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Slippery Slopes to Sin
N°5. Lessons from Deuteronomy.
"You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments."
If you want to understand the Bible properly you must understand what its attitude is towards history. Throughout, the Bible maintains that history is important and has something important to teach us.
The Book of Ecclesiastes indicates just why this is the case:
Eccl.1:9 "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun."
Yes, the circumstances may change (and do change) but the fundamental underlying realities remain largely unaltered. For example: men have fought and threatened one another from the earliest times. The human desire to attack an enemy (or to defend oneself against that enemy) has simply expressed itself in different ways at different periods -
At the same time God is recognised as being unchanging – and that means that he is the same as he ever was. And so the God that we relate to is the same God who spoke to Adam, to Abraham, to Moses, to David etc. The way he dealt with all the folk in the Bible shows us how he will deal with us too. The apostle Paul in the NT made this clear in his letter to the church in Rome:
Rom.15:4 "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope."
Centuries earlier Moses already knew the truthfulness of these things firmly believing that there were lessons to be learnt from history. So in the Book of Deuteronomy we find not only an extensive review of the Ten Commandments but also a fresh retelling of the teachings and events which he had already recorded in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.
As Moses considered the past, two distinct but related emphases can be observed:
the astonishing goodness and faithfulness of the LORD along with his gracious interventions in the life of his wayward people
the very waywardness of this people. Israel’s sins and failures were not glossed over nor were they air-
The LORD’s choice of Israel to be his particular people was based uniquely upon his free and sovereign will – it had absolutely nothing to do with any merit in the people themselves. The love that so freely chose expected an appropriate response and just what that response was to be was developed throughout the book. God expected his people to:
demonstrate a heart-
obey his instructions
refuse to imitate or ape the religious practices of other nations however appealing such practices might appear
Israel did not do well. Again and again the Book of Deuteronomy returns to the related ideas of gods and idols. It is the sin of idolatry.
Idolatry and Jealousy
Let’s begin with a definition:
"Idolatry is the worship of an idol or a physical object as a representation of a god."
In ch.9 Moses reminds the people of an incident in their history where they had been guilty of just such behavior. You’ll remember the details I’m sure: Moses had gone up onto the mountain to meet with God and he stayed there for a long time (40 days and 40 nights). How the time dragged for those left down below! And some soon began to complain. They moaned about Moses who seemed to have disappeared and they wanted some ‘gods’ they could see.
It doesn’t matter whether the idol represents a false god or the One True Living God – all forms of idolatry are condemned in the Bible. There is a close link between the first two commands in the 10 Commandments: one calls for the worship of the One True Living God alone and the second outlaws the making of idols whether of this God or of any other.
The importance of this matter is made clear to us by the very place these commands occupy at the head of the list of commandments. Let me remind you of just what is said:
Their importance is further underlined by reference to:
The LORD’s jealousy
The consequences of committing this sin
Looking through the Book of Deuteronomy it is sobering to note just how often these twin ideas of jealousy and consequences are mentioned together in contexts where God’s people turn aside and are not careful to follow the LORD’s clear instructions.
Idolatry was a common enough practice amongst the pagan nations that surrounded Israel. It was common practice too for those peoples who lived in the Promised Land before Israel conquered the land under Joshua. The first warnings against resorting to this practice of idolatry are to be found in ch.4 (before the rereading of the Law in ch.5). This is what we find:
That last sentence was taken up by the writer to the Hebrews who quoted it in Heb.12:29 where the context is about how Christians are to offer acceptable worship. This fact alone should make us realise that these lessons in the book of Deuteronomy are relevant for us as Christians today.
The nations surrounding Israel were going to pose a threat to the purity of Israel’s own religious life and practice and so Israel needed to be warned of the perils. Again the LORD’s jealousy and the consequences of offending him form part of the warning Israel needed to hear:
In ch.19 the ceremony of the Covenant Renewal that took place in Moab is described along with the terms of the covenant. The idolatry of the surrounding nations was something that Israel had observed. Now they were being reminded of just how serious it was to abandon the LORD to serve the gods of these nations. Once more it is underlined that it is possible to provoke the LORD to jealousy and when his anger is stirred there inevitable negative consequences for those responsible:
Finally in the Song of Moses found in ch.32 we find the following lines:
Deut.32:21 "They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols."
We are so used to thinking of jealousy in negative terms that we may struggle to understand jealousy as a virtue. After all so much of the human jealousy we observe is very negative indeed. But jealousy is not a fault when properly exercised. When God is said to be jealous it does not mean that he is envious of someone else who has something he wants or needs. No, God is jealous when someone gives what is rightfully his (that is, something that belongs to God) to another who does not deserve it. Worship is due to God and to God alone – the giving of what is rightfully God’s to another does and must provoke jealousy and when he is thus provoked there will be sorry consequences.
Even human jealousy which is often soured by needless suspicion and a desire to control can be exercised in a positive fashion. As a husband I would be right to be jealous were I see another man flirting seriously with my wife. I alone have the right to flirt with my wife for we are pledged to each other but I do not need to assume that the moment my back is turned external marital flirting will take place. I don’t need to let my life be destroyed by suspicion and I certainly don’t have to cloister my wife because of my unreasonable fears!
We don’t have to be ashamed of God’s jealousy and we certainly don’t need to apologise for it – it is an entirely good and noble thing!
Idolatry in the 21 st Century
So Israel had been seriously warned about the sin of idolatry.
It was a real possibility – people like what they can see
It was a real temptation – plenty of others were practising it
It was not in harmony with their spiritual experience – they had seen no form of God when he had met with them at Horeb
It led to the people having wrong views of the One True Living God and even tempted them to serve other non-
It provoked the LORD’s jealousy and led to negative consequences for his people
Similar temptations exist for the Christian still today. And what a range of things we need to be aware of!
Crucifixes on the wall or other religious artefacts and pictures with the associated temptation to look in their direction when we pray or worship – little by little we can come to associate one room of our home and even one particular corner of the room as being where God somehow is in a special way.
All such things tend to limit our understanding of an infinite God who is Spirit and who desires to be worshipped in spirit and in truth.
And of course in our day we can always find someone who is doing it and trumpeting the help they find. There are those who claim to be Christian and yet who sit very light to the teachings of the Bible and little by little we begin to wonder if there really is anything that bad in some of these practices. Psychologists with no interest in or respect for Scripture try to tell us that the visual is really helpful and they point to secular studies about learning and they talk about how advertising works and of course we’ve all heard the words of the song "a picture paints a thousand words" and we’re tempted to pander to our senses and before we know it we’re on the road to idolatry.
We perhaps are more exposed than ever before to other religions and their practices and some of their beliefs and practices may appear only a little different to traditional Christian ones and novelty always seems to draw us in – before long we could be taking on board their ideas and adopting their doctrines as perhaps adding to our understanding of just who God really is. And we’re led off to worship the True God in false ways and even to stop worshipping the True God altogether substituting some pick and mix alternative for him.
Under the influence perhaps of the society in which we find ourselves and from whose ideas we not immune we may begin to be selective concerning which truths we emphasise when it comes to God. Our world is content to hear about a God of love who forgives and orgives our every foible but reacts in an altogether different manner when God is declared to be holy, and just , a God who is unashamed to rule and reign over the lives of men and women and who will not only hold them to account but judge them too.
Beware when you find yourself beginning to pass quickly over certain truths that are clearly revealed about the LORD God. Beware when you find yourself saying or thinking something along the lines of:
"I like to think of God in this way..."
We need to think about the LORD God in the ways he has chosen to reveal himself and as soon as we start editing that we start to move away from God and are putting our puny vision of god in place of the real thing!
Beware too when other matters fill our lives and take over the entire direction and orientation of our very existence. These things may be legitimate in the rightful subordinate place but make very poor masters to worship:
Money, power, influence, success, celebrity status, sex, pleasure, leisure – all of these and many more dominate the lives of so many who serve at their altars. We live in the same streets as these people, we see their values on our TV screens and in our magazines and newspapers. It is so visible and so tangible that it can become so very appealing to us too.
But pursuing these will not help us in our Christian walk instead the pursuit of these things will lead us further and further away from Christ. Just because you don’t have a statue on your mantel-
These things written beforehand are meant for us and for our aid – even in the NT with the coming of the Messiah and the introduction of the Kingdom of God Christians still needed to be warned by the apostle John at the end of his long life:
"Little children," he said "Keep yourselves from idols." (1Jn.5:8)
May God help us to do so.