Two cowboys were riding across the prairie on a Sunday morning to church. As they rode they sang and whistled. They were very happy. They got to the little church on the edge of town and took their seats and heard the preacher preach his way through all ten of the ten commandments. So when the two cowboys rode home they were very subdued, very quiet, until finally one of them said, “Well, I never made any graven images.” The other said, “Hey, yeah, I guess I never did either.” And with that they began to sing and whistle again, and by the time they reached home they were as happy as when they set out.
That second of the ten commandments (in the KJV), “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” is one that many people find comfort in. It’s one of the few they feel they don’t have any difficulty with. And I guess I’ve never either really ever considered taking a block of wood or stone or metal and forming it into something and setting it up in main room of my house or out in the garden and getting down on my knees before it or kissing it or offering gifts to it. It’s not something I’ve had to battle with. I suspect that’s not much of a temptation for you either.
So maybe you’re looking forward to this morning’s sermon more than others because you feel like it won’t bother with anything in your life. Or maybe you’re thinking we should just skip over this second commandment because surely it doesn’t have anything relevant to say to us. Well, just you wait.
Let’s turn to Exodus 20 and we’ll first read the second commandment and the elaboration of it that’s given in the text. And then we’ll addresses some questions about it. Exodus 20:4-6 in the NASB because that’s the version of those tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, if you were wondering what version those were. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
In the 17th century in England this commandment was taken very seriously and very literally. These words about not making any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth were taken so literally, so strictly that many Christians felt that all kinds of art were forbidden, that you should not have such things as statues or engravings or even paintings on the walls and furniture of your home. So some of the Puritan homes were very plain and bare because of this commandment.
Does this commandment forbid artistry and sculpting in general?
I really don’t think so, because, for one, God Himself when He gave the Israelites the design for His tabernacle and later His temple, it included various forms of artwork, embroidery, sculpture, wood carving. You remember on the lid of the ark of the covenant there were the pure gold cherubim with their wings outstretched over it. The curtains inside the tabernacle had pictures of cherubim woven into them. Remember the cups of the lampstand in the tabernacle were shaped like almond blossoms. The temple of God that Solomon built, which God approved of, had cherubim and palm trees and open flowers carved into the walls and doors and overlaid with gold. Around the tops of the pillars were pomegranates. And then the laver, the washing pool for the priests, was a great big bronze bowl that sat on top of twelve metal oxen. And there were other images made after the likeness of things in the natural world. And that was okay.
In Numbers 21 there’s a weird, but helpful story. The people of Israel were again griping and complaining about their food and accommodations out in the desert. God was tired of it and He sent poisonous snakes among the people. People all over were dropping dead from snake bites. So Moses and the people cried out to God to save them, and God said, “Alright Moses, here’s what I’ll do. You make a bronze snake and put it up on a standard, on a pole, and tell the people that if they’re bit by a snake if they will come and look at this bronze snake they will be healed; I’ll let them live.” Sure enough when people were bit by a snake and they started swelling and hurting, if they’d make their way to where they could see this bronze snake, they’d get better. Strange story, I know. But notice it wasn’t wrong to have an image of a bronze serpent. The second commandment is not forbidding artwork and sculpting in general.
But look over with me at II Kings 18. We see when that bronze serpent became a problem. We read here about the deeds of King Hezekiah, king of Judah. He was a good king. He was an “iconoclast,” a smasher of idols. II Kings 18:3-4, “He did right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father David had done. He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it…” You see that bronze serpent was fine when it was just something they looked at and something that reminded them of the occasion when God sent the snakes because of their grumbling but also mercifully provided a way of deliverance. It was fine when it just served that purpose. But it became a problem when people started burning incense to it. The second commandment is forbidding the making and using of images for worship; making and using images to represent and/or to connect them with a deity or some higher power.
Let’s take an example from our modern world that may help us wrestle through the sort of thing this commandment refers to. Probably we’d all agree that it’s alright to have a puppet or figurine or a flannel graph or a drawing of the apostle Peter for teaching the kids in Sunday school. There’s nothing wrong with images as teaching aids or to brighten up your house or to remind you of something. But what about when a statue of St. Peter like the one that stands in Vatican city has the bronze toes worn off it by people kissing them, and when people bow before that statue and pray before it to St. Peter? Is that the sort of thing the second commandment forbids?
Does bowing to / kissing / praying to a statue of St. Peter violate the 2nd commandment?
A lot of people say “No,” and their argument from what I’ve gathered is usually twofold.
They say, “First of all, we’re not really bowing to and kissing and praying to the statue. We’re bowing and kissing and praying to who the statue represents. We’re not bowing to the hunk of bronze, we’re bowing to St. Peter.” The problem with that is that in all religions, even in paganism, where they worship idols they all say that they are not really bowing before the image of wood or stone. They all say they are really bowing to the god that the idol represents. In fact, did you know that in Exodus 32 when the people of Israel made and set up the golden calf while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai getting the word from God for the people, Aaron sent out a proclamation through all Israel and saying, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD, a feast to Yahveh (Jehovah, the LORD)”? You see, in their minds when they offered sacrifices to the golden calf and bowed to it and celebrated before it, they were not really worshiping the golden statue. They were worshiping the Lord who brought them out of Egypt. The statue was just to represent the Lord. And they thought it was a fine representation, because in ancient times bulls were symbols of strength and power and fertility, and certainly the God who destroyed the Egyptians and fed them the manna and quail was strong and powerful and life giving. But it didn’t matter that in the people’s minds they were not worshiping the golden image but the Lord represented by it. They were disregarding the second commandment in what they were doing and Moses had to beg God not to destroy them. Moses came down the mountain furious, tore down the golden calf, melted it, ground it to powder, scattered it over the people’s water supply and made them drink it so that it would be nothing but excrement the next day. So the question is not whether you’re worshiping the piece of stone or wood or metal or who it represents. It’s granted that you’re worshiping who it represents.
The second part of the argument in favor of kissing and bowing and praying before the statue of Saint Peter (and others) is “we’re not worshiping Peter. It’s not worship. It’s veneration, because we don’t see Peter as God. We know He’s not God. We’re paying reverence and adoration to him as one who is great, as one who is exalted and worthy, and is able to obtain various blessings for us.” Well, where’s the line between worship and veneration? Do you have to think somebody is God in order for prostrating yourself before them and kissing their feet and praying to them to be worship and a violation of the second commandment? The Hebrew word here in Exodus 20:5 translated in my version “worship,” literally just means to bow down before. Many translations render it what it literally says, “You shall not bow down to them…” In Acts 10:25 when Peter was alive on earth and he walked into Cornelius’ house and Cornelius fell at his feet and prostrated himself in reverence before him, you know Cornelius wasn’t worshiping him as God. He knew Peter is not God. Yet Peter said to him, “Get up, I’m just a man like you.” You remember the apostle John in the book of Revelation made that mistake twice. This mighty angel was standing before him and he was in awe at this angel and in awe at the visions that the angel was showing him and on two different occasions John fell down to worship at the feet of the angel, though certainly he understood the angel is not God. And both times the angel said, “Do not do that. I am a fellow servant. Worship God, period.”
So it’s my conviction that the second commandment is forbidding us to bow before, kiss, pray to, burn incense to, place food before, or bring gifts to any graven image. You’re reasonable people, you work through it yourself and see if that’s not what God was saying in this commandment.
Let’s ask another question of this commandment.
Is there really much difference between this one and the first one?
Many throughout history have thought that v4-6 that we first read are just an elaboration on v3 that we studied last Sunday; that v3-6 actually form just one commandment. They’ve said what we see as the first and second commandments are just two ways of saying the same thing. In fact Augustine in the early fifth century counted v2-6 as the first commandment. But he still counted ten commandments because he made two out of the no coveting command down in v17. He divided v17 into two commandments. So his ninth was “thou shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” And then his tenth was “thou shall not covet your neighbor’s house or property.” Roman Catholics and Lutherans have accepted Augustine’s counting of these commandments, except that they divide v17 a little differently than Augustine. Their ninth commandment is “thou shall not covet your neighbor’s house,” and their tenth is “thou shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or any of his property.” The Jews also since the early centuries A.D. have combined v3-6 together as one commandment.
But are they really just two ways of saying the same thing? They are both forbidding forms of idolatry. But I think with a couple examples we can see that they are not exactly the same; one can think they are obeying one of them yet clearly be disobeying the other.
The golden calf incident in Exodus 32 for instance… As far as the people were concerned they were just worshiping Jehovah who brought them out of the land of Egypt. As far as they were concerned they were not violating the first command, which is “You shall have no other gods beside me.” They’d say, “Got it. We’re not worshiping any other gods.” But they were violating the second commandment because they’d made a graven image to represent God.
Another example: II Kings 10 where we have the record of Jehu and his destruction of the worship of the pagan god Baal in the land of Israel. He came up with a clever little trick where he sent out word throughout all Israel that he wants to honor Baal more than anyone else ever has, and that there’s going to be this great worship assembly for Baal at his temple, and every worshiper of Baal must attend. So on the day of the assembly the temple of Baal was packed with worshipers. Jehu gave all the worshipers new robes. They were all excited about how things were going. Then Jehu told all the worshipers to look around and make sure there’s no one here who worships Jehovah. We don’t want any of those people in this assembly. Then Jehu told the men that he had surrounding the place “Now, take out your swords and kill every last one of the worshipers of Baal.” And in II Kings 10:26-27 we read, “They brought out the sacred pillars of the house of Baal and burned them. They also broke down the sacred pillar of Baal and broke down the house of Baal, and made it a latrine to this day.” Kind of graphic, isn’t it? One day it’s the focus of worship, the next day it’s the focus of other things. And people would walk past it and say, “You know, that used to be where they worshiped Baal. Jehu really dealt with that, didn’t he?” See, Jehu was very concerned that everyone worship the right God and no other god. So far so good. v28, “Thus Jehu eradicated Baal out of Israel.” Now, in the next verse, v29, the word “However” is important. It means that was good what he did, but here’s something that was not good. “However, as for the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel sin, from these Jehu did not depart, even the golden calves that were at Bethel and that were at Dan.” These were golden calves set up to represent Jehovah, the Almighty. So Jehu was clear that there is only one true God who was to be worshipped. He upheld the first commandment. But then he fouled up by assuming that the true God could be represented by these golden calves and worshiped through them.
Idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, not only in giving your love and devotion to things other than God, but also in the worship of the true God by means of graven images.
What’s the problem with representing God with images?
Well, think about it. Is there anything you can imagine that is equal to God?… Anything we could possibly come up with to sculpt or build or paint would be less than God really is. Any sculpture, any painting, any image would do nothing other than diminish and demean who He really is.
Isaiah 40:12-26, “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, And marked off the heavens by the span,And calculated the dust of the earth by the measure, And weighed the mountains in a balance And the hills in a pair of scales? Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord,Or as His counselor has informed Him? With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding? And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge And informed Him of the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, And are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales; Behold, He lifts up the islands like fine dust. Even Lebanon is not enough to burn,Nor its beasts enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before Him, They are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless. o whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare with Him? As for the idol, a craftsman casts it, A goldsmith plates it with gold, And a silversmith fashions chains of silver. He who is too impoverished for such an offering Selects a tree that does not rot;He seeks out for himself a skillful craftsman To prepare an idol that will not totter. 21 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been declared to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless. Scarcely have they been planted, Scarcely have they been sown, Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth, But He merely blows on them, and they wither, And the storm carries them away like stubble. ‘To whom then will you liken Me That I would be his equal?’ says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high And see who has created these stars, The One who leads forth their host by number, He calls them all by name; Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power, Not one of them is missing.”
How are you going to make anything that approximates to the creator and sustainer of the heavens and the earth? It is impossible. And nobody likes bad pictures of themselves… especially God, because the way people view Him has tremendous bearing on how they live and how they treat other people.
Now, here’s where we may get more relevant to ourselves. Did you know you don’t have to have any physical material to construct a unworthy image of God and violate the principles of the 2nd commandment?
You can fashion an unworthy image of God in the factory of your mind.
And you can worship and serve that image of God, and it’s idolatry. I think this is why the little book of I John ends with the statement that it does. I John is a book that deals with a certain false teaching that presents a different Jesus than the real Jesus. Their teaching said that Jesus Christ had not come in the flesh. They taught that deity did not become a flesh and blood human being. And it was a teaching that permitted a sinful lifestyle and not loving your brother. So John writes to counter that false teaching and to assure his Christian readers that they have the truth about God and about Christ and they have fellowship with God and His Son and eternal life. Then the final statement of the book is this, “This is the true God and eternal life. Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” I don’t think it’s just a random exhortation that suddenly came to John’s mind as he was ending the letter that he just decided to throw in though it’s totally unrelated to the rest of the letter. Rather it is a summarizing exhortation, because the view of Jesus and of God that the false teachers were advocating was an idol; it was a gross misrepresentation of God and of Christ. “Guard yourselves from idols,” means keep yourself from perverted versions of Jesus, perverted versions of God. If you worship and serve a perverted version of God, it amounts to idolatry.
People often portray the idolatry within their minds in how they speak of God. Former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa Desmond Tutu was quoted on the front page of daily newspapers in South Africa stating things like: “My God isn’t homophobic. I could never worship a God who is against homosexuals.” Tutu even declared that if homosexuals don’t go to Heaven, then he didn’t want to go there! Where did he get this image of God that He’s okay with homosexuality? I guarantee you he didn’t get it from what God has revealed about Himself in His word. He’s constructed an image of God according to his liking in his own mind.
Or some have this unworthy image of God that He is a hard callous severe individual who delights in catching people sinning and punishing them, and that He’s just waiting and hoping for us to mess up so that He can condemn us. That’s a gross misrepresentation of the God of the Bible.
Or there’s another idol that’s been constructed and set up in the shrines of people’s minds. You know this if you’ve attended many funerals. It doesn’t matter what the deceased person believed or how they lived, somebody will still stand up and say “I know that so and so is in heaven now.” There’s this all too common view of God that He’s a permissive indulgent grandfather sort of character, always willing to look the other way, smiling still when human beings are rebellious and rejecting of Him and willfully sinning, who would never destroy anybody. They’ve made their own image of God according to their own desires.
We must make sure that our view of God is not just a product of our fertile minds or anyone else’s mind, but what God has actually revealed to us about Himself in His word and in Jesus Christ. Christ is the image of God (II Cor 4:4). He is the exact representation of His nature (Heb 1:3). You remember His conversation with Philip on the night of His betrayal. Philip said, “Jesus, just give us a glimpse of the Father and it will be enough for us.” And Jesus said, “You’ve got to be kidding me Philip. I’ve been with you three years and you still don’t know who I am? If you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father.” He shows us the nature and character of God. Our image of God must come from the image that He has given us or it’s a false idol.
Let’s end by looking at the reasons that are given in Exodus 20 for why we need to heed the second commandment.
Reasons for the 2nd commandment
First in v5,
“for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God“.
Somebody might argue “But this image I’ve made just helps me worship God. This image aids me in my worship of Him. I’m not worshiping another god. Why would He feel jealousy about that?” Well, picture a newly married couple, very in love, very happy. They’ve only been married a few weeks. They’re still infatuated with each other. The husband gets home from work early one afternoon and decides to fix up the house a little bit before the wife gets home and starts on dinner. Then the wife comes in the front door and they hug and kiss and she thanks him for starting on dinner. She says, “I’m going to change my clothes real quick and then I’ll come help you peel the potatoes.” And he says, “Oh great, and you’ll notice that I have put up some new decorations on the wall in our room.” And she goes in the room to see what he’s done and lone behold his great idea was to go down to the photo shop and blow up some pictures of his high school and college girlfriends and he’s framed them and hung them up in their bedroom. And she comes out as says “What is that?” And he can tell she’s not happy. And he says, “What’s the problem?” She says, “What do you mean what’s the problem? You put up pictures of your old girlfriends in our bedroom? I thought you loved Me. I thought you were devoted to me. I thought you said you would forsake all others and keep yourself to me and to me only so long as we both shall live.” He says, “O, you’re taking this all wrong. Those pictures are all about my love for you. They help me to love you. Sometimes I like to think of you as blonde school teacher named Sue. And sometimes I like to think of you as a redhead dental hygienist named Jessica. These images aid me in loving and serving you.” It’s not going help him, is it? His marriage on the rocks now, because she knows when he says, “I love you,” if he’s thinking about Sue, then he doesn’t really mean he loves her, he means he loves Sue. If he’s thinking of Jessica when he’s buying flowers, he’s not buying them for her, he’s buying them for Jessica. When we have this image of God that does not look like God, that’s different from God, and we worship and serve that image, we’re not really worshiping and serving God, were worshiping this other imaginary being. So He’s provoked to jealousy like a betrayed spouse even when we worship images we’ve set up to help us worship Him.
Then notice God’s next statement here about Himself. He says,
“I visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me“.
He’s telling us, “I am not a permissive indulgent grandfather who always looks the other way at evil. I will deal justly with those hate Me.” This is not a verse that says God punishes innocent children and grandchildren for the sins only their fathers and grandparents committed. God says other places that He absolutely will not do that. He holds people responsible only for their own sin. Ezekiel 18:20, God says through the prophet Ezekiel, “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.” In Exodus 20 here these third and fourth generations that God will punish are not innocent. Notice it says “the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.” This passage is saying that God will not excuse people for hating Him and disobedience to Him simply because it’s the family tradition they were raised in. Even though they’re just doing what they saw their father and their grandfather and their great-grandfather doing, God will not excuse it.
But notice the complementary aspect of God’s nature. He says,
“But I show lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
I think He means thousands of generations. It’s a way of saying that God’s lovingkindness will never be exhausted. There will never be a generation for whom God will not have any more lovingkindness to give. The generations before us didn’t use up all His lovingkindness. We can expect God to be as loving and kind to us as He was to those we read of in Bible times, if like them we love God in return and keep His commandments.
– James Williams