“They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless. They imitated the nations around them although the Lord had ordered them, “Do not do as they do.””
2 Kings 17:15 NIV
There is something is this passage with which your spiritual instinct witnesses, but which requires more reading to get to the bottom of.
The important word is the one rendered as 'worthless' in the NIV which is not wrong, but does not seem rich enough to go to the depths of this passage.
The Hebrew word in question is 'hebel' (transliteration) and is one of the key words used in, and required to understand, Ecclesiastes.
The KJV translates it vanity, whilst the commentators and various Hebrew word books add to vanity with the following group of words:
transitory, vapour, breath, fleeting, without value or substance. One commentator in trying to discover an image that lay behind the word believes that it was used of the smoke from the rubbish that was burned outside of Jesrusalem some of which then drifted back over the city.
The word 'idols' Heb: 'gilluwl' does not actually appear in the text at this point but has been added based on the context.
This word is derived from a root word meaning 'dung pellets' and although roots of words are by no means always good guides as to the meaning of words based on them this one is probably quite apt in giving a good sense of the disdain with which idols should be treated in terms of their ability to offer anything of worth or value.
What this passage seems to be saying is that the people, in trying to follow or 'appease' God, or in their case also 'gods' (they were hedging their bets) - were focussing on things that were without value ( themselves worthless, and unable to offer anything substantial to achieve what the people were seeking), illusory - offered the superficial appearance of being 'something' but actually amounted to nothing, it was vanity insofar as people were choosing to believe that this action or these actions of theirs were putting them in good standing with God - there is also the strong notion that the vanity lay in the fact that they were seeking to appease multiple 'gods' who themselves did not exist - so the whole exercise was quite literally 'in vain' - then there is the smoke or vapour imagery - that which appears but then is gone, however, in the case of smoke from burning rubbish, it clings to you and leaves a stench.
These people were following practices which in their spiritually darkened state, they supposed were valued or acceptable offerings - but which in reality were without substance or value, and were transitory. However, and this is the crucial aspect, they left them, in terms of their relationship with God, without substance or value, the stench of the smoke stuck to them..... They were becoming not so much 'what' they worshipped but 'how' they worshipped.
What's more they were not even doing so in particularly original ways ( not that originality implies acceptability) - they were simply taking aspects of the cultures around them and wrapping them up into something they thought would 'do the trick'....
They were, in New Testament language, seeking to conform to the prevailing cultures not be transformed by the only culture worth being part of.
So the challenge is for us to examine the way we worship, the attitude with which we worship, what we bring to worship and where it is from.
What may we become engaged in that we believe is acceptable to God, or which gives the appearance of being acceptable, but which is in fact without substance or value, is transitory and is therefore being done in vain. Things that are more about conforming to external patterns or practices than to the response or offering of a transformed heart and mind? Things which leave a stench clinging to us that is the opposite of the fragrance that is acceptable to God.
Romans 12:2 , 2 Corinthians 2:15-16
Although the nature of the aroma has changed between the OT and the NT, it is clear ( particularly in Leviticus) that acceptable sacrifices have an acceptable aroma.