Dan Popp
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Written in stone: Thoughts on the Ten Commandments
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By Dan Popp
September 18, 2012

You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6, NASB)

God calls the Commandments given on Mount Sinai the "Ten Words," so we know there are 10, but we have different ideas about how to number them. If you think that the above verses are part of the First Commandment (You shall have no other gods before Me), please excuse me as I arbitrarily call this the Second Commandment.

The intensity of the Almighty's hatred of idols is one of the more striking features of the Bible. It's equaled, or nearly so, by the Israelites' passion for pursuing every garden-variety deity they came across. If the metaphor of God as a Father started to shine through the First Commandment, here the analogy is that of a husband desiring and expecting his wife's undivided affection. I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God. The Prophets often compared Israel's idolatrous ways to adultery — a breaking of the covenant, a personal affront to the Lover of our souls.

How are we to understand the ominous part that follows — visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me — ? It strikes us as unjust that God would punish some for the sins of others. Indeed, He says elsewhere that He doesn't do that! "The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself." (Ezekiel 18:20 — the whole chapter is relevant.)

I think the explanation is that evil is like a virus. It spreads by contact. If a father worships idols he may burn a child as a sacrifice, or sell her as a temple prostitute. He will certainly in a million small ways inculcate in his children contempt for authentic morality and the true God. The historical accounts show the pattern of national decline: One generation of Hebrews would tolerate a bit of idolatry, the next would accept it as normal, and the one after that would declare it normative, becoming hostile to the worship of YHWH.

The people of ancient Israel had an irrational, almost uncontrollable desire to see the object of their worship. Yet they weren't a different kind of human being than we are. God instructed Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole as a cure for the results of their murmuring (Numbers 21); the people turned it into an idol (2 Kings 18:4). Within a few centuries [1] Christians were venerating relics and surrounding themselves with religious images. But God has a legitimate way to fill every human need. His plan always was to give us a visible representation of Himself; one that we could not only see, but hear and even touch. That Icon is Jesus.

Christ is "the image of the invisible God," according to Colossians 2. Those who have seen Him have seen the Father, He said in John 14. He is not a "vain" idol, a nothing representing a demonic nobody. And He is not of human origin. He is God-With-Us.

We think of idol-worship as something long ago and far away. I say that it infests our culture and even our churches. Here's what I mean: It's remarkable how many times idols are described by the Lord as "the work of man's hands." To list just a few: "I will pronounce My judgments on them concerning all their wickedness, whereby they have forsaken Me and have offered sacrifices to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands." (Jeremiah 1:16) "I will cut off your carved images and your sacred pillars from among you, so that you will no longer bow down to the work of your hands." (Micah 5:13) "Because they have forsaken Me and have burned incense to other gods, that they might provoke Me to anger with all the works of their hands; therefore My wrath will be poured out on this place and it shall not be quenched." (2 Chronicles 34:25) The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk... (Revelation 9:20)

What we've made, what we've done, the works of our hands, cannot save us. When we put our faith in our own deeds, we're just like the pagan adoring a rock. "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast." (Ephesians 2:8,9) If you're trying to please God by being good and working your way to heaven — perhaps even by trying to keep the Ten Commandments — you're breaking Law #2. And you desperately need to turn around and look at the Holy Idol that God has given us. "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life." (John 3:14,15)

"Look," God said, "and live."

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[1] Around AD 180 Irenaeus wrote that images were made by heretics and pagans, but not by Christians: They style themselves Gnostics. They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world, that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles. (Against Heresies, Chapt. 25, paragraph 6)

Clement of Alexandria wrote at the turn of the 3rd Century: Moses ages before enacted expressly, that neither a graven, nor molten, nor moulded, nor painted likeness should be made; so that we may not cleave to things of sense, but pass to intellectual objects: for familiarity with the sight disparages the reverence of what is divine; and to worship that which is immaterial by matter, is to dishonour it by sense. (Stromata, Book 5, Chapter 5)

And: Now the images and temples constructed by mechanics are made of inert matter; so that they too are inert, and material, and profane; and if you perfect the art, they partake of mechanical coarseness. Works of art cannot then be sacred and divine. (Stromata, Book 7, Chapter 5)

© Dan Popp

 

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