No graven images
‘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.’ (Exodus 20:5-6 ESV)
The second commandment underlines the imperative of the first that we must worship God before anyone else and anything else. ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.’ (Matthew 4:10)
Just as is the case for the first commandment, I suspect that few Christians nowadays imagine that they’re in any danger of breaking the second one. After all, we simply don’t bow down before any statues, altars or images. Our churches may be models of minimalism and we may choose not to wear a cross or a crucifix or, indeed, any jewellery with any religious symbolism.
Does this mean then that we aren’t in breach of the second commandment? We may argue that we don’t worship physical things but is that true? How do we feel about wealth and possessions?
Let’s look at this commandment in the light of Christ’s teaching; ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (Mark 12:30)
Loving God with all our heart
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with money or possessions, there is a problem when we place so much value on them that we love them than we love God or, in other words, when the gift becomes more important than the Giver. This is actually a very dangerous thing because it has serious consequences. ‘For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.’ (1 Timothy 6:10)
The reality is that we can’t love both wealth and God – we have to choose between them. ‘Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (Matthew 6:19-21)
‘No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.’ (Matthew 4:24)
Loving God with all our soul
After a while, we begin to resemble the things we worship. If that’s wealth and material possessions we risk becoming greedy and self-centred. Over time our image and status become closely entwined with the things that we own; the home we live in, the car we drive, the jewellery and clothes that we wear, our beautiful garden and a whole host of other material things.
Our possessions are often a gift from God and we have every reason to be very grateful for His goodness towards us. We can certainly enjoy and appreciate material blessings but our attitude towards them should always be God-honouring and we mustn’t define ourselves by them.
If we worship God as we ought, we’ll become more and more like Him. Do other people see Christ in us? We are to love God with all our soul and so we’re to be defined by our relationship with Him and nothing else.
Loving God with all our mind
In my continuing journey through the Psalms, I never cease to be amazed by the extravagance of the praise offered in this wonderful collection of poetry and song. ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendour and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment, stretching out the heavens like a tent.’ (Psalm 104:1-2 ESV)
God is fully outside of our comprehension and we simply don’t have the capacity to understand who and what exactly He is. And so we seek to ‘reduce’ Him into something more manageable, something more comprehensible which is, of course, simply impossible.
God reveals Himself to us through two specific mechanisms; general revelation (creation) and specific revelation (scripture).
The visible God revealed through creation
‘For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.’ (Romans 1:19-20)
God leaves us in no doubt whatsoever about His unparalleled greatness, power and omnipotence and the Psalmist got it exactly right when he compared God’s magnificent creation with finite mankind. ‘When I look at your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in place, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You care for him?’ (Psalm 8:3-4)
It’s good to study and appreciate God’s creation provided we understand that, however wonderful and amazing it is, it’s simply the work of His hands, His fingerprints, if you like.
The invisible God revealed through His Word
Loving God with all our mind should drive us to read, study and truly absorb what scripture reveals about God. ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the servant of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Once again the Psalmist understands the need to study and meditate on God’s word and he clearly realises that there lies great wisdom and understanding – even for the simplest among us. ‘Oh how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation.’ (Psalm 119:97-99)
‘Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them. The unfolding of Your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.’ (Psalm 119:129-130)
So then, as we begin to grasp the immensity of God this brings the second commandment into sharp focus. It’s ludicrous – not to mention disrespectful and downright insulting – to imagine that any single aspect of creation or any physical object we could ever design or construct could even begin to represent our awe-inspiring God.
Loving God with all our strength
Actions speak far louder than words. We may pay lip service to worshipping God, but if there’s one area that clearly demonstrates where our heart lies it’s in what we do and how we live. Do we live a high maintenance life? Do we have to work endless hours to service our mortgage and our debts? Is ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ more important than quiet study time, Church attendance and acts of service?
Loving God with all our strength implies that our all our capacities and resources and time are at His service – not our own. If we expend most or all of our efforts in maintaining our lifestyle, we have to ask ourselves whether or not we’re breaking the second commandment. (The answer is yes!)
A warning and a promise for future generations
The second commandment carries with it a serious warning and a wonderful promise. ‘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.’ (Exodus 20:5-6)
While it’s of prime importance to teach the next generation about God, the reality is that children learn from copying the things we do far more than from listening to what we say. What a dreadful legacy to visit the results of our disobedience and shortcomings on future generations. This, by the way, doesn’t just affect parents but rather every adult within God’s church as we seek to set a good example to those who follow us.
By contrast, to be the recipient of God’s steadfast and incomparable love is a treasure beyond measure but it’s offered only to the descendants of those who love God and who keep His commandments. We’re faced here with a major responsibility.
I’m not sure that we take this commandment as seriously as we ought. We simply must deal with idolatry both for ourselves and for generations to come. Whenever we worship creation or any physical or material blessing more than we worship God, we’re breaking the second commandment.
The second commandment: You shall not make for yourself a carved image… You shall not bow down to them or serve them.
The principle behind the second commandment is that we are not to make any physical representation of God neither are we to ascribe God’s attributes to any aspect of creation or any physical thing and that we’re to worship God and Him alone. If we fail just one time in just one area, heart, soul, mind or strength, we break this commandment.
Guilty as charged.