“Be Loyal to God above All (Ex 20,4-5)”

by John Wijngaards, LAWS FOR LIFE Series in the New Leader, 29 April 1973; in Telugu Bharata Mithram, 3 August 1975

“You shall not make for yourself a hand-made statue or any idol of anything in heaven or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” (Exodus 20, 4-5)

The Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Canaanitee worshipped the powers of nature. The sun, the moon, the rivers, mountains, trees and animals were thought to be manifestations of different divinities. These divinities were considered the dispensers of health, life, prosperity and fertility. By making a statue or idol representing the divinity, the pagans believed that they could exercise some kind of control over the divinity involved. At the New Year festival they would celebrate the enthronement of their divinity as king of the world. The idol was carried round. People would assemble before it, bow down in front of it and proclaim their god as king. This was how in Palestine the Canaanites worshipped Baal, the god of the storm and of new life. At their spring festival they would solemnly enthrone Baal, throw themselves down before him and exclaim “Baal is king. Baal is king.”

To his chosen people God had revealed his true natura as the absolute Creator infinitely raised above nature. He had made a covenant with them, demanding that they should renounce all imperfect kinds of worship and adore Him alone. To achieve this purpose, drastic steps were necessary. ‘I’herefore, this law was promulgated by which it was forbidden that God be represented under any form whatsoever. He should not be identified with the sun, the moon or the stars (anything in heaven). He must not be compared with any mountain, river, animal or any other creature (on earth beneath). Neither should He be linked with monsters or the powers of death· (in the waters under the earth). Since God is totally different from his creation and infinitely greater than a power of nature, any statue or image would convey to people a wrong impression. The law prohibited the making of any image of God and forbade the Israelites to take part in the religious worship of any idol representing a nature god.

Veneration by Means of Statues

The reason for the law is clear. But is it not natural for a human being to desire at least some visual imagination or representation of God on which he can fix the eyes of his mind? God himself satisfied this desire of man in an all-surpassing manner. He sent his only Son so that in Him we might have “the perfect image of his nature” (Hebrews 1,3). It is by seeing Jesus that we achieve the most perfect form of seeing the Father (John 14.9). It is in Jesus’ words that we hear the Father Himself speaking. It is through Jesus’ humanity that we can channel our aspirations to the invisible God “whom no one has ever seen” (John 1,18).

The coming of Christ was understood by the early Christians as the abolition of the law forbidding statues. From the early centuries onwards we find that statues and paintings were made of Jesus, the apostles and the saints, and even of God the Father and the Holy Spirit. In the 8th Century the legitimacy of this kind of representation and of the veneration given to them was called into question. It became a fierce struggle in the Church until the legitimacy of the veneration of statues was formally acknowledged by the Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 787. A.D. The Council made clear, however, that statues and paintings are only external means through which veneration is directed to the persons represented.

Adoration to God alone

Although the veneration of statues is therefore correct, we should at the same time reeognlze that many abuses have crept in, espeeially with some popular devotions, These abuses were especially common in the Middle Ages and gave rise to the reform of the Protestants and of the Council of Trent. Some of the abuses still exist today. There are still a number of Catholics who consider the statue of St. Anthony more important than the Blessed Saorament, or who ascribe miraculous powers to particular statues in particular places of worship. Let us remember: only God is the Almighty Creator and all divine power belongs to Him alone.

It is one thing to honour a saint because he or she is so near to God. And another thing to treat the saint (or his statue) for all practical purposes as a second divinity next to Almighty God.

The law forbidding us to bow down to any idol, has also applications in a different way. Many people have one or other materialistic “idol” which they worship above everything in life. For some people this may be their career and promotion. For others it is ease and pleasure. For a third group again It may be money and power. For such people, obsessed as they are by a worship of this materialistic “idol”, the law offers a serious warning. We should love God above everything. We should be loyal to Him above all our other desires and ideals. We should never allow anything to stand in between God and ourselves. The gods of nature make their demands on us and try to tempt us to idol worship. Our duty is clear: “You Shall Not Bow Down to Them _ or Serve Them!”