What are our modern day idols?
The purpose of the original “Ten Commandments” given by God to Moses was not to be a checklist of criteria to be met before God would love his people. Rather, they form almost a “job description” for those who are welcomed into a loving covenant with God. It is as if he had said to the Israelites, “If you really are part of my people, then this is how you will find yourself behaving.”
The ten “Creation Commandments” that we have looked at over the last few months have shown us that, according to Scripture, caring for God’s creation is a fundamental aspect to belonging to the People of God. In this final article, Margaret Barker takes us back to the first two of the original commandments, challenging what we humans have done with the great freedom that our creator God gave us.
You shall have no other gods before me, (Exodus 20:3, ESV)
This is the first of the Ten Commandments, and what it says is clear: nothing must be set in front of the Lord. Nothing must be more important in our lives and in the way we see the world and make decisions about how to live in it.
O may no earth-born cloud arise
To hide thee from thy servant’s eyes. (Writer: John Keble)
Nevertheless, we cannot ‘see’ God. We live by faith. ‘By faith we understand that the world was created by the Word of God, so that what is seen was made from what is not seen’ (Hebrews 11:3, my translation). There is far more to the physical creation than meets the eye, and so much in the world is shaped by unseen forces.
These forces can be the ‘laws of nature’, like gravity, but they can also be human minds and the choices they make or the illusions they accept about human powers. Human beings cannot shape the world to fit what they want. Their actions are limited by the laws established by the Creator.
Praise the Lord for he hath spoken;
Worlds his mighty voice obeyed;
Laws that never shall be broken
For their guidance he hath made. (Anonymous)
Biblical theology describes these ‘laws’ as the bonds of the eternal covenant, and surely one great bond-breaking in recent times was the first atom bomb in New Mexico in 1945. The official description sent to President Truman said: ‘Then came the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare to tamper with the forces hitherto reserved to the Almighty’. Many other fundamental bonds have been broken since then, and we see the creation collapsing.
The second commandment follows logically from the first: ‘You shall not make for yourself any graven image’. No idolatry – but this meant more than ‘no statues’. It meant not setting up anything made by human beings in the place where the Lord should be. Isaiah described the sinful state of Judah and Jerusalem in his time: ‘Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their own hands …’ (Isaiah 2:8 ESV). Idolatry means having a false centre to our world view, what the Bible, in several places, calls ‘an abomination that makes desolate’ (e.g. Daniel 12:11).
Isaiah warned that judgement would follow for the proud who had rebelled against the Creator and made their own gods: ‘The lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day’ (Isaiah 2:17 ESV). Pride in our own powers and what they can achieve is an ever-present temptation in our time. These works of human hands include economic and political systems, rebranding old sins as new possibilities, and calling them ‘freedom’.
One of the new gods is The Market. In a world where we are more and more aware of other faiths and systems of belief, this new religion has largely escaped notice and thus has gained great power. The Market and consumption give purpose to peoples’ lives, trying to fill the God-shaped hole that is at the centre of their being. People are not viewed as in the image of God; they are merely human resources or consumers. Values have changed. The Bible says: ‘The earth is the Lord’s’ (Psalm 24:1), but the Market god says ‘It is for sale. Anyone with money can buy it and exploit it to make money’. It is not bad management that causes our ecological disasters; it is false gods.
The dearest idol I have known
Whate’er that idol be
O let me tear it from thy throne
And worship only Thee. (William Cowper)
The story in Genesis 3 stands as a warning. The serpent was clever. He used words carefully and well. When St John described the fall of Satan, he said he was ‘that ancient serpent … the deceiver of the whole world’ (Revelation 12:9). God had warned them that the fruit of the forbidden tree would bring death, but the serpent, despite the commandment, made it seem attractive. The serpent offered choice, and the human pair were deceived. Too late their eyes were opened.
The second commandment warns where idolatry leads: ‘I… visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but show steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments’ … (Exodus 20: 5-6 ESV). This is not a vindictive God showing spite. It is warning of the results of ‘iniquity’. This Hebrew word means, literally, ‘distortion’. If one generation distorts the world with false gods, then future generations will suffer. We have chosen an unsustainable life-style and our children and grandchildren will have to cope with the consequences of our choices.
As God’s kingdom is established on earth in St John’s great vision, the heavenly voices cry out,
Now has come the time for the dead to be judged,
and for the rewarding of your servants, the prophets and saints,
and those who fear your name, both small and great,
and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.” (Revelation 11:18 ESV)
Do we know the limits to our freedom? Do we serve God in awe and join with him in his task of creation and re-creation? Or are we among the destroyers, who are heaping up destruction for themselves?
“New Year’s Resolutions” are the butt of many jokes. “How long was it before you broke yours?”
we ask our friends. But the idea of making a simple, achievable target at the beginning of a new calendar year has a lot in its favour. In particular, if our resolution can have something to do with our care for creation, then we will have learnt something from Margaret’s thought-provoking articles.
It might be something as seemingly insignificant as remembering to turn lights off when we leave a room, or asking ourselves, “Do I really need to make this car journey?” Many big environmental decisions can only be made by governments and “big business”. But there are an awful lot of us human beings – and if each of us did something small, significant and sustainable, that would have a big cumulative effect. Let us be creators, rather than destroyers.
This prayer, the first part of which was famously adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, has been attributed to the 20th century German theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, though its roots may go even further back in time.
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.