So they feared the Lord but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away. (2 Kings 17:33)
When I was in South Asia a few years ago, I walked into a Catholic Church unlike any I had ever seen before. There was a crucifix hanging over the altar, of course. There were statues of saints and the stations of the cross around the perimeter of the sanctuary, like every Catholic church I’ve been in. But there the similarity stopped. For at the feet of many of the statues of saints there were plates of food, necklaces of flowers, and photographs of people, presumably placed there so the saint could bless them. There were even idols of Ganesh, the Hindu god with the head of an elephant, and Shiva, the many-armed god, tucked into corners and placed in the courtyard.
It seems the people of the country, used to having millions of gods, adapted Catholicism to make gods of the saints, and even to add their own gods to the mix. They feared the Lord, but they also served their other gods.
This is what was happening with the people of Israel after the Assyrian invasion. Assyria had a demonically effective strategy for eliminating God’s people. After overpowering the Northern Kingdom with superior military force and terrorizing them with brutal treatment of their captives, they resettled Samaria. Only this time, they settled it with captives from other people groups they had conquered. The king of Assyria sent priests back to Israel so they could teach these other people groups “the law of the god of the land” (2 Kings 17:26). But it was law divorced from relationship. They had something like “the fear of the Lord” (v 33); but it was an add-on. It was a la carte. Which is why verse 34 seems to contradict verse 33 when it says flatly, “They do not fear the Lord.”
It actually wasn’t much of a challenge for the Assyrians to do this. For generations the Northern Kingdom had practiced idolatry— continuing their Jewish feasts and customs while also worshiping Baal, Asherah, and “all the host of heaven” (see 2 Kings 17:16-17). They also intermarried with other people groups, adding whatever gods their spouses worshiped to the pantheon. They might have thought of themselves as Israelites because they followed the rules, but they weren’t actually people of the covenant. In Jesus’ day, they were known as Samaritans.
Fearing the Lord “also” must be replaced with fearing the Lord ONLY. And knowing the law of the Lord can’t be separated from knowing the Lord Himself.
Today we call that “moralistic therapeutic deism.” It’s the idea that all Christianity is is making people nicer, better versions of themselves. More upstanding citizens. Valued members of their communities. I see lots of young parents who bring their children to church so they can learn how to be good little boys and girls, but they aren’t pursuing a relationship with God themselves.
The result is a whole nation of people who call themselves a Christian nation because we were founded on Judeo-Christian values, but with no knowledge or reverence for God Himself.
The Enemy is perfectly content to let us be moral, nice people, so long as we are never transformed people. He is still using the Assyrian strategy, and it still works.