Meditating on the Wonders of the Ten Commandments: 3. No Imitations Please
Ex 20:4-6 “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, 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.
In the day in which we live, for most of us in the West, idols do not rate highly in our thinking. We have had a TV series called ‘Pop Idol’ and there is the recognition that we make celebrities idols in our thinking, but this is not the same as the idols that we find in the Bible. In the style that is often found in the Old Testament Hebrew writings, repetition in a slightly different form is very common and God uses it in prophetic writing to emphasis or expand on a subject. We have just seen in the first command, a call not to have any God other than the Lord for in reality He is the ONLY God.
So then we come to this second command which slides off the back of the first command. Note carefully the words: “You shall not make.” (v.4a) It is as basic and fundamental as that: idols are man made and if you were one of God’s called-out people then you were NOT to go the way of the rest of the world and made idols.
But what sort of idols are forbidden? “an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” (v.4b) In other words you shall not make a model of anything on the earth or that you think might be in heaven. Why? What might you do with them? “You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (v.5a) If you make something like this you may use it as a substitute for the real thing and in so doing to will make the real thing smaller in your understanding, something or someone who you can control, who you can move around, who you have scaled down into manageable proportions, that is no longer scary. And as for attributing divine attributes to fish or birds or animals…..
This is perhaps why the terrible incident of the golden Calf on Mount Sinai received such censure (see Ex 32). It started when Moses remained up the mountain for a long time and we see, “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods (or ‘a god’) who will go before us.” (Ex 32:1) There is within sinful humanity something that says, “I want to be able to see what I worship and this, in a sense, is the problem with God – we cannot see Him. It was the same thinking that made Israel a lot later demand to have a king (1 Sam 8:6). Yes, they were disenchanted with the religious representatives (Samuel’s sons) but that was no excuse. But that is what sinful humanity is like. In this case Aaron made them a calf of gold that they could see, understand and foolishly bow down before. In no way could that calf convey anything of the wonder and greatness of the Creator and Sustainer of this world!
Now there is an interesting section in 1 Samuel where Israel treat the ark of the covenant as an idol or good-luck charm (1 Sam 4:3). Now at a later date the Lord will show them that the ark is to be considered holy and not to be messed with or even touched by anyone not so appointed (see 2 Sam 6:1-15), but for the moment the Lord needs to teach them that it is not a good-luck charm to be taken onto a battle field, and so when they do, it is captured by the Philistines and taken home and placed in the temple of Dagon (1 Sam 5:1,2). Now we mentioned Dagon in the previous study on ‘gods’ and he was a god of fertility, the father of Baal, and the main god of the Philistines. The ark is placed before a large idol depicting Dagon probably to symbolize Dagon’s superiority over the God of Israel, but the next morning Dagon’s idol is found lying face down before the ark, in an attitude of worship we might say! They place him upright again but next morning he is face down again before the ark and his hands and head are broken off and are lying by the threshold of the temple, almost as if the Lord had done it, gone to leave the temple and then just dumped them there in disdain (1 Sam 5:3,4). The message was clear: don’t mess with the Lord!
Now when Israel went in to take over the Promised Land, again and again they were warned to destroy the idols of the inhabitants yet in the time of Samuel, we find him rebuking them: “Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the LORD only.” (1 Sam 7:3-4) As we watch the history of Israel we find them retuning to this folly again and again.
Back to our verses today we find the reason for the prohibition: “ for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, 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.” (v.5,6) What does that say? It says that God will not tolerate imitation competitors and will hold His people accountable. The formula that appears here appears later in Exodus as well. It says that sin tends to be passed on to the immediate next generations and God will deal with them – all of them in each generation who follow the example of their fathers so that they may not give the excuse, ‘we were led astray by our parents’, as well as the fathers who led the family astray. It may take four generations for them to come to their senses but each of them will be held accountable. He is not like a powerless block of wood carved into a human shape, He is a living God who will deal with those wayward ones, but will love and go on living all who will hold fast to Him for ever.
An idol today, by the way, is anything we use as a substitute for God. This is why the apostle Pail equates greed with idolatry: “greed, which is idolatry.” (Col 3:5). Greed says I want more and more and I place desire for materials things above my love and trust for God. I am not content with what He provides for me. We worship the thing, we must have more of the thing, the thing becomes more important than the Lord. That is modern idolatry but idolatry has no place in the life of the Christian. We are to deal with what is real, not what is make believe.