Ten Commandments #2 - Exodus 20:4

No Idols
Exodus 20:4


Illust: "Sport is America's newest and fastest-growing religion, far outdistancing whatever is in second place," says Charles Prebish, associate professor of religious studies at Penn State. ...It is not merely "like" a religion, he argues, nor is it a "secular" religion, as other religion scholars… have postulated.

To Mr. Prebish, sport can and does provide its followers everything that traditional religions have provided over the centuries. He writes: "For me, it is not just a parallel that is emerging between sport and religion, but rather a complete identity. Sport is religion for growing numbers of Americans, and this is no product of simply facile reasoning or wishful thinking. Further, for many, sport religion has become a more appropriate expression of personal religiosity than Christianity, Judaism, or any of the traditional religions. ...

Exodus 20:4-6  reads, "You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 5 "You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

An observation before examining this second commandment….
The 10 commandments are listed in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Though the explanations or expansions differ slightly for the 5th and 10th, and significantly for 4th, the commandment itself is identical. In other words, only the simple commandments were written on the stone tablets and placed in the Ark of the Covenant.

I. God’s people must never make images of the Godhead. 20:4

This prohibition is equally as stringent as the first command. The directness of God’s thoughts is the same as with the first command – images should not even be a remote possibility for His people. There shouldn’t even be the slightest chance of images existing in the believer’s experience.

This prohibition focuses on two forbidden objects.
Idols. The verb means to cut or carve wood, metal, or stone into a certain shape, often an animal or human. So, Moses “cut out” two new stone tablets (Ex 34:1,4). The noun then refers to the product.

Images. The terms idols and images are nearly synonymous here. The basic idea is a likeness (as most translate) or representation of something else. The term “statues” might mean more to us.

All statue idols are forbidden. There are no exceptions (“any”). No statue idols of birds or heavenly bodies were permitted (“heaven above”); no land animal idols (“earth beneath”); and no sea animal idols (“water under the earth”).

Of course you have probably read ahead and know that that is precisely what the Israelites did while Moses was on the Mount receiving the commandments (Ex 32:1-5). Here are some observations:

First, “To set up an image to represent God is debasing him” (Watson 59). How can we represent the infinite with the finite?

Second, We face a slippery slope issue. Girdlestone (Synonyms 303) said it this way. “Man is essentially an image-maker. His best works in art and mechanics are imitations of nature. His music is an attempt to present, not indeed to the eye, but to the ear, what may be called a picture of the varied feelings that occupy his heart. This tendency also shows itself in his religious worship, which he is inclined to make as symbolical as possible. Nay, he seeks to make a sensible representation even of God Himself, and gradually to transfer to the work of his own hands that reverence and dependence which properly belongs to the one living and true God. There is a strange fascination in exaggerated religious symbolism; it engrosses and excites the mind, but is by no means of a healthy character. It tends little by little to suppliant the simplicity of spiritual worship and to turn man into an idolater. Idolatry in its first stage is a sort of symbolism; some object is selected to represent the unseen Deity or to set forth one of His attributes..."

Third, Girdlestone continues with The Slippery Slope “little by little the material image takes the place of the spiritual reality for which it stands and idolatry ensues…” So, God’s people must never make images of the Godhead. 20:4

II. God’s people must never use idol-statues as aids to worship or as objects of worship 20:5a

The difference between the first two commandments is that the first prohibits worship of false gods or idolatry, while the second prohibits worship of the true God in a false manner, namely by use of images.
The text is speaking about images of Jehovah, not of pagan gods. Deut 4:15-19 bears this out.

This is not a prohibition against making images in general (such as a cross or fish or even a painting of Jesus). But these items cannot be part of religious ritual or worship in any way. All statues, images, or pictures of the Godhead used in worship are wrong. This is one of the errors of the Roman and Orthodox churches.

The words used for worship convey two complimentary thoughts. “Worship” simply means to prostrate or bow down. True worship however was not merely the ritualistic placing of the knee or forehead on the ground. It was the prostration of the heart.

On the other hand, “serve” refers to becoming a slave, hence to worship by means of service or ceremonies.
Thus, we might ask why God is so strongly opposed to using images as an aid to worship Him? I suggest the following.
1. God knows that images rob men of the true knowledge of God. Invariably the focus turns to the image or associated ritual rather than God.

2. God has only one genuine image of himself - Jesus Christ. This was and is still a difficult lesson for men to learn. NAS John 14:8 Philip *said to Him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us." 9 Jesus *said to him, "Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, 'Show us the Father'? Also, NAS Colossians 1:15 And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation.

A former congregant, whose name escapes me, related the following: "When I was growing up, whenever we went out to dinner as a family, and the possibility of ordering dessert came up, my father would say to me, '"Don't order the apple pie."' Now, my father was not a cruel man; he was not trying to keep me from ordering dessert. He wanted to protect me from disappointment. You see, my mother makes the best apple pie in the whole world, and my father had learned from experience that no apple pie could ever compare to Mom's apple pie."
In the same way, we do ourselves a disservice by substituting anything for Christ himself

3. God knows that images tend to numb our consciousnesses. Or to put more vividly, images don’t care what we do, God does.
Further, we can only note in passing that, although this passage doesn’t address how we are to worship God from a positive perspective, the Scripture is not silent on this subject. God does care how we worship Him. In addition to the many OT worship passages, John 4 is pivotal in developing a theology of worship. NAS John 4:23 "But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 "God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." Thus every individual and every congregation must sort out how to engage both the emotions and the revealed Word so that worship is genuine.
Let us remember then, that God’s people must never make images of the Godhead and that God’s people must never use idol-statues as aids to worship or as objects of worship.

III. God’s people must always remember who God is as they seek to worship Him properly 2:5b-6.

What now follows are reasons to worship God in the way He demands. These reasons focus on the character of God.

1. God alone is the LORD 5b. He is “Jehovah”, the only self-existent one! And He is “yours.”

2. God is jealous 5c-6. This is an interesting word that comes from the root that means, “to become intensely red.” Thus it refers to a passionate anger that demands exclusivity. It is not that God is envious of others! Rather, he demands exclusive devotion (Dt 4:23-24).
On the one hand, it comes with a threat of consequence for sin. And this is not a matter to be shrugged off lightly. It is the consequences for the sins of one generation upon succeeding generations (visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me). Sin has natural consequences that sometimes are passed from one generation to the next.

But on the other hand, it comes with a promise of blessing for obedience. Consider that the “thousands” of v 6 may refer to thousands of generations. If so, we have a stupendous truth about God. His mercy always outstrips his anger! There is no comparison between 4 and 4,000! I’ll take it.

3. And how about this for the clincher? “Lovingkindness” or “mercy” is the great word for “covenant loyalty.” God always delivers on his promises. So it is repeated vividly in Dt 7:9, "Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments". This great truth of the mercy of God caused David to declare, NAS Psalm 89:1, I will sing of the lovingkindness of the LORD forever; To all generations I will make known Thy faithfulness with my mouth." Of course there is a catch. God says that this promise is only for those who “love me and keep my commandments.”


Jan Davis, 60, a professional veteran parachutist, was involved in a dangerous sport called BASE jumping—leaping off fixed objects like cliffs and towers. It was while BASE jumping that she fell to her death October 22, 1999.

Her husband, who was filming the jump, and several reporters were stunned when Jan, the 4th of 5 jumpers, fell for 20 seconds and crashed into the rocks. Her chute had not opened properly. She was jumping off the 3,200 foot granite cliff, El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, California.

She and the other jumpers knew that BASE jumping is illegal in Yosemite Park. The law was adopted because there had already been six deaths in Yosemite along with numerous injuries due to BASE jumping.
The five jumpers were in fact protesting the park's jumping restrictions and, ironically, were jumping to prove that the sport is safe. These jumpers not only knew the risks, they also knew the law and deliberately broke it. Jan Davis paid with her life.

In a similar way, many people think they can deliberately violate God's law. But eventually people learn, sometimes the hard way, that God's laws are there for a reason: our well-being. (Leadership Journal)

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2015. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.