The Lord, in giving the law to Moses on Sinai, began the Decalogue by prohibiting idol worship: “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:2-5). He then stated the consequences of keeping or breaking this important commandment: “For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6).
The word “jealous” is from the Hebrew “qanna,” meaning, “jealous, an adjective or title used exclusively of God, focusing on his desire for exclusive relationships” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible). Worship of false gods offends the Lord’s qanna, His desire for His covenant people to be His alone, much as adultery offends a husband’s desire for an exclusive covenant relationship with his wife.
Worship of false gods in our day is often less easily identifiable. We don’t usually see people passing their children through the fire to Molech, or erecting altars to Ba’al or Asherah. But idol worship, in the sense of offenses against the Lord’s qanna, is no less prevalent—and no less condemned. In this dispensation, the Lord spoke of His anger at the rebellion of His people: “For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant; They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall” (Doctrine & Covenants 1:15-16, emphasis added). The Lord said that those who walk in their own way, instead of seeking the Lord, are, in effect, worshipping idols.
Whenever we put anything between us and the Lord, or let anything interfere with keeping the covenants we have made, we are letting something take the place of God, and thus worshipping false gods. For some, their idol is money. Jacob condemned the love of money that interferes with the love of God: “But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also” (2 Nephi 9:30). Christ taught, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
Jacob also condemned those who valued learning above the wisdom of God. “When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish” (2 Nephi 9:28). The prophet Isaiah spoke of a day when “the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be made low: and the Lord alone shall be exalted…And the idols he shall utterly abolish…In that day a man shall cast his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which they made each one for himself to worship, to the moles and to the bats” (Isaiah 2:17-18,20). The common denominator in each condemnation of idols is that all idols will ultimately perish. The problem, then, lies in worshipping that which is not eternal, that which will end with all other worldly things.
The Lord and His gospel, by contrast, are described as eternal, imperishable, and everlasting. The Lord, speaking of His prophecies, proclaimed, “though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled” (Doctrine & Covenants 1:38). We also know that the Lord, in contrast to the idols He prohibits, “is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God” (Doctrine & Covenants 20:17).
The defining characteristic of an idol is that it is temporary, mortal, and perishable. An idol cannot save us. In contrast, the defining characteristic of God is that He is infinite and eternal, that He will never change or perish. Only God can offer true salvation. Though our idols may not be of the golden calf or mother goddess variety, all modern idols have the same defining characteristic—they are fleeting, transitory, and not of eternal worth—they cannot save.
Whenever we are more interested in something perishable than we are in things of eternal worth, we are worshipping idols. When we spend all weekend reading the newest Twilight book and neglect our scripture study, when we watch finale of the aptly-named American Idol and forget our home teaching, and even when we focus more energy on our calculus test than on our Sunday School lesson that week, we have our priorities confused and we are putting the transitory things of this world above the things of eternity. The Savior said that the things of eternity and the things of the world can be mutually exclusive, for “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). When we seek to serve mammon (wealth or the popularity of the world, which is ultimately of no worth) rather than God, we are guilty of worshipping false gods today.
“Wherefore, do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy…come unto the Holy One of Israel, and feast upon that which perisheth not, neither can be corrupted” (2 Nephi 9:51).