by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
CGG Weekly, June 4, 2021
"If you uproot the idol and fail to plant the love of Christ in its place, the idol will grow back."
Years ago, the church received a question about idolatry from a pious American woman of uncertain religious affiliation. She asked about our understanding of the second commandment, particularly the extent of God's injunction against "any carved image, or any likeness of anything" (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8). She apprised us of her belief that God prohibits all images of any kind—that "carved" implies any human creative process. As a result, she had rid her life of every photograph, painting, sculpture, or any other image she owned!
If this is true, however, God is not God; if He forbids all images, He has broken His own law multiple times and is therefore unworthy of worship. On the contrary, our God is a holy God whose laws codify His righteous character. He does not ask more of human beings than He does of Himself.
Just a few chapters after giving His law from Mount Sinai, He instructs Moses to organize and complete the construction of the Tabernacle of Meeting and all its furnishings and accessories. Among the first items He discusses is the Ark of the Testimony or Ark of the Covenant. An ark is essentially a box, and into this special box, Moses was to place the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Mercy Seat was its lid, described in Exodus 25:17-22:
You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold; two and a half cubits shall be its length and a cubit and a half its width. And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work you shall make them at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub at one end, and the other cherub at the other end; you shall make the cherubim at the two ends of it of one piece with the mercy seat. And the cherubim shall stretch out their wings above, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and they shall face one another; the faces of the cherubim shall be toward the mercy seat. You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the Testimony that I will give you. And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, of all things which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel.
In this passage, God commands Moses to fashion an image of cherubim, angelic beings who inhabit "heaven above," to adorn the top of the Mercy Seat. Yet, the second commandment flatly disallows such a creative work—unless it does not forbid the creation of all images. Ironically, God places these cherubim on the Mercy Seat at the exact center of Israelite worship, the Holy of Holies, where God Himself dwells. Yet, there was no sin in their making. Why?
The pious woman who concluded that God forbids all images failed to do what so many students of the Bible also do: Not only did she not gather relevant verses from the rest of Scripture, she also failed to consider the entire context of the second commandment itself. Her narrow focus on the words "any carved image" caused her to forget or ignore that the commandment continues for another two verses.
Exodus 20:5 begins, ". . . you shall not bow down to them nor serve them." Most translators of this passage understand that the thought of verse 4 continues into and finishes in verse 5. The idea in verse 4—"You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything" in heaven, on the earth, or in the waters—taken alone, is incomplete. Had God commanded humans not to make art or use their creativity to express themselves, He could justifiably be accused of being a cruel tyrant or a monster! What a dull world it would be without the use of the creativity He Himself possesses and bestowed in measure on humanity at creation!
However, He is not a dour, controlling, monochrome God. His very creation glistens with light and beauty and complexity. The animals and plants that cover the earth are marvels of design, color, function, and imagination. From the tiny amoeba to the enormous blue whale, God's creative genius is unmistakable in every detail.
Writing of the starry universe beyond earth, David writes, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork" (Psalm 19:1). Made in His image (Genesis 1:26-27), human beings have the same drive to imagine, create, innovate, and express their designs in the works of their hands. Frankly, God would deny His nature and His purpose by forbidding human artistry, invention, or even something as mundane as snapping photos of family and friends in the second commandment.
Alone, then, Exodus 20:4 lacks the element of purpose for the forbidden image, which verse 5 provides: to be used as objects of worship. The complete thought reads, paraphrased, "Do not create images of anything for the purpose of venerating or serving them as rival gods." (Translators would have helped many avoid misunderstanding this commandment by keeping the first clause of verse 5 with verse 4. At least the whole thought would have been confined to one verse.) In sum, God commands us not to use images, idols, icons, or any other artificial likeness, prop, or aid (which would include such things as relics, crucifixes, and rosaries) to offer religious worship, either to God Himself or to any other supposed deity.
Verse 5 continues, warning us that God zealously brooks no rivals and promises divine wrath on those who commit idolatry—which He considers a form of hate—even allowing the effects of His punishment to linger as long as four generations. The exile of the Jews from Israel after Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar's army illustrates God keeping this promise. He informed Jeremiah that the exile, caused by rampant idolatry within Judah, would last seventy years (Jeremiah 25:1-11; 29:4-10; see also II Chronicles 36:17-21; Daniel 9:2), a span that fits within the range of "to the third and fourth generations."
However, if we truly love God—as Jesus says in Matthew 22:37, "with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind"—and obey Him, He promises to shower us to thousands of generations (read, "forever") with "mercy" (Exodus 20:6). The underlying Hebrew word, ḥesed (Strong's #2617; "mercy," "lovingkindness," "grace," or "steadfast love"), possesses a strong sense of faithfulness and loyalty under the covenant He has made with us. In essence, God's promise of eternal blessings for obedience is far more extensive and thus absolutely more desirable than the "reward" for disobedience. He would rather bless extravagantly than punish.
The pious lady with the question about the second commandment did not need to toss out her family photos or the art hanging in her living room to remain loyal to God. We are free to create images of all the things we see—and even those we dream up in our flights of fancy. We cross God's line only when we use such images in worship and betray our vow of exclusive devotion to Him.