by Bob Wheeler

The Idolatry of the Golden Calf

The Idolatry of the Golden Calf


As we have seen in our consideration of the First Commandment, what made Israel unique in the ancient world was its belief that there is only one true and living God, and that He alone should be worshipped. But the Second Commandment introduces another startling difference – God is not to be represented by a physical image. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image – any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them” (Ex. 20:4,5a; NKJV).

There is an obvious reason for this. God is infinitely greater than anything we can imagine. Thus for us to try to make a physical representation of Him would only degrade and demean Him – make Him appear to be far less than what He actually is – like some finite, earthly, created thing. “Take heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. And take heed, lest when you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the Lord has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage’ (Dt. 4:15-19)

God is infinite and eternal, all-present and all-powerful. The prophet Isaiah describes the majesty and power of God this way:

“Behold, the nations are as a drop in a bucket,

And are counted as the small dust on the scales . . .

All the nations before Him are as nothing and worthless.”

Isa. 40:15,17

He then asks the very pointed question,

“To whom then will you like God?

Or what likeness will you compare to Him?”

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And he goes on to point out how utterly foolish worshipping a carved image is.

Why, then, do people do it? There is a faulty psychology at work here.

“For the wicked boasts of his heart’s desire;

He blesses the greedy and renounces the Lord.

The wicked in this proud countenance does not seek God;

God is in none of his thoughts.”

Ps. 10:3,4

This, of course, is the very essence of modern secularism. But what is especially interesting is how the wicked rationalizes his behavior:

“He has said in his heart,

‘God has forgotten;

He hides His face;

He will never see.’”   v. 11

In other words, he develops an anthropomorphic conception of God – God is essentially like us, with all of our human limitations.   Dealing with God is like dealing with the government – it is all a matter of what you can get away with. Or, as God put it, “You thought that I was altogether like you” (Ps. 50:21).

By the same token, when we think about what we would like to worship we often project our own desires onto some imaginary deity. We worship the mirror image of ourselves. The ancient Canaanites worshipped a sex goddess, and the pagan deities of the Greeks shared the same vices as those who worshipped them. Thus the apostle Paul could say that men “exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen” (Rom. 1:25).

Again, most modern Westerners would never think of bowing down to worship some crude, wooden stone or metal image. But we still have the same psychology of idolatry. The only difference is that the false gods we worship exist only inside of our own heads. We claim to worship God, but He is a God that we have refashioned in our own image. A classic example is theological liberalism, which has a conception of God, but not one base on the Bible. Beginning with what they would like to believe is true (the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, along with the elimination of the supernatural) then then proceed to rewrite biblical history. But what did they accomplish in the process? A view of history base on pure speculation and conjecture, and a purely imaginary god – one that is significantly less than the Creator-God described in the Bible. In the end the liberals simply succeeded in making themselves irrelevant.

But sometimes even self-described evangelicals are guilty of nearly the same thing. We start with our own preconceived notion about what the role of women should be, for example, and then resort to contorted exegesis to get the text to fit our ideas of what the truth should be. Is this an honest way to interpret Scripture?

In either case what we have done is to worship a “God” of our own making, and in the end we have only succeeded in deluding ourselves. God can only be known as He has been pleased to reveal Himself to us in Scripture, and we must approach the text with humble, honest and believing minds. Anything else is a form of idolatry.