The Power of Modern Idolatry

(1st of the Ten Commandments)

By Harold S. Martin

A Bible Helps Booklet No. 218

Nearly 3,500 years ago, God gave the Ten Commandments. The Israelites were camped at the foot of Mount Sinai and Moses had ascended the mountain to receive God's message (Exodus 19:3). The Lord God came down upon the mountain in fire, and then in the midst of thundering and lightning and smoke and an earthquake - He clearly announced what we know as the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments are the essence of God's moral law. They are God's rules for life; they are His standards of conduct; they spell out in a very concise way what sin really is. Thus the Ten Commandments are an index by which human beings can discern between what is good and what is evil.

Today the Gospel has displaced the Law. We are not under law but under grace. Why then study the Ten Commandments? The Apostle Paul answers the question in Romans 3:31 when he says, "Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid. Yea we establish the law." Jesus said, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets; I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17).

The Law is without power to save. It cannot give a right standing with God. But it has a lawful use. It reveals sin and makes sin appear exceedingly sinful. It was given that "every mouth may be stopped and all the world may become guilty before God" (Romans 3:19). As a person looks into these laws (the Ten Commandments), he says, "I am guilty of this and I am guilty of that" - and seeing his guilt - he then says, "I must do something about it." And thus the law becomes a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). It shows us that we are sinful and that we need the cleansing blood of Jesus.

The First Commandment contains a revelation of the being of God. God says, "I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:2-3). The First Commandment asserts boldly the reality of God ("I am the Lord"), and that God is a person who is deeply interested in our daily welfare ("I brought you out of the land of Egypt").

In the Bible we have a revelation of who God is. God revealed himself to His people. He says, "I am the Lord thy God." The Hebrew word is "Jehovah," a word that means "eternal" and "self-existent." God says, "I am the supreme, eternal, self-existent God - the giver and sustainer of life." God is the ever acting, eternal I AM-the one who evermore will be, the one who always was, and the one who is now. God is not like human beings who are subject to death. Each generation of human beings appears and then disappears in the past-but God stands beyond the passing of time. He is the eternal I AM. He never ceases to function.

Since God is the great eternal, ever-acting I AM, He must become the one object of our worship. Our affection must not be divided between God and someone (or some thing) else. The First Commandment requires that we have a love for God stronger than all other affections. We are to worship no other gods as substitutes for the Lord God Jehovah of the Bible. God must be supreme. He will not permit any rival gods. In other words, the First Commandment is an admonition against idolatry. You shall have no other gods "before" Me (beside Me, in addition to Me).

To substitute some person or some object in the place of God is the essence of idolatry. For some - it is gold; for others - it is fashion; for still others - it is fame, intellect, public opinion, superstition, and a host of other things. To some men, every great power in nature is a god. They see the sun shining and feel its heat, and see it chase the darkness out of the sky every morning, and say, "Surely the sun must be a god." Others make idols of wood and stone fashioned according to the strange imaginations of their unregenerate minds. The god Moloch was an immense fearful looking monster with a huge red mouth. One of the goddesses of the Indians is a huge statue with a necklace of human skulls around her neck. The Greeks had 30,000 gods and goddesses, and then fearing lest they might miss one god, they erected a statue to "the unknown god." In our society idolatry is not so much a matter of making gods of wood and stone. We tend to worship gods of chrome and steel and glass (automobiles, houses, antiques, 31-inch color screens, etc.). Our generation is steeped in idolatry - only it is a respectable idolatry, instead of a heathen idolatry. It is a polished form of idolatry instead of a crude form.

The Bible always condemns idolatry. In the Old Testament, Isaiah speaks with laughter about the man who takes a block of wood and with part of it he heats his house; with another part of it he cooks his dinner; and with still another part of the same block of wood he makes a god (Isaiah 44:9-20). In the New Testament we read, "Be not deceived, neither fornicators nor idolaters . . . shall inherit the kingdom of God" (I Corinthians 6:9). The Apostle John says, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (I John 5:21). Our "idol" is that to which we give our time, our strength, our finances, and our obedience. There are a number of forms of present-day idolatry.

1. One Can Make Money and Material Things His God

A story in one of the McGuffy's Readers tells of a miser who had a secret basement where he had hoarded large sums of silver and gold. He came often to look over the money and to run his bony fingers through the coins - but one day a strong wind blew the door to his secret basement shut. A spring-lock (that could be turned only from the outside) fastened the door. The miser was shut in with his gold and his god. Years later, when the old house was being torn down, some men came across his skeleton stretched out over the silver and gold. He had made money his god and the god had finally destroyed him.

One of the most prominent forms of idolatry is preoccupation with material things. Idolatry is not necessarily "having" things, but "preoccupation with" things. Perhaps this material preoccupation is a most common sin at Christmas time. There is not much true worship of Christ in many homes when the Christmas holidays roll around. At no other time of the year does "the love of things" so completely occupy the minds of so many people. Stores become crowded. People go on wild shopping sprees. Merchants say that fully one-fourth of their total sales of watches and sporting goods and music supplies (and a host of other things) are made in the months of November and December. This is just one example of the idolatry that centers around materialism in our generation.

Of course, none of us worships a golden calf like Israel did. None of that pagan stuff for us! Forget the calf-but hang on to the gold (or sometimes in our society we call it "that green stuff"). The idol for us can be the automobile that speeds us away from the church services - or the boat at the lake or the Sunday newspaper or the television set or dozens of other things. Money which is earned honestly and used wisely can bring untold blessing, but when we feel we can buy almost anything we want - we seem to lose something. We lose a sense of gratitude and a sense of dependence upon God. That is why the Lord gave us the principle of stewardship. That is why He says "It is more blessed to give than to receive."

2. One Can Make His Family and His Children His God

A few years ago, newspapers across the country carried the heart-breaking story of a 46-year-old man who fatally shot himself in a telephone booth. In his pocket they found a child's crayon drawing. On it was written (in the father's handwriting) "Please let this drawing in my coat pocket; I want it to be buried with me." The drawing was signed in childish print by his little daughter who had perished in a fire that had burned their apartment not too many months before. After her death, the father seemed to have nothing further to live for. He had several plaques erected in memory of the little girl at the school where she had attended. He said, "Maybe in ten or twenty years, someone will see one of these plaques and will wonder who Shirley Lee was, and perhaps they will say, 'Someone must have loved her very dearly."'

Surely we can sympathize with this heart-broken father. Many of us have little girls too. But there is no doubt that he loved his child too much and his God too little. He had made his 9 year old daughter the center of his existence. He had attached life's meaning and purpose to a flesh-and-blood creature like himself. And every one of us is susceptible to this same kind of idolatry. True - we don't bow down before some repulsive image and worship it, but within each one of us there is a tendency to make something less than God the object of our affections.

3. One Can Make Pleasure and Having A Good Time His God

Paul spoke of those who are "lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God" (II Timothy 3:4). The American way of life is geared to the idea of pleasure. Maybe it is a sports car or a poker game or a golf course or a corner tavern. Anything that gives a charge; anything that at least temporarily satisfies the cravings for pleasure - these are the things to which many people give themselves. They are convinced that they cannot live without them.

Some say, "I'm only going to live once, so I may as well have a good time." The trouble is that pleasures satisfy for only a short time and then the same old empty, hollow feeling comes back. Like the couple who quarreled about riding the merry-go-round - he wanted to ride the vehicle; she didn't. Finally he rode it alone. When it stopped, and he stepped off, she said: "See - you spent the money; you got off where you got on; and you haven't been anywhere!" That's how it is with pleasures.

There is of course a place for recreation and leisure, and it is true that "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" - but all play and no work can make one an idolater too. Some get enthused about sports and forget everything else. It is not unusual for more than 50,000 people to cram into a stadium and watch a football game on a Sunday afternoon (in just one city). Others get wrapped up in hunting and fishing to the point that more money and time is spent on these ventures than is given to the Lord's work. What is it that claims your affections? What is it to which you have given your time and energies and loyalties?

4. One Can Make Magic and Superstition His God

Superstition is not decreasing in our day of enlightenment and education. Alarmingly enough it is on the increase. Take for example the number 13. Most hotels don't have a thirteenth floor. Major airlines do not have a row of seats on the airplane that is numbered thirteen. Many athletes refuse to wear the number thirteen on their uniforms. Buried somewhere in the spirit of modern man is the old superstition that holds the number thirteen to be a very unlucky number. The dictionary has a name for it-it is called "triskaidecaphobia"-a fear of the number 13.

There are many other superstitions that grip human beings today, including strange ideas about four-leaf clovers, broken mirrors, horseshoes, and even black cats! All of these come under the broad umbrella of superstition and magic. There are thousands of people who cross their fingers, watch their horoscopes, and carry charms in their pockets. Even some astronauts (who sup-posedly are cool scientific people) carry good-luck charms with them out into space. What is wrong with all this? Underlying the belief in superstition is the suggestion that there are supernatural forces (other than God) at work in one's life. Superstitious beliefs actually imply that God is not in control of all that happens, and thus it is idolatry to hold on to a superstitious belief. Every time we engage in a superstitious action, we dishonor God by denying that He holds the whole world in His hands.

5. One Can Make Science and Scientific Progress His God

In almost every field of scientific research, tremendous strides have been made within recent years. Science has made some real contributions toward human progress. For example in 1910 an automotive journal advised tourists who planned to make a trip from Chicago to New York by automobile, to prepare adequately, and to take the following equipment:

  1. cans of oil
  2. plenty of rope
  3. a block and tackle
  4. a supply of innertubes
  5. a coil of copper wire
  6. a bottle of kerosene (to remove carbon from cylinders)
  7. a varied supply of bolts and nuts
  8. a pail for carrying radiator water
  9. at least two spark plugs
  10. a tire pump
  11. a soldering iron
  12. a can of grease

Science has made some real contributions in the realm of travel, and likely it is going to accomplish some still greater things in the future. But science has never been able to cope with man's real problem. Science cannot keep men from sinning and from dying. Thus we must not put too much confidence in science and education. As long as people keep on sinning and as long as we keep on dying, science cannot be of permanent help to us. And thus while many people worship man and his accomplishments, the disciple of Jesus Christ must be careful to give credit to God and His greatness.

We have mentioned just a few of the present-day gods, each of which can make us an idolater. No list of false gods is ever complete. Men may worship their children, their businesses, their fields; some worship cows, serpents, beetles, and crocodiles. The average worldling worships heroes-movie stars, athletes, entertainers, beauty queens, etc.

Idolatry has always been a sin that plagued mankind. The forefathers of Abraham worshiped idols. The children of Israel were surrounded by Assyrians and Canaanites and thus were constantly exposed to all kinds of idolatry. In our day millions worship idols of all descriptions - from those who bow down before the sun, moon, and stars-to the more polished forms of idolatry that surround us. Each one of us needs to make an inspection tour of his own life. And we need to throw out any false gods that we may find there. We must ask God for help (like the hymnwriter says): "To break down every idol" and "to cast out every foe." I know that most Bible Helps readers go to church services and say their prayers and give some money to worthwhile causes - but is there something less than God that becomes the center of your affections? The First Commandment says we dare not divide our affections between the true God and some false idol. The First Commandment is still first! "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

If you have come to see the sinfulness and deceitfulness of your heart today; if you realize that apart from the love and mercy of God you can never be saved then keep in mind that Jesus "tasted death" for every person (Hebrews 2:9); He died for you; He is our only Refuge from the wrath of God; if you have never done it, let Him enter your heart today (Revelation 3:20).

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Robert Lehigh, Editor

P. O. Box 391

Hanover, PA 17331 U.S.A.

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