“The Idols He Shall Utterly Abolish”

The Second Commandment in the Prophets

4 min

Graven images are to be destroyed, not recycled. Before Moses had come down from Mount Sinai, the children of Israel had already broken the second commandment. In Exodus 32:7–8, Jehovah God gave Moses the sad news of the people’s idolatry. “And the LORD said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” Aaron, the brother of Moses, had requested the people to give him their golden ornaments. The multitude willingly relinquished them to him. Aaron then fashioned a golden calf, thus yielding to the people who wanted a god that they could see, touch, manipulate, and fashion from their own imagination.

The Bible describes the moment that Moses and Joshua came down the mountain to the scene of idolatry and revelry. “And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount. And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it” (Exodus 32:19–20). Before the day was done, 3,000 people had died.

Sadly, this stern chastisement did not squelch the desire of the Israelites to fashion graven images. Throughout the time of the judges, the people of Israel turned to the gods of the Canaanites. Eventually, in an act of defiance against Jehovah, King Jeroboam of the northern tribes erected two golden calves at Dan and at Bethel for the people to worship.

Over and over, the Lord sent His prophets to warn the nation against the grievous sin of idolatry. The prophet Ezekiel delivered a grim warning to the nation of Israel with these vivid words that hearken back to the sin of Israel at Mount Sinai: “And your altars shall be desolate, and your images shall be broken: and I will cast down your slain men before your idols. And I will lay the dead carcasses of the children of Israel before their idols; and I will scatter your bones round about your altars” (Ezekiel 6:4–5).

When Moses destroyed the golden calf, he did not melt it down to repurpose the gold for the altar of incense, the golden menorah, or the golden mercy seat that God had commanded him to make. If he had, it would have been a seemingly efficient use of the gold to recycle it by using it to create something useful. But no, Moses destroyed the golden calf by grinding the graven image into powder and scattering it upon the people’s drinking water, rendering the gold formerly shaped into an idol as totally useless. 

Throughout Israel’s history, Jehovah warned the Israelites against trying to repurpose pagan images and holy places. In II Chronicles Chapter 33, it is lamented that the children of Israel worshipped in the “high places,” even though they worshipped the one true God (verse 17). Kings such as Hezekiah and Josiah were blessed because they “removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves” (II Kings 18:4). Rather than repurposing these images and places of pagan worship, King Hezekiah destroyed them completely.

The prophet Isaiah announces the same complete destruction of graven images. He stated of Jehovah and the coming Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, “And the idols he shall utterly abolish” (Isaiah 2:18). In the early days of the Church, the new believers in the city of Ephesus burned their books of “curious arts” (Acts 19:19), rather than selling them. After these occult books were destroyed, “mightily grew the Word of God and prevailed” (Acts 19:20).

The temptation to recycle and “Christianize” idols confronts every new generation. Today, when a Christian man has an addiction to defiling or sensual music, he is offered the same music—but with Christian words—as an “acceptable” alternative. Unclean comedy that makes light of sin is “cleaned up” and offered to Christians as “Christian comedy.” To men and boys addicted to violent, profane, or immoral video games, alternative “Christian” video games are offered. In our culture of sports addiction and adulation of star athletes, many Christians justify skipping church to watch a major sports event or perhaps even hosting a viewing party at church as long as a short devotion is given that relates to sports. This practice of Christianizing the secular is dangerously similar to the attempt to combine pagan worship with the worship of Jesus Christ.

Idols must be replaced, not recycled. In the words of Isaiah, our idols should be “utterly abolished.” Instead, “the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day” (Isaiah 2:17). Worldly music should be destroyed and replaced with uplifting and edifying psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19). “Foolish jesting” should be replaced with edifying conversation and expressions of gratitude (Ephesians 4:29, 5:4). Children should be taught to admire heroes from history rather than the sports or movie celebrities. Men and boys addicted to video games would be better off trading “virtual reality” for “actual reality” and receive the true rewards of productivity along with life satisfaction and enjoyment.

We must each examine our hearts and our homes for the idols that steal our time and demand our attention, thereby turning us away from the significant matters of eternal value. Rather than trying to recycle our idols into more acceptable versions, let us be courageous and “utterly abolish” them in order that Jesus Christ alone is exalted.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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