Art, Idolatry and the Glory of God

Founders Journal · Spring 2004 · pp. 20-24

Art, Idolatry and the Glory of God

Ken Puls

The arts have received much attention in recent days. Amidst the stir caused by the release of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, many Christians are asking questions. Should we support or encourage participation in the arts? How involved should we be in the arts? How can we participate in and enjoy the arts as followers of Christ?

If we are to find answers to these questions, we must look to the Scriptures. The Word of God has much to say about art. Art is a gift of God. He ordained it. He commends it in His Word. It can serve good purposes when it is used and enjoyed in the light of His provision and commandments. But art can also go astray. It can overstep the bounds of God’s Law. It can too easily become an occasion for sin—particularly the sin of idolatry—and rob God of His glory.

We see a clear example of the value and the dangers of art in the Old Testament accounts of the Ark of Testimony. In Exodus 25:10–22 God gave instructions to Moses for designing the Ark. Later in Exodus (37:1–9) we read how the Ark was created according to God’s instructions.

Notice from these passages:

  • God planned, designed and gave specific instructions for creating and artistically embellishing the ark.
  • The art work adorning the ark is representational—it includes cherubim, “an image made in the likeness of a beings in heaven above.”
  • This work of art had a specific purpose in Israel’s worship of God in the Tabernacle. It held the mercy seat, serving as a meeting place for God and His people (25:22).
  • It was fashioned according to God’s Word by an artist, Bezalel, whom God had specifically gifted for the task and filled with His Spirit (35:30–35).
  • God also gave this work of art content or meaning. It was not just a convenient storage cabinet or decorative piece of furniture for the Tabernacle. The Ark symbolized the presence of God with His people and the promise of His enduring mercy.

In 1 Chronicles 16 David brought the Ark of Testimony to Jerusalem with great celebration. He pitched a tent for it and “appointed some of the Levites to minister before the Ark of the Lord, to bring petition, to give thanks and to praise the LORD God of Israel” (16:4). In thanksgiving to God the Levites sang a psalm composed by David (16:7–36). In this psalm David interpreted through music and poetry the meaning of the Ark of Testimony. He exhorted Israel with the refrain: “Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever” (16:34). This refrain echoes throughout the Old Testament (2 Chronicles 20:21; Psalm 106:1; 107:1; 118: 1, 29; 136; Ezra 3:11; Jeremiah 33:11) as God’s people rejoice in the enduring mercy of God.

At the dedication of Solomon’s Temple (2 Chronicles 5:13; 7:3, 6) the Levites again sang David’s refrain when the Ark of Testimony was set in the Holy of Holies. Solomon reminded the people of Israel of the words of Moses (Deuteronomy 7:9) as he prayed: “LORD God of Israel, there is no God in heaven or on earth like You, who keep Your covenant and mercy with Your servants who walk before you with all their hearts” (2 Chronicles 6:14).

The Ark of Testimony was a powerful symbol of the power and presence of God with His people. David ended his psalm sung before the Ark, with the words: “And say, ‘Save us, O God of our salvation; gather us together and deliver us from the Gentiles, to give thanks to Your holy name, to triumph in Your praise.’ Blessed be the LORD God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting” (2 Chronicles 16:35–36). Israel was to remember that their salvation is only in God.

When the armies of Israel faced their enemy in Joshua 6, the Ark was carried into battle as a testimony that God was their strength and they could only prevail in His might and power. Israel marched around the city of Jericho with the Ark, as God had instructed them. Joshua said to the people: “Shout, for the Lord has given you the city!” (6:16). God caused the walls to come down and the city was taken.

Scripture, however, records another occasion where the Ark was carried into battle with a much different outcome. In 1 Samuel 4 Israel was at war with the Philistines and the elders of Israel said: “Let us bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh to us, that when it comes among us it may save us from the hand of our enemies” (4:3). In this situation Israel looked to the Ark itself for help. What God has designed and given them for their good, they turned into an idol. Notice that this was also the mindset of the Philistines. In 1 Samuel 4:7 when the Ark was brought into the camp and all Israel shouted, the Philistines were afraid and said: “God has come into the camp!” They were accustomed to gods that must be carried. The God of Israel, however, would not have His people follow an idol. He would not have them worship Him by means of a crafted image. In 4:11 the Philistines captured the Ark and carried it away with them as a trophy of their victory.

The account continues in 1 Samuel 5 in one of the more humorous passages in the Bible. The Philistines brought the Ark and placed it in the temple of Dagon, their false god. When they returned the next morning, the statue of Dagon had “fallen on its face to the earth before the Ark of the Lord (5:3).” This was embarrassing to the Philistines, so they set the Dagon statue in its place again. When they returned the second time, not only was Dagon again fallen to the ground, his head and the palms of his hands were broken off. God also sent sickness and plague among the Philistines until they concluded that they could not keep the Ark.

In 1 Samuel 6 the Ark was returned to Israel. God had taught them an important lesson—salvation is of the Lord. It is not the Ark that saves (the Ark was only a symbol); God and God alone accomplishes the salvation of His people. The next time the armies of Israel are in battle with the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:8) the children of Israel say to Samuel: “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, that He may save us from the hand of the Philistines.” As Israel looked to God for help, He answered their cries by confounding the Philistines and giving them the victory.

So what does all of this have to do with art? Israel’s experiences with the Ark teach us an important lesson. Art and our abilities to create and enjoy art are good gifts from God, But art, even God ordained works of art, can be used for evil purposes and become an occasion for sin. We must be careful to guard our hearts even as we enjoy good and worthwhile art.

Principles for Enjoying Art

How then can we enjoy and participate in art in ways that honor God and avoid the sin of idolatry? To answer this we will consider the following five principles. These principles have application in all of our activities and endeavors, but we will focus especially on participation in art.

1. We must participate in art in submission to God and His Word.

If we are to conduct ourselves in ways that are pleasing to God we must begin by knowing His Word and submitting ourselves to its authority. We must know what God reveals of Himself (His character, attributes, perfection and glory), of us (our sinfulness, depravity and need of salvation), of the Law (what God requires and rightly commands of us as His creatures), and the Gospel (the way He has provided for our salvation and growth in godliness). The Bible is our rule of faith and practice and if we are to live in a way pleasing to God, enjoying the gifts He graciously gives to us, we must first pursue knowing and being obedient to His Word.

The Word of God gives us clear commands and instructions that must guide our participation. In the second commandment God said: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—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; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:4–5).

What does God forbid in this commandment? Can we stop at verse 4, as some have done, and condemn the fashioning of all images? Obviously not, because God Himself had the cherubim carved at the ends of the mercy seat on the Ark (a likeness of something in heaven above). The force of the commandment is in verse 5. We are not to bow down to idols or serve them. God reveals that He cannot and will not be worshipped through carved images. He is Spirit and will not be represented by physical shapes. God will not allow His people to direct their love and trust for Him to some lifeless creation of men’s hands.

In Exodus 32 Israel violated God’s Law by breaking this commandment, fashioning a carved image of a golden calf to represent God in their worship. In 1 Samuel 4 they committed a similar sin, trusting in the presence of the Ark (which they could see with their eyes) rather than God Himself (whom they could only see by faith). They fell into sin because they were not content to follow and worship a God they could not see or touch. God is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:24). Israel rejected the spiritual nature of God and sought through art to give Him a physical shape or image.

We must be careful to participate in art in ways that do not violate the clear commands and teaching of Scripture. We must not use the arts to fashion an object with our hands and then make that object the focus of our worship as if it stood in the place of God. Art can never stand in the place of God. We cannot make or carve an image and then say in our worship: “This represents our God.” God is jealous of our love and will not have us giving it to images of false gods or even to images that attempt to represent the true God. We are not to bow down and serve artistic creations. We are not to attribute to art what only God can do. Art must be subservient to God, His will, and His commands. As we participate in art we begin by asking, “Is my participation in submission to God and His Word?”

Where art turns its back on God and God’s Moral Law, and attempts in the guise of culture to exalt and promote evil as if it were good, it should be abandoned. Where art is used as a means to distract people from God and turn people away from those things that are pleasing to God, it should be forsaken. We must embrace art only as it serves to help us embrace God.

2. We must participate in art with an aim to love.

As we seek to walk in obedience to God’s Word, we must aim at love. Love is the essence and fulfillment of the Law. God commands us not to murder, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to covet because it is His desire that we “love our neighbor as ourselves” (Romans 13:8–10). He tells us to flee from idolatry because He desires that we love Him with all our heart, mind, will and strength. The fruit and goal of our obedience to His Law is love.

As we participate in art, we must ask: “Is my participation increasing my love for God, His Word and His ways? Is it helping me better love and understand those around me? Art can be a useful revealer of the heart. As we see the books people read, the movies they watch, the music they listen to, the paintings and other art they enjoy, we begin to get an idea of what they cherish and value. Art that is worthwhile will always give us needed insight that will spur us on to love God, first and foremost, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

In 1 Timothy 1:5 Paul reminded Timothy that obedience is rooted in love that springs “from a pure heart, from a good conscience and from a sincere faith.” We need a heart that has been made alive in Christ, cleansed and purified in His gospel, covered with His righteousness and in pursuit of His holiness. We need a conscience that is free from the guilt and pollution of sin, “without offense toward God and men” (Acts 24:16). And we need a sincere faith, free from hypocrisy, trusting fully and only upon Jesus Christ.

We must consider our conscience as we make decisions concerning art. If we are convicted that it would be sin for us to participate in certain works of art, then we should not participate. We should always seek to inform and subject our conscience to the Word of God, but we are not to violate our conscience. The conscience is always in need of being directed by the Word of God, but we ignore it only to our peril.

Any participation in art that leads us away from holiness and toward guilt and insincerity must be cast off. We should ask questions before participating in art. Is this a book I can read without feeling defiled? Would I feel comfortable sharing it with other church members or my pastor? Is this a movie I can watch with a clear conscience before God? Would I be embarrassed or ashamed if others knew I had watched it? Is this a painting or photograph I can view with a pure heart? Would it dishonor the name of Christ if others knew I had seen it?

We must not imbibe art that is inconsistent with our Christian walk and witness. We are called to “be imitators of God as dear children” and “walk in love as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us” (Ephesians 5:1–2). This includes our participation in art, If our choices of art distance us from God and cause us to hope He is not looking, or make worship seem out of place, or tear down rather than edify, then our art has become an encumbrance. We need to repent, “lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily ensnares us,” flee to Christ for mercy and make new choices.

3. We must participate in art with our focus on the heart more than the form.

As we seek to obey God and walk in love, we must remember that God is most concerned with our hearts. Jesus taught this clearly in the Sermon on the Mount. Murder is not just physically killing someone, it is anger and hatred in the heart (Matthew 5:21–22). Idolatry is not simply making or carving an image for worship, it is refusing to worship God in Spirit and in truth in the heart.

Art is a good gift from God, intended for us to enjoy as we use it in ways that bring God glory. When art becomes the occasion for sin, we are often too quick to condemn the gift rather than the sin. We may condemn a painting, or a sculpture, or a song as evil; but can paint on a canvas, or a lump of clay, or musical sounds actually be sin?

Consider the incident of the golden calf in Exodus 32. This event obviously involved sin and shows us the potential for sin in art, but where is the sin? Is the subject matter sinful? No. A calf is something God created as good. Is the media sinful? No. Gold and other precious metals are also created by God as good. Is the making of a carved image (creating representational sculpture) sin? No. God commanded much representational sculpture be made, even in the Tabernacle and Temple where He was to be worshipped.

The object of art itself is not necessarily evil. Nor is the making of art evil. When art goes astray and becomes an occasion for sin, the problem is not so much with the subject matter or artistic form, as with our hearts. The sin is in us. We have a tendency, however, to disassociate sin with ourselves. It is much easier to locate the evil in the image. We can smash the image and be done with it. But that will not remove the sin. Sin is not a matter of objects or things; sin is a matter of the heart that becomes manifest in how we use or misuse objects and things. Art is not sin, but it can readily reflect and give expression to sin our hearts.

When we try to discern if a particular work of art is appropriate or not appropriate within a Christian world-view, our judgment must focus on the intent and purpose of the artist. God looks upon the artist’s heart, not exclusively at the artist’s subject matter, and weighs the intentions of the heart in judging good or evil. What is the artist trying to reveal about the subject matter? What meaning is the artist trying to convey? Does the artist’s meaning communicate godly values and truths? God looks upon our hearts as well as we participate in art. What are our intentions and motives and loves revealed in the art in which we choose to invest our time and energy?

For example, when we choose music to participate in, whether it is for our personal enjoyment or for congregational worship, our great concern is not the words, although we need music with God-honoring, biblically sound texts. Our great concern is not the music itself, although we need to choose the best music we have and craft it well so it is fit for the text it accompanies or the occasion it serves. Our greatest concern must be our hearts. What is the intent of our hearts as we sing or as we listen? We must keep watch over our hearts if we are to participate in art in ways that please and honor God.

4. We must participate in art with thanksgiving and gratitude to God.

After spending time reading a book, viewing a painting, photograph or sculpture, or seeing a play or movie, or listening to music, we should be able to say: “Thank you, Lord, for allowing me to participate and enjoy this work of art.” If we cannot participate with thanksgiving, the work of art is likely not worth our time or participation.

In Colossians 3:17 Paul tells us: “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” We should be able to enjoy art bearing the name of Christ in thanksgiving.

5. We must in art participate in art that is worthwhile and glorifying to God.

Whenever we participate in art, we must do so to the glory of God. “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). If art is distracting us from God, drawing our affections and expectations away from Him, we should abandon it. When art can stir our imagination and focus our attention and help our interpretation of significant things, to the glory of God then it is useful and we should feel free to embrace it.

Art that is glorifying to God may or may not be religious. In Psalm 24:1 David declares: “The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness.” A painting of children at play or a family portrait can be just as pleasing and honoring to God as a painting of a church building. Art can show the beauty and wonder of God’s creation, display the joys and sorrows of human life, and reveal the fruits of human imagination. It can even shake us with the realities and horrors of sin. We can participate in a wide range of artistic expression provided we seek first the glory of God.

There is a great deal of art that is so obviously intended to promote evil and stir up sin, that it is most unwise and unprofitable for Christians to participate in it. We must declare with David: “I will set nothing wicked before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me. A perverse heart shall depart from me; I will not know wickedness” (Psalm 101:3–4). In Psalm 119:37 the psalmist prayed: “Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things, and revive me in Your way.” This should be our prayer every time we consider participating in the arts.

We all are limited. God has numbered our days. There are only so many books we can read, so many songs we can hear, so many movies we can watch. There are only so many hours and days we have to spend with our families and friends. We must pray for wisdom. Especially in this day and age where our choices and possibilities seem almost endless. Never has there been a time when Christians so greatly need care and discernment in deciding how to invest their time and resources.

In Philippians 4:8 Paul writes: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” This is what we must look for in art, if it is to be worthwhile and glorifying to God. Art that measures up to these criteria will be art that conforms to God’s Word, that we can use lawfully and thankfully with God’s blessing.