Exodus 20:4-6, the Second of the Ten Commandments, also makes up the First and Greatest Commandment—“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” The Second Command amplifies the First, “You shall have no other gods before me.” It focuses on the MODE and the OBJECT of worship. It has two parts the precept and the penalty. First, the precept—
You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God . . .
The subject this morning is IDOLATRY. You may be thinking what that has to do with me a Christian, living in enlightened 20th Century United States of America. Certainly, it absurd that any intelligent and educated person could carve an idol with his own hands and then be afraid of what he made.
Only pagans make idols out of wood or stone and then bow down to them. Yet, it is not without reason that to Christians the exhortation is given in 1 John 5:21—
Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
John’s command was written to believers near the end of the first century. The command may refer to worshiping the image of the emperor, to which Christians were eventually required to offer incense to show their loyalty to the state. It could also refer to compromise with idolatry in a broader sense—the world afforded plenty of temptations for former pagans.
Paul pictures the widespread idolatry of the pagan world of his day in Romans 1:22-23—
Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Acts 17:23 reports that Paul observed that idol worshiping were so numerous that the Athenians had even erected an altar to an unknown god. Paul called idolatry the work of the sinful nature and warned the Christians to shun the worship of idols. Church members who lived in heathen communities had to be careful not to compromise themselves with idolatry.
One problem for early Christians was eating of meat that had been offered to idols. Paul explained that idols had no real existence, so eating meat offered to them would not be wrong, but added that a Christian should do nothing that would cause a weaker brother to stumble.
Paul’s protest against idolatry was so effective in Ephesus that it hurt the business of those engaged in making silver images of the goddess Diana that the silversmiths provoke a riot.
The first century Christians suffered severely at the hands of the Roman Emperor Domitian, who insisted that he be worshiped as “God” and “Lord.” This persecution was a foreshadowing of the end times. The Bible predicts that history is moving towards IDOLATRY connected with the worship of a world emperor. Speaking of the end times, Jesus said in Matthew 24:15-16—
So when you see standing in the holy place `the abomination that causes desolation’, spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.
THE ABOMINATION THAT CAUSES DESOLATION occurs when the Antichrist (also known as the Beast) sets us his image in the Temple of Jerusalem at the mid-point of the Tribulation Period. With the help of the False Prophet who performs miraculous signs on his behalf, he deludes those who reject Christ and receive the mark of the beast and they worshiped the image of the beast. Idolatry will be the end time religion! And the world will crave it!
There are ten basic Hebrew words translated IDOL in our English Bibles. These words include within their range of meaning the idea of image, spirit, demon, mask, vain, nothingness, feeble, distain, fright, horror, wickedness, sorrow and grief. One of the words means logs, blocks, shapeless things. Thus, it is used as a polemic (an argument) against pagan religion. But the Hebrew word that means a CARVED or GRAVEN IMAGE is used in the Second Commandment.
From ancient times, man believed that the carved image was the dwelling place of a superhuman force or being, or was deity itself. Idols were made of wood, stone, or clay, and sometimes of gold or sliver. For the Hebrews, idolatry included the worship of anything other than Yahweh.
Ancient Jewish texts often condemned idolatry as the worst sin—surely a capital offense or a “sin unto death.” The TALMUD says that the three cardinal sins are idolatry, unchastity, and bloodshed. Idolatry was given precedence because it implied a denial of revelation, thus shattering the entire basis of religion and ethics.
In the NT, the term idolatry is extended to mean obsession with anything to the degree that it takes the place of devotion to God.
Idolatry is the embodiment of human desire and thought. Idols, though made in many shapes and sizes, really represented the image of man, for they express his thoughts, desires, and purposes. Man’s pride causes him to trust in himself rather than in God, hence his idols are really expressions of self-worship according to Chapter 2 of Isaiah, which makes this very point in verses 8 and 22—
Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made . . . Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he?
Man becomes like that which he worships. If his god is lifeless and cold, it can bring him no hope or comfort. Only the true and living God can fulfill the hope of eternity.
Ancient religion was polytheistic and complex.
The ancient SUMERIANS believed the universe was directed by a pantheon of gods, the chief ones being An, Ki, Enlil, and Enki, who controlled, perspectively, heaven, earth, air and water.
The MESOPOTAMIAN pantheon was composed of more than 1,500 gods, some of the better known ones, being Shamash, Marduk, Sin, and Ishtar.
The EGYPTIANS worshiped over 2,000 gods headed by Ra, the sun god.
The chief CANAANITE deities were El, the creator of the earth, and Baal, the controller of storms. Both were symbolized by the carved bull as indicative of their procreative powers. A pole symbolized the Canaanite goddess Asherah, who gave fertility, fruitfulness, fortune and happiness.
The Canaanite religion was particularly dangerous for the Israelites because of its appeal to carnal human desires, especially sexual. Baal and Asherah were associated with fornication and drunkenness. Sacred prostitution and various orgy rites characterized the religion. Moses instructed the Israelites to destroy all the inhabitants, high places and images of the land of Canaan so that God’s people would not be tempted to follow their gods.
The Bible repeatedly depicts man as debasing himself when he worships that which he makes with his own hands. It denounces Israel’s idolatry as adultery, infidelity and prostitution. When Israel broke God’s Covenant—The Law, they became an unfaithful wife to God. The prophets scorned the idols as things made by the hand of men and warned the Israelites not to defile themselves with the idols. Nevertheless “their heart went after” them. When Ezekiel heard that Jerusalem was destroyed, he announced that the people of Israel lost possession of the land because of their idolatry.
We understand why the worshiping of images of false gods is forbidden. But, why are images of YAHWEH forbidden? Wherein does the idolatry lie?
The usual answer is that images of God compromises Yawheh’s transcendence. Yahweh is above and beyond everything in all creation. And certainly this is a good reason. But this prohibition protects God’s relatedness as well as His transcendence. Psalm 115:5-7 makes this point—
[Idols] have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Jeremiah 10:4-5 makes this same point—
They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.”
Idols are deaf and dumb, unfeeling and unthinking—it is ridiculous to fear an idol—but not so with Yahweh! To make an imagine of God is to imply that not only does God not think or feel or act in relationship with the world. An image denies the very character of God. To worship images of the LORD is to deny some basic things about God’s very nature as well as His relationship to world.
The worshipers of the golden calf were engaged fundamentally in a false theology, which led to false worship, believing that an image, even of Yahweh, could have accomplished their redemption from Egypt. Centuries later, King Jeroboam caused Israel to commit idolatry when they worshiped the golden calves at Bethel and Dan. To make God into a carved image is sin.
The prohibition against idols is both relational and transcendence in Exodus 20:5 —
You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.
God is JEALOUS—that’s a relational emotion. It is true that God is above and beyond everything in all creation, but it is also true that we are made in the image and likeness of God. God made us a relational creature capable of knowing Him—not through graven images, but through personal experience.
JEALOUS must not be understood in such popular misconceptions as God is naturally suspicious, distrustful, or wrongly envious of the success of others. When used of God, JEALOUS denotes that attribute that demands exclusive devotion; that attitude of anger directed against all who oppose Him; and that energy He expends on vindicating Himself and His people.
In Deuteronomy 4:15-24, God’s jealousy is tied to His transcendence—
You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape . . . Be careful not to forget the covenant of the LORD your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the LORD your God has forbidden. For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.
God was without form until the Second Person of the Trinity became a man. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being. Yet, Jesus said in John 4:24—
God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.
A pamphlet published by the United Nations on its “Meditation Room” at its New York City headquarters says of the stone in the middle of the room—
We may see it as an altar, empty not because there is no god, but because it is dedicated to the God whom man worships under many names and in many forms.
This subtle polytheism is idolatry. It breaks the First Commandment, but what about the second commandment?
Some interpret the Second Commandment so strictly that they refuse to adorn their homes with images. They reject not only statuary, but pictures, photographs, stuffed animals, and dolls. The Jews of Jesus’ day insisted that Pilate remove graven images from his standards. Yet, their forefathers in the desert had an image representing each of the twelve tribes on their standards.
If all visible representations are forbidden, then the LORD’S instructions for building the Tabernacle contradict His own injunction. The curtain hanging before the Holy of Holies was adorned with cherubim. Images of cherubim overshadowed the Ark of the Covenant. The golden candlestick took the form of a tree. The hem of the high priest’s garment was decorated with likeness of pomegranates alternating with bells.
Later, Solomon’s temple, adorned with carved figures of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, enjoyed the presence of God, an inexplicable paradox if God were displeased with the making of visible representations.
To make an image is no sin; the trespass of the Law arises from worshiping it. It’s one thing to make image to adorn something and another thing to make it with the intent to worship it and bow down to it.
The Bronze Snake from Israel history makes a good illustration of the difference between a symbol and idol. The LORD sent venomous snakes among the people because of their murmuring. Then God directed Moses to make an image of a bronze snake and put it on a pole. We read in Numbers 21:9—
So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
2 Kings 18:4 records that seven centuries later—
[King Hezekiah} removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)
The moment that the people began burning incense to the Bronze Snake it became an idol. This is human nature, to look at the material thing and ignore the God who deserves our trust. It was not the image that healed the bitten, it was the God who commanded the image to be made.
Until the time of Hezekiah, the image was a valuable symbol and reminder of God’s salvation by grace through faith. Hezekiah’s generation made it an idol by worshiping it. God gave it to be a type of Christ. Jesus explains its deeper symbolic meaning to Nicodemus in John 3:13-15—
No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
Seeing the bronze snake and being reminded of God’s salvation was no different than worshiping in the Temple and seeing all its symbols that pointed to Christ. The problem came when the bronze snake was made the object of worship. As soon as adoration was given to it, it became an idol.
To kneel, pray, or burn incense before any statue, whether saint or angel or image of Christ, is hard to reconcile with the command—YOU SHALL NOT BOW DOWN TO THEM OR WORSHIP THEM. To kiss the Bible, a Cross or any object is idolatry! It is a form of worship! Some theologians, however, excuse bowing to images, claiming that bending the knee is not to the image, which is only a representation, but to the One whom the image represents.
First Century heathen defended their reverence to images on similar grounds, but the early Christians called the practice idolatrous. It is easy for a thing to become an object of worship as we saw with the bronze snake.
The Cross presents the same danger for us. People who use it to recall the sufferings of Christ should beware lest it become an object of superstitious adoration, thus confusing symbol with reality.
Images and symbols can be an aid to worship, though not an object of worship. An Israelite did not worship the Tabernacle with its furnishings, but it was showing Him the way to God through Christ.
Visit the church buildings of Europe and you discover the Gothic architecture. Its long aisle, vaulted roofs and pointed arches, leading the vision up to the unseen, tell of the mystery, and draw the mind away beyond the visible and concrete to something greater which it hints. There are numerous stained glass windows picturing events of Scripture drawing one into the presence of God. Yet to others the Gothic style and its images are cold, drab and somehow distant!
The real danger comes when two people have a different ideal of what the image signifies. One person may look upon it as a representation and void of value or power in itself, but another may regard it as the abode of the god and fraught with power, and therefore he will worship the image. The classic case is the Lord’s Supper.
According to Roman Catholic teaching, in the sacrifice of the Mass the bread and wine are changed by the power of the priest at the time of consecration into the actual body and blood of Christ. The supposed body and blood of Christ are then raised before the altar by the hands of the priest and offered up to God for the sins both of living and dead.
In the true observance of the Lord’s Supper the symbolism is found in the bread and wine. But in the Mass no place is left for that symbolism, for the bread and wine become the actual flesh and blood of Christ so that He is literally present.
Two hundred years before the Reformation, John Wycliffe rejected and denounced the Catholic Mass as idolatry. I quote from one of his sermons that charges the Roman Catholic Church with idolatry—
Then by your own confession must it needs be that we worship a false god in the chalice, which is unconjured when we worship the bread, and worship the one as the other; but were find ye that never Christ or any of his disciples taught any man to worship this this bread or wine?”
When the symbols of remembrance are made to be more than symbols and then are worship as they are in the Catholic Mass it is idolatry! Mass is no different than worshiping the golden calf, bowing down to it and saying this is the God who brought us out of Egypt! It is just as absurd that a person with his hands harvests and mills grain, bakes it and blesses it, and then says it is Christ’s body and bows down and worships it.
Do you see why the way Communion was observed was such a burning issue of the Reformation with its leaders like Luther, Calvin and Zwingli? Christ gave us the cup and bread as a symbol, but we must be careful to recognize as such and not worship them, but the One they represent. The bread and cup are like the bronze snake, it only typifies Christ.
The issue of icons (images) in the church was a smoldering issue for eight centuries in the Roman Empire. Icons, technically speaking, are flat pictures, usually painted in oil on wood, but also wrought in mosaic, ivory, and other materials, used to represent Christ, the Virgin Mary, or some saint.
Emperor Leo III heard several bishops preach against icons. In 726, Leo published his edict declaring all images idols and ordering their destruction. Immediately, Pope Gregory III condemned Leo for his decree. In 787, the Second Council of Nicaea sanctioned images and directed the adoration of images to be equal to that due the divine Trinity.
In October of 1523, a public debate in Zurich was held to discuss the use of images in the churches along with the Catholic doctrine of Mass. Zwingli called for the removal of all statues and pictures in the churches, which was soon accomplished. He eventually removed all ornaments, clerical robes, tapestries, frescoes, relics, crucifixes, candles, and images. Bell-ringing, chanting, and organ playing ceased, and the great organ in Zurich was dismantled. The Mass was declared to be a memorial of the death of Christ and not a sacrifice.
With the exception of the Mass, most of these things can be found in Protestant churches today and rightly so! The people during the time of the Reformation had worshiped these images and we need to be careful not to make good symbols into idols. If they ever become idols to us, they need to be removed and destroyed!
THE PRECEPT of the Second Commandment carries with it a PENALTY and BLESSING. Verses 5b-6—
Punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
God does not quit the scene when man forgets Him! God asks for love, and when He is rejected, terrible consequences follow. He cannot be indifferent to things that really matter any more than us.
The older generation that hates God by not keeping His commandments sets in motion punishment for their children to the third and fourth generations. In the Ancient World, HOUSEHOLDS were usually extended to THREE or FOUR GENERATIONS. Thus, those who HATE the LORD bring down judgment on themselves and their households.
These words neither affirm that sinning fathers remain unpunished, nor that the sins of the fathers are punished in the children and grandchildren without any fault of their own.
Why punish children for their ancestors’ sins? Sin has pervasive consequences—children are affected by alcoholic parents, for instance, and many victims of abuse become abusers themselves. The Israelites, with their strong solidarity, knew that good and evil affected whole families, not just individuals. God want them to recognize the ripple effect of sin through the generations.
Yet, Chapter 18 of Ezekiel makes it absolutely clear that the soul who sins is the one who will die. The one who follows God’s decrees and faithfully keeps His laws that one is the righteous and will surely live.
When children forsake their fathers’ evil ways, the heat of God’s wrath is turned into the warmth of HESED. He shows STEADFAST-LOVING-KINDNESS to a thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments. In other words, if a family continues to love God, He will continue to show love to them.
To love God with our entire being is man’s GREATEST obligation. Not only is this obligation the greatest, it is FIRST, that is FOREMOST—preceding all other priorities in life. This commandment is FIRST because if you obey it by truly loving God and putting Him first, you will find yourself obeying the other Commandments. By honoring and loving God, you learn to honor and love others.
The first two commandments should lead us to pray with the hymn writer:
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from its throne
And worship only Thee.