“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.”
The second of the things God commands in the Ten Commandments is that no idol; no graven image be created. There have probably always been those who ask the obtuse question about whether or not statuary for art or decoration would be permissible, but God has that covered insofar as He continues on to explain the purpose behind the graven images that are forbidden.
No idols. This commandment is often seen as no longer relevant. The last time someone walked into a store looking for an idol was a long time ago. But God goes further than just to say that specific idols are no good. He could have said that there will be no Molech or Ashtaroth or Ra or Sakhmet or Chemosh and just given an extensive and all-inclusive list of the pantheons of the ancient world if that were the limit of this commandment’s applicability. Instead, He tells me that I am forbidden to make … an idol, [in the] likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. God gives me an umbrella and warns against the rain. It is an excellent state of affairs. This means that I can look up at the stars and planets and all the things in space and find them fascinating and study them, but that fascination and study must stop short of worship. I should not, as those who believe in astrology, look to the stars and planets for answers about my future. In addition, there are angels in the Heaven wherein God dwells and these are also not to be made into idols. Also, this phrasing seems oddly prescient about the moon and star symbol of Islam. The clause about on the earth … or in the water covers the vast majority of the pantheons of the ancient world. Include the skies as part of heaven above and you have just caught all of them. Bring this to the modern world and the statues of Buddha (more accurately, Buddha’s servant) are out of the question. The Lucky Cats and the sum total of the Hindu pantheon, too.
The trouble is that the list does not stop there. Jesus called out a god of the ancient world called Mammon, a god of money. Thing is, most pantheons have an equivalent. Modern America has several. We tend to idolize people who have attained great wealth in some way. Actors, business tycoons, athletes, musicians — Americans simultaneously worship these people and hate them. The ancient Greeks had a similar relationship with their god of wealth: Hades. All the riches in the earth were his, yet no one wanted to speak his name because he was also the god of death. The Greek mind understood something that we have forgotten, viz. the attainment of wealth may very well cost a person their life. Modern Americans also idolize youth and an unrealistic body build and and fame and dozens of other things. The stories of the ancients were meant as warnings against these idols and the pursuits that they embody. The tale of Damocles is a warning against the pursuit of power. The tale of Midas is a warning against the pursuit of wealth. Since I am steeped in the Western tradition, I will make note that the ancient Greeks sculpted an idealized body type, but it was idealized and attainable. What Americans worship in the various magazines requires either complete devotion to sculpting one’s body into that shape for men or unnatural assistance, i.e. PhotoShop, for women. It goes on and on, but I want to move on and close this out.
This command comes with a two part follow-on. First, God is jealous of those who are His and promises that the sins follow the parents to the children. This is rather common sense. If I am an idolater, I will teach my children to worship idols as well. Negative cycles of behavior are most often broken when the descendants perceive the negative impact of the behavior. It would not surprise me to learn that negative cycles often last about three or four generations before a member of the family line takes action to correct things. Second, God states that the blessings of a person who worships Him and Him alone follow for thousands of generations. The Bible gives account of a handful of people like this and believers today are greatly blessed by those people. We do not worship them, but we do worship with them as we all worship the same God.
I need to take stock of my life and see if I have any idols about. I might be worshiping wealth or status or home ownership or some other thing or things. What consumes my attention and my time and my affections? That is what I worship. If that is not God, then I have some house cleaning to do in my heart. Good news is that Jesus is quite happy to cleanse the temple. I need only ask.
Father, thank You for the warning and the promise that come with the command not to have any idols. Thank You, also, for Your love and forbearance with me. Please cleanse the temple of my heart and throw out anything that detracts from the worship that is rightfully Yours.