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Another species of idolatry, and which probably began at an early period, was the worship of deified mortals. It is not unlikely that of these Noah was the first. The traditions respecting a man, who, on account of his eminent piety had been delivered from the deluge that had swept away the human race, and had been preserved by a miraculous interposition to be the father of mankind, would lead posterity to reverence him, and, as ignorance increased, to adore him. They would soon associate others with him in this honour, who had been the inventors of things useful and necessary to human life, and who had been benefactors to the nations. Being thus exalted to the rank of gods, they had those attributes ascribed to them, and that religious homage paid to them, which belong only to the living and true God. The Greeks and Romans, and other pagan nations, raised the chief of their idol deities to the place of the Supreme Divinity, and represented their Jupiter, to whom the poets ascribed indecent actions, as the father of gods and king of men, and as exercising universal dominion. They thus shewed, that while they retained some notion of the true God, they perverted and corrupted it; and changed his truth into a lie, by giving a false representation of his being and perfections, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator.
The natural consequence of deifying men, and of regarding one distinguished individual as their chief, to whom they ascribed the titles and attributes of God, was, that their deities were represented as possessed of divine excellences, and of the base passions and vices of mortals. What must have been the state of morals, when among the multitude of the gods there was not one of whom some scandalous thing might not be related; and when even Jupiter, their head, was guilty of actions that ought not to be so much as named? Is not the statement of the fact a comment on the language of the Apostle regarding the heathen world ;--that when they knew God they glorified him not as God; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened, and changed the truth of God into a lie?
They advanced, however, in their idolatrous worship still farther than this. They constituted the images and hieroglyphic symbols of their deities, gods. The sun and the host of heaven were not always visible, and as they imagined fire denoted them, they gave to this element, in several eastern nations, divine homage. Many of the lower animals, which were at first, perhaps, used as signs or emblems of the wisdom, power, or goodness of God, became objects of worship. Thus the Egyptians placed the sheep, the goat, the hawk, the crocodile, the cat, and dog, among the number of their gods. The very statues and images which were raised to their deities shared divine honours with them. This was not done among the rude and the savage merely, but by the Athenians and Romans. Nor is there a stronger proof necessary of the length to which this species of idolatry was carried at Athens, than the circumstance which is recorded of Stilpo the philosopher. He was brought before the tribunal of the
Areopagus for saying, that the statue of Minerva was not a god; and though he endeavoured to defend himself by alleging that it was not a god but a goddess, he was commanded to leave the city.
Thus they began to ascribe divine excellences, and to pay divine honours, not to persons merely, but to things ;-so that innumerable objects of nature were, on one ground or other, personified and deified. Nay, so entirely were their foolish hearts darkened, that they constituted the abstract qualities of things, gods ; and in their proneness to polytheism, they extended this honour sometimes to pernicious, as well as to useful, properties and affections. They erected temples, and gave religious homage to the gods of fortitude, health, concord, victory, liberty, and the like. The passions, the diseases, fears, and evils, to which mankind are subject, were deified, and had fanes consecrated to their honour. There was scarcely any thing in nature, however monstrous, but some heathen nations worshipped as a god;--so that, to use the language of the learned Dr. Cudworth,“ in deifying the things of nature and parts of the world, they called every thing by the name of God, and God by the name of every thing.” They changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and to four-footed beasts, and creeping things.
Hence the multitude of their gods was endless ;gods celestial and terrestrial, who presided over distinct tribes, and cities, and groves, and rivers, and fountains. These they ranked in various orders, but they conceived that to all of them religious worship was due. Even to those of them whom they regarded
as evil beings, they gave divine honours. Plutarch, a highly respectable philosopher and historian, mentions certain festivals and sacrifices in which some revolting rites were practised, instituted for the pleasing of evil and malignant demons, and averting their wrath. The same fact is attested by Porphyry, who distinguished himself as a bitter enemy of Christianity ;-and the testimony of both affords a comment on the assertion of the Apostle, that “ the things which the Gentiles sacrificed, they sacrificed to devils, and not to God.”
The extent of idol worship, and the similarity of the system of idolatry in all the countries in which it has been practised, are truly amazing. From these circumstances, some learned writers have been led to trace it up to the plains of Shinar, and to maintain that it issued from thence, and accompanied the progress of the human race over the globe. Whatever truth there may be in this opinion, the history of mankind amply proves, that man, without the light of revelation, is prone to idolatry, and to give to the creature, or to the deifications of his own mind, the worship which is due to God. This proneness had widely shewn itself so early as the time of Abraham, when it was necessary to separate that patriarch and his posterity after him, to preserve the knowledge of the character and will of God. With the exception of this highly-favoured people, idolatry spread over all nations; and at the commencement of the Christian æra, and long before, filled the world.
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.