All Jews and Christians regard the Ten Commandments as a very special part of scripture: how could it be otherwise when this is the only part that God wrote down Himself? (Exodus 31:18, 32:15-16) Of particular importance are the first five verses which Christians and Jews variously count as one or two commandments (the differences in numbering are the subject of another Fish Hooks). Here are those verses from the Exodus 20 text (the nearly identical text is found in Deuteronomy 5):
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
3 You shall have no other gods before me.
4 You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or 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. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
In his Small Catechism Luther reduced this all to: “You shall have no other gods.” Downplaying the verbiage about “carved images” seems sensible, since the days are long past when people worshipped self-fabricated gods. Or are they?
Even disregarding all the places in the world where people still do worship ‘carved images,’ the idolatry of worshipping the works of our own hands certainly still persists in our modern world. In fact, it can be argued that the practice is particularly pervasive in Western culture. Now we could talk at some length about how our society is preoccupied with all the stuff created by human ingenuity and effort (e.g., cars, homes, fashions, careers, sports, technology, and especially money), and there can be no question that all of these man-made things can displace God in our affections. However, there is also a growing cult of worship for an even more basic ‘work of man’ – the deification of self. In plain words: building ourselves up as our own god.
There is, of course, nothing new about humans thinking they should exercise the prerogatives of God – that’s what got Adam and Eve in trouble right off the bat. And there have always been a lot of people believing that they can make something special of themselves, independent of God. But what seems remarkable about today’s world is how it has become mainstream teaching that nothing is more important than the self-fulfillment of the individual – what we might call “I-dolatry.” This is a malady that afflicts not only the secular world, but also the church when theological debates increasingly turn, not on what God’s Word can teach us, but on the “rights” of the individual to self-determination and pursuit of happiness on one’s own terms (a form of self-worship that can be found in both liberal and conservative quarters). Rather than giving glory and obedience to the God who created us, we are all too prone to instruct God to glorify what we’ve made of ourselves. Yet God made it clear in His commandments given on Mount Sinai and reinforced by His prophets ever since, that nothing but grief will come to those who place anything ahead of Him – and that emphatically includes our own self-esteem! We are indeed each unique and valuable, but that is to the sole credit of our Triune God: creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, and He alone is worthy of our worship.
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)