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Holman Bible Dictionary
Worship offered to a false object is the most obvious and easily recognized form of false worship. The worship of idols is but a part of false worship in the biblical world. Many times other gods were worshiped, not because of the appeal of the idols or images but out of a false sense of the power of the “god.” The most consistent problem with false worship seen in the Old Testament is with the nature or fertility deities—Baals and Ashtaroth, Anath, Astarte—the male and female representations of reproduction and growth. Understanding of the basic form and nature of this kind of false worship has been clarified by discoveries made at Ugarit and the subsequent interpretation and study of these. Baal was commonly believed to have control over growth of all crops and reproduction of all flocks. Many of the forms of this false worship involved sexual acts—activities abhorred in the Old Testament laws. Yet the appeal and practice of these rituals continued, probably because of Baal's reputed power in those areas so intwined with life and livelihood of the ancient Hebrews. During the time of great Assyrian power in the ancient world, even the Hebrews seem to have thought that the Assyrian gods were more powerful than their Yahweh; so they began to worship them. The prophet Zephaniah, who lived and prophesied in this time, condemned those who “worship the host of heaven upon the house tops” (Zephaniah 1:5 ). Associated with this type of worship was the fairly prevalent view in the Old Testament world that a god had his own territory and that he was relatively powerless outside that place. Perhaps the most direct statement of this is in the story of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1 , especially 2 Kings 5:17 ). After the Syrian commander was cured of his leprosy, he requested a “two mules' burden” of dirt from Israel to take with him to Syria so that he could worship the true God.
The many references to false gods with obviously false worship in the Old Testament coupled with the almost total absence of such in the New Testament might suggest that there was little problem with other gods in the New Testament world. Such is far from true. The world of the first century was filled with religions other than Judaism and Christianity. The presence of falseness in worship because it was directed to false gods continued to be a religious problem. Native national gods and fertility deities similar to Baal and Ashtaroth of the Old Testament period still abounded. A new force was present in the mystery religions—Hellenistic religions which focused on the hope for life beyond death. The Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries were perhaps the most common of these. Emperor worship was a serious challenge in the days of the early church. Probably most Romans saw the emperor cult as merely an expression of patriotism and loyalty to the state. However, the Christian standard was to “render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's, and unto God the things which be God's” (Luke 20:25 ). Often the Christian was faced with imperial orders to participate in this kind of false worship. Refusal could bring serious penalties, often execution. In late New Testament times and the years following, Mithraism became the primary competitor with Christianity. This pagan worship of Mithra, represented by sol invictus (the invincible sun) was a powerful challenge to Christianity. Exclusively a male religion, emphasizing power and strength, Mithraism was especially popular in the Roman army.
False worship does not necessarily center in practice of pagan or idolatrous cults. It is often a problem for those who proclaim worship of the one true God. False worship of this sort usually centers in some form of deliberate or unintentional disobedience. Its presence in the Bible extends from the self-exalting disobedience in the Garden of Eden to compromising accommodation with the emperor cult and other pagan religions seen in the Book of Revelation.
The primary forms of false worship are addressed in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1 ): “Thou shalt have no other gods before [in addition to] me” (Exodus 20:3 )—a command for exclusive loyalty to and worship of Yahweh; “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” (Exodus 20:4 ) —a clear requirement of imageless, that is, spiritual worship; and “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7 ) —a command to honor in all of life the God whose name the Hebrews claimed and bore.
The Hebrews were guilty of syncretistic or artificially mixed religious practices. The temples built by Jeroboam, son of Nebat, the first king of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) after its break from the Jerusalem-centered Kingdom of Judah, were probably dedicated to such worship. When these temples were established in Bethel and Dan, Jeroboam the King “made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28 ). This mixing of the gold calf—a symbol of Baal—with the worship of the God who delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian bondage was false worship.
A very similar practice was prevalent in the time of Elijah. In his confrontation with the Baal prophets on Mt. Carmel in the time of Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 18:20-46 ), the prophet of the Lord addressed the assembled people. “How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21 ).
False worship includes trusting in military power (Isaiah 31:1 ), trusting in the “works of your hands” (Jeremiah 25:7 ), serving God in order to receive physical and material blessings (as Job's friends), offering unacceptable, tainted or maimed sacrifices to God instead of the best (Malachi 1:6-8 ). False worship also occurs when one prays, fasts, or gives alms “before men to be seen of them” instead of in sincere devotion to God (Matthew 6:1-18 ).
The subjects of false and true worship are best presented in Micah 6:8 , “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” and in the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman in John 4:23-24 : “true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” See Canaan, Religion and History of; Worship .
Bruce C. Cresson
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'False Worship'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​f/false-worship.html. 1991.