“Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5a).
YHWH has delivered His people from slavery and bondage (Exodus 6-14), and has already provided the first command– Israel was to have no other gods before/beside YHWH (Exodus 20:3).
The second command is like it– Israel shall not make a “graven image” or a “likeness of any thing” so as not to bow down to it or serve it (Exodus 20:4-5a).
In the ancient Near Eastern context, of which Israel was a part, this command makes sense and is entirely necessary. Pretty much every culture believed in various gods– and every god had his or her representation. Dagon had his statue (1 Samuel 5:2-4); the Asherah was a wooden pillar (Judges 6:25-26). While some people might have actually believed that the statue was their god, most understood it as a representation of what their god really was.
YHWH, as the One True God, the Creator God, is utterly distinct. His very name– “Yahweh”– does not come with some meaning about power or lordship. Instead, it means “the Existent One.” YHWH does not need to have some “power name.” He exists; that is sufficient. And, as Paul will later explain, since God exists, and in Him all people live and dwell and have their being, God cannot really be represented by any image of any creature or anything of the sort (Acts 17:28-29).
Therefore, as Isaiah will later make very clear, if you can fashion a “god,” it ceases to have any real power (cf. Isaiah 44:9-20). If you can imagine it, build it, or even bow down to it, it’s not really God– it’s an idol of some form or another.
This idea was quite strange to people in the days of Israel. In order to serve God in truth they would have to act differently from every other nation in the world. The pressure of being distinct in this way proved too much– before Israel even makes it to Canaan, they serve Baal of Peor (Numbers 25:1-3). The story of the next five hundred years of Israel often features Israel’s service to other gods, bowing down to statues (cf. 2 Kings 17:7-23). This, in part, led to the exile of Israel and Judah.
Nevertheless, we must notice two things: first, that YHWH already commanded Israel to not have any other gods beside Him, and second, that He does not explicitly mention any other gods in the second commandment. This is due to a much more insidious form of idolatry that also overwhelmed Israel.
It would have been one thing if Israel made statues of other gods and bowed down to them– still wrong, indeed, still a violation of the first commandment– but Israel dared to make images and to call those images YHWH, attempting to represent the incomparable and transcendent Creator of the universe with a statue of a golden calf.
It first took place while Moses was on Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:1-4); it would happen again in the days of Jeroboam son of Nebat king of Israel (1 Kings 12:26-33). And it is precisely this thing which concerns God in the second commandment.
The image of the golden calf became too pervasive, especially in the Kingdom of Israel. Even though Jehu removed the idolatrous service of Baal, he left the golden calves as they stood (cf. 2 Kings 10:26-31). This idolatry is one of the reasons given by God as to why He exiled Israel (2 Kings 17:22-23).
Throughout time many have wondered why people who knew better than to serve other gods still bowed down to the golden calf. The answer is probably a bit more simple than we would like to imagine– once the image is in one’s head, it is very difficult to remove it. Jeroboam makes the golden calves and tells Israel that these are the gods that delivered them from Egypt (1 Kings 12:28). Therefore, when the people hear all the stories about YHWH and His saving acts, they start thinking of the golden calf. The mental association is there throughout time. Even if a prophet stands up in the name of YHWH to speak, when he speaks of YHWH, of what will the people think but that golden calf? And if any declaration is made about destroying the calf, the people will think that you are destroying YHWH, and such is intolerable!
In reality, it would have been stranger had Israel given up the calves and began going to Jerusalem to the Temple to bow down before YHWH there. Images have more power over us than we would like to admit.
And therein is the key to understanding the challenge of the second commandment for us today. While it is true that we are not likely to make an actual, physical image of something and bow down to it, such does not make us immune from making mental images to which we bow down metaphorically.
It is true that we have to have some mental conception about something about God. We obtain that from His Word– God as love, God as holy, God as represented fully in Jesus of Nazareth (1 John 4:8, Leviticus 19:2, Colossians 2:9). But we get ourselves into the same trouble Israel did when we start making up our own definitions of the way God “must be.”
We can imagine that God “must be” a certain way– loving like a grandparent, someone who would never allow us to suffer pain, someone who privileges us and/or our nation, or a thousand other things– but there is no reason at all why God “must be” that way. God only “must be” what He is, and we only understand as much as He has revealed about Himself in that regard. Whenever we limit God by our declarations of how we “must be” we act no differently than Israel did– we have just set up our own “golden calf,” our own view of God to worship.
Therefore, when we think of God, we must seek to understand His nature as best we can from His revelation of Himself in Scripture, and know for certain that God is no thing– no thing we can make, imagine, or devise. Let us understand that God is the Existent One, and serve Him today!
Ethan R. Longhenry