The Second Commandment

Decalogue 3 – The Second Commandment

God liberated his people out of Egypt, which is a pattern for how he delivered his people out of bondage to the old master of sin. He then outlined Israel’s duty in covenant with himself in the first commandment, which pertained to the Godward mind. All of life is to be lived for God, and God is to be the only God one has.  The second commandment is related to the first. It is also a clear result of having been freed from the power of sin. Now that they were  in covenant with the new master who is Yaweh they must only worship him in the way he prescribes. The temptation for Israel was idolatry. People today may not have the same draw to idols made of metals, wood, stone, etc. Nevertheless modernists make idols in the mind and in the flesh constantly. Calvin taught that the human heart is a factory of idols.

Much has been written of the way we make other things our god, and make idols in our allegiance to selfishness, riches, addictions, etc. These extrapolations of the commandment may be true applications of its principle, but they tend to draw us far away from the text into more of an exercise in logic. In fact, they probably pertain more to the first commandment than the second. This chapter will stay close to the text and develop the themes of the text. Listening to the text is an important discipline. Ethics is hearing God’s word on a subject and making sense of it in our day. With that said, we turn to the second commandment.

What is the second commandment? The Second commandment appears in Exodus 20:4-6.


You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 5 “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.


This was the commandment in its entirety. Now we will explore it. Idols are man-made images through which one worships a deity. The First commandment already had told Israel not to worship other gods. Considering he already covered that, this commandment may seem a little superfluous. For this reason, Roman Catholics and Lutherans hold that what we call the second commandment is actually part of the first commandment. However, it makes more sense to point out that the meaning of this commandment is different from the first in how it tells Israel not to worship God by way of idols. The subject here is worship. It also makes more sense than splitting up the tenth commandment into two, as the Lutherans and Roman Catholics do.

The problem was not that Israel was worshipping other gods, that is covered in the first commandment, but rather that they were worshipping God, Yaweh, in a way he had not instituted. The first commandment is about not worshipping other gods, and the second is about worshiping the one true God in the way he commanded (J. Douma, 38). A close reading of the text confirms this interpretation. For example, notice the repetition in the commandment. The Lord not only told them to not make an idol, but also not to make any likeness. Man was created in God’s likeness. The elect will be re-made into the likeness of Jesus, who is the fullest expression of the Likeness of God (Heb. 1:1-2). The thought goes like this: do not make any idol at all of any god, let alone any likeness of Yahweh the one true God by means of any created form. Do not make a form of him by any shape, animal, person, or artistic license.

One example of this interpretation as the primary meaning is how later in Exodus 32 Aaron made an idol for the people- through which they worshipped Yaweh. Aaron did not tell the people they needed to worship another God, but that the golden calf was the God, Yaweh, who brought them out of the land of Egypt. Another example of this is the infamous sin of Jeroboam, who is called “The son of Nebat, the man who man Israel sin.” In 1 Kings 12:28, Jeroboam tells the northern kingdom that the two golden calves he made were “Yaweh their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt.” This is the primary meaning of the second commandment. Neither was Israel not to worship or serve any other god, and therefore would never bow down to any pagan idol (the first commandment), nor were they to worship the one true God, Yaweh, through an idol.

He added that Israel was not to “worship them nor serve them.” This dual negative also shows a couple of colors on how the command may be violated. Worship has to do with religious ceremony. Serve has to do with emotional homage to the idol. God forbade the internal heart of worship toward an idol (even if one objected that he or she is worshiping the one true God through the idol) and the external practice of religious ceremony toward the idol. It would not be right for one to think that he or she bows to the idol but does not believe in it, therefore it is not sin. It is still sin because one is still worshipping. God forbids both homage and ceremony toward idols, even if the Triune God is the referent.

The Westminster Larger Catechism explains the intent of the second commandment like this.

  1. 108. What are the duties required in the second commandment?
    A. The duties required in the second commandment are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his word; particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ; the reading, preaching, and hearing of the word; the administration and receiving of the sacraments; church government and discipline; the ministry and maintenance thereof; religious fasting; swearing by the name of God, and vowing unto him: as also the disapproving, detesting, opposing, all false worship; and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry.
  2. 109. What sins are forbidden in the second commandment?
  3. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.

This is a helpful summary of the ethics of the second commandment because it centers the focus on the subject of worship. Worship is to be done as God instituted, and any form of worship that God has not instituted is rejected and not blessed but rather cursed by God. Idolatry was the primary means of false worship at the time when God gave the commandments. It makes sense that God, taking on false worship, would cut the jugular vein of false worship in Israel’s context by commanding them not to make images of God, for whatever reason they may devise.

Is the Second Commandment irrelevant in a modernist culture which is anti-idol, and anti-superstitious?

          The modernist worldview is naturalistic. Religion has a place. That place is in making society orderly. Society is ultimate reality, as it is felt to be the source of great evil and good. It may be hard to see in this neo-pagan context why one would need a commandment against idols. Perhaps the modernist worldview would agree with Moses on face value. We should not worship idols. Digging deeper, one would find that the naturalist’s reason is different from Moses’ for not worshipping idols. Moses held that God alone is worthy of worship and is jealous for it. Naturalists would not likely affirm the need to worship God at all from the reality of God. They may affirm that God exists, but they would reject that it is a moral imperative that he be worshipped. It is necessary to engage the commandment in context to see how it still speaks today.

They key in seeing how the second commandment speaks today is in looking to the past, or to those who currently today worship idols. First off, when someone worships idols, they do not think they are worshipping the idol itself. They believe that there is a spiritual being appeased or honored by means of the ceremonial idol worship associated with their name. J. Douma convincingly argued that in light of this reality, the problem with idolatry is that is robs God of his majesty, freedom, and covenant right to be worshipped as he prescribed. Idolatry misconstrues God into a malleable moldable God who is not free and sovereign. Idolatry at root then is dogmatic misunderstanding of God. A false doctrine of God is the root of all idolatry.

          Douma also gave the example of an electrical transformer of high voltage electricity to avoid the dangers posed to humans for the use of such a powerful current. The idol functions not to be the god, or be inhabited by the god, but to control the god. One example he gave is in 1 Samuel 4, when Israel calls for the Ark of the Covenant to come and defeat the Phillistines. We agree with this interpretation having recently worked through the material in detail. A Sermon on this text giving full exposition can be found here Israel believed that the Ark was the means of controlling God’s power. They said the words, “Let it come into the camp and save us.” Notice they called the ark “it” and did not invocation in the name of Yaweh entrusting themselves to their sovereign creator and redeemer. They did not pray to God to save by means of the sacramental Ark, but thought the Ark was their way to control God. That is the very definition of superstition. Ironically, that is what George Lucas thought when he wrote Indiana Jones. If memory serves, the race to the Ark was motivated because the Ark was a radio to God.

The second commandment applies today in the principle of superstition. I define superstition as believing that one can manipulate God to act in a mechanical way- which is by way of religious practice. One example would be the way Romanists believe that the work of the priest in the mass is ex opera operato – from the working the work is worked. They believe that the priest has the ability to dispense the forgiveness, the body and blood of Christ, and grace in penance. This is mechanistic and superstitious because God is not the sovereign and they are not ministers, but masters dispensing grace from a treasury of merit, or from Christ. Another example of superstition is the decision theology of the revivalists. The superstition largely began with Charles Finney’s anxious bench, and was perfected in the system of the altar call. Individuals are to stand and walk forward to the front of the room where they may receive follow-up after having made a decision to follow Jesus. What is superstitious is that the individuals think (because they are told to think so) that they have been saved because they have made a decision. God has to forgive, because they have made a decision. That is superstition, and idolatry, because God is not seen as sovereign. Another example would be the prayers to the gods, or God, one does when buying a powerball ticket. He or she makes a promise of never smoking another cigarette, never telling another lie, etc. That is superstition. Modern man is very superstitious. We must only scratch a bit beneath the surface

Why No Images?

The reason one must not make images is because at the most basic level they misunderstand God. As above, God is sovereign, but images do not see him as sovereign. They treat him as if he is under one’s control. A second reason is clarified through the special information that comes in verses 5-6 of the commandment.  God is a “jealous God.” This means he is jealous for worship, and he is authoritative over the way he will be worshiped. He has a right to be worshipped alone, and he alone has the right to institute worship.

We need a little bit of exposition here. This second part of the commandment is called a sanction. Sanctions can be blessings or curses. For example, blessed are the merciful for they shall be shown mercy. This is a curse sanction. God promises to meet out his judgment upon the third and fourth generation of those who hate him. He promises mercy to the thousandth generation to those who love and keep his commandments. The Sanction tells us why God is to be worshipped in the way he prescribes. God commands us to love him by keeping his commandments with regard to worship. That is, he is jealous, or so worthy of worship that we cannot morally worship anything else. Therefore we must be punished if we worship anything else, because to worship anything else is to fight against moral reality. It is perverse, and superstitious.

If we are not to make images then why are there so many images in the Bible?

There are abundant images in the Bible. There are Theophanies (appearances of God) such as the Lord and the two angels of the Lord in Genesis 18-19 who appeared to Abraham and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses saw the Lord in Exodus 33:20-33. There are  Christophanies. The Angel of the Lord who receives worship appeared to Joshua. There are also pneumatophanies (the Holy Spirit) such as the cloud of glory in the temple, the fire and smoke on Sinai, the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night in the wilderness. Man is God’s image and likeness. Christ is the image and likeness eternally who took on flesh as likeness superior to Adam. What then is the problem with images since God gives so many images in the Bible? The difference between images we create and the ones in scripture is the Bible reveals God rightly, infallibly, and inerrantly. God gaps the creator creature distinction with revelation. Unlike Allah in Islam, God is personal and is able to reveal himself. God is not limited from revealing himself. Humans are limited because in conceiving of God rightly because of the noetic effects of sin (see the introduction to chapter 2).

Part of the problem of this commandment is that we do not conceive of God rightly with our minds, which is mental idolatry. The reason is not just because God is Spirit.  Humans are spirit too. This tends toward dualism (Douma, argues) and implies that the way the mind engages or considers God is always right or without fault of idolatry. Scripture teaches that the human mind is fully capable of idolatry, superstition, etc. It is not impervious to these evils.

 Can we have art?

According to J. Douma, Josephus criticized Solomon for his artistry (Douma, 55). This was the impules of second temple Judaism. They considered all art as prohibited by God. This is also the view in Islam (Douma, 60).  Of course art in general is not the thing in question in the commandment. This is also inconsistent with the rest of scripture. The tabernacle art was part of the earthly worship of God in the OT and was fully commanded by God. The tabernacle and the temple were both artistically and aesthetically appealing, but they were not technically images of God. They were images of heaven, revealed to Moses, and to depict that there is a greater sacrifice in the good things to come that would be offered to God in heaven by the eternal high priest, Jesus. There were no images of God in the tabernacle. There are other examples of artistry which are not judged as immoral. Judaism and Islam both take the view that God cannot be depicted by art because of his total transcendence. Trinitarian Christianity points to what the scriptures teach about God as both transcendent and outside of the creation, but also his personality. God is able to communicate himself, and he has done so. Art in general is consistent with the appreciation of the world God gave humanity.

A more difficult question is: can we make art of God for admiration or education if it is not for worship? I agree with Douma, who argues that art communicates philosophy. If one can make art of God, then the art reveal a misunderstanding of God. It is not a matter of the quality of the art, but the theology it conveys by nature of trying to portray God in a way that is not instituted by him. More than that, God is always to be worshipped; so there is no such thing as art of God which does not require worship. God is a jealous God, which means that he is always to be worshipped, and never to be thought of abstractly.

Another question is: how about art depicting Jesus in his incarnation? The answer would be similar to the above paragraph. One theme needs to be added: Jesus is God, we are not to make images of God. Therefore, art depicting the incarnate Jesus denies that he is God. It is reflects an unbiblical theology. At the very least, making images of Christ exposes a theology inconsistent with the second commandment.

Can we make art of the authorized images of God described in the Bible?

A related question to this one comes from the consideration above that God made authorized images of himself in scripture. God authorized Israel to make the tabernacle and the temple, and in the prophets there are descriptions of the Lord sitting on a throne (Isaiah 6), appearing as a fire cloud (Exodus 20), appearing in glory (Revelation 1-2), as a lamb who was slain (Revelation 4-5), riding a white horse (Revelation 19), sitting in judgment (Revelation 20). Jesus is depicted in the Gospels in all of his actions. These are all authorized by God, which is based on his ability to communicate himself and our inability to think rightly about him without his revelation because of the noetic effects of sin. Here is the question. If scripture authorized some images, then may one make images of the images that God authorized? The answer is, again, no. The first reason is because the second commandment explicitly says we are not to “make idols” or “likenesses” of God. Scripture permits (even demands by virtue of the dominion mandate) people to take dominion over creation by making likenesses of other things in general in art. Nevertheless, art which depicts God is another story. The second commandment is clear that one may not make an image or likeness of God.

Sometimes people make the commands out as capricious random commands from the values of a backward culture. The command to not make images of God is rooted in two dual doctrines. It is not random. First, God is jealousy for worship. He is never to be treated as if a thing to simply be studied or depicted by art without it being worship, because he is always to be worshipped.

Second, man is unable to conceive of God rightly in order to worship him without receiving the renewed mind and being informed by infallible scripture. The natural mind of man without the renewing grace of the Gospel as informed by the second commandment will never arrive at the conclusion that one should not make an image of God, or even an image of an image. The reason is the natural bent and inclination of the heart is to rebel against the laws of God. If one does learn the law of God, it will still be a selfishly motivated parody of the truth- because the mind of man is bound to sin, determined by the bondage of the will to rebel, even in the presence of the truth of God in the ten commandments.

Third, God can communicate himself. He did it through the creation in showing the order of his nature and the unity and diversity of species. He created man in his image, which means that even though man is flesh, he is also an embodied soul which was created to reflect God’s nature and be a means by which God would be personally worshipped by his creation. He communicated himself through the curse, which is his wrath revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness and ungodliness of men. He communicated himself in the events of redemptive history, and in the scriptures which recorded most of them for us. After all those ways of revealing himself he sent the second person of the Triune God, the eternal Image and Form of God who is the communicative Word of God to the world so that even though no man has seen God at any time, the Only-Begotten of the Father, The Son has made God the Father known. God spoke most clearly in the Son of God taking on flesh, and shows by the incarnation that he must in some way correspond to man and creation by analogy. Jesus authorized two present day sacraments, baptism and the supper, which represent and remind us of the body and blood of Jesus. Jesus is on display in an authorized image in the supper. The second commandment tells us not to make images simply because God has done so much to communicate himself perfectly and infallibly, by His Son, by Word, and by Sacrament; nevertheless, rebels think they can do better than God. We must stick to what God has revealed, and draw all of our ethical doings from him.