“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 bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on 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 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 5:8-10 [ESV]).
While the first commandment is focused on who we are to worship, the second commandment (quoted above) focuses on how we are to worship. Together, these commandments show that we must only worship the one true God – the one who led Israel out of Egypt and the one who has sent Jesus Christ to save sinners through faith in him – but we must do so only in the way that He desires. The second commandment highlights ways God does not want us to worship Him but also reflects on the importance of rightly worshipping the God who cannot be confined to a place or a thing and who is exceptionally gracious and just.
The Nature of Worship – By His Commands, Not Our Images
The explicit prohibition of this commandment is against making images, bowing down to them, and serving them. This may seem to be an echo of the first commandment (the Catholic and Lutheran traditions combine these words into the first commandment, which also leads to those groups having different numbers for all the commandments to come); however, upon close examination, we see that it addresses our propensity not just to worship other gods, but to worship the true God in false ways. This tendency is at work in the Israelites when Aaron makes a golden calf for them to worship that he says is the god who brought them out of Egypt (see Exodus 32:4). The Israelites recognized the true God but desired to make him tangible, perhaps thinking this would help them better relate to Him. However, God says that we are not to make images to worship Him; this was in contrast to the deities of other nations at that time who often had images to represent their god. When people make images of God, they are exchanging the true God who is immortal and invisible for things of this world that are visible (see Romans 1:23). This does not honor God and thus does not offer Him true worship. As Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well, God is spirit and true worshippers must worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24), not through physical images and objects that are false representations of what God is like.
I have not seen too many Christians worshipping golden calves or other images, so this commandment may not seem as important to us today, but there are numerous ways in which Christians can struggle to worship God correctly. It may not be images, but rather man-made traditions that we worship, causing us to place less emphasis on God. In fact, we may even think that these rituals and regulations are the way we should worship God. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and others in his time for using man-made traditions and rituals as a way to please God (Mark 7:1-8; Matthew 9:13, 12:7). This critique is actually first found by the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah 29:13; Hosea 6:6). We, too, can fall into this trap of worshipping God through our own inventions or corrupting the things that God has given us.
The relevancy of this command is also found as many people claim they are “visual learners” and thus, some sort of image or representation of God would help them worship and learn about God. The Israelities likely would not have articulated it this way, but I think part of the appeal of false gods (and the reason for this commandment) is that there is a sense that it is easier to worship something we are able to see, as we feel it would give us a better understanding of it. Perhaps the visual will assist us, but the history of God’s people is that it quickly turns into idolatry. I’m typically not a huge proponent of absolute prohibition of things simply because they have been misused, but perhaps this is one that is so deep into our hearts that we need to stay very far from it.
This prohibition of images does raise many questions that Christians have wrestled with over the years. Does this mean that we can’t have art, or any visual representations of things in the world? That seems to be going too far, as this is referring to worship, not admiring beauty in this world. Some (particularly in the Eastern Orthodox tradition) have sought to differentiate between worship of images and “veneration” of them, offering respect to various images. However, as I have studied this topic, it seems too subtle, so I do not think it is a good practice for Christians. Another common question is whether this would rule out any sort of images of Jesus and of Bible scenes. Catechisms in the Reformed tradition seem to stand against those as well, as the Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 98 says that we shouldn’t use images “as teaching aids for the unlearned” because doing so would be seeking to be “wiser than God,” who directs us to use “the living preaching of his Word” to teach others. The Westminster Larger Catechism Q & A 109 states that this command prohibits “making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever.” Some in the Reformed tradition may disagree with these particular statements saying they do not rule out images of Jesus and other stories, or would point out that these statements seek to explain Scripture and are not infallible. They may think these statements simply go beyond what is taught in Scripture, thus believing it is okay to use images of Jesus in children’s stories and Bibles, for example. The key is that they are not used in worship.
In prohibiting us from worshipping God through images, this commandment reminds us that we should look to God to see how He wants us to worship Him (something often called the regulative principle – God’s revealed Word should regulate our worship of Him). The Westminster Larger Catechism lists some of the ways God directs us to worship Him and discusses what is required of us in this commandment. In Q & A 108 we read: “prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ; the reading, preaching, and hearing of the word; the administration and receiving of the sacraments; church government and discipline; the ministry and maintenance thereof; religious fasting; swearing by the name of God, and vowing unto him.” This does not mean that each and every worship service or devotional time needs to feature these, but that these are the ways that God wants us to worship Him and we should not invent others. It is also a reminder that we should trust that God will work through His word as it is read and preached; ministries such as Talking Bibles can testify to the change that happens as people hear the Word of God read in their lives. In addition to focusing on the ways that God commands for us to worship, this command also calls for us to be like many faithful followers of God in the Bible (such as Kings Asa, Jehu, Hezekiah, Josiah) who sought to destroy and eliminate idols and forms of false worship. This probably does not involve smashing idols in the streets, but rather keeping them out of the church so we are not distressed like the Apostle Paul when we see them in the world (Acts 17:16).
The Nature of God – Invisible and Gracious
We still might wonder why God is so anti-image if we know that images may be useful. I don’t think it is just because images may draw us into false worship, but because having images of God actually misrepresents the nature of God. Remember, God is Spirit (John 4:24) and cannot reside in a temple (Acts 17:27); nothing in the world can contain Him (1 Kings 8:27). Images are the exact opposite of that – when something is made an image, it makes it seem like they are limited. Thus, images misrepresent God, a God who reminds His people that we do not see Him in a form (Deuteronomy 4:15-19).
You might say that God describes Himself as being like a number of things in Scripture – can’t we use these images to represent Him because they are divinely authorized? When God speaks about Himself in similes and metaphors, we know that this is just a glimpse of what God is and not the fullness of His person — that is the nature of metaphors. Images, however, seem to go beyond a metaphor, tangibly portraying something. We do have an image of God – Jesus, who is the exact representation of God (Hebrews 1:3) and who is the fullness of God in flesh (Colossians 1:15-19); he is the one who explains God (see John 1:18). If we need a “visual,” an image of God – we have one: Jesus. To use any other image would be to undercut the uniqueness of Jesus and his revelatory work.
The second commandment reminds us of the nature of God as being greater than any object in the world, as well as the reason affixed to it: “for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on 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.” These words speak about God visiting the sins of fathers on children to the third and fourth generations. It seems harsh on first reading, but we need to recognize a few things about this statement. One is that we see throughout Scripture that a person will suffer for their own sins; there is a sense in which future generations bear the effects of the sins of the previous generation, but that does not mean their lives are predetermined by them, with anyone able to turn from sin and loving Him. Second, the judgment of God comes upon those who hate Him; this is a reminder that false worship is not something that happens out of good intentions but rather because of a lack of love for who God truly is. We are reminded that we either love or hate God, there is no in-betwen. Finally, we see God’s graciousness is even greater, as those who love him see love to the thousandth generation! There are consequences when we fail to worship the only true God correctly, but there is even greater blessing when we worship the true God in truth. May reflecting on this commandment lead us to worship our gracious God who is above and beyond anything we could ever create or imagine!
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