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Law-Idolatry: Why God Destroyed the Temple
by Marcus Booker
It might seem odd (or even fickle) for God to set aside the law instituted by Him and the people and the house called by His name. Yet, as I will show in this article, God merely acted according to His fiery jealousy; he destroyed idols. Indeed, the law of Moses had become an idol, and since no idols stand before His face, God brought it to naught. This article is but a brief introduction to this very interesting idea.It might seem odd (or even fickle) for God to set aside the law instituted by Him and the people and the house called by His name. Yet, as I will show in this article, God merely acted according to His fiery jealousy; he destroyed idols. Indeed, the law of Moses had become an idol, and since no idols stand before His face, God brought it to naught. This article is but a brief introduction to this very interesting idea.In another article, I have already dealt with the concept of God relenting. Suffice it to say for now that God turns away from those unto whom He promises good who rebel, bestowing honor instead upon those who honor Him. Those for whom God's kingdom was prepared were cast out into the outer darkness, and God invited others into His fold.
Yet the question at hand is whether (and if so, how) the law of Moses was an idol. It is beyond dispute in the Scriptures that an idol is an object of worship/trust other than the true and living God. Typically, an idol is constructed by an artificer; it is "made with hands." This form of idolatry is not merely worship of the hand-wrought object; it goes much deeper. It is really worship of self (i.e. of man as maker of gods).
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate conclusively that the Scriptures identify the law of Moses as an idol doomed for destruction (along with those who trust in that idol). And this destruction is consistent with all of God's past historical dealings.
Before going further, however, I shall clarify my position upfront lest there be misunderstanding. Trust in the law of Moses is not true reverence for Moses nor for the angels through whom the law came. And it is not genuine adherence to the righteous ordinances contained in the law. Rather it is negligence of the weightier matters of the law and of the true spirit behind it. It is reliance upon shadow over substance, form over reality. Law-idolatry is covenant presumption. It is trust in the law apart from true righteousness. It is straining a gnat and swallowing a camel. It is being a hearer rather than a doer of the law. Law-idolatry is finding ultimate safety and security in circumcision, the temple, and Jewish (covenant) identity. It is placing yourself in the Temple and showing that you yourself are God. It is what Paul calls "will-worship" in addressing the Colossians.
So where does this form of idolatry show up in the text of the Scriptures? Though these are not really distinct, I will, for the purposes of this article, break it down into six categories. 1. Reliance on sacrifices and offerings (and other rituals); 2. trust in the Temple; 3. trust in circumcision; 4. hope-in-Moses; 5. angel-worship; 6. trust in one's own righteousness (usually an *outward* show of righteousness).
1. Reliance on sacrifices and offerings (and other rituals)
This category is the most plentiful in the Scriptures. Below is an excerpt from my commentary on Daniel (on the continual sacrifice). It references many of the passages that show God's preference of true obedience over sacrifice. It is nearly comprehensive on this theme, but excludes Hosea 14:2, Hosea 2:11, Amos 5:21-23, Isaiah 1:13-14, Jer 6:19-20, Jer 7:22-23. It is a long section, so skim it if need be. I didn't want to simply reference the passages and make those interested in more in depth analysis flip around through the Scriptures.
This perpetual offering is righteousness from a pure and thankful heart. Indeed, it is a sacrifice of “a broken spirit,” “a heart broken and bruised,” and “lowly to walk with thy God.” It is a sacrifice of “praise,” “thanksgiving,” “the lifting up of my hands,” “confession,” “the fruit of lips,” “song,” and “shouting.” Truly, it is “hearkening to the voice of Jehovah,” “to give attention,” “to do [God’s] pleasure,” “to do judgment,” “doing good,” “righteousness,” “knowledge of God,” love for God, and for your neighbor, “fellowship,” and “kindness.” Indeed, the Epistle to the Hebrews says:
“Through him, then, we may offer up a sacrifice of praise always to God, that is, the fruit of lips, giving thanks to His name; and of doing good, and of fellowship, be not forgetful, for with such sacrifices God is well-pleased.”
Paul likewise says,
“I am filled, having received from Epaphroditus the things from you—an odor of a sweet smell—a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God.”
Indeed, this sacrifice whereof Daniel speaks is not a burnt-offering, for Mark writes,
“Well, Teacher, in truth thou hast spoken that there is one God, and there is none other but He; and to love Him out of all the heart, and out of all the understanding, and out of all the soul, and out of all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, is more than all the whole burnt-offerings and the sacrifices.”
The Psalms mightily proclaim this theme! Psalm 40, which the Epistle to the Hebrews quotes, says,
“Sacrifice and present Thou hast not desired, ears Thou hast prepared for me, burnt and sin-offering Thou hast not asked. Then said I, ‘Lo, I have come,’ In the roll of the book it is written of me, to do Thy pleasure, my God, I have delighted, and Thy law is within my heart. I have proclaimed tidings of righteousness in the great assembly, lo, my lips I restrain not, O Jehovah, Thou hast known. Thy righteousness I have not concealed in the midst of my heart, Thy faithfulness and Thy salvation I have told.”
Psalm 50 says,
“I take not from thy house a bullock, from thy folds he-goats. For Mine is every beast of the forest, the cattle on the hills of oxen. I have known every fowl of the mountains, and the wild beast of the field is with Me. If I am hungry I tell not to thee, for Mine is the world and its fullness. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, and drink the blood of he-goats? Sacrifice to God confession, and complete to the Most High thy vows.”
Here, the psalm affirms that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and he-goats to take away sins. Truly, God is not served by the hands of men as if He needed anything; for He created the heavens and the earth and everything in them! Thus, the psalm takes away the first (the burnt-offerings) to establish the second (a sacrifice of “confession”). Indeed, the psalm hereafter proclaims,
“He who is sacrificing praise honoreth Me, as to him who maketh a way, I cause him to look on the salvation of God!”
Psalm 51 speaks likewise:
“For Thou desirest not sacrifice, or I give it, burnt-offering Thou acceptest not. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a heart broken and bruised, O God, Thou dost not despise. Do good in Thy good pleasure with Zion, Thou dost build the walls of Jerusalem. Then Thou desirest sacrifices of righteousness, burnt-offering, and whole burnt-offerings then they offer bullocks on thine altar!”
[The psalmist here spiritualizes the word “burnt-offerings” just as John speaks of the sacrifice of the Lamb.] Likewise, our Lord says,
“Happy are the poor in spirit! For the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”
Furthermore, Psalm 69 says,
“I praise the name of God with a song, and I magnify Him with thanksgiving, and it is better to Jehovah than an ox, a bullock—horned—hoofed. The humble have seen—they rejoice, ye who seek God—and your heart liveth.”
Likewise, Psalm 27 says,
“My dwelling in the house of Jehovah, all the days of my life, to look on the pleasantness of Jehovah, and to inquire in His temple. For He hideth me in a tabernacle in the day of evil, He hideth me in a secret place of His tent, on a rock he raiseth me up. And now, lifted up is my head above my enemies—my surrounders, and I sacrifice in His tent sacrifices of shouting.”
Similarly, Peter says,
“Ye yourselves, as living stones, are built up, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
Again, Psalm 116 says,
“To Thee I sacrifice a sacrifice of thanks, and in the name of Jehovah I call. My vows to Jehovah let me complete, I pray you, before all His people, in the courts of the house of Jehovah, in thy midst, O Jerusalem, praise ye Jah!”
Psalm 107 says,
“And they sacrifice sacrifices of thanksgiving, and recount His works with singing.”
Psalm 141 proclaims,
“My prayer is prepared—incense before Thee, the lifting up of my hands—the evening present [offering].”
The prophets also speak similarly. Isaiah says,
“Why to Me the abundance of your sacrifices? saith Jehovah, I have been satiated with burnt-offerings of rams, and fat of fatlings; and blood of bullocks, and lambs, and he-goats I have not desired. When ye come in to appear before Me, who hath required this of your hand, to trample My courts?”
The prophet, like Daniel in the above selection, states that Israel, through transgression, takes away the continual sacrifice and “trample[s]” the courts of the house of the LORD. Likewise, Hosea says,
“For kindness I desired, and not sacrifice, and a knowledge of God above burnt-offerings.”
Micah speaks boldly, saying,
“With what do I come before Jehovah? Do I bow to God Most High? Do I come before Him with burnt-offerings? With calves—sons of a year? Is Jehovah pleased with thousands of rams? With myriads of streams of oil? Do I give my first-born for my transgression? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath declared to thee, O man, what is good; Yea, what is Jehovah requiring of thee, except—to do judgment, and love kindness, and lowly to walk with thy God?”
The New Covenant is David, who flees from the wicked and murderous intent of Saul, for David was a man after God’s own heart. The Old Covenant is Saul, whose kingdom God takes away and gives to another and about whom it is written:
“Hath Jehovah had delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices as in hearkening to the voice of Jehovah? lo, hearkening than sacrifice is better; to give attention than fat of rams; for a sin of divination is rebellion, and iniquity and teraphim is stubbornness; because thou hast rejected the word of Jehovah, He also doth reject thee from being king.”
The Scriptures characterize the new covenant with obedience. The first covenant, on the other hand, is likened to Saul's sacrifice offered in disobedience.
In similar fashion, Isaiah 1 contrasts "hearing" to sacrifices; he contrasts pretended reverence to giving justice to the widow and orphan. It says, "Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; Give ear to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah. What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me? says the LORD. I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle; and I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats. When you come to appear before Me, who requires of you this trampling of my courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer, incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies--I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts. They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them." Hosea 2:11 speaks similarly. Also, Paul treats these same things as a shadow that Christ fulfills. He says in Colossians 2, "Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or sabbath day, things which are a mere shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ."
2. Trust in the Temple
The second category relates to the first and is more explicit in identifying trust in the temple with idolatry. One instance occurs in Jeremiah 7 where the people of Judah (before their exile) make the house of God a "den of robbers" (v. 11). The text says that because the people have done this, "therefore, I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to the place which I gave you and your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. I will cast you out of My sight, as I have cast out all your brothers, all the offspring of Ephraim." Notice some key elements that are similar to the situation in Christ's time. a. the people make the Temple into a den of robbers; b. the people make the Temple into an idol ("in which [they] trust"); and c. God says that He will destroy their Temple and their place. God, in this instance, destroys the Temple in jealous indignation; He puts away idols.
Yet is there any other indication that God viewed the first-century Temple as an idol? I say yes. The "made with hands" language seems to designate something as idolatrous, and the Scriptures apply this very language to the temple.
Indeed, the Scriptures say, "for in that day despise doth each his idols of silver, and idols of gold, that your hands made to you--a sin." Also, it is written, "for the statutes of the peoples are vanity, for a tree from a forest hath one cut, work of the hands of an artificer."
This theme is also quite extensive. I've written more in depth upon it in commenting on Daniel's stone "cut out without hands." Suffice it to say, however, that "made with hands" means accomplished by the power of man and of the flesh. It is synonymous with idolatry.
Also, Christ seems to indicate that the "wicked and adulterous generation" was, in fact, idolatrous. The sin of adultery, as applied to the people of God, is a standard way of implicating them with idolatry. Adultery is a woman's covenant unfaithfulness to her husband. National adultery, then, communicates the harlotry of the people toward their God. Revelation also dubbs Jerusalem the harlot.
Also, Psalm 115 speaks thus of idols:
“A mouth they have, and they speak not, eyes they have, and they see not, ears they have, and they hear not, a nose they have, and they smell not, their hands, but they handle not, their feet, and they walk not; nor do they mutter through their throat. Like them are their makers, every one who is trusting in them.”
Thus, Christ accuses the people of thinking idolatrously. According to Mark, He asks them,
“‘Why do ye reason, because ye have no loaves? do ye not yet perceive, nor understand, yet have ye your heart hardened? Having eyes, do ye not see? and having ears, do ye not hear? and do ye not remember? When the five loaves I did brake to the five thousand, how many hand-baskets full of broken pieces took ye up?’ they say to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And when the seven to the four thousand, how many hand-baskets full of broken pieces took ye up?’ and they said, ‘Seven.’ And he said to them, ‘How do ye not understand?’”
In addition, many of the other prophets [Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah] speak of idolators (especially the perverse wilderness generation) in these very terms, of those having ears and not hearing or those having eyes but not seeing. On the other hand, John contrasts this idea and exhorts the saints to have understanding. He says, “the [one] having eyes, let him see.”
3. Trust in circumcision
This form of idolatry is seen in Colossians, where Paul contrasts the circumcision done by the Christ with the one that is "hand-wrought." He also rails against the circumcision faction as Moses railed against the idolators in his day.
4. Hope in Moses
This form of idolatry is seen in John's Gospel especially. Places that contrast Moses and Christ particularly make this point. Christ says, in John 5, "Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?" Hebrews also addresses this issue in showing Christ's superiority over Moses.
Angel worship seems especially related to #4. Indeed, as Paul says, "the law came through angels by the hand of a mediator [Moses]." The angels and Moses both represent the law. The beginning of Hebrews shows this identification. Also, in Revelation, John bows to the angel. He seems to slip into law-idolatry. Yet when John listens to the angel, he says to worship God instead. Colossians 2 also mentions the "worship of angels" with reference to law-idolatry.
6. Trust in own righteousness
Finally, this sin seems to characterize the Pharisees (as in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector). The Pharisees trusted in their righteousness, like the hypothetical man in Ezekiel 33:13. When such a thing happens, his righteous deeds will be remembered no longer. The Pharisees cleaned the outside of the cup, but left the inside full of filth. They were white-washed tombs. They clung to a form of righteousness but denied the power of it.
So...God destroyed the law in fire (as he does all idols). The present heavens and earth were reserved for fire and the elements melted in the intense heat. This destruction is none other than God's burning jealousy putting an end to idols. Thus Christ's coming was a victory over the law of sin and death.
 Hebrews 13:15-16
 Philippians 4:18
 Mark 12:32-33
 Psalm 40:6-10
 Psalm 50:9-14
 Psalm 50:23
 Psalm 51:16-19
 Matthew 5:3
 Psalm 69:30-32
 Psalm 27:4-6
 1 Peter 2:5
 Psalm 116:17-19
 Psalm 107:22
 Psalm 141:2
 Isaiah 1:11-12
 Hosea 6:6
 Micah 6:6-8
 1 Samuel 15:22-23
 Isaiah 8:13-15