God Made by Man

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This morning we continue our series on the Ten Commandments and we come to the second commandment given by the LORD God, to his people, through the prophet Moses.

In the first commandment God spoke and declared

2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 3 You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:2-3, NIV).

The worship of any other god is forbidden. God has redeemed his people Israel from slavery and they owe him their allegiance. Despite the fact that other nations worship other gods, the reality is that there is only one God, the LORD, Hebrew name Yahweh. He is the only true God, and he alone is to be worshipped.

The worship of anyone or anything other than God, be it Baal, or Molech, or modern day football stars, or money, or success – the worship or service of any other god in life is prohibited by the first commandment.

The second commandment is similar to the first but is different. The second commandment is not so much about the worship of other gods – that is prohibited by the first commandment. Rather the second commandment is about worship of the one true God in the wrong way - namely though the use of idolatrous images. Hopefully that will become clear as we look at this second commandment in more detail. Exodus chapter 20 verses 4 to 6.

I have two headings this morning. The first is that idolatrous images are prohibited, and the second that idolatrous imagination is prohibited.


Heading one, prohibition against idolatrous images.

My wife Sarah and I lived in Canada for three years. We were studying at Bible College in Vancouver. Vancouver airport is one of my favourite airports in the world. It is a beautiful building. It has lots of open space, huge concourses, artificial waterfalls, nice lighting. But as you come down the escalator into the immigration area you are confronted with an absolutely enormous painting of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. It was quite a surprise the first time I saw it. The reason I mention it, and my question this morning is, “Is that painting in Vancouver airport an idolatrous image?”

Well what does the Bible say? Chapter 20 verse 4,

“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Ex 20:4).

The painting of the queen is certainly an image in the form of something on earth but, as is explained at the start of verse 5, it is not an idol, unless we bow down to it or worship it. Look at what verse 5 says.

“You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Ex 20:5a)

The same would apply to landscape paintings, or still life paintings, or art in general. It is not images, carvings, and statues that are prohibited by this commandment, but rather the bowing down to them and worshipping them.

On one occasion when I was travelling in Bolivia I took a particularly hair-raising journey in a minibus winding down the side of a very steep valley as we dropped from 4000m to 2000m. At the most dangerous corners of this steep windy road shrines had been set up containing carved idols, incense sticks and flags. Every time the driver of the minibus passed one of these things he would close his eyes and nod his head to the idol – a form of prayer for protection. I of course wanted him to have his eyes open as he drove round the corner!

Those shrines at the road side contained idols that were being worshipped. Their worship is prohibited by this second commandment. They are clearly idols. But in actual fact their worship is already prohibited by the first commandment. Even if we did not have the second commandment we would still be prohibited from worshipping the idols on the Bolivian hillside. We are to have no other gods before the LORD God, as the first commandment states. The idols are false gods, gods that do not really exist, they are not the LORD, and they are prohibited by the first commandment.

So what then is the second commandment all about? Is it just a repetition of the first commandment? Well the answer is no. The second commandment is about more than just the worship of idols who represent false gods. The second commandment is about the worship of an idol as if it were the true God. It prohibits making idolatrous images of Yahweh. It prohibits any distortion of the image of the true God.

Let me give you an example of what is really at stake. Turn over with me to Exodus chapter 32. While Moses is up the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments the people grow impatient and demand that Aaron make them a god (or gods) to go before them. Aaron collects gold earrings from the people and makes an idol in the form of a calf.

Verse 5 and following of chapter 32,

5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.” [Notice that Aaron is promoting this festival as supposedly worship of Yahweh, the true God. 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.
7 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’
[The people are saying that this calf is a representation of the LORD God who brought them out of Egypt. And God’s anger burns against them, verse 9.] 9 “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation” (Ex 32:5-10, NIV).

Even while Moses is receiving the second commandment on top of the mountain the people are breaking it. They are making an idol in the form of an earthly animal and are worshipping it as if it were the LORD God who had redeemed them from Egypt.

The second commandment is primarily a prohibition against idolatrous images of the true God. The Israelites are forbidden to make images and worship them as if they are Yahweh.

There is of course a very good reason for that. God is God. There is nothing created that can serve to represent him. There is no image that the human mind can conceive of that would be an accurate representation of the living God.

The sun cannot represent God. The stars cannot represent God. Like the psalmist we might well be able to look at creation and cry:

9 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Ps 8:9, NIV).

But there is no created object that can adequately represent God.

He is Spirit. He is living. An inanimate object can do nothing to help us. A carved statue is lifeless, voiceless. We need the true God – “Immortal, invisible, God only wise”. God who is above all and in all, who sustains everything, who brings into being things that are not. The God who reveals himself in his word the Bible. Who ultimately makes himself known to us as he becomes incarnate and dwells among us in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The big question for us today, and the debate that is had, is to what extent it is valid for us to use images in our teaching and in our church buildings. Do we today for instance break the second commandment by having pictures of created objects on the walls of our church? Well probably not. As I have tried to make clear the issue is idolatrous imagery not imagery itself. We are unlikely to bow down to or worship a picture of a rainbow or a sunset. The temple in Jerusalem in fact had cherubim, palm trees and open flowers carved on the walls (1 Kings 6:29).

But what about images of saints, disciples, Mary or even of Jesus? If you visit some of the famous Roman Catholic cathedrals in a city like Paris you will see lots of paintings and carvings on the walls. If you visit a Greek Orthodox Church you will find icons and images dominate the building. How much of that is idolatrous? Well there are some very strong opinions in response to that question.

If a person bows down to or worships the statue or the painting then the second commandment makes it clear that it is an idol. If an image is being used as simply an aid to worship a great deal of care would need to be taken that it does not become the object of worship. And although the second commandment does not address the issue, you might still choose not to use an image because it is unhelpful or distracting.

In this debate it is also worth saying that since God is invisible anything that is supposed to represent him is likely to be misleading. And yet the Bible does at times encourage us to think of God in terms of human attributes. It is also true that God deliberately made himself visible in the physical person of Jesus. Jesus in turn used physical created objects – bread and wine, to aid us in our celebration of his death.

But what about images of Jesus himself, are they idolatrous? Well I suppose they could be – particularly if we end up worshipping the picture, or if the image is a misleading representation of God. Yet in a teaching context imagery can be very helpful – particularly for example in children’s Bibles and Sunday school material. And it is true that we create images in our head even if we don’t have them on paper.

At times this whole topic is hotly debated in protestant churches. But let me make it clear, and this is the main point I want to make this morning: It is perfectly possible to have a pharisaic avoidance of imagery in church, while still breaking the second commandment on a daily basis. We are perfectly capable of breaking this commandment in our head without needing a physical object. Which brings me to my second heading, prohibition against idolatrous imagination. Idolatrous imagination is also prohibited.


The people of Israel created a golden calf because they wanted an image that their minds could grasp. They bowed down to the calf and worshipped it as if it were God. They knew that it was man-made and breakable. But that was exactly the sort of God they wanted – one they could control. The vast God reduced to something that could be imprisoned in a few ounces of gold. A shrunken powerless God who will do their bidding, protect them alone, and destroy their enemies.

But God instead commands his people to worship him as he is, not as they (or we) would like him to be. God forbids idolatrous imagination.

For you see that is the fundamental problem, that the second commandment addresses. We don’t want God to create us – we want to create God. God in my image – not man in God’s image. We want a God we can control, manipulate, regulate. The default position for you and me today is to imagine God the way we want him to be, not the way he has revealed himself to be.

For instance you might want a God who saves all people, who sends no-one to hell – so you create in your mind a loving God who is never angry. But the Bible is clear that God is both a God of love and a God of wrath and judgement. He is justly angry with sin and wickedness.

You can do it the other way as well – emphasise God’s wrath and judgement to the extent that you ignore God’s love.

Again some people decide that miracles are impossible for modern people to believe, so they imagine a God who walks on a sand-bar rather than on water, who becomes incarnate but without a virgin birth. In so doing they diminish the almighty, all powerful God, into someone who must obey man made rules.

Or you and I might look at the world and find it unpredictable, so we turn to a God who is not really in control, or a God who cannot be relied upon to act consistently. We ignore the fact that the Bible teaches that God is sovereign, that he is intimately involved in his creation, that he is always at work for our good, that he is in control.

But perhaps it is the very closeness of God that we are afraid of. We don’t like the idea of God being close to us, aware of our every action, so we imagine God as distant. We disregard what the Bible says about God’s omnipresence. God is everywhere – we cannot flee from him.

Or maybe it is closer to our experience to say that you and I want a God who we can blame for our mistakes. We want to be able to say that “my God understands when I run after the pleasures of this world”. But the Bible says that man is responsible for his sin. The true God calls us to holiness.

In a similar way we distort the image of God when we proclaim that God only allows good things to happen to us. We want a God who makes our life comfortable, who gives us what we want when we want it. So we create such a God. But we have forgotten what the Bible says about the importance of suffering and hardship.

We want a God we can bargain with and bribe – a God we can manipulate and control. Most of all we want a God who is safe – who doesn’t make demands on us. But God the Son calls us to lay down our life and to take up our cross.

All those ideas, all those things we try to do to God, are distortions. They are idolatrous imagination. You and I can proclaim all we like that we worship the true God, but when we distort God in any of these ways, and ignore what God reveals of himself in the Bible and in the person of Jesus, then you and I are idolaters, haters of the true God, and the consequences for us are serious. We invoke God’s jealousy and anger.

Even if we sincerely believe that the distorted image we create is a true representation of God, there is no way that it can be, and in God’s eyes it is not worship of him – it is giving to others what is due only to him – hence his jealousy.

Take a look at verses 5, (reading from verse 4).

4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol 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 fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me . . .” (Ex 20:4-5, NIV).

If we make an idolatrous image, physically or in our imagination, we are God haters. Such indifference to the true God, as he has revealed himself to us, is contagious, it affects future generations – the distortion is perpetuated.

Jewish homes would often have contained three or even four generations in a household. Idolatrous worship, distortion of the true image of God, would naturally have affected the whole family, the whole household. God punishes idolatry, in whatever form, to the third and fourth generation. He deals with it according to its seriousness. The language is a covenantal type judgement.

But the striking contrast is verse 6. Limited judgement is contrasted with unlimited blessing. Have a look, verse 6,

6 “but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex 20:6, NIV).

A thousand generations is much longer than biblical history. God is saying in effect that he will show his steadfast love to innumerable descendents who love him. There is no limit to God’s blessing.

God wants you and me today to know him as he really is – as he has revealed himself though the pages of the Bible. He wants us to worship him in truth as well as in spirit. God loves us so much that he cannot bear it when our desires and loyalties go elsewhere. He wants to give us himself so that we can glorify him and enjoy him forever. If you or I worship and serve anything less than who God really is we have completely failed to worship him. We are missing out – you are missing out on the blessing of relationship with the true and living God.

The illustration is made of being the friend of someone famous. If we rely on TV news reports we are unlikely to genuinely know the person. Their image is usually distorted. We would need to get to know the real person. In a similar way you and I need to talk directly to God. We need to read and study his word the Bible. As he speaks to us from its pages he will reveal himself as he truly is.

An idolatrous imagination is never in our best interest because it is so much less than knowing the true God.

The second commandment prohibits idolatrous images and idolatrous imagination.

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