The Second Commandment
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (v. 8).- Deuteronomy 5:8–10
Israel was unique from the nations surrounding it because of the fierce commitment to monotheism enshrined in the Ten Commandments, which formed the core of the Mosaic law. The people of Israel were to have only one God, the true Creator of the universe (Deut. 5:7). Yet the ancient Israelites were not set apart from the nations only on account of their monotheism. The ancient Jews were also forbidden to adopt the worship practices of the pagans around them. One of the most prevalent practices was the use of carved images to depict the object of worship. The second commandment forbids this explicitly (Deut. 5:8–10).
Reading the second commandment in our English translations, we might get the impression that God’s people are not to make any images at all for any purpose. Of course, as we read Scripture, we see that such cannot be the case. There are several occasions on which the Lord actually commanded His people to make images. God’s instructions to Moses for the construction of the tabernacle, for example, command him to make images of cherubim (angelic beings) on the ark and the curtains (Ex. 25–26). The old covenant priests also wore robes with images of pomegranates made of blue, purple, and scarlet yarns hanging from their garments’ hems (28:33). Surely the Lord could not have meant to forbid images altogether in the second commandment, for they appeared even in the worship setting.
Instead, as the Heidelberg Catechism explains in question and answer 96, the second commandment tells us that God’s will is “that we in no way make any image of God.” More specifically, what is forbidden is making an image of the divine nature, as we will see over the next few days. Believers may not image the invisible God, for He has not revealed His divine form to us. As Deuteronomy 4:12 states in its recollection of God’s revelation at Sinai: “The Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.”
That does not mean, however, that we may not make images of Jesus Christ, as we will see. But it does mean that human beings do not have the freedom to depict the Lord in any way that we see fit. Any attempt to do so invariably ends up concealing or twisting God and His character.
As finite beings who still suffer the presence of sin, we cannot bear to see God face to face. Such a vision will be our privilege when we are glorified (1 Cor. 13:12), but until then we have to be content that the divine nature, or essence, is invisible. We cannot depict this nature in art, and, by extension, we cannot image God or His attributes in our minds in ways that have not been revealed in Scripture. Let us be content to serve the glorious but invisible God.
Passages for Further Study
1 Thessalonians 1:2–10