Making the World Safe for Revelation

Ten Commandments - 2

Making the World Safe for Revelation:
The Meaning of the Second Commandment
(Exodus 20: 4-6)

Idolatry is a surprisingly pervasive phenomenon, appearing in modern materialistic guises as well as ancient polytheistic ones. In this message, given at St Alban’s Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand on 30 August 1998, minister Rob Yule explains what idolatry is and examines the far-reaching significance of the Bible’s prohibition of making images.

The Seductiveness of Idolatry

Idolatry is almost universal in the world’s religions. Pagan religions, in the ancient world and today, are characterised by idol worship. Secular anthropologists may defend idols in the name of primitive art and traditional culture. But the reality of life in animistic, idolatrous societies, is very different. Wherever idols are worshipped, there is fear, superstition, demonic oppression. As Roy Woods told us about the remote tribe in western Papua-New Guinea, people lived thirty metres up in tree houses purely because of fear - fear even of the other members of their own tribe.

Throughout its history the nation of Israel had to wage a constant battle against the Baals and Asherim, the lewd and sensual male and female deities of the Canaanite fertility religions. The history of Christianity too shows a constant temptation to reintroduce idols in worship or meditation, in the form of icons, statues, charms, fetishes, and religious objects. Idolatry is one of the most seductive temptations for spiritually sensitive people. Just last weekend I visited a modern Catholic church in a suburb of Wellington. Though it had been built as recently as 1975, already it was cluttered with second-rate statues, as if the liturgical and architectural reforms of the Second Vatican Council had never happened.

The prohibition against making idols distinguishes the Jewish faith from paganism. The Old Testament prophets waged war against idolatry. Their favourite weapon was ridicule. Isaiah makes fun of a craftsman who cuts down a tree, burns part of it to keep himself warm and cook a meal, while he uses another part of it to make a god to worship (Isaiah 44:9-20). Isaiah pours scorn on so-called ‘gods’ which are powerless to help anyone, which cannot even move but have to be carried by their worshippers (Isaiah 46:5-7). Jeremiah ridicules idols that are knocked together and fastened in place by hammer and nails, ‘scarecrows in a cucumber field,’ he calls them, idols which are powerless to do anything to help anyone (Jeremiah 10:3-5). Throughout the Bible there is nothing but scorn for gods made by human hands, which have mouths but cannot speak, eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear, which are lifeless and worthless (Deuteronomy 4:28, Psalm 135:15-18).

What is idolatry?

1. Idolatry is confusing the means with the end.

Idols originate as an aid to worship, a visible object to remind us of the invisible God. A parallel would be a photograph of a friend or family member, to help you remember that person. At first that was what an idol was meant to do. The trouble is that people begin to worship the idol instead of God, to worship the symbol instead of the reality it was supposed to represent. Idolatry is confusing the means with the end.

An intriguing example of this can be seen in the Bible itself. On one occasion during their wilderness wanderings, Israel was attacked by venomous snakes. Moses was commanded by God to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole for the people to look at and be healed of the snake bites (Numbers 21:6-9). The bronze snake was a replica of the plague, a kind of foreshadowing of the cross when Jesus was lifted up for all to see, and was the means God used to save the Israelites. Yet, centuries later, we see the bronze snake being worshipped by the Israelites as an idol; and, because of this it was destroyed by king Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4). The people confused the means with the end; they had come to worship the bronze snake, rather than the Lord it pointed to and who saved them.

This story could be repeated many times throughout history. This is precisely how Christians, who have been clearly commanded not to make images of God, have come to venerate icons, statues, crucifixes, charms, more than God himself, making idols of them.

2. Idolatry is worshipping the creature rather than the creator.

This is the biblical definition of idolatry: ‘they worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever’ (Romans 1:25). Idolatry is giving created things the place that rightly and properly belongs to God himself. This not only dishonours God. It also leads to the overvaluing of the creature, giving to created things a place and a significance they do not have and cannot bear. The result is disillusionment and destructiveness. Idolatry leads to dehumanisation.

The great illustration of this is modern atheism. In the nineteenth century atheists like Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche turned against God in order to liberate humanity. To liberate people from ecclesiastical and economic oppression they consciously elevated human beings to the place of God. This, in the Bible’s view, is the supreme act of idolatry, putting the creature in place of the Creator. But, instead of liberating humanity it had precisely the opposite effect: it led directly to the great dehumanising ideologies of our time. The denial of God in the nineteenth century led to the dehumanising of humanity in the twentieth, as the great totalitarian ideologies to which atheism gave birth turned against humanity, devouring millions of people in the death camps of Nazism and the slave camps of Communism (see Henri De Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism [London, Sheed & Ward,1949]).

3. Idolatry is worshipping things instead of God.

That leads to a third aspect of idolatry: idolatry is putting things in place of God. Idolatry is a misplaced value system. It accords a higher value to lesser things. It gives primary place to what is only secondary.

We can see this very clearly in our modern world, whose main idolatry is materialism. Today our idols and status symbols are materialistic in nature. We rate success in terms of a flash car, a stylish townhouse, designer clothes, a seductive image, an overseas holiday. William Barclay illustrates our materialism by a crossword puzzle he saw. The clue: ‘What makes a home?’ The answer: ‘furniture’! (The Old Law and the New Law [Edinburgh, St. Andrew Press, 1972], p. 13). That is modern idolatry in a nutshell. You might indeed have a stylish and expensively furnished house, but it might be a very poor home, filled with tension, lacking love and companionship.

Today in our modern monetarist economy we seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. People count for less than things. Balancing the books is more important than jobs. That is idolatry, a value system gone awry. Idolatry devours its worshippers. The flash house gives the housekeeper neuroses, the demanding office rewards the executive with stress-related illnesses, video games rob us of the ability to entertain ourselves.

This leads me to the positive implications of the second commandment.

1. The second commandment affirms human dignity and equality.

By prohibiting us from making an image and bowing down to it, this command tells us not to demean ourselves by putting ourselves in subjection to anything or anyone less than God himself. This is a very radical commandment. It is the heart and soul of an egalitarian society. We are not to worship and bow down to anyone or anything less than God himself. We are not beholden to them, we should not kowtow to them, not even to another human being. We can give them respect, but we should not reverence them.

In The Gulag Archipelago Alexander Solzhenitsyn tells the story of an elderly Christian woman arrested in the twenties by the NKVD, as the Soviet secret police was then known, for helping the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church escape to the west. They shook their fist at her and bullied her, but they couldn’t break her. ‘You can’t kill me,’ she said, ‘You’d lose contact with the underground railroad!’ She was indomitable. Fearing God, she feared no man.

2. The second commandment affirms the invisibility of God.

We are forbidden to make graven images, because God cannot be represented in any way. God is greater than we can even think or imagine. We can make no adequate representation of him. When the Roman armies under Titus broke the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70 and entered the temple sanctuary, they were shocked and surprised to find it empty, devoid of any religious objects. ‘God is Spirit,’ Jesus tells us, ‘and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’ (John 4:24).

3. The second commandment affirms God’s right to make himself known as he truly is.

We all know what it’s like to have our motives or opinions misrepresented by someone. We want to be able to have our opinions and convictions truthfully represented. Who better to represent them than ourself? It’s the same with God. When God denies us the right to make representations of himself, it is so that he can reveal himself to us as he really is. The ban on idolatry is to make the world safe for revelation! Revelation is when God gets tired of being misrepresented by others and shows up in person to put matters right! That’s why in the New Testament the term ‘image of God’ is only applied to Jesus Christ - not to anyone else, but only to him who is the express ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15) and the ‘exact representation of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1:3). So in the second commandment prohibiting idolatry God is eliminating human religion in order to make the way clear for divine revelation.

On my 1982 trip to Israel I met and talked with an Israeli soldier on a trip into southern Lebanon. He had come from South Africa twenty one years before. He was a deeply spiritual person. A devout Orthodox Jew, he talked to me about the importance of keeping the 613 commandments of the Bible. He told me what matters in life is deeper than logic, deeper than understanding. To explain his view of God’s greatness and mystery he told me about Maimonides, the famous medieval Jewish philosopher, who said that we cannot say who God is, we can only say what God is not.

I acknowledged to him that this was thoroughly in keeping with the second commandment, banning idols, because nothing we can devise is adequate to represent God. But I shared with him that it is only half the truth. The other half is that God has made himself known to us, as a Father to a child, through Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, God’s firstborn Son. By prohibiting idolatry God opens the way to reveal himself to us as he really is.