great God that we serve used the very scenario that Nebuchadnezzar was attempting to use to display his superior authority and the superior authority of Babylon’s gods, to prove how weak and futile the authority of these entities was compared to the one true God. God often does this because, sometimes it is hard for men to think in absolute terms about God and His power.  However, when He displays His power in relative terms, as relative to the weakness of false gods and humans, this contrast assists us in understanding a little of God’s greatness and authority.

If God had allowed these three faithful followers of His to die in the fiery furnace, His name would not have been vindicated in the powerful way it was. Make no mistake about it, this was a powerful vindication of the strength and power of the one true God, and in the very process of trying to prove the strength of man and false gods, their weakness and futility was revealed. Nobles and representatives from the whole earth were there on that occasion and they brought this astonishing story with them back to their respective homes. In this way the inhabitants of the whole earth heard about the one true God and had the opportunity to serve Him.

Nebuchadnezzar replies at the conclusion of this event by saying, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, ye servants of the Most High God, come forth, and come hither. Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, came forth of the midst of the fire. Nebuchadnezzar now speaks, and says, Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent His angel, and delivered His servants that trusted in Him, and have changed the king’s word, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God. Therefore I make a decree, that every people, nation, and language, which speak any thing amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill: because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort.” Daniel 3:26, 28–29. He recognizes that this miracle can be attributed to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and because of the service they have offered to their God, the King’s word has been changed. This indicates that there has been a progression in Nebuchadnezzar’s understanding of the true God.

Although the king’s understanding of the true God had progressed and improved, was his understanding of the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego perfect? When Nebuchadnezzar says, “Ye servants of the Most High God, come forth, and come hither,” he is no longer saying to them that your God is a God of gods, but rather he is saying that He is the Most High God. Now Nebuchadnezzar recognizes Jehovah as being the most powerful God but He is still one among many. Just like the Greeks called Zeus their “Ho Hupsistos Theos” or “the highest god.”

Nebuchadnezzar also mentions that no other God would be able to deliver anyone out of a similar scenario as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego found themselves in. Again, his understanding of God has progressed, because he makes reference to His great power, over not just kings but over all gods; however, by saying that there is no other god that could do this, he clearly still believes that there are many other gods that can accomplish many things.

It is important at this stage to understand that there are various forms of Polytheism. Henotheism, as a form of Polytheism, is basically the idea that the individual worships one deity while accepting the existence of other deities. Kathenotheism is another form of Polytheism in which the individual worships one god at a time, but does not always consistently worship the same god. Rather in Kathenotheism the individual worships different gods at different times.

Going back to Nebuchadnezzar, we see that despite the fact that his understanding of God’s character has progressed, he has held onto his polytheistic ideals. Maybe we can say that he was beginning to lean towards henotheism, but he certainly was not monotheistic at this stage. He was not at the stage where he believed in Jehovah as being the one and only true God.

Nebuchadnezzar was given one more opportunity to recognize the authority of Jehovah, the one true God, when Daniel interpreted the dream of the tree that was cut down (Daniel Chapter 4).

“And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent.” Acts 17:30. Prior to the time when he received the knowledge of the true God from Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar was in ignorance and God was merciful to him. However, when he received the knowledge he had a duty to accept the true God and repent. As a result of recognizing the one true God but not fully rejecting the false gods and idols these idols/false gods retained a foothold in Nebuchadnezzar’s heart and grew into a more prominent role over time and undoubtedly took precedence in his life over the worship of Jehovah.

It is said that:

  1. Every person is serving god(s) in their life.
  2. Every person is transformed into an image of their god.
  3. Mankind creates and forms the structure of society according to their own image

Nebuchadnezzar became more and more like the false gods that he served, so it is only natural that he would be lifted up in pride and vanity, because that is what many of these false gods represented. As a result, he was made to suffer an extremely humbling experience.

There are other examples in the Bible of people paying lip service to God and perhaps proclaiming Him as the Most High God, but still cherishing false gods. “And he walked in all the ways of Asa his father; he turned not aside from it, doing that which was right in the eyes of the LORD: nevertheless the high places were not taken away; for the people offered and burnt incense yet in the high places.” 1 Kings 22:43. Although there may not have been short term consequences of this course of action; nonetheless, long term we know that the people of God had to suffer Babylonian captivity. These sorts of precedents of worshiping God but not fully leaving the other gods that were present in Judah would ultimately lead to spiritual ruin if not put away.

The Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:19–22) and Balaam (Numbers chapter 22–23) both claimed to love the true God, but also had a god of money, which brought about their destruction.

Solomon (1 Kings 11:4–7) loved the true and living God, but he also loved his women. They were an idol to him—another god. From his life we see how one cherished idol, one god that is held in high esteem in one’s heart is enough to lead to eternal ruin; because it will grow until it takes over the entire life and destroys all spirituality and connection with the true God. The cherishing of one idol (or one god) will lead to compromising in other areas and then the cherishing of more idols. Solomon placed too much importance on his heathen wives (he never should have married them in the first place), and this led him down into the depths of accepting the gods of pagan worship and building high places to these false gods. The cherishing of one idol (false god) led him down a slippery slope to deeper iniquity.

In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen retells a tale from ancient India: Four royal brothers decided each to master a special ability. Time went by, and the brothers met to reveal what they had learned.

“I have mastered a science,” said the first, “by which I can take but a bone of some creature and create the flesh that goes with it.” “I,” said the second, “know how to grow that creature’s skin and hair if there is flesh on its bones.” The third said, “I am able to create its limbs if I have flesh, the skin, and the hair.” “And I,” concluded the fourth, “know how to give life to that creature if its form is complete.”

Thereupon the brothers went into the jungle to find a bone so they could demonstrate their specialities. As fate would have it, the bone they found was a lion’s. One added flesh to the bone, the second grew hide and hair, the third completed it with matching limbs, and the fourth gave the lion life. Shaking its mane, the ferocious beast arose and jumped on his creators. He killed them all and vanished contentedly into the jungle. We too have the capacity to create what can devour us. Goals and dreams can consume us. Possessions and property can turn our hearts away from God and destroy us. We must first seek God’s kingdom and His righteousness, and allow Him to guide and be the centerpiece of all our plans and ambitions.

Regarding the end of the story of Nebuchadnezzar we read, “For seven years Nebuchadnezzar was an astonishment to all his subjects; for seven years he was humbled before all the world. Then his reason was restored and, looking up in humility to the God of heaven, he recognized the divine hand in his chastisement. In a public proclamation he acknowledged his guilt and the great mercy of God in his restoration.

“God’s purpose that the greatest kingdom in the world should show forth His praise was now fulfilled. This public proclamation, in which Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged the mercy and goodness and authority of God, was the last act of his life recorded in sacred history.” –Conflict and Courage, p. 253

In conclusion, the return of Nebuchadnezzar’s reason is said to have come with his recognition of the true God as the only God. When the humbled king prayerfully looked up to heaven he was elevated from the condition of a brute beast to that of a being bearing the image of God. The one who for years had helplessly lain on the ground in his debasement was once more lifted up to the dignity of manhood which God has granted His creatures formed after His likeness.

Each time a sinner is converted this exact same process occurs. The person decides to stop serving all other gods in their life and accepts Jehovah as their only God. As they start to serve God they are transformed into God’s image and are able to reach the full dignity of manhood and womanhood. The false gods lose their influence in the person’s life.

Remember those three ideas that: 1. everyone is serving a god; 2. we are transformed into the image of that god(s); and 3. when we look at society we can see what humans have become, because they shape society according to what they are and the values that they hold.

Let us not fall into the trap of condemning Polytheistic religions for having many gods but then serving many other gods ourselves while claiming allegiance to the one true God. We do not want to be Polytheistic, Henotheistic, or Kathenotheistic because we read in the Bible that Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life and no man cometh unto the Father but by Him (John 14:6). How many Christians would scoff at the idea of Henotheism or worshipping one deity while accepting the existence of other gods, but then in their private lives they have these pet idols that are akin to gods that they choose not to give up. How many Christians would laugh at the idea of Kathenotheism, the idea that you worship different gods at different times, but then they go through phases where they live only for themselves and their own pleasure, forgetting about the one true God. Many young people say that they will worship the one true God later, but during their youthful years, while they believe in the true God, they will enjoy life and serve the gods of this world. Let us be very careful not just to condemn false religions and Polytheistic ideals with our words, but also with our actions and example.

The test that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego went through will be repeated at the end of time, when Sunday worship (representing man’s authority) will be opposed to Sabbath worship (representing God’s authority). Will we be found to be like all the other Hebrew nobles who bowed down (a continuation of their previous compromise in eating meat from the King’s table) and worshipped the golden statue, or will we be found like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who answered with a firm “thus saith the Lord” and had no fear of death? “We are not careful to answer thee in this matter” (Daniel 3:16), were the powerful, courageous words spoken by them. In other words, our case rests with God and we do not have to answer to any man, because our example speaks for itself and God will fight our battles for us.

Let us stand faithful in the fiery tests and trials of this life and be unwavering in our allegiance to the one and only true God. Amen.

Richard Eaton