It is not difficult to understand that the Second Commandment is distinct from the First. The First Commandment forbids the sin of having or worshipping any gods beside Jehovah, the sin of idolatry, while the Second Commandment forbids the use of images in the worship of Jehovah. The First Commandment, then, tells us Who we must worship, and the Second in turn tells us how we are to worship Him.
This distinction is, of necessity, denied by the Church of Rome. She joins the First and Second Commandments as one and divides the Tenth into two parts, thus keeping ten commandments while at the same time covering up her widespread violations of the Second Commandment.
We see this distinction clearly in Israel’s history. There were times when Israel worshipped the gods of the heathen, Baa1 and Ashtaroth, Milcom, Chemosh, and Molech and violated the First Commandment. But when Israel worshipped the golden calf at Mount Sinai, it was the Second Commandment which was broken and violated first of all and not the First. This is clear from Aaron’s words when he presented the calf to the people: “These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32:4). He did not claim that the calf was another god ‘beside Jehovah, Who had brought them out of bondage, but he gave them the calf as a representation of Jehovah Himself, and as a means to worship Him. Jeroboam later said the same thing when, at the beginning of his kingdom, he set up golden calves at Bethel and Dan (I Kings 12:25-33).
In spite of the fact that these first two commandments forbid two different sins, they are, nevertheless, very closely related. The evidence for this is found in the warning that is attached to the Second Commandment, that God is a jealous God Who visits in continuing judgment those who do not fear and love Him as they ought. It does not require much effort to see that God is jealous over against all evil practices in His own worship and over against all worship of other gods. The inclusion of this warning at the end of the Second Commandment binds it to the First.
These two commandments are related because their principles are related. The great principle of the First Commandment, that is, that which God reveals of Himself in the First Commandment, is the truth that He is One Lord, the Only True God. From this principle, as we have already seen, flows forth the demand that we have and hold Him as our God with none beside Him, that we trust in Him alone, love, fear, and serve Him always and everywhere, and devote our whole life to His praise and worship. But just as the truth that God is One means that He is the Only True God in the First Commandment, so, in the Second Commandment it means that He is One in glory – that His glory is infinite, unexcelled, and matchless. That, then, is the revelation that God gives of Himself in the Second Commandment and the foundation for all that the Second Commandment requires of us.
Even more specifically, the principle of the Second Commandment is the truth that God is transcendent. This truth is found in such passages as Psalm 145:3, Job 36:26, and Isaiah 40:12-31. The last of these passages is also one of the places where the Word of God makes the connection between this truth and the Second Commandment. In verse 18 the Lord says, ‘”To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto Him?” and goes on to condemn both the maker and the worshipper of graven images.
This truth that God is transcendent has many different aspects. When we say that God is eternal we are saying that He transcends and is above time. He is also transcendent in relation to space and movement, as we confess when we say that He is everywhere present. That He is incomprehensible means that He transcends even our thoughts. He is the Only Immortal Who dwells in a glory which no man can approach unto (I Tim. 6:16).
The aspect of God’s transcendence which stands on the foreground in the Second Commandment, however, is the truth that God is a Spirit. The angels are also called spirits in Scripture, but not in the same sense as God. The angels are creatures, limited by time and space as we are. That they are spirits means only that they have a different form of creaturely existence than we do, for they have a heavenly life and existence, while ours is of the earth earthy. When we say that God is a Spirit, then we mean that He is not a creature, that He has no body or parts, and that He is without any of the limitations of the creature. Especially it means that He is the invisible God. He is not just beyond our present earthly sight, but absolutely and forever beyond the sight of our eyes as He is in Himself and with Himself. He is the One Whom no man hath seen nor can see (John 1:18; I Tim. 6:16). Our sight reaches the farthest of all our senses, scanning and searching the heavens themselves, and yet God is still beyond our sight. Only in the face, that is, in the human nature of Christ, do we see even a reflection of His spiritual glory, and then only by the great miracle of revelation.
This is beautifully illustrated in the history of Moses. After Israel had sinned in the worship of the golden calf, Moses went up into the Mount to intercede with God for the people and obtained from Him the promise that God’s presence would continue with them. Moses then asked that, as a sign to confirm this promise, God would show His glory to Moses. God graciously condescended to do as Moses requested, but He told Moses that he would. see only His “back parts” and explained, “Thou canst not see My face: for there shall no man see Me and live” (Ex. 33:12-23). In chapter 34 we find that Moses, even in seeing God’s “back parts,” did not actually behold God Himself. He saw the cloud and heard the voice of the Lord as the Lord passed by “and proclaimed the Name of the Lord” (verses 5, 6). That is as close as anyone can ever come to seeing God. Even Moses, therefore, who knew God face to face (Deut. 34:10) knew Him only in the reflection of His glory in the holy cloud and through His Word, and that alone was sufficient to make the face of Moses shine with such a glory that the children of Israel were afraid and refused to look at him (Ex. 34:29-35, II Cor. 3:7, 13).
This truth that God is Spirit, infinite and invisible, is the glorious cornerstone of the Second Commandment. He must always be worshipped in such a way that He is remembered and praised as the transcendently glorious God, and that means first of all a worship without images and representations of Him, and in the second place and positively it means a worship according to His Word. The heathen use images to worship their gods because their gods are no greater than themselves. But our God is “above all glory raised” and must be so worshipped.
It is for this reason that the truth that God is invisible and unseen is found twice in the First Epistle to Timothy (I Timothy 1:17, 6:16). That book speaks of the worship of God, that is, “how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Timothy 3:15), and therefore of necessity emphasizes this truth. Whatever our behavior in the church ought to be, it must always be in harmony with God’s revelation of Himself as the “King eternal, immortal, invisible” (I Timothy 1:17).
In Deuteronomy 4:15, 16 God teaches Israel also Who He is as the invisible God, and then applies that to their worship:
Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure . . . .
The point is, once again, that God not only determines that He alone shall be worshipped, but also how He shall be worshipped, and He determines that in harmony with His own glory. He will not ever give His glory to another.
The temptation for Israel was to ask how the nations worshipped their gods (Deut. 12:30-32), and to make that the standard for the worship of Jehovah. That worship of the nations was always a worship that pleased the flesh, and it is as much a temptation for us as it was for Israel to seek such a worship when we come into the presence of God. Nevertheless, we may not worship as we please and according to what pleases us, but as He commands.
Because of this temptation, the Second Commandment is more and more neglected today. The churches, and that includes Reformed churches, have gone crazy for liturgical change. The preaching is neglected. Choirs and special performances are introduced into the services. Psalm-books are replaced with hymn-books and the hymn-books are replaced every few years or so. Dramas, dialogues, and films replace the traditional service with its emphasis on the preaching of the Gospel. The parts of the worship service are juggled around from week to week until one needs a special program even to follow the order of worship in his own congregation. The old liturgical forms are replaced at regular intervals. And so on and on and on, and always the cry goes up for more changes.
Without discussing any one of these changes and innovations in detail, we ought to remember that the standard for these changes is usually the flesh. What does it do for me? Does it make me feel good? Is it uplifting? And because the standard for these changes is the flesh, many of these practices, newly introduced, stand over against the truth concerning God that is revealed in the Second Commandment.
There are, of course, those who will accuse us of sticking at technicalities, and of being stubborn and old-fashioned, and unwilling to move with the times. Over against such charges let us remember some of the examples that Scripture gives to show that these things are not mere nit-picking. Cain’s sin was not that he refused to worship God. He brought his sacrifice and offered it to God, and certainly he must have provided the very best of his fields. Nevertheless, because the standard for his worship was not the Word of God, but his own pleasure, he was branded and driven out. Thus it was when David brought the ark to Jerusalem. What a great day that was! Surely God could only be pleased with the zeal and consecration of David and the people. Of course, they had the ark upon a cart instead of having it carried by the Levites, but that was just a “technicality” and, after all, everyone could better see and gather around the ark that way. But that act of worship was not in harmony with God’s Word, and God was angry, and Uzzah died. So it was when the inhabitants of Bethshemesh opened and looked into the ark out of curiosity when it returned from Philistia. Over 50,000 died because curiosity and the desires of the flesh are not the standard for approaching God. May we give heed and remember that “God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth“—that is, according to His Word and revelation of Himself.