BY THE REV. JAMES OWEN.
III. "God is a Spirit."
"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image," &c.—Exod. xx. 4-6.
The first word on Sinai declares that there is but one God; the second word teaches us that God is not to be worshipped under any visible representation or form. Isaiah asks, "To whom, then, will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto Him?" He is an invisible Spirit, and therefore cannot be represented in any visible shape; He is everywhere present, and therefore not a figure, confined to one place. We cannot limit the Infinite: we cannot "by searching find out God."
In the early ages of history there were no images of the Deity known. Herodotus, when writing of the manners and customs of the Persians, says, "They have among them neither statues, temples, nor altars; the use of which they censure as impious, and a gross violation of reason, probably because, in opposition to the Greeks, they do not believe that the gods partake of our human nature. Their custom is to offer from the summits of the highest mountains sacrifices to Jove, distinguishing by that appellation all the expanse of the firmament." The worship of the heavenly bodies was the earliest form of idolatry, and Moses warns against it: "Take good heed lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them." The origin of idolatry may be traced to this fact, that men looked about for some visible representations of the invisible Deity, and that in course of time the image or the symbol became a substitute for the Deity Himself. Men looked for God everywhere, and they could not see Him; they could see the stars crowning the night with glory, they could see the sunlight flooding the universe; and they said, "The sun and the stars shall be to us an image of the all-glorious Deity, a symbol of His greatness, and power, and goodness." But, as time advanced, the symbols themselves were deified, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, were worshipped and served. And then, as "the carnal mind was enmity against God," and men "became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened," they "changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things."
The Israelites, then, were forbidden to set up an image of the true God; not only forbidden to worship false gods, but also forbidden to make any image of the true God. "When Aaron made the golden calf, and Jeroboam the son of Nebat made similar images, in both instances it was the worship of Jehovah as represented by the image that was intended; and in both instances a connecting link with Egypt is afforded us in the sacred narrative. In the case of Aaron we have the fact of Egypt having been the birthland of the sinning people; while in the case of Jeroboam we have the fact that it was after a long residence in Egypt, in the court of Shishak, that he devised this worship. The prophets of Jehovah denounced it; and in the Second Book of Kings the fall of the kingdom is expressly attributed to the gods of Jeroboam. Animal-worship was common among the Egyptians; a multitude of beasts, birds, and fishes were regarded and served as representatives of their deities; the hawk, and the crocodile, and the serpent, and the lion, and the wolf, and other creatures, were the forms under which the gods were worshipped. The Israelites were therefore forbidden to make "any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth"; no bird, or beast, or fish was to be to them a representation of Jehovah; no likeness was to be made, no image was to be carved, no picture was to be painted. We believe that the masterpieces of art, whether in painting or sculpture, have a refining and elevating influence on those who admire and study them. But art is not necessarily religious, and some of the ages in which art has flourished were not remarkable for their purity or refinement. Some wonderful frescoes and paintings have been discovered in a city that was buried in ruins eighteen hundred years ago, whose iniquity was so great that a doom not unlike that of Sodom and Gomorrah overtook it; and when I visited Pompeii, and saw on the broken pillars, the mosaic floors of houses, and the frescoes on the walls, evidences that art had been busy there, I saw also that it had been the handmaid of sensuality and vice, and that the fire of genius had been burning on the altar of devils. There are some who speak as if they had found in art a gospel of salvation; but men crippled and shattered by sin may be laid every day at the gate which is called Beautiful, and yet left in their helplessness and misery. Painting and sculpture were not forbidden by this second word of the law—and we read of the forms of the cherubim in the temple—but no image was to be set up as an object of worship; and the influence of this prohibition upon the history of the Jews is perceived in the fact that no painters or sculptors have ever risen among them. They have had poets and musicians, but no painters; and while among the Greeks Phidias and Praxiteles were carving the statues that became the wonders of the world, on the roll of Hebrew worthies we find the name of no painter or sculptor.
It is remarkable that in the four Gospels we have no description of the person of our Lord, no hint as to His stature, or His face. Art has embodied its loftiest conceptions of that Divine face on the canvas, but Raphael's "Transfiguration," Holman Hunt's "Light of the "World," Dore's "Christ leaving the Praetorium," Muncacksy's "Christ before Pilate," marvellous as they all are as works of genius, do not satisfy the soul that has entered into fellowship with the Perfect life, and who feels that there is an unspeakable, infinite beauty in Him who
"WroughtThere is, indeed, one portrait which He has left of Himself, in the Supper, where He is "evidently set forth as crucified" for us. But the fact that we have in the inspired record no materials that would enable us to paint a picture or fashion a statue of our Lord, seems to add emphasis to this prohibition, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath." It is one of the strangest things in the history of the world that a rational, intelligent being should take a piece of metal, or of wood, and mould it into a certain shape, and then, investing it with the attributes of Divinity, fall down before it, and pray to it, and worship it Well might the inspired prophet wield the lash of satire when speaking of it. He says, "The carpenter stretcheth out his rule, he marketh it out with a line, he fitteth it with planes, he marketh it out with a compass, and maketh it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man, that it may remain in his house. He heweth him down cedars, and taketh the cypress and the oak, which he strengtheneth for himself among the trees of the forest; ho planteth an ash, and the rain doth nourish it. Then shall it be for a man to burn; for he will take thereof, and warm himself; yea, he kindleth it and baketh bread; yea he maketh a god, and worshippeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto. He burneth part thereof in the fire; with part thereof he eateth flesh; he roasteth meat, and is satisfied; yea, he warmeth himself, and saith, Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire; and the residue thereof lie maketh a god, even his graven image; he falleth down unto it, and worshippeth it, and prayeth unto it, and saith, Deliver me, for thou art my god." This is done, not by a little child who nurses and talks to the doll as if it were a living creature; but by an intelligent man, who can conduct business, frame wise laws for a nation, discuss great moral problems, or speak eloquently in the forum or the school; this man falls down before the idol, the toy, the nonentity, and saith, "Deliver me, for thou art my god." Idolatry robs Jehovah of His honour, and it is therefore denounced as a crime, an injustice, an offence against the Majesty on high. "Ye shall bear the sins of your idols, and ye shall know that I am the Lord God." When Jesus entered the temple of Jerusalem, and Saw those that sold oxen, and sheep, and doves, and the changers of money sitting, the blush of indignation mantled His cheek, the zeal of His Father's house kindled in His eyes, and with a sublimity and authority which none could resist, He drove the noisy, haggling hucksters out of the temple-court, and said, "Make not My Father's house a house of merchandize." And it was a live coal from the same fire of zeal that burned in the apostle's heart, as he looked upon Athens and saw the city "full of idols." Would not a true patriot look with indignation upon a foeman's flag planted on England's shore? Would not his desire be to trample that flag in the mire, or tear it to ribbons, and unfurl the old English standard that "has braved a thousand years the battle and the breeze"? And the apostle looked upon idol worship as the flag of an enemy on the territory of God, as the occupation by an enemy of the palace that belonged to God. Every idol in Athens, whether of gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device, was a challenge flung in the face of the Godhead. Every temple in which the priest sacrificed, every shady grove in which the devotee worshipped, every idolatrous rite that was practised, every idolatrous feast that was celebrated, was an insult to Him who has declared in His word, "They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy."
With human hands the creed of creeds
In loveliness of perfect deeds,
More strong than all poetic thought."
It appears to us who have never seen an idol, except in the hand of a missionary, or in a museum, monstrous that a man should bow down and worship an idol; and yet we find in history that not only the most degraded and ignorant nations were guilty of this, but also the most advanced in civilization and culture. Athens was the university of the world, and yet it had more images than all the rest of Greece put together. Idolatry was the sin to which the Jews were most prone. Surrounded by heathen nations, and forgetful of the mercies they had received from Jehovah, they were often contaminated with idol-worship; and even Solomon forsook the temple of Jehovah for an idol-grove. And to-day, not only in Africa with its fetish-worship, and India and China with their millions of gods, but also in Christendom, this image-worship prevails. Prayers to the Virgin and the saints are offered in the Romish Church, and statues and images are worshipped. In the Church of Ara Coeli, in Rome, may be seen the celebrated Bambino, a figure of the infant Jesus—a large doll covered with jewels and precious stones—and that doll is worshipped by multitudes who believe in its miraculous power. In St. Peter's there is a black bronze statue which is supposed to be a statue of Jupiter or Pluto, but now it is called St. Peter, and the extended foot of this statue is reverently kissed by Roman Catholic devotees. The foot has been actually worn out of shape by the kisses. I have seen men and women of all classes, priests and monks of all orders, go up to that bronze image and kiss the foot. This image-worship is prohibited by this second word of the law; how, then, did Rome deal with this prohibition? With the cunning craftiness of men who lie in wait to deceive, it omitted this word from the Decalogue, and divided the last commandment into two, in order to make up the number ten. The idolatry practised in the Romish Church is one of the signs of its apostasy, and of the certainty of its doom; for, as Max Midler says, "One of the lessons which the history of religions certainly teaches is this, that the curse pronounced against those who would change the invisible into the visible, the spiritual into the material, the Divine into the human, the infinite into the finite, has come true in every nation on earth." The reign of Atheism in France was a "reign of terror;" and what was it but a rebound from the superstitions and absurdities of the Papacy, a protest against the substitution of death for life, of dead forms for the living God; a declaration coming out of the deepest heart of humanity that illusions are not realities, that the soul cannot be fed on the impostures and tricks of priests, that God in Christ alone can satisfy its hunger and soothe its pain? He has revealed Himself to us, not by any bronze statue or wooden image, but by words of truth and love, by deeds of righteousness and mercy, in the person of his well-beloved Son; and He now demands our faith, our homage, our service, our love.
Consider, then, the reasons by which this prohibition is enforced. 1. He is a jealous God. Our character will receive its form and impress very much from the notions we entertain of God. If we regard Him as an impassive, emotionless, heartless Being, who is too high to take any interest in this world, who is not affected by our sorrows, by our circumstances, by our entreaties, by our condition, who does not take the slightest notice of our character, who requires not our worship, who accepts it not, then the effect will be that we shall meet indifference with indifference, we shall lead careless lives, we shall not be watchful in the formation of a character that will never be inspected by the eyes of Divinity. "How doth God know? Can He judge through the dark cloud?" But if we regard Him as the righteous and merciful Father, who is looking with pity on His rebellious children, who is seeking to wean them away from their unbelief and sin, and to bring them into the light; if we believe this, if we heartily accept this revelation, the effect will be seen in our penitential return to Him, and in our desire to please Him and serve Him. Now this verse reveals to us something of the nature and character of God. He is a Personal Being, not an abstraction, not a mere force; not a tendency, or (as Matthew Arnold puts it) "a power not ourselves that works for righteousness," whatever such a phrase may mean. To worship a God who is nothing more than that would be like paying homage to a sum in Algebra, or praying to a theorem in Euclid, or worshipping the Gulf Stream. He is a Personal Being, who loves, who may be offended, who may be grieved, who is jealous; not jealous lest He should suffer any diminution of His glory and blessedness through man's sin, but jealous lest sin should deface and destroy the nature He accounts so precious. We must not think of any of the weakness and passion of man in connection with such an emotion in God. His jealousy is His love on fire, love wounded, love insulted, love incensed. God is thirsting for man's love; there is a hunger in His heart for our confidence and affection; and when an idol occupies His throne His love is grieved; He is jealous of all that would divert the current of our desires from Him. "As a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him;" and as a father desires the love of His children, hungers for it, is grieved when he does not receive it, so the Lord is jealous. If your son were led astray by evil companions, if your daughter became the prey of the tempter, and fell from the fair Eden of purity to the hell of an abandoned life, would you not be jealous and angry? Man is God's child; and when the child is led astray, and becomes an Absalom, with the fire of defiance in his eye and the weapon of hostility in his hand, it is no wonder that God is jealous. When emissaries of the devil are trying to wrest His child from Him, it is no wonder that He is jealous. When pleasure is pursued, and Mammon is worshipped, and the bubble Fame is chased, and God is forgotten, is it a wonder that He is jealous? The stronger the love the more fierce the jealousy. It Is love that sounds the alarm, that rings the tocsin, that kindles the flame, that pours the vial of wrath. His anger is only another aspect of His love.
2. He punishes His enemies. "Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation," etc. Right across the brightness of the world lies the dark shadow of suffering. You cannot get rid of it. It is there, whether you believe the Bible or not. We see everywhere that moral characteristics and physical infirmities and sufferings are transmitted from one generation to another. And this principle of hereditary transmission is recognized in the Bible. The Jews said, "Our fathers have sinned, and are not, and we have borne their iniquities." And it was a proverb among them, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." And these words of doom were pronounced by Christ, "That the blood of all the prophets which was shed from the foundation of the world may be required of this generation; from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zecharias, who perished between the altar and the temple; verily I say unto you, it shall be required of this generation." Do you not see this principle illustrated in daily life? Children inherit the physical constitution, the propensities, the diseases, the wealth or penury, the glory or disgrace of their parents. Sometimes men are proud of their ancestors, and they "borrow merit from the dead," and if a baronet or lord has ever appeared in their family, they forget not to proclaim the fact. Good and evil are transmitted from one generation to another. But though a man may suffer on account of the sins of his ancestors, yet the suffering is never in the nature of retribution, unless the man's own guilt has called for it. If the penalty goes down to the third and fourth generation, then they are, God says, "the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me." And although innocent children may suffer the consequences of the sins of their parents, yet those consequences are temporal; in another world, and in the coming day of account, every one will be judged personally and separately; the son will not be punished for the sins of his parents, nor will he be excused on the ground of the righteousness of his parents. A man feels, and rightly, that he is not responsible for his grandfather's sins; but he may be in some measure responsible for the conduct of his children, and even grandchildren. And men are entreated to act wisely for the sake of their descendants—to be good and to do good for the sake of others. The Israelites gathered round the base of Sinai ware the founders of a new nation, a nation that was to play an important part, that would have a name in history to the end of time, and if the fountainhead were defiled, the streams would be muddy also. The little children in the camp and unborn generations would reap the advantages or disadvantages arising from their conduct. Let me urge you who are parents, for your children's sakes, to consecrate yourselves to the service of God, to fashion your life according to His will, to yield to the impulses of His Spirit. You may be standing in the way of your children's salvation; your example, your conduct, may be inviting a curse that will be inherited by them; become learners in Christ's school, and you will thus "nurture them in the chastening and admonition of the Lord." 8. And He blesses His friends. "And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me and keep My commandments "—unto thousands of generations. "Where sin hath abounded, grace hath much more abounded." "Mercy rejoiceth against judgment" There is mercy shining even in the law. In the midst of the storms of Sinai mercy is appearing like a quenchless star. I have said that moral qualities are transmitted, as well as physical features. Lying had become so characteristic of the inhabitants of Crete, that the apostle quoted the proverb, "The Cretans are always liars." Profligacy in a family may go down from one generation to another; and through its profligacy the family in the third or fourth generation becomes extinct—for sin means death and perdition. And habits of industry, and temperance, and truthfulness may go down like healthy blood from one generation to another, even to thousands of generations. But do not think that the renewing grace of God in the heart may be transmitted from sire to son, or that the spiritual life will flow down with the natural life from fathers and mothers to their children. Inherited dispositions backed by education and example may do much to secure this result, but every child must seek for himself "the good part that shall never be taken away from him." It is not the godliness of the parents, but the mercy of God, that goes down unto thousands of generations, and converts them into generations that love Him and keep His commandments.
He is now asking for our love and obedience. "Keep yourselves from idols."
"The dearest idol I have known,The throne belongs to Him; and He will not remain in the palace at all unless you offer Him the throne. You have grieved Him, and still He has not forsaken you; He has not yet written over the door of your soul, "Ichabod, the glory has departed;" He has not left you with the sentence of doom, "He hath grieved the Holy One of Israel; why should he be smitten any more?" He still loves you. He desires to save you. Welcome Him into your heart "As the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God." The alternatives are dying of thirst, or coming to the Fountain of living waters. "Choose ye this day whom ye will serve." "How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, then follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him."
Whate'er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
And worship only Thee."