We recently spent time on the island of Kauai and enjoyed learning the history and culture of the island. We chose Kauai because it was the quieter and slower paced island in Hawaii. It’s called the Garden Island, and it is easy to see why.
We left Los Angeles and flew over the water for about six hours. All of us were excited when the pilot announced we could see Hawaii over the left wing. There is something comforting about seeing land. I can only imagine how Captain Cook felt when he first spied the islands. I was happy after six hours; he had been sailing from one land mass to the next for almost two years.
Cook landed on a beach in Kauai in 1778, becoming the first European to ever visit Hawaii. He named the series of land masses the Sandwich Islands, after the Earl of Sandwich, who had sponsored his explorations. Cook was in search of a Northwest passage around the North American continent when he ran across the Hawaiian Islands.
Cook and his crew arrived at a unique time for the native Polynesian people. They were celebrating the harvest, and Cook’s ship, with its large mast and size, caused the people to think Cook was associated in some way with a god they called Lono. As a result, Cook and his men were treated with the highest regard. Unfortunately, the European “guests” took advantage of the native people while they were there. Cook and his men stayed on the island for a month before setting sail, and a great deal of abuse took place during that time.
Captain Cook and his men encountered a strong storm shortly after setting sail. They were forced to turn back to Kauai. When the ship came into view, the people saw the mast had been broken and determined that these men could not be gods after all. This visit was filled with tension, and one of Cook’s long boats was stolen. Cook decided to kidnap the tribal king and hold him until the boat was returned. But the king’s warriors killed Cook and several of his men in retaliation. Those left on Cook’s ship watched the attack and then escaped to tell the story.
As I listened to the tour guide tell the story of Captain Cook, I wondered how one group of people could consider another group of people as gods. According to the narrative of history, the ship caused the confusion. The Polynesian people had never seen steel before and were convinced that it had to have been made by a god. The European men used the steel nails they had on board to trade for all kinds of things, including immoral favors with the local women.
False gods can wield great power if people choose to take advantage of the lies.
When God issued the Ten Commandments, the first one said, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The next commandment said, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:4–5). The European sailors held up a nail and used it to manipulate and abuse other people. They knew it was just a nail but allowed others to consider it an idol. If God listed those two commandments first, could it be that he knew that false gods and idols would always be the most pervasive sins of people?
Most museums hold icons and carved images of things that native cultures considered gods. The Greeks and Romans had a pantheon of gods. Native Americans worshiped things in nature. The Polynesian people carved gods out of bone and were quick to assume what they did not understand could be explained as a god. I wonder how different the history and culture of the Hawaiian people might have been if those European sailors had told the truth. I wonder if Captain Cook would have lived to sail other voyages and create other maps.
All cultures know there is a power and force greater than themselves. Paul wrote, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:18–23).
Ungodliness and futile thinking produce false gods. Creation was supposed to remind the created that there is a God who is far superior to any man or woman. Yet, every culture has created false gods in order to feel wise, even powerful in themselves.
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the idols or false gods I might have created. I know there is only one true Creator God. I believe in the salvation he provided in Jesus. I believe the Bible. I don’t have a carved image I worship as a god. So, do I really have a problem with the first and second commandments?
I think the answer is found in Psalm 115:4. That verse says, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.” Everyone tends to create and worship idols we have successfully produced in our own life. As I sit typing this blog, with a view of the same vast ocean that Captain Cook sailed, I am reminded of the true power in this world and the smallness of everything else. I appreciate all that human hands have made, but I will do my best not to worship those things. Every culture has idols, but God has given us his creation to remind us that he is supreme. Let’s choose to worship him today and give him the glory for all he has provided.