Thomas Watson, the Puritan preacher, said in the seventeenth century, “In the first commandment worshiping a false God is forbidden. In this, however, the second commandment, worshiping the true God in a false manner is forbidden.” His few words proved a description of the essence of idolatry.
When a pastor preaches on idolatry, it can be one of the easiest things he does, or it may be the hardest thing. If he takes the easy road, he gets out a yellow legal pad, sits down, and makes a list of all his prejudices. Then he calls them someone else’s idols.
Or he might say to himself, “Now then, what do I really want to get after the congregation about right now?” He lists the things he feels upset about with them, calls those their idols, and really lays it on them.
The hard way is to try to find the underlying concern in scripture concerning idolatry and to preach about that. I want to deal with this commandment in the hard way, to give you a general application of scripture that will allow the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart about these things.
God Denounces Idolatry
In the second commandment God clearly denounces idolatry, so we cannot mistake His reaction to it. He’s not for idolatry under any guise at all and gives to His people some specific guidelines.
Don’t Make Idols
Notice first of all that the second commandment bans the making of idols. He says to His people, “You shall not make yourself an idol in the form of anything above the earth, on the earth or beneath the waters.” Some people call this “classical three-tier Hebrew cosmology,” which simply means that the Hebrews thought the universe had three levels: the heavens, the earth, and the waters beneath the earth.
Others apply this more specifically, saying that when you talk about creatures above the earth, it means spiritual forces; creatures on the earth means material things; what is under the earth means the denizens of death and the strange life hereafter.
No matter how you represent this description, it all comes down to one thing: In every area of the universe, you can’t use anything to represent the Creator. No material, spiritual, or strange, esoteric monster can take the place of God in your life. Never represent the Creator by anything created. That’s the fundamental rule.
Don’t Worship Idols
Second, God says, “Not only should you not make idols, you shall not bow down to them or worship them.” It’s one thing to make an idol and another to worship it. In the strictest sense of the term, I suppose I have some idols in my study at home.
On one occasion when I visited India, a pastor friend of mine and I got into his car. I had to move a little sack in order to sit down. When I picked it up, it clanked, and I asked, “What do you have there?”
“I’m just going to trash those things,” my friend replied.
“What are they?”
He pulled one out, and I saw a beautiful piece of Indian copper work. “You’re going to trash that?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s a Hindu idol. The family it belonged to has just become Christians, and they have been baptized, and I’m taking their idols away. They have given them up, and I’m going to destroy them.”
“I’d like to take one of them home,” I told him. My friend found it hard to understand why. “It is a beautiful piece of copper work,” I said. “As far as I’m concerned, it would become an idol if I bowed down and worshiped it.” He gave it to me only reluctantly, with the provision that every time I saw it I would remember to pray for Hindus lost in pagan darkness.
God says, on the one hand, do not represent the Creator by anything created, but also do not render to anything that which rightly and exclusively belongs to God. Do not give to anything the worship, the adoration, the devotion that are exclusively the right and the preserve of God Himself.
That may seem strange to say to a sophisticated twentieth-century audience, but we, too, have our idols. Herbert Schlossberg said in his book Idols for Destruction: “Anyone with a hierarchy of values has placed something at its apex, and whatever that is is the God he serves.” Do you have a hierarchy of values? Of course you do. Do you say some things are good and some are bad? Some things are better and some are worse? If you answered yes, you have a hierarchy of values.
How do you distinguish good from bad? How do you measure better and worse? Somewhere along the line you have a standard of evaluation — you have the apex of your hierarchy, the thing that’s most important. That, says Schlossberg, is the God you serve.
We constantly need to evaluate what forms the apex of our hierarchy. If we have rendered to it that which is exclusively God’s, we have taken to idolatry.
Don’t Miscalculate God’s Reaction
In His denunciation of idolatry, God says, “Don’t miscalculate My reaction to it.”
Perhaps we can understand better if we identify jealousy as “a zealousness for what is right, an utter, total, burning, consuming commitment to hold on to that which is right.” In this sense God is jealous. With all the intensity and integrity of His being, He will defend and insist on His rightful place at the center of the universe, on the throne of His creatures’ hearts. He will resist with His almighty power anything that infringes on His position.
Even more than we dislike the idea of God’s jealousy, we avoid the idea that He punishes the children for the sins of the father, down to the third and fourth generations. Many people read that and respond, “If that’s your God, you’re welcome to Him. I have a different one, thank you.”
But think for a moment. If you go to a psychologist, chances are you’ll engage in psychotherapy that will identify your emotional aberration by looking into your past. He may look at your parents and grandparents. Why? Although he may not know it, that psychologist affirms the truth of the nature of God, because to a great extent you’ve become what you are because of your parents’ and grandparents’ influence.
In effect God says, “If I do not have My rightful place in people’s lives, if other things take My place, the ramifications and repercussions pass inevitably from generation to generation.” Again He denounces idolatry.
Don’t Forget God’s Grace
In addition God says, “Don’t forget My grace!” In marked contrast to the statement about punishing the children, He goes on to say, “I show love.” (The Hebrew word here is -hesed, meaning “love, mercy, grace, kindness”; it’s an all-encompassing, beautiful covenant word of the Old Testament.) He shows this love, kindness, mercy, and grace to thousands. The structure of the Hebrew here contrasts three or four generations with thousands of generations. Remember, when God speaks firmly, He also remains ready to act graciously, and His grace is always infinitely greater than His judgment. Paul puts it this way, “Where sin [and accordingly judgment] abounds, grace much [or hyper] abounds” (
Be on Your Guard!
Not only did God address this issue in the Commandments, He also mentions it throughout Scripture. The prophets also have a number of trenchant words about idolatry. Remember, God warned the children of Israel, coming into the Promised Land, to avoid the gods of the Canaanites. If you look at the ministry of the prophets, you’ll realize the children of Israel ignored this warning. As
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 people 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, 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.
The books of other prophets hold many similar passages, reminding God’s people of the powerlessness of the idols God denounces. Yet the Israelites had an amazing propensity to simply move their lives into the worshiping of powerlessness and into the abandonment of themselves to the worthless and meaningless. Their prophets warned them to avoid it like the plague.
In the New Testament Jesus doesn’t say much about idolatry, except for His statement, “You cannot serve God and mammon. You cannot worship two masters — you’ll love one and hate the other” (
But when Paul moved out into the Gentile world, he found all kinds of idolatry. He faced it with the Corinthians, who offered meat to idols. Today we say, “Who cares?” The Corinthian Christians cared. Paul certainly cared.
The pagan people would offer their meat offering to idols — prime rib, corn-fed, the best beef — nothing but first class for the idols. But the idols had little appetites, and the priests had big appetites, so the priests left a little for the idols and took most for themselves. They still had far more than they could handle, so they took some down to the butchers. The butchers sold it to the restaurants, so if you wanted a good meal and took your friends from Ephesus to the best restaurants in town, when you ordered prime rib, you got meat offered to idols.
The Christians said, “We can’t go to restaurants. We can’t order the best cuts of meat, because this is all involved in idolatry.” They saw it as a big issue.
What did Paul say? The apostle told them, “The idols are nothing in themselves, but demonic powers lie behind them. Be on your guard about idolatry because of those powers behind the idols, which will sidetrack you from God. Stay on our toes, because you could innocently get yourself into trouble this way.” But in Colossians and Ephesians, he says that “greed or covetousness is idolatry.” Why? Because greed and covetousness mean I’ve given myself in utter devotion to the created thing rather than to the Creator.
The Dangers of Idolatry
“Hey, what’s the big deal about all this?” you may ask. Maybe you still feel like the little boy who had supper with his parents one night and let slip a little word he’d learned in school that day. He wanted to practice it. Dad, who heard that word often in the office, didn’t even notice, but his mother acted horror struck, banished him from the table, and told him to stay in his room all night.
After the boy had gone to his room, a terrible thunderstorm blew up. The lightning flashed and thunder crashed; the rain came slashing down, and the mother’s heart went pitter-pat, as she wondered how her child was. She crept up to his bedroom and quietly opened the door. There she saw her small boy, silhouetted against the window, and heard him say, “God, all this for one little word?”
Do you feel as if God’s become somewhat over-reactionary to idolatry? Is it a big deal? Emphatically, yes! “Why?” you ask. Because idolatry is dangerous and may affect your spiritual life in seven ways.
Turning Means Into Ends
If all people have some instinctive knowledge of God’s existence, they want to respond to Him. But when they look for ways to do that and turn to their culture and the things they make and begin to use their ingenuity to produce things to help them understand the invisible, they enter into idolatry. As they use tangible things to reach out to the intangible, the things take the place of the intangible, and the means become an end in themselves. They do exactly what God says not to do: The created takes the place of the Creator.
That may sound strictly pagan, but it doesn’t make Christians exempt. Have you ever noticed that, though we may use many methods to worship God, sometimes they become so important to us that we lose all sight of the God we worship, and the forms become an end in themselves? For example, at one time most people couldn’t read, so the church developed a liturgy to help everyone memorize Scriptures. That was very helpful. But when, as often happens, the liturgy became worshiped instead of God, it lost its helpfulness.
I don’t mean that as a shot at liturgy — every church has some form of liturgy — but it shows how, in the life of the Christian, the created may begin to take the place of the Creator.
Substituting Things for People
Next, idolatry makes things more important than the person. God has not revealed Himself as a power or entity or a thing, but as a person with whom we can relate. We share a friendship in which we know Him, love Him, and respond in gratitude to Him. But the idolator makes a mistake in substituting things for Him. Initially he may even put good things in God’s place, but by his doing that, those things become bad. Even a ministry may begin to replace the Lord in importance — I know, because I’ve done it!
At one stage in my career, it looked as if my preaching days had ended. Although I had been at it for many years, tremendous new opportunities had begun to open before me. I stood right on the edge, when I suffered an illness that threatened to stop it all. For the only time I can remember I suffered depression.
I did not feel at all happy with the situation. My concern, I told myself, stemmed from the fact that I loved to preach about the Lord Jesus. Then in my own heart God spoke to me powerfully, saying, “Stuart Briscoe, do you love preaching about the Lord Jesus more than you love the Lord Jesus about whom you preach?” The answer was yes.
I knew I felt upset with the Lord Jesus because I could not preach about Him. If I had been excited about Him, it would not have mattered whether or not I could have preached about Him. I felt as if the Spirit of God said, “You get things in perspective, and we might let you preach again. Until you get it in perspective, you’ll never preach.”
When a good thing becomes overimportant to us, it becomes our possession. We get so excited about it that we worship ourselves rather than the Lord, as in the case of my ministry, which had turned into idolatry; that sin destroyed its effectiveness.
Placing Imagination Above Revelation
In addition idolatry places man’s imagination above God’s revelation. Look at some of the representations of the gods made by various cultures, and their creators’ imagination will amaze you. Some Egyptian gods have the figure of a human being but the head of a crocodile, or ox, or lion. When those men thought of a sudden and fierce god, nothing seemed more sudden and fierce in anger than a crocodile. Nothing seemed more brave and courageous than a lion — and so on. So they used their imagination to create fantastic gods that represented these concepts.
Surely God has given us imagination, but our imagination, too, is fallen. It’s not pure and clean, but easily becomes warped and twisted. How? By our thinking, which does not follow God’s truth, but our own fantasies. As J.I. Packer has said, “Metal images are the consequence of mental images.” Instead of accepting himself as a man made in God’s image, the idolator tries to remake God in his own image. He tries to bring Him down to a “comfortable” size.
What happens if we do this? Our imagination begins to destroy our lives as we turn from His truth to our fantasy, for we find ourselves estranged from the real world, divorced from truth.
As Christians we may do this by trying to turn God into some kind of celestial Santa Claus. We don’t like the God of Scripture and much prefer the one in our fantasy world. In making ourselves comfortable, we totally destroy reality as far as God is concerned. We have put in God’s place that which we manufactured ourselves.
Limiting God’s Transcendence
Idolatry also imposes limits on divine transcendence. When Solomon created the temple, he felt awestruck by the magnificent building until God deigned to enter it. Then he lost interest in physical surroundings. He worshiped the Lord, declaring, “God, even the heaven of heavens cannot contain you. Will you deign to live in a place made by human hands?” (
The idolator thinks, “This thing I have created contains God. This thing I devote myself to, this thing for which I live, this thing for which I will give myself — this is God.” What happens? The great, transcendent God becomes squished down into a totally insulting situation.
We Christians cut God down to our own size, destroying reverence. For example, in church have you ever seen a parent collect the kids from the nursery and take them to the sanctuary? The kids start running around, jumping and dancing, parading up and down the steps. Mother comes rushing up, saying, “Don’t do that! This is God’s house.”
The kids start looking around. “Where is God? Is He in the booth back there? Is He in that box?”
Are they really in God’s house? No. But some people would like the church to be God’s house, because then they could keep Him in there, visit Him once a week, like a sick relative, and run their lives the way they want to. They’ve brought God down to their own size.
Putting Man in Control
Idolatry places man in control of God, but at a terrible price. Isaiah describes what had happened to his people this way, “Your idols have become a burden to you.” His words would have reminded the Hebrews of the actions of the Babylonians — a pagan people who had conquered them and taken them into captivity. Wherever they went, the Babylonians carried their idols with them.
Isaiah 46 compares the idolatry of the Hebrews to that when it says, “Listen, your idols are a burden to you, because you carry them,” but it goes on to remind them, “But when God brought your forefathers out of Egypt, He carried them.”
Who carries whom means a lot. If I worship idols, I carry them. I control my God. Because I’ve made Him small, I can put Him where I want. He won’t intrude on my life.
But look at the repercussions of that in my life. If man controls God, it means he is god. If I’m god, then God help us. Like the self-made man, who deifies himself, I will worship my creator — myself. Like the self-made man, I will get terribly upset when others don’t come and worship at my church, the “First Church of Stuart Briscoe.” Every day I will invite others to idolatry and become terribly upset when they don’t share my vision of myself. If, as such a church implies, man is the beginning and the end, we are of all creatures most miserable.
Fashioning God in a Popular Style
Idolatry fashions God in the popular style, making him suit the world around us. See how it happened with the children of Israel. While all the nations around them developed polytheism, they stood out because they believed in one God, who had revealed Himself to them.
When He made the covenant with them, God warned His people against syncretism, but they didn’t listen. In the end they become so confused, they called Jehovah “Baal.” By then they had lost sight of their unique covenant relationship with Him. Finally they so degenerated that they even threw the children into the fiery furnaces of the pagan god Moloch. The Israelites had remade God in the contemporary style.
When we do this in our lives, we totally destroy our distinctiveness as the people of God. How can we be distinguished from the antichrist, antigod society surrounding us? The Christian church always faces the tension of holding to the eternal revelation yet communicating it to today’s world. Some of us easily remain relevant but lose faithfulness. Others may stay faithful and lose relevance. We all need to ask: How can I be faithful to the Word of God and relevant to a society that does not know Him — or even want to know Him?
Each of us faces this tension not to get so caught up in our culture that we lose sight of the Lord. If we do so, we finish up as strangers to scripture, unknown in the courts of heaven.
Detracting From God’s Image
Finally idolatry detracts from God’s chosen image. If we remake God in our image, we have forgotten that God made man in His image, that the image was marred, and that He sent Christ, the express image of His person. If I make up my own images, I ignore Christ. I will not understand the unique place God gave man, and my idolatry will denigrate my understanding of man and will depreciate my experience and appreciation of Christ.
All our idolatry attempts to whittle God down, suit Him to our way of doing things, fit Him in a “comfortable” pattern that does not harm our own ideas or challenge our way of thinking. By the time we have finished, we have denied God His power, muddied or defaced His image, and left ourselves with pitiful, empty lives that benefit neither Him nor us.
Idolatry is serious business. God cannot ignore it. Man does so at his peril!
From the book Playing by the Rules by D. Stuart Briscoe. (c) 1986 by D. Stuart Briscoe. Used by permission of Fleming H. Revell Company.