You Shall Not Worship Idols: Lesson and Life Application

by Robert Driskell · Print Print · Email Email

The Second Commandment reads like this, “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 20:4-6 ESV).

Think of the pictures, paintings, statuettes, and other man made items that attempt to depict God in an artistic way.  These items can be purchased in many Christian bookstores.  In most cases, these items were created by a person, or persons, who truly desired to worship God with the fruit of their labors.  Are these people breaking the Second Commandment?  How are we to understand this Commandment and how are we to apply it to our current society?  Let us see if we can shed some light on this subject, so that we may know how God wants us to understand this Commandment today.

The Biblical record

This commandment is repeated, in one form or another, several other times in the Bible:  Deuteronomy 4:15-19, 23; 5:8-10.  Even the New Testament has something similar to say; in Acts, we read, “…we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29 ESV). Therefore, it is legitimate to consider it a very important word from God.  These passages make it clear that God forbids the making, and worshiping, of idols.

What is an idol?

Is an idol only something that is obviously not God, or is it something that is a misrepresentation of the true God?  We know that to worship something other than God is idolatry; however, isn’t it also idolatry to worship an incorrect understanding of the true God?  The prophet Isaiah asks, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” (Isaiah 40:18 ESV).  God warns His Old Testament people with these words, “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire…” (Deuteronomy 4:15 ESV). He then proceeds to forbid them to attempt to make any carved image representing Him.

The First Commandment instructs us to worship only the true God.  The Second Commandment instructs us to worship Him as He truly is not as something we imagine Him to be.  Alistair Begg writes, “It is not enough to worship the correct God.  We must worship the correct God correctly” (Begg 64).

This Second Commandment is a preventative to keep us from inventing a god of our own design. Imagine how my wife would respond if she found a picture in my wallet of another woman and then, when she demanded an explanation, I said, “Oh, I look at that picture while I’m thinking of how much I love you”.   That doesn’t make much sense, does it?  My wife would rightly question my love for her, or my sanity, or both.  In a much grander, and holier way, that is how it is when we approach man-made pictures, sculptures, etc. as if they were true images of God.

It seems very clear that God’s people, in the Old Testament, were forbidden from making any man-made objects that attempted to represent God.  But, how does this prohibition apply to Christians today?

The Danger of Breaking the Second Commandment Today

There are those who believe that some tangible image of Jesus makes them feel closer to Him.  However, I do not believe this is biblical for several reasons:  First, the Bible tells us that, “…we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7 ESV).  Again, the apostle Paul tells us, “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (Romans 8:24 ESV).  The idea seems to be that we are to walk by faith and the Word of God, and not in the tangible images we might construct. We are to worship God by faith, not by sight.

Even those symbols we have that remind us of God and His goodness, glory, and love, can become idols when we allow them to replace the true God in our hearts and minds.  “When we set aside this commandment by tolerating images in worship, our understanding of God is inevitably distorted” (Begg 67).  I can still remember paintings of Jesus I saw as a child, and to this day, if I’m not careful, when I think of Jesus, I see the Jesus of those paintings.  And who can forget, if they have seen it, Michelangelo’s depiction of David and God?  Could that be where so many people have gotten the idea that God is “the big man upstairs”?

Pictured above: Michelangelo's depiction of David and God?

Pictured above: Michelangelo’s depiction of David and God

There is also the danger of attributing, whether knowingly or unknowingly, powers to those images of God or Jesus.  Is the person bowing before the crucifix focused on God or are they more focused on the physical structure in front of them?  Surely, the motives of most believers are pure; however, there is the very real danger of the act of worship becoming merely superstition if I believe that my prayer cloth helps me get more from God than a simple honest heartfelt prayer.

Obviously we have no pictures of God or of Jesus Christ; therefore, any representation we construct will be inadequate, our representation will portray an inferior depiction of our perfect Creator.  There is nothing humans can make that can adequately represent God.  Whether it be a picture, a sculpture, a work of religious fiction, or anything else we devise to represent God, it will end up a shrunken deity of our own imagination.  Once again, to quote Alistair Begg, “By forbidding the use of images, whether metal or mental, God restrains our waywardness.  He frees us from the stupidity and emptiness of our speculation when we live in obedience to this command” (Begg 65).  In other words, this second Commandment helps us keep our focus on the true God of the Bible and prevents us from inventing a god of our own making…which is idolatry of the worst kind.  When we are not worshiping the God who is revealed in the Bible, most clearly in Jesus Christ, we are worshiping a false god.


God commanded His people not to worship physical representations of anything; not even Him. While there exist many paintings, drawings, sculptures, etc. that depict either God or Jesus, great care must be taken to prevent us from inadvertently worship something other than God while thinking that we are worshiping the true God in a true manner.  I believe that is the reason God gave the Second Commandment.  God is spirit, and we are instructed to worship in spirit and in truth. When we reduce our concept of God (or Jesus) down to a material object, we depict a transcendent God in a less than truthful way.

The Bible gives us all we need to know to worship God.  If God had wanted us to have a picture of Him, he surely would have been able to make it happen.  But He didn’t. Visible representations of Him can never reveal His glory, His love, or His holiness.  Only when one meets Him through a saving relationship with Jesus Christ will we know what the true God is like.

More about idols: 10 Idols of Your Heart to Remove

Resources – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Begg, Alistair. Pathway to Freedom. Moody, 2003.

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