The first commandment emphasized the truth that God is God alone, and that there is no God beside Him.
The second commandment presupposes the principle that God is a Spirit, invisible, and infinitely glorious.
Hence, while the first commandment deals with the question who and what God is, the second rather gives an answer, in negative form, to the question how God is.
The negative or prohibitive form of this commandment is: “Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.”
Now, what does one do who presumes to make an image or representation of the invisible, incomprehensible, infinitely glorious God? He looks about himself in the visible universe. From that visible creation that exists in time and space, that, therefore, is strictly finite, limited, he derives his idea. He looks at the heavens above, at sun, moon, and stars; at the things in the earth beneath: man, beast, and creeping things; or at the creatures that are “under the earth,” below the surface of the earth, in the waters: the fish of the sea, and all sorts of sea-monsters. Of them he makes an image, of silver or gold, of wood or stone. And he declares that the image he made is a very true representation of God, that God is like unto the image he made.
This was the sin Israel committed at Horeb, a sin which they never overcame, the consequences of which pursued them all through the desert and throughout their whole history, until, finally, they were rejected as a nation, and the kingdom of God was taken away from them. They wanted to see their “gods” that brought them up out of the land of Egypt and that would go before them. For thus they spoke to Aaron: “Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.”
For these visible gods they were willing to offer their gold for, when Aaron told them to “break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me,” they willingly complied with his request. And after they had so done, Aaron “fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf.” Then the people said: “These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” This god, which was supposed to be a representation of the living God, they worshipped. For it Aaron made an altar, and proclaimed: “Tomorrow is a feast unto the Lord.” Unto it they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings and “sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.”
Such is image worship.
It is the making of a lie about the invisible God, and worshipping that lie. The image worshipper wantonly deprives God of His glory.
For the living God is the Creator, but an image is always the representation of a creature. God is a Spirit and essentially invisible, but an image is always the representation of a creature. God is a Spirit and essentially invisible, but an image is always material and visible. God is the eternal One, but an image is the representation of a creature which drags God into the limits of time. God is immense, omnipresent, immanent and transcendent, but the image worshipper deprives God of His greatness. God is infinite in all His glorious virtues, but the image worshipper declares of a dumb image, which has neither knowledge nor understanding, which can neither hear nor speak, that it is a true representation of the God of glory. God is independent and exists of and by Himself; He is Jehovah, the eternal I AM, with whom there is no change or shadow of turning; but the image worshipper represents Him as a changeable creature, dependent on the one that made it, and that can be carried about according to the fancy of him that formed it. Image worship, therefore, is the heinous sin of dragging down the glorious Creator of heaven and earth to the level of the creature, and of depriving the Lord of glory of all His adorable virtues.
Nor must we imagine that this sin is committed only by pagans, and that it is inconceivable in the civilized, Christian world. Fact is that this sin is deeply ingrained in our sinful nature. By nature, we are all image worshippers. We are always inclined to lie about God, and to deprive Him of his glorious attributes. No, indeed, we do not carve or chisel a representation of God in wood or stone, in gold or silver, as do the heathen. But we do make images of Him in our mind, in our false conceptions of him. Many are the images of the living God formed by modern theology and philosophy. Whenever we form a conception of God that is not according to His own revelation in the Holy Scriptures, we lie about God and make an image of Him. When we conceive of God as a Being that is so filled with love that he condones sin, we deny His righteousness and make an image of Him. When we imagine of God that is so merciful that He cannot possibly cast the sinner into eternal desolation as punishment for his sin, we deprive Him of the glory of His immutable justice, and form an image of Him in our mind. When, in our prayers, we attempt to approach God without seeking forgiveness in the blood of Christ Jesus our Lord, we are worshipping an image just as really as the Israelites at Horeb worshipped the golden calf. When we conceive of God as a sort of a Santa Claus, that exists to bestow all kinds of good things upon us, to fight our wars and give us our victories; as a God that must solve the problems we create in our sinful world, as One to whom we cry when we are in trouble, but for the rest forget Him, Whom we do not care to glorify and in Whose way we do not care to walk, we simply worship an image of our own making. When we deny the Scriptural truth of election and reprobation, deny that He is merciful to whom He will be merciful and whom He will He hardens; when we represent God as, in saving the sinner, being dependent on the will of man, so that the latter must open the door of his heart before God can enter; or when we conceive of Him as being gracious, in the preaching of the gospel, to all that hear, head for head, and soul for soul, we deny His absolute sovereignty, and fashion an image of God just as really as the pagans carve one in wood or chisel one in stone. If we entertain the dualistic notion that God is the Lord of all good but not of evil; that He sends us health, but not sickness, prosperity but not adversity, peace but not war, plenty of work but not times of depression, life but not death; we deny that God is the Lord of all the earth, and we worship our own lie.
Thus we could continue. But let this be sufficient to convince us that the sin of image worship dwells in our own sinful flesh, and that, according to the inclination of our evil nature, we are always inclined to worship our own lie and to deny the God that has revealed Himself in His Word in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The second commandment puts its finger on a very sore spot in our sinful nature when it warns us: “Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image ….” No, indeed, this does not mean that we may not make any representations of the creature as such. It certainly does not imply that the second commandment forbids all work of art, such as sculpture or painting or photography. This is not the implication of the second commandment. Works of true art are not forbidden in the second commandment. Of course, even in this respect we must clearly discern between the true and the false, and not at random characterize every work of art as a beautiful product of “common grace.” So-called “lovers of art” are apt to walk around in old Athens and admire the beautiful remains of sculpture produced by the old Greeks. They reveal, according to some, the marvel of God’s “common grace.” But the apostle Paul viewed these same works of art with a different eye, and “his spirit was stirred within him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.” The same judgment I would pass on much of modern art, such as e.g. cubistic painting. Nevertheless, the second commandment certainly does not forbid to make representations of creatures, or of anything at all in creatures. When, in our homes, we have paintings or photographs we are not violating the second commandment. What is forbidden is to make any image in order to represent God. This is also the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism in Question and Answer 97: “Are images then not at all to be made? God neither can, nor may be represented by any means: but as to creatures; though they may be represented, yet God forbids to make, or to have any resemblance of them, either to worship them or to serve God by them.”
In his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus himself, in expounding this question and answer, writes:
“We must now proceed to the question itself, in regard to which we may remark, that this commandment does not absolutely forbid us to make, or to have images, likenesses and statutes, because the art of painting, sculpture, casting and embroidery, is reckoned among the gifts of God which are good and profitable to human life, and God himself had certain images placed in the tabernacle; (; ) and Solomon had upon his throne images of lions, and had figures of palm trees and cherubims carved upon the walls of the temple by the command of God. ( ; ). The reason for this is plain and easy to perceive, inasmuch as writing and painting are profitable for reviving a recollection of something done, for ornament and for the enjoyment of life. The law does not, therefore, forbid the use of images, but their abuse, which takes place when images or pictures are made either for the purpose of representing or worshipping God, or creatures. Hence all images and likenesses are not simply and wholly forbidden, but only such as are unlawful, among which we may include, first, all images or likenesses of God, which are made for the purpose of representing or worshipping God, That these are positively forbidden in the commandment may be argued, 1. From the design of this commandment which is the preservation of the worship of God in its purity. 2. From the nature of God. God is incorporeal and infinite; it is impossible, therefore, that he should be expressed or represented by an image which is corporeal and finite, without detracting from his divine majesty, according as it is said: ‘Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand; and meted out heaven with a span,’ etc. ‘To whom then will ye liken God, or what likeness will ye compare unto him?’ To whom will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One.’ ‘Who changes the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like unto corruptible man, and to birds, and four footed beasts, and creeping things.’ ( ; ). 3. From the command of God. ‘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 out of the midst of the fire,) lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female; the likeness of any beast that is,’ etc. ( ) 4. From the cause of this prohibition, which is that these images do not only profit nothing, but also injure men greatly, being the occasion and cause of idolatry and punishment. In short, God ought not to be represented by any graven image, because he does not will it, nor can it be done, nor would it profit anything if it were done.”
The objection has often been raised that Scripture itself, nevertheless, induces us to make an image of God, or at least, to form a human and creaturely conception of Him, by the frequent occurrence of the figure that is known as anthropomorphism. Often indeed, creaturely, and especially human characteristics and virtues are ascribed to God. God ascribes to Himself a face, the psalmist expects to behold God’s face in righteousness. It is the angel of God’s face that saved His people. Frequently, the Bible speaks of the eyes of the Lord, and even of His eyelids. Scripture makes mention of the apple of His eye, of His ears, mouth, lips, nose, neck, arm, right hand, His finger, heart, bowels, bosom, foot. He is said to rejoice, to be afflicted, to grieve, to fear the wrath of the enemy, to love and to hate, to be merciful and to be angry, to be jealous and to repent, to forget and to avenge Himself. He sits and stands, He works and rests, He comes down and looks down, He comes and goes, He walks and meets men, He passes by and forsakes, He writes and seals, He heals and binds up the wounds of the broken hearted, He laughs and mocks, He speaks, hears, inclines His ear and sees, He kills and makes alive. He is described as a man of war, a king, a lawgiver, a builder and artificer, a sun and a shield, a rock, a strong tower, a lion, an eagle, a consuming fire, a fountain of living water. Yea, so close is this similarity, and so intimate this affinity, that, in the fullness of time, God assumed human flesh, the infinite unites Himself with the finite, the eternal with the temporal. For “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”.
Does, then, the Word of God not induce us by these anthropomorphisms to make a creature image of God?
Not at all.
To be sure, all these Scriptural passages ascribe to God human virtues and passions and members of a human body. But there is an essential difference between a material image or even a concept of the mind and a picture in human language. An image, carved in wood or chiseled in stone, simply stands there with all its limitations. It can leave only one impression, that of a limited being. It is material, limited by space and time. But this is not the case with the figure of speech in the Bible that is called anthropomorphism. No one can possibly receive the impression from this figure that God is physical and finite. For the whole of Scripture clearly reveals that God is a Spirit, that He is the eternal one, infinite in all His glorious perfections. When Scripture speaks of God’s eye, no one thinks of a physical organ of sight, but all know that it refers to God’s absolute omniscience, and to the fact that nothing is hid from the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do. When the Bible speaks of God’s arm or right hand, all understand that this is a figure of speech, that it does not refer to a physical organ, limited in power, but to God’s omnipotence, according He does whatsoever He pleases. In other words, Scripture reveals God to us, or rather God is able so to reveal Himself to us in creaturely forms and creaturely language, that we may know Him, that we may, indeed, understand His speech, while at the same time, we do not confuse Him with the creature, but know that He is infinitely greater than the creaturely form in which He is pleased to reveal Himself. While we understand and know His revelation, we know, at the same time, that in Himself He is the incomprehensible One. This is the wonder of God’s revelation of which we will treat, the Lord willing, in the next chapter.
With the formation of a material image, or even with a false and limited conception of God this has nothing in common.
Also Ursinus in his well-known commentary referred to above, mentions this objection. Writes he:
“The Holy Scriptures attribute to God the different members of the human body, and thus declare his nature and properties. Therefore it is also lawful to represent God by images.” Such is the objection.
And this objection he answers as follows:
“There is a difference between these figurative expressions used in reference to God, and images; because in the former case there is always something connected with those expressions which guards us against being led astray into idolatry, nor is the worship of God ordinarily tied to those figurative expressions. But it is different in regard to images, for here there is no such safeguard, and it is easy for men to give adoration and worship to them. God himself, therefore, used those metaphors of himself figuratively, that he might help our infirmity, and permits us, in speaking of him, to use the same forms of expression; but he has never represented himself by images and pictures; neither does he desire us to use them for the purpose of representing him, but has, on the other hand solemnly forbidden them.”
Yet, these anthropomorphisms are not to be regarded as mere empty figures without any basis in fact. On the contrary, they are based on the truth that all things are made and sustained by the Word of God, and so made that they are reflections of the nature and glorious virtues of the Most High. God is not only transcendent, but also immanent in the world. He is very near us. In Him we live and move and have our being. The whole creation is a creaturely reflection of His adorable virtues.