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So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods which were in their possession and all their earrings which were in their ears, and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem. — Genesis 35:4

Banishing the Idols

In this passage Jacob has his family destroy all the household idols. From now on, they will worship the Lord alone and no graven images. The second commandment prohibits graven images. It is, in essence, a command for intolerance. This is a strange-sounding command in our time, when tolerance has been elevated to a virtue.

Ancient Idols

One thing the Old Testament made very plain is that it has no use for any such thoughts as these. God is not tolerant of other gods or other religions, and He has not told us that we are to worship Him according to the dictates of our own hearts. We are to worship Him according to the dictates of His own will as they are revealed in His Word. What God wants us to do is what He has told us to do—only that and nothing else.

We live in a time when we are supposed to be tolerant of every sort of false religion. The Hebrew prophets were not tolerant. They condemned false religions as spiritual whoredom. If we are going to develop a lasting civilization, it must be on the basis of belief in the true God and His will for us. I don’t mean an intolerance that will lead to an inquisition. I mean an intolerance that refuses to accept error as truth—an intolerance that is willing to stand up and proclaim the truth, even in the midst of opposition. This must be done in love, and also with character and with strength.

This commandment was the first of the Ten Commandments to be broken. It is the commandment most frequently repeated in Scripture. God says in this commandment that those who break it hate Him and that the consequences and punishment of their transgression will be passed down to their children and their children’s children to the third and fourth generation.

The commandment didn’t end with the New Testament. Go all the way to the end of the first century to the oldest of the apostles. All of the other apostles had gone to be with Christ in paradise, and there was left only that one solitary figure—that ancient one who had laid his head upon the breast of Jesus—the sainted John. From the pinnacle of his age, he looks down, and in the last words of his great epistle he says, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).

Idolatry Runs Deep

It seems that the tendency to idolatry lies deep in the human spirit. It is a dark stream that flows dangerously in the cold subterranean caverns of the fallen soul. Over it, the ice is thin, and warnings are found throughout Scripture: “Danger. Thin Ice.” For man is always about, it seems, to break through that “ice” and plunge down into the black torrent to be carried away and over the precipice into the abyss. Therefore, the Scriptures ring with warnings and denunciations of idolatry.

Poets and prophets, preachers and apostles together pursue every form of idolatry with a burning storm of indignation, irony, and rage. So serious is this sin in the lives of men that even under the burning crags of Sinai, before the words of the Ten Commandments had settled in the stone, the people of Israel committed spiritual whoredom in Horeb (Mount Sinai) and worshipped an idol right beneath the face of Jehovah.

Jeroboam doubled the sin in Bethel and Dan, creating two calves for the people to worship. From Solomon to Zedekiah, throughout the Old Testament, the people of Israel pursued their idols unto the high places and brought down upon themselves the increasing wrath of God until, at last, Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian hordes came, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, and carried the people away, captive, into Babylon. It was there in the burning furnace of Babylon that the last dross of idolatry was finally and permanently burned away.

Yet there arose a more subtle form of idolatry—the idols of the mind. The Pharisees and others, with the mental idols they had created, killed the Lord of life. So it is until our day that idolatry has continued in every pagan land, even intruding into Christian worship.

The first commandment bids us to worship the true God exclusively; the second commandment bids us to worship that God spiritually. The first commandment forbids the worshipping of false gods; the second commandment forbids the worshipping of the true God under any visible form whatsoever. Note this: the second commandment not only forbids the worshipping of idols, but it also forbids the worshipping of the true God through an idol or an image of any sort.

The people of Israel at Sinai were not worshipping a golden calf; they were worshipping God through the golden calf. After fashioning that golden calf, Aaron later excused himself by saying, “I threw it into the fire, and this calf came out” (Exodus 32:24). What a maker of excuses. What did he say after fashioning that calf and building an altar for it? Did he say, “Tomorrow is a feast unto the golden calf ”? No, he did not. “Aaron… said, ‘Tomorrow will be a feast to the Lord.’ So they rose up early on the next day, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play” (Exodus 32:5–6). The worship was the worship of the true God…through the image.

Therefore, God is not to be worshipped by any visible form, whether it be a picture or painting or idol of any sort, whether it be through men or saints or angels of any kind. In the Book of Revelation we read where John knelt before an angel, who said, “See that you not do that. For I am your fellow servant, and of your brothers the prophets, and of those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (Revelation 22:9). We are to worship God spiritually, without recourse to any idol whatsoever.