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Section II.--The Nature of Idolatry. I shall make a few remarks on its nature. Idolatry consists either in the worship of God through the medium of visible symbols, or in ascribing divine excellence to idols, and giving them religious worship as gods. It has been maintained by some learned men, and especially by Dr. Cudworth, that it was in the former way only that idolatry prevailed over a great part of the heathen world; and that under the names of idol deities the living and true God was worshipped.
It is highly probable, if not quite certain, that idolatry took its rise in this way. We cannot imagine that mankind would make the transition at once from the worship of the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, to a state in which they considered the host of heaven, and blocks of wood and stone, the fit objects of adoration. When the children of Israel said respecting the golden calf, which, at their request, Aaron had made, “ These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt,” it is impossible for us to conceive, that after the extraordinary proofs that were afforded them of the eternal power and godhead of the self-existent Jehovah, they could believe that a molten image was endued with the properties and excellences of the Divinity. It is nearly certain, that they meant, and could only mean, that this image was the visible symbol of that God who had delivered them from Egyptian bondage, and hitherto conducted them through the wilderness. In the same way, it is probable, idolatry in every case took its rise.
But it is very certain also that the worship which might originally have been intended for the true God, and addressed to him through the idol, was formerly paid to the idol itself. So much was this the case, that the notion of the true God, as there is the most ample evidence for believing, was almost obliterated during many ages in the heathen world. They literally constituted innumerable objects in nature, and the works of their own hands, the gods whom they worshipped. Those who retained an obscure and imperfect idea of one Supreme Being, united with it foolish errors which completely neutralized its effect on their minds. They either thought him too far removed from them to be worshipped by mortals, or confounded him with the chief of their hero divinities, and gave to that same Jupiter, whose history it would pollute the mind to hear, the divine honour due to God. Mankind peopled every region with false deities; among whom they divided the government of the world; some of whom were deemed supreme in their several districts; but all of the same nature and kind.
It was in this way they changed the truth of God into a lie. The whole system was a practical falsehood on the being, power, wisdom, and goodness of God. At Athens, and still more at Rome, whose policy it was to give a place to the deities of the nations whom they conquered among those of the empire, you behold a most refined people, paying divine homage to representations of God the most foolish and false. He is the living God, but their deities were devoid of life,—He was the Maker of all things, but they were non-entities, and could produce
· nothing ;-he gives to all life, and breath, and all
things, but they were dumb idols, and could not profit those who trusted in them. “ The idols of the heathen are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not ; they have ears, but they hear not; noses have they, but they smell not; they have hands, but they handle not; feet have they, but they walk not; neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.” To substitute such vanities in room of that God who is possessed of all perfection, and that to an infinite degree,-who is a spirit, and who requires his worshippers “ to worship him in spirit and in truth,"—who is holy, and “ of purer eyes than to behold iniquity,"—who is most bountiful, and whose “ tender mercies are over all his works,”whose universal presence fills all space, and whose habitation is eternity,—was an undervaluing of the glorious Majesty of heaven, and nothing less than a practical denial of his being and attributes; but let us consider
Section III.—The cruel and impure Rites of which
the idolatrous System of Worship consisted.
The mode and the means by which the living God was to be worshipped were all made known by revelation. From the ritual instituted by divine appointment, comprehending prayers and praises, sacrifices and oblations, the heathen derived the notion of some of the ceremonies by which they paid religious wor
ship to their deities. The whole system was framed so as to strike the senses, and adapted to the human mind in a state of utter darkness and depravity.
In their religious festivals, which were celebrated in honour of their gods, their deities were represented as performing the most immoral actions. These actions were ascribed to Jupiter, the chief of their deities, as well as to the inferior gods. The same gods, as St. Austin observes, were laughed at in the theatres and adored in the temples. Rites the most foolish and immoral were used in their worship, which were prescribed by the laws, established by custom, and countenanced by the magistrates. The offering of human sacrifices, which appears to have been general over the pagan world, was one of these. That it prevailed among the Britons, Germans, and Gauls, we are assured by the testimonies of Cæsar and Tacitus. Among the Romans this inhuman practice prevailed so late as the time of the Emperor Adrian. Nor can there be given a more revolting proof of its prevalence among this distinguished people, than that when Rome was taken by the Gauls, the most ad. vanced in age and in honour gathered themselves together in the Forum, and after being devoted by the pontiff, consecrated themselves to the infernal gods. In Mexico alone it has been supposed that not less than twenty thousand human beings were annually sacrificed. In some nations numerous infants were devoted to destruction in honour of their god Moloch.
In addition to this most inhuman practice, there were other cruel rites used in the worship of the gods.
The priests of Baal, as we learn from the first book of Kings, “cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets till the blood gushed out upon them *.” At Sparta they whipped boys, often till they died, on the altar of the goddess Diana. This is not the place to notice the indecent and immoral practices which were observed over the heathen world, and especially in the civilized nations, in honour of their gods and goddesses. But these practices, together with the gross and general depravity of manners which the system of idol worship produced, furnish an illustration of the Apostle's statement; “wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves."
The grossest impurity of manners, the violation of every precept in the decalogue, was sanctioned by custom, if not enjoined by law. Theft was permitted in Egypt and in Sparta. Infants that were weak or imperfect in form were exposed and put to death by the authority of the legislator Lycurgus. Humanity, in the sense in which we understand that term, was in a great measure unknown. There was no provision made for the poor, the destitute, and helpless. Nor is the account which has been transmitted to us by the page of history of the sensuality and depravity that pervaded the heathen world, different from that which is recorded by the apostle Paul in the conclusion of the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. Even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, “God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those
• 1 Kings xviii. 21–41.