Deuteronomy 4:15–31: Moses warns against idolatry
I’m tempted to simply quote this entire passage, as I did the last one, but I won’t, because I feel I’ll get more out of it by paraphrasing it. As always, of course, I suggest you click on the link above and go and read the passage yourself, before reading this post.
In this passage, Moses warns the Israelites not to be ensnared by idolatry. He reminds them that they saw “no form” (verse 15), when the LORD spoke to them out of the fire at Mount Horeb; therefore, they should not create any kind of an idol, “…whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below” (verses 16–18) He also warns them not to be enticed into worshipping the sun, the moon, or the stars, which are things that the LORD Himself created. Moses also reminds the Israelites that the LORD is the one who saved them out of Egypt, “the iron-smelting furnace” (verse 20).
After this, Moses tells them, again, that he will not be joining them in the Promised Land—and, once again, he says that it is because of them—and entreats them once again not to forget God’s covenant with them, nor to create any type of idol. And then he tells them something that they would be wise to remember:
For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. (verse 24)
Moses then warns the Israelites: If, after time passes in the Promised Land, they begin to worship idols, the LORD will destroy them. He will leave only a few Israelites left, and those few will be scattered among other nations. But, if they later repent, God will not abandon them:
But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the LORD your God and obey him. For the LORD your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath. (verses 29–31)
Moses tells the Israelites not to create any type of idol, because when God had spoken to them, He had shown them no form. That is, He didn’t come down looking like a man—not even an old man with a big white beard—nor did He come looking like a lion, or a bull, or anything else. One of the things that this tells us is that any image, even if it were intended to look like God, would be a poor representation, and not do Him justice. There would be no idol—no painting, no sculpture, no image of any kind—that could passably represent God. (Yes, I meant to say “passably,” not “possibly.”)
It may seem odd to us, to have the Bible refer to God as being a “jealous” God, as in verse 24 above. We don’t think of jealousy as being a godly emotion; jealousy can be—and I would say usually is—petty and sinful. However, there are cases where jealousy is not only acceptable, it’s the right reaction. If you see your spouse talking to someone of the opposite sex, and get jealous, that’s probably sinful; but if your spouse actually commits adultery, then not only can you feel jealous, you should feel jealous. He or she did something that was supposed to be reserved only for you; if you don’t feel jealous, there’s something wrong with your marriage. I purposely use marriage as an example, because God so often does in the Bible. When the Israelites worship false gods, God calls it adultery. The Israelites were to worship God, and God alone; when they didn’t, He reacted with a “holy jealousy.”
Finally, the Israelites in the Old Testament provide an interesting study in human psychology. Here in Deuteronomy, Moses clearly tells the Israelites that if they don’t follow the LORD’s commands properly, if they fall into idolatry, that God will kick them out of the Promised Land. And yet, hundreds of years later, the Israelites would abandon God, and worship other gods—but they felt that they would never be punished by God, because they were His chosen people. It was easy for them to selectively remember parts of God’s covenant with them; to remember that they were His chosen people, but not to remember the rules they had to live by, to maintain that relationship. And many modern-day Christians do the exact same thing; they believe certain parts of the Bible, but don’t know or don’t remember other, more inconvenient parts. The only cure I can think of for that is to continually read it, day after day—and not just certain parts, but the whole thing.