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 ESV
With perhaps only the Fourth Commandment as a serious competitor, the battle of Second Commandment interpretations has been the fiercest of all. The Great Schism in 1054 between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy resulted from disagreements regarding iconography in worship and, of course, other issues like papal authority. The three verses that form the Second Commandment can be divided into two sections, the first part being the actual command and the second part providing the reasoning. Since, as we will see, this commandment is focused on proper worship, we will begin with how we worship and then see why we worship.
HOW WE WORSHIP
The concern of the First Commandment was to direct our worship toward the one true God. The focus of the Second Commandment is to elaborate further on how our worship must not be done. These two commandments, therefore, are intrinsically bound together. In fact, Roman Catholicism teaches that these two texts form the First Commandment, and they divide our Tenth Commandment into two parts. While this is certainly a distinct commandment, it is necessarily bound to the First.
Let us begin with the most basic question: What does this commandment teach us? The actual commandment contains two parts, you shall not make for yourself a carved image and you shall not bow down to them or serve them. The first part denotes the action being forbidden, while the second describes the intent that is forbidden. Together, they constitute the Second Commandment, which is essentially that you shall not worship any image or idol that you have made. The intent to worship is crucial since God is certainly not forbidding us to make paintings or sculptures of landscapes, animals, or things like that. Indeed, the temple and tabernacle were both decorated with elaborate garden and angelic imagery to remind worshipers of the holiness of God and our exile from Eden. Since those images were commanded by God, we can easily conclude that they were not violating this commandment; therefore, we must understand the Second Commandment as prohibiting the crafting of any image for the purpose of worshiping it.
One of the great interpretive debates over this commandment is whether or not God is forbidding us to make an image of Him as well or if He is simply referring to images of false gods. For instance, we might ask if the Sistine Chapel, which contains the painting of God and Adam nearly touching one another’s hand, is in sinful violation of the Second Commandment. Some would argue that as long as that image of God is not being worshiped as the actual image of God then it is not sinful. I would argue that it is, in fact, a violation of this commandment. While the commandment is certainly forbidding the creation of idols for worship, the image of God is seems also to be included. God, after all, has His throne in heaven above and the earth beneath is His footstool.
But why would God outlaw images of Himself? The beauty of true art lies in its ability to offer a moment of transcendence, the feeling that there is so much more to life than what is immediately before our eyes. Without belief in anything beyond the material world, secularism inevitably begins to worship art since it is one of the last pathways for feeling such transcendence (the emotion of love being another). Yet the greatest skill of humanity to capture the beauty of God into a form or image will never be enough. He is too big for pixels and paintbrushes and stone and marble. He’s too bright for the color spectrum, more radiant than the light itself. When God spoke to the Israelites from the mountain, He wrapped Himself in smoke and fire for their protection. If angels around His throne must hide their faces, what mortal such as us could ever hope to see God’s face and live?
Indeed, when Moses asked to behold God’s glory, he was given the grace of seeing where God had just been. Anything more than viewing the residue of glory that God left behind would have killed the prophet. Fittingly then we find throughout the Scriptures God revealing Himself to His people through His works. Since we cannot have immediate access to God, He interacts with us through various media and mediators. For the Israelites, their visual display of God came through His signs and wonders (i.e. the ten plagues and parting the Red Sea) and through His prophet Moses. Their encounter with God was mediated for their own sake. Even God’s most immediate act of communication, the audible speaking of the Ten Commandments, was followed by a plea from the Israelites to have Moses serve as the go-between again.
Contrast this with the false gods of the other nations that could be seen. Their images could be carved or painted, which could then be set as the centerpiece of a home or temple. The presence of the god or goddess was never in doubt because the god was the image. They were always visible, always on hand. They could not, however, speak. Or move. In fact, although they could be seen, they had no sight of their own. Their presence was fictitious because they were never really alive. But while God did not show His face to the Israelites, He did speak to them. He did see them. He did act on their behalf. He did everything that the false gods could not.
Why then did the Israelites continue to worship idols instead of God? A god that could be seen and even held was a god that was comprehensible and controllable. The LORD is neither of those things. Those gods operated on a transactional religious system. If you perform or sacrifice x, the god invoked will then respond with y. Magic was the heart of the matter, believing that reality can be shaped to our liking as long as we get the motions right. God does not operate like this. As we will see shortly, He does make His ways known to us so that the consequences of our obedience or disobedience to Him is clear. But He sets the ground rules. He establishes the law. He will not conform to our expectations but demands that we meet His instead.
This brings us to the heart of the Second Commandment: God alone dictates how we are to worship. We do not have the right to do whatever we like and call it worship. One Christian author a few years ago stirred up debate by posting a blog in which he expressed that he ceased attending church because he doesn’t really worship God through listening to a lecture or singing. The problems with this are numerous, but at its core lies the belief that worship should best serve the individual. This mentality can only be seen in the propensity for many to select a church based on how it serves them rather than how it worships God. The large number of regulations for worship in the Pentateuch display the seriousness of worshiping God as He dictates. Of course, Jesus has now fulfilled those particular regulations so that God’s people now worship Him in Spirit and in truth, but even still, we worship through His Spirit and His truth, not our own. And just as the Ten Commandments were spoken by God, we believe the Bible to be God’s inspired Word. Therefore, we know and understand God’s truth only through the Scriptures that His Spirit has authored. Thus, in the forbidding of images in worship, God is also designating that His Word must be the centerpiece of our worship. We are called to be a logos-centric people.
Sadly, the push to shape worship according to the felt needs of a particular group of people did not begin with the “seeker-sensitive” movement. During the Reformation, Catholics often argued for the usage of images during worship by describing them as the “books” of the illiterate, and, given the exclusive use of Latin in the liturgies, their definition of being literate required understanding two languages rather than one. Protestants, on the other hand, chose simply to conduct worship services in the common tongues and taught ordinary people to read. This mentality significantly contributed to the present-day world literacy rate of about 86 percent.
Such an example has much to say about the very nature of worship and how it impacts human development. A reliance upon images and literate bishops for understanding was an easy status quo to maintain. Creating a literate society is hard work. In many ways, we are still working at it. But while having theology as clerical work and giving people images instead of words was certainly the easier path, it was also ripe for oppression. It was an act of condescension masquerading as meeting the people’s needs. It assumed incompetence. The Reformers, however, truly empowered the common man by assuming that, with proper teaching, he was just as capable of understanding the Bible as any priest. This thinking presumed human ability to meet the demands of God. If the LORD has commanded us to know Him through His Word, then humanity as a whole should be capable of knowing and understanding words both in written and spoken forms.
This is magnificent because, cognitively speaking, a picture is not necessarily worth a thousand words. There are, of course, images and views that are so beautiful that they cannot be properly described, which is the intent of that cliché. Yet in many ways, visuals are much easier for our brains to process than words, especially written ones. Words are more abstract than images. Neil Postman argues that the written word remains the best medium for analytic and rational thought. A text, especially one like the Bible, invites study and meditation. It punishes a lack of engagement with a lack of understanding. Images (and videos) do, of course, merit engagement, yet they are substantially less demanding than writings. Therefore, by requiring us to worship Him through His Word, God is growing us as His image-bearers. As we discussed of prayer in the Lord’s Prayer, glorifying God always results in our good as well. When we obey Him by praying to Him, we have our anxieties lifted and become molded to His sovereign will, and similarly, as we worship Him in the means that He has designated, we are further conformed to His likeness. Conversely, as the psalmist notes, “those who make them [idols] become like them” (Psalm 115:8).
Indeed, even though God cannot be captured in any single image, He has not left us without a visual representation of Himself. In Genesis, we are told that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (1:27). Mankind collectively, both male and female, images God. He made us in His own likeness (v. 26). We were meant to be the visual display of what God is like. If you ever read the news, you may have noticed a disconnect between today and Genesis 1. If the Bible does truly reveal the nature of the one true God, then He is quite different from us. Of course, many of God’s attributes are incommunicable and were never shared by us; however, much of the moral differences between God and us derive from Genesis 3. Because, like our ancestors Adam and Eve, we continue to sin and reject the ways of God, we mar His image upon us. Our sin both separates us relationally from God and makes us unlike God. Our rejection of the Author of life means that we have chosen death. We deny the Creator of reality and chosen instead the nothingness, the non-reality, of other gods.
The good news of the Scriptures, however, is that God has not left us to this death. God the Son became a man in order to rescue us from the curse of sin. Being both fully God and fully human, Jesus alone can be called “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), “the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). As the God-man, Christ lived a sinless life, perfectly fulfilling our task as image-bearers, and although He did not earn it, He freely chose to face death, absorbing the penalty of our sin upon Himself. Yet death could not contain the Word, the logos, through whom all things were made (John 1:1-3). After rising from the grave and ascending into heaven, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to His disciples, empowering them to live as His body on earth. We, therefore, are Jesus’ representatives and ambassadors, the continuation of His earthly ministry.
How then are we meant to worship God? We worship by hearing and obeying the Word and being in community, among God’s people. The prescription for keeping our hearts from idols is to fix them upon God, which we do by meditating on His Word. We certainly sit before it individually, but we also gather together to hear it proclaimed. By our weekly communal gatherings, we affirm our faith that God has revealed Himself to us through His Word and our hope that our faith will one day be made sight as we dwell forever in God’s presence. By our worship, we testify that God has always been creating a people for Himself and that one day the Bride of Christ will stand before His throne together at last. Our corporate worship declares our faith in what God has done and our hope in what He will do. And so we gather as Jesus’ Body to hear the Scriptures that testify of Jesus. Jesus, as both the image and Word of God, is the focus of our worship.
WHY WE WORSHIP
Now that the purpose of the Second Commandment as well as its many applications is better understood, let us move into the second half of our text. In this section, God declares to us the reasoning behind the prohibition against the worshiping of images, which is twofold.
First, the LORD declares that He is a jealous God. While it is common for us today to think of jealousy in a negative sense, that is certainly not how we should think of God. By describing Himself as jealous, God is declaring Himself to be like an insecure, needy boyfriend or girlfriend who doesn’t trust his or her partner to be with anyone else. The LORD has no such trust issues because He has no need of anything, especially us. Rather, He is entirely all-knowing and, therefore, understands fully how idolatrous our hearts and eyes and hands truly are. His jealousy for His people is well-founded and proved by the minute. This is especially true when we remember that idols can also be our false ideas of God Himself. How often do we worship, as Calvin said, “the dreams and illusions” of our own hearts rather than the almighty God? Our hearts truly our idol factories, generating images to serve, even when those images are our false understandings of God Himself. God’s jealousy is, therefore, both right and good, and we should be endlessly thankful that He is jealous for His people.
In Deuteronomy 32:21, God declared, “They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols.” The word used for idols in that verse is the same word used in Ecclesiastes translated as vanities. If our worship of false gods, vanities that they are, is a chasing after wind, is it not grace for God to rescue us from such vain pursuits? After all, since God is our loving Father, His anger toward us results in His loving discipline to correct us and bring us back onto the proper path. Why would we not love and worship properly such a good and gracious God?
Second, God declares that He visits the iniquity of fathers upon to the children of the third and fourth generations but shows steadfast love to thousands of generations of those who love Him and obey His commandments.
We should begin by noting that God is not declaring that He punishes children for their parents’ sins. Deuteronomy 24:16 denies such a claim: “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” As does Ezekiel 18:4, “the soul who sins shall die.” Children are not condemned for the sins of their parents.
Sin does, however, have a generational impact. No one sins in isolation, and sin is never without victims. The effects of our sin upon others often goes unnoticed or unrecognized, but it is always there, especially when it comes to our children. For every follower of Christ, every action is a form of discipleship. To be a disciple, after all, means following and mimicking a teacher. Discipleship is a reality to inhabit, not a protocol to follow. But parenting particularly shines a spotlight on this truth. When it comes to discipling our children, they follow more than what we conscious attempt to teach them; they follow our way of life. Alongside our spouse, they have a front row seat to how we obey and disobey the LORD, to how we love Him and hate Him. They will take note of how we worship God or worship idols. They will see what we love most.
Freud is often characterized as believing that all of our problems stem from issues with our parents. While that is certainly not true, we must also feel the long-lasting ripples that our lives create. God will not condemn a child for the sins of its parent, but our sin can leave devastating wounds upon our children and grandchildren. Our children are not positively discipled by lip service to God but by our devout and loving worship and obedience to Him.
Brothers and sisters, worship is always an act of discipleship. Our lives perpetually call others us to love what we love, value what we value, and enjoy what we enjoy. Your spouse, your children, your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers are all, at least subconsciously, watching how you worship your god and learning what it is like.
Are you, therefore, worshiping the true and living God?
Are you worshiping Him or your own version of what you wish He was like?
Are you worshiping Him properly?
Is your worship logos-centric?
Does it revolve around Christ?
Do you lovingly go to God’s Word both privately and corporately to hear and obey and love the LORD?
Are you faithfully and joyfully seeking to display the reality of Christ by being and gathering with His Body, the church?
 Side note: in this sense, the idea of technology is not so different from magic. The magician believes that he can shape reality through incantations, while the inventor does so through inventions. I’m, of course, not implying that technology is inherently idolatrous. When used properly, technology is a tool for helping us exercise our stewardship over the earth. When used improperly, however, we attempt to break beyond the confines that God has established for us (i.e. the tower of Babel).
 Question 98 of the Heidelberg Catechism actually addresses this issue directly.
“Q: But may not images be tolerated in the churches, as books of the laity? A: No: for we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have his people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of his word.”