One of the constant tensions in the human experience is between substance and symbolism. This may take many forms. Like how we dress. What car we drive. The symbols we display, such as our national flag or a ribbon supporting a cause. Sometimes the symbols matter; often, they lack substance. It is interesting that the second of the Big Ten commandments deals with a similar issue.
Exodus records, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:3–6, NASB95)
The Hebrews had just escaped a culture that was steeped in idol worship. Statues, monuments, and glyphs of the Egyptian gods were everywhere. Thinking that an image is necessary for worship, the Hebrews convinced Aaron to create a Golden Calf to represent the God that freed them (See Exodus 32). All in the name of YHWH. Why wasn’t God pleased? After all, they were (kind of) worshipping Him. Understanding why God was angry at the Golden Calf reveals much of His desire and our folly.
We, as humans, often confuse and elevate symbols over substance. God knows that about us. We can easily worship a symbol and ignore the substance of a real relationship. By worshiping a symbol, the Hebrews were short-circuiting their relational connection with a personable God.
In this day and age, few of us have idols in our homes, although there are cultures where that is prevalent. But, whether we know it or not, idolatry is still a problem and temptation. An idol can be anything or anyone whom we worship or serve, instead of or in addition to God. It can be an ideal that we worship. Idols can be celebrities whom we adore more than God. They can be causes or passions. They may also be our own fears, pain, shame, or guilt. Even our expressions of Christian faith (our churches, practices, dogma, and programs) can become idols. Basically, idols are anything that misdirects or confuses our personal relationship with the Living God.
Loving God means loving God and not some symbol of God (whatever form that symbol may take).
Our choices not only affect us but those who follow us. God’s statement, “for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me” seems harsh. But children tend to adopt the habits of their parents (whether they admit it or not is a different matter). And we see that bad habits flow down generationally but that they can also be broken through the power of Christ. But notice that on the bad side of the ledger, God only looks a few generations ahead, while on the good side, God looks thousands of generations ahead.
But here, we must be careful not to create another idol. We must look at ourselves and our own choices instead of wearing the cloak of victimhood. Part of loving God means forgiving others as we have been forgiven by God. That includes forgiving the failures of the previous generations. By avoiding idolatry in any form and fully loving God, we are literally changing the future.