Christ in the Old Covenant
Commandment Two, Week Two
What a sweet privilege we have – to study together the words of God Himself, and these ten commandments that are at the very heart of God’s revelation of Himself. This is a delight – and so far we’ve studied the first commandment, which forbids having other gods, which would include anything that crowds God out of His rightful place in our lives.
Last week we started a three-part series on the second commandment – this morning I need to wrap up the first part and cover the second part. READ 4-6
We saw last week that you can’t carve or make a representation of anything anywhere to worship or serve. Don’t worship other gods using idols, but particularly here the idea seems to be: don’t worship the true God using idols.
And we learned last week that the central point here is the fame of God. Idols not only draw your heart away from God, they also give a distorted and insulting view of what God is like. God is so majestic, so mighty, so perfect that no carving or weaving or painting could ever begin to picture God.
If that is true, why was Israel so tempted to other gods? If in this second commandment God so clear that idolaters hate him, why did idolatry have such an appeal, that Israel would try to mix idolatry into their worship of Yahweh?
- First of all, we have to recognize the huge cultural pressure when everybody’s doing it. Every ancient culture except the Israelites worshipped idols. One Romans writer joked that it was easier to find a god in Athens than a man: there were more idols than people! Obviously Athens didn’t exist in the time of the Exodus, but Israel came out of a very idolatrous society in Egypt, and they came into a very idolatrous society in Canaan. In Canaan idolatry was an elaborate religious system that encompassed every area of life. Still today people live in cultures like that: billions of people under the influence of Hinduism and Chinese traditional religions where idols play a major role. It’s hard when everybody’s doing it! When you’re talking about what all of the unsaved people are doing, the Bible calls it “the world.” The world pressures Christians to go along. And for Israel, the greatest pressure was to go along with idolatry. Everybody was doing it. If you didn’t do it, you stuck out like a sore thumb. So massive cultural pressure was one reason.
- Idolatry was tangible: God says that the righteous will live by faith. In one sense idolatry demands a lot less faith – it turns your god into something you can touch and feel. That is very appealing. It is easier to get excited about something tangible than something you must simply believe by faith. Idolatry made the concept of god very tangible.
- Idolatry was sometimes flashy. Deut. 7:25 says “you shall not covet the silver or gold that is on [idols].” The idols could be covered with precious metals and precious stones. Even if you didn’t worship the idol, it was appealing to have that glitter and glamour in your home. Idols were a status symbol, and they appealed to the desire for the finer things of life.
- Idolatry was sometimes profitable. As we see in Acts, there was a lot of money to be made in selling idols. For Israel, as an agricultural society in Canaan, the Canaanites tied their agricultural successes to their idols. Imagine yourself as a Jew, trying to learn about the climate and growing techniques in Canaan, and your Canaanite neighbor has a great crop, or an unusual number of lambs, and he’s making a lot of money. If you ask him what the secret is, he’ll tell you that you just have to keep the gods of the weather and the crops and the herds happy. If you want to be rich like him, better get on board. Better learn what Baal likes.
- So there is huge cultural pressure because everybody did it; idolatry was flashy; idolatry was profitable. Idolatry was also convenient: you could do it in your backyard, in your living room, there were high places all over Israel – much easier than those long trips to Jerusalem that Yahweh required.
- Idolatry was sensual. As they sought the fertility of their crops and animals they integrated eroticism into their idol worship.
- Idolatry was fun. It involved a lot of festivals, a lot of partying. Sensual partying, drunken partying, gluttonous partying, glamorous partying. The Israelites wanted to have a little fun too – why couldn’t they have some glamorous idols and glamorous parties for Yahweh? You remember that passage we looked at last Sunday, in Exodus 32, where they made the golden calf to worship Yahweh while Moses was on the mount? Exodus 32:6 says that when they made the golden calf, the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play. And in I Cor. 10:6-7, Paul says Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, "THE PEOPLE SAT DOWN TO EAT AND DRINK, AND STOOD UP TO PLAY." You see that of all the things Paul could have chosen to quote from Exodus 32, he chose to quote the line about the party. Israel didn’t want to be left out – they wanted to be able to worship their God with a flashy idol and fun party, just like everybody else.
- And so you can see all of those appealing aspects of idolatry: status, wealth, sensuality; the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the boastful pride of life. And everybody was doing it. So, Israel was tempted to try to figure out how they could integrate some aspects of idolatry into the worship of the true God. If you weren’t going to abandon Yahweh altogether, at least you could incorporate some of the practices of the idolaters into the worship of Yahweh. The second commandment left no room for that kind of syncretism – but Israel still ended up deeply involved in idolatry.
That was wrap-up from last Sunday, from the first part of this series.
TRANSITION: Now we want to move into the second part, and consider what the second commandment teaches us about God. We’ll do this by looking carefully at the rest of the commandment in Exodus 20:5-6. READ 20:5-6. We need to learn what this teaches us about God, not as an intellectual exercise to know some trivia, but with a tender heart because as v.5 says: this is our God. The one who created us is telling us how creation was meant to work; the one who is our king is telling us how to be loyal to him; the one who is our guide is telling us how to follow him; the one whom we love is telling us how to love him.
What is our God telling us about Himself? He tells us that He is a jealous God. This is…
Why God responds to idolatry
God responds to idolatry because He is a jealous God.
Understandably, this is a bit confusing because the Bible uses the word “jealousy” to refer to a sinful behavior.
When we think of jealousy, we think of the sin of envy: a strong desire to have what belongs to someone else – someone else’s possessions, or privileges, or successes. We think of an irrational, self-centered fear that someone else might get ahead, or get more than us, or get more attention than us. James 3:16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.
But the Bible also says that God is a jealous God – as a matter of fact Exodus 34:14 says that God’s name is Jealous. It is a defining characteristic.
So obviously there is a type of jealousy that is appropriate and godly; but then we take that appropriate jealousy and distort it and twist it so that it becomes sin.
The core of jealousy is the desire to protect something that is yours or someone else’s. That can be good. If a dad hears a noise in the middle of the night and gets up to make sure the house is safe, he is being jealous for the safety of his children. If you wear a life jacket before you go jet skiing in the ocean, you are being jealous for the health of your body. If you see a brother of sister in Christ starting to make poor choices, and you encourage them to turn back to God, you are being jealous for their spiritual well-being. And all of those things are appropriate.
And God is characterized by pure jealous desires, never mixed with any sinfulness, like our jealousy often is.
What is God jealous about? The primary answer is in Isaiah 42:8 I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images. God is jealous about His glory, jealous about His praise. In other words, God has a holy zeal for His own fame. Of course He does! He has the exclusive right to the love, honor, trust, thanks, submission, reverence of His creation. He deserves everything – He should have a holy zeal to receive what He deserves from His creation.
Wouldn’t it be great if anybody who wanted could be God for a day? And God would just say “Oh sure, you be in charge today. Everyone will obey you today, and worship you today, you’ll run the world today. Let me know if I can have the world back tomorrow.” No, that wouldn’t be great! You want God to be jealous for His glory, jealous for His praise, jealous for His fame. You want God to defend His position as the only God.
This is another whole discussion, but it is also true that the most loving thing God can do for us is demand our exclusive loyalty to him. God’s jealousy is not only for His fame, but also for His good.
So God is jealous, God does act to protect His fame. And because He does, He abhors idols that degrade Him or oppose Him. He says in Ps. 78:58 they aroused my jealousy with their graven images. In Deuteronomy 32:21, he says They have made me jealous with what is not God, they have provoked me to anger with their idols. Note that important phrase: what is not God. They have made me jealous with what is not God. When we take what is not God, and put it in the place of God, God’s jealousy is rightfully aroused. Remember that the first commandment forbids anything that crowds God out of his rightful place in your life? This is what arouses God’s jealousy – when anything else crowds God out of His rightful place.
But do not picture God sitting up in heaven, pouting because His people turned to something else. That is not what this means. God jealousy is not a sulking attitude – it is a zeal that acts to defend His glory. That leads us to our next point:
How God responds to idolatry
In his zeal for His own glory, how does God respond to anything that tries to crowd Him out of his rightful place?
I want to answer that from Exodus 20, but we could spend all morning on answers from all over Scripture. The Exodus itself was an act of the jealousy of God, overthrowing the idols of Egypt, bringing down the boastful pride of Pharaoh, and demonstrating His might by delivering His people.
We saw God’s jealousy in action in Exodus 32 – God was ready to destroy Israel because they tried to worship Him with a flashy idol and wild party.
In Deuteronomy 6:14-15, Moses warned the people You shall not follow other gods … 15 for the LORD your God in the midst of you is a jealous God; otherwise the anger of the LORD your God will be kindled against you, and He will wipe you off the face of the earth.
Needless to say, God responds very strongly to idolatry – He will defend His fame and magnify His own glory. What does Exodus 20 say about this? It says, in verse 5, that God visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me. Obviously in this context they hate God by turning from Him to other things.
These are difficult words.
In the judicial part of Israel’s Law, God told them Deuteronomy 24:16 Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.
Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel had to deal with people who were using their father’s sin as an excuse. In Jeremiah 31, and especially in Ezekiel 18, God makes it very clear that each person is individually responsible before God, and judgment or blessing is based upon each individual’s actions and decisions.
Of course we know that sin does have consequences: Numbers 14:33 illustrates this: God tells the Israelites who refused to enter the promised land Your sons shall be shepherds for forty years in the wilderness, and they will suffer for your unfaithfulness.
So you put those things together, and it is easy to take the edge off of Exodus 20:5 and say that this just means that sin has consequences, and often the sins of the parents have unintended consequences that impact future generations.
That is very true, but it is not quite what Exodus 20:5 says. It says that God visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children. Visit means to attend to or to bring upon. This is not just saying that sin sometimes has unintended consequences: this is saying that God brings the iniquity of the fathers upon the children. In Joshua 7, all of Achan’s family died with him for his sin as Ai. Israel experienced a devastating famine because of Saul’s sin with the Gibeonites. David and Bathsheba’s baby died and it was clearly an act of God because of David’s sin. Jeremiah 32:18 says that God repays the iniquity of the fathers into the bosom of their children after them.
How do we put all of that together? I do not understand it all. We know that God is never unjust. As v.5 says, this judgment is on those who hate Him. What He does is always fair. We also know that God has the authority over life and death – he has the right to give and take life as He sees fit. We know from Ezekiel 18 that no one will be given eternal life or denied eternal life because of their parents.
But beyond that, I think we should be careful before we soften Exodus 20:5 too much. Let’s not be too quick to say “Oh this is just talking about the unintended consequences of sin.” It is talking about more than that: it says that God brings the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.
How God responds to loyalty
Verse 6 tells us how God responds to loyalty – to those who love Him and keep His commandments: He shows lovingkindness to thousands. From Deut 7:9, we know that this means thousands of generations, which is just a figurative way of saying “forever.” There is eternal blessing for those who love God; there are eternal consequences for those who obey God. Eternity cannot exhaust the lovingkindness of God. What a contrast here, between 3 or 4 – and thousands. God may bring judgment for 3 or 4 generations of those who hate him, but he brings blessing for eternity on those who love Him.
Fathers, God can take your faithfulness, your love for God, your obedience, and God can bring about blessing that will never end on the people that you influence. For all of eternity those people will be reaping the sweet fruit of blessing because you pointed them to Christ; you discipled those children to love Christ; you modeled what it means to serve Christ; you humbled yourself to live in submission to Christ. Your struggling, sometimes failing, weak attempts to love God and obey God can reap never-ending blessing on the people you influence, because of the loyal love of God.
But if you decide to live life for yourself - if you allow other things to push God out of his rightful place in your life, if you live as an idolater – long after you have died, your great grandchildren may be still be experiencing the visitation of God for your idolatry, if they follow your example.
Men, this does not mean that if you have failed in the past, that you should just give up because you’re worthless; this is not a call for perfect fathers who never sin. This is a strong warning about idolatrous fathers, who allow other things to push God out of his rightful place in their life. Fathers who live to get rich, or live to have fun, or live to be successful at work, or live to watch TV, or live to be comfortable, and they don’t live for God.
And I want to challenge you to be a jealous dad. A dad who is jealous for the glory of God in his home. A dad who looks at his home and says “What is happening in this home that helps to spread God’s fame; and what is happening in this home that hinders the spread of God’s fame?” Be a dad who will not just look the other way when his kids turn to idols. Be a dad who is not content to have his kids watch TV for 3 hours a day and read their Bibles for three minutes a week. Be a dad who is not satisfied for his children to grow up to live for themselves, but is zealous that his children would live for Him who died for them.
How is any of that possible, men? Because the great I AM is your God. He is more than enough for you. You feel your weaknesses; you know your fears; you know where you have failed. But you also know the great I AM. He is more than enough, for the Dad who will submit Himself to God and pray, humbly coming to God for help.
Men, keep yourselves from idols. And be a dad who is jealous for the glory of God in your home.
Questions for Application and Discussion
Read II Kings 10:25-31. Which of the ten commandments did Jehu try to obey – and which did he ignore?
He tried to obey the first commandment, driving out the worship of another god (Baal). But he allowed the people to continue (supposedly) worshipping Yahweh using the golden calves that Jeroboam had made. So he tried to obey the first commandment, but he ignored the second.
This morning we considered passages such as Deuteronomy 6:14-15, which show that in His jealousy God acts to judge and destroy idolatry and idolaters. However, God’s jealousy does not lead exclusively to judgment. Read the following passages, and note what else God does based on His jealousy: Ezekiel 39:25; Zechariah 1:12-17; Zechariah 8:1-8.
God blesses and saves and restores.
The core of jealousy is the desire to protect something that is yours or someone else’s. What is God protecting through His actions described in those passages?
Two answers. He is protecting His people. In His jealousy, His love protects His people and blessed His people. This is similar to Luke 18, that we talked about in Sunday school. Will God not come quickly to the aid of His people when they cry out for help?
But when God blesses His people, He is also doing it for His own glory. You see this in Ezekiel 3, if you continue into verse 27: “then I shall be sanctified through them in the sight of many nations.” As Ephesians 1 says three times, God saves us to the praise of His glory.
So the general point is that God not only judges in His jealousy; He also saves in His jealousy.
Read Isaiah 9:6-7. What was the ultimate act of God’s jealousy?
The incarnation and then glorification of Jesus Christ. That is the ultimate act of God for His own fame’s sake.
How can we demonstrate godly jealousy?
Less protective of my reputation, more protective of God
Less promotion of my strengths, more promotion of God’s perfections
Less concerned about sins against me, more concerned about sins against God
Less concerned about things that bother me, more concerned about things that grieve God
Less concerned about being right, more concerned about showing people that God is always right.
Less concerned about getting my way, more concerned that God gets his way.