Images vs. Idols
“[Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan)” (v. 4).- 2 Kings 18:4–5
Pagan idolatry was an ever-present temptation for the ancient Israelites, surrounded as they were by polytheistic cultures. No doubt, this is one reason why the Lord comes down so hard against idolatry in the second commandment (Deut. 5:8). The people were tempted to worship other gods or to image the one true God in a way He had not approved because of pagan seduction, so our Creator revealed the blessing that would come if they followed His regulations for worship and the curses that would fall on their heads if they turned to other gods (vv. 9–10). Unsurprisingly, this order was prescient, as the ancient Israelites forsook the Lord repeatedly to worship idols and serve other gods (Ex. 32; 2 Kings 17:7–23).
When we read the second commandment, we must understand that images per se are not forbidden. Instead, what is forbidden is the construction of images for the sake of worshipping the images or the gods the images portray, as well as the veneration of images as a means of venerating the God of Scripture. The connection between the prohibition of images and the prohibition of the worship of images in Deuteronomy 5:8–10 makes this clear.
Today’s passage clarifies the point that God does not forbid all images but only images set up as objects of worship. The background of this text is Numbers 21:4–9 and the account of the plague of serpents that afflicted the people of Israel as they marched around Edom after being liberated from Egyptian slavery. The Lord sent the serpents to punish His people for their complaining, but when Moses prayed for them, God commanded him to make a serpent and set it on a pole for the people to gaze at and be healed. Since the Lord commanded the construction of this image, we understand that not all images are bad. The issue is what we do with them. Generations later, King Hezekiah had to destroy that same serpent because the people were worshipping it as a god (2 Kings 18:4–5). What had been good had been perverted for evil.
Question and answer 97 of the Heidelberg Catechism cites today’s passage in its exposition of the second commandment. God does not forbid the imaging of His creation privately or publicly unless our intent is to worship those images.
Biblical ethics ultimately address the heart. Images in themselves are indifferent; it is what we do with them that matters. The worship of physical images is a problem in many places, but we tend to be more “sophisticated.” We often create images of God in our hearts and minds based on what we think He should be like. Then, we worship that deity, and not the God of Scripture. But if we do not worship the Lord as He reveals Himself in His Word, we are committing idolatry.
Passages for Further Study
1 Kings 15:9–15
1 Peter 4:1–6