The Lord’s doesn’t want us to have other gods. And of course, why would we want to? There’s only one Creator. And there’s only one who has loved us as sinners and set us free to be his people.
However, the matter of coming to the Lord can be tricky. Trusting in the Lord—alone—doesn’t come naturally. The next three commands spell out what it means to have him alone as God.
This second command talks about idols. ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…’ (Exodus 20:4-5).
If the first command is about guarding our heart, this one is about guarding our hands because the Lord is speaking about something we make.
Worship may be tricky because we can’t see God and we like to deal with things we can see and handle and control. As one lady said to me, ‘I like to have God with skin on!’
But here, the Lord tells us not to put something in between him and us—something that represents him but isn’t him.
Israel has a problem with this. They have heard the Lord speak to them from Mount Sinai, but they would prefer just to hear from Moses. They can see him, argue with him, oppose him. On the other hand, when the Lord himself comes near, they can see fire and smoke and hear thunder. But there’s nothing they can get their hands on. They don’t like something so ‘out there’ and ask for it to stop (Exodus 20:18-21).
Then, when Moses returns to the mountain to get the ‘hard copy’ of the commandments, engraved in stone, they feel they are out in the wilderness with nobody to lead them. They want something tangible to trust. So, the Priest, Aaron, makes an image, a golden calf. The people dance around it, and say, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt’ (Exodus 32:4). They break the second commandment—straight away.
So, do we need something visible so we can come to God? Moses says no: ‘… the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets’ (Deuteronomy 4:12-13). God is spirit. He can’t be pinned down to something we can make, or manage!
To worship the Lord truly, we need to be listening and responding to what he says. This is how he gives himself to us and how he gives us a way of coming to him.
Making an idol to represent or replace the Lord is a way of keeping the Lord at a distance. We are on the way to shaping God according to our image, instead of him forming us according to his image.
The Lord tells us he is ‘jealous’ about this. He will make sure we know him as he is and not as something less. Whatever we make is going to be less than the Lord, different to who the Lord is, and have no power or goodness or capacity to love. The Lord will not stand by and let us do that!
How does this work out now? Clearly, we have hands—and minds and skills and artistry—that we should use to worship the lord. Beautiful music, careful thinking, hard work and loving action are all part of our worship of the Lord. This is loving the Lord with all our heart and soul.
But what we do and make is a witness to the Lord, not the Lord. Only Jesus can be the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Hebrews 1:3). And we are being transformed into that image, but only because it is the Lord who is doing it (2 Corinthians 3:18).
We guard against false worship by hearing what the Lord is saying to us and by responding to him. We guard against false worship by making it our first duty each day to have our ‘soul happy in God’. (This was what George Muller’s decided.) If we don’t do this, what we do may become a replacement for a real relationship with the Lord.
What are you thinking about when you serve the Lord? Is it him? Or is it something you do for him—something you can understand and manage? It may be how well you are doing as a Christian. How we are living matters a lot, but it isn’t the Lord. It may be what you are responsible for at Church. That could be important, but it isn’t the Lord. It could be how well you know the Bible. That is important, but it isn’t the Lord. It might be the needs of others. This is important too, but it isn’t the Lord.
Your idol may be how you feel about God. If your feelings have been produced by the Lord, that would be true worship. But then, they may be something you are producing. That is an idol and the Lord would not want to be identified by anything you or I produce. He is jealous of who he is, and of how we are thinking about him.
We are great at making idols and dancing around them—just like Israel. And then we begin to argue about which idols are the most important!
So, what should true worship look like? Here’s a few pointers.
First, it will be real. A Samaritan lady asks Jesus if people should worship in Samaria or Jerusalem. He says, ‘…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipper must worship in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23-24). True worship is love—for the Lord.
Second, it will be eagerness to hear God’s word—and about Jesus Christ in particular. Jesus tells the Samaritan lady that the time for true worship has come because he has come. So true worship gathers around Jesus Christ—who is God’s Word. We will want to hear what God has done, what he has promised and how we may share in his salvation.
Third, it will be asking how we can build up others in faith, hope and love. God has made his church a witness to his presence—an actual house of God. Paul envisages that if we are together, hearing and loving God’s word, someone may recognise that the Lord is among us (1 Corinthians 14:23-25).
I began by saying that we need to guard our hands—that is, all the things we are capable of doing. If what we can do is our focus, it doesn’t represent the Lord any more. It has replaced him. The Lord is jealous. That is, he protects what he loves. He doesn’t want us playing make-believe!