The Second Commandment, as given in Exodus 20:4-6, forbids the worship of idols. The northern kingdom of Israel, starting with the reign of Jeroboam, ignores this commandment and after 200 years of existence is finally judged by God in the form of a devastating Assyrian invasion.
The author of 1 and 2 Kings writes that God’s judgment upon Israel is due to the rampant idol worship of the kings and his subjects. So why is this so important to God? We know that worshiping the creature instead of the Creator is a foolish error and disrespectful to the Creator. The Creator is a jealous God who covets the love of his creation. But I think many people miss the further implications of idol worship.
God placed the need to worship deep into the hearts of all mankind. It is not possible, as human beings, to not worship something, even if it is ourselves. When we worship something or someone besides the true Creator God, it leads inexorably to horrible consequences.
These consequences are sometimes spelled out in the Old Testament (OT) and sometimes not. The writers of the OT assumed that their readers did not always need to be reminded of the consequences of idol worship, so they would often use idol worship as shorthand for a whole host of sins. The prophetic writings clarify the list of sins that accompany idolatry.
Paul R. House, in The New American Commentary Volume 8 – 1 & 2 Kings, writes:
As a result of their idolatry, which amounts, of course, to covenant breaking of the worst sort (cf. Exod 20:3–6), the people no longer hold high ethical standards for how to treat one another. Oppression, greed, and brutality become common. Hosea notes that lies, wickedness, intrigue, and immorality are regular occurrences among both the people and their leaders (Hos 7:3–7). Amos claims Israel’s women “crush the needy,” “oppress the poor,” and exhort their husbands to hurt the poor for material gain (Amos 4:1). The men, on the other hand, love luxury, are lazy, and care nothing about their country’s moral decline (Amos 6:1–7). People are sold to pay petty debts (Amos 2:6–8). Similarly, Isaiah declares that justice is denied to the poor, the widow, and the orphan (Isa 1:17; 10:1–4). The false prophets do not restrain the people at all (Isa 28:7–13). None of these abuses are mentioned in 1, 2 Kings, so an awareness of their existence in this era helps readers understand that things were even worse than the author indicates. The people are as corrupt as their leaders.
In the Torah, Moses warns the people of Israel that if they adopt the worship of the Canaanite gods, they will inevitably commit the sins of incest, child sacrifice, bestiality, temple prostitution, and a host of other deviant practices. The author of 2 Kings 17 explicitly mentions that some Israelites were practicing child sacrifice before the Assyrian invasion.
So you see, worship of false gods leads to a society that is rotten to its core, a society that preys on the weak, a society where might makes right, where every man is a law unto himself. This is exactly what happened to the nation of Israel. Idol worship is where it all begins.
Sociologist Rodney Stark has studied the impact of different concepts of god on the behaviors of diverse human societies. Stark concludes from his studies (For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery) the following :
The contrasts already drawn between supernatural beings and unconscious, impersonal, vaguely supernatural essences reveal that different conceptions of the supernatural have dramatically different effects on the human experience. Even within Godly religions, compare the social implications of belief in a pantheon of undependable and often immoral Gods with those of belief in a supreme being who imposes moral obligations on humans. As will be seen, the consequences of these and other such differences in how the supernatural is conceived are decisive.
In other words, it really matters what kind of god you worship. The famed Christian theologian, A. W. Tozer, penned the following words decades ago in The Knowledge of the Holy, and they are a fitting summary of this discussion.
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.
The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God.
For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. This is true not only of the individual Christian, but of the company of Christians that composes the Church. Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God, just as her most significant message is what she says about Him or leaves unsaid, for her silence is often more eloquent than her speech. She can never escape the self-disclosure of her witness concerning God.