Why does God command us not to make idols or any representations of Him in the Second Commandment? How does this command about idolatry apply today?
The Second Commandment against idolatry is recorded in Exodus 20:4-6:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—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 nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
What is a graven image?
The venerable King James Version used older wording that many still hear quoted today:
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4).
But what is a graven image? The New King James Version translates it “carved image,” and many modern English versions use the word idol. It is translated from the Hebrew word pecel, This meant a carved image or idol.
In passages like Isaiah 44:15 it referred to an idol carved from wood, but it was also used of metal images as in Isaiah 44:10. A different Hebrew word (maccekah) more specifically applied to a metal image, called a “molten image” (KJV) or a “molded image” (NKJV). This also fit within the meaning of the Second Commandment (Deuteronomy 27:15).
What does the Second Commandment mean?
God commands us not to make idols or any representation of Him. Nothing we can make can compare with Almighty God—human handiwork would only give us a false image of the true God. We are not to use statues, pictures, jewelry or anything else to represent God or as a physical aid in worshipping Him.
Is a cross a “graven image”? Are religious pictures “graven images” or “any likeness”? For biblical studies on these subjects, see our articles “Is It Okay to Wear a Cross? Why or Why Not?” “What Did and Didn’t Jesus Look Like?” and “Where Did the Popular Image of Jesus Come From?”
The Second Commandment, of course, also prohibited idolatry of pagan gods that are not gods at all. David contrasted the true Creator God with the powerless false gods: “For the LORD is great and greatly to be praised; He is also to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens” (1 Chronicles 16:25-26).
The apostle Paul agreed that the idols are nothing, but pointed out that “the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons” (1 Corinthians 10:20).
Why does God call Himself a “jealous God” (Exodus 20:5)? God loves us zealously, and He knows that if we choose to worship false gods or to reject the ways He tells us to worship Him, we are hurting ourselves. When we are unfaithful to Him, we damage our relationship with Him, and this does make Him jealous. But His loving jealousy is never like the selfish and vindictive jealousy humans display.
Take a deeper dive into this subject in our article “Jealous God? What Does That Mean?”
The image of God
Obviously, we are not to worship human heroes or stars or to love ourselves with a narcissistic self-love. But there is a sense in which we humans are in the image of God.
At the creation, God said: “‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).
God does not want to be worshipped as pagan gods were. We are also told not to worship angels or saints. Instead we are to worship God in spirit and truth.God wants us to become like Him in character, love, choices, attitudes and approaches. We are to let Christ live in us—to strive to live always as He lived (Galatians 2:20; 1 John 2:6; 1 Peter 2:21). We are to live godly lives and reflect the light of God “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Idolatry and the Second Commandment today
How does the Second Commandment apply in our modern, materialistic world? People today still tend to worship the works of their own hands (Jeremiah 1:16). Idolatry is often connected with coveting—the desire to have more of the things the rich and famous have.
Covetousness, which is idolatry
The apostle Paul warned, “For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5). He also told the Colossians, “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).
When we put the desire for physical things—money, houses, cars, boats, anything—ahead of God, we are creating what God called an idol in our hearts. “Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts, and put before them that which causes them to stumble into iniquity. Should I let Myself be inquired of at all by them?” (Ezekiel 14:3).
Our modern world strongly equates material things with success and happiness, and so we must fight the idolatry that expresses itself in wrongly desiring what we can’t or shouldn’t have. Read more about applying the Second Commandment today in our articles “Idolatry—Then and Now,” “10th Commandment: You Shall Not Covet” and our blog post “Fighting the Works of the Flesh: Idolatry.”
Worship God in spirit and truth
God does not want to be worshipped as pagan gods were (Deuteronomy 12:29-32). We are also told not to worship angels or saints (Colossians 2:18; Revelation 19:10). Instead we are to worship God in spirit and truth.
As Jesus told the Samaritan woman: “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).
We are not to worship the creation. Instead, the creation should help us appreciate our great Creator.
The apostle Paul wrote: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:20-23).
It’s fascinating to read how Paul explained this to the pagan philosophers in Athens, using the analogy that the true God is the One they called the unknown God. “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things” (Acts 17:24-25; read the rest of the account in verses 22-31).
We must not let physical things cloud our understanding and worship of the Creator God.
To study more about what it means that man is in the image of God, be sure to read “Spirit in Man: What Is It?”