14. Israel’s Worship (Exodus 20:1-7)
The importance of the first three of the ten commandments cannot be overestimated. Our Lord’s summation of them is given in the gospels:
And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment” (Matthew 22:35-38).
If the first and foremost commandment of the Law is to love God, and loving God is explained more fully in the first three commandments, we are dealing with the very essence of the Law in this lesson. We can say, then, that our study is crucial because the test deals with man’s number one priority—his worship of God.
Because the worship of God is primary, false worship is one of the greatest evils man can practice. Idolatry is a serious problem, and not just for the Israelite of Old Testament times. The final sentence of John’s first epistle (1 John 5:21) is a warning against idolatry. Idolatry is dangerous because it involves the worship of demons (1 Cor. 10:20; cf. Deut. 32:17), and because we can do it thinking that we are actually worshipping God (cf. Exod. 32:1-6; 1 Kings 12:28-30).
One of the finest books written in recent years is Loving God, written by Chuck Colson. In the introduction to this book, Colson describes his attempt to learn from other Christians what it means to love God:
The greatest commandment of all, Jesus said, is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” I’d memorized those words but had never really thought about what they meant in practical terms; that is, how to fulfill that command. I wondered if others felt the same way. So I asked a number of more experienced Christians how they loved God.
… The cumulative effect of my survey convinced me that most of us, as professing Christians, do not really know how to love God. Not only have we not given thought to what the greatest commandment means in our day-to-day existence, we have not obeyed it.223
This reveals another reason why our text is so important. Not only is loving God our highest priority, but it is one which is poorly understood, so far as its implementation. Most thoughtful Christians may be able to tell you that loving God is the most important duty of man, but they struggle with the very practical matter of how such love is expressed.
There is another reason why our text is so important to Christians living in 20th century America. The warnings we find in Exodus (and indeed the entire Old Testament) regarding the worship of other gods and idols seems totally irrelevant. We feel as safe in listening to these words as Christians sometimes do listening to an evangelist preach the message of the gospel—that, we think, doesn’t apply to us any more.
Such a conclusion would be hasty and ill-founded, as has been pointed out by those who have thought more carefully on these things. Consider, for example, these words from the pen of Herbert Schlossberg: “But anyone with a hierarchy of values has placed something at its apex, and whatever that is is the god he serves. The Old and New Testaments call such gods idols and provide sufficient reason for affirming that the systems that give them allegiance are religions.”224
Idolatry in its larger meaning is properly understood as any substitution of what is created for the creator. People may worship nature, money, mankind, power, history, or social and political systems instead of the God who created them all. The New Testament writers, in particular, recognized that the relationship need not be explicitly one of cultic worship; a man can place anyone or anything at the top of his pyramid of values, and that is ultimately what he serves. The ultimacy of that service profoundly affects the way he lives. When the society around him also turns away from God to idols, it is an idolatrous society and therefore is heading for destruction.225
Western society, in turning away from Christian faith, has turned to other things. This process is commonly called secularization, but that conveys only the negative aspect. The word connotes the turning away from the worship of God while ignoring the fact that something is turned to in its place. Even atheists are usually idolatrous, as Niebuhr said, because they elevate some “principle of coherence” to the central meaning of life and this is what then provides the focus of significance for that life. Niebuhr’s principle of coherence corresponds to what we referred to earlier as the apex of the hierarchy of values. All such principles that substitute for God exemplify the biblical concept of idol. The bulk of this book is an exploration of the forms these idols take in late twentieth-century America. … Our argument, then, is that idolatry and its associated concepts provide a better framework for us to understand our own society than do any of the alternatives.226
Dave Hunt and T. A. McMahon, in their recent book, The Seduction of Christianity, have a chapter entitled, “Christianized Idolatry?”227 One could go on and on with the evidences that our society has become idolatrous, but this we shall see more clearly as we proceed with this lesson.
Some Crucial Definitions
The prohibitions which we are about to study require an understanding of the meaning of God, “gods,” and “idols.” These terms seem so common that we might not think a definition of each is required. I have concluded that it is only when these terms are defined that we can understand the meaning of the three commandments we are about to study.
GODS: When the Bible speaks of “gods” there are several characteristics common to virtually all. It is these characteristics which enable us to define “gods” somewhat generically.
First, “gods” are the object of man’s worship and service. “Gods,” then, have a certain authority and claim over men, which men acknowledge by their worship and service. The strength of this claim over men is seen by the price which men are willing to pay in order to worship their gods. In some instances pagans actually offer their children as sacrifices to the gods. The value attributed to the gods is therefore extremely high in many instances.
Second, “gods” are superhuman beings, possessing powers much greater than men. The powers which the gods possess are restricted to certain aspects of life. A given god may have control over fertility, while another over the rains or agricultural productivity, and yet another over war (as when Goliath cursed David in the name of his gods (1 Samuel 17:43). Most gods operate within certain geographical boundaries (often, the boundaries of a nation or empire, cf. Judges 10:6; 2 Kings 17:27-31; 18:33-35). In the Old Testament we find “mountain gods” distinguished from “plain gods” (1 Kings 14:23, 28).
The gods are worshipped for very pragmatic reasons. Almost never are the gods worshipped for their intrinsic beauty or goodness, but for what they control. Hostile, capricious gods are worshipped to appease their anger and to avert the outpouring of their wrath. Others are worshipped largely due to the powers which they possess and the benefits which they produce. In other words, the gods are viewed by their subjects as means to a desired end. It is no wonder that the worship of false gods is called harlotry in the Bible. The relationship between men and the gods is closely akin to prostitution. A price is paid and a service is rendered, but there is certainly no love between the two parties.
Third, “gods” are seldom worshipped alone, but in plurality. Pagan worship almost always involves a plurality of gods. More than one god is assumed. Thus, the Philistines assumed that Israel was delivered from the Egyptians by her gods (plural, 1 Samuel 4:8), rather than by her God (singular). There is a rather obvious reason for the pagan need of plural gods. Since each god is limited in its power and function, a different god must be served and worshipped for each desired end. A war god must be worshipped for military might; a fertility god was believed to produce offspring; etc. And so the pagan was always inclined to be on the lookout for a new god, who would produce even further benefits (cf. Acts 17:23). Even today, a polytheistic (serving many gods) people will often gladly add another “god” to their pantheon of gods. After all, what can it hurt?
Fourth, the “gods” of the pagan religions are man-made. A few years ago, any manufactured goods which were stamped “made in Japan” were considered a cheap imitation in comparison to American made goods. I tend to think of the gods of pagan worship as having the stamp “man-made” on them, for they are the creation of man, shaped in his image, defined according to man’s preferences and desires.
In India, it is not surprising to find that the gods of the peoples of the tribal areas are cobra, monkey, or tiger gods. In these interior areas you do not expect to find primitive tribesmen worshipping a shark god, for example. (You will not be surprised to find a sea-going people worshipping a shark god, however.) The gods which men worship are thus those which reflect their hopes and their fears. A brief review of the gods of ancient Egypt would show the same tendency.
The Bible rightly reveals the fact that the gods of people are the product of their imaginations and the creation of their hands (Isaiah 2:8; 17:8; 37:19). The gods of the heathen conform to their desires. False gods and idols are chosen in place of the true God, and this by a choice to worship the god of their choice, as the first chapter of Romans clearly teaches us.
IDOLS: Since the gods are man-made, it is no surprise that false worship almost always employs idols. While there are a number of terms used in reference to idols,228 there are certain common characteristics which all idols possess.
First, an idol is used as a representation of a particular god. This idol is almost always made by men, most often bearing the image of some part of creation. This might be an inanimate object (the sun, stars, a rock), or it might be a living creature (a bull, a fish, a snake). The idol does not necessarily represent the god itself, but may depict or symbolize some attribute or characteristic of the god. For example, the bull might symbolically represent the strength of a god. Idols are misused, most often to represent pagan gods (Isaiah 42:17), but at other times they are actually used to represent the one true God (Exod. 32:1, 4, 8; 1 Kings 12:28).
Second, idols are often viewed as being the locus of the presence and power of a particular god. While an idol may initially be conceived of only as a representation of a god, it can often become viewed as the god itself. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, “But the Lord made the heavens” (1 Chronicles 16:26; Psalm 96:5). Thus, wherever the idol is, the god is thought to be present. In this case the idol becomes more than a means of worshipping a god, it becomes the object of worship—the god itself (cf. Isaiah 42:17). Not only does the idol become the locus of the presence of the god, but also of the power of the god. The idol becomes the means of unleashing the magical powers of the god. Through its presence and proper (magical) manipulations the idol is believed to be able to produce a desired result. The idol functions as a kind of “rabbit’s foot.” This can true of the idol of a false god as well as of an “idol” of the true God. Thus, the Ark of the Covenant was taken to war as an almost magical instrument, which could assure the Israelites of military victory (1 Samuel 4:3; cf. 2 Kings 18:4).
GOD: The God of Israel can best be viewed here in contrast to the “gods” of the heathen.
“First, while the “gods” of the heathen are many (plural), there is only one God of Israel. While pagan religions are almost always polytheistic (many gods), Israel’s religion was monotheistic (one God). God would not share His glory with any other. The Book of Genesis has already informed us that God is the Creator of the universe. Exodus proclaims God as the Creator of Israel. There is therefore no other god than the one true God of Israel. Israel’s confession therefore was, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4).229
Second, while the gods of heathendom are limited in their power and in their sphere of activity or influence, God is omnipotent, and is in control over every aspect of life. This is precisely why Israel needed but to trust in God alone, while the pagans found it necessary to serve many gods. Because God is in control of every aspect of the life of His people, no other god is needed in addition to Him.230
Third, while the “gods” seem to need to be prompted to act, the God of Israel is an initiator. It was God who called Abraham and made a covenant with him. It was likewise God who acted to free Israel from her bondage in Egypt. God even took the initiative in giving Israel His Law. Israel’s task was to respond to God’s commands and initiatives. The pagans had to prompt their lifeless, powerless, no-gods to act.
Fourth, while the nature of pagan gods is creature-like and can thus be represented by physical forms (idols), the nature of the God of Israel is essentially spiritual, so that He cannot be represented by any earthly or heavenly form. When God appeared to Israel on the mountain, He did not take a given form, and He could not be represented by any form.
“Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice. … So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth” (Deuteronomy 4:12, 15-18).
Beyond this, God is the essence of perfection, so that nothing man-made can ever do justice in reflecting or symbolizing God’s perfection. Creation as a whole reflects God’s power and divine nature (cf. Romans 1:20), but the created is always inferior to the creator. God revealed Himself to men through His word (e.g. the Law), through His people (Exodus 19:6), and through His actions (e.g. the exodus from Egypt, and the majestic scene on Mt. Sinai), but His final and complete revelation of Himself would be in the person of His Son (John 1:1-18; Hebrews 1:1-4). The absence of visual images speaks volumes as to the greatness of our God. The ark, hovered over by the cherubim, was empty. Nothing other than the Son of God could fully and finally reveal God to men.
Fifth, while the pagan gods were worshipped for what they were thought to be able to do, God is to be worshipped for who He is. Pagan worship was pragmatic, true worship views God as the great Reward, not just as a rewarder. Satan could not conceive of any explanation for Job’s worship other than that God blessed this man so greatly (Job 1:8-12). God afflicted Job, taking away these blessings, to show Satan than He is worthy of man’s worship, even when He sends adversity into the lives of His people. Many of the Psalms are the praises of men who are deep in adversity, and yet who persist in praising God as the One who is always worthy of worship.
Understanding the essential characteristics of the “gods” of the heathen, their representation by means of idols, and the great chasm between these and the God of Israel, will help us to understand the first three commandments, in which these differences are to be practically applied.
Preface to the Ten Commandments
Verses 1 and 2 serve as a preface or introduction to all of the ten commandments, but they have a special relationship to the first three, which are the focus of our study in this lesson. Verse 1 informs us that God not only engraved the commandments on stone, but that He spoke these words in Israel’s hearing. These commands, God wants us to know, came directly from God.231 Their inspiration and authority are thus beyond question, indisputably so to that generation of Israelites which heard them spoken.
Verse 2 distinguishes the God of the Israelites from all of the gods which are about to be forbidden. God’s actions in history on Israel’s behalf are the basis for all that He is about to command. God first reminds Israel that He is the God who has acted in history, altering the course of world history in order to fulfill His promise to Abraham and the patriarchs, and to deliver Israel from her bondage in Egypt. No other gods control history. They, in the words of the prophets, are carried by men, they do not carry men. Second, God acted in history for Israel’s specific benefit and blessing. God delivered Israel, and made them His own people.
The words of this verse remind the Israelites that God has singled them out, distinguishing them from all other peoples on the face of the earth. They will thus be called upon in the following commandments to respond to God’s exclusive relationship with them by worshipping Him exclusively, without any other gods. It is no wonder that the marriage relationship is used metaphorically of the relationship between God and His chosen people, Israel. In both, there is a relationship which excludes others. The freedom which God had given the Israelites was the freedom to serve Him (cf. Exodus 4:23). The demands of that service are now to be defined in the commandments. These words also remind us that Israel’s service was to be motivated by gratitude for what God had done.
The First Commandment
“You shall have no other gods before Me.” With these words God is commanding an exclusive relationship between Himself and His people.232 The command instructs Israel that God will not allow His people to have any gods in addition to Himself. The statement is simple and forthright, but what did it mean to the Israelites? Why would the Israelites have been tempted to have other gods? What is this prohibition seeking to prevent? Our introductory definition of God and “gods” will provide us with a clue to the answers to these questions. There are three principle reasons why the Israelites were given this first commandment:
First, Israel’s history demonstrates their tendency toward false worship. The Israelites frequently sought to serve other gods in addition to Yahweh, who is speaking in our text. Rachel stole her father’s household gods when they fled from his house (Genesis 31:19). Israel lived 400 years in Egypt, a nation which had many gods, and the Israelites continued to attempt to worship them (cf. Joshua 24:14; 1 Samuel 8:8). It was for her rejection of God that Israel was sent into captivity (Ezekiel 20).
Second, to have other gods is always to forsake God (cf. Joshua 24:15-16, 20; 1 Samuel 8:8). To my knowledge Israel never meant to reject God altogether by having other gods, but simply to add other gods to those which they would worship. The Old Testament consistently indicates that having any other god or gods always constitutes the forsaking of God. The relationship of the Israelites to her God is like that of a man’s relationship to his wife—it is an exclusive relationship which allows for no others. Thus, turning to other gods is called harlotry and adultery in the Bible.
Third, having other gods is evidence of one’s lack of faith in God. Here is the reason why having other gods constitutes forsaking God. I believe it is significant that God forbade the worship of other gods, not of another god. This commandment assumes that multiple gods will be worshipped, not just one. The reason goes back to the pagan theology, which viewed each god as having power over a particular (but restricted) area. To “cover all the bases” one would have to serve many gods. Thus, once one came to doubt God’s sovereignty, the addition of other gods would be necessary to assure the worshipper of being provided for and protected by his gods. God is thus forsaken when other gods are served, for we have failed to find Him sufficient and trustworthy if other gods are required to make us feel secure. This commandment therefore suggests that once we cease to trust God for every area of our life, we have ceased trusting Him altogether, and have turned to other “gods.”
Why would Israel be tempted to serve other gods, in addition to the One true God? First, because of the social pressure to do so. Normal social intercourse with the Canaanites would revolve around pagan deities. Meals and feasts were a part of pagan worship and heathen sacrifices. It is no wonder that God commanded that the Israelites exterminate the Canaanites and forbade the Israelites to engage in social (let alone sexual) intercourse with them. This would tempt them to engage in forbidden worship activities.
The Second Commandment
“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” (Exodus 20:4-6).
The first and second commandments are similar in that both deal with the matter of Israel’s worship. They are distinct in that the first commandment has restrictions pertaining to the object of worship (God alone), while the second has restrictions regarding the means of worship. The second commandment prohibits worship by means of “visual aids,” more commonly known as idols.233
Since we have already looked at the characteristics of idols, let us settle on a very simple working definition of an idol: an idol is a symbolic representation of a god, as determined by man, which often represents the presence and available power of the god it symbolizes. There are several important reasons for this prohibition of idolatry.
First, an idol is contrary to the nature of God. God is invisible. He revealed Himself to the Israelites without any form (Deuteronomy 4:12-19). Therefore, physical forms are inconsistent with the nature of God, and cannot be used to represent Him.
Second, idols are demeaning to God, since there is no created thing which can do justice to the perfections of the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.
Third, idols are contrary to the nature of faith. In the Bible, faith is belief in that which is not seen: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).234
Our Lord gently rebuked Thomas for not believing the testimony of His resurrection apart from visual proof, and pronounced blessing on those who would believed on Him without seeing Him (John 20:29). This is not to say that there is no visible evidence for God’s existence and character. In Romans chapter 1 Paul teaches that those who have turned to idols are those who have first seen the witnesses to God’s divinity and power through His creation (Romans 1:20).
Fourth, idols are contrary to God’s goal for worship, which is to worship Him in the person of His Son. In His conversation with the “woman at the well” Jesus gently focused her attention away from special places of worship, to the person whom all must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:20-24, esp. v. 24). God deliberately forbade the use of imperfect representations of Himself, having purposed ultimately to reveal Himself in the Lord Jesus Christ. The ultimate goal of history, I believe, is that all men will fall in worship before the Son (cf. Philippians 2:9-11).
The consequences for violating the second commandment are severe: “… visiting the iniquity of the father on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Exodus 20:5). We may wonder why this is so. Consider the following facts:
(1) The nature of the penalty is proportional to the seriousness of the offense. If the consequences of idolatry are serious, then we must also conclude that the offense is a serious sin.
(2) The punishment described is an outworking of the principle of imputation. We have been constituted sinners by virtue of being Adam’s offspring (Romans 5:12-21). Levi, through Abraham, gave an offering to Melchizedek, and acknowledged this man’s priesthood to be greater than his own (Hebrews 7:1-10). The principle of imputation means that children share in the acts of their fathers. As applied to idolatry, this sin is passed on from father to son. The consequences of the sin of idolatry flow through the principle of imputation.
(3) This warning spells out the dire consequences which the sin of idolatry can bring on future generations. I am told that “acid rain” is devastating forests in Europe, and that even if air pollution were stopped instantaneously and completely the devastating results of past pollution will continue to destroy forests for 50 years. In a similar way, the Israelites are to understand what great harm they can bring on their descendants by neglecting to obey the second commandment.
(4) I believe that the specific reference in this warning is to Israel’s captivity, as the result of her idolatry. There are many passages which link Israel’s captivity to her idolatry and false worship.
Then the Lord said to me, “A conspiracy has been found among the men of Judah and among the inhabitants of Jerusalem. They have turned back to the iniquities of their ancestors who refused to hear My words, and they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers.” Therefore thus says the Lord, “Behold I am bringing disaster on them which they will not be able to escape; though they will cry to Me, yet I will not listen to them. Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they burn incense, but they surely will not save them in the time of their disaster” (Jeremiah 11:9-12, emphasis mine; cf. also Deuteronomy 28:32, 41).
“Now it will come about when you tell this people all these words that they will say to you, ‘For what reason has the Lord declared all this great calamity against us? And what is our iniquity, or what is our sin which we have committed against the Lord our God?’ Then you are to say to them, ‘It is because your forefathers have forsaken Me,’ declares the Lord, ‘and have followed other gods and served them and bowed down to them; but Me they have forsaken and have not kept My Law. You too have done evil, even more than your forefathers; for behold, you are each one walking according to the stubbornness of his own evil heart, without listening to Me. So I will hurl you out of this land into the land which you have not known, neither you nor your fathers; and there you will serve other gods day and night, for I shall grant you no favor’” (Jeremiah 16:10-13, emphasis mine).
“But if you turn away to forsake My statutes and My commandments which I have set before you and shall go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will uproot you from My land which I have given you, and this house which I have consecrated for My name I will cast out of My sight, and I will make you a proverb and a byword among all peoples” (2 Chronicles 7:19-20).
We know that Judah’s captivity in Babylon was 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11-12). Assuming that a generation is approximately 20 years, the consequences of Israel’s idolatry would last for 3 to 4 generations. The evidence seems, then, to favor the conclusion that the specific penalty in mind in verse 5 of Exodus chapter 20 is that of the Babylonian captivity.
(5) The good news is that God overturns the curse of the second commandment of the Mosaic Covenant by the promise of the new covenant. The prophet Jeremiah foretells of the coming of the new covenant, at which time the principle of imputation (with regard to the sins of the fathers) will be set aside:
“And it will come about that as I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to overthrow, to destroy, and to bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the Lord.
“In those days they will not say again, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But every one will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge. Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My Law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:28-34).
The principle of imputation is not just set aside (with regard to the consequences of sin), it is applied positively so that as the sins of the fathers constituted the children sinners, now the righteousness of Jesus Christ will constitute all who are in Him, by faith, righteous. No wonder Jeremiah’s prophecy can promise that God will remember Israel’s sins no more!
The Third Commandment
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
If the first commandment dealt with the object of our worship, and the second the means of our worship, the third commandment deals with our verbal worship of God.235 In order to determine the meaning of this commandment we must first understand the meaning of two things: first, the concept of the “name of the Lord,” and second, the meaning of the term “vain.” Both are explained by Kaiser: “What then is involved in the ‘name’ of God? His name includes: (1) his nature, being, and very person (Ps. 20:1; Luke 24:47; John 1:12; cf. Rev. 3:4), (2) his teaching and doctrines (Ps. 22:22; John 17:6, 26), and (3) his ethical directions and morals (Mic. 4:5).”236
The ‘vain’ or ‘empty purposes’ to which God’s name may be put are: (1) to confirm something that is false and untrue, (2) to fill in the gaps in our speeches or prayers, (3) to express mild surprise, and (4) to use that name when no clear goal, purpose, or reason for its use is in mind, whether it be in prayer, in a religious context, or absent-mindedly invoked as table grace when no real heart, thankfulness, or purpose is involved. When God’s name is used lightly, what will we do in times of great distress? Proverbs 18:10 says “the name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.”237
Contrary to the popular conception of this commandment, much more than foul-mouthed profanity is prohibited. Since God’s name is directly linked with His character, to misuse His name adversely reflects on His character. To illustrate this in an extreme way, think of what it would suggest if many Americans were to name their dogs “Reagan” or “Ronald.” The very common use of this name would surely detract from the dignity of the president of the United States and of his office. So, too, the too-common use of God’s name would demean His character.
The Israelites of old were so careful to avoid violating this command that they refused to even pronounce the sacred name of God. Many today have gone to the opposite extreme. They seem to feel that the more often they refer to God, the more love for Him they demonstrate and the more spiritual they must be for doing so. Thus, the Lord’s name is constantly being spoken in everyday conversation. No doubt this is viewed as a witness to their faith, providing a possible opportunity to talk with unsaved friends or neighbors about the Lord. But if we get to the point where the Lord’s name proceeds from our mouth without being prompted by our minds and our spirit, then it becomes vain and empty talk, of such a kind as to defame the character of God. This danger is summed up: “… the Third Commandment … forbids the cheap and easy use of the divine name to cover up poverty of real thought and feeling.” 238
I have summarized this commandment as a prohibition of “divine name-dropping.” It is the use which men make of God’s name to sanctify their conversation, to add a little holiness or piety to their common, everyday existence. The danger is that in overly associating God with that which is common, it tends to profane the name and the character of the God who is the opposite of common, who is utterly different, set apart, and holy. We often give God credit (which really may be the blame) for our decisions and actions. We say, “the Lord led me to do this or that,” “God told me that this was the right decision.” What we may really mean is, “I decided to do this, and I have assumed it to be God’s will too.” But if our decision was a foolish one, God then becomes the author of that bad decision, which is far from a testimony to His majesty and might. Let us then take care about the way in which we make use of God’s name in our conversation.239
We know that these commandments were given to the nation Israel, and thus we expect that there must be some distinctions drawn between the way they were to be applied by the Israelites and between the way they should be applied today. Let me begin by pointing out one critical difference and one significant similarity between the Old Testament applications and those which relate to contemporary Christianity.
The critical difference between our Old Testament text and the New Testament is that God has now revealed Himself to men in human form, in the person of Jesus Christ. Note the contrast, then, between these two passages, one from the Old Testament, the other from the New:
“Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice. … So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a graven image …” (Deuteronomy 4:12, 15-16a).
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:1-3a).
The difference is that in God’s revelation of Himself to Israel in the Old Testament He took on no physical form, but in His revelation of Himself to Israel in the New Testament, He took on Himself the form of a man (cf. also Philippians 2:6-8), and as a perfect God-man perfectly manifested the invisible God to men. The prohibition of idolatry in the Old Testament was but a preparation for the perfect revelation of God in Christ in the New.
One of my fellow-elders told me that his son was asked by a Sunday School teacher to draw a picture of God. The young lad was absolutely correct in turning in a blank piece of paper, for God cannot be seen and thus cannot be drawn. In the New Testament sense, we could draw a picture of God by drawing a picture of Christ. Of course we have no pictures of our Lord and so the result is the same. The difference between a blank sheet of paper and a perfect picture does, however, illustrate the difference between the Old Testament prohibition of idols and the New Testament revelation of Christ as the image of God.
I must say to you, my reader friend, whoever you are, that there is only one way for you to worship God today, and that is by worshipping Him in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. Those who would attempt to worship God in any other way will forsake the One true God, and the only way of salvation. If you would worship God you must worship Christ, not as one who was like God, but as the One who is very God, and who died in your place, and was raised from the dead, so that you might be saved in Him.
The striking similarity between the Old Testament commands pertaining to worship and the New Testament teaching of worship is this: they both are based solely on faith. So often we hear that the Law was a matter of works, and that salvation is a matter of faith. But the only way that one could keep the commandments was by faith. Obedience to the Law required faith. To worship God alone was to find Him wholly trustworthy, wholly able to provide for and to protect His people. To worship God without images was to believe in God’s word alone, apart from visual props. In both the Old Testament and the New, obedience is only possible on the basis of faith. Some things never change. Faith is one of those things.
The real issue, then, between false gods and the one true God is this: who do we trust? To find God alone trustworthy leads to worshipping and serving Him only. To find God inadequate and untrustworthy is to turn to other “gods” which will do those things we think God cannot do. The question for our day is this: “In whom or in what do we really trust” for our salvation, for our security, and for our daily needs?” If the answer to this question is anything, anyone, but God, we have identified a false god.
In many instances, we are trusting more in our money than we are in our God. As long as we have a nest egg in the bank we feel secure. When there is no money we worry and fret, we do everything possible to create a savings account. The evil here is not in having money, but in trusting in money, rather than in God (1 Timothy 6:17). It is possible to serve money rather than God (Matthew 6:24).
In American culture at this moment I fear that the number one “god” in which we trust is the “god of our inner, hidden, abilities.” In a word the “god” of contemporary culture is the “god” of self. Gloria Steineim has boldly stated, “By the year 2000 we will, I hope, raise our children to believe in human potential, not God. …240 For others, our trust is in our education, or in our position, or in technology. In whatever we place our trust besides God we are serving a false god. We cannot trust in God and money, in God and science, but only in God alone, for God will not share His glory with anything else.
Our culture has its idols as well as its “gods.” An idol is the symbol which indicates the presence and the power of a particular god (whether it be the true God or a false “god”). An idol tells us, in effect, God is here. Some make idols of men, who would wrongly accept the obedience and adoration of men (cf. Matthew 23:1-12). When these people are around us we feel closer to God, or that He is closer to us. Another idol is success. Given the prosperity teaching which is so popular among Christians today, prosperity is viewed as the evidence of God’s blessings and thus of His presence in the life of the one so prospered. No wonder so many people are striving so hard to succeed and to prosper. They want to have the outward evidences of godliness. A final idol in the Christian church is “spirituality”—those outward evidences which are interpreted as evidence of greater godliness. In the pursuit of spirituality men seek to be regarded as spiritual more than they seek God. This, too, is idolatry.
Another idol, as J. I. Packer241 has well indicated, is the idolatry of a sloppy or distorted theology. Theology gives us “word pictures” as it were of God. To the degree that our theology is inaccurate, we have distorted God by definition. Whether, therefore, our idolatry is by wooden symbols (a wooden idol) or word symbols (wrong theology), it is idolatry none the less, with all of the consequences which accompany it.
Taken as a whole, the first three commandments convey a most important message: the priority of our relationship with God and of our worship. The fact that the first three commandments deal with our relationship with God tells us that this is our highest priority. Our estimation of God’s greatness is proportional to the measure of our faith. The measure of our estimate of God’s greatness is also proportional to the quality and quantity of our worship. The measure of our faith is the basis for our obedience. Let us learn from these commandments to seek to fathom the greatness of our God and thus to live in the light of Who He is.
To worship one God is to have one supreme loyalty in one’s life which all one’s instincts and passions and vagaries obey. So that, like Luther, one can stand before other principalities and powers of the outer and inner world and refuse to bow to them, saying humbly and definitely, ‘I can do no other,’ i.e., ‘I obey one greater than all of you.’242
228 “There are fourteen Hebrew words for idols or images, but … ‘idol’ (v. 3) probably refers to ‘gods of silver or gods of gold’ (Exod. 20:23) as well as images carved from stone, wood, and those that later are made from metal.” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1983), p. 86.
229 This is the translation which my former professor and present fellow-elder and friend, Don Glenn, has suggested. Given the context of the heathen worship of a plurality of gods, I think this is the best translation.
230 Because of this fact, I favor the word “besides” rather than “before” in the rendering of verse 3: “You shall have no other gods besides Me” (emphasis mine). I now understand better why the books of Genesis and Exodus go into such great detail in matters such as the creation of the world and God’s dealings in Israel’s history. It is to underscore His infinite power and His concern with every detail of the lives of His people. In Deuteronomy, God’s promises of His future blessings on Israel are also very specific, covering every area of life, those for which pagans looked to many gods to care for. In the portrayal of the life of Christ in the gospels we also see our Lord’s power evidenced in a great diversity of areas, once again showing that He is all that we ever need, and that we need not place our trust elsewhere for any area of our life.
231 “In Hebrew, words is deliberately connected with the verb spoke with which the verse begins. The whole stress is that these commandments are words of revelation from God … It has well been said that the commandments are God’s nature expressed in terms of moral imperatives: and it is significant that God chose to reveal Himself so, rather than in terms of philosophical propositions.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), pp. 151-152.
232 “This slightly unusual phrase seems also to be used of taking a second wife while the first is still alive. Such a use, of breach of an exclusive personal relationship, would help to explain the meaning here.” Ibid, p. 153.
233 “The Hebrew word …, which stands back of graven image, comes from the root meaning ‘to carve.’ Strictly and originally the word means a sculptured object. But it also became a general term for image, whether graven or molten (Isa. 30:22; 40:19; 44:10; Jer. 10:14). When used of a molten image it is always with the signification of idol …” J. Coert Rylaarsdam and J. Edgar Park, “The Book of Exodus,” The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1952), vol. 1, p. 981.
“The Hebrew word for ‘carved image’ is pesel (from the root pasal meaning to carve wood or stone. A pesel therefore is a figure made of wood or stone) sometimes a representation of Jehovah as in Judges 17:3ff.; whereas, other times it was used for figures of heathen gods (II Kings 21:7).” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 201.
There were symbols in Israel’s worship, such as the ark or the covenant, the tabernacle, and the bronze serpent, but these were not to be viewed as representing the nature of God or of being the locus of God’s presence and power. At times, Israel abused these symbols in pagan-like fashion (cf. 1 Samuel 4:3; 2 Kings 18:4).
239 Since time will not permit a more complete discussion of this third commandment, I suggest you consider these additional comments on this text: “The third commandment covers all occasions on which the name of the Lord is used, and includes e.g., perjury (cf. Lev. 19:12), swearing, etc. Konig translates Deuteronomy 5:11 ‘with inner insincerity.’ ‘Any pronouncing of the Divine name without heartfelt sincerity is thus prohibited.’ The name is spiritual in nature; even in the absence of images, the name that the Lord has revealed as His makes it possible to have communion with Him, to name Him. That name must be used in a holy manner (cf. the first petition of the Lord’s prayer), that is, it must be kept far from that which is sinful, frivolous, or vain. ‘Name’ has a profound meaning: the revelation of that which can be known of God. … The Lord Himself guards the holiness of His name, as is indicated by the threat that accompanies this commandment.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 193.
“In later Judaism, this covered any careless or irreverent use of the name YHWH. It was pronounced only once a year by the high priest, when giving the blessing on the great day of atonement (Lv. 19:27). Originally the commandment seems to have referred to swearing a lying oath in YHWH’s name (Lv. 19:12). This seems to be the true meaning of the Hebrew. To bless or curse in the name of YHWH was permissible under the Law (Dt. 11:26); it was virtually a proclamation of His revealed will and purpose to different categories of men. To swear by His name was also allowed then, although forbidden by Christ (Mt. 5:34). Indeed, to swear by His name (and not by the name of another god) was the sign of worshipping Him (Je. 4:2) and was laudable.” Cole, p. 157.
“A deeper reason for the prohibition may be seen in the fact that God is the one living reality to Israel. That is why His name is involved in oaths, usually in the formula ‘as surely as YHWH lives’ (2 Sa. 2:27). To use such a phrase, and then to fail to perform the oath, is to call into question the reality of God’s very existence.” Ibid.