The second of the Ten Commandments seems rather straightforward. On first reading, we might rightly wonder what it has to do with our day. It seems backwards and anachronistic.
First, let’s look at what was likely happening at the time of the people of Israel. Then we’ll look at the commandment in its full glory, and finally, we’ll bring it up to our day.
The people of Israel had just been freed from the kingdom of Egypt. We don’t know a whole lot about Egypt, but we do know that like many societies we find throughout world history, they had set up a caste system of sorts. At the top were the pharaoh and the priests.
The pharaoh wasn’t just a president or king. He was a god, in a very real sense. We know that the pharaoh was just a man dressed up in a funny costume, but to the people of Israel and Egypt, he was something much much more, someone who had to not only be obeyed but adored and worshiped.
The priests set themselves up in a similar position. Although the priests did not claim to be gods themselves, they did claim to speak for the gods and communicate the will of the gods to the people. They were the keepers of their religious traditions and ceremonies. When Moses came and demonstrated the power of God, this was not just a threat to the power of the pharaoh but all of the priests as well. It was a threat to the entire structure of Egyptian society.
Egyptian society doesn’t sound that bad, though. I mean, the religion the priests taught to the people was at least somewhat reasonable. If you live rightly, treat your neighbors with respect and kindness, then when you die, your heart will be measured against a feather and if it is found to be light as a feather, then you can go on to eternal happiness. But if you carry around weight like regret or hatred and such, you are in grave danger.
Of course, this leads to an immediate question: What do you do about those things in your life that try to tear you down? How do you let go? How do you move on? We don’t know what the Egyptian system was, but judging on other societies and cultures, it was probably something along the lines of giving something up or making a donation or doing some extraordinary deed.
Which brings to the center a question: Why? How can making a donation or giving up something or doing an extraordinary deed erase the fact that you’ve done something wrong? Is it all just a giant deception, meant to enrich the pharaoh and his priests and keep them in power? Or does it actually work?
In my previous post, I showed how the God of Israel presented himself to the people of Israel as the Liberator God, and demanded that no other god should be put before him. This sets liberation and freedom as the utmost priority and the purpose of the other nine commandments. This commandment against making and worshiping idols is one of the most important things we need to do to establish our own liberty.
Let’s look at the text of the second commandment to find some insight into why this commandment is so important and how we are to obey it.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:
Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
The first part talks about making idols. Specifically, the Lord is talking about copying things we might find in heaven or earth, or even under the water. Making these images is not a problem, however. What is a problem is made clear in the second verse. That is, worshiping and serving them.
God explains why this troubles Him, and why it is a problem.
First, God says he is jealous. Really, this word is a mistranslation. The word in Hebrew is “qannah”, which means “possessing sensitive and deep feelings”. God is comparing Himself with anything we can make or copy in this world. He says that he, unlike all those other things, has feelings, deep feelings, and they are very sensitive feelings. A better translation might be “I am a passionate God”.
Then, he says that effects of the sins of the fathers translate down to the third or fourth generations. That is, “Like father, like son”. When we make idols and worship them, our kids will do the same. Another saying is, “Monkey see, monkey do.” One of the problems of worshiping idols is that our children and the people around us will copy us.
Finally, God says that he is merciful if you love him and keep his commandments.
When you read this commandment closely, it seems it is saying much more than “Don’t worship idols.” It is saying, “Look, the things that you are going to end up worshiping are not me. They don’t have emotions and feelings. People are going to copy you. And besides, I am merciful if you simply love me and keep my commandments.”
Let’s get back to the gods and priests of Egypt, and compare the God of Israel with them.
The gods of Egypt:
- Were statues and ideas that had no emotions.
- Demanded certain kinds of behavior.
- Demanded some kind of sacrifice or offering if that behavior wasn’t met.
The God of Israel:
- Actually cared.
- Didn’t want to model bad behavior for the children of Israel.
- Said that as long as you love me and keep the commandments, he will forgive those who are in trouble.
This is a striking comparison.
Statues and idols that men set up as gods don’t really care about people. They are distant and passionless. The God of Israel really cares and feels emotions.
The gods of Egypt had an arbitrary set of requirements. The God of Israel merely wanted to have the children of Israel grow up in freedom and liberty rather than revert back to bondage.
The gods of Egypt demanded sacrifice and tribute for past sins. The God of Israel simply wants obedience and love, and is merciful, looking forward to the future rather than dwelling on the past.
What does this have to do with our day? Simply put, we are making idols every day. We make idols of things we create. We make idols of things we imagine. We make idols of other people. In order to understand what an idol is, you need to understand what worship is. Worship is simply reverence or regard, those things you think are very important and worthy of contemplating or celebrating.
When we praise logic and reason and science, we are worshiping it. When we praise love and kindness, we are worshiping it. When we set someone up as a superhuman, we are worshiping him. We all have a natural tendency to worship things and people rather than the True and Living God. We need to watch ourselves and keep things in focus.
Remind yourself: Does the thing you honor and revere have emotions? Do they know you and care about you? Are they interested in seeing your children and grand children and great grand children grow up in freedom and liberty? What do they ask of us? What happens when we don’t conform, how do they ask us to get back into their good graces?
Take, for instance, science. Science doesn’t care about us. Science doesn’t care about our kids. Science doesn’t even recognize liberty, let alone try to free us. Science demands exactness and perfection, and brutally condemns error and mistakes without even a hint of mercy. If we cross science, what can we possibly do to regain its regard? Nothing.
Or love. Love doesn’t care about us. Love doesn’t care about our kids. It’s a feeling that has no feeling. Love doesn’t recognize liberty. What does love demand? Our unceasing attention and devotion. And what if we cross love? There is little hope of ever gaining back its trust, and then only if we promise to sacrifice our entire selves for it.
You can do this exercise for everything. Does President Obama deserve our worship, or Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton? What of the Hollywood celebrities? Or do we put Einstein or Newton or Feynman on that golden altar of reverence and respect? What about people like Martin Luther King, Jr.? What are we expected to do if we honor them, and what happens if we make a mistake in our devotion? What does it take to get back in good standing?
The bottom line is this. If you are going to worship something (and we all are), then we had better only worship a God who has passions, who cares about our great grand children, who liberates us, and who promises to forgive us for the low, low price of love and obedience going forward. There is no easier god to serve than the God of Israel, and there is no more rewarding and caring God than Him either.
By worshiping the True and Living God, we fill the void of worship so that other things can’t consume it. The next few commandments deal with ways to keep the God of Israel in the forefront of our thoughts, and give us mental markers to determine where we are at and where we need to go.