Second Commandment

ďYou shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.Ē

A violation of the second commandment immediately follows from a violation of the first commandment. This is because if a human being is not devoted to the creator, he will be devoted to something in creation. This connection between the first and second commandments can be made into a case for counting the first and second commandments together.

To understand the second commandment better, we need to define two terms Ė idol and worship.

What is worship? Worship is sometimes thought of as something we do on a Sunday when go to church, sing songs and pray to God, listen to the preacher, give tithes, etc. This is a good description but let us get behind what the worshipper does. The worshipper sings to God, acknowledging his greatness in different ways (love, power, goodness, etc.), the one to be thanked for everything, the one to be depended on for forgiveness and for all of her needs. She also listens to the preacher, knowing that Godís word is what will sustain and guide her. The worshipper lifts up God and brings herself under God. The worship service is supposed to be an expression of a personís heart attitude- her devotion and trust towards God. It is possible that a personís worship does not correspond with her heart attitude.

What is an idol? An idol is any part of Godís creation that is worshipped as God. Instead of lifting up God and bringing herself under him, a person will lift up other things in creation and bring herself under them.

In ancient times, people made images to be worshipped. These images are supposed to contain a deityís presence. To have an idol is supposedly to have possession of a divine power that could protect people from harm.

Why does God not want to be represented? God cares about reality and the reality is that he has no form (Deuteronomy 4:12). God is separate from creation and beyond representation. To depict him as part of creation is to not be true to who he is. A phrase that expresses Godís separation from creation is Godís holiness. God is holy; therefore he could not be represented. In Israelís making their place of worship, God made sure that they would not represent him with an image.

The Israelites did make a statue of a bull (a symbol of power) to represent God and to worship. God became very angry that he destroyed many of them (Exodus 32). The offense is so serious that attached to the second commandment is the promise of punishment for the extended family to four generations of those who violate this commandment and blessing for countless descendants of those who keep this commandment.

Why would people want to make an image of God? The belief in ancient times is that objects in creation could have power for good or for evil (See note 1). A statue may contain divine power to offer protection from harm. The ancient times were times of insecurity. Possession of divine power, especially from a powerful God, supposedly guarantees security.

As opposed to an idol, the God of the bible is free. He could not be contained in any object in creation. God could not be reduced to an object to be possessed. God is a person to be honored and obeyed.

We have come a long way in the twentieth century in reducing our insecurities. We have a powerful army, we have medical technology that is able to prolong life, and we live in a rich nation whose government can provide for the welfare of its poor citizens. However, in modern times, we still have some superstitions that seem to indicate the belief that objects have powers of protection. An example is the superstition that to rub a rabbitís fur brings good luck.

There is an episode in the bible where the Israelites were dying because of poisonous snakes. God provided healing by telling them to make a bronze serpent and look at it to be healed. Many years later, the Israelites worshipped this image as if it was God (Numbers 21). God was displeased with this and the bronze serpent was destroyed. This episode shows the human tendency to make man-made images into idols to be worshipped and Godís displeasure at peopleís attempts to contain him in an image.

God is displeased with idol worship because it ignores the creator who should really be thanked and shown devotion to. Instead, thanks and devotion are given to objects in creation. Idol worship reveals the human tendency to replace God the creator and redeemer with objects in creation.

Another reason God is displeased with idol worship is because it reverses the order that God set up in his creation. After God created human beings, they disobeyed Godís command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3). You must be wondering what this means and why the big deal. The knowledge of good and evil is not about simply knowing the difference between right and wrong but to experience right and wrong (See note 2).

When you were younger, your parents may have taught you that it is wrong to curse at others. You were given consequences for cursing at others. Your level of knowing that it is wrong is because you get in trouble for it.

However, you still have not completely understood the error in cursing at others. Imagine you cursed a very good friend, someone you really enjoy being with. Imagine that friend really getting hurt by your cursing at her that she avoids you and refused to be friends with you. This time, not only do you get in trouble but you lose a relationship that is very important for you. Now there is also pain involved, in your heart and in the heart of the friend you disrespected. You have experienced the wrongness of your action on a deeper level.

When the first humans disobeyed God and ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the world has become a place where good and evil will be experienced, not just known as information. What happened after this disobedience, which is called the fall? Human life became harder.

  1. Taking control of creation (work) has become so hard and despite all work, life ends in death
  2. There is pain in the process of fulfilling the command to subdue the earth, being fruitful and multiply (childbearing)
  3. There would be conflict between human beings which means relationship has become harder.

Humans are supposed to be in control of creation but creation ended up being worshipped by humans. Human dependence on creation turned into idolatry (worship of creation). In issuing the commandment against idolatry, God seeks to restore human beings to their rightful place as rulers of creation.

Today, we are saturated in the belief that there is only one God and he could not be represented. However, idolatry still happens today. Sure there are people who worship many gods and worship images (the power behind the images) and you are not to join them in a blatant violation of the first and second commandments. I said earlier that an idol is something in creation that we lift up and bring ourselves under. These are some ideas of the idols of today.

  1. Things (cell phones, mp3 players) can be an idol. How is that? You donít sing to it or get guidance from it. One way things could be an idol is when the pursuit of an object has become a focus of life to the point of disobeying Godís commands. For example, making a decision to steal to get those things is to show that something is more important than following Godís commands.
  2. Another way that idolatry happens is when objects become a source of boasting. What you boast about or lift up is what is important to you.
  3. Another idol can be other people. Being friends or just associated with some people (same race, family, education, etc) could be so important that we violate Godís commands, one of which is to not look down towards those who are not in your group. You may also make peopleís approval your greatest concern that you are not concerned about Godís approval. A conflict between Godís command and your loyalty to others is the test in which you will know if you are committing idolatry. Are you going to follow God or please people? Donít wait for that test but direct your heart to pleasing God, the antidote to idolatry.
  4. The last idol to think about is your own self. Do you think you can do whatever you want with everything you have, including your body? Do you think that the highest good is what makes your life better? Do you boast in yourself, your abilities and accomplishments? If you do any of the above, then you have lifted yourself above God.

When we place our devotion and trust on God the creator and redeemer alone, we participate in the restoration of the order that God set up in his creation. God stands above all things, and all things created, including ourselves, are under Godís care. Everything is given by God for manís benefit and not for manís worship. Therefore, God is the one worthy of worship, not creation.

Discussion Questions

  1. How could money be regarded as an idol?
  2. Think of a worship song. What is it saying about God?
  3. Think how what it says about God is sometimes applied to something in creation?

Notes

  1. See Sanford, John, ďThe story of Adam and Eve,Ē in eds., Rollins, Wayne G. and Kille, Andrew, D., Psychological Insight into the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 160-165.
  2. See Barton, John ďíThe Work of Human Handsí: Idolatry in the Old TestamentĒ in ed., Brown, William P., The Ten Commandments: The Reciprocity of Faithfulness (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 194-203.