“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Deuteronomy 5:8-10, NIV)
Of all the ten commandments, the second is surely the most surprising. We can understand God’s opposition to murder, theft or adultery. But a ban on certain kinds of art? Aren’t culture and the imagination always to be celebrated?
I take it that this isn’t a prohibition of all kinds of representation by visual image: we need to take the verses as a whole and see that what God does not want is that He should be represented this way. His people are not to make statues or pictures of Him, or portray Him as something occurring in nature.
Why not? He tells us here He is a jealous God. That doesn’t mean jealous in the sense of ‘mean-spirited’, but jealous for His own reputation and for His relationship with His people. Both are placed in jeopardy by idol-making.
For idol-making inevitably misrepresents the living God, Who is great and awesome. It reduces Him. Here is the One Who says “I am Who I am”; we can’t decide what He’s like. Here is the Creator, not the creature. Here is the prayer-hearing, promise-fulfilling, rescuing God – no lifeless statue can do that.
Israel would be tempted to make these idols, because the nations around them all did. Moreover, a manufactured idol has the added attraction of being built to our specification. Here is a designer god, who will fit in with our aspirations! And yet, as He warns in this commandment, and as subsequent history proved, this was to be disastrous for them.
We are not immune to the temptation to break this commandment. Wouldn’t it help to have something visible to venerate, both as a sign of our devotion and as a prop to our faith? After all, the other religions of the world (Islam being an exception) make great use of such images. Church buildings in some places are full of venerated images of exactly the kind that the commandment prohibits.
And it goes deeper. For the root of the commandment is our sinful desire to make our own god. Here is J I Packer, in his great book Knowing God: Just as [the 2nd commandment] forbids us to manufacture molten images of God, so it forbids us to dream up mental images of him. Imagining God in our heads can be just as real a breach of the second commandment as imagining him by the work of our hands. How often do we hear this sort of thing: “I like to think of God as the great Architect… I don’t like to think of God as a Judge; I like to think of him simply as a Father.
Imagination is a great gift of God; but with regard to people, we only use it for people we don’t know. God in Christ has made Himself known. As Paul put it, He is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). Accept no substitutes. And don’t dare make them!