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Picture of a church board with the creed, the commandments and the Lord's prayer.

Images of the Unimaginable

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Posted by Ros Clarke, 7 Mar 2018

Ros Clarke looks at the second commandment in the next of our Lent series of blog posts on the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. Catch up with the whole series here.

The second commandment

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Exodus 20:4-6

Have you ever tried to draw God? Or to imagine what he looks like? It’s about as easy as trying to draw the whole universe on a postage stamp, or to imagine all the subatomic particles that make up your own body. It’s not just hard, it’s practically impossible!

One problem when we try to imagine what God is like is that we live within this physical world and we only know what things are like here. Try imagining a new colour outside the spectrum from red to purple. Or try imagining a scent you’ve never smelled. We can’t do it. As created beings ourselves, our experience is limited to created things, and how could they possibly be like their Creator?

Because of this, people in many cultures around the world have represented the gods they worshipped in in physical forms that looked a bit like birds or animals or fish: things from the heavens above (skies), the earth beneath, or the waters below. But the Israelites were commanded not to make tangible images of God nor bow down and worship any such images.

It’s important to be clear that the second commandment isn’t a ban on art. This is about worship, not human creativity. The Israelites must not make any image which could take the place that is God’s. They must not worship a created object, only the Creator God.

How is the second commandment a mirror?

The Creator God cannot be represented by a created thing. While the creation speaks clearly of God’s glory, wisdom and power (Psalm 19:1-6), it does it so that we are prompted to worship the creator.

The second commandment also reflects several other important aspects of God’s character. He is a jealous God, rightly wanting all that is due only to him. He will not stand idly by while we faithlessly dally with other objects of worship which distract us from him. He cannot tolerate sharing our favour with a worthless creation of our own hands. He is a God who will punish false worship.

He punishes the ‘children for the sin of the parents, even down to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me’.  Did you notice how God describes this sin? It’s not a little thing.

It’s hating God.

It’s hating God.

And the consequences of hating God are so serious that they cannot be contained within a single generation. Children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren will all suffer because of this sin of their parents. God does not take sin lightly. He is a jealous God.

BUT… his love far outstrips his punishment. He will show love, not to three or four generations, but to a thousand generations of those who love him and obey his commands.

The second commandment also shows us what we are like. We do not often create physical objects of worship in modern Western society, but it has been rightly said that our hearts are ‘idol-factories’. Our sinful hearts can find ways to make an idol of almost anything, tangible or intangible. Just like the Israelites, we take the good things which God has given us, and use them to forge our own golden calves. We lie to ourselves, as they did, pretending that it is just another way to worship God, when what we have really done is exchanged the true and living God with a lifeless, worthless idol.

How is the second commandment a deterrent?

This commandment contains both warning and promise, a carrot and a stick. It warns us of the consequences of disobedience, and promises us the blessings of obedience.

The warning points out how serious our sin is and the consequences which will follow. Worshipping an idol is hating God. When we put anything else in God’s place we provoke his jealous anger. Don’t do it, the second commandment tells us! Don’t bring his wrath down on yourself and your family. Don’t take that risk!

Alongside the warning is the promise. Love him, and obey his commandments because you love him. Do what he says because you want to live in a way which pleases him. And if you do, you will rest secure in his love to a thousand generations.

How does the second commandment set a standard for our behaviour?

The second commandment shows us that God cares about how we worship him. The Israelites thought that a tangible ‘god’ would help them to worship God better (Exodus 32:1-5), but God knew that they would worship the idol instead of him. While the first command is to worship the true God, the second is to worship him truly. The commandment doesn’t leave us wondering what that means: love God and keep his commands. That is what God requires of us: love and obedience. God’s standard for our behaviour is complete obedience. It sounds so simple, and it is.

In theory, anyway.

Questions for reflection:

1. Why do we find it easier to worship tangible objects than our heavenly God and Father?
2. Do you find the warning or the promise greater motivation to keep God’s commands?
3. How can you keep your love for God and obedience to him growing every day?

Almighty God, creator of the heavens and the earth, forgive us for the times when we set idols in your place. Show us where we are worshipping your creation, rather than you as our creator. May we never provoke your jealous anger, but rest secure in your love. Teach us to love you more deeply and obey you more completely every day. Amen.

Ros Clarke is the Associate Director of Church Society

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