American Idols

Exodus 20:4-6

July 1, 2012 | Brian Bill

In order to capture the heart of the second commandment, fast forward forty days from the time Moses went up on Mount Sinai.  The people are getting restless, wondering why he had been gone so long.  To help us get a sense of what went on, I’m going to go into a first-person narrative from the perspective of Aaron, Moses’ brother and right-hand man.

So the people come up to me and ask me to make them some gods.  I guess I wasn’t prepared for their bad attitude when they referred to Moses as “this fellow.”  It doesn’t take long for people to turn on their leaders, does it?  

I don’t really want to blame them or to justify my own actions because I was in the wrong.  I can’t believe I did this but I asked everyone to bring me their gold earrings and then I put them in a hot fire and cast the gold into the shape of a calf.  I had seen plenty of these when we lived in Egypt so I knew what I was doing.  They were wanting to return to the familiar and comfortable, to go back to how they were accustomed to living.  You’re tempted with that in your culture, too.  What’s wrong with a visual representation of God?  After all, calves are strong, right?  But then I was taken aback when they all shouted, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

I scrambled at this point and built an altar in front of the calf, thinking that maybe the people would get their focus back on the Lord.  I told them that the next day we’d celebrate a festival to the Lord.  The next morning the people brought offerings but then they sat down to eat and drink…and then they got really out of control and did things that I can’t talk about in church.

I didn’t know it at the time but God was really angry with us and told Moses that He was going to wipe us out.  He called us stiff-necked.  But then Moses interceded and God relented.  And then I saw Moses coming down the mountain with the two tablets.  He didn’t look very happy.  When he saw the calf and the dancing he threw the tablets, breaking them into pieces.  He took the calf and burned it, grinding it into powder, scattering it on the water and then he made us drink it.

Moses then went off on me, wondering what the people did to me that I would lead them into such great sin.  I tried to get him to chill out by telling him how prone the people are to do evil.  I walked through what happened but then I had the nerve to say this: “Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”  How’s that for shirking responsibility?

Moses then rallied the true believers and charged them with wiping out those who bowed to the bull.  About 3,000 people died that day.  And it was all my fault.  

Let’s read Exodus 20:4-6: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand [generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Let’s make some observations that will help us observe this commandment.

  1. The second commandment sounds a lot like the first commandment.  But here’s the difference.  The first one deals with whom we worship; the second with how we worship.  Ryken says it like this: “The first commandment has to do with worshipping the right God…the second has to do with worshipping the right God in the right way…the first commandment forbids us to worship false gods, the second…forbids us to worship the true God falsely.”
  2. This is one of the longest commandments.
  3. This commandment is the most often repeated commandment in other parts of the Bible.  That shows us that God’s people are prone to breaking it.
  4. Most think this is the easiest one to keep.  Many of us think it’s irrelevant because we’re not bowing before golden bulls in our living rooms.  By the time we’re finished we’ll see that we’re much more likely to break this one then we think.
  5. This is the only commandment with both a punishment and a promise linked to the breaking or keeping of it.

Let’s review the Commandments we’ve been learning in consecutive order.  We’re doing this because many of us don’t know them.  If we don’t know them, we won’t be able to grow through them.  I recognize that we have new people each Sunday but you’ll be able to pick them up pretty quickly…if you participate.

1: Hold up one pointer finger – point to the sky (one God; no other gods)

2: Hold up two pointer fingers – have one bow before the other (no idols)

3: Hold up three fingers – place over mouth (don’t take God’s name in vain)

4: Hold up four fingers – place on cheek as if to nap (Sabbath rest)

5: Hold up five fingers – place hand over heart (honor parents)

6: Hold up five fingers on one hand and the pointer finger of your other hand – turn pointer finger into a “gun”  and aim at the other hand (don’t murder)

Let’s add one more today.

7: Hold up five fingers on one hand and the pointer and middle finger on the other – intertwine them by putting the middle one over the pointer to show that they are bonded together (no adultery)

Last week we learned that God doesn’t want to be the chief thing; He wants to be everything.  It’s not that we need to make Him prominent in our lives; He demands to be preeminent.  The sense is not that you can have other gods as long as God is your favorite.  No.  There are to be no other gods allowed at all.  There can be no competition for our allegiance.  Nothing can be tolerated that takes us away from bowing before Him with our lives.  

Let’s move now to the second commandment…

1. Command. 

It’s pretty straightforward: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them…”  Some of you have grown up hearing the phrase, “graven images.”  That really means “carved,” “chiseled,” or “cast” and has the idea of being man-made.  Exodus 34:17: “Do not make cast idols.” 

The true God of Israel has no physical image.  He is invisible and cannot be contained.  That’s in stark contrast to the pantheon of gods worshipped by the pagan countries around them.  God’s people were to be different but after four centuries in Egyptian society, idolatrous images were etched in their minds.

Aaron’s sin of idol worship had long-lasting affects in Israel.  It’s like a skeleton in their collective closet that keeps popping up.  In Deuteronomy 9:16 Moses recounts what happened and laments how quickly they broke God’s command, “When I looked, I saw that you had sinned against the Lord your God; you had made for yourselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf.  You had turned aside quickly from the way that the Lord had commanded you.”

Several hundred years later, Jeroboam instituted some idol substitutes, doubling the one golden calf to two.  He said something very similar to what was said at Sinai in 1 Kings 12:28: “…Behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.”   In 2 Chronicles 11:15 we read that Jeroboam “appointed his own priests for the high places and for the goat and calf idols he had made.”  We were on that exact spot when we were in Israel.  It felt creepy to know that’s where they were worshipping the golden calves.

Many years later, King Jehu eliminated Baal worship from Israel by putting the wicked Queen Jezebel to death (2 Kings 9:30-37).  He took the first commandment seriously and refused to worship other gods but check out these ominous words found in 2 Kings 10:29: “However, he did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit – the worship of the golden calves at Bethel and Dan.”  He enforced the first commandment but allowed the people to ignore the second.

If you want to read more about this, Psalm 106:19-21 in the Old Testament and Acts 7:41-42 in the New offer concise summaries.  I love how merciful God is, even in the midst of such outright and obstinate disobedience as stated in Nehemiah 9:17-18: “…But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.  Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, ‘This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt,’ or when they committed awful blasphemies.”

This commandment is quite clear in forbidding the worship of man-made religious images.  This prohibition covers everything – from the heavens to the earth to the sea.  Notice the progression.  Once you build an idol, you will bow down to it; when you work at making an idol, you will ultimately worship it – “shall not make…shall not bow down…or worship.”

I wrote down some reasons why God prohibits His people from bowing down to idols.

  • Every picture or image falls far short of totally capturing God in His totality.  Imagine that a friend said to you, “I’ve got a picture of a centipede up on the wall to remind me of you.”  How would you feel?  Likewise, nothing that a human can create can ever match the immensity of the Creator.  J.I Packer writes: “The heart of the objection to pictures and images is that they inevitably conceal most, if not all, of the truth about the personal nature and character of the divine Being whom they represent.”
  • When you create an idol you are putting yourself in a position of sovereignty over the deity.  Some of us have done that with God as we sit with arms crossed in judgment of Him for what He’s done…or not done in our lives.  Augustine defined idolatry this way: “Idolatry is worshiping anything that ought to be used, or using anything that ought to be worshiped.”  I like what Anne Lamont says: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
  • Images and pictures and statues put God in a box.  Our caricatures end up creating expectations of what God should do for us.  In short, we want to control Him. Hophni and Phineas, the evil sons of Eli, took the Ark of God into battle against the Philistines as if it was a lucky charm.  As a result the Ark was captured…and disastrous consequences came about (see 1 Samuel 4:1-11).  God will not be controlled by us! 
  • Because our hearts are idol-factories, we look and long for something to worship.  We’re prone to praise a picture or submit to a statue or invest our lives in an image.  We saw this when we lived in Mexico where millions bow before the Virgin of Guadalupe and we also saw it in Israel as people prostrate themselves before images found in churches built over historical sites.
  • This command also forbids inadequate images of God in our minds.  Our idols are more in the self than on the shelf today.  We have mental images, not metal images.  One commentator refers to this as “ideolatry.”  This happens when we focus on just one attribute of God, like His love at the exclusion of His holiness.  Or, when we say something like this, “My God wouldn’t do that” or “I like to think of God as…” or even “God wants me to be happy, so He’ll understand when I break my marriage vows…”  These images might not be carved into stone but they’re frozen into our imaginations.  We tend to focus on the things we like about God and forget the rest.

J.B. Philips wrote a book 60 years ago called “Your God is Too Small.” In it he describes different caricatures that many Christians have of God: “God as a Santa Claus, a stern father, an impersonal clock maker, or a kill-joy.”  

After clarifying the command, God quickly gives us a reason behind the requirement – His character demands it.  It’s similar to what He said related to the first command when He declared, “I am the Lord your God…”

2. Character. 

Check it out in verse 5: “for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” This command is tied to God’s name – He is Yahweh, your God.  He is the self-existent One.  The prohibition against idol worship is also tied to God’s nature – Because of who He is, we must do what He says.  Check out these two verses.  Leviticus 19:4: “Do not turn to idols or make gods of cast metal for yourselves.  I am the Lord your God.”  Leviticus 26:1: “Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it.  I am the Lord your God.”

God has a burning, passionate love for His people and does not want to see us bail on Him or fall into disbelief

The specific attribute that God want us to contemplate is His jealousy.  At first blush, it doesn’t seem quite right that God is jealous because we tend to view this word with negative connotations.  But the word itself refers to “warmth of feelings or heat.”  Biblically understood, God has a burning, passionate love for His people and does not want to see us bail on Him or fall into disbelief.  He is fully committed to us and expects us to be fully committed to him.  He is jealous for our undivided attention, for our whole-hearted allegiance to Him.  When we give our love to another person or possession, His passion is ignited.  Exodus 34:14: “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”

Psalm 78:58: “They angered him with their high places; they aroused his jealousy with their idols.”  We could say it like this.  God is zealous for His glory and holiness.  And He is zealous for His people to maintain purity and honor in their relationship with Him.

In the Bible, God is pictured as being married to Israel.  As such, He has every right to be jealous for their affection and longs for their uncompromising commitment to Him.  Idolatry is considered as spiritual adultery to God.  Many times, He refers to them as “adulterous” people to convey that they have been unfaithful to Him.  In fact, in the Book of Hosea, God tells the prophet to marry an unfaithful woman in order to convey how God feels about Israel’s spiritual infidelity: “When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, ‘Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord’” (Hosea 1:2).  Both Jesus and James pick up on this in the New Testament, referring to an “adulterous generation” and “adulterous people” (Matthew 12:39; James 4:4).

Because of God’s jealous and zealous character, there are consequences to breaking this command.

3. Consequences. 

Parents, it’s no small matter to not take your faith seriously!  You’ve heard that saying, “An acorn never falls far from the tree,” right?  Or how about that piercing refrain from the song, “The Cat’s in the Cradle,” which says, “You know I’m gonna be like you, Dad, I’m gonna be just like you.” 

  • Punishment.  Check out the last part of verse 5: “…punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.”  This word for “sin” is iniquity, which refers to something twisted.  While it may appear to be a religious thing to worship idols, it’s really a way of showing hatred to God.  Idolatry is a turning from God, a kind of perversion.  Notice also that it’s not just the fathers who hate God, it’s also their children.  Ryken writes: “People who struggle with the fairness of this commandment usually assume that although the father is guilty, his children are innocent.  But the children hate God as much as their father did (which, given the way they were raised, is not surprising).

If you worship an idol your kids and grandkids and great grandkids will pay the price.  This is serious business.  We’ve said this before but the decisions you’re making right now with your kids affect the next 100 years.  We could say that there’s a spiritual DNA that is passed along to our offspring.  Long after we’re gone, our children and great-grandchildren will pay the price for our spiritual unfaithfulness.  One heartbreaking example comes to mind when all seventy of Ahab’s sons were killed as a consequence of their father’s idolatry (see 2 Kings 10:1-17).

Tragically, after Aaron led the people into idolatry, we later read in Leviticus 10:1-3 that his two sons, Nadab and Abihu, offered “unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command.”  As a result, fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them.  Moses then quoted what God said, “Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.”  We then read these words: “Aaron remained silent.”  Aaron compromised and broke God’s commands…his sons did the same and paid the price.

In Judges 17, we read of a mother who led her son Micah into idolatry.  She had a silversmith make an idol for his house in an effort to domesticate deity.  He set up a shrine and then it says that he “installed one of his sons as his priest.”    

In 2 Chronicles 16 we’re introduced to King Uzziah, who got off to a good start until he became proud.  He ended up worshipping the Lord in a wrong way and was struck with leprosy.  His grandson Ahaz makes cast idols to Baal, shuts the doors to the Temple and sets up altars at every street corner.  He even sacrificed his own sons to false gods (see 2 Chronicles 28).  Grandpa’s sins were passed on to the grandson.

The manner in which you live will mark your children and your grandchildren.  We see this lived out when a grandpa who is a Michigan Wolverine fan passes that sin down to his son.  If that’s not bad enough, I saw one of his grandsons wearing a Michigan sweatshirt awhile ago.  That’s just not right.  Children tend to resemble the environment they’re exposed to.

If a child lives with criticism, He learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility, He learns to fight.
If a child lives with ridicule, He learns to be withdrawn.
If a child lives with shame, He learns to feel guilty.

Bruce Goettsche applies this thinking to spiritual matters:

  • If a child lives with superficial faith he learns to view faith as insignificant 
  • If a child lives with a faith focused on experience, she will seek experiences rather than God 
  • If a child sees parents bowing to representations of God, they will conclude that the representations ARE God. 
  • If a child grows up in a home where worship is not a priority, worship will be an option he seldom chooses 
  • If a child grows up in a home where God gets our “leftovers” our daughter will give God even less 
  • If a child grows up in a home where faith is separated from daily life that child will conclude that faith is irrelevant 

This is not to deny individual responsibility or to make you feel like you’re stuck in a cycle of sin just because your parents or grandparents have made bad choices.  You can break the generational curse!  Many of you are starting a new spiritual family tree.  I love the promise found in Ezekiel 18:20: “The soul who sins is the one who will die.  The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son.”

  • Promise.  God will show justice but He also delights in showing mercy as He says in Ezekiel 33:11“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.  Turn!  Turn from your evil ways!  Why will you die, O house of Israel?”  While there is punishment, there is also a promise for those who love God and keep his commands.

God is so gracious, isn’t He?  Look at verse 6: “But showing love to a thousand [generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments.”  Don’t miss this.  The promise is more powerful than the punishment.  The blessing doesn’t last just three or four generations, but for a thousand!  God’s blessing trumps God’s curse.  Abraham is a good example of this.  He left his idols in Ur and followed God into a lasting legacy of faithfulness

An idol can be defined as anything (besides God) that becomes a controlling obsession in my life.  I came across this idol inventory from a pastor friend…

  1. Do I want this too much?
  2. Has this become too important to me?
  3. How would I feel if this were suddenly taken away from me?

Elizabeth Elliot: “The Christian life is a process of God breaking our idols one by one.”  Are you ready to weed out those things that get in the way of true worship?


Let’s focus on how we can apply this commandment to our lives today.  

  1. Give God the right to be God in your life whether you like it or not.  One person writes: “God will not be captured, contained, assigned or managed by anyone or anything, for any purpose.”  God wants us to trust Him and obey Him, not use Him.
  2. Don’t judge God by whether He fulfills all your desires.  Let’s put it plainly.  God doesn’t owe you anything.  
  3. Be careful because anything good can become an idol if you love it too much.  
  4. Because your children unconsciously absorb your values, what do you need to stop doing?  What do you need to start doing?
When they got rid of that which was keeping them from God, the gospel spread widely and grew in power

In Acts 19:19-20, we see people burning some books: “A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly.  When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas.  In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.”  When they got rid of that which was keeping them from God, the gospel spread widely and grew in power.  As a new believer at the age of 19, after reading this passage, I broke a lot of my acid rock albums because of their influence in my life.  What do you need to demolish right now?

Little Molly was in the third grade, and one day she was having art class at school.  The teacher told the children they could draw a picture of anything they wanted and so Molly was busy drawing and coloring.  As the teacher passed by her, she asked Molly about her work of art. “I’m drawing a picture of God,” she replied confidently.  “Oh, Molly, you can’t draw a picture of God; no one knows what He looks like,” the teacher said.  And without missing a beat, she replied, “They will when I’m done.”

I came across these questions that may be helpful in figuring out what your picture of God is like:

  1. Does God need to fit inside your box of understanding before you fit Him into your life?
    2.  How do you react when God does something in your life that doesn’t fit your picture of Him? Do you allow God to re-draw the picture, or do you rebel against Him? 
  2. Are you willing to re-draw your life to fit God’s standards, or are you attempting to chisel away at Him until you get a God who fits into your lifestyle and doesn’t require you to change?
    4.  If I asked your children to tell me what kind of a God you serve based on what they see in your life, what would they draw?

Let’s admit something.  We all have a desire to see God.  Philip made this request to Jesus in John 14:8: “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”  Jesus responded with this truth in verse 9: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the father…”  The invisible God was made visible in the Incarnation.  

You cannot worship the true God unless you come to Him through Jesus Christ His Son.  The first thing you need to do in order to avoid idols is to accept Jesus Christ into your life. 

A certain credit card company has a commercial set in the board room of some international corporation while merger talks are taking place. The CEO says: “Everything is set to be finalized on the 28th.”

The janitor, who happens to be sweeping the floor, looks up and responds, “Sorry, I’m only available on the 12th.”  There’s an awkward moment of silence while the board members look at each other in disbelief.  Then the CEO says, “OK, the 12th it is.”

The narrator then asks, “Wouldn’t you like the world to revolve around you?”  The commercial ends by informing us that if we will subscribe to their credit card we can choose our own billing date.

Friends, it’s not about me.  And it’s not about you.  The world doesn’t revolve around any of us. It’s all about God.  Ryken writes: “Rather than remaking God into our image, we need to be remade into His image.”  We can’t keep the commandments, but He did.  And so we need to put our faith in Him.  When Jesus died on the cross, the last words He said were, “It is finished.”  Our bill has already been paid.  He has shouldered all of our sins, our moral failures, and our inability to keep the 10 Commandments.  He has paid our debt in full.  

And that becomes a reality through the new birth.  Let’s come back to that truth right now as we celebrate communion.


Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?