My first position out of seminary was as a youth pastor in Wichita, Kansas. One year I took a group of youth on a one-month mission trip to Thailand. While we were there we discovered that it is the place to shop. You can find some unbelievable deals in Bangkok. Walking down the street we found vendors selling Rolex watches for about $30! Gucci purses went for around $20. How could they sell them so cheaply when a Rolex watch anywhere else will cost you thousands of dollars and a Gucci purse might go for $1,000 and up?
Well, of course these were not original Rolex watches or Gucci purses. They were copies; just cheap imitations made to look like the originals. On the street they looked real, but if you were to take one of those watches apart, you would discover that neither the quality of the materials nor the workmanship came close to what you find with an authentic Rolex watch. If you were to examine one of those purses you would see that no matter how closely it resembled a Gucci on the surface, beneath the surface it was just what you would expect from any $20 dollar purse.
If you want you can pay a few dollars and settle for a counterfeit. But you will end up with something that looks like the real thing but in fact falls far short. And in a similar fashion, if you want to settle for a false god, a counterfeit god, there are plenty to choose from. Such a god may look genuine, powerful, and meaningful on the surface, but in reality it is just a counterfeit that will always leave you disappointed and empty.
Today we come to the second of the Ten Commandments which warns us against being deceived by and giving ourselves to false gods. In Exodus 20:4-6 God states:
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.
There’s a lot packed in there, but let’s start with the command itself at the beginning of the verse. “You shall not make for yourself an idol. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” Our first reaction to this command might be, “Well, this one’s not so hard.” In fact, we may be thinking that of all ten commandments, this is the easiest one to obey. Maybe the Israelites struggled with this because they lived in a different cultural and religious environment. All the surrounding peoples had various idols molded from metal or carved from wood or stone. That was part of their religious beliefs. But who here today is tempted to take a piece of wood or a stone and carve an idol out of it? Probably no one. And we’re even less tempted to bow down and worship such a thing. I know some of you grew up in different religious traditions that made use of various sorts of idols, but you’ve left that behind.
But while we may not be tempted to carve and worship an idol made out of wood or stone, we may face the very real temptation of dismissing this commandment too easily. It may apply to us in ways we had not imagined. So let’s take a closer look at it. First we’ll consider just what it meant for the Israelites, and then we’ll see what it means for us today. We just may be surprised to discover how often we are tempted to break this commandment.
This is a command that the Israelites did not do a very good job of keeping. When we read their history we see that they often made idols or worshiped the idols of their neighbors. The prophets were continually chastising the Israelites for yielding to idol worship.
Jeremiah tried to show the Israelites how foolish was their desire to be like their neighbors and bow before an idol. He wrote in Jer. 10:1-5:
Hear what the Lord says to you, O house of Israel. This is what the Lord says: ‘Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them. For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.”
The Lord, through Jeremiah, tries to make the Israelites understand what seems so obvious – that any idol made by human beings is worthless in terms of spiritual power. Why, such an idol does not even have the power to stand on its own, but after it is made it must be nailed in place so it won’t fall over.
Furthermore, an idol, though it can be made to look beautiful being adorned with silver and gold, does not even have the ability to move but must be carried about by the very ones who made it. How ridiculous to worship something that was made by you and depends on you. Idols amount to nothing more than the substance they are made from – a piece of wood or a rock or whatever and thus they are powerless. “They can do no harm nor can they do any good,” said God. Obviously an idol is not worthy of one’s worship.
Beyond this, the Israelites were not to make any kind of idol as a representation of the true God. It was not only that they should not bow before the idols representing the false gods of their neighbors, but they were not to fashion any kind of idol to represent the God who delivered them out of Egypt. For there is no way an idol could come close to representing the nature and character of the true God. How could you represent God’s faithfulness, God’s patience and long-suffering, God’s holiness, God’s omniscience, God’s wisdom, God’s sovereignty, God’s holiness, and so on? No human work of art could ever come close to accurately portraying the nature of God, and thus such a work could only misrepresent what God is really like. It would distort the reality of who God is and make God appear less than He is, obscuring God’s true glory.
Besides this, the danger is that if the Israelites would have made an idol to represent the true God, it would only be a matter of time before they would end up worshiping the idol itself rather than the God it was supposed to represent. Jesus said in Jn. 4:24, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship Him spirit and in truth.” God is spirit and thus cannot be portrayed by any physical representation. And if the Israelites were to worship in truth the true God, they had to keep their minds free of any images or representations that would distort the reality of who God is and what God is like. Their focus was to be on God and God alone.
Idols posed a problem not only for Old Testament Israel but for the New Testament church as well, especially as the church spread into the Greek and Roman world, which was saturated with idols and idol worship, and many first-century Christians came out of that background. So the New Testament writers had to warn these new Christians about the dangers of idol worship. Thus, John wrote plainly in I Jn. 5:21, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” The Greek word in the New Testament translated as “idol” literally means “image, shade,” or “shadow.”
That really captures the sense of the second commandment, for a shadow is something that is projected outward from ourselves. The sun or a light shines behind us and we project an image of ourselves outwardly on the wall or the sidewalk. Of course, that image, our shadow that we project isn’t anything real. Actually, it is empty; it is the absence of light. It has no substance to it, although it bears the likeness of the shape of our body. But there’s nothing to it.
When people make an idol what they are doing is projecting something outward from themselves and then infusing it with meaning or with some religious significance. The vast array of idols from the various religions and cultures of the world show the depth and the power of the human drive for meaning, identity, and security, and the tendency to project this need for meaning, identity and security onto something else.
Consider for a moment some of the typical idols made and worshiped by various cultures. There are all kinds of fertility gods representing the need for both human reproduction and abundant harvests. So in countless cultures and religions you can find idols made by the people to represent some kind of fertility god. The people were projecting outward from themselves this need for security found in both human fertility and the fertility of the soil, and the people granted these idols a sense of power and ability to provide many children and abundant harvests as they offered sacrifices to them. Not that the idols could do that, of course, but the people looked to the idols they created to grant this for them.
Likewise many cultures have had idols representing power. They sought their meaning and security in conquering their enemies and extending their rule. And so they fashioned idols representing power, or the god of power or god of war, and they projected onto these idols they made the ability to grant them victory in war.
So in this sense we see how we are constantly tempted to make and bow down before idols. An idol doesn’t have to be an animal or some strange creature carved from wood or stone. We create an idol anytime we project onto something the ability to provide us with what we need or desire, and specifically to provide us with a sense of meaning, purpose, identity and security – which ultimately only the true God can provide us with.
For instance, we may have created an idol out of our career. Now it’s great if we like our job, are devoted to our work, and have a sense of satisfaction in our work, especially in a job done well. But if we project on to our career our need for approval or our desire for success and to be recognized by others as successful as we climb the career ladder, and then we look to our career to provide that for us we have made an idol of our career. If we project onto our career the means of measuring our worth, we have bowed before the idol of our career.
We have a legitimate need to be secure, including to be financially secure, so it is wise to save some money for a later time. But if we project on to our bank account and stock portfolio the ability to provide us with security and then place our trust there, we have created for ourselves an idol.
We all have the need to be loved. But if we project on to the act of sex the ability to provide us with what we need – love – we have created an idol out of sex. And unfortunately in our world today many are bowing before this idol, surrendering to it because they have projected a power on to sex that it just doesn’t have – the power to provide us with genuine love. It can express love, but it cannot provide us with love.
We can even make an idol out of moral behavior, and believe it or not, our involvement in the church. Obviously, Scripture is filled with commandments and instructions on living a moral life, and the New Testament is filled with teaching dealing with our involvement in the church. But if we project onto our moral behavior and church involvement the ability to earn God’s acceptance so that we end up trusting in ourselves rather than in God’s grace, we have made an idol out of something that is good – moral behavior and our involvement in the church.
We can make idols out of all kinds of things: food, our house or car, another person, nature, a sports team, patriotism, our salary, our grades in school. These things aren’t wrong in themselves. But when we project meaning onto things that they do not have, and then we look to these things to satisfy us with a deeper sense of our identity, security, and meaning, we have made an idol. Earl Palmer notes that anytime “we reach out to something else and ask or insist that it grant this basic meaning to our lives, then we have created an idol.”
Why does God condemn this? Because we are to seek after the meaning and purpose for our existence in the only place it can be found, and that is in God. We are to place our trust in God alone. We’ve been created by God and for God, and it’s only in Him that we find the meaning, purpose, and identity for our lives. To serve an idol is to serve a shadow – something that has the appearance of being real, but it is empty; it doesn’t have the power or ability to provide for us what we ask of it. Like the idols described in Jeremiah, they are powerless.
And so God said in this commandment that we are not to serve a mere shadow – something upon which we have projected a false sense of meaning –but Him alone, for He is the only God. Furthermore, God is a jealous God. At first that may sound strange to us because elsewhere is Scripture we are told not to be jealous. In I Cor. 13 Paul writes that love is not jealous and Scripture also says that God is love. So how then can God be jealous?
Well, there are several kinds of jealousy. There is the kind that is self-centered in nature. A teenage boy gets jealous when he sees his girlfriend talking to another boy at school. To him, that other boy poses a threat to him. The other boy may take something he thinks he possesses – his girlfriend. Because he thinks he possesses his girlfriend, that she belongs to him he tries to control her – even who she can or cannot talk to. It’s all about him.
But there is a positive kind of jealousy, for it is other-centered rather than self-centered. Because God loves us so deeply, so profoundly, He is jealous in the sense that He wants the very best for us. Thus, God reacts very strongly against anything that has the potential to keep us from experiencing His very best as it directs us away from God and His good will for our lives. And we can experience the very best only when God is rightfully at the center of our lives, when God alone is the object of our worship, the One we look to for our sense of meaning and identity, and the only One we give our hearts to in surrender.
The jealous teenage boy thinks his girlfriend belongs to him and so doesn’t want to share her with anyone – even just if it’s just someone talking with her. It’s all about him. God is jealous for us and doesn’t want to share us with idols or false gods because He is concerned about our welfare. God wants only what is best for us, and those idols and false gods steer us away from what is best for us, for that is found only in God.
So God warns us against giving ourselves to idols because He is the only God, because all others are false gods, just shadows but not real, and because God loves us with an other-centered jealousy. If you are a parent, you know how you would react very strongly against anything or anyone that would threaten the wellbeing of your child. For you love your child with an other-centered jealousy. That’s how God loves us. To chase after an idol is to give ourselves to a mere shadow and we come up empty, for God alone can provide the meaning we are longing for. And that’s what God wants for us.
Finally, to emphasize how serious is the offense of serving idols, God says something that sounds troubling at first. God said that He “(punishes) the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but (shows) love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” That hardly seems fair. But it must be taken with the rest of Scripture. For Scripture is clear that we all answer individually to God. I am not responsible before God for the sin of my father or grandfather and my children are not responsible for my sin.
So when God said He would punish the children for the sin of their fathers to the third and fourth generation, God was not saying that He considers these descendants guilty and so punishes them. God was not saying to the people, “If you sin, I’m going to really let your kids have it!” No! God is just, but that would not be just. But God was saying that sin is so serious and the consequences of it can be so devastating that it may take several generations to recover.
It is especially with this sin of idolatry that this multi-generational punishment comes into focus. And it’s important to note that this warning of punishment to future generations is linked with the second commandment. Unlike the commandments forbidding murder, lying, stealing, and so forth, which have to do with a specific act, this commandment deals not simply with an act but with the attitude of our hearts and who reigns in our hearts. And here the Israelites failed. The Israelites often fell into idolatry, turning from the true God and worshiping the idols and bowing before the false gods of their neighbors. In doing so, they abandoned their high purpose to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests, representing the true God to others.
Throughout their history, God warned the Israelites through the prophets to repent of their idolatry and return to Him and His purpose for them, but they would not. Finally, after resisting these overtures from God for years, God punished them or judged them as the surrounding nations conquered them and even took many Israelites into exile.
Thus, the children ended up being punished for the sins of the fathers simply by the fact that they were taken into exile along with their parents. It wasn’t that God was determined to punish the children; it was just the inevitable outcome that the children who were taken into exile and the children who were born in exile suffered along with their parents.
But it’s crucial we understand that the point of this exile was that the Israelites would repent and return to God. The intended outcome was that going into exile would be the wake-up call the Israelites needed so they could return both to God and to His high calling for them to represent Him to the nations still trapped in the worship of false gods. The goal of God’s judgment is always redemptive.
And here we see that while the offspring ended up being punished even for several generations, this was really an act of grace on God’s part. For apart from the hardship of exile, the Israelites would have continued in the sin of idolatry as they abandoned the true God, which they would have passed on to their children for that is what the children would have seen and absorbed from their parents. Thus, the pattern of idolatry would have continued and the children would not have known the true God.
But in exile, the children and grandchildren would have the chance to see how their parents failed and what the consequences of that were, with the possibility of them returning to the God their parents forsook. Experiencing what life is like apart from God would give them the chance for a fresh start with God. God is always gracious, but sometimes because of our sin and hardness of heart, there is a hard side to grace.
Still today future generations suffer the consequences of the actions of their predecessors. Parents who choose to ignore God or to serve false idols instead of the true God will likely pass that characteristic on to their children. If I derive my sense of meaning from my bank account, if I measure my success by the kind of car I can afford, if I take my love of country to such an extreme that I get my sense of identity and value from it, most likely my children will absorb those same traits. If God does not have His rightful place in my life, the ramifications of that will be passed on to the next generation. They will suffer because my life has not been rightly ordered.
On the other hand, if God is first in my life and my sense of identity comes from God alone, if I derive my sense of meaning from my relationship with God and seek to honor God, then that is what I will pass on to my children and grandchildren. And God says, “What I would like to do is give my love and blessings to thousands of generations.” As parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, we want to make sure we are passing on to the next generation a God-centered faith in which He rules supreme in our hearts.
As we have seen in the past several weeks, so this commandment is also all about grace. First, God tells us He is the only true God, the only One worthy of our worship. That is evidence of God’s grace, for we no longer have to wonder who God really is or what God is like; He has revealed Himself to us. It’s not like in ancient times when people worshiped and sacrificed to many gods and idols because they weren’t sure which was the real God or which was the most powerful God, and so to cover their bases they honored all of them. No, the one and only God has made Himself known to us so we can know Him.
Then, God wants to spare us the pain and disappointment of giving our lives to counterfeit gods and false idols – mere shadows that lack substance. They may look like the real thing, just like a Rolex watch on the streets of Bangkok. And for a while we may be energized by them. But like an ancient idol carved out of wood or stone, they lack the power we try to grant them. They cannot sustain us. They cannot give us what we ask of them. They cannot grant us meaning. They cannot enable us to fulfill the purpose we have been made for. They cannot lead to deep joy or lasting peace, for they are false.
And so in this commandment God is saying, “Don’t project on to anything the ability to supply your life with meaning, identity, security, and fulfillment, for that is found only in Me. And I long to give that to you. So don’t make an idol out of anything. Instead, serve Me alone, and I will satisfy your soul. I am the only One who can.”