There’s a story in the New Testament where Paul visits the great city of Athens. Like Oxford or Cambridge or Boston, Athens was a famous intellectual city, renowned for its history, its learning, and its contribution to culture. Athens was said to be the glory of Greece.
And yet have you ever noticed Paul’s reaction when residing in this world-class city? Was Paul impressed with its intellect? Did he fall in love with its architecture? Was he amazed by their food?
Acts records that “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (17:16). Later he says to Athenians, in effect, “Look, I can see you are very religious. You have temples and rituals and statues all over the place. You are really into worship. But I’m telling you: you’re going about it in the wrong way” (see Acts 17:22–23). That’s why Paul was provoked in his spirit. He could see that no matter how spiritual or how smart or how sincere they may have been, they were worshiping God in a way that did not please him.
If the first of the ten commandments is against worshiping the wrong God, the second commandment is against worshiping God in the wrong way. The people in Athens were guilty of both. They were ignorant of the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and their approach to religion was not what the true God had prescribed.
Most generally, the second commandment forbids self-willed worship—worshiping God as we choose rather than as he demands. In particular, the second commandment makes two prohibitions: 1) We are not to make images to represent God in any form, and 2) We are not to worship images of any kind.
The second commandment does not intend to outlaw art or painting or aesthetic considerations. The tabernacle displayed angels and palm trees, the ark will have cherubim, and God himself gave the Spirit to Bezalel and Oholiab that they might be skilled artists and craftsmen. God is not against beauty. What he prohibits is infusing any object with spiritual efficacy, as if man-made artifacts can bring us closer to God, represent God, or establish communion with God.
The Old Testament is full of examples of God’s people using man-made artifacts for self-willed worship. The golden calf is the most famous example. Remember, Aaron proclaimed a feast to Yahweh, and the people declared that these were the gods who brought them up out of Egypt (Ex. 32:4–5). The Israelites weren’t worshiping Baal. They were trying to worship the Lord their God, but they were doing it in the wrong way. They were violating the second commandment.
At other times, the Israelites treated their religious symbols as though they had real religious powers. This too was a violation of the second commandment, turning the ark into some kind of talisman (1 Sam. 4:1–11) or treating the temple like a good luck charm (Jer. 7:1–15). We can do the same with church buildings or pulpits or the cross around our neck.
Like most of the Decalogue, the second commandment is not hard to understand. The what is fairly straightforward. The why and how take some more explanation. To that end, I want to give five reasons for the prohibitions in the second commandment.
No One Like Him
First, God is free. Once you have something to represent God or worship as if it were God, you undermine God’s freedom. We start to think we can bring God with us by carrying around a statue. Or we think we can manage God with the right rituals. Or we think he’ll be our benefactor if we simply pray in a certain direction or make an offering before a graven image. Anytime we make something in order to see God, or see something that stands in for God, we are undermining his freedom. God is Spirit, and he doesn’t have a body (John 4:24). It is not for us to make the invisible God visible.
Second, God is jealous. No image will capture God’s glory. Every man-made representation of the Divine will be so far less than God as to incite his jealousy. Think about it: the more chaste and pure a husband, the more his jealousy is aroused by an adulterous wife. God is supremely pure, and he cannot bear to share his glory with another, even if the other is a sincere attempt to represent (and not replace) the one true God. God is a being unto himself. In fact, he is being. His glory cannot be captured in a picture or an image or a form. That’s why even in Revelation when we have a vision of the One on the throne, he is “shown” to us in visual metaphors: lightning, rainbow, colors, sea, re, lamps, thrones, etc.
The world of the ancient Near East divinized everything. The Israelites divinized nothing—not Father Time or Mother Earth or the sun or the moon or the stars. The separation between God and his creation is one of the defining characteristics of biblical Christianity. Any human attempt to bridge that chasm is not only an attempt at the impossible but an affront to the unparalleled majesty of God.
Third, believing sight comes by sound. In the Bible, especially on this side of heaven, we see by hearing. As Deuteronomy later made clear, the Sinai experience was a paradigm for God’s self-revelation. When the Lord appeared to the people on the mountain out of the midst of re, Moses reminded them, “You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut. 4:12). And because they saw no form, the Israelites were commanded not to corrupt themselves by making visible images (4:15ff.).
We make no apology for being Word-centered and words-centered. Faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17). That’s how God designed it because that’s how he has chosen to reveal himself. Christian worship is meant to be wordy and not a breathtaking visual display. If God wanted us to see him in worship, he would have presented himself differently in the Sinai theophany. The way God “showed up” to give the Ten Commandments says something about how we are to keep the Ten Commandments.
Fourth, God provides his own mediators. At their best, God’s people have employed images and icons not because they thought God could be housed in a marble bust, but in order to provide more intimate access to God. If God is in heaven, it makes sense that we would want a little portal for him here on earth.
But God’s people should know better. The saints in the Old Testament did not need to fashion an intermediary for themselves; God had already promised mediators through the prophets, priests, and kings. God had his own way to draw near to his people, culminating in a final Mediator who would embrace all three offices at once and pitch his tent among us (John 1:14).
Fifth, we don’t need to create images of God because he has already created them. The implications of Genesis 1:26–27 are staggering. We are the divinely chosen statues meant to show what God is like, created in his image and after his likeness. Idolatry diminishes God and diminishes us.
In Ezekiel 18:11–13, right in the middle of a host of horizontal, neighborly sins, is the mention of idolatry. Why? Because mistreating other people and worshiping idols have the same root: a violation of the divine image. In one case, we are looking for God’s image where it doesn’t exist (idolatry), and in the other case we are ignoring God’s image where it does exist (sins against our neighbors).
We are God’s statues in the world, marking out the planet as his and his alone. He does not need our help in making more images; he asks for our witness.
Content taken from The 10 Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them by Kevin DeYoung, ©2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
Kevin DeYoung (MDiv, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He serves as board chairman of the Gospel Coalition and blogs at DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed. He is assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte) and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Leicester. He is the author of several books, including Just Do Something; Crazy Busy; and The Biggest Story. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children.