Surely idolatry could not be a problem today! Don't be too sure — first read here about the practical applications of the Second Commandment. Do you have an idol? "What! Me, have an idol?" you might respond. "Don't be ridiculous! Of course not. The very idea of a truly converted Christian having an idol is ludicrous."
God's chosen people would never give space to a grinning graven image, would we? Why, we've all gotten rid of pictures of "Jesus," statues of praying hands and other religious trivia. While, strictly speaking, these items might not be considered idols, they are nevertheless not needed as aids to worship by those who can worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
And yet, God doesn't waste His breath. One of His Ten Commandments still warns us today: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image... Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them" (Ex. 20:4-5).
God would not have made that command part of His fundamental law unless idolatry was something His people needed to be on guard against at all times. All the Ten Commandments apply to us today.
Perhaps we had better look at this Second Commandment more closely.
Could we possibly be harboring a graven image?
The Bible relates many examples of how God, through His chosen servants, condemned idolatry. One of the most striking is found in Isaiah 44.
God condemns idolatry Isaiah was probably giving us an eyewitness account of something he saw going on in Jerusalem nearly 3,000 years ago, shortly before ancient Judah was taken into captivity. He describes a tradesman carving an idol from a piece of wood:
"The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in the form of man... that it might dwell in a shrine" (Isa. 44:13, New International Version).
With biting wit and a touch of sarcasm, God through Isaiah condemns the utter stupidity of the individual who "cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak.... Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal... He also warms himself ... From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it, and says, Save me; you are my God" (verses 14, 16-17, NIV).
And nobody, says Isaiah, stops to think how foolish such an exercise is. The man takes the trunk of a tree, using half of it as fuel to serve himself. The other half of the same trunk he carves and chips into an idol, and then he serves it!
We all agree with Isaiah. That's crazy. Surely we don't do that, do we? Don't be so sure.
The many New Testament warnings against idolatry show that this sin was not just confined to God's people in Old Testament times. In fact, their example was recorded specifically as a warning to us, lest we make the same mistake (I Cor. 10:11).
While science, technology, fashions and styles may change through the ages, human nature does not. Let's examine, then, Old Testament idolatry, and learn from the mistakes of others.
Worshiping false gods The ancient Israelites were guilty of two kinds of idolatry. Sometimes they would worship a totally false god — Baal, perhaps, or Molech — that they imported from a neighboring pagan society. At other times, they would degenerate into false worship of the true God. Throughout their history, they were usually guilty of one or the other, and sometimes both.
The rulers of Israel and Judah often took the lead in introducing idolatry into their realms. As soon as the northern 10 tribes of Israel split with Judah, their king, Jeroboam, built his own altars and changed the date of the Feast of Tabernacles to a "more convenient" time (I Kings 12:26-33).
King Ahaz of Judah actually plundered God's Temple in Jerusalem to supply materials for a temple to the gods of Assyria (II Kings 16:10-18).
Such actions sealed the fate of the two Old Testament kingdoms. God could not use them. God's people must put God first. His way, His law and His Kingdom must be uppermost in the minds of those who serve Him. God will not share His people's time or favor with any other god.
In spelling out the Second Commandment God tells us: " For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me" (Ex. 20:5).
Queen Jezebel, pagan wife of Israel's King Ahab and archenemy of Elijah, was driven by an almost missionary zeal for Baal. She filled the land with false worship. And so Elijah, in his showdown with the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel, challenged the people: "How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him" (I Kings 18:21).
God's end-time servant, coming in the power and spirit of Elijah (Mal. 4:5- 6), is telling us exactly the same thing.
How many times have we read in Pastor General Herbert W. Armstrong's letters and articles that God's Work must be the most important thing in our lives, that nothing else in this world must come before the Work and that if we put the interests and pursuits of this world first, we will not make it into the Kingdom of God?
An idol doesn't necessarily have to be a physical graven image. It can be anything that we place before the true God. Ezekiel warned the elders of Israel that although, technically, they might not have had any idols, they had set up "idols in their heart" (Ezek. 14:3-4, 7).
If something turns your heart away from putting God and God's Work first, it can be considered an idol. Which is more important, your hobby or your Bible study? Do you spend more time jogging than praying? Do you worry more about how you look to others than how you look to God?
Hobbies, physical fitness and personal appearance and grooming are not wrong. But remember what Isaiah said about the tree trunk. Are these things serving you — or are you serving them? Anything can become an idol.
Go into a museum sometime and look at the idols people down through the ages have worshiped. Wood, metal, bits of stone, houseflies — the ancient Egyptians even idolized dead cats! Wait — before you laugh too loudly, is something equally as ludicrous getting between you and God?
In the Millennium, people will probably look back and marvel at the way we worshiped our automobiles and other material possessions, and at how we eagerly followed the fornications and adulteries of our jet-set entertainment idols.
Our physical possessions can become idols. Read the first chapter of Haggai. Haggai warns that in the end time, some will lavish expense and attention on their own homes while neglecting the house, or Work, of God.
A wife, a husband, children, a career — all these could become false gods. And even some vain image we have of ourselves could become a roadblock that prevents us from overcoming.
False worship of the true God Yes, like our forefathers, we are quite capable of importing false gods and giving them, instead of the true God, our time and attention.
The other form of idolatry in ancient Israel was false worship of the true God.
The prophet Amos was sent to the Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II. It was a time of precarious prosperity — like today. Amos told the people that they were self-righteous and complacent. They prided themselves on being religious. They would sing hymns, keep festivals and assure each other that God was with them.
But it was a religion of convenience — only an outward show. The whole nation had become dishonest, greedy and selfish. Crime was rampant. The needs of the poor were ignored, and justice was perverted.
Amos told the Israelites that they were no better than idolaters. Just making religious-sounding noises was not enough. Amos could well have been writing to our nations today. And, of course, he was!
One of Israel's worst episodes of idolatry happened just a few weeks after God had thundered out His Ten Commandments to the people waiting at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Moses, you remember, had gone up the mountain for additional information. Aaron was left in charge. But Moses was gone for more than a month and the people grew impatient.
"And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us" (Ex. 32:1).
Aaron knew better, but succumbed in a moment of weakness. He told the people to give him their jewelry, out of which was made a golden calf. The people then said, "These be thy gods, 0 Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt" (verse 4).
Perhaps trying to save the situation, Aaron built an altar, and announced that "To morrow is a feast to the Lord" (verse 5).
Aaron, in an effort to please the people, compromised with the worship of God — committed idolatry. Perhaps he intended the golden calf only as an "aid to worship." But the people, not long out of slavery, degenerated into wholesale idolatry. The " feast to the Lord" got out of hand, quickly turning into a drunken sex orgy (verse 6).
God sent Moses down the mountain to rectify the situation. Moses angrily destroyed the calf and asked a quivering Aaron what had happened (verses 20-21). Aaron explained that the people were getting frustrated at waiting. He had asked for their jewelry and thrown it in the fire. Next thing he knew, here was this golden calf (verses 22-24)!
That has to be one of the lamest excuses in history. Yet, in a way, we can sympathize with Aaron.
Once we start on the path of compromise and liberalism, and becoming crowd pleasers rather than God pleasers, events sometimes move faster than we can control them. And suddenly, everything we thought we had built crashes down around our ears.
The apostle Paul referred to this incident of the golden calf in warning the Corinthian church against idolatry (I Cor. 10:7).
This form of idolatry, brought about by lack of faith, frustration, impatience and compromise, can afflict us all. Note the lesson: Even though most of us would not deliberately fashion an idol, we could find that one has "come out of the fire" all of a sudden. Idolatry can creep up on us.
"Keep yourselves from idols" Our responsibility is to back up Mr. Armstrong, doing our part in the Work, to grow personally in grace and knowledge and to wait patiently for Christ's coming. But we get impatient. God's way conflicts with things that we, carnally, want to do.
God's law prevents us from becoming something we want to become. God's demands on "our" time — in prayer, Bible study, Sabbath-keeping and observance of the Holy Days — become irritating to our human nature. The demands on our income in terms of tithes and offerings start to seem, to us, unreasonable.
And so, instead of changing ourselves, we try to find ways to change what God wants.
Mr. Armstrong has often called the core of right doctrine and sound belief the "trunk of the tree." But if, instead of clinging fast to the "trunk of the tree" as we have so often been admonished to do, we start to chip bits off the tree to make it look the way we want it to, we make a terrible mistake. A little bit here, and a little bit there — just like the carpenter Isaiah described.
You know what we get when we do that, don't you? That's right — an idol. Even though we think we still know God, we have figured out our own way to worship Him — a way that suits us. Theologians may call that "comparative religion," "sects" or "denominations."
God calls it idolatry! That is why John so firmly warns the New Testament Church, "Keep yourselves from idols" (I John 5:21).
A pagan idolater, given a spiritual understanding of the stupidity of his actions, can change. Remember what Nebuchadnezzar said when God restored his sanity after seven years of madness (Dan. 4:36-37). But a Spirit-begotten Christian who becomes ensnared in idolatry is another matter.
"For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come [in other words, have understood the truth], If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance" (Heb. 6:4-6).
That Second Commandment was not meant for another time and another age. It was given to save us today from making mistakes that could keep us out of the Kingdom of God.