The Second Commandment: Jealousy and Mercy to Thousands

In our last blog, we covered the first twenty words of the 43-word commandment against idolatry. As previously discussed, God spent those twenty words recalling the creation of the heavens and the earth and all that are within them in His command against idolatry, reminding us that God—not man—is the Creator, and we are to live in His image and likeness rather than attempt to redefine Him in ours.

After teaching us not to worship or serve false gods, He spends the remainder of His words describing His own nature:

I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations to those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:5, 6)

The language in this commandment only appear a few times throughout the Bible:

  • The LORD, merciful and gracious, longsuffering…keeping mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:7)
  • “…The LORD is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.” (Numbers 14:18)

So, what is going on in these two parallel passages, and how can they shed light upon our understanding of the second commandment?

The first passage (Exodus 34) takes place during the giving of the second set of Commandment Tablets. Why was a second pair of tablets necessary? Because Moses broke the first set. And why did he break them? Out of anger over the forging of the golden calf. You know, a golden idol. That the Israelites were worshiping. At the exact time God was writing the commandment that His people must not worship idols.

It’s incredible that the Israelites were violating this commandment at the exact moment that God was giving this commandment. And yet God—who knew full well what His people were doing—reinforced His goodness and forgiveness in that commandment, almost as if to show them His mercy to their shortcomings. And then, as He re-gave this commandment, He repeated this passage about his mercy to those who would repent, return, and love.

(It’s worth noting that the golden calf was mainly a violation of the second commandment—idolatry—but not technically a violation of the first commandment—polygamy. At least, Aaron didn’t see it that way. As Aaron formed the false idol, he declared that it was YHWH, the god who delivered them from Egypt. Of course he was wrong and of course this was blasphemy and idolatry, but at its core, it was Aaron’s attempt to worship YHWH in the opposite way that YHWH had commanded. It’s no different than “tithing” to yourself instead of the local church or forsaking the assembling of the saints to “worship” God in your own way.)

So the first parallel story—the golden calf—makes a lot of sense. That calf was a violation of the second commandment that occurred while the second commandment was being written. But what about that second story? What was happening in Numbers 14?

In Numbers 14, the twelve spies have just returned from Canaan. As you’ll recall, the Israelites are 11 days from taking their Promised Land, and they send in twelve spies (one from every tribe) to search out the area and come back with intel.

They return with tales confirming that this land is all that God promised—a bountiful and luscious land flowing with milk and honey. But ten of the spies tell the people that it’ll be impossible for them to take it. The people are too tall and too strong and too numerous, and the Israelites have no hope of victory. Only two spies—Caleb the Judahite and Joshua the Ephraimite—encourage the people to obey God, reminding them that they “are well able to overcome” because “the LORD is with us.”

And what did the people do?

And all the congregation said to stone them with stones.” (Numbers 14:10)

So… the people sided with the evil report of the ten spies. What does that have to do with idolatry?

It may not seem obvious, but the actions of the children of Israel are no different than the actions of an idol-worshiper. At its core, idolatry is about rejecting what God has said in lieu of doing things your own way. It’s about exchanging the glory of God for the image of a false, man-made god. It’s about choosing the lie rather than the truth of God’s Word.

And that’s exactly what the children of Israel did. They thought they knew better than God. Sure, YHWH had said they would take the Promised Land. But He must not have known how tall and strong the Canaanites were. Or worse, God did know, and this whole “Promised Land” thing was simply a ploy to wipe them all out. Things were way better in the oppressive land of Egypt.

Today, you may not be tempted to whittle a bear out of basswood and worship it. But you’re probably tempted to trust in the work of your hands rather than the God who richly gives all things to enjoy. You may not bow the knee to Ba’al, but if the stock market starts to sway you might rethink how much you give in your tithe or how many hours you work on the Lord’s Day.

At the end of the day, we all have a choice to make: Will we live according to the Word and do things God’s way, or are there some areas of life (from loving our enemies to disciplining our children) where God’s Word is wrong?

Choose this day whom you will serve.

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