Exodus 20:4 (ESV) “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or 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 make for yourself a graven image”
I suspect most people regard this second statement as an anticlimactic rounding off of the first. If the Ten Commandments were being ranked in order of their relevant importance, this one might be placed at the bottom of the list. It might surprise you to learn that there are more references to this commandment in the remainder of the Bible than to any other of the Decalogue. This fact alone should indicate something of its significance.
The first and second commandments are similar in that both deal with the matter of Israel’s worship. They are distinct in that the first commandment has restrictions pertaining to the object of worship (God alone), while the second has restrictions regarding the means of worship. The second commandment prohibits worship by means of “visual aids,” more commonly known as idols.
Let’s settle on a very simple working definition of an idol: an idol is a symbolic representation of a god, as determined by man, which often represents the presence and available power of the god it symbolizes.
Recall, for example, that when Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving these commandments, the children of Israel grew restless because he had been away for so long. Perhaps they thought he had died or had been taken up to heaven. At any rate, they began pressing Aaron to make them gods (Exodus 32:1). Moses’ brother took gold from the people and melted it down to fashion a golden calf….which was probably very much of their environment in Egypt. When he unveiled it to the people, he said, “These are your gods, 0 Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4).
Which of the first two commandments was being violated in the series of events just described? Most would probably say it was the first one about false gods. In fact, it was the second! How can we be sure? As soon as Aaron had unveiled the golden calf, the Bible says this happened: “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord (i.e., Yahweh)”’ (Exodus 32:5).
Aaron was not trying to substitute some new god for Yahweh but was attempting to represent the covenant God of Israel in some tangible manner. With Moses gone Aaron succumbed to the pressure to try to give the people a visible rallying sign around which they could center their devotions to the Lord.
The problem exemplified to us by the golden calf is still very much with us. Carnal minds find it difficult to think of God apart from some sort of visible representation, superstitious relic or crude totem. Heaven’s real attack in this second commandment is against false mental images of God. Thus we state the second rule for holy living in these words: Keep a clear vision of God.
Don’t drag God down to your level. Don’t let yourself believe that the high, holy, and spiritual God who has created you and whose favor you seek can be represented by something made in the likeness of anything you know in this visible world of ours.
God’s original honor to human beings was to create us in his image; we dishonor him by trying to refashion him in ours.
The challenge of this rule for living is summed up by Jesus in these words: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth”(John 4:24).
Any religion that manufactures coins or beads or images that can be put up in the house or in our cars in a violation of this command. It is representing something that is used to remind us or represent God tous.
When people are ignorant of God, they seem driven to try to represent him by an image of some sort. Paul began the book of Romans with an indictment of the pagan world of his day for refusing the knowledge of God and prostituting the knowledge they did have of him into idolatry. He wrote: Romans 1:22-23 (ESV) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
We humans are incurably religious. We will have a god! There has never been a culture or civilization found that was without something it called a “god.” It may have been some part of nature – maybe the sun, moon, or stars; it may have been a totem or idol carved by their own hands; it may have been some Great Spirit who was regarded as unknown and unknowable. But there has never been a culture where religious devotions were totally absent.
In his speech in the Areopagus at Athens, Paul talked about the phenomenon of humanity’s preoccupation with the issue of God. Acts 17:26-28 (ESV) And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Why are we incurably religious? God made us that way! He created us with a thirst for his fellowship; he made us with a spiritual yearning that is intended to serve as a “homing device” to encourage us to seek, find, and enjoy him.
Earlier in Paul’s sermon at Athens, he had said: Acts 17:22-23 (ESV) So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
We are naturally inclined to religion. We will have a deity. If we are not very careful, however, we will make that deity in our own image and get him down to a level where he can be managed and manipulated by us.
There can be no doubt that superstition is involved directly in the matter of image-making. An icon or “sacred object” is assigned magical powers and used to ward off evil. It may be a little silver replica of the shrine of Artemis (Acts 19:24) or a golden cross someone wears or a ‘spiritual coin’ to which a magical power is attributed.
Don’t misunderstand the point here. There is nothing wrong with a fish or cross or some other supposed “Christian symbol” as a piece of jewelry. What is wrong is to attribute to it some special power or superstitious belief. In order to get clear on this point, consider the history of the ark of the covenant among the Jews.
Do you remember the brass serpent the Lord told Moses to erect among the people to save them from the fiery serpents he sent among them at one point in the wilderness? (Numbers 21:4-9). That brass snake was preserved, and it wasn’t long until it became a superstitious icon in itself. The Bible tells us that one of the things good King Hezekiah did during his reign (715-686 B.C.) was to destroy it. “He removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had burned incense to it; it was called Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18:4).
There are at least three good reasons that come to mind as to why image-representation of Yahweh was forbidden to the Jews. First, no likeness of God could be adequate. Therefore any would be false and misleading. Second, God cannot be localized or limited to anyone place. Third, God wanted their trust to be in him and not in some magical icon.
The penalty for violating the second commandment was severe. “You shall not bow down to them or 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 the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6).
Notice that its violation would bring terrible consequences not only upon the individual doing such a thing but upon future generations. How could this be? It is not guilt that is imputed from one generation to the next, but the immorality that follow such an apostasy that linger for generations! Put plainly: our children seem to follow what we do and pass it down to their children.
We may think it ridiculous that someone would make their own God. We might laugh right along with Isaiah (Isa. 44) when he pokes fun of the foolish fellow who cuts down a tree and uses part of the wood to heat his house and roast his meat, but carves a god to worship out of the rest. Yes, that seems silly enough. But often the gods we shape, the gods that we end up making for ourselves, the gods that compete for our loyalty are things that really seem very good …
Isaiah 44 (ESV)
6 Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.
7 Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen.
8 Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.”
9 All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame.
10 Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing?
11 Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.
12 The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint.
13 The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house.
14 He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it.
15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it.
16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!”
17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
18 They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand.
19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?”
20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”
21 Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you; you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
22 I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.
23 Sing, O heavens, for the LORD has done it; shout, O depths of the earth; break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! For the LORD has redeemed Jacob, and will be glorified in Israel.
24 Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: “I am the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself,
25 who frustrates the signs of liars and makes fools of diviners, who turns wise men back and makes their knowledge foolish,
26 who confirms the word of his servant and fulfills the counsel of his messengers, who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited,’ and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built, and I will raise up their ruins’;
27 who says to the deep, ‘Be dry; I will dry up your rivers’;
28 who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’”
The good things that bring us closer to God can become the trickiest of idols. It’s very easy to equate these things with God and we can be tempted into thinking that when we manage these things we manage our relationship with God.
Some Common Misperceptions of God
Our God is void of passion and slack toward sin. You and I tend to think that sin is not so bad. Know why? We are sinners! We can’t condemn sin too soundly, or we will wind up stomping on our own toes. So we learn to blind our eyes to a lot of things we know are not right. It may be an unethical business practice or devious half-truth. Since “everybody does it,” we are inclined to tolerate such things in our own lives and in others. We seem to be able to convince ourselves that even God must feel as we do about such things.
Just look at Jesus to see how false an opinion of God that is. God is never slack with sin. Twice during his early ministry, the Son of Man made himself a whip and moved through the temple precincts to free animals, dump money, and scatter men (John 2:14-16; Matthew 21:12-13). They were turning that sacred place” of worship into a den of thieves, and he was outraged. And do you remember his denunciations of the religious leaders of his time? He called the scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites” (Matthew 23). They thought they knew how to split theological hairs and find loopholes in the commands of God. They thought they could sin and get by with it because of their mock piety. Jesus showed them how wrong they were.
Our God is a tyrant and anxious to condemn. As surely as some see God as too soft and too easy with sin, others see him as a cruel and hard-hearted deity. In the Parable of the Talents, the servant who had been entrusted with one talent came before his master on the day of reckoning and said, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours” (Matthew 25:24-25). The man had a wrong mental image of his master. He thought he was such a hard man that nobody could please him.
Look for a moment at the compassion of God that was shown through Jesus, and balance that with the rage he showed in cleansing the temple and denouncing the Pharisees and scribe. One of the thmgs that the religious leaders of his day thought so unusual about Jesus was his association with outcasts and sinners. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them'” (Luke 15:1-2).
Our God is an absentee landlord who collects rent on Sundays and cares nothing about what we do during the week. Some Christians in my experience seem to have a view of God that allows them to practice religion after the following order: go to church on Sunday, drop money in the plate, shake hands, go home for a drink, cheat somebody in business on Monday, curse somebody who makes you mad, deliberately foul up a job to get even with an employer who was unfair, snap at the family, flirt with a neighbor, and so on for six days; then back to church on Sunday to appease God for another week. How dare anyone of us think that religion and daily life are separate spheres of responsibility!
No wonder the church doesn’t set the world on its ear, if this understanding of God is in the hearts of very many Christians. Christianity is a day-by-day, 24-hour-per-day responsibility. “And [Jesus] said to all, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me'” (Luke 9:23).
It is a small percentage of the totality of one’s religion that involves being in worship assemblies. Yet some want to make those assemblies the entirety of their religion.
Our God is responsible for all mankind’s misfortunes and tragedies. It frightens me to know how many people hold God responsible for all the bad things of human experience. Children are born blind, people have cancer, or a loved one dies; someone will say, “It is the will of God!” Most of what happens in this world is not the will of God, and it is high time we put a stop to the thoughtless things we are accustomed to saying which attribute them to him!
The will of God for his creatures calls for our happiness on earth and eternal fellowship with him in heaven after this life. He gives good gifts to his people, and he does not blight lives and inflict pointless pain. While there are many things we do not understand about pain and suffering in human experience, we do know enough to avoid the mistake of assigning it all to the will of God.
This rule for living is a prohibition of low, inadequate, and unworthy imaginations of God. He wants his people to have a clear and spiritual vision of him. Only then can we know him, love him, and worship him willingly.
If you will think for a moment about how sensitive we are about having bad photos or likenesses of ourselves circulated, perhaps you will begin to understand why a holy God would be angered by some of the false physical and mental images mankind has circulated of him.