When is an idol not an idol?

It is apt to interpret the Ten Commandments in light of Jesus extension of their reach. The command of Ex. 20:13 to not murder, according to Jesus teaching, includes hatred and anger (Mt. 5:21f). Similarly, the seventh commandment (Ex. 20:14) encompasses lustful thought (Mt. 5:27f). Thus, on this understanding, follows the statement of Rom 3:23: ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.

In applying the Ten Commandments today, Christians (rightly) do not limit the second commandment (Ex. 20:2-5) to the mere creation of carved/forged gods. Nevertheless, I wonder how far we have rolled the first and second commandments together without warrant? For example, it is not uncommon to hear preachers ask ‘what are the idols in your life?’ and go on to explain that idols are anything that has taken the place of God as first in your life.

However, I wonder whether this is a misclassification. In OT times, it is probable the creation of an idol meant an individual was likely to be breaking both the first and second commandments concurrently. I suppose it is possible that one could make an image which supposedly “represents” God without making that image a specific object of worship, thus falling foul of the second commandment alone. However, on the literal OT reading of the moral law, one could easily place another god before Yahweh without making a ‘graven image’ to worship alongside. 

When interpreting the Ten Commandments for the modern day, most preachers rightly suggest an explanation of idolatry as merely creating carved images is not the extent of this command. However, is it strictly true to argue that anything we place before God is an idol? Such certainly appears to fall foul of the first commandment but not so obviously the second.

Now, let me quickly explain what I am not saying. I am not suggesting those things we often call idols are somehow OK for the Christian. I am not suggesting the consequences of what we often call ‘idolatry’ are not indeed the very consequences we will face. I am not suggesting it is somehow acceptable to place things before God and make them objects of worship.

Here is what I am suggesting. The problem of “anything that takes the place of God in your life” (a legitimate thing to highlight as sin) seems to fall foul of the first commandment. Lumping idolatry in with this combines the first and second commandments, making no real distinction between the two, without any warrant from scripture to do so. If our typical explanation of idolatry is in reality an explanation of failure to obey the first commandment, contemporary application of the second commandment must surely be something else beyond this.

This begs the question: what should be the application of idolatry for the modern reader? If the first commandment prohibits placing any god before Yahweh, the application of the second commandment surely cannot be the very same thing. Perhaps the first commandment prohibits placing anything before Yahweh (those things we typically define as modern-day idols falling under this bracket) whilst the second proscribes altering the image of Yahweh. That is to say, anything by which we limit or change the character of God is, to all intents and purposes, a modern day idol. To argue that God is not who He claims to be, to change his person, nature, etc is to worship a “false image”.

Now, this is something of a tentative attempt to maintain a distinction between the first and second commandments. I am convinced the first and second commandments must have different things in mind, for why have two commandments that target the same thing? Similarly, given they must be addressing two separate problems, it follows the application and reach of these separate commandments must – at least in some way – be distinct. My suggestion above is just an attempt (perhaps a misplaced one) to maintain this distinction and address the reality that two commandments must mean two different things and thus be applied in different ways.