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After reminding Israel that God appeared to them only as fire, Moses tells them in Deut. 4:15-18,
15 So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, 16 lest you act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, 18 the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth.
This was summarized in the Second Commandment, which Moses would soon relate in his second speech in Deut. 5:8, 9.
It may surprise many to realize that few people throughout history have claimed to worship graven images. Those who have set up such graven images in their temples have always understood that these idols were not the gods themselves, but merely representations of them. They were set up to assist the people in visualizing those gods.
A graven image was an artistic rendition of men's concept of God. In this way the conceptual artist was establishing a visual “tradition of men” in the same manner that the lawyers did when they interpreted God's laws according to the carnal mind and human reasoning.
This is the key to understanding the difference between the fire of God and a graven image. Fire is always moving and changing, so one must rely upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to understand the mind of God. A graven image establishes a viewpoint, a concept of God, and then fixes it in stone, wood, or metal—as if it were the whole truth.
It all boils down to the basic difference between God and our understanding of God. This was one of the first lessons that I learned when I began to study the law seriously in 1978. A graven image is a tradition of men expressed artistically. However the artist expresses it, we can be sure that it falls short of absolute truth, for the mind of man in its present state is incapable of comprehending the full glory of God.
In Ezekiel 14 we have the revelation of the prophet to help us understand this Second Commandment. The elders had made an appointment to speak to the prophet and inquire of a word from God. God told Ezekiel ahead of time that they had already decided upon their course of action and were seeking only for God to bear witness to their view. If God agreed, fine. If He disagreed, they would go ahead and do what they had already determined.
Here is what God said in Ezekiel 14:3,
3 Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts, and have put right before their faces the stumbling block of their iniquity. Should I be consulted by them at all?
An idol in the heart is a carnal viewpoint establishing the character or will of God. When we approach God, we must not rely upon the carnal mind or upon human reasoning. We must come truly with an open mind in order to hear His voice without opposition from any idol in the heart. Our pre-conceived notions are so ingrained into us that we do not even realize the effect that they have upon our thought patterns and upon our prayer life.
In assuming we know the whole truth about anything, we stop our ears and blind our eyes to what God might say about any given topic. We look at the idol and assume that it is God. We go to God in prayer, and most of the time we do not understand the influence of many idols in our heart. We even receive divine revelation without realizing that even absolute truth can be skewed by those same idols, as revelation is filtered through our souls.
You see, hearing God's voice itself is not the problem. We all hear His voice, whether we realize it or not. God is always speaking. He is not a quiet God. The real problem is heart idolatry. The problem is that the idols in our heart distort the word and cause us to interpret it in a way that is consistent with that preconceived notion formed by a graven image. At the root of this is human pride, common to all men, by which we assume that what we think we know is, in fact, truth. That assumption prevents us from studying it thoroughly with prayer for the Holy Spirit to have His say in the matter.
I have seen this many times in myself and in others. I thank God that some very impressive idols in my own heart have collapsed under the weight of truth at various times, even though the resulting earthquakes have shaken my house each time. It makes me wonder how many more are yet hidden from me, and my constant prayer is for God to expose them. Let the Ark of God cause the idol of Dagon—the fish god—to crash to the ground (1 Sam. 5:1-4).
My own wilderness experience in the 1980's was not merely about learning to hear God's voice. It was about learning to hear without idols in the heart. As God dealt with my own heart, I was able to see that my own condition was common to all men. It made me wonder how many well-known and well-respected prophets in the Church understood this heart problem, since most of them had never seriously studied the law.
I often read what these prophets say. Some revelation, of course, is just plain false. That is to be expected. However, much of it is merely distorted, misidentified, or misunderstood, because a true word is interpreted according to the idols of their heart. For example, many receive glowing prophecies about “Israel,” and they immediately interpret it according to their assumptions that the Israeli state is the biblical Israel. The revelation itself may be absolutely true, but their preconceived assumptions cause them to apply it incorrectly.
I recall many times in the 1980's, after receiving a divine instruction, I attempted to do what God had instructed, only to fail miserably. Confused, I stopped trying to fulfill the word, and a few years later I found myself doing it naturally and without effort. I then remembered how Moses killed an Egyptian after receiving the revelation of his identity as an Israelite and knowing that he was to be their deliverer (Ex. 2:12). He had attempted to fulfill the revelation by the power of the flesh and by the logic of his carnal mind.
Moses did not know that he needed about 40 more years of spiritual training to fulfill his calling. Even so, God had revealed to me in June 1982 that before I was ready for ministry I would need twelve years of training—but that was hard to comprehend or believe at the time. Twelve years seems like a long time until you look back on it.
My training began Nov. 12, 1981, and the Jubilee Prayer Campaign began Nov. 21-29, 1993. Until then, God would not allow me to take the lead in spiritual warfare, “lest you act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves” (Deut. 4:16).
So why did God tell Moses to construct a bronze serpent in Num. 21:8? Was that not a “graven image”? If so, then why was this not a sin?
First of all, if it was commanded by God Himself, then it was not motivated by human reasoning of the carnal mind. In fact, there was no logical reason to believe that looking at a bronze serpent would heal people when they were bitten by the fiery serpents in the wilderness. No carnal logic would have conceived of such a solution.
Secondly, it was not to be worshiped as Christ, but was only a prophetic type (John 3:14). Constructing a graven image is not a violation of the commandment. The problem is worship. When it was worshiped later, Godtold King Hezekiah to destroy it. 2 Kings 18:3 and 4 says,
3 And he did right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father David had done. 4 He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan.
Nehushtan means “something made of cooper or bronze.” Nechash is the word for bronze, and nahash means “snake or serpent.” Both of these words are spelled with the same Hebrew letters, differing only in pronunciation.