Images and Idols

“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” (vv. 4–5a).

- Exodus 20:4–5

The first commandment, in its prohibition of serving gods other than the one true God of Scripture, addresses matters of worship. This is also true of the second commandment, which tells us not to make a “carved image” (Ex. 20:4–6). Here the law prohibits creating and worshiping visible images of God.

Some Christian thinkers have seen in this commandment a rule prohibiting all art in the sanctuary where God’s people gather for worship. With due respect to those who hold this position, we must note that if God meant to forbid all visual art in the sanctuary, His instructions for having images of cherubim in the tabernacle would contradict this law (Ex. 26:1). Since the Lord is not a God of confusion and cannot deny or contradict Himself (1 Cor. 14:33a; 2 Tim. 2:13), the second commandment cannot thereby be forbidding all art in the worship setting. Rather, the chief concern in the second commandment is the creation of images for the express purpose of being worshiped.

As we read the Scriptures, we find that the Lord is very jealous to be worshiped as He actually is. He does not allow people to come up with an idea of what He is like and then serve that figure. In contemporary culture, we often hear people saying things such as, “To me, God is like. . . .” No passage of Scripture sanctions such language. God must reveal Himself and how He is to be worshiped. When people make graven images of God and worship those images—as Israel did with the golden calf—the Lord responds with condemnation (Ex. 32). Our Creator will not have us substitute any lesser thing for Him in our worship of Him.

No matter when or where we live, we must always be on guard lest we introduce superstition into our worship. The danger in worshiping or venerating images is that we will begin to impute power to those images. The old covenant people of God did just that, which is one reason why we find the prophets frequently mocking those who made graven images of Yahweh or other deities (for example, Isa. 44:9–20). People are so apt to think a statute or a picture has divine power that the prophets had to use extreme language to remind people otherwise. We may not be tempted to worship physical images, but we can nevertheless be tempted to think of God superstitiously in ways He has not revealed Himself.

The first commandment, in its prohibition of serving gods other than the one true God of Scripture, addresses matters of worship. This is also true of the second commandment, which tells us not to make a “carved image” (Ex. 20:4–6). Here the law prohibits creating and worshiping visible images of God.

Some Christian thinkers have seen in this commandment a rule prohibiting all art in the sanctuary where God’s people gather for worship. With due respect to those who hold this position, we must note that if God meant to forbid all visual art in the sanctuary, His instructions for having images of cherubim in the tabernacle would contradict this law (Ex. 26:1). Since the Lord is not a God of confusion and cannot deny or contradict Himself (1 Cor. 14:33a; 2 Tim. 2:13), the second commandment cannot thereby be forbidding all art in the worship setting. Rather, the chief concern in the second commandment is the creation of images for the express purpose of being worshiped.

As we read the Scriptures, we find that the Lord is very jealous to be worshiped as He actually is. He does not allow people to come up with an idea of what He is like and then serve that figure. In contemporary culture, we often hear people saying things such as, “To me, God is like. . . .” No passage of Scripture sanctions such language. God must reveal Himself and how He is to be worshiped. When people make graven images of God and worship those images—as Israel did with the golden calf—the Lord responds with condemnation (Ex. 32). Our Creator will not have us substitute any lesser thing for Him in our worship of Him.

No matter when or where we live, we must always be on guard lest we introduce superstition into our worship. The danger in worshiping or venerating images is that we will begin to impute power to those images. The old covenant people of God did just that, which is one reason why we find the prophets frequently mocking those who made graven images of Yahweh or other deities (for example, Isa. 44:9–20). People are so apt to think a statute or a picture has divine power that the prophets had to use extreme language to remind people otherwise. We may not be tempted to worship physical images, but we can nevertheless be tempted to think of God superstitiously in ways He has not revealed Himself.

Coram Deo

In light of the second commandment regarding the prohibition of graven images, we should think carefully about the use of images in all of life. Images can be powerful conveyors of truth or error, so let us consider and be discerning about what we set before our eyes and the eyes of our families at all times.

Passages for Further Study

1 Chronicles 16:26
2 Chronicles 24:18
Jeremiah 10
1 John 5:21

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.