Every one of us is familiar with the second commandment, Exodus 20: 4-5
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them...
It is easy to read that and feel confident that we at least got that one right. Most of us haven’t taken a statue of someone-or-other, placed it in some sort of shrine and prayed to it. (If you have then we need to be having a different conversation: one about the supremacy of Jesus and how He desires to be worshiped). So, do we not need to worry about this commandment? Are we so much more advanced than those ancient Israelites who were tempted to run off to worship Baal and Ashtoreth at every opportunity, or who could not wait too long at the bottom of Mount Sinai without creating a golden calf to worship instead of the great God who had so recently showed them His power to redeem with a mighty hand and outstretched arm?
One common (and very useful) application of this commandment is to look at the things that distract us from serving and following God with all that we are (putting “our whole selves in” as per the Hokey-Pokey). Money, pleasure, possessions, status – the list of potential idols goes on and on and everyone can think of their own additions (or weaknesses). Our human hearts are capable of latching onto anything that seems desirable and making it into the central pursuit of our lives, sometimes with disastrous consequences to our bodies (think of drug addictions for example) or relationships (e.g. the consequences of pornography), but always with disastrous consequences to our walk with God. Just like ancient Israel, we turn so quickly from the One who so powerfully redeemed us to other, more immediate satisfactions – the things that we imagine we just can’t do without.
Those other desires which rule our hearts even while we profess to be following Jesus are what the Bible calls “the greed which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). For, as Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6: 21)
Making use of God
But this is not the only form of idolatry. Another problem (which we will be talking about in church in a few weeks’ time – stay tuned!) is when we think that the worship of God is the means to something else (the thing which we really want). We seek the gifts rather than the Giver, and He who created heaven and earth, and in whom all things hold together, becomes regarded as the means to the end rather than an end in Himself. People profess Christianity for because they perceive some other benefits (or perceived side-benefits): health, wealth, social respectability etc, or even to date/marry a Christian.
And there is yet another kind of idolatry, much more rarely discussed, which we should also be aware of: the idolatry of our own theology, i.e. our own understanding of God. I remember being told once, when I was young, that the reason that it is wrong to make a physical image of God is that it limits our understanding of Him, confining Him, as it were, to the particular characteristics which the artist chose to depict. It is like trying to draw a rainbow in black and white, or reduce a complex, 3-dimensional object to a single 2-dimensional picture. It will always be inadequate, and, if taken literally, it will become misleading, however well-intentioned the design.
God is always more than our conceptions of Him, and He will stretch us, through the truth of His word and the sharp experience of reality, to see Him more clearly, more truly. It was C S Lewis, in ‘A Grief Observed’, written after the death of his wife, who said that it is God, Himself who is the iconoclast (destroyer of images):
"My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins."
It is so dangerously easy to make God in our own image, rather than submitting ourselves to be remade in His. It is so dangerously easy to let the immediate gratifications of this world become more important to us than the glories of eternity. It is so dangerously easy to see ‘religion’ as a means to obtain those gratifications. It was Calvin who said that the human heart is a factory for making idols; let us return ourselves, over and over again to the truth of His Word, that our hearts and minds might, more and more, fall in love all over again with the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.