“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth
beneath or in the water under the earth.” — Exodus 20:4
The Second Commandment, or the Second of The Ten Best Ways, prohibits visual renderings of the Invisible, Ineffable Deity behind every burning sun and spinning planet. This stricture made the Hebrews unique among the ancient tribes ringing the Mediterranean on its southern and eastern shores beginning about 1400 B.C. when this story occurs. Every other Middle Eastern tribe painted pictures or shaped molten metal or carved statues from blocks of wood or slabs of marble as visual aids to communicate essential attributes of the invisible divinity that tribe worshiped.
And you can see how The Second Best Way put the Hebrews at a distinct theological disadvantage, right? You’re an Israelite trading merchandise with a Philistine, or on a first date with a Moabite, or having a beer at the pub with an Amalekite, and you’re getting acquainted, and though your momma taught you never to talk about religion in polite company, especially on first dates, the conversation inevitably veers in that direction, and so you start asking your Moabite date about her gods and she says, “Well, my god is Asherah; she’s the deity of fertility and procreation, and this is what she looks like.” And your date reaches into her backpack and picks out a curvy, sexy, definitely feminine figurine and you can only agree: yes that is clearly the goddess of fertility.
Or at the conference table in your office your Amalekite business customer says, “My god is Baal, and he is the god of storm and rain and crops.” And your customer shows you a virile, muscular, very masculine statue with six-pack abs, and you can get a visual image of what the god Baal looks like and acts like. “Yes,” you say to yourself, “that god, chiseled in more ways than one, would certainly make it rain and cause the crops to grow.”
And then your conversation partner turns to you and says, “So who’s your god?” And since you were raised a good little Jewish kid, you answer, “My god is Yahweh.” And your interrogator says “Wow, best name for a god I ever heard. What does it mean? Is Yahweh ‘he’ or ‘she’? What does Yahweh do? And what does Yahweh look like?” And you stumble and stammer for a moment and finally you say, “Yahweh means ‘I will be what I will be.’ Yahweh is not a he or a she. And I have no idea what Yahweh looks like. No one looks upon the face of God and lives.” And your Phoenician friend says, “I see. ‘I will be what I will be.’ Very interesting.”
So the imagelessness of God can be a distinct disadvantage; God is not available to us. The worst thing about Jewish-Christian-Muslim theology is that God cannot be imagined, and the best thing about Jewish-Christian-Muslim theology is that God cannot be imagined. The Second Commandment means to say that God cannot be painted; God cannot be carved; God cannot be captured by anything that looks created, by anything that is in the heavens above nor the earth beneath nor the waters under the earth. God cannot be seen; God cannot be understood; God cannot be had. God cannot be pinned down. God is not available to us. We can hear God’s voice, but we will never see God’s face till the end of time.
God’s essence is not imagined, invented, carved, or drawn; God’s essence is given. God has been God since before an infinitesimal singularity burst its horizon and kept filling 15 billion light years of nothingness with worlds and energies and flames. The second commandment prohibiting visual aids for God acknowledges and guards the yawning, unbridgeable chasm between humanity and divinity.
And from beginning to end the Hebrew Bible relentlessly and viciously mocks the idols of the Canaanite tribes they’re surrounded by. “How can you possibly think that something you carve with your own blade or sculpt with your own chisel could ever bless you with prosperity and protect you from evil?” asks the Hebrew Bible over and over and over again.
“Your gods are scarecrows in a cucumber field,” mocks Jeremiah. Your gods are mute, blind, breathless, lifeless, pinned down, dumb as a bag of straw, with a stick up their you-know-what, and like the scarecrow in Oz, they do not have a brain. They are utterly harmless, completely inert, fantastically benign.”
And you thought the Bible was bland and boring. Isn’t that a perfect image for an idol or graven image? Even the crows are not afraid of scarecrows, right?
The golf course where I play when I’m in Michigan during August has a Canada goose problem. It must be under a flight path from the Yukon to Mexico or wherever Canada geese winter. So they love to spend the night on my golf course.
So the greenskeeper decided that what the course needed was a latex facsimile of a coyote or a fox suspended across an iron bar to convince the geese that there was a dangerous predator lurking on our golf course.
That scarecrow, or scare-coyote, worked for about ten minutes. After that, the geese fell in love with the fake fox and cuddle up as close to it as they possibly can. The only one who’s frightened by that lifeless beast is Dudley; it scares the hell out of him for one day when we first arrive; then he figures out it’s benign and everything’s okay.
That, says the Hebrew Bible, is exactly what’s wrong with every representable, picturable god in the ancient Canaanite pantheon. They are false foxes on the fairway; they are counterfeit coyotes on the course. They are as useful as scarecrows in a cucumber field.
Well, so what, right? We are not ancient Moabites or Amalekites. We do not have graven images. We are twenty-first-century rationalists. How is this ancient commandment God’s word for us today? Good question. I’m glad you asked. Here’s how. It’s because we human beings keep placing earthly objects on heavenly thrones. We keep turning penultimacies into ultimacies, and that is the definition of idolatry. Idolatry is turning means into ends.
Idolatry is anything we unwittingly deify, so, for instance, this building is the dwelling-place of the Most High; it is where we meet God; it is a vehicle to divinity, but if gradually we start deifying the building so much that it can never be altered, then we have made a graven image. The building is a means, not an end.
The liturgy of the worship service is a vehicle to divinity for me, and, I hope, for you. The thoughtfulness we devote to it gets us closer to God, but it is NOT God, and the preacher is not an apostate when he moves the offering from one spot to another.
I love our music. It is the place and the moment in almost every week when I am closest to God. But if I start concentrating on the form and substance and performance of the music and lose sight of the God the music is meant to reveal, I have just made an idol.
Susan, I adore your pipe organ and the magic you make with it; it opens the heavens for me. But if I start saying that only Bach’s music and Susan’s pipes can ever give me a glimpse of God, I have carved a graven image and slandered His Holiness Bruce Springsteen and his splendid guitar.
The great preacher John Killinger tells the story about a church, which honored the old and traditional ways. The ushers wore morning coats and the choir wore little red hats—they must have been like a cardinal’s biretta. The church hired a new choir director. She’d never seen red hats on choristers before. At rehearsal she asked the choir why they wore red hats. No one knew why they wore red hats. Nobody wanted to wear red hats. The choir voted unanimously to ditch the red hats.
The next Sunday when the choir proceeded down the aisle to the chancel without their red hats, one of the ‘pillars’ of the church just hit the roof, and it was a long way up. On Monday morning he wrote a letter to the new choir director saying, “If you don’t bring back the red hats, I’ll have your job so fast you won’t even be able to pack a cardboard box for your office stuff.”
Idolatry is putting earthly objects on heavenly thrones, turning penultimacies into ultimacies, and means into ends. And when I put it that way, you can see why the Second Commandment is a perfect text for Stewardship Sunday, right? It’s not an accident that Aaron’s famous calf was fashioned from molten gold. Don’t let the symbolism be lost on you.
You’ve heard the phrase, right? “The Federal Government is broker than The Ten Commandments.” Isn’t it remarkable that The Second Commandment got broken before the stone tablets made it down from the summit of Mount Sinai?
Moses goes up there to talk to God and to get God’s message to the people. But he stays up there too long to suit the restless troops in the valley below; he’s up there for, like six weeks or something.
And the impatient rabble comes to Moses’ brother Aaron and says, “This Moses fellow has disappeared. We have no idea what’s happened to him; for all we know, he might be dead. God killed him probably. And anyway, we’re not so sure about this Yahweh guy. We can’t see that god. We want a god we can see and touch. We want a beautiful god.”
And for some inexplicable reason spineless Aaron complies and fashions a stunning golden god from Hebrew earrings and bracelets, and the people start genuflecting at this monstrosity, and when Moses comes down the mountain to see the shame of it all, he’s so mad he hurls the stone tablets against the face of the mountain and they smash into smithereens and that’s where the phrase comes from: broker than the Ten Commandments.
The earthly object it’s easiest for us to place on a heavenly throne is our gold, right? Martin Luther defined ‘God’ as anything your heart clings to and entrusts itself.” Anybody here feel convicted by that definition? I don’t know about you, but my heart is tempted to cling to and to entrust itself to my gold. Making a pledge to your church is one way of telling the world who is the true God.
I hope you read the eNews letter the other day by the Jordans and the Lingers. They got it just right with their opening question: “Where is your heart?” That’s a penetrating and uncomfortable question, isn’t it? Who, or what, sits on the throne of your heart? Gold? A scarecrow in a cucumber field?
Herb and Rhonda and Bruce and Laura did the math for you. Last year we had 661 pledges; the average pledge was $2,968. When you multiply those numbers you get exactly $1.96 million, which is exactly what it costs us to run this church.
By the way, diversion but point of personal privilege: when you tell us that you’re going to give us ‘X’ number of dollars, you give us exactly ‘X’ number of dollars. You have been so faithful in fulfilling your promises to this church. I have never served a congregation where the receipts are so close to the pledges. You keep your promises. I cannot tell you how much that level of respect means to the Board and the Staff.
There are 1,100 families in this congregation: I would love it if we could raise the number of pledges from 661 to 700. If we do that, the average can stay the same.
You don’t know the salary of the person sitting next to you. Well, I hope you don’t. The only salaries you know for sure are mine and Jo’s and Katie’s and your wife’s. You don’t know the salary of the person sitting next to you. But you have a general idea of where you stand in relation to everybody else. If your income is below average, give us a below average pledge. If it’s above, we would love it if you gave us an above average pledge. If you are hurting just now, or unemployed or facing unusual expenses, don’t give us anything. Someone else will compensate for you this year, and it will be your turn when you recover.
Did you know that even your dog knows if you are a generous person or not? Yeah, they did a study one time. They had puppies watch people who were approached by beggars. Some people gave money to the beggars; others told them to get lost. Later, when these folk called for the puppies, guess which people the puppies trotted over to—overwhelmingly. I never want to disappoint my dog.
William Barclay talks about this most eloquently in The Ten Commandments for Today (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 20-21.
I must have come across this story in a recorded sermon by Dr. Killinger. I don’t remember where or when. Perhaps it was unpublished.
Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, quoted by John C. Holbert in The Ten Commandments: A Preaching Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), p. 33.
Michelle Crouch, “Thirteen Things Your Dog Knows About You,” Reader’s Digest, July-August, 2015, 144.