“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.
“You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” - Exodus 20:4–6 (ESV)
How can we describe something not seen? What words can we use to give meaning to something — someone — which is all powerful and magnificent but not visible?
The best poets and authors fall short in accurately describing the magnitude and magnificence of God. Talented and gifted artists fail to capture God’s beauty, full array, and splendor. But we continue to try.
It’s understandable why we want to form an image of God. It’s easier to worship what we see than what we can’t. But the worship of God is spiritual, not material. We desire a representation of God to aid us in remembering who we are to worship. We convince ourselves that a replica will discourage our forgetfulness. We don’t want to forget, but we know we do. So, if I have a visible reminder, it serves to assist me in focusing my attention on God. Right?
The logic seems reasonable. But God has made it clear:
“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.”
Why? Why does God prohibit us from creating idols? And why does God command Moses to make a bronze image of a serpent to hold before the Israelites (Numbers 21:6-9)?
If you recall the story, Israel had angered the Lord. As a result, poisonous snakes were killing many of the people. They urged Moses to intercede on their behalf, and God instructed those bitten to look at the bronze snake on the pole to receive their healing. The bronze image reminded them of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and healing. The brass serpent was not God.
Centuries later, we find the bronze serpent making another brief appearance. This time, a twenty-five-year-old king, Hezekiah, breaks the bronze serpent in pieces (2 Kings 18:1-4). Why? “And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it” (Vs. 4, emphasis mine).
This is precisely how a “thing” can become an idol. What’s meant to be a reminder of God, over time, can slowly replace God. The symbol created to remind us to worship gradually becomes the focus of our worship. This is the paradox of idolatry.
While it’s not as common today to have “graven images” we bow down to, believe me, idolatry is as widespread in the 21st century as it was for those living under Moses’ or Hezekiah’s leadership. Idolatry was a present danger then and now because that intended to assist our worship can become the object of our worship. Here are just a few examples:
Our liturgy (a form and means of worshiping God) can become an end in itself. If not careful, we begin to worship the liturgy rather than God.
We desire to care for the Church and create structures and systems to serve people. However, over time, Church government can become an end in itself, and we find ourselves worshiping the governance over God.
Edifices can become the focus of our worship. Over time, we become more enthralled with the sanctuary’s beauty and fail to see the beauty of God.
Whenever the image becomes an end in itself, we are guilty of idolatry. When things become more important than people, true worship is compromised.
Idolatry is not the mistake of primitive people. It was a problem then — and now. Whenever things become an end, more important than people, or replace God’s rightful place in our lives, idolatry is still alive.
All worshipers of images are put to shame, who make their boast in worthless idols; worship him, all you gods! - Psalm 97:7 (ESV)
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