“You shall not make for yourself an idol”

If you were asked to come up with a list of the top ten instructions for how to get the most out of life, I doubt that any of us would think to include in the list Do not make for yourself an idol

We would not think to include such a prohibition because it seems so trivial—so unimportant—to us.  We understand laws against murder and stealing.  Our courts are filled with cases pertaining to these crimes.  But when was the last time you heard about a court case against someone for making an idol?

Why, then, do we find this particular command in God’s Top Ten list of Commandments?

Interestingly, in his commentary on the book of Deuteronomy, Dr. Peter C. Craigie remarks, “It has been noted that the giving of this commandment was ‘perhaps the unlikeliest thing that ever happened.’”

Craigie makes this comment not on the basis of the trivial nature of idols but because of the widespread popularity of idols among the peoples surrounding the nation is Israel.  In every home and in every field, idols would be found.  That’s how the people lived.  They made idols; they bought idols; they bowed down to idols; they prayed through idols; and they worshiped the gods who were represented by the idols.  Bowing down to idols was as natural to the people of that day and place as was eating and sleeping.

But there are two primary problems with idols:

#1: Any representation of God diminishes God by reducing our understanding of God to whatever is depicted in that particular representation.

Ironically, while Moses was up on the mountain, receiving the Ten Commandments, the people who remained in the camp at the base of the mountain melted their jewelry and constructed a golden calf.  It could be argued that the people meant the golden calf to be a compliment to God.  After all, they had just come out of Egypt where the great Egyptian goddess Hathor was depicted as a cow.  She was referred to as the mother to Horus, the god of the sky, and as mother to Ra, the sun god.  Other times she was referred to as the wife of Horus and the mother of Pharaoh.  It could be that they intended to liken the God who rescued them from slavery to the great goddess of Egypt who was over Pharaoh and who gave birth to them as the new nation of Israel.  But Hathor was also the goddess of music and dance, and goddess of the Celebration of Drunkenness, and the goddess of love and fertility, which may explain why their celebration of the golden calf seems to have quickly devolved into a drunken orgy.  While creating an image of God that exulted God’s prominence and power, they neglected God’s holiness, and while creating an image of God that perceived God’s fertility, they abandoned God’s self-discipline.

The commandment not to make an idol is a call to us not to shrink God in any way but to keep our eyes open to the fullness of who God is.  That’s why Scripture offers such a rich variety of names and descriptions of God.  God is described as Lord Almighty and as our Loving Father; as Judge and as a Mother Hen who would hold us gently under her wing; as the Lion of Judah and as the sacrificial Lamb; as Righteous and as Merciful; as Protector and as our Wonderful Counselor; as a Whirlwind and as our Comforter; as Creator and Shepherd and Savior. 

#2: When we diminish worship to bowing down to idols, we diminish what it truly means to worship God.

God wants far more for us in worship than simply bowing down to an image.  God wants us to follow him so that we will join with God in the work God is doing on earth. 

Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw write, “In the South, we have a saying: You are the spittin’ image of someone.  Folks still speculate over how exactly the phrase originated, but I’ve heard it put like this: It’s shorthand for ‘spirit and image.’  Spittin’ image.  It means more than just that you look like that person.  It goes beyond just appearance to include character and temperament.  It means that you remind people of that person.  You have their charisma.  You do the same things they did.  In the truest sense, Christians are to be the spittin’ image of Jesus in the world.  We are to be the things he was.  We are to preach the things he preached and live the way he lived…. We are to remind the world of Jesus.

The greatest reason why we are not to make an image of God out of stone or a block of wood or anything like that is that God wants to build his image in us.  When we follow God closely, God’s image gets shaped in us.  That’s where God wants his image to be shaped.


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