How to Keep the 1st Commandment: Shun Idolatry

As we reflect on the first commandment, we continue to consider how we can keep it. Last time we reflected on the exclusive worship of God. Today I want to consider the second of the three ways listed by Kevin DeYoung’s book The 10 Commandments. The second way to keep the first commandment is: shun idolatry.

We don’t usually see people worshipping trees or objects but that doesn’t mean that we are less prone to idolatry than ancient Israel. Calvin has been well cited as saying human nature “is a perpetual factory of idols.” (1.11.8) Idolatry is that which we elevate to the level of the revealed God, and which we love and/or trust. The same pull or desire that tempted ancient Israel tempts us as well. DeYoung cites Stuart, an Old Testament scholar who wrote a commentary on Exodus, wherein he lists nine reasons Israel was so prone to idolatry. (34-36)

  1. It was guaranteed – God was able to be summoned with their spells, incantations and chants. The appeal to something like this is easily understood.
  2. It was selfish – a common thing pagan gods have in common is they need something from humans. In return for the gifts of food the gods granted favors.
  3. It was easy – most pagan gods didn’t have a moral code for their people to follow. Leave food on the altar and live as you please.
  4. It was convenient – since pagans had many gods, there were many places to go worship the god of your preference. But God revealed to Israel to worship him in the tabernacle.
  5. It was normal – Even though there were many gods, all religion looked basically the same. Except for Israel, they had a system of moral laws, theology, and unique worship.
  6. It was logical – The pagan idea of a god that specialized in an area of creation (wind, rain, sun, etc) made it easy to get what you want. It helped them understand the world.
  7. It was pleasing to the sense – Idol worship is full of ceremonies that are appealing to the senses. Ornate craftsmanship made it easy to be comforted.
  8. It was indulgent – Meat was a rare privilege. But with idols requiring meat sacrificed, it became the center of festivals and exuberant rituals.
  9. It was erotic – If gods of specific realms needed to combine to produce a blessing of harvest, it had to happen on earth. This led to cult prostitutes and the erotic allure.

When we observe this ancient system, it’s not difficult to see this was a system made by humanity for humanity. Our idols may look different, but the reasons we are attracted to them aren’t. We’re tempted by the easy, pragmatic, entertaining, sensual, and convenience of idols that compete for our affections.

Calvin spends two chapters on idolatry (1.11-12). In this he emphasizes that idolatry is not only stupid but dangerous. Because it exchanges the honor and love that is due to God and gives it to a piece of wood or stone.

1 John 5:21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols.