15 “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, 16 beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18 the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. 19 And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. 20 But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day. 21 Furthermore, the Lord was angry with me because of you, and he swore that I should not cross the Jordan, and that I should not enter the good land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. 22 For I must die in this land; I must not go over the Jordan. But you shall go over and take possession of that good land. 23 Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the Lord your God has forbidden you. 24 For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.
25 “When you father children and children’s children, and have grown old in the land, if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, so as to provoke him to anger, 26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed. 27 And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord will drive you. 28 And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. 29 But from there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. 30 When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice. 31 For the Lord your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them.” – Deuteronomy 4:15-31 ESV
As the day drew near when the people would make their long-delayed entry into the land of promise, it meant that Moses was fast-approaching the day of his own death. This section of his address contains his reminder to the people of his permanent ban from entering the land, placed on him by God for his striking of the rock at Meribah.
“But the Lord was angry with me because of you. He vowed that I would not cross the Jordan River into the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your special possession. You will cross the Jordan to occupy the land, but I will not. Instead, I will die here on the east side of the river.” – Deuteronomy 4:21-22 NLT
With his death imminent and his time as the leader of Israel coming to a close, Moses increases the intensity of his instructions to them, in a final effort to prepare them for this next phase in their journey as God’s people. He knew his people well and was fully aware that they were going to face a myriad of temptations as they crossed over the Jordan. And one of the greatest temptations would be that of idolatry.
In recounting that momentous occasion when God gave the Law at Mount Sinai, Moses pointed out that the people had “heard the sound of his [God’s] words but didn’t see his form; there was only a voice” (Deuteronomy 4:12 NLT). Yes, there had been smoke, thunder, and lightning, and the people had clearly felt the presence of God, but He had remained invisible to them.
And Moses warned the next generation of Israelites who were preparing to enter the land to “be very careful! You did not see the Lord’s form on the day he spoke to you from the heart of the fire at Mount Sinai. So do not corrupt yourselves by making an idol in any form” (Deuteronomy 4:5 NLT). This was a repetition of the first of the Ten Commandments that God had given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
“I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery.
“You must not have any other god but me.
“You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods.” – Exodus 19:2-5 NLT
But why was Moses placing so much emphasis on this particular commandment? What was his point in stressing God’s ban on idolatry? It would appear that Moses knew that the people were going to struggle with the invisible nature of God. Their inability to see God with their eyes was going to cause them to doubt God in their hearts. He would become out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Their natural tendency would be to replace the invisible God with something more tangible and palpable. And Moses had seen first-hand just how quickly the people of Israel could turn their backs on the one true God.
All the way back at Sinai, when the people had seen the display of God’s glory and power on the mountain, they had trembled in fear. But while Moses was on top of the mountain receiving the Law from God, the people had decided that they needed a god they could see. Their leader was gone and their God, while powerful, was intangible and indiscernible. And the book of Exodus records what they did next.
When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.”
So Aaron said, “Take the gold rings from the ears of your wives and sons and daughters, and bring them to me.”
All the people took the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. Then Aaron took the gold, melted it down, and molded it into the shape of a calf. When the people saw it, they exclaimed, “O Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” – Exodus 32:1-4 NLT
While Moses was on top of the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the first of which was a prohibition against idol worship, the people were busy making and worshiping an idol. And 40 years later, Moses was well aware that the people of Israel had not outgrown their infatuation with false gods.
This tendency to worship that which we can see is hardwired into mankind. Paul addresses it in his letter to the Romans.
For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. – Romans 1:21-23 NLT
And Moses warned the Israelites about making replacement gods out “of a man or a woman, an animal on the ground, a bird in the sky, a small animal that scurries along the ground, or a fish in the deepest sea,” and he added, “when you look up into the sky and see the sun, moon, and stars—all the forces of heaven—don’t be seduced into worshiping them” (Deuteronomy 4:16-19 NLT). Because God is unseen, man’s natural tendency is to focus his attention on that which he can see. Man’s finiteness makes it difficult for him to grasp the infinite nature of God.
But God’s ban on idol worship seems to have a much more important aspect to it than first meets the eye. Moses warns the Israelites, “The Lord your God is a devouring fire; he is a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24 NLT). But there is more to this statement than God being jealous of other gods. God knows there are no such thing as “other gods.” They don’t exist. But the Israelites do. And they belong to Him. They were to be His chosen possession, and He had given them His Law as a written code of conduct. Their behavior as His chosen people was not up to their discretion, but carefully articulated in His Law.
Which is why Moses warned them, “So do not corrupt yourselves by making an idol in any form” (Deuteronomy 4:16 NLT). The Hebrew word for “corrupt” is shachath, and it means to mar or spoil. By making and worshiping false gods, the people of Israel would be damaging their ability to mirror the image of God. Not only would the be violating His Law, they would be acting just like all the other nations. Their distinctiveness as His people would be destroyed. Their uniqueness as His possession would be lost.
God had warned the Israelites, “if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6 NLT).
But idol worship would mar the image of God in the lives of His people. They would no longer reflect His distinctiveness and display His glory among the nations. Rather than displaying their one-of-a-kind status as God’s chosen people, they would profane His reputation as the great and glorious God by behaving just like all the other nations around them. And hundreds of years later, when God’s people were languishing in captivity in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel would declare the words of God:
“I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations.” – Ezekiel 36:22-23 NLT
God had chosen the nation of Israel and had set them apart for His glory. They were to have been His image-bearers on earth, living according to His Law and displaying His glory as they faithfully trusted in Him – the invisible, yet invincible God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.