Exodus 20:4-6

what-are-ten-commandments_472_314_80Exodus 20

4 “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. 5 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, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

William F. Buckley Jr. once repeated an old story he had heard about the second commandment.

The old chestnut tells of the husband leaving the church service after hearing the rousing sermon on the Ten Commandments with downcast countenance. Suddenly he takes heart. “I never,” he taps his wife on the arm, “made any graven images!”[1]

It is a humorous image, this man cheering himself with the thought that at least he had never carved an idol! It is humorous because it is so very like human beings. We all take a desperate kind of joy in finding the one thing we have not done wrong despite the nine that we have.

Even so, we should probably be careful in assuming we have never made an idol, for idols come in many shapes and sizes and forms. The second commandment is as needed today as it was when it was first given, for the second commandment tells us certain crucial things about our great God.

The second commandment forbids the creation of idols as well as the creation of images of God.

I am going to contend that the second commandment is prohibiting (a) the creation of idols of false gods and (b) the creation of any image of the one true God. First, let us read the text.

4 “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. 5 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, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

The argument that this commandment is approaching two actions is not agreed upon by all. There is no widespread agreement as to whether it is addressing both of these ideas or whether it is simply forbidding creating any image of God (whereas the first commandment would ostensibly cover the creation of any idols to false gods).

Victor Hamilton raises the possibility that both realities are being addressed here and that, in fact, the first two commandments are connected in covering both of these.

Are the proscribed idols/ images those connected with the other gods of the previous commandment? That is, “You shall have no other gods or even any images portraying those gods.” Or are the proscribed idols images of Yahweh?… One might assume that v. 4 prohibits the representation of the Lord by images, for representation and worship of other deities have already been precluded in the first commandment. It is unlikely that the first commandment prohibits having other gods but forgets to say anything about also not having any physical representations of those deities… However, it seems that it would be images of other gods rather than images of himself that would provoke the Lord’s jealousy. Note that the antecedent of the plural “them” in v. 5 (“ neither pay them homage nor serve them”) is the singular “idol/pesel” of v. 4.[2]

What is more, Deuteronomy 4 contains a sermon from Moses that is widely considered to be commenting on the second commandment. Moses’ words would appear to be addressing both realities: the creation of images of the one, true God as well as idols to false gods.

15 “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, 16 beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18 the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. 19 And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. 20 But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day. 21 Furthermore, the Lord was angry with me because of you, and he swore that I should not cross the Jordan, and that I should not enter the good land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. 22 For I must die in this land; I must not go over the Jordan. But you shall go over and take possession of that good land. 23 Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the Lord your God has forbidden you. 24 For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.

Moses appears to address the creation of images of God, but he also appears to address the false worship of entities that would pull the children of Israel away from the worship of the Lord God. His acknowledgment of both in a sermon addressing the second commandment is significant.

The common factor in both of these prohibitions is the dilution of true worship. There are those who, missing this point, read certain wooden legalisms into the second commandment. For instance, G. Campbell Morgan writes:

I have known Christian folk who, because of this commandment, would not have their photographs taken, and who refused to have a picture in their houses! This, however, could not have been the Divine intention…Man was not forbidden to make a representation of anything: he is forbidden to use the representation as an aid to worship.

In Westminster Abbey, today, there may be seen a great many vacant niches where images once stood. They were removed not because they were statues, but because lamps were burned in front of them, and worshippers knelt before them. That was essentially a violation of this commandment.[3]

We might say, then, that any object that would call us from the worship of the one true God, who is Spirit, or who might tempt us to offer devotional reverence to it is forbidden by the second commandment. That being said, we will consider primarily the commandment’s prohibition of the creation of images of God in our consideration of the text.

Images of God are prohibited because the creation of such inevitably (a) exalts man and (b) reduces God.

Human efforts to create images of God tend to magnify man and reduce God. They magnify man by allowing his imagination to presume to depict the invisible God. They reduce the glory of God (not, of course, in reality, for nothing can do that, but in our own minds and hearts) by inevitably making less of Him than is His due. The basic theological truth behind this commandment is the fact that no man can see God and that God is spirit.

In Exodus 33 Moses actually asked God to allow him to see Him. The Lord made an astonishing concession by allowing Moses to see part of Him.

18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” 21 And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

Notice that even though the scriptures employ the anthropomorphic language of God’s “back” and God’s “face” (that is, language that attributes to God physical characteristics), what Moses actually is allowed to see is God’s “goodness” and God’s “glory.” Furthermore, the Lord communicates that man cannot see Him and that, in fact, “man shall not see me and live.”

Why? Because God is utterly and perfectly holy, ineffable, and other. He reveals of Himself what He will, but His self-revelation should not lead us to think that we have a right or an ability to see God outside of what He reveals.

The New Testament further teaches the “unseeability” of God. In John 4:24, Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Later, in 1 John 4:12, John writes, “No one has ever seen God.” Here we see the foundation of the prohibition against images of the divine. We should steadfastly refuse to create images of the Father simply because we are unable to see God and it is an act of great arrogance for us to think we can.

I have been in the Sistine Chapel and stared up with wonder at Michaelangelo’s amazing painting of God reaching to Adam. We give a kind of theological pass to such things, but it should be noted that we truly ought not make such images. J.I. Packer writes, “No statement starting, ‘This is how I like to think of God’ should ever be trusted.”[4] This includes images that are revered as great achievements of Western culture.

The old joke about the little girl who informed her Sunday School teacher that she was drawing a picture of God has some profound truth in it. “But,” her teacher responded to the news, “nobody knows what God looks like.” To which the child retorted, “They will when I’m finished.”

We laugh because it is charming. Even so, the child’s answer reveals a significant truth: man-made images of the Father are necessarily impositions of our own imagination onto the divine. They necessarily are misrepresentations. They necessarily are incapable of accurately relay truth about God.

God has revealed His image in Jesus, and this should be sufficient for us.

However, there is an image of God that is sanctioned by God, sent by God, and Who possesses the blessing of the Father. I am speaking of the second person of the Trinity, the God-man Jesus. In John 1, John put it beautifully when he wrote:

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

Recall that it was God’s goodness and God’s glory that Moses had asked to see in Exodus 33. In John 1, John tells us that this is precisely what we do now see: “We have seen his glory.” Where do we see God’s glory? “Glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth…No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”

How utterly astounding! Christ is the image that reveals the face of God. Would you see God? Look at Jesus. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Paul says the same in Colossians 1.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.” Here is another reason why we should not seek to create with our own hands images of the Father: because the eternal image of the Father, Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, has come and been seen. Patrick Miller put it well when he wrote:

The prohibition of idol making, therefore, clearly rests on an understanding that the Lord does not appear in any concrete visible form. So no human being may seek to represent the Lord in such a way. Human-made images of the Lord in any form imaginable are forever excluded. The Lord chooses the manner of divine revelation and appearance.[5]

Indeed He does and indeed He has! He has chosen “the manner of divine revelation and appearance,” and it was a revelation and appearance that the world could not have imagined: God born of a virgin in Bethlehem, God with and among us, God crucified on the cross by and for us, and God rising from the dead. This is the image of God: Jesus!

It is occasionally asked whether or not images of the Son are forbidden just as images of the Father are. I can only share my opinion here. In my opinion, images of the Son are allowable so long as those images are not allowed to be made into idols, for the Son came to be seen and beheld. The barrier to creating images of the Son is the same barrier we face in depicting anything from the two millennia ago, namely cultural and historical distance. But so long as they are respectful depictions of the life and person of Christ, it is hard to imagine how such could be violations of the second commandment given the physical attribution of the Son’s incarnation, that is, given His visibility.

The appearance of the Son, however, does not cheapen the awesome transcendence and ineffability of God. Instead, it heightens our amazement at it. For who could have imagined that when the unseeable God would choose to be seen, would choose to imaged, that He would choose to reveal Himself like this? Christ reveals to us the heart of the Father, and it is a beautiful sight to behold! He reveals that the heart of the Father is one of love and mercy and grace. He reveals that the heart of the Father is one of light, and truth, and forgiveness, and compassion.

We dare not make any feeble image of the Father, for His image has already come: Jesus, the Lamb of God. Let us behold the face of God in the face of the Lord Jesus!

In the presence of the Lamb who has come, how could we ever need some mere idol? He has thrown wide the door of Heaven for all who will come and see. Come to the Father through the Son by the power of the Spirit. Come and behold the God who cannot be contained in images and idols, but who has been gloriously revealed in the Son!


[1] William F. Buckley, Jr. Let Us Talk of Many Things. (Roseville, CA: Forum Prima, 2000), p.471.

[2] Hamilton, Victor P. (2011-11-01). Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Kindle Locations 10879-10881,10885-10895). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Morgan, G. Campbell (2010-07-21). The Ten Commandments (p. 26). Kindle Edition.

[4] Packer, J. I. (2008-01-07). Keeping the Ten Commandments (Kindle Location 467). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[5] Miller, Patrick D. (2009-08-06). The Ten Commandments: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church (Kindle Locations 1113-1115). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

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