God declared in the first commandment that Lord is the only God and he alone must be worshiped. The first commandment focused on the object of people’s worship. The second commandment focuses on how people are to worship the Lord.
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)
The rule is quite simple: do not make an idol for yourself. We should note that the idea was not that they could not make any kind of carving whatsoever. This did not mean that Israel could not use any tools on stone, metal, or wood. That is not the intention of the Hebrew word and further we know that there were many artisans when we read Exodus (cf. Exodus 31:4-5). God commanded that the ark of the covenant have a carved image of the cherubim placed on the lid. The point of the commandment was twofold: the people were not to make any representations of God or make any image with the intention to worship before it. Verse 5 makes this point clear: “You shall not bow down to them or serve them.”
Notice the exclusivity and intensity of the command that God gives. Do not make an idol in the likeness of anything, whether it be in heaven above, the earth beneath, or the water under the earth. Whatever your mind can conjure or whatever your eye sees is not to be made into an object to represent God and is not to be made into an image to worship. Why was it so important that the people not make an object that represents God? God is making it clear here and throughout the scriptures that when you make an image, you fix God and God is unlimited. When you try to make an image of God, you have already limited him and you have already degraded him. You have taken the splendor, glory, and immensity of God and reduced him to some sort of image that comes from your mind. It is an insult to the greatness of the majesty and might of God.
Humans so badly want an image of God that they can touch and see. Our hearts are bent toward idolatry. We see this in the book of Exodus. After these laws are declared by the voice of God, Moses is on mountain for 30 days. The people ask Aaron to make gods who will go before them (Exodus 32:1). They want a god they can see who will lead them. But they do not think they are turning away from the true God. They just want an object to represent God. Listen to verse 4.
And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4 ESV)
Aaron gives the people what they want. The people did not think that a calf led them out of the land of Egypt. This was to be the representation of God that they could look to for assurance and comfort. This is what we do. We want a God that we can touch and see. But we can see why this is a problem. You have reduced the glory and might of God into a golden calf! How insulting! How limiting! God is greatly angered when alter the way he has called for us to worship him. The Lord tells Moses that they have quickly turned aside from his commandments, that they are a stubborn people, and he is going to consume them all (Exodus 32:7-10). Moses must make intercession for the people because they are worthy of God’s wrath.
The message is to not worship the true God falsely. How we worship matters to God as much as who or what we worship. We may not worship the Lord in any way that we like. We can only worship him the way he commands. God is not indifferent to what we do or how we live or how we worship him. We do not need to see who we are worshiping. God is so great and vast that any image we could see that we make with our hands only denigrates God. This is one of the sins that the apostle Paul identifies when he writes about the sins of the Gentiles.
Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:22–23 ESV)
The apostle John warns us in 1 John 3 about the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. We are so consumed by what we can see and touch. But we cannot desire the seen but the unseen. God wants our eyes on the spiritual, not the physical. God makes this very plain to the people of Israel. When Moses recounts this experience of receiving the commandments at Sinai, listen to what Moses says about this.
11 And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. 12 Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. 13 And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. 14 And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess. 15 “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, 16 beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18 the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. (Deuteronomy 4:11–18 ESV)
Notice what Moses repeats in this description about the events at Sinai. The Lord spoke out of the fire. You heard the words, but saw no form. There was only a voice. Why is this important? Notice verse 15. “Since you saw no form…beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves.” You did not see any form of God. You only heard his voice. The reason was so that you would not make something physical for your eyes to see and your hands to touch. We cannot turn anything into some sort of way of “seeing” God. We cannot attempt to bring God to our level.
So we need to be careful because we desire to bring God down into something we can touch or see. Some try to do this with the church building, as if God dwells in this building and that we can feel closer to God here. Some try to do that with the cross. There is nothing wrong with wearing jewelry with a cross on it so long as it is simply reminder of our Savior. But we must not turn that into a way that we think we can have a greater “experience” of God. We cannot use this as some sort of representation of God or means of worship. The experience of God is his voice!
We were in Salt Lake City for part of our vacation and we took the time to walk around the Mormon Tabernacle and visitor centers there. There was one point that really struck me. The person who engraved the gold image of Moroni, which is on the top of every Mormon temple, had an exhibit dedicated to him where he noted how he felt closer to God when we crafted this gold image. Friends, this is the very thing the scriptures were condemning! We try to seek some sort of experience through an object rather than through his words!
He makes himself known through his words, not by what a person sees. Moses makes this point very clear to Israel and it is the intention of God in the second commandment. Consider how amazing it is that we see Jesus, who is the very image of God and the exact imprint of God (Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:1-3). Jesus said that when you saw him you saw the Father (John 14:8). The word is the power and Jesus is all that we need to see.
God calls himself a jealous God. We use jealousy in a negative way but the word does not necessarily mean in a selfish or wicked way. For example, if your spouse is with another person, you are rightfully jealous for him or her. This is what God is saying. God is jealous for us and will not allow us to worship other gods or to worship God improperly. God demands exclusive devotion to him just like a marriage demands exclusive devotion. Christopher Wright says, “A God who was not jealous…would be as contemptible as a husband who didn’t care whether or not his wife was faithful to him.” Our problem is that we have turned religion into everything else in life, as if we have a choice. We treat God like a menu board at McDonalds and we can choose if we worship him and how we will worship. But God is a jealous God and this is simply not true. God makes exclusive claims for our love and has the right to have a monopoly on our desires. Loving God is worshiping God the way he has expressed. John Calvin wrote a letter to Emperor Charles V in 1543 about the task of restoring the church. Listen to what he says about restoring worship.
Moreover, the rule which distinguishes between pure and vitiated worship is of universal application, in order that we may not adopt any device which seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunction of Him who alone is entitled to prescribe. Therefore, if we would have Him to approve our worship, this rule, which he everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be carefully observed. For there is a twofold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to his own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish His authority that we do not follow our own pleasures but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions. Justly, therefore, does the Lord, in order to assert his full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command. Justly, too, does he, in express terms, define our limits that we may not, by fabricating perverse modes of worship, provoke His anger against us.
I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” (1 Samuel 15:22; Matthew 15:9.) —The Necessity of Reforming the Church
Calvin was exactly right that it is difficult to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship that are not expressly sanctioned by his Word. We do not come to him as we want. We only can come to him because he allows us to. Therefore we come to him only as he wants. To approach the throne of God is like Esther approach King Ahasuerus. If the king is not merciful as we approach, then his wrath is certainly deserved upon us.
Therefore God judges the iniquity of those who hate him to the third and fourth generations. People will say that they do not hate God. But God says you hate me if you do not worship me as I prescribe. We hate God when we refuse to live our lives in accordance with God’s will. God sees idolatry as a rejection of him. We are choosing ourselves and our desires over him. Here God warns about the effect of our sins reaching for generations. This is not saying that the children will be put to death for the father’s sins. God clearly declared this was not the case in Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:20. But we are leaving a legacy for our children to hate the Lord when we do not teach them to worship God’s way or else it is idolatry and our judgment is certain.
Further, this judgment is a corporate idea. The individual will not be judged and cast into eternal fire because of the sins of the father. But the nation for generations will be judged of the sins of the parents. The next generation will pay for our sins, no matter how righteous they are. Right now we are paying for the sins of the past generation who taught their children to self-absorbed and sinful. Society is turning quickly and strongly away from the Lord because of the previous generation. The next generation is going to pay for the sins of this generation and so on and so on. This is the point God is making. You are leaving a legacy of doom when you turn away from your God.
But we will end with the wonderful hope in God. Do not neglect to read verse 6 when you read verse 5. Yes, God will visit the iniquities of the fathers on the children for many generations. But God will show steadfast love to thousands of generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. The effect of God’s love is even more far reaching, even to thousands of generations. God’s covenant mercy is always available. Jesus is our hope. Jesus is God’s covenant mercy remaining available to all who will come to him. Love the Lord by worshiping him in the way he chooses, thankful that we are even allowed to approach the throne of grace at all.