Keep Yourselves from Idols, Deuteronomy 4:15-31

‘Keep yourselves from Idols’ Deuteronomy 4:15-31 March 22, 1992

This solemn command against the making or worshipping of idols, one scholar has written, is ‘perhaps the unlikeliest thing that has ever happened. [Craigie, on 5:8]. The peoples of the ancient Near-Eastern world made and worshipped idols of every kind. Gods and goddesses were represented as animals — fish, bulls, calves, and the like — or as human beings in figurine form, or as poles and pillars. What is more, as is indicated in v. 19, they not only worshipped gods by worshipping images which represented them, but they also actually considered heavenly bodies as gods themselves.  Idolatry was a universal institution and a part of the fabric of life for all of these people, save one, …Israel herself.

And, of course, it was precisely because everyone else was doing it that the Old Testament history is the long story of lsrael’s partial success and then complete failure to live up to the true understanding of God she had been given and to keep this commandment we have just read. She was always being lured into idol worship. First it would be the worship of the Lord her God but with the use of idols. After all, all the other nations worshipped their gods by means of idols! But it would eventually cease altogether to be the worship of the Lord and become instead the worship of the idols and the gods they represented: Baal, Ashtoreth, Molech, and the like. One of the great themes of the OT prophets is their condemnation of Israel and Judah for taking over the worship of idols from the nations round about. How often with a bitter sarcasm they pour scorn and mockery on the very idea of bowing down to a piece of metal that one had to pay a craftsman to make well enough so that it would stand up by itself and not fall over, or to a piece of wood, some of which a carver would make into an figurine to worship and the rest you would burn in your fireplace. But it took the destruction of the nation of Israel and the long bitter years of captivity in Babylon before that kind of idolatry was finally exterminated in Israel.

But, lest you think that this is some merely historical question, of little relevance for us today who are not tempted to bow down to figurines or pillars and who have no interest in casting bronze bulls or calves to worship, hear again what Moses said on God’s behalf to the people of the Lord. This is as timely a warning to us as ever it was to Israel there on the banks of the Jordan as she readied herself to enter the promised land.

In the first place, we are here warned that idolatry is an ever-present, a constant danger to God’s people.

There was no particular reason why Israel should be so captivated by idols, but Moses here clearly regards this as the standing danger of her religious life. God had never appeared to his people in a form that they could pattern an idol after. This is Moses’ original point. They had never seen God. What is more, in the great commandments of the covenant, the Lord had explicitly forbidden them to make such idols. And, as Moses says in v. 20, having delivered them from bondage in Egypt as he did, God has more than every right to demand that he be worshipped by his people in the way that he deems right and proper. But, all of this notwithstanding, Israel would drift toward idols over and over again. Indeed, while Moses was still at the top of Mt. Sinai, receiving the law from the hand of God, Israel was at the foot of the mountain cavorting before a golden calf!

It is a constant amazement to the reader of the Bible how a people so well-taught about both the wrong and the foolishness of idolatry and so often severely punished for dabbling with it and so often witness to the unequal contest between the living God and idols should, nevertheless, continue to be drawn to their worship over and over again.

But, you see, that is powerful evidence of the nature of human beings. Mankind is not first and foremost homo sapiens, thinking man. No. The creature we call ‘man’ is first and foremost homo adorans, worshipping man. By his very nature man will worship something, will serve something or someone. It is in his nature to devote himself and to give his allegiance to something or someone. God made him with this capacity and with this tendency that he might worship and serve his Maker. Sin has corrupted this tendency but it did not remove or destroy it. If a man or woman will not worship the living God, will not give his or her allegiance to the Almighty, then he or she will worship someone or something else. But worship and serve they shall!

And that is why idolatry is by no means a problem in the OT only. The Bible is fully aware and takes full account of the fact that one can be an idolater in many other ways than by bowing down to figurines which represent some imaginary god. An idol is anything which claims from us the loyalty and the service we owe to God alone. It is anything whatsoever which has a glory in our lives which is proper to God alone. The Lord God himself describes it this way in Isaiah 42:8: ‘I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.’

And so, in the NT as well, we are warned against this same idolatry, whatever form it takes. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:5 that immoral or greedy men and women are idolaters. Pleasure and Possessions are the gods they worship and serve as surely as other people may serve an image of wood or stone. He says it again in Colossians 3:5, that ‘impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed are all idolatry.’ Indeed Paul gives us a rough and ready definition of idolatry when, in 1 Corinthians 10:6 he speaks of Israel in her idolatry as ‘setting their hearts on evil things.’ That harks back to Ezekiel 14:3 when the prophet spoke of Israelites ‘setting up idols in their hearts.’

You remember the Lord Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler who thought he had kept all the commandments from his youth. The Lord told him to go, sell all he had and give it to the poor and then to follow him. The rich man went away sad, we are told, because he had much wealth. In a moment the Lord had put his finger right on that man’s true condition. He, who thought he had kept all the commandments, didn’t even understand the first one. Money was his god. He was an idolater.

And the world is full of them today and, as in former times, many people worship many idols at the same time: pleasure, power, money, fame; others worship drugs and give their love, trust, and service to them; and others, even social and political ideas: capitalism, Marxism, feminism, and the like. The church is likewise crammed full of idolaters. You and I are guilty of this sin, this capital crime against God and against the truth many times a day. Every time we give the loyalty to something else that ought to be given to God, every time we give the love and service of our hearts and the obedience of our lives to something else that ought to be given to God, we are idolaters, pure and simple.

Thomas Goodwin, the 17th century Puritan theologian and pastor, was a far better man and Christian than most anyone we know. Yet he admitted without excuse or qualification that when he lost most of his magnificent library in the great fire of London, it was a judgment on him from the Lord because he had loved his books in a way and to a degree that had made them an idol and had given them a place in his heart which belonged to God alone.

Don’t think Moses has nothing to say to you. It is a sin as common today as ever it was in the ancient world and a sin as serious today as it was then.

Second, we are here warned of the enormity of the crime of idolatry, of its nature as an active denial and repudiation of God. Idolatry is not merely one sin among many. That is why, before Moses even comes to the ten commandments in the next chapter of Deuteronomy, he gives this lengthy discourse on the evil of idolatry. Idolatry is the most fundamental sin of all for it is the repudiation of God.

Moses begins by reminding Israel that they saw no form at Sinai. That is a very important point. The true God, the living God is transcendent. He cannot be captured by the imaginations of men and women. He cannot be reduced to some image. But human beings are always trying to do that and, in so doing, trying to contain, to limit, to reduce God to manageable size. They are always, as Paul says in Romans 1, ‘exchanging the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals….’ In so doing, ‘they exchange the truth of God for a lie and worship and serve created things rather than the Creator…’

Idolatry, in all its forms, is an effort to displace the true God, infinite, eternal, immutable, infinitely high above his creatures, with a god more our size, more like ourselves. Moses points again in v. 19 to the nature of idolatry, worshipping the creature rather than the Creator, setting our hearts on much smaller things than he.

It is a refusal to give God the glory due his name and deep in the hidden places of our hearts lurks our motive: if God be smaller, we owe him less of ourselves; if he be smaller we need fear him less, we need worry less about our disobedience, need concern ourselves less with doing his will and giving him honor. Anything that becomes an idol in your heart and life, which displaces God and takes from him the glory and praise which is rightfully his, is nothing more nor less than a repudiation of Him.

That is why Moses warns Israel not to forget what kind of God the living and true God is: invisible, immortal, transcendent in glory, infinite in power and might. He cannot be brought down to size, whatever we do! All idolatry thus becomes both dangerous and utterly foolish. Idolatry is an effort by powerless creatures to reject the sovereignty of their omnipotent maker. It is not an effort likely to succeed. Indeed, in the later verses of the section we read, Moses promises that it will not. They may get some temporary pleasure from their idolatry, but Israel will not, cannot escape the grasp of the Lord who really lives! He will defend his honor, even if it must be at their expense!

As Moses puts it in v. 24: the Lord is a jealous God. He will not give his glory to another. He will not be mocked as Paul would later put it. Moses is reminding them that no one should think that because his judgment is sometimes long in coming — because of his patience and compassion — that it will not come.

Third, and last, we are here warned that idolatry is not only sinful in itself, but that it corrupts and ruins human life. God, the living and true God, has life in himself. Jesus said that: ‘The Father has life in himself.’ True life, life as it is meant to be, life that is rich and good and full and fun and fruitful is all to be found in communion with him. When Jesus said that he had come that we might have life and have it more abundantly, he is only saying the same thing in a different way. Later in Deuteronomy the people of God are exhorted to ‘Choose life’, life, that is, with a capital ‘L’, life, as Paul says, that is truly life.

Idolatry, all idolatry, whatever its forms, is an axe laid at the root of that true life. No idol, whatever it is, however grand it may seem at the moment, can give life. Only the Creator can do that! Give yourself to an idol and it will ruin your life, cheapen it and lessen it and corrupt it and spoil it.

That is Moses’ warning in vv. 26-28. Idolatry pays a wage, and that wage will be, both by the judgment of God and the nature of the case — you are after all worshipping and serving Nothing, nothing that can do you any good — idolatry will ruin you. It will bring God’s punishments instead of his blessings — for Israel it meant that they would lose the promised land — and, what is worse by far, it will tum you into a fool, spending your life chasing after the ridiculous. That is the dripping irony of v. 28. Idolatry practiced long enough will, idolatry carried to its conclusion, will finally bring a person to a state of complete blindness and idiocy about life. It will bring people who know better to worship objects they themselves have made; it will make people who have long since learned that money cannot buy happiness to seek after more of it still more avidly; it will make people who have sought the meaning of life in pleasure or power or fame completely incapable of serving another master. It is a form of madness. And it is what happens when God finally, as an act of judgment, hands idolaters over to their idolatry.

This is what Jeremiah means when in 2:5 he says of Israel and Judah: ‘they followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.’ And it is what Hosea means when he says that the sons and daughters of Israel, in their worshipping idols, ‘became as vile as the thing they loved.’

I hardly know of more terrifying verses in all of the Bible than Psalm 115:5-8: ‘their idols have mouths, but they cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.’

Because we are as God made us, homo adorans, our lives reflect the object of our worship; we become like our gods. We are to become like God himself, in all the ways that is possible: holy, just, loving, true. We are to be conformed to the image of Christ and to follow in his steps. But, if we choose other gods for ourselves, we will be conformed to them instead.

We see what a person becomes who becomes like money — how impersonal, how one-dimensional, how selfish, how uncaring and insensitive, how dull and useless to others, how all for the present — and we have seen on a grand scale what Marxism made of its worshippers — how cruel and heartless and how utterly blind to facts a child could see — and what feminism is making of its worshippers — how angry and how competitive — and what greed and lust and pleasure make of their devoted followers. Well, take a look at your idols, whatever they may be. Take a long hard look, and imagine yourself becoming like that!

Whom do you wish to be like? Whom do you wish to pattern your life and character after, these paltry, miserable little man-made, and short-lived and one-dimensional objects of sinful man’s affection? Or this grand, utterly incomprehensible, infinite, eternal, unchangeable God, who made the heavens in all of their unbelievable glory and immensity, whose genius fashioned human beings, who holds all things in his hand and sovereignly disposes from on high the affairs of men and nations, and, yet, who loves as a father loves his children, who is kind and tender and merciful beyond description, wise and good and just in all his ways, whose word is faithful, whose promises, grand as they are are all Yea and Amen, and whose glory fills the heavens?

Now, I am speaking to you all, but I want particularly to address the young men and women in the congregation. Those who have their adult life or almost all of it still ahead of them.

I read on my trip this past week a remarkable book, which I should have read before this. The book’s title is Against All Hope and it is the prison memoirs of Armando Valladares, a man who spent more than 20 years in Fidel Castro’s concentration camps until international pressure forced his release and departure from Cuba in 1982. He was imprisoned as a young man of 23 for nothing more than expressing his opposition to communism. It is a heart-breaking, and stomach turning and revolting and soul-stirring and inspiring book all at the same time. It is the account of an effort by Castro’s henchmen to break and destroy a Christian man. And they used tactics which were so cruel and so repulsive and so degrading and so mean-spirited and so debilitating to body and soul that, much as I would like to describe them to you to increase the force of what I say, I felt it would be inappropriate for me to do so in this company. If you read the book for yourself, and you should read books like this, it will literally sicken you.

But, I can say this, never has God been any less visible in any outward way, never has the sound of his voice been less audible to the human ear than during many of those months and years in those despicable prisons, amidst all the beatings, and murders, and tortures: whether enforced starvation, or the months in which they were compelled to be naked because they refused to wear the uniform which identified them as common criminals -­ the very claim the Castro government was, with an outrageous dishonesty, making to the world, or the interminable beatings, or the weeks without baths, living amidst sewage, or the refusal to permit visits from loved ones for months, even years on end, and so on. I say, never did the naked eye see less of the living and true God.

But, at the same time, never was the Almighty more evidently present, never did his power, his grace, his truth, his presence more profoundly manifest themselves than during the years of Valladares’ imprisonment. He was there and receiving the worship of good and noble men when as their last act on earth, before the firing squad was given the signal to fire to execute men innocent of any crime, they cried out: ‘Viva Cristo Rey.’ ‘Long live Christ the King!’ He was there in the life of Sergio Brava, a fine athlete, but a still finer Christian who, Valladares says, ‘was a great help in the prison in the struggle of .love against hate, of Christ against evil passions.’ Bravo’s leg was amputated when he was shot by prison guards while attempting to hide a little Bible he had had smuggled page by page into the prison and lovingly reassembled. The Lord Almighty was there in courage and selflessness of the old man they all called ‘The Brother of Faith’, a protestant minister, whose name was Gerardo, and, Valladares says, ‘whose life was his own most moving sermon.’ He was always moving among the men instilling faith, calming spirits, or leading singing and praying even though such things were punished with beatings. Once when the guards were savagely beating some prisoners he interposed himself between them, almost a skeletal figure with white hair and flaming eyes, who opened his arms into a cross, lifted his face to the sky, and cried out ‘Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do!’ A moment later his head was almost severed from his body by a burst of machine gun fire.

And he was there in the life of Armando Valladares himself, who entered prison a nominal Christian but who found the Lord drawing near to help him and to preserve his life and answer his prayers through those long years of an existence which I imagine must be as near to hellish as can be found in this world. Over and again his brutal narrative is interrupted by statements such as these: ‘There came a moment when, seeing those young men full of courage depart to die before the firing squad and shout ‘Viva Cristo Rey!’ at the fateful instant, I not only understood instantly, as though by a sudden revelation, that Christ was indeed there for me at the moments when I prayed not to be killed, but realized as well that He served to give my life, and my death if it came to that, ethical meaning. Both my life and my death would be dignified by my belief in him.’ [pp. 16-17] Or, ‘My heart rose up to God, and I fervently prayed for Him to help me stand up to this brutality, and do what I had to do.

…God heard my prayer.’ [p. 41] Or, ‘I was utterly exhausted. The lack of sleep and the tension were seriously affecting me. I sought God then. I never asked him to get me out of there; I didn’t think that God should be used for that kind of request. I only asked that He allow me to resist, that He give me the faith and spiritual strength to bear up under these conditions without sickening with hatred. I only prayed for Him to accompany me. And His presence, which I felt, made my faith an indestructible shield.’ [p. 138]

I certainly pray that none of you will have to suffer as these our brothers suffered so unspeakably. But do you not see the great lesson, it is Moses’ lesson and the Bible’s lesson. You will be as your God, and if your God is truly the living God, the triune God, the everlasting God, the great and high God who created all things and who has sent salvation to the world in Jesus Christ; I say, if he and he alone is your God, you will become like Him. And your life will be, in its own way, as noble, as good, as brave, as true, and worthy, and as fruitful as Armando Valladares or as Gerardo, the brother of faith.

Marxism can make a Castro; money can make a Trump; pleasure can make a Hefner; but only the living God can make an Armando Valladares, who ends his sickening narrative with love and forgiveness for the vicious miscreants who tortured him and murdered his friends.

I don’t give a fig for how much money you will make or how much of a reputation you will acquire. It is for the Lord to order how much pleasure you will enjoy or how much power you will wield.

Your life will be all that it ever should be and all that you want it to be and all that we need it to be if only you will set the High God, the Everlasting and Almighty God before you all your days and worship him and him only, letting no idol come between. Everyone of us will be as the God we worship!