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Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 02/02/1997
"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and fourth generations of these who hate me."
The First Commandment is probably the most difficult one to keep perfectly, as it strikes at the very heart of our sinful and rebellious nature, prone to love self first and God--or anything else--second. But the Second Commandment may be the hardest to apply in contemporary terms. Murder, theft, false witness, adultery, disobedience to parents, and covetousness are with us still, and neither the meaning of the acts nor the means of performing them have altered significantly since of old. But what does the Second Commandment require of people who have neither any interest in nor indeed perhaps even the opportunity of bowing down to a grotesquely carved statue as an object of worship? Is this commandment outmoded, obsolete, no longer relevant to 21st century people? Or have we found our own ways of transgressing the spirit if not the letter? These are the questions we must think about today.
The Second Commandment cannot be understood except in relationship to the First. Both together are needed to deal fully with the problem of idolatry. Idolatry as such is not really the point of the second commandment: that has already been eliminated by the requirement that we have NO other gods before the Lord, that is, in his sight. But Israel was not just tempted to substitute a different object of worship for the true God. They were just as prone to pick up from their idolatrous neighbors a different method of worshipping the one God. That is why the Second Commandment follows so hard on the heels of the First.
You see, the First Commandment forbids idolatry in principle; the Second forbids it in practice. The First Commandment determines the right object of worship; the Second determines the true manner of worship. The First Commandment forbids the worship of a false god; the Second forbids the worship of the true God in a false way. The First Commandment requires the worship of the true God only; the Second inculcates the true spiritual worship of that God.
The Second Commandment is not primarily concerned with representational art, or even with its religious use. Its structure makes verse 5 climactic. The idea is that we are not to make graven images "for the purpose" of worshipping them. The fact that making images is not forbidden per se is proved sufficiently by the fact that the Israelites were required to make representational images for other purposes in the Tabernacle: the cherubim on the Ark (Ex. 25:18-20), the pomegranates and flowers etc. on the lampstands and the priestly garments (Ex. 25:31-36, 28:2, 33-35), more cherubim on the tapestries (26:1), etc. One cannot read the instructions for building the Tabernacle without realizing that God loves beauty and creativity. He not only permits, he approves--indeed, he not only approves, he commands--their use in his service. In this area we must offer up to him our very best. Thinking of his "sweet phrases, lovely metaphors," George Herbert recalls that
When ye before Of stews and brothels only knew the doors, Then did I wash you with my tears, and more, Brought you to Church well dressed and clad: My God must have my best, even all I had.
So we can forget the blasphemous notion that God is anti-art, along with the foolish and ignorant notion that the Second Commandment supports any such idea.
What then is the Second Commandment concerned with? It forbids, not so much idolatry per se (which has already been covered by the First), but THE WORSHIP OF THE TRUE GOD BY MEANS OF IMAGES OF OUR OWN DEVISING. It is important here to notice carefully what happened in Ex. 32:5. When Aaron made the golden calf and told the people, "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord," in the Hebrew what he actually said was "a feast to Jahweh." The golden calf was not about abandoning Jehovah for another god. It was about needing a crutch, a visible symbol for God, to help the people worship Him. That is what He forbade the people to do in this Commandment.
Why is this crutch--this image for God of our own devising--such a problem? There are at least three harmful things that any such image will inevitably tend to do to our very concept of God. First, it tends to DOMESTICATE our idea of God. Deut. 4:10-16 may be the single most important commentary on the Second Commandment ever written. It deserves to be quoted extensively:
"Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, 'Assemble the people to me . . . " and you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire to the very heart of the heavens: darkness., cloud, and thick gloom. Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of the words, but you saw no form--only a voice. So he declared to you his covenant . . . the Ten Commandments . . . So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female."
Remember, Moses said: there was no form, only fire. It was devastating, incomprehensibly awe-inspiring; merely touching the mountain on which this was happening would have killed you. You will want to make this terrifyingly good God more comfortable, reduce Him to something you can deal with, to think of Him as just a bigger man or woman or as powerful like an animal. Do not do it! Whatever image you make up will be less than the thing you confronted at the mountain.
The second thing any image we might substitute will inevitably tend to do is to LIMIT our idea of God. We cannot reduce Him to something we can comfortably handle without doing this. To interpose any form or image at all is to forget that His ways are above our ways and His thoughts above our thoughts as high as the heavens are above the earth (Is. 55:8-9). Do not do it! You need the real God, who is vastly bigger than any image by which you might circumscribe Him.
The third thing any image we substitute for the aweful reality of God will do is to CORRUPT our idea of God. His "invisible attributes and eternal power" which have been revealed by his creation of the universe, the glory of the incorruptible God, must not be exchanged for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures (Rom. 1:18-23).
God wants us to know Him, and he understands that any image we might use, though it might seem a help at first, will in the long run be a barrier to our knowing Him as He truly is. Therefore, the Second Commandment was given as a safeguard against the tendency, the subtle and insidious temptation, to substitute an image of God for God Himself.
What is the practical use of this commandment for us today? We are not tempted, as were the Israelites, to substitute the image of a calf for the unimaginable Reality that was cloaked by the smoke and fire at Sinai. For us the temptation comes much more subtly, but come it does. An image does not have to be graven to be an image, and to have the same horrible effects as the images of the Old Testament--to domesticate, limit, and corrupt our idea of God. Let me suggest a few ways in which we can fall into the same trap. We transgress the Second Commandment when anything becomes a substitute for God in our lives--usually without our even realizing it. The Israelites did not think they were departing from Jehovah when they worshipped the golden calf, either. But they were.
We transgress the Second Commandment whenever Activity for God becomes a substitute for God Himself. We Americans live in a pragmatic and utilitarian society in which we are judged by results and feel compelled to be always acting and doing. This is not evil in itself; it is in fact a positive good when kept in balance. But we tend to judge people's spirituality by their activity, and to assume that those people are closest to God who are doing the most things in his name. It isn't necessarily so. Could our own religious activities be really a cover for the absence of God in our lives? It is a question that needs to be asked.
We transgress the Second Commandment whenever our thoughts or ideas about God become a substitute for God. Now, no one believes more strongly than I do in the necessity and the importance of good theology. Worship that is not biblically and doctrinally sound is not acceptable worship to God, for we must worship Him in Spirit and in Truth. Theology can help us avoid false images--the Grandfather in Heaven rather than the Father, a Jesus who can be Savior without being Lord. But even the right ideas can be graven images too, substitutes for God rather than avenues to Him, if we forget what they are. Two signs that even good and correct ideas about God are starting to function as graven images would be, first, if I care more about winning an argument than the God the argument is about; and second, if I ever become satisfied with my theology. Any thinking about God that produces complacency or comfortableness rather than awe, wonder, and joy, is false thinking, even if it is formally true. Our very correct doctrine has become a graven image.
We keep the Second Commandment, on the other hand, whenever we worship God in spirit and in truth. What would such worship be like? We must worship God INTELLIGENTLY, with minds alert both to the Truth revealed and to their own inadequacies as receptacles of that truth. We must worship Him HUMBLY. A god who does not make you feel small is not God. Worship that leaves you smug, comfortable, and self-satisfied is the worship of a graven image. We must worship Him FERVENTLY. Graven images are by definition finite, and therefore cannot demand our all. Since we created the image, whatever we feel like giving it is fine. But the God who is does demand our all. Half-hearted worship is the worship of a graven image. We must worship Him JOYFULLY. He is the Lord of life, of light, rebirth, and the splitting asunder of tombs. When we worship Him in spirit and truth, we will know the depths of the riches of his grace, his undeserved favor, poured out on us.
Most importantly, our worship must be CHRIST-CENTERED and therefore BIBLE-BASED. Israel saw no form at Sinai. Only when we reach the New Testament do we finally and fully realize why. "And He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation" (Col.1:15). We were to make no images of our own devising because God was preserving us for the only Image that could be adequate: the Image of His only Son. The final reason we are to worship no Graven Image is that we are to keep ourselves for the Given Image--the image of God's choosing, not ours. That is the only image that can make the unimaginable God accessible without domesticating, limiting, and corrupting our idea of Him--and thereby corrupting us. All of creation, all of history, and all of Scripture exists to shepherd us toward that image, for no other will do. Blessed be He.
Not a Graven Image, but the Given Image. Even now that Christ has been given, we must still be careful to avoid the graven. Therefore we must worship as C. S. Lewis did when he said,
Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head. From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee, Oh Thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free. Lord of the narrow gate and the needle's eye, Take from me all my trumpery, lest I die.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams