It is certain that it forbids making any image of God (for to whom can we liken him? Isaiah 40:15,18), or the image of any creature for a religious use. It is called the changing of the truth of God into a lie (Romans 1:25), for an image is a teacher of lies it insinuates to us that God has a body, whereas he is an infinite spirit, Habakkuk 2:18.
Matthew Henry commentary on Exodus 20:4
This is the second part of three articles, so if you haven’t read Part I, please go back and read that first before you continue with this one.
Last time, I talked about how God is invisible. Not invisible in the way that ultraviolet light is invisible to humans, and “if only” we had eyes like the mantis shrimp we would be able to see God as He exists as pure spirit. No, God is truly invisible, and the only way we can “see” God is by faith, not by sight.
As you’ve probably already thought to yourself, “We can see Jesus!” Yes, that’s correct, we can see Jesus. That’s because Jesus, according to His humanity, is just that: human. Jesus is truly man and truly God, a perfect mediator for all of His sheep that His Father gave Him. So why can’t we depict Him? Let’s review the 2nd commandment for the answer to that question, and then we’ll get back to images of Christ in part III
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Exodus 20:4-6 ESV
There are a few common misconceptions that people have when they read this passage.
1. They separate this commandment from the context.
2. They read the single command as two separate parts.
3. They make this commandment attainable.
They read this commandment, and interpret it, apart from its context. Let’s not forget exactly where the Israelites were just liberated from: Egypt. One of the most noteworthy things about Egypt is their pantheon of gods and goddesses, all individually represented by some sort of creature (like Ra as a hawk.) Now, once Yahweh gets His people across the Red Sea, one of the first things He does is lay down His law in the form of the 10 commandments. At the preface of the law, God, as if to remind the Israelites, says this,
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
Exodus 20:2 ESV
Just in case you forgot, oh fickle Israelites, I am the God that saved you. I am the God that brought you out of your bondage. I am the real God, not like all the false deities in Egypt, all the false gods that they paint on their walls and have statues of. I am the God who gives you my law from within a hidden cloud at the top of a mountain that you cannot see. I am the God that cannot be depicted by a hawk or a crocodile or a golden calf. I am the God who demands true and spiritual worship from my people.
The 2nd commandment here is broken up into 2 parts. Don’t make images, and don’t worship them.
The second half of the commandment here qualifies and defines the first half “You shall not bow down to them or serve them…” Don’t make any images, and don’t bow down to them.
When you take the words “You shall not make for yourself a carved image…” by themselves, you separate them from the second half of the commandment, and from the preceding commandment. It’s already been established who we do bow down to in the first commandment:
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
Exodus 20:3 ESV
The first clause “don’t make images” (paraphrase) obviously refers to making images in the intent of depicting God. If this were a prohibition of any and all image fabrication, the Lord Himself would have been violating His commandment by decreeing the construction of the Ark of the Covenant.
When we let the two clauses of the second commandment work together in unison as a whole. When we see the flow of logic from the first commandment into the second. When we understand how the ancient Israelites would have understood the commandments, the intent is clear. Don’t make any images of God.
In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord took a couple of the commandments as examples and gave us a deeper understanding of the true extent of them. Apparently, one cannot fulfill the sixth commandment by simply living one’s life murder-free. No, to be angry with your brother or sister is enough to violate the sixth. Likewise, the seventh. Some might read the Exodus account and think that they’re doing alright by the seventh commandment because they’ve never committed adultery. But we see that we violate the seventh commandment even when we lust in our hearts after anyone.
I bring those two examples up because I fear that some people are making the second commandment “attainable.” It seems the sentiment is that “as long as I don’t make any false idols and worship them, I’m alright.” We see, though, that the scope of the second commandment reaches much further than this. We see that not only must we refrain from making images of Christ, but we must worship God only in the way that He has prescribed. The second commandment entails pure worship. Something none of us can ever hope to attain.
Any time we weaken or cheapen the law to the point where we can uphold it, we cheapen the perfect active obedience of Christ.