Is Worship of God Through an Image Biblical?

Is Worship of God Through an Image Biblical? November 10, 2020

Luke Wayne has been a writer and researcher for the large Protestant online forum CARM since January of 2016. He is an elder at the Mission Church in South Jordan, Utah and holds a Masters of Arts in Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist College and a Masters in Divinity from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

I’m responding to his article, “Is worship in the tabernacle a precedent for the veneration of images?” Luke’s words will be in blue.

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Luke wrote:

Interestingly, the scene on the ark is an empty seat flanked by two angelic beings. There is no image enthroned on the seat, yet it is this seemingly empty space above the seat that is the focus of the whole construction. That is the space that represents the presence of God. . . . 

The veneration before the ark was never directed at the Cherub figures. It was always directed at this imageless space above the seat that represented the presence of God . . . 

There is, again, no place for the veneration of the Cherub statues themselves. They exist only to direct undivided veneration to the presence of God above the mercy seat, for which there is no image. . . . 

[T]he Jews worshiped God alone without images. The veneration of images was rejected while the worship of the invisible God without any icon or sculpture as its object was accepted. There is simply no biblical precedent for the acceptable veneration of images of heavenly beings, whether they be images of angels, fallen saints, or God Himself.

I beg to differ:

Exodus 3:2 (RSV) And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.

Exodus 13:21-22 And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night; [22] the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people. (cf. 14:24; Num 14:14; Neh 9:12, 19)

Exodus 19:18 And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire;  . . .

Exodus 24:16 The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.

Now, it might be objected that these are indeed images conveying God, or through which God is “seen” or experienced, but they are not proof that worship was allowed to be directed through such images to God. Well, the Bible teaches that, too:

Exodus 33:9-10 When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the door of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. [10] And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the door of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, every man at his tent door.

2 Chronicles 7:3-4 When all the children of Israel saw the fire come down and the glory of the LORD upon the temple, they bowed down with their faces to the earth on the pavement, and worshiped and gave thanks to the LORD, saying, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever.” [4] Then the king and all the people offered sacrifice before the LORD.

Psalm 5:7 But I through the abundance of thy steadfast love will enter thy house, I will worship toward thy holy temple in the fear of thee.

Ezekiel 1:26-28 And above the firmament over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness as it were of a human form. [27] And upward from what had the appearance of his loins I saw as it were gleaming bronze, like the appearance of fire enclosed round about; and downward from what had the appearance of his loins I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness round about him. [28] Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.

Luke makes a clever and interesting argument that the space between the mercy seat on top of the ark of the covenant, where God says He is present and to be worshiped (despite being surrounded by carved cherubim [angels]) is “empty space” and “imageless space” and “with no image.” But this is untrue, as the Bible informs us:

Leviticus 16:2 and the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the mercy seat which is upon the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat.

This cloud was visible, just as in other passages above, like Exodus 13:21; 19:18; 24:16; 33:10 (“the people saw the pillar of cloud”), and others like Numbers 16:42 (“the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD appeared“) and Deuteronomy 31:15 (“And the LORD appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud“). The very word “appear” in Leviticus 16:2  and the last two passages also proves it. God doesn’t just say that He will be “present”, but that He will “appear” in this cloud.

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Photo credit: Lynn Greyling (“pillar” of cloud) [public domain / Needpix.com]

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