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. (Ex. 20:4-6)
Commands like this one in Exodus 20 sound strange. What a harsh thing for God to say. If God is invisible, why not have pictures, statues, or images? We are visual creatures after all.
God grounds his reasoning for this command in what he has done for Israel in redeeming her from slavery. This second commandment flows from the first. The Lord gives such commands because he is holy, just, and good. He deserves our respect, love, and obedience not only because he has the “superior firepower,” but because he has created us for love and obedience.
Religion in the Ancient World
In the ancient world religion, magic, and superstition were often intertwined. It was very common to attempt to control a deity through secret names, incantations, and idols. Controlling divine powers, so you could have better crops or a large family, was a primary objective in religion.
The Lord makes the second commandment in this specific context. He cannot be confined by anything or anyone; he cannot be coerced to give grace or love. It was through images and idols that the ancient world sought to control their gods. To make such an image is to do violence to God and his character (Deut. 16:22; Lev. 26:1). That is why creating idols comes with such harsh-sounding punishments (Ps. 97:7). The unique authority and transcendence of God is a proper basis for his commands since he alone can decide how to be worshiped.
Nevertheless, the Lord condescends to give himself to his people as their God. He meets with them and abides with us specifically by his words and promises. He does not let himself be seen but rather is heard speaking (Deut. 4:15-16; John 4:24; Rom. 10).
The Image of God in Christ
The Lord does not stop here, for he has moved all of history to the great fulfillment of his promises and of all he has spoken. God comes in the fullness of time and is born of a virgin to dwell among us (John 1:1-18; Gal. 4:4-7). He tells us that he is as close to us as the Word of Christ that is spoken (Rom. 10). He speaks to us even today through his Word as it is proclaimed. This is how God’s Spirit dwells among us today.
Only in the person of Jesus do we see God! He is literally “God with us,” the true image of God (Col. 1:15). The fullness of God dwells in him bodily: the transcendent God has made himself man, so we can latch on to him. From this place of fellowship and communion God mercifully says to us, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5: 21).
God frees his people in Exodus from their slavery to sin and death so that they might worship him (Ex. 20:1-2). He is still doing that same work today. His redemption makes dwelling with sinners possible, becoming our shelter and our life, which we can only do on his terms. Anything less is what the Bible calls idolatry. We commit idolatry when we attempt to manipulate God to fit our needs, wants, and often foolish desires.
God is a jealous God who yearns over his people and desires their good, but he will not give his glory to an image or idol, whether it is ancient or modern (Isa. 42:8). The Lord gives us this good command to prevent us from taking our eyes off his Son, the true image of God, to worship inventions of our own hands (John 14:5; Ps. 106:35-37). If we have seen Jesus in the preaching of the gospel, we have seen the Father. We dwell with God through the means he has given us until that glorious day when faith shall give way to sight, when we shall see Jesus as he is. Through faith, we await the day when we shall see Jesus face to face.