As we prepare for this year’s Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we are asking several writers to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort into our lives and yours over the next few weeks. If you are interested in thinking through the meaning of “declare” further, sign up for the Forum today!
Worship and Service
This was originally written as a sermon based on the text of Exodus 20:4–6. Particularly as the end of Holy Week approaches, this sermonic declaration reminds us how valuable the work of God is—and how we can find satisfaction in the God who makes an exclusive claim upon us.
One of my favorite books of the Bible is Exodus. In it, we see all of salvation history compressed into several chapters. Specifically, though, it can all focus down on one of the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20:4–6:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any form which is in heaven above, or on earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to worship them, nor shall you enslave yourself to them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, who visits the sin of the parents upon their children unto three or four generations of those who hate me, and who shows steadfast lovingkindness to thousands of generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
“You shall not bow down to worship them, nor shall you enslave yourself to them.” This pair of commands, found 26 other times in the Old Testament, appears first here, in the Decalogue. Strange, perhaps—bowing down to worship being equated with enslaving oneself. Yet the two actions, conceptually, are not all that different.
God and Pharaoh
So what is it about God that makes the Israelites’ situation better after Sinai than when they were in Egypt? After all, they are still in slavery.
Bowing down. Showing obeisance. Prostrating before. Kneeling in front of. Doing work on behalf of. Worshipping is not all that different from serving—the Hebrew word ’abad is used to describe both. Indeed, Exodus is the story of the people of Israel, being brought out of slavery in Egypt to Sinai, where they entered into servitude—worship—of God. It is the narrative of a people going from ’abad to ’abad. So what is it about God that makes the Israelites’ situation better after Sinai than when they were in Egypt? After all, they are still in slavery. And from this passage, we know they still serve a jealous, possessive master, one who is very reluctant to see the Israelites serve another.
Put this way, God doesn’t seem all that different than Pharaoh, which is a problem. See, if in committing ourselves to this God, this Yahweh, we are just committing ourselves to another Pharaoh who will use and abuse us, count me out. In fact, send me back to Egypt, since at least I know what Pharaoh wants from me. At least I know how to pacify his rage and jealousy. This God, this master, needs to be different somehow. Serving and worshipping this God needs to be satisfying in a deep, profound way.
Depending on how you count, up to four of the commandments have motivational clauses: the first, the fourth, the fifth, and this one. Of those, this one seems to be the largest stretch. God, it seems, doesn’t want us to make images because… God gets jealous? And not only that, but God’s jealousy transcends generations to punish the children and the grandchildren of the image-maker.
Jealous of Idols?
Idols. Graven images. Forms and likenesses of anything above or below us, or on the earth with us. These aren’t things we need to deal with like the Israelites did. Clearly, we don’t practice creating and decorating three-dimensional symbols of our deepest desires. We don’t have a problem following the literal meaning of this commandment.
Anger, alcohol, control, and success aren’t inherently wrong. But when they become what nourishes us; what we find ourselves daydreaming about; what we invest time, energy, and resources into pursuing—when they become the meaning for our existence, then we have fashioned graven images.
Yet many of us have seen the haunted look in the eyes of a high schooler whose father is abusive. The alcoholism, the anger, or just the need to control—all of these can lead to such a situation. And this life choice of trying to find satisfaction through substance abuse, through rage, or through micromanaging visits its effects on the third and fourth generation. After all, children learn what love looks like from watching their parents.
Or what about the young person driven by success? Taking all honors/AP/IB classes, this child still also finds time to participate in student leadership, play two sports, attend youth group semi-regularly, and join the debate team. Never satisfied with average, or “good enough,” this young person shows the initial signs of workaholism. Like substance abuse, this can damage relationships, and the perfection demanded and expected by this person can visit its effects on their children, and their children’s children.
Anger, alcohol, control, and success aren’t inherently wrong. But when they become what nourishes us; what we find ourselves daydreaming about; what we invest time, energy, and resources into pursuing—when they become the meaning for our existence, then we have fashioned graven images. We have constructed a dream to live in service of pursuing, and whenever we look just to our own dreams for satisfaction, we sell ourselves short. They fail to satisfy, no matter how much we sometimes convince ourselves they might.
Election as Jealousy
When we think of ourselves and our world as only that which we can see, we inevitably neglect the God who is unseen. When our hopes and dreams stay grounded in what we believe, in our short-sightedness, to be possible, we reject the God who overcame death. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter, and when we pursue only what is seen—only what can be achieved in this life—we neglect our true selves, the part of ourselves that is in this world only as a resident alien and a visiting stranger. This is what makes God a master worth following and Pharaoh not. God cares holistically for us, and wants us to bring our entire selves to worship. Such all-encompassing service and worship truly satisfies.
This is what makes God a master worth following and Pharaoh not. God cares holistically for us, and wants us to bring our entire selves to worship. Such all-encompassing service and worship truly satisfies.
Perhaps this is why God gets jealous. The difference between jealous and zealous is only one letter, yet how large a difference that letter makes! Jealousy implies an unhealthy possessiveness, while zeal suggests a certain passion on behalf of a cause worth fighting for. But both words, in English, stem from the same Greek root, which can refer to one’s ardor in embracing, pursuing, or defending another. God’s jealousy is what prompted God to liberate the Israelites from captivity in the first place. Indeed, since God knows we are wired to worship and serve something or someone greater than ourselves, God claims us as a treasured possession out of all the peoples of the earth. Jealousy and election are two sides of the same coin.
Being Satisfied in God
But God also knows how prone we are to wander—how much we yearn to find satisfaction in the arms of one who does not ask so much of us. There is a desire in human beings both toward commitment as well as toward independence. The desire to be part of the group, but also to stand out. The desire to be invested without being trapped. It is out of this desire that an eagerness to construct idols grows. See, the worship and service of God can be totally satisfying, but after seeing someone who scoffs at the God we serve succeeding and showing off their success, God starts to seem subpar.
Suddenly, dissatisfaction creeps in because we wonder if God could be taking better care of us. The demons—the all too familiar, invisible demons—we need to struggle against seem absent from this other person’s life. The grass is always greener, after all, until we see behind the curtain, behind the mask of the person who seemed to have it all together. While others might project satisfaction, serving and worshipping God can actually, truly satisfy.
However, true satisfaction is like cakes, ice cream, and beer: making it takes time, and we tend to get impatient. This is why God needs to tell the Israelites so frequently not to bow down to worship or enslave themselves to other gods. This is why 1 John ends, rather abruptly, with the command, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” While our traditions and culture have changed since biblical times, our basic wiring hasn’t. Our souls are restless until they find their rest in the only being in the universe who can support the weight of our worship.
The task of creating graven images was one requiring skill, time, patience, and valuable resources. These graven images would often be made of stone or wood, then gilded with some alloy composed of precious metals. The creative work of coaxing a desired shape to emerge from a block of wood takes dedication and practice. To dedicate these resources of time, skill, and energy to something that can never satisfy is a tragic waste. But when our entire lives are worship of the One who has given us that creative spark, we find that this worship and service satisfies in a deep, profound way.
The only Being who can bear the weight of our praise without breaking and letting us down is this jealous, possessive God. This One who forbids us from worshipping any other—not out of spite or pettiness, but out of a deep knowledge of who we are.
Jonathan Edwards once wrote, “One of the great evils of idolatry is that if we idolize, we must demonize.” Perhaps the best-known person to have popularized this idea in recent years was a then-Seattle based pastor named Mark Driscoll, who paraphrased the above quote, “What you idolize, you will eventually demonize.” We are worshipping creatures, yearning to find something or someone to name as valuable and worth all of ourselves. But the only Being who can bear the weight of our praise without breaking and letting us down is this jealous, possessive God. This One who forbids us from worshipping any other—not out of spite or pettiness, but out of a deep knowledge of who we are.
So let us dedicate ourselves, always and forever, to avoiding idolatry in all its forms. Whether lifting up love, justice, equity, peace—all of which are good, wonderful things—let us remember that none of these can bear the weight of our worship. As luminous beings ourselves, let us deign to approach nothing but the unseen source of our light, bowing down to worship and enslaving ourselves to none but God alone.
Joel Moody is an M.Div. student at Princeton Theological Seminary and is working toward ordination in the PC(USA). He believes not only that young people are the future of the church, but that they also have an integral role to play in the present. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, he loves any excuse to play sports or board games, particularly with his wife, Kate.