Concrete Idols

The concreteness is the problem.

Numbers 21:8–9

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

Despite its original holy purpose, this bronze serpent is destined to cause problems.

And he did what was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father David had done.

He removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan. — 2 Kings 18:3–4

What’s wrong with what the Israelites burning incense to the bronze serpent?

It’s wrong because it’s idolatry, and God specifically commanded us to not make idols.

But isn’t this particular idol an exception since God specifically told Moses to make it? If not, why not?

It became a problem because it became a distraction. This gets to the heart of the psychology of idols—and to the heart of this series on “Things Too Wonderful.”

The point of this series is not the distractions but the things we’re to not be distracted from—those things too wonderful for me as Job said. Those are the heavenly things that cannot be described, things that can only be partially described using rhetorical devices like parables, things that stretch our imagination.

Using imagination to try to comprehend things too wonderful for us is okay because we know they’re imagined and not reality. This keeps it at the right level of certainty—zero. Properly applied, using imagination is safe, but that safety comes from not forgetting that it’s just imagination.

Idols, on the other hand, are concrete—no imagination required. They are, at best, inaccurate depictions of things too wonderful for us. This fact is easily missed because we don’t have to strain to understand them. They bring too much certainty to our conception.

That’s a type of distraction.

So, this lesson has two takeaways. First, one of the dangers of idols is that they can distract us from the full truth by giving us a concrete representation of things which cannot be represented concretely. Never trust an idol.

Second, never trust your imagination either. Imagination is good, even necessary, but don’t think too highly of it. Always remember that you’re trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Worship the incomprehensible as incomprehensible. Anything else isn’t really worship.

All the weekly study guides, which include all five devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:

Mike Slay

As a mathematician, inventor, and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, Mike Slay brings an analytical, conversational, and even whimsical approach to the daily study of God's Word.