There is no third option between worshipping and trusting God and idolatry. We will either worship the uncreated God or we will worship some created thing be it something we’ve produced from our own imaginings, our own effort or the stars in the night sky – something of creation. There is no possibility of our worshipping nothing. The Apostle Paul says we turn to idols because we want to control our lives. Our control strategy is to set our hearts on created things and build our lives around them. What ever we worship, we serve. Worship and service are always inextricably bound together. Either we will look to God or to something else to make us feel significant and secure. It may be success, romance, popularity, status or beauty. We will either look to God or we will look to some substitute like the state, a free market economy, the elites, science and technology, military might, racial pride, reason or even religion.
These few verses of Deuteronomy 4 have some interesting ideas buried within them. They become especially relevant for us when we consciously disconnect them from the history of a people and reconnect them to our own life.
Deuteronomy 4: So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. 2You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.
6You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
9But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children—
To really connect them with our own lives we have to get a handle on the context out of which they come. To do that we have to back up to the end of chapter 3: where this all begins. Moses tells the people. : I entreated the Lord, saying: 24“O Lord God, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your might; what god in heaven or on earth can perform deeds and mighty acts like yours! 25Let me cross over to see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon.” 26But the Lord was angry with me on your account and would not heed me. The Lord said to me, “Enough from you! Never speak to me of this matter again! 27Go up to the top of Pisgah and look around you to the west, to the north, to the south, and to the east. Look well, for you shall not cross over this Jordan. 28But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, because it is he who shall cross over at the head of this people and who shall secure their possession of the land that you will see.”
As it soaks in that he won’t be leading Israel into the promised land Moses prepares to instruct the survivors of the wilderness journey on the statutes and ordinances, the rules and commandments, given to him by God which they will need to survive entering and occupying the land of promise. After a prologue the lesson itself begins at verse ten and runs through verse 40. Moses retells the story of how God had spoken his words to their ancestors, which were the words of a covenant, the words that were then engraved on stone tablets, the ten commandments. So, were you in Moses position which one of the ten commandments would you emphasize?
I was surprised that what Moses feared would be the greatest challenge to Israel’s integrity was the temptation to make idols. In verse 15 Moses says: “take care and watch yourselves closely, 16so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure—the likeness of male or female, 17the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. 19And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples everywhere under heaven.
He comes back to it again in the 23rd verse:
23So be careful not to forget the covenant that the Lord your God made with you, and not to make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything that the Lord your God has forbidden you. 24For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God. 25When you have had children and children’s children, and become complacent in the land, if you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything, thus doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and provoking him to anger, 26I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed.
Tradition has supported the notion that the reason for God denying Moses entry into the promised land was for striking the rock rather than speaking to the rock to release life sustaining water in the desert. This context suggests something quite different. What was it that God said to Moses’ request to see the land on the other side of the Jordan? Moses said: the Lord was angry with me on your account and would not heed me” ‘angry with me on your account…” I think that Moses’ obsession with idolatry may go back to when he was up on the Mountain receiving the tablets and the people crafted a golden calf – an idol.
Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York suggested that while there are many themes in scripture one main way to understand the scope of the Bible is to see it as an age long struggle between true faith and idolatry. Humanity was created to worship God and be stewards of the rest of creation. He points to Romans 1:21-25 were Paul wants his readers to understand how humanity worshipped and served created things rather than the creator. Instead of living for God we begin to live for ourselves, our work, our possessions which reversed the original intended order. The result has been that the created things came to rule over us. From the very beginning of the Genesis we are told that consequence of idolatry is slavery and death.
There is no third option between worshipping and trusting God and idolatry. We will either worship the uncreated God or we will worship some created thing be it something we’ve produced from our own imaginings, our own effort or the stars in the night sky – something of creation. There is no possibility of our worshipping nothing. Paul’s passage isn’t just about gentile pagans, it is an analysis of what sin is and how it works. Paul says we turn to idols because we want to control our lives. Our control strategy is to set our hearts on created things and build our lives around them. What ever we worship, we serve. Worship and service are always inextricably bound together.
Either we will look to God or to something else to make us feel significant and secure. It may be success, romance, popularity, status or beauty. We will either look to God or we will look to some substitute like the state, a free market economy, the elites, science and technology, military might, racial pride, reason or even religion.
Martin Luther in his exposition on the Ten Commandments says that the fundamental problem in law-breaking is always idolatry. According to Luther we never break the other commandments without first breaking the law against idolatry. We tend to define sin as breaking God’s law and properly explained that’s probably sufficient. But the Law of God is subject to being broken by sins of attitudes of the heart as well as behavior and of both commission and omission. Sin isn’t just doing bad things it is more about turning good things into ultimate things. It is building our life on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Sin is idolatry. That is a more sufficient definition than breaking the Law of God.
Today people are very aware that much harm has been done by self-righteous people. This applies to the pharisaical person, fastidious in keeping the moral law and who seem to be the very essence of what a follower of Christ should be if their life is built on following the rules rather than in trusting God. Can religion and law-keeping become another idol? As Luther points out, Pharisees, while not bowing to literal idols, were looking to themselves and their moral goodness for their justification, and therefore they were actually breaking the first commandment. Their morality was self-justifying motivation and therefore spiritually pathological. At the bottom of all their law-keeping they were actually breaking the most fundamental law of all.
Soren Kierkegaard defined sin as building one’s identity, self worth and happiness, on anything other than God. That’s idolatry and it leads to driven-ness, addictions, anxiety, obsessive-ness, envy and resentment. Something becomes an idol when we give it the love we should be giving to our Creator and Sustainer. In her memoir, Darcey Steinke recounts how she, the daughter of a Lutheran minister, left her Christian profession, moved to New York and entered a life of club hopping and sexual obsession. She wrote several novels. She continued, however, to be extremely restless and unfulfilled. In the middle of the book she employs a quote from Simone Weill to summarize the main issue in her life. “One has only the choice between God and idolatry,” Weil wrote. “If one denies God … one is worshiping some things of this world in the belief that one sees them only as such, but in fact, though unknown to oneself imagining the attributes of Divinity in them”.
Now this passage isn’t without some carrots to go with the stick. In the middle of the catastrophe brought on by their dabbling with idols Moses says:
29From there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul. 30In your distress, when all these things have happened to you in time to come, you will return to the Lord your God and heed him. 31Because the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them.
With that promise in mind it’s helpful to see what it is that Moses prescribes as an antidote for idolatry. The first, keep the commandments in mind and observe them. Second, remember that the land of promise that you are entering and occupying is a gift. You haven’t earned it, by your military prowess you didn’t secure it. God gave it to you. Third, … take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children—
This passage of Deuteronomy is applicable to our spiritual lives. We are called to not build our lives on substitutes for God. We are reminded that our very life is a gift and we are charged with sharing with the generation coming after us how God has worked in our lives and in the lives of those who have gone before us.