The Right God, The Right Way

Original Date: 
Sunday, September 18, 2016

Exodus 20:4-6 The Ten Commandments: The Right God, The Right Way

Does This Still Happen?
It’s one of the iconic scenes in American cinema: Indiana Jones stands before a golden statue on a stone pedestal. He wants the statue, but he knows that the pedestal is booby trapped. There is a pressure switch, set to the precise weight of the statue. So Indy takes out a bag of sand, estimates the weight of the statue, pulls a handful of sand out of the bag, and then exchanges the one for the other.

It works. He gives a triumphant look as he holds the statue in his hands. But then, very slowly, the pedestal begins to descend. Suddenly, the cave begins to fall apart. Stone doors begin to descend. Holes open up in the floor. A giant stone ball comes barreling behind him—and Indy has to run for his life.

He makes it out of the cave just in time, and it appears that he is safe. But then a group of native warriors descend upon him. They shoot blow darts and primitive arrows at him. They want that statue back. Because to them, it’s not just a statue. That’s their god.

If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t tell you how the scene ends. Although, considering it is a 35 year old movie, the statute of limitations is probably expired on spoiler alerts.

But that idea of an idol—a statue that primitive people bow down to in worship—is probably what most of us think of when we think about the second commandment. God says, in the King James Version of the Bible, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” No idols. No pictures of God that you bow down to and worship.

I would guess that of all ten of the commandments, this is the one that we figure we have the least trouble with. I mean, I don’t have any carved statues in my drawer. I don’t have any little shrines set up in my closet. I don’t know anybody who gets down on their knees in front of carved images. That stuff is for the movies. That stuff is for primitive tribes on remote islands that haven’t gotten out of the stone ages yet. It’s not really a temptation for sophisticated, modern Americans.

We are not an idol worshipping culture… Or are we?

The Second Commandment
You can find the second commandment in Exodus 20, verses 4-6. Here’s what God says, in the New International Version of the Bible:

4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Now, the first thing we need to notice is that this is a two part command. God says: “You shall not make…an image” and “You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” Those two things go together.

It’s not like God is against art. He is not opposed to sculpting or carving or painting. In fact, when He gives instructions for building the tabernacle later in Exodus He pours out His Spirit on the craftsmen so that they can “make artistic designs.” (Exodus 31:4,5) But what He is opposed to is when we make things to serve as objects of worship. When we create images or statues or other objects to bow down to them and worship them, then we are violating the second commandment.

Another thing we need to notice is that this is not simply a restatement of the first commandment. The first commandment was to have no other gods. This commandment, we sometimes think, is the same (just in different words). Have no other gods. Have no idols. (And, in fact, Catholic and Lutheran traditions often combine the first two commandments. They make up the difference by dividing coveting into two commands.)

But, in fact, while foreign deities and pagan idols are ruled out by this command; this command is not actually about other gods. Instead, this command is about the LORD, the One true God. What this command is really saying is that He doesn’t want us to use images or idols in our worship of Him. We should not make something that is not God into God. And we should not make God into something that He is not. Philip Ryken writes:

The second commandment has to do with worshiping the right God the right way. We may not worship in the form of any man-made idol. Whereas the first commandment forbids us to worship false gods, the second commandment forbids us to worship the true God falsely. (Exodus, 568)

Don’t draw a picture of God and then worship that picture as though it were God. Don’t make a statue and then say: “This is God. This is what God is like.”

Now, it’s obvious why we should not worship images of other gods. We don’t need to get caught up in statues of Buddha or African animistic idols or Haitian voodoo fetishes. It’s pretty obvious why we wouldn’t want pictures of other gods in our lives.

But, we could still ask: what does God have against images of Himself? Why can’t we draw or create images of Him to help us in our worship of Him? Wouldn’t that help us to pray and focus on Him? What is the problem with using pictures of God in worship?

To answer that, I have 4 reasons God forbids images, and 4 examples of idolatry in the Bible to help illustrate.

Putting Handcuffs on God
So, first, God cannot be limited. The problem with any attempt to create an image of God is that it automatically limits God. Any image or statue a human mind could conceive or create is still going to be woefully inadequate in capturing the glory and immensity and mystery of God.

Bill Hybels, in a book called Laws that Liberate, says:

"No image constructed by human hands could ever accurately represent the totality, the transcendency, and the majesty of God. We could never shape, paint, or chisel anything that would be an adequate representation of who God is. To attempt to do so would be like asking a scholar to explain the history of the world in one sentence, or a sculptor to make a replica of Mount Rushmore on a single grain of sand, or a musician to play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with a referee's whistle. It just can' t be done." (Laws that Liberate, Hybels, 23)

The truth is: nobody knows what God looks like. In Deuteronomy 4 God explains the rule against idolatry:

15 You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16 so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17 or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18 or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.

Horeb is another name for Mt. Sinai, so God is talking about the day that He gave the Ten Commandments. And He says, in essence: “Look, you didn’t see me. Nobody can see me. So don’t try to imagine what I look like, because you’ll end up with something that walks or flies or swims, cause that’s all you know.” And God’s point is: He isn’t like anything else we know.

Think of some of the iconic images of God in the world of art: like the creation of Adam that is part of Michelangelo’s famous fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I’m not sure if this is a direct violation of the second commandment or not. I’m not sure that painting is there for us to direct our worship to it. And yet, you can see how it limits our perception of God. God is not an old man with a white beard. He is not just: “the big guy upstairs.” And yet this picture has influenced us to the point that when most of us think about God an image very similar to this pops into our heads.

Any attempt to create an image of God is necessarily going to put limits on Him. J.I. Packer writes: “The built-in habit of fallen minds is to scale God down.” (Keeping the 10 Commandments, p. 54). God forbids us from worshipping images of Him because any image we create is going to be so much less than He really is.

Isaiah 44 is, in my opinion, one of the funnier chapters in the Bible. In it, Isaiah confronts the absurdity of worshipping an idol. The verses drip with sarcasm as Isaiah points out that the idol worshippers are literally worshipping a dead stick:

15 It is used as fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. 16 Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.” 17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!”

18 They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. 19 No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”

God will not be limited like that. He will not be reduced to a piece of wood. And so the second commandment forbids the making of images.

Not Served by Human Hands
Second, God cannot be controlled. Another problem with any attempt to create an image of God is that it leads us to believe we have some sort of control over Him.

In the Ancient Middle East, the belief was that if you made your god out of wood or iron, then that gave you some pull with that god. After all, you made it! The Egyptians did not think that their gods actually lived in the statuary that they created, but they did think that their idols gave them some sort of spiritual contact that would enable them to manipulate their gods in some way. If your god is a god of your own making, you can get the idea that you own that god and that it or he should do what you desire.

This extends beyond just images and paintings as well. So much of contemporary spirituality trades on the ancient ideas that if you behave in a certain way, or say the right words, or pray the same prayer often enough: then God is obligated to do what you want. You don’t necessarily need to light incense in front of a statue to believe that you can manipulate God into giving you the outcomes you desire.

But God is saying here that He cannot be contained like that. He will not be reshaped to suit our purposes. He alone is sovereign over His choices. He makes us! He will not allow us to begin to think that we can control Him.

In Acts 17 the Apostle Paul comes to the city of Athens. Athens was a great city in those days, the intellectual capital of the world. The birthplace of philosophy and philosophers like Plato, who still influence our thinking today. But it was also full of idols. There were images of all shapes and sizes, made out of all sorts of materials, honoring all the so called gods of Greek mythology. There were so many idols that one ancient Roman writer said the gods of Athens outnumbered the people in Athens. (Ryken, 572)

When Paul saw all those graven images it really bothered him. The Bible says he “was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:16) So for many days he reasoned with the people of Athens, trying to present the good news of Jesus and turn them away from their false gods. But he was greeted with scorn and ridicule.

Then, one day, he was invited to a meeting of the Areopagus, the intellectual center of Athens. It was like being invited to be a keynote speaker at a TED Conference. So instead of railing against the idols, Paul decided to use the idols as a point of connection. He said: “People of Athens! I can see that you are very religious. As I walk around your city, I see many objects of worship.”

In fact, he says, he even found one shrine with the inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. The Athenians were covering their bases. Despite their many gods, they even had a shrine in case they left one out. So Paul says: “What you worship as something unknown, I am going to proclaim to you.”

Then Paul says, Acts 17:24-25:

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.

Here’s the problem with idols, Paul says: We need to recognize the relationship between Creator and creature. “We don’t make God, He makes us. We do not give life to God; He gives life to us.” (Ryken, 573) The idea that we can make statues or temples that will somehow contain and control Him is absurd. By definition: God doesn’t need us. We need Him.

Paul concludes by saying, Acts 17:29:

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.

Even though we are not in the habit of carving statues or building shrines, we must be careful that we are not imagining a God that we can manipulate and control. We must be careful to remember the relationship between Creator and creature.

This is How I Like to think of God…
Third, God cannot be customized. When we start creating our own images of God, it is inevitable that we will begin to emphasize certain attributes and ignore others.
We don’t get to pick and choose among the characteristics of God.

The movie Talledega Nights is a crude and ridiculous comedy about car racing starring Will Farrell as Ricky Bobby. It’s a nonsense movie. But it has a scene that, in spite of its stupidity, makes a pretty profound point about our tendency to reinvent God the way we want Him to be:

Ricky Bobby is saying grace at his family’s supper table when he begins to pray to “Dear Lord baby Jesus.” He keeps saying it—talking about Jesus’ golden fleece diaper and pudgy little all-powerful baby hands--until his wife interrupts him to tell him that Jesus grew up. She says: “It’s kind of off-putting to pray to a baby.” To which Ricky Bobby replies: “I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace…when you say grace you can say it to grown up Jesus or teen-age Jesus or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.” That leads to everybody around the table chiming in with their favorite way of thinking about Jesus. Ricky Bobby’s friend Cal says: “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt, because it says: ‘I want to be formal, but I’m here to party too.” One of the kids says: “I like to picture Jesus as a ninja, fighting off evil samurai.”

It’s all really dumb, and irreverent. But it makes a good point: We all like to picture God the way we would prefer Him to be. We focus in on certain characteristics and ignore others. We reinvent God in our own image.

Any time you hear somebody says: “This is how I like to think of God…” be on alert. You need to check whether what follows is based on a Scriptural description of God, or on human opinion. If you have ever said “I prefer to think of God as…” or anything like that, it is possible that you were breaking the second commandment.

It’s ironic that even as Moses was on the top of Mt. Sinai receiving these commandments, the people of Israel were at the base of the mountain breaking them. When Moses took a long time coming back, the people became scared. They were uncomfortable with a God they could not see or control. They were frightened by a God that thundered and shook the mountain.

So they said to Moses’ brother Aaron: “Come, make us a god who will go before us.” So Aaron had all the people take off their gold and bring it to him. And he had it cast into the shape of a bull calf, and fashioned it with a tool. Then he said to Israel: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

Now, the interesting thing is, I don’t think Aaron believed he was doing anything wrong. I don’t think he was trying to create a new god. I believe he sincerely believed he was creating an image of the One, True God. And I say that because of Exodus 32:5:

5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.”

LORD. All caps. YHWH. Aaron really believed that this bull calf was a representation of God.

But, of course, God cannot be customized like that. They probably chose a calf because they believed it represented the strength and power of the God that had just rescued them. But they were making a caricature out of God. They were saying: “I like the bull calf version of God best.” And God responded by sending Moses down to destroy the calf and the tablets of the law as well.

Do not customize God. A version of God that emphasizes certain characteristics but ignores others is idolatry.

Hey Jealousy
Then, fourth: God is a jealous God. God will not tolerate graven images or idols because He wants to protect His glory and provide us with what is best for us. Here we need to come back to the original statement of the command. Exodus 20:4-6:

4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Jealousy doesn’t get a lot of positive press these days. When people talk about jealousy they often have in mind something closer to envy: the desire to get something that does not belong to you. That’s the tenth commandment—about coveting—and it’s not okay.

But when something does really belong to you, there are times when it needs to be protected. In those cases it is okay to be jealous—another good word is zealous—to keep it. A classic example of this is marriage. If you are married, you should be passionately committed to keeping your spouse’s love. You should be jealous for your spouse’s love. Not in a bad way—not in a way that has you constantly suspicious or distrustful—but in a way that says my relationship with my spouse is exclusive and will not be broken by another.

God feels that way about us. His commitment to us is total. His love is exclusive, passionate, intense. In a word—jealous. Our love and worship belongs to Him and Him alone, and He is not willing to share that with any other god, or—indeed—any lesser, imagined version of Himself.

Do you see the point here? God doesn't want idol worship, image-worship of Him because He wants His glory to shine unimpeded by falsity. If all idols of Him diminish Him and give us the idea that we control Him and distort the truth of who He is--then we are worshipping and loving a lesser version of Himself and we are shortchanging ourselves.

God wants the right God to receive worship the right way from His people. That's what it means for God to be God and for God to be a jealous God!

Now, a quick word about the end of verse 5. Some think that means God punishes people for something they have not done, (KJV) "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children."

But that's not what it is saying. It's saying that you cannot wear God down with your idol-making, God-hating behavior even if you pass it down from generation to generation. If you lead your family to hate God (notice it says "to those who hate me" and that includes the children who grow to hate God, too), if you lead your family to hate God, God will not back down in opposing you with the consequences. You will not win! Go ahead, bring your whole family (great-grandchild, great-great grandchild) and still God's judgment of your sin will not be stopped. You cannot wear Him down with your iniquity! So don't even think about it!

God is unswervingly opposed to those who oppose Him. That's the bad news. And don't mistake it. But the good news is so much better and so much more glorious than the bad was bad! Because God promises mercy and love to those who keep his commandments. And the promise is so much more powerful than the warning because its blessing lasts not just three or four generations, but for a thousand. In other words, it will last forever!

My OT professor back in seminary said this when we studied these verses: "Offer the worship that satisfies God, and God will satisfy you." (Ray Ortlund, Jr Notes on Ex.20:6)

This is so awesome! God is unswervingly, unwaveringly, unimaginably dedicated to the passionate pursuit of our relationship with Him that He never stops opposing those who hate His glory and never ever, ever, ever stops blessing those who love it!

God will not stand to be diminished, manipulated, or refashioned into an image of our liking. That would make Him less than He is and give us less than the glorious God who claims us as our own. God is a jealous God. And for that reason we should keep the second commandment.

What He Has Revealed
Finally, how do we keep the second commandment? As I conclude, I have one point of application: Love the God of the Bible.

I hope that, through all this, you have seen that there are more ways to break the second commandment than to just draw a picture of God or keep an idol in your closet. Any time we imagine God to be less than He is, or attempt to control Him, or diminish certain truths about Him in order to emphasize others, we are breaking this command. The disturbing truth is that we are all idolaters more often than we know.

But the best way to guard against breaking the second commandment is to love the God of the Bible. Learn Who God is from what He has revealed about Himself. Love everything He tells us about Himself in His inspired Word. And do not go beyond what He has told us.

Our God is a jealous God. Do not imagine Him to be anything other than what He is.