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Exodus 20:3-6 - Homilies By D. Young

The first and seceded commandments: against polytheism and image-worship.

These two commandments seem to be bound together naturally by the reason given in Exodus 20:5 . There Jehovah says, " I am a jealous God;" obviously such a feeling of jealousy applies with as much force to the worship of other gods as to the making of graven images. Consider—

I. THE POSSIBLE TRANSGRESSION HERE INDICATED . The having of other gods than Jehovah, and the representation of them by images of created things. The declaration here is not against more gods than one. Such a declaration would have been incomprehensible to the Israelite at this time, even to Moses himself. The utter emptiness of all idolatry, the non-existence, except as the imagination of a superstitious and darkened mind, of any other Deity than Jehovah was a truth not yet appreciable by those to whom Jehovah spoke. He had to take his people as they stood, believers in the existence and power of other gods, and proclaim to them with all the impressiveness that came from the demonstrations of Sinai, that none of these gods was to be in the smallest degree recognised. An idolater in the midst of his idolatries, and not yet laid hold of by Jehovah's hand, might as well have a thousand gods as one. Jehovah speaks here to those who are already bound to himself. Have they not made their promise? Did not the people answer and say, "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do"? It was the right and dutiful course of every Israelite to worship him, serve him, and depend upon him. The great and pressing peril was that, side by side with Jehovah, the people should try to put other gods. And to have other gods meant, practically, to have images of them. How necessary and appropriate these two commandments were to come at this particular time and in this particular order, is seen when we consider the image-making into which Israel fell during the seclusion of Moses in the mount. This seems to have been the accordant act of the whole people; Aaron, who was soon to be the chief official in Jehovah's ritual, being the eager instrument to gratify their desires. Nor was this a mere passing danger to the Israelites, a something which in due time they would outgrow. The peril lies deep in the infirmities of human nature. Those whom Jehovah has brought in any measure to himself, need to be reminded that he is master. Jesus has put the thing as plain as it can be put, "No man can serve two masters." We canner serve God and Mammon. Dependence on something else than God, even though there be nothing of religious form in the dependence, is a peril into which we are all liable to come. It is hard to fight—harder than we imagine till we are fairly put to the struggle—against the allurements of the seen and temporal. Even when we admit that there is an invisible God whose claims are supreme, and whose gifts, present and future, are beyond anything that the seen in its pride and beauty can afford—even then we have the utmost difficulty in carrying our admission into practice.

II. CONSIDER IN PARTICULAR HOW THE COMMANDMENT AGAINST IMAGE - WORSHIP MAY APPLY TO US . Those who go in the way of right worship are in the way to a profitable knowledge of God. They come to be recognised by him, accepted by him, and blessed by him. Having graven images inevitably led away from Jehovah. There was no possibility of keeping the first commandment, even in the least degree, if the second even in the least degree was broken. Certainly we are under no temptation to make images, but it comes to the same thing if we have images ready made. It is conceivable that the day may come when not an image shall be left in the world, except on museum shelves, and the trade of Demetrius thus come to an end. But what of that? The change may simply be one of form. Why men should first have made images and called them gods is an impenetrable mystery. We cannot but wonder who was the first man to make an image and why he made it. But that image-making, once established, should continue and return into practice again and again in spite of all attempts to destroy it, is easy enough to understand. Habit, tradition, training, will account for everything in this way. Yet the practice of image-worship, at all events in its grossest forms, can only exist together with dense intellectual darkness. When men begin to think and question as to the foundation of things, when they get away from their mother's knee, then the simple faith in what they have been taught deserts them. There is a frequent and natural enough lamentation that those who have been taught concerning Christ in childhood, oftentimes in manhood depart from him by the way of scepticism, into utter disbelief and denial. Yet we must remember that it is exactly by this kind of process thousands in still image-worshipping lands have broken away from their image-worship. It has not satisfied the awakened and expanding intellect. There is this difference, however, that whereas the awakened intellect forsaking Christ may come back to him, and indeed actually does so oftener than we think, the awakened intellect forsaking image-worship cannot go back to it. But to something as a dependent creature he must go. A man leaving his old idolatries and not finding Christ, must needs turn to some new idolatry, none the less real as an idolatry, none the less injurious to his best interests because the image-form is absent. We must not make to ourselves anything whatever to take the place of God, intercept the sight of him, or deaden his voice. We may contradict the spirit of the second commandment, in doing things which we think profitable to the religious life and glorifying to God. A great deal that is reckoned beneficial and even indispensable in the Church of Christ, that has grown with its growth and strengthened with its strength, might come to look very questionable, if only the spirit of this commandment were exactly appreciated. How many splendid buildings, how many triumphs of the architect, how many combined results of many arts would then be utterly swept away! Men delude themselves with the notion that these things bring them nearer to God, whereas they simply take his place. In worshipping him we should regard with the utmost jealousy all mere indulgence of the senses and even of the intellect.

III. THE DIVINE REASON GIVEN FOR ATTENDING TO THESE COMMANDMENTS , Many reasons might have been given, as for instance, the vanity of graven images, their uselessness in the hour of need, the degradation in which they involved the worshippers. But God brings forward a reason which needed to be brought forward, and put in the very front place, where human thought might continually be directed to it. Polytheism and image-worship are indeed degrading and mischievous to man—but what is of far greater moment, they are also dishonouring to the glory of Deity. Those who were sliding away into the service of other gods were showing that they had no truly reverent appreciation of Jehovah; and in order to intimate the severity of his requirements with respect to exclusive and devoted service, Jehovah speaks of himself as possessing a feeling which, when found among men is like a devouring and unquenchable fire. A jealous man does well to be jealous, if he has sufficient ground for the feeling at all, if the affection, service, and sympathies that should be reserved for him are turned elsewhere. Think then of such a feeling, exalted into the pure intensity of a holy anger and bursting into action from God himself, and then you have the measure of his wrath with those who think that the glory of the incorruptible God can be changed into an image made like to corruptible man. He makes his jealousy apparent in unquestionable, deeply penetrating action. It is the action of the great I AM , who controls thousands of generations. God does, as a matter of fact, visit the iniquities of the fathers on the children, and the magnitude of what he does is accounted for by the intensity of his feelings with respect to those who give his glory to another. His almighty hand comes down with a blow the afflictive energies of which cannot be exhausted in one or even two generations. Say not that there is something unjust about this. That each generation must take something in the way of suffering from preceding generations is a fact only too plain, altogether apart from the Scriptures. The mercy of God is that he here gives us something in explanation of the fact, and of how to distinguish its working and at last destroy it. To serve idols, to depend upon anything else than God, anything less than him, anything more easily reached and more easily satisfied—this, when stripped of all disguise, amounts to hating God . And a man living in this way is preparing, not only punishments for himself, but miseries for those who come after him. Many times we have advice given us to think of posterity. Depend upon it, he thinks most of posterity who serves the will of God most humbly and lovingly, with the utmost concentration and assiduity, in his own generation. Note here also the unmistakable revelation of God's merciful disposition. He visits iniquity to the third and fourth generation of them that hate him. But those who love him are blessed to thousands of generations. Not that the blessing will be actually operative, for, alas, there may come in many things to hinder. But the expressed disposition of God remains. If the posterity of the faithful to God are unblessed, it is because they themselves are utterly careless as to the peculiar privileges into which they have been introduced.— Y .

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