The Second Command: God Doesn’t Want His Picture Taken

The second commandment begins with these words (Exodus 20:4-6):

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)

In the first commandment, we see the “what” of worship – worship only God. But the second commandment focuses our attention on the “how” of worship – worship God the right way. The second commandment is explicit; God forbids idols. God is to be invisible to the physical eyes. He is the God who is heard but not seen (Deuteronomy 4:15-18). Even when God gives the Ten Commandments, God did not allow the Hebrew people to see Him. It was Moses who brought the commandments to the people. Again, He is heard but He is not seen.

Worship Not an Image but Around a Book.

God has intentionally designed worship not around a picture of Him but around a book. The Bible repeatedly says that God is not seen by anyone (John 1:18; 1 Timothy 1:17). This is significant for worship today. Only God is allowed to make an image of Himself (Genesis 1:26; Colossians 1:15). Please note: God didn’t say, “There shall be no art in my house.” But He did say, “There shall be no image in my likeness.”

Throughout the Old Testament, the center of Hebrew worship was the Temple. At the center of the Temple was the Holy of Holies; at the center of the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, or “chest” (in Hebrew), was roughly 4 feet long, 2.5 feet high and 2.5 feet wide. The Ark was the only piece of furniture and only the Levites could enter this central room of Israel’s Temple. The Ark was covered in gold and had two golden angels facing one another on the top of the Ark. If you were to open this box in King Solomon’s day, you would see only the two tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai (1 Kings 8:9). Again, it’s important to note: you wouldn’t find a picture at the center of Israel’s worship. Instead, the only thing at the center of Israel’s worship was the Ten Commandments, the law of God. So, God hasn’t given us images to worship, but rather a Book to read. In the New Testament, worship is still centered around a book, the Bible (John 4:23 ). God has divinely chosen to communicate through the written word and not an image (Romans 10:17).

Idols

The second commandment expressly forbids making idols, or pictures of God. Idolatry is not the stuff found only in the pages of a National Geographic magazine or Indiana Jones movies. Instead, idolatry occurs whenever we believe that true satisfaction can be found in anything other than Jesus Christ. Idols are all around us, even in the West. While many Americans are not into Buddha statues surrounded by flowers and incense, everyone of us still has a battle raging within us over what we love most – God or something else.

Why is God interested in forbidding idols?

  • Idols are built for control. We enjoy making things. There is pleasure in building something. But when we make something, we control it. When we build a boat, you have the ability to control where and when the boat sails. When you build a house, you have the ability to say who lives in the house. And when we build an image of God, whether it is wood or on the computer screen, you attempt to control God. You control what you build.
  • Idols are needy. Whenever you see temples filled with idols, you normally see people offering food for the idol. When a person gives a god something it needs, then the god would be obligated to give the worshippers back something return. This is quid pro quo. Few things are as fulfilling as having your god obligated to do something for you. But the God of the Bible doesn’t want food placed at His altar and He doesn’t want to be appeased. God doesn’t need anything from anyone (Acts 17:24-25). Instead, God requires you to live in a pure and holy manner. It’s easier to feed an idol than to live in moral purity. God isn’t needy.
  •  Idols are built for convenience. During the days of the Old Testament, idols were all over the place (Deuteronomy 12:2; 1 Kings 14:23). Unlike idols, God required His people to come together at the Temple at one time and in one place for worship. God required His followers to come to one central location. This was inconvenient. Worship of God required your time and your money. But idols remove all of this. An idol can be worshiped whenever you want and wherever you want. You control what is most convenient.

Seven Questions to Stimulate Worship

Think about your worship in light of God’s instructions in Exodus 20:4-6. As you do, here are some questions to consider:

  1. What do you enjoy the most?
  2. What do you spend the most time doing?
  3. Where does your mind drift when you don’t have to do anything else?
  4. What do you spend your money on?
  5. What makes you angry when you don’t get it?
  6. What causes you depression when you must do without it?
  7. What do you fear losing the most?

Programming Note: This is a blog series on the Ten Commandments. I will post each Tuesday and Friday for the next few weeks. Look here for the series introduction.

The First Command: There’s Only One God

The Ten Commandments begin with these words (Exodus 20:1-3):

And God spoke all these words, saying,  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-3)

God is Exclusive.

Few of us like only one option. We like medical doctors to give us options when considering medical procedures. We prefer colleges to allow us to choose our major. Likewise, many would like it if God gave us a few options of who to worship. God offers no such option to the Hebrew people in this first command.

When you read story of the Bible, you meet numerous gods. For example, when the people of Israel entered the land of Canaan, they encountered people who worshipped Baal. They believed Baal to be the god of rain and in turn worshipped him in order that their fields might be fertile. When the sun’s heat scorched everything on earth, people said Baal was dying. When the spring rains made everything green, it was thought that he was coming to life again. Later in the story of the Hebrew people, the King of Israel (Ahab and his wife, Jezebel) encouraged the worship of this foreign god (1 Kings 18:20-40).

Molech is one of the more frightening gods encountered in the Bible’s storyline. This angry god demanded innocent humans to be sacrificed to absolve human guilt. A few years ago, during the extension of the runway at the Damascus Airport, workers found a pit of burned infant bones, dating back to the time of the Old Testament. These little skeletons of babies up to age two, were broken and burned to the god, Molech.

The gods of years past did not possess infinite wisdom or power. Instead, they were considered to be more like the super heroes of our comic books. These gods had impulses and desires and committed evil acts much like we do.

Over time these gods have disappeared. Baal worship is now dormant. Zeus no longer sits on Mount Olympus. The German gods Thor, with his hammer that made Thunder, and his son Woden have since passed away. Idolatry is not dependent on names. The names disappear through the years; yet, idolatry lives on. The Bible says men can worship their own physical strength (Habakkuk 1:11). Others worship money as they make “gold their trust” or “fine gold my confidence…” (Job 31:24). Some even make a god of their stomach as Paul writes, “their god is their belly…” (Philippians 3:19)

The Life of Pi

Yann Martel wrote the award-winning novel, The Life of Pi, an adventure story of a 16 year old boy from India named Piscine “Pi” Molitor. He is shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger on his life boat. The novel was made into a movie that grossed more than $600 million. Pi, who was raised Hindu and vegetarian, explores his spiritual side when he attempts to convert to both Christianity and then Islam. Ang Lee, the director of the film, shows Pi even asking for baptism as a young teenager. He benefits from all three religions as each of them have certain benefits in showing him what he believed was god’s love. The film’s adaptation advertises the perceived benefit of flexibility as part of three different religions.

The first command doesn’t sit well with those wishing to be self-styled spiritualists who chart their own path. The Bible is an “either/or” world while much of the world is “both/and.” Where Pi wants to worship Jesus Christ and the Hindu gods and the god of Islam, the Bible considers “and” a dangerous word. Worship is not a matter of “and” but it is a matter of “or.” Again, the Bible uses categories of right and wrong, truth and error. Later in the Bible’s story, Jesus Himself affirmed the “either/or” thinking so characteristic of the Bible when He said these words when thinking of those who worship materialism:

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and money.”  (Matthew 6:24)

You Shall Have No…

The words of God’s first command instruct His followers to have no other allegiance with any other so called “god.” The relationship between God and His people has no third parties. God is sufficient and His people do not need to go outside of Him for anything – emotional or otherwise. God tells His followers that He is all we need.

It is important to note that God places this commandment first before all the others. Once God is in first place, everything else will be in order. Placing God first before everything else is continually emphasized throughout the Bible. Jesus calls this the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-40). This command is placed first in order to elicit our loyal love for Him. Much like the love between a husband and a wife where both promise publicly that there will be no competitors for each other’s love, so is the worship of God by His people (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

Programming Note: This is a blog series on the Ten Commandments. I will post each Tuesday and Friday for the next few weeks. Look here for the series introduction.

God’s Name: Handle with Great Care

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).

Most of us simply think of this commandment as God saying not to cuss. Or not to use God’s name as a curse word. Yet, this commandment is much broader than most think. For this commandment speaks of how God jealously guards His name. To the surprise of many, God intensely guards His name.

To obey this command successfully, you must do far more than avoid certain words. Why? Because to take God’s name in vain is to malign God’s name; it’s to misrepresent Him. The Bible does not separate God Himself from His name. God’s name represents all that God is as His name represents His essence. His name represents His character. Therefore, God’s name is to be treated with great care. He is great and weighty and lofty. Consequently, both He and His name are to be treated as valuable.

The word “vain” as noted above in verse seven, is a synonym for futility. We are not to use God’s name in a futile manner or in a trivial manner. God’s name is sacred. There is nothing about God that is futile. His every effort throughout His the entire span of His existence is the opposite of futility. His works are purposeful and He accomplishes all that He sets out to perform. God has never had one day where He has wasted time. He has never “goofed off.” Our treatment of His name should reflect this reality.

As you think through the implications of this commandment, you need to zero in on God’s name as operates as trademarked property.[i] Like the name brands Americans are so use to seeing around us each day, God has graciously licensed the use of His name to anyone who will use it according to His written instructions (the Bible). But as you use this trademarked property, God has not released His name into the public domain. God retains legal control over His name and threatens serious penalties against unauthorized misuse of His name.

So what  if you take His name as meaningless? In short, God promises to hold you guilty. Yes, God still hold people guilt in the early 21st century. There is a just penalty for how you treat God and His name. And while the end of Exodus 20:7 doesn’t specify the specific punishment God will enact upon those who are guilty, the expression simply points to the ominous danger of being held guilt by God. In other words, the Bible declares that you can count on this… God will hold you guilty if you misuse His name.


[i] Gary North, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (December 1992), 15; quoted in Philip Graham Ryken, Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 89