The Ten Commandments - Two - Idolatry Prohibited

Bible Book: Exodus  20 : 2-3
Subject: Ten Commandments; Idolatry
Series: Ten Commandments - Paul Brown
Introduction

At first glance, the second commandment might appear to be simply a repeat of the first, but not so. There definitely is some overlap; however, the second commandment also covers additional territory.

First of all, in this commandment God sets forth...

I. A Three-Fold Prohibition

In order to correctly understand the precise nature of that prohibition, we must take verse 4 along with the opening sentence of verse 5. Let’s look at Exodus 20:4-5a: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven 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: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them....” Taking all of that together, we see that this commandment prohibits three things:

A. Do Not Worship FALSE GODS

For one thing, it reiterates the first commandment and forbids making images to represent other gods, all of which are false, and bowing before those idols to worship them.

B. Do Not Make and Worship IMAGES of the TRUE GOD.

However, it also prohibits a second thing. Notice that God says we are not to make “any likeness of anything that is in heaven” or “in the earth” or “in the water” for the purpose of worshipping that likeness. He doesn’t say, “Don’t ever make any likeness of anything,” he says, “Don’t make any likeness and worship it.” Now, let’s zero in on that part of the command which tells us not to make or worship any likeness of “anything that is in heaven above.” Well, GOD is in heaven above, along with the redeemed and the angels. So, this second commandment also rules out making images to represent the true God and worshipping those images.

Listen to what Moses said to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 4:15-16: “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake unto you in Horeb [that is another name for Mt. Sinai] out of the midst of the fire: Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image....” In other words, Moses was saying, “You didn’t see God the day he spoke to you from the mountain, so don’t try to portray him with any kind of image for the purpose of worshipping that image, whether it be the form of a human being, or an animal, or of some heavenly body such as the sun, moon, or stars.” Nothing you can make can properly represent God.

Someone says, “Well, that’s one sin I would never be guilty of.“ But, not so fast. We might be guilty of committing that sin in principle by conjuring up mental images of God and worshipping those mental images instead of the God of the Bible.

For example, sometimes you’ll hear a person try to rationalize his neglect of church by saying, “I can worship my God just as well without being in church every Sunday. In fact, I can worship him just as well out on the lake, where I’m close to his creative beauty.” Well, maybe you can worship your God just as well that way, but if that’s the case, your God is not the God of the Bible. When you’re dealing with the God of the Bible, he calls the signals, not you, and he makes it clear in his Word that we are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves for worship. In a case like that, what you’ve done is to create a distorted mental image of God and you’re worshipping that distorted mental image.

Some people have created a mental image of God as a “softie” who doesn’t really mean what he says about the wrath to come. Mike Minnix told about a man who was talking to a lady, and reading to her from the Bible, about how God judges and punishes those who refuse to repent of their sin. She said, “Oh, my God would never do that!” He replied, “Madam, you are right. Your god would never do that. The problem is that your god doesn’t exist except in your mind. You have created a god in your own image, according to your own liking, and now you have fallen down and worshipped him instead of the God of the Bible.”

It’s dangerous business to create your own image of God, physical or mental. Jesus said, in John 4:24, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”

God reveals himself when he will, and as he will, and the only physical way in which he has ever revealed himself was in the person of Jesus Christ. Concerning Jesus, Colossians 1:14-15 says: “In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins: Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn [that is, the highest ranking] of every creature.”

In John 14:8 Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us.” In verse 9 we read: “Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that seen me hath seen the Father....” Jesus left no photographs of himself, obviously, but the New Testament gives us a clear word picture of Jesus, and as we prayerfully study the Bible we understand what Jesus was, and is, like. John 1:18 says, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.“ The truth about Jesus is contained in God’s infallible Word, and you and I must never try to substitute our concept of Christ for the word picture of him given in the Bible.

C. Do Not Make OBJECTS of Worship Out of AIDS to Worship.

There is still another thing prohibited by this second commandment, closely related, but deserving separate mention. God is telling us that we must not take things which were intended as legitimate aids to worship and make them objects of worship. He doesn’t say, Don’t make any art work--he says, Don’t make any art work and worship it.

The making of some art forms for use in connection with worship is proper. When God gave Moses instructions for building the tabernacle, in Exodus 25 and following, he included detailed plans for a great deal of art work. He told Moses to make golden cherubim, with their wings spread over the mercy seat. Indeed, there are several chapters in Exodus describing the elaborate decorations of gold, silver, precious stones, and beautiful cloth that God instructed the people to include in the tabernacle. Exodus 39:43 says, “And Moses did look upon all the work, and, behold, they had done it as the Lord had commanded, even so had they done it: and Moses blessed them.” In describing the temple that Solomon built, 1 Kings 7:29 speaks of sculptures of “lions, oxen, and cherubims,” and many other decorations are described as well--and after all the work was finished, God said to Solomon in 1 Kings 9:3, “I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put my name there forever; and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually.” 

So far as I’m able to understand, there’s nothing wrong with having nativity scenes, or crosses, or even pictures so long as these are used to remind us of the great work that God has done for us in Christ, and so long as we keep in mind the fact that these are only reminders and nothing more. But we must vigorously avoid turning any aid to worship into an object of worship.

An example of how that can happen involves an event recorded in the book of Numbers. The Israelites, during their journey toward Canaan, sinned by complaining about the provisions God was making for them. We read about it in Numbers 21:5-9: “And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.”

God certainly did not intend that the people depend on that piece of brass in the form of a serpent to save them from death, and had they done so they would have perished. That brazen serpent was an aid to faith in the invisible God of heaven and earth, but it certainly was not a likeness of God, and the people were not to regard it as such. By looking to it, they were thereby saying, “Just as those poisonous serpents are agents of death, I’m putting my faith in the living God to deliver me from death.” Moses said, in effect, “By looking toward that brass serpent, you will thereby be indicating your faith in God to heal you.” That brass serpent was an aid to faith, and thereby an aid to worship. 

However, later in the Bible we learn that the people eventually began to regard that aid to worship as an object of worship. Concerning the reforms of king Hezekiah, we read in 2 Kings 18:3-4: “He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.”  

The fact is that we break the second commandment whenever we take anything which God intends as an aid to worship and make it an object of worship. For example, the church is a wonderful, God-ordained entity, and we are commanded to be faithful to the church--but we are not to worship the church. Another example: the Bible is a wonderful book. It is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of the living God. We are to love the Bible, and study the Bible, and meditate on it, and live by it--but we are not to worship the Bible--we are to worship the Christ to whom the Bible points.

Now, as to the why of the second command, the Lord gave us...

II. A Clear Explanation

In Exodus 20:5 the Lord goes on to say, “for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God....”

A. God’s Jealousy is DIFFERENT FROM MAN’S JEALOUSY.

Of course, God’s jealousy is quite different from man’s jealousy but even some human jealousy is justified. When a man and woman are married, that means that their romantic love is to be reserved exclusively for one another. If a man’s wife is flirting with another man or is in any way romantically attracted to another man, that husband has every right to be jealous and visa versa. If a woman’s husband makes any kind of romantic overtures to any other woman, she has every right to be jealous, because God has ordained that marriage is a holy union, and neither husband nor wife is to be unfaithful--physically, or emotionally.

B. God’s Jealousy is ALWAYS JUSTIFIED.

There are, of course, times when husbands or wives are jealous without cause, because their jealousy is unfounded. But God’s jealousy is always justified, and is never tainted with sin or error. R.W. Dale said, “Jealousy is but the anger and pain of injured and insulted love.” God is jealous in the sense that he loves us and wants us to love him back, because he knows that loving him and being faithful to him is the only way we can experience life’s highest and best.

He created us, and his Son died for us. We belong to him, and he will not tolerate any rivals, he will not tolerate other so-called gods, he will not tolerate our misrepresentations of him, the true God, and he will not tolerate our substituting aids to worship for worshipping him.

III. A Solemn Warning

In the remainder of verse 5 we read: “...visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”

A. The RECIPIENTS of This Warning.

This warning is directed to those who hate God. The Hebrew word for “hate” can be translated “set against.” So, this is a warning to those who are set against God. And to whom does that refer? Jesus answered that question when he declared in Matthew 12:30, “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.” So, this is a warning to those who have not accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior--and to those who are professing Christians but are living in disobedience. Such a person might say, “Now, preacher, I’m not living for the Lord, I’ll admit that--but preacher, I don’t hate God.” But the truth is, you do hate God, in the sense that you are set against him--however unwittingly, you are by your unbelief or your backsliding hindering what God desires to do in and through your life.

B. The NATURE of This Warning.

Now let’s look at that phrase, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.” That does not mean that God arbitrarily punishes a child for a father’s misdeeds. To the contrary, Ezekiel 18:20 says, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” Romans 14:12 says, “So then everyone of us shall give account of himself to God.”

What God is saying in verse 5 is this: If the father commits a particular sin, the child is likely to follow suit--and thus the child will be punished for his sin just as the father was punished. It is in that sense that God is “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.” Clovis Chappell said, “There is a terrible contagion about sin.” If you lie, your child will probably learn to lie. If you use profanity, your child will likely have a foul mouth as well. If you neglect God and the church, in all likelihood your child will follow the same pattern. If you drink and live immorally, it is very likely that your child will live accordingly, and thus he will have to pay the consequences of his sin, just as you, the father, will pay for yours and that same sad pattern may continue from one generation to the next.

That does not mean, of course, that every sin a child commits was necessarily learned from his parents. There are parents who live clean, Godly lives, and who set a right example, but whose children nevertheless rebel and head down the wrong path. If we live for God and teach our children the right things, the odds are that they will follow suit, but unfortunately sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, even though parents have done their very best, their children still break their hearts.

But if we as parents don’t live for God, then the deck is really stacked against our children. By the Lord’s grace, sometimes children turn to Christ in spite of the poor example of their parents but, sadly, much of the time they simply go down the same path their parents have trod.

A preacher told about witnessing to a man who had a teen-age son. The man, whose name was Charlie, drank and ran around, and didn’t show the slightest interest in God or in living decently. The preacher and Charlie became friends, and the preacher tried every way he could to help him see what a horrendous influence he was having on his son, but Charlie just blew it off. He said, “Preacher, maybe I’ll trust the Lord one of these days and start going to church, but in the meantime I’ve still got some wild oats to sow,” and every time the preacher would try to witness to him, he always gave that same response: “I’ve still got some wild oats to sow.”

One night in the wee hours the preacher got a phone call. Charlie’s teen-age son had been shot during a drunken brawl in a roadhouse. The preacher went to the emergency room, and there sat Charlie. He was weeping inconsolably. His boy was dead. The preacher put his arm around Charlie’s shoulder and said, “Charlie, do you know what killed your boy?“ Charlie said, “Yes, preacher, it was a 32-calibre steel-jacket bullet.“ The preacher said, “No, Charlie, I’ll tell you what killed your boy, it was wild oats!“

You’re a free moral agent, and you can live in the muck and mire of sin if you‘re so determined--but you’ll drag others down with you, so that not only your life is ruined, but the lives of others as well and one day, when you stand before God, there will be a terrible reckoning. Proverbs 13:15 says that “...the way of transgressors is hard.”

But this second commandment also contains...

IV. A Gracious Promise

In Exodus 20:6 God says of himself, “And showing mercy to thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.”

A. The MEANING of Mercy.

The Hebrew word for “mercy” means, literally, “loving kindness.” The World Book Dictionary is right on target when it defines “mercy” as “more kindness than justice requires; kindness beyond what can be claimed or expected.” As a synonym for “mercy” the dictionary lists “clemency,” and states that clemency is that kindness “shown by someone with the right or duty to be severe.” Mercy is one of God’s outstanding characteristics.

B. The RECIPIENTS of Mercy.

We’re told that that mercy is extended to those who love God. How does a person come to love God, who has revealed himself in Christ? Answer: First, we must recognize that he cared enough about us to die for our sins on the cross, and then we must repent and, in faith, surrender our lives to him as our Lord and Savior. When we make that commitment to him, one of the miraculous things that occurs is that God ignites in our hearts a spark of love for him. 1 John 4:19 says, “We love him, because he first loved us.”

The hymn writer expressed it this way:

Years I spent in vanity and pride,
Caring not my Lord was crucified,
Knowing not it was for me He died On Calvary.
By God’s Word at last my sin I learned;
Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned,
Till my guilty soul imploring turned To Calvary.
Now I’ve giv’n to Jesus ev’rything,
Now I gladly own Him as my King,
Now my raptured soul can only sing Of Calvary.
Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty, At Calvary
C. The EFFECT of Mercy.

Once we have come into that loving relationship with the Lord, he then motivates us and empowers us to obey him. In John 14:15 Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” 1 John 2:4 says, “He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” So, as the old saying goes, “the proof is in the pudding.” Jesus said, in Matthew 7:20, “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”

But all who truly trust and follow Christ can claim the wonderful promise of the second commandment, which is that God’s mercy will follow them. Psalm 23:6 puts it like this: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Be sure that you are anchored trustfully and obediently to the God of the Bible, who has revealed himself in the crucified, risen, living Christ, the Christ who stands ready to save all those who come unto God by him.