"God's Holy Jealousy"
(Delivered Sunday, July 6, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
We return this morning to our study of the Ten Commandments; and particularly, to begin our study the second commandment. In it, God speaks to the people of Israel and says;
You shall not make for yourself a carved image - any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Exodus 20:4-6).
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Have you ever considered how the first and second of the commandments are related to one another? They both seem to speak along the same line - that of not bowing down to something other than the one true God. As a matter of fact, some traditions of the Christian faith have considered that these two commandments are actually one; and such traditions have arrived at a total of ten commandments by divided the tenth commandment into two different commandments about coveting.
But we hold to the tradition that sees these first two as two different commandments, and that we should understand the distinction between them. These first two are commandments that, though very much related to one another, address two separate things. In the first commandment, God has said, "You shall have no other gods before Me" (v. 3); and in saying this, He has told us who it is that all people are to worship. The first commandment teaches us that we are to have the one true God - the God who has revealed Himself in the Bible - as our God, and that we are to have no other gods than the true one. The second commandment builds upon the first; but in the second, God teaches us how we are to worship this one true God - that is, without ever making any images or likenesses to represent Him in our worship. In other words, the first commandment gives us the subject of our worship, and the second commandment gives us the manner of our worship. Or to put it another way, the first gives us the "who" of worship and the second gives us the "how" of worship.
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Do you remember the story of Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well? She was bringing up an issue that had been debated in that region of the world for centuries - the issue of where God should be worshiped. The Jews had argued that God should be worshiped in Jerusalem; but the Samaritans argued that God should be worshiped in their region at Mount Garizim. She was confused because she believed that the worship of God was dependent upon being in the right location. And do you remember what Jesus told her?
Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4: 21-24).
Jesus taught us that God His Father is not a physical Being. He is Spirit. He is not bound up in created things like "places" or "buildings" or "objects". He is the Creator of all, and He transcends all His creation. And because this is what He is truly like, He commands that those who worship Him do so in a manner that is in accordance with His nature - that is, to worship Him in "spirit and truth". And that, in the final analysis, is what the Second Commandment is telling us to do - to truly worship God in a way that He commands and accepts; to truly worship Him in spirit and in truth.
I believe that this principle from the lips of Jesus teaches us how relevant this second commandment is. Many people may believe that this commandment doesn't have anything to say to them. In fact, many folks hurry past the first two commandments because they don't think they're really relevant to their personal situation at all. They don't think much about the first one, since they already believe in the God of the Bible. And they likewise suppose that the second one doesn't relate much to them, because they believe they have never worshiped idols.
But folks who think that way are being ignorant of the deceptions of the devil. Our enemy would like for us to worship false gods. If he can tempt someone to worship a false god or bow down to an idol, he will. But he knows that many have no desire whatsoever to worship a false god, and would find bowing down before an actual idol repulsive. And so, if he can't tempt someone away from worshiping the one true God, then he will switch his strategy and tempt them instead to worship the one true God in a false way. He may even tempt them to suppose they can worship the one true God through images and likenesses - making them to sin while feeling that they are doing something very religious and pious toward God.
The great concern of the second commandment, you see, is not so much to prohibit you from worshiping the wrong god, as it is to prohibit you from attempting to worship the right God in the wrong way. To put it another way, the Second Commandment prohibits us from doing the opposite of worshiping the one true God "in spirit and in truth". It prohibits us from the attempt to worship God through through material things and through false conceptions about Him and thus falling into the devil's trap. This commandment prohibits the use of manufactured forms and visual representations that spring forth from our own fallen imaginations and mistaken beliefs of what God is like.
The Apostle Paul spoke of this concern when he preached to the Athenians in the Book of Acts. Ancient Athens was a very religious city; and it was filled with idols and temples. It even had a temple to "the unknown God"; and Paul sought to tell the Athenians about the one true God whom they didn't know. He urged them to worship Him - not through idols and images - but only through faith in Jesus Christ. He told them,
"God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, 'For we are also His offspring.' Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:24-31). .
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Did you ever hear about the little girl in Sunday School who was very engrossed in a drawing she was making? Her Sunday School teacher asked what she was drawing, and the little girl said that she was making a picture of God. "But listen, honey," the teacher told her; "No one knows what God looks like." And the little girl - without looking up from her drawing - said, "They will in a minute!!"
We may laugh; but the fact is that, because of our sinful nature, we're often trying to make a comfortable picture of God for ourselves. People like to say, "I worship God as I perceive Him to be;" or "My God - the God I believe in - would never send people to hell. He loves everyone just as they are." And so it is that, every time we willingly disregard what the Bible says about God, and instead try to make an image of Him after our own imaginations, we call Him a liar and dishonor Him. And what's more, we can never create an image that is worthy of Him, because He is above all things and we are fallen creatures. To even try to do create an image of God - or the things of God in the heavenly realms - only lessens Him in our conception and robs Him of glory. We end up making an image that is not true of Him, because we cannot do otherwise. And then - most horrible of all - when we bow to something He is not, we are not bowing to Him but to something other than Him instead. "Icon-olatry" quickly leads us down the slippery-slope to "idol-olatry".
I believe that the greatest commentary concerning this commandment is found in Deuteronomy 4. There, Moses looks back into the past, and speaks of the experience He and the people of Israel had as they were gathered together before God at Mount Sinai. He speaks of the time when God descended upon the mountain and gave them the Ten Commandments. And Moses said,
Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the hosts of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the LORD your God has given to all the people under the whole heaven as a heritage (Deut. 4:19).
These words from Moses reveal a sinful propensity that is in us - that of the craving to make an "image" or "likeness" of God. The second commandment, therefore, prohibits us from attempting to make an image or likeness as an aid to our worshiping God, and from bowing down to it and worshiping it. If we avoid what is prohibited in the second commandment, we wont do what is prohibited in the first commandment either.
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Now, in looking at this commandment, I feel that the place to begin is by first establishing clearly in our minds the reasons why it was given. The first half of this passage deals with the command itself; but in the second half of this passage of Scripture, God tells us why He gave it. I'd like us to focus in on the details of the commandment itself on another morning, and spend this morning considering the specific reasons why God gave it to us. I'm convinced that, if we understand the reasons why God gave it, we'll have a better grasp of the spirit of this commandment and of how He wishes for us to obey it.
First, we begin by being taught something important about God's character. Notice that this commandment was given ...
1. BECAUSE GOD IS JEALOUS FOR HIS GLORY (v. 5).
In the preface to the commandments, God introduces Himself this way: "I am the LORD your God ..." "LORD" is a translation of the Hebrew name "Yahweh" - God's covenant name by which He revealed Himself as the great promise-keeping Deliverer of Israel; the great "I AM". It's the most sacred name in all the Bible; and this is how God introduced Himself in the giving of these commandments. But He also called Himself "your God" - that is, "the Strong One". He spoke these things in the second person singular; as if to say to each individual gathered before Him, "I am the great I AM for you, individual man or individual woman! I am the Strong One for you personally!" And He then told them that they were to have no other gods than Him. He is to be loved and worshiped exclusively by them; because He is, indeed, unique.
And now, after speaking the prohibition of the Second Commandment against making any carved images, this same God - using the same names to describe Himself - says, "For I, the LORD your God am a jealous God ..." That stands as the great reason why He gave this commandment; because this gracious God, this almighty and promise-keeping God, is also a very jealous God.
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When we think of jealousy, we often tend to think of it as a negative and selfish emotion. But there is also such a thing as righteous jealousy. A husband is right to be jealous of his wife's affections; and a wife is right to be jealous of her husband's affections. I would not want my children to walk around calling other men "Dad". Jealousy is a right and good thing when it's a passion to protect what is rightfully yours. In the same way, God is characterized by a righteous jealousy. God's jealousy is an emotion that is stirred up and provoked in Him whenever something hinders His enjoyment of that which rightfully belongs to Him.
God is, for example, righteously jealous for the love of His people. God passionately loves us as His redeemed saints. He has given the life of His own precious Son in order to deliver us from our sins and bring us to Himself; and He is therefore jealous for our affection. God, after all, has the exclusive right to our worship and devotion. He - and He alone - has a right to be glorified by us; and His nature as a jealous God will not allow Him to share our worship with another. The Bible tells us that God warned the people of Israel not to make any covenants with the people of the land that they were going to occupy. They were to destroy the alters to their false gods, and smash their idols and cut down their wooden images; "... for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God ... (Ex. 34:14). Think of that! When it comes to His people's devotion to Him, He doesn't hesitate to say that He is very jealous. In fact, He calls Himself "the LORD, whose name is Jealous". We even read that Moses told the people, "Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of anything which the LORD your God has forbidden you. For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God" (Deut. 24:4).
I believe that God is jealous for our love and worship most of all because He is jealous for His own glory. This isn't saying that God is somehow "selfish" in a negative way. He is right to desire us to exclusively glorify Him as God because there is no other god than He. He created us and redeemed us that we might glorify Him. We exist so that we may eternally behold His glory and to glorify Him in response. For this reason, He is provoked to jealousy whenever His people turn from Him and give His glory - which is His exclusive right - to another god. As He says in Isaiah 42:8; "I am the LORD, that is My name; and My glory I will not give to another, nor my praise to carved images." He says, "They have provoked Me to jealousy by what is not God; they have moved Me to anger by their foolish idols" (Deut. 32:21). In fact, the Bible even referred to one specific idol in the Old Testament as "the image of jealousy" (Ezk. 8:5).
Many people, who would insist that they do not worship any other God than the true God, attempt to do so by bowing down to images, figurines, statues, alters and icons. They say that these things "aid" them in worship, and that they're simply using these things as a means of putting themselves in mind of God. But as one Puritan writer has said, that's the same thing in God's eyes "as if a woman should say she keeps company with another man to put her in mind of her husband."1 Such people are giving their worship to something less than God - something man-made. They are therefore not worshiping the one true God in spirit and truth. Such an act does nothing but provoke God to jealousy; because He is properly and righteously jealous for His own glory, and will not tolerate it being shared with any "thing".
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Another reason why God gave this commandment is expressed in this passage. We find that He gave it ...
2. BECAUSE TO CHANGE HIS GLORY IS TO HATE HIM (v. 5).
Now this may be hard for some to accept; but according to this passage, the reason people make images and likenesses and bow to them and serve them is because they don't like God as He truly is. They hate Him "in spirit and truth". They want God to be different than He is; and so, they make something or imagine something that is "different" from how He has revealed Himself in the pages of Scripture, and bow to it and worship it instead. They then claim that they are worshiping God; but in actual fact, they are worshiping something different from God as He revealed Himself.
In this passage, we see that God says, "For I, the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me." God says He hates idols (Deut. 16:22); and to turn from God to what He says He hates is to express a hatred for God Himself. What an insult to God that is!!
Personally, I think the most frightening expression of this truth in Scripture is found in Romans 1. There, the apostle Paul gives us the reason why every false religion and every form of idolatry has ever risen in the history of humankind. He writes;
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changes the glory of God into an image made like corruptible man - and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen (Rom. 1:18-25).
God has revealed what He is really like. He has left evidence of His eternal power and divine character in creation. And what's more, He has clearly revealed what He is like, and how He can be known, in the Scripture. But when people saw the evidence of Him, they didn't want Him. They wanted sin instead; so they suppressed the truth in unrighteousness. They trade in the glory of God for images made like man, or birds, or animals, or bugs - things that are easier to live with while loving sin. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator. And the whole time long, the reason is because they hated God as He truly is. They refused to glorify Him or give Him thanks. That's what's at the core of all forms of idolatry and image worship - a hatred for the one true God and a refusal to worship Him in spirit and truth.
No wonder He is provoked to jealousy!!
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You'll note that God says that He visits "the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations" of those who hate Him. This shows us how severe God's punishment is toward those who refuse to worship Him in spirit and truth, and who turn to images and likenesses instead.
Now, this is not saying that God is unjust; and that He unfairly punishes children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren for something that they did not do. The Bible clearly says, "The fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall the children be put to death for their fathers; but a person shall die for his own sin" (2 Chron. 25:4). So then, what does this mean?
For one thing, it can be a reference to the negative and harmful influence someone can bring on their children when they live in hatred of the one true God and break this second commandment. If someone lives a long life in rebellion against God, they live long enough to bear a negative impact on their descendants - even as far as to the third and fourth generation. Those descendants feel the painful impact of that person's hatred for God, because they still live with him or her around. They may even be influenced to do the same things. Many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, have had to live under the miserable consequences of domineering relative's rebellion against God; and have had to feel the pain of his or her iniquities visited on their heads.
For another thing, it may be a reference to the fact that someone who refuses to worship God as He commands - in spirit and truth - and turns instead to superstitious images and likenesses, actually robs his or her descendants of a clear hearing of the truth. The Bible says,
"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deut. 6:4-9).
God can - and often does - save someone who does not grow up in a home where the one true God is faithfully worshiped. And in fact, it's true that anyone who is ever saved is saved by God's grace. But it's God's expressed will that the faithful worship of the one true God is passed down from one generation to another. When someone decides to turn from God out of hatred for Him as He is in spirit and truth, and to turn to the worship of images and likenesses instead, they fail to pass that godly heritage on to their children. And perhaps God is warning us that He visits the iniquities of such a decision upon the later generations that suffer its consequences.
This would be a good time to stop and consider whether or not you have turned from a faithful worship of the one true God. Is there anything in you that despises God as He has revealed Himself to be? Or is there anything in you that is tempted to turn from the simple, pure worship of God - in spirit and truth - through His Son Jesus Christ, and turn instead to rituals, images, likenesses, or superstitions created by man? There is no other God than the one who has revealed Himself in Scripture; and there is no other mediator between God and man than Christ Jesus. If you turn from God's revelation of Himself in order to worship your speculations about Him, you turn from Him and turn instead to that which is not Him. If that describes you, then you should realize the iniquity you are provoking God to visit upon you; and not just on you, but upon those who will follow in your steps - those who live to feel your influence!! Who would want to stand before God and give an account for such a dreadful thing?!! What an inducement this is to keep this commandment faithfully!!
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A third reason we find in this passage for why God gave this second commandment is ...
3. BECAUSE THOSE WHO GLORIFY HIM AS HE IS ARE BLESSED BY HIM (v. 6).
This is the positive side of the warning we just read in this passage. God describes Himself as "showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments."
To "love" God is to truly love Him as He is. It's to bow down to the truth He has revealed about Himself, and to glorify Him for it. It's to acknowledge Him and to give Him the thanks He deserves. It's to truly delight in Him as He is. It's to worship Him in spirit and truth. And if we love Him in this way, we will keep His commandments. We will faithfully do as He says. We will not only seek to keep this commandment, but all of them equally. We will, sadly, fail to keep them perfectly; but we will keep them faithfully because we love Him. If we love Him and keep His commandments, then we will never reject Him and turn from Him in order to turn to images and likenesses instead.
And look at how God responds to those who glorify Him in this way. He shows His "mercy"; or as it is in the New American Standard Version, "lovingkindness". He showers His favor and love upon them. And look at how long His lovingkindness and mercy endures! He visits the iniquity of those who hate Him on their children to the third and fourth generation - and praise Him that He limits it to that! But He shows His lovingkindness to thousands - thus impacting innumerable generations - to those who love Him and keep His commandments.
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God loves us and wants what's best for us. He didn't make us for the worship of false gods. He made us only to worship Himself, and to glorify Him only. He calls us to give our love and our adoration to Him directly, and to sincerely worship Him in spirit and in truth. We are happiest when we are worshiping Him as we should. And it's impossible for us to do so through images and likenesses we create. That's why He gave us this commandment.
But even more, God gave it because He is jealous for His own glory. He desires that we give our worship to Him alone, because there truly is no one else to give it to. It is His right, and it is His alone; and so He is rightly protective of His own glory and filled with zeal for it. He rightly visits iniquity on those who hate Him and seek to change His glory; but He gladly showers His blessings on those who love Him and glorify Him as He is.
May God help us, then, to worship Him in spirit and truth. May God help us to keep His second commandment.
1Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), p. 61.
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