6. Command Two: No Imitations Please (2)

Revisiting the Ten Commandments: 6. Command Two: No Imitations Please (2)

Ex 20:4,5   “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;  

Significance: What do these verses say? They say, put most simply, that God will not tolerate imitation competitors or substitutes and will hold His people accountable if they do hold to such ‘competitors’ (though they are in reality no competition!) or substitutes. We said in the previous study that an idol is “an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship,” and as we noted previously, this command requires the people of God not to have any substitute ‘gods’ or make any such representations of those ‘gods’ who we considered in detail in respect of Israel and other nations in history.

But why? Why was it that Israel kept turning to idols? We highlighted it before: they wanted gods and idols that they could see. But it is more than that, they wanted something closer to them who they felt they could speak to and though whom they could feel reassured about daily life, who they felt they could rely upon. There is something about expressing out loud your concerns. We do it through prayer and we must assume that Israel did it with their idols in some measure or another.  They would burn incense to these idols as a means of ‘doing something’ they felt might please the idol, the god. There was a reliance there upon the god, through the idol.

An idol, therefore, was a substitute for God although it is difficult not to assume that in the case of the three golden calves (at Sinai and on the north and south borders of the northern kingdom) these idols were initially, at least, supposed to represent God. The Eastern Orthodox Church uses icons as ways of directing their thinking towards God. The Roman Catholic church uses statues of Mary similarly. Both would deny that they worship these as God but are simply tools to help their faith, yet whether it be in modern forms or in the life of Israel, such practices can easily become a substitute for a real, live, vibrant relationship with the Living God.

And Us? An idol today, therefore we might say, is anything we use as a substitute for God but that doesn’t take us to the heart of the matter.  The apostle Pail wrote, Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.(Col 3:5). To the Ephesians he also wrote, For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” (Eph 5:5) Now we tend to simply equate greed with idolatry here but, if we read it properly, the truth is that he is saying in both cases – and this is very important – that all of these things that “belong to your earthly nature” are the thing (the expression of ‘self’) with which we replace God.

The person who rejects God does so because they make ‘self’ the all-important heart of their life. They rely upon themselves to the exclusion of God. It is not a case of making one particular thing in their life – money, ambition, fame, family, work, an expensive car, two houses, a yacht, all the things that usually come to mind in these conversations – but the whole issue of what their life is given to, worshiping and relying upon self, or worshiping and relying upon God is what is important. Those things in that list I have just given are not in themselves wrong, none of them! They become ‘wrong’ when they are the expression of God-excluding-self.

But why – again! We still haven’t, I feel, yet got to grips with why people do this. In the first of this series we spent some time considering the absence of wisdom when we focus on behaviour rather than identity, on self-effort achievement rather than change that flows out of a Cross-centred and Holy Spirit based love relationship with God through Jesus. As I ponder on the two verses above from Colossians and Ephesians, I can’t help but feel that the heart of it is the effect of the presence of sin in every person seen in the form of that propensity that we have to ‘self-centred godlessness’ (my usual definition of Sin). The fallen world around us is often unpleasant and unkind and we want to take protective steps against that but with it comes a blindness (2 Cor 4:4) which can even remain in believers (Rev 3:17) and which so often prevents seeing life as it is, or the reality of the Gospel as it is.

So what changes that? The word of God that is the Gospel that comes by the Spirit usually through the mouths of others, and certainly on the pages of the New Testament. This and this alone, I would suggest, is how God brings a blend of conviction and hope that brings us – whether unbeliever for the first time, or believer perhaps again and again – a reason for turning away from ourselves and turning towards Him, of giving up our reliance upon ourselves and declaring our reliance upon Him. That reliance has to be in respect of the Cross – the foundation for any reassurance that forgiveness, cleansing and a new life is possible – and the presence and filling of the Holy Spirit – who is our power source to enable that divinely supernatural life to be lived.

Not that Simple: Now that may appear simple (when your eyes have been opened) but there is a little verse in Scripture that should bring warning. When Israel, the northern kingdom, were deported by Assyria in 722BC ending their existence after about 208 years, the king of Assyria did what was common practice back then of importing people from elsewhere but also sent back a priest to teach these new people about how to respond to God (see 2 Kings 17:24-28) but sadly it proved semi-abortive because those new people then exercised a mixed religion – “They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods.” (v.33) Do you see that? Worshiped God (great!) BUT they also served their own gods.

Now from what we have been saying, the options we presented are worshiping the god of self or the One True God, but the verse above reminds us that you can try and do the same – apparently worship God but at the same time hold on to major expressions of self.

So How? It isn’t a case of focusing on individual ‘bits’ of our lives, for that simply takes us back to behavioral theology, self-effort, the try harder approach that we rejected at the beginning. Yes, it is important to teach and face these things as stumbling blocks in our lives, but the bigger issue is still all about identity. This, we said at the beginning, is all about who you are in Christ, this is the wonder of what he has done for you, this is what he thinks about you, these are the resources he has provided for you, and here is the wonder of the life that you can aspire to with the help of his Spirit and his word.

Focusing on individual imaginary ‘idols’ simply brings us guilt, a need for more self-effort and likely sense of failure. Recognizing the wonder of who we are, in its fullest, sense – loved and accepted children of God, forgiven and cleansed by the work of the Cross, now indwelt by the Holy Spirit – these are the remedies for that self-life, these are the things that are at the heart of the Gospel, and these are the things that deliver us from the guilty wonderings of how to apply this commandment.

If you have been brought up in a legalistic Christian environment that has left you with guilt, shame, and an ongoing sense of failure, may I invite you to read back through the fairly detailed content of this particular study and ask the Lord to open your eyes to the wonder of who you are in him, and set you free from your past. Amen? Amen!

(There is more that could be said about this particular command but I don’t want to detract from what we have here, so we will simply move on to the next command in the next study.)

Application: May I suggest we conclude this study praying something like, “Lord Jesus, thank you that you have saved me and delivered me out of the dominion of darkness into your kingdom of light. I affirm you alone are my Lord and I give my life to you afresh this day. Amen.”

5. Command Two: No Imitations Please (1)

Revisiting the Ten Commandments: 5. Command Two: No Imitations Please (1)

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.

Idols? 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 idols of ‘celebrities’ in our thinking, but this is not the same as the idols that we find in the Bible. To understand this command we first need to understand the context and why idols featured so much in the text (this study) and then go on to ponder on what relevance this command has to today (the next study).

Understanding ‘gods’ and ‘idols’: In the style that is often found in the Old Testament Hebrew writings, repetition in a slightly different form is very common and so, for example, God uses it in prophetic writing to emphasis or expand on a subject. Similarly here. We have just seen in the first command, “You shall have no other gods before (or besides) me”, a call not to have any god other than the Lord for, we said, in reality He is the ONLY God. But we observed in that study, the multitude of ‘gods’ found in Egypt, Canaan, Greece and Rome. Now look up the definition of an idol and you find, “an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship.” So the existence of ‘idols’ becomes the material expression, if we may put it like that, of the belief in these ‘gods’ we considered previously.

The Command: 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 make 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 and make it a source of worship. Why? What might you do with them? “You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (v.5a) i.e. if you make something like this you may use it as a substitute for the real thing.

The Effects: But what was the effect of creating such ‘models’ of the imaginary deity? Consider what happens. In so doing, in making an image to represent your deity, you 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….. superstition at its extreme! But it was seen so often in the Old Testament, not only in pagan peoples but, tragically, also in the life of Israel.

Idolatry on Mount Sinai: 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) and the consequence was the golden calf.

Wrong Thinking in Eli’s time: Now there is an interesting period 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!

The Need for a Visible Representative: 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. Previously we noted, 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!

In the Land: 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) If we watch the history of Israel, we find them returning to this folly again and again.

Warnings & Condemnation: A large number of times when Moses was briefing Israel on the Plains of Moab before their entry to the Promised Land and before his departure, as we see in Deuteronomy, Moses warned Israel not to get into idol worship – as a starter check Deut 4:15,16,23,25.

There was no problem in David’s reign but tragically we read,  As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods…. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites,” (1 Kings 11:4,5) for which he was reprimanded by the Lord. When Lord split the kingdom He sent Ahijah the prophet to Jeroboam to tell him He was making him king of the north because, “they have forsaken me and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of the Moabites, and Molek the god of the Ammonites,” (1 Kings 11:33) so Jeroboam knew very clearly what caused the Lord to bring discipline but we soon find he sets up two idols (actually calves), one on the northern border and one on the southern border to dissuade Israel, the northern kingdom, not to return to Jerusalem to worship the Lord there. (1 Kings 12:25-30) These two idols  were never removed throughout the two hundred year existence of the northern kingdom. Throughout the history of the northern kingdom we find reference to idols in the land (e.g. 1 Kings 16:13,26, 31-33, 22:53, 2 Kings 1:2, 10:18-22,29, 13:6)

As a summary at the end of the northern kingdom we read, They worshiped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before them, as well as the practices that the kings of Israel had introduced. The Israelites secretly did things against the Lord their God that were not right. From watchtower to fortified city they built themselves high places in all their towns. They set up sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree.  At every high place they burned incense, as the nations whom the Lord had driven out before them had done. They did wicked things that aroused the Lord’s anger. They worshiped idols, ….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.” They forsook all the commands of the Lord their God and made for themselves two idols cast in the shape of calves, and an Asherah pole. They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshiped Baal. They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They practiced divination and sought omens and sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.” (2 Kings 17:7-12,15-17)

It is a terrible indictment. For space sake we will not cover the southern kingdom beyond noting that before the exile took place we find, all the leaders of the priests and the people became more and more unfaithful, following all the detestable practices of the nations and defiling the temple of the Lord, which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.”  Perhaps the destruction of Jerusalem and specifically the temple was God’s way of purging both the temple and the city from these abominations. To see the fuller extent of these denunciations may I recommend a reading of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel that came in the years immediately prior to the Exile. For a devasting comparison (which we will pick up in the next study) between idols and God, read Jer 10:1-16 & 14:22. Ezekiel was even more scathing about their use of idols and you find the word over 40 times in his book!

And So: Never think the matter of idols was a minor issue in the Law and Life of Israel; it wasn’t, it was their major stumbling block, the thing that eventually brought them down.  Now we will go on in the next study to try to examine what it is about idol worship that appeals to humanity.

Application: May I suggest we conclude this study praying something like, “Lord Jesus, I reject any thought of allowing any one anything else to usurp your role as my Supreme Lord. I love you and worship you. Amen”

3. No Imitations Please

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.