The Lord Alone 4

The Second Command is not to make a graven image — an idol. Here is the text from Exodus 20:4-6:

4 “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. 5 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, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

We are reading Patrick Miller’s new book, The Ten Commandments: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church.

A major interpretive method for reading the Second Command is to read it with Deuteronomy 4’s sermon, which he calls a Mosaic sermon on the Second Command.

What’s obvious there is that Israel was not to make an image because when God spoke — when Israel encountered God in person — they only got a Voice and no physical “form.” Human-made forms of God are wrong because God is formless.

This Command protects the First Command.

God’s “Word” immanence and God’s formless transcendence are breached when one makes an image of God. To make an image of God is to domesticate God, to tame the fire.

Most importantly, God is the one who determines how God is to be known. How is God known?Through the Word, and through the creation of humans as Eikons.

God is the one who decides how to make God known; humans don’t create gods; God chooses how to make God known.

And part of this Second Command is the endless prophetic critique of false gods and idols, seen brilliantly in Isaiah 40. Isa 45:7 is pertinent too: “They lift it [the idol] to their shoulders, they carry it, they set it in its place, and it stands there; it cannot move from its place.” Or from Jeremiah 10:5: “they are like scarecrows in a cucumber field.”

An element of the Second Command is the ground: God is jealous. This refers both to God’s zeal for his people and God’s reactive jealousy for sole affection from his loved one.

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  • DRT

    I was raised Catholic and greatly miss kneeling in front of some statues or standing in front of stations of the cross. Those served as reminders of the ideas expressed in the theology and I don’t see anything wrong with that. Do you all think that those are wrong?

  • Jon G


    I don’t think they are wrong, inherently, as long as they are meant to remind us of something bigger. But I do think there is a danger in people to look to the statue and assign agency to it. In other words, we tend to forget the carpenter and worship the hammer sometimes.

  • Pat Pope

    DRT and Jon,

    I think that has always been my misunderstanding with more liturgial denominations that use icons. If the scripture commands that we 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;” how did it come about that some churches began using icons? What was the reasoning behind it? I understand if one’s motivation is not idolatry, but the scripture says not to make any images. As humans, I think we have a need for something tangible and so all throughout history we’ve had visible symbols of the invisible God. But when does it become a violate of the second commandment? Seeking to understand….

  • Phil M

    I am currently reading John Walton’s book “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament”.

    He has a section on the first 3 commandments. I don’t have the book to hand but I will try my best to recall what he wrote.

    He pointed out that in the ANE cultures, a idol was more than just a representation – it was an agency of the power of the god it represented. Even more – he used the paradoxical phrase of gods being “non-existent entities”. A physical representation of the god was required to “actuate” the god.

    So to make a graven image in that time was to invoke the power of that god. Each family most likely had their own minor god that would watch over just their family, and the city would have it’s main god that was worshipped corporately in the main temple with it’s own (bigger) idol.

    YHWH was different – he would not be invoked by graven image and this commandment forbade attempts to control/invoke him in such a fashion.

    I hope my memory is correctly representing Walton’s writings here.

    If this is the case, then the Catholic Church’s use of icons does not appear, in general, to be at odds with this commandment. However, from my Catholic upbringing and education, I do recall seeing videos of isolated instances where icons themselves appeared to be venerated (weeping statues etc).