Exodus 20: The lure of idols

It’s natural for us to think of God transcending time and space without limits. But much of the world throughout history has pictured its gods as being very local. This is the essence of paganism. The pagan gods were not universal but “lived” nearby and acted in that “neighborhood.” An idol, then, made sense as the embodiment or home of that local god.


But Jehovah comes down out of heaven to the top of Mt. Sinai and demonstrates that the true God is a transcendent, universal God, God of heaven and earth, without limits.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.” Exodus 20:22-23

The Israelites are barely two months into their forty year journey to the Promised Land. God has just given them the Ten Commandments, spelling out the basics of their relationship with God and with people. One of the commandments prohibits idol worship, and before you say “that’s not one I have trouble with,” notice that God comes to the people immediately and reiterates his command to make no idols. I think he is telling them, “you’ve seen the real thing, breaking through with great power from heaven to earth. How then can you go on believing in a puny idol made by your own hands?”

Within a few weeks the people will have wantonly ignored the command and constructed a golden idol. There is great attraction in idol worship which we should not underestimate. Our idols share these characteristics with the pagan idols:

  • they seem precious (golden)
  • they are human creations
  • they have no power of their own
  • they are not transcendent but fixed in time and space
  • we worship them by devoting time, energy, and money to them

Modern idols tend to be the same things that cause us to sin: possessions, pleasure, power or prestige. We idolize our money, cars, boats and homes. We worship food, drugs, and sex. We devote ourselves to our work if it brings us status and pride. In all these pursuits, we are saying “I’ve found something better than you, God.” But all these other things we worship are powerless to save us. In the end they will disappoint us.

Spiritual pride is the illusion that you are competent to run your own life, achieve your own sense of self worth, and find a purpose big enough to give you meaning in life without God. — Tim Keller

Idolatry is worshipping anything that ought to be used, or using anything that is meant to be worshipped. — St. Augustine

To have a faith, therefore, or a trust in any thing, where God hath not promised, is plain idolatry, and a worshipping of thine own imagination instead of God. — William Tyndale

Self-righteousness is the largest idol of the human heart – the idol which man loves most and God hates most. Dearly beloved, you will always be going back to this idol. You are always trying to be something in yourself, to gain God’s favour by thinking little of your sin, or by looking to your repentance, tears, prayers ; or by looking to your religious exercises, your frames, etc; or by looking to your graces, the Spirit’s work in your heart. Beware of false Christs. Study sanctification to the utmost, but make not a Christ of it. — Robert Murray McCheyne

False gods patiently endure the existence of other false gods. Dagon can stand with Bel, and Bel with Ashtaroth; how should stone, and wood, and silver, be moved to indignation; but because God is the only living and true God, Dagon must fall before His ark; Bel must be broken, and Ashtaroth must be consumed with fire. — Charles Spurgeon

There is nothing so abominable in the eyes of God and of men as idolatry, whereby men render to the creature that honor which is due only to the Creator. — Blaise Pascal


4 thoughts on “Exodus 20: The lure of idols

  1. “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Is this a separate commandment, or a deeper expression of “You shall have no other gods before me”? Are statues of angels and Jesus in church a bad thing? Or is it merely the worshiping of an idol that is forbidden? The answer may come just five chapters later: “And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat.
    Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end.” This would seem to suggest that the ban is not against the images themselves, but on the worshiping of idols.

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