top of page

Get rid of your idols!

"You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. Exodus 20.4

The 2nd Commandment is blamed for the resistance to representing sentient beings in Jewish, Islamic and Byzantine art. That resistance might also be applied to our own Presbyterian tradition. The technical term for it is "aniconism". It stems from the fear of introducing rival objects of veneration to the Creator himself, who alone is worthy of our praise. We call these idols. And the same commandment is condemning of those who succumb: they will be punished down to the third and fourth generation. That is to say, idol worshippers bring judgment upon their whole household which, in ancient times, was reckoned to extend to the third and fourth generation of those inhabiting the family home.

The language used in translation is misleading. We tend to consider jealousy as a negative emotion. Yet, in this context, God's jealousy towards our affection has more to do with his love for us and his desire for the same reciprocal exclusivity of commitment as one would expect in a marriage. This interpretation is confirmed in the promise that those who love God in this way and keep his commandments are blessed with his love to "a thousand generations" - ie eternally.

We must also be careful of how we understand the commandment as a whole. To use it as pretext for condemning the use of iconography turns it into a very blunt instrument. Icons are only idols when venerated in their own right. As visual portals through which our adoration is directed to God, who is in-visible, they can be an aid to worship and not a distraction. Idols, in the mean time, are not necessarily artistic (mis)representations. They can take various forms including our jobs, our hobbies, even our spouses. In short, anything that comes before God in our affections constitutes an idol and must be put in its place. Otherwise the consequences are dire.

There are compelling reasons for purging our lives of idolatry. But let's make sure we aim our fire correctly, or we shall not only miss the point but deny ourselves the blessing too!



bottom of page