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 (Ex. 20:4-6).
For many Christians in the west, this passage may seem to be virtually irrelevant. What possible truth could it have for us today? In this post, we’ll see that the commands here go much farther than just carving out images.
Surrounded by Pagan Culture
As we mentioned in the previous posts, Israel was surrounded by pagan cultures. Even though out of Egypt, Israel still encountered other cultures on the way to the Promised Land. The Lord thus was giving these commands to insulate Israel from such pagan worship practices. Israel was to be separate and set apart to God, thus the nation was not to copy of the practices of other cultures or religions or add them in any way to the worship of Yahweh (an idea called syncretism).
The Scope of the Command
Notice first that the Lord said, “You shall not make any graven images.” Does this mean that other types of images would be acceptable? Since that was the only type of images a people could produce at the time, it seems likely that the Lord was speaking in their terms. Thus, if He were giving the command today, it would include all the technologies that are available to make images. This surely includes not only sculptures, but also photos, drawings, paintings, etc. The command would include any means of producing images.
Notice also that the Lord said, “You shall not make any graven images,” and then proceeds to define “any.” Israel was not to make an image of anything in the heaven, or on the earth or in the water under the earth. That runs the gamut of possibilities, whether it be people, animals, birds, fish, stones, whatever.
Finally notice that the Lord said, “You shall not make any graven images . . . [to] bow down to them or serve them.” If the Lord had not included this limitation, one might rightly get the idea that one could not make images at all! No art! This, however, is the real limitation of the command. It was common practice for the nations around Israel (and in many religions today) to have symbols representing gods, that the people would worship. The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, even set up a golden image of himself for the people to worship (Dan. 3).
The Reason for the Command
Why was this command necessary? God had already told Israel not to have any other gods before or alongside Him (see “No Other Gods”). The thrust of this command, then, must have been to prevent Israel to making an image to represent Yahweh. Before continuing, we should note that the Lord, in His instructions for the tabernacle did give directions to fashion cherubim that would be attached to the Mercy Seat (the Ark). Yet, Israel was not to worship the cherubim, nor was she to worship the Ark.
Why would God prohibit an image of Himself? Because no image can fully represent Him. It’s impossible for an image created by a finite human to represent the infinite God. He will not be limited (or ‘put in a box’) by our conception of Him. Even the pages of Scripture cannot fully contain all that He is (though they do contain all that He has revealed Himself to be). Thus, if we worship a limited version of God (through an image), we are worshipping another God (a violation of the first commandment).
A Jealous God?
In giving this commandment, God is described as jealous. What does that mean as applied to Him? We are told to not be jealous. The Hebrew word for jealous in this passage is qanna’; it is a word that is used only in reference to God being jealous. It speaks of God not allowing any rival to Himself, much as a husband has a right to have the undivided love of his wife. As God over all, Yahweh has the right to pure and undivided worship.
As we said in previous posts, God also demands this because He knows that only He can meet the deepest needs of man. Thus, He is jealous that we come to Him with our needs, not some false or limited god that has no power. We see this in His statement that He visits (not punishes) “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.” Taken in context, this refers to those who worship false gods (though it is surely true of other sins as well). Anyone who lives a life contrary to His commandments is said to “hate” Him, but Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). John taught the same: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3).
What it Means for Us
What do we as believers do with this commandment? First, it seems clear that we are not to make or possess anything that might represent God, so that we worship it. Whether that includes drawings or paintings of Jesus is unclear. Jesus is, after all, fully human in addition to being fully God. We don’t really know what He exactly looked like (such pictures are guesses, some educated, some not). The best approach would seem to be caution about this.
Second, and more importantly, we are to put aside any limitations or preconceived notions of what God is like. He is much more than the best minds among us can discern. We are to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7), and while fallen man often wants a point of focus, he is called to walk by faith, responding to God as He reveals Himself.
Finally, to visit the last part of the passage, this God who will not be limited by humanity’s vision of Him is one who shows “steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” He is the faithful One whose Word never fails us. As we worship Him and Him alone, He showers us with His amazing love and grace.
It is because of this passage that Paul can write the following:
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Eph. 3:20-21).
The Lord who reigns over all can do so much more than we ask or think because he IS so much ore than we can ever think or imagine.
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