Thinking Biblically About

Idolatry - Exodus 20:4-6

January 16, 1994

by J. David Hoke


"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments." (Exodus 20:4-6)

A friend was once reading to a lady out of the Bible about what God said that He would do to those who were guilty of sin and who did not repent. She responded by saying, "Oh my God would never do that!" He replied, "Mam, you are right! Your god would never do that. The problem is that your god doesn't exist except in your mind. You have created a god in your own image, according to your own liking, and now you have fallen down and worshipped him instead of the God of the Bible. Your problem is that you have committed idolatry!"

What is idolatry? Simply put, idolatry is settling for shadows. An idol is a picture of a god as we fashion him to be. It is an image, not reality. It is a shadow, not substance. It is a representation, but always less than God or other than God. Idolatry is settling for shadows.

Shadows are not substance. While they may cast the outline of something, they are not what is pictured. Why focus on the shadow, when we can see the real thing? We too often are willing to settle for shadows.

The Second Commandment is all about idolatry. It is all about settling for shadows. It reveals the tendency within man to make gods of his own choosing. Were there no tendency in man to make his own gods, the Lord God would have never given this commandment. This tendency has existed in man since the foundation of time.

Even those of us who are enlightened, who are biblically trained, who are sophisticated in our philosophy of life are susceptible to this tendency. It is the tyranny of the tangible. By that I mean, that there is a desire to objectify and quantify all aspects of reality, even God. We like to picture things in human dimensions. We feel we can understand things better that way. But, when it comes to God, we must beware.

God cannot be captured by human understanding. No work of theology, however, massive and masterful will ever succeed in adequately portraying the Infinite, Everlasting One who inhabits eternity. While our minds may know Him, they cannot comprehend Him. But we try, and sometimes we settle for less. When we do, we are in danger of modern day idolatry. You see idolatry is not the unenlightened practice of primitive cultures. It is alive and well right here in America. The Second Commandment is directed to those who would settle for shadows. Are you guilty of settling for shadows?

Our text, Exodus 20:4-6, reveals the dangers of idolatry, past and present. Here we find insight and help for those of us who want to avoid becoming modern day idolaters. It's possible to be one and not even be aware of it. How? There are two major ways.

Something Other Than God

We become guilty of idolatry when we worship something other than God. The Lord says in the Second Commandment,
"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments."

At first glance, this Second Commandment is much like the First. There God said, "You shall have no other gods before me." Both are prohibitions against worshipping something other than God. When we worship something other than God, we are guilty of idolatry. That thing does not have to be an idol of wood or stone. It could be anything --even religious things.

You see, anything that becomes more important than God, becomes an idol. Do you have idols in your life? How can you tell? Well it should be obvious that if there is something that captures our attention, occupies our mind, fills our thoughts and consumes our desires, we might have something we consider more important than God. But there are more subtle idols.

Idolatry may not be full blown at the beginning. There is something you might call "creeping idolatry." It is a subtle intrusion of something other than God, which we allow to become far too important in our lives. Sometimes we hardly know it's a problem, until we have to make a choice.

Think with me about the following statements, you fill in the blanks. "Lord I'll give you anything but ." What would you exclude from God? How about this statement? "Lord I'll do anything for you but ." Is there something that you simply would not do for the Lord? How about this? "Lord I'll change anything in my life for you but ." Are there habits you will not give up? Are there places you will not forgo? Are there relationships which you should not have, which you will not forfeit?

The things that keep you from obeying His command are strong candidates to become idols. An idol can be anything. It can be a material possession: a car, a boat, a vacation home, jewelry, clothes and things like these. You can make an idol out of your lifestyle, where you give all of your energies to maintaining a certain level of prosperity.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the fruit of your labor, but when you throw away the things that really count in order to have the bigger house, the finer car, and all the other things that go with it, then those things have become too important.

I am convinced that children do not simply want bigger and better things. They are not satisfied with more activities and the best that money can buy. What our children want is us. Parents, give them what you can, but don't neglect to give them yourself. God wants us.

Idols can also be religious things --even a concept of ministry, or a way of doing church. In some churches you can preach any kind of heresy from the pulpit, but if you were to suggest that the doxology by sung at some other time than before the offering, you would be thrown out. In some churches it is acceptable to question the resurrection of Jesus, but if you were to move the piano from its appointed position, you would be sternly rebuked. In some churches you can openly profess doubt about the Virgin Birth, but if you were to raise your hands in worship, they would think you had lost your mind. In some churches we have baptized the wrong thing, We have baptized the methodology instead of the message, and we are practicing idolatry. We can worship religious things. Someone once said that when the Ark and the Tabernacle get separated, always follow the Ark. We can be guilty of following the Tabernacle instead.

Worship is giving of yourself. What you give yourself to is what you worship. You can worship yourself, you can worship other people. You can worship material things. You can worship a lifestyle. You can even worship religious things. When we worship something other than God, we are guilty of modern day idolatry. When we worship something other than God, we are worshipping shadows. Are you guilty of settling for shadows?

Something Less Than God

We are also guilty of idolatry when we worship something less than God. It is interesting that the Second Commandment is a prohibition against making graven images. This commandment has in view something more than idols representing other gods. This commandment has in focus the making of images representing God Himself.

We are all familiar with the account of the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. While Moses was on top of that mountain, receiving the commandments from God, the people were down below, waiting rather impatiently. When Moses did not return for a good while, something very interesting happened. In the account of Exodus 32, the people began calling for Aaron to make a god that could go before them. Aaron gathered their gold jewelry, melted it down and fashioned it into a golden calf. Actually, it was a young bull --a common image representing a god. What is interesting, is the intention of the people and of Aaron. Some commentators believe, that in building the golden calf, their intention was to abandon the true God. Others, however, believe there was a different intention. Aaron declared in verse 5 of that passage, "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord." He was referring to the true God. Could it be that Aaron, at least in his mind, built them a tangible image representing their God?

Robert Jamieson, in his commentary, believes that "They required, like children, to have something to strike their senses with . . . some visible material object as the symbol of the divine presence which should go before them." Were the people merely trying to represent God and not replace Him? Could this be described as golden calves with good intentions? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But even if their intentions were good, God was offended.

You see, whatever image they created, however skillfully it was crafted, whatever magnificent characteristics it depicted, the sum total of it would always be less than God. No image could ever reflect the greatness of God. It would only be a pale representation, a shadow at best.

It could have been, that this young bull was designed to depict the powerful nature of the living God. Perhaps it was designed to be a help for worship. Can a worship help become an idol? Another account seems to indicate that it can.

In Numbers 21, we read of the story of the judgement by fiery serpents. There the people murmured against God, and against God's leader, Moses. In judgement upon them, God sent fiery serpents, which bit the people, and many of them became sick and died. The people, realizing their sin, began to cry out to Moses, they confessed their sins and begged him to pray. So Moses prayed, and God spoke. He told Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole and that whoever would look upon that serpent would be healed. So Moses gave the order to build the serpent. But in the meantime, people were dying.

Imagine what it may have been like to have been there. People are sick, their tongues are swollen, they are racked with pain, like a fire in their bodies. All around you there is groaning. Think of a wife nursing her husband in their tent, with their children looking on. He is lingering between life and death. The workmen are busily making the bronze serpent. Will they complete it in time? Her husband is still dying. Frantically she encourages him to hang on. Finally, it is finished, the hole is dug, the brazen serpent is raised and the command goes forth, "Look, look and live!" The people all turn toward the serpent and the Lord God begins to move. Bodies receive strength. The healing power of the Lord sweeps through the camp. Men and women, boys and girls, stand on their feet, with new life in their bodies. It's rejoicing time now in the camp. Their mourning is turned into dancing. They have looked upon the brazen serpent and God has done a marvelous work. Don't do away with that serpent!

God used the serpent. It was a reminder of His power. It was a means by which His grace was communicated to the people. But it was not God. It was a shadow. Yet the people kept the serpent around for hundreds of years. We see it again in the time of Hezekiah, in 2 Kings 18. The people were still burning incense to the serpent, until the time of Hezekiah. He ordered it broken in pieces, because it was a stumbling block to the people and because it was just a piece of brass.

But the serpent was something that God had used. It was a religious symbol. It was a help to worship. But it had become and idol. You see, even religious things can become substitutes for God. Whether it is a cross or a crucifix, a statue or a picture, a relic or a creed; it must never be invested with God-like qualities. The problem is not in what these things depict, but what they fail to depict. Nothing made with human hands can ever adequately depict the holiness, majesty, and transcendency of God. His character is beyond adequate depiction. Someone has said that it is as absurd as, "asking a scholar to explain the history of the world in one sentence, or a sculptor to make a replica of Mt. Rushmore on a single grain of sand, or a musician to play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with a referee's whistle. It just can't be done. It's absurd to even suggest it."

We must be careful that we don't turn religious things into idols. We must be careful not to worship experiences or places, or things, even religious things. When we worship something less than God, then we are guilty of idolatry. Don't settle for a shadow, when you can experience the real thing.

The real thing is a living relationship with a living God, who cannot be defined, or quantified. The real thing is meeting the living Lord Jesus and allowing Him to fill your life. We have the privilege of having the sovereign Lord, who inhabits eternity, to inhabit our lives. It is beyond explanation how He does it, but He does it. He comes into this fleshly frame and breathes divine life. The immortal inhabits the mortal, and we become children of God. Our finite spirit communes with His infinite spirit, and puts us in touch with the eternal. The One who is bigger than the entire universe can live within each one of us. You cannot explain it, but you can experience it. Don't settle for anything less. Don't settle for shadows when you can experience the real thing.

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Copyright 1997 J. David Hoke. This data file is the sole property of the copyright holder and may be copied only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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