The second of the Ten Commandments is a prohibition against idolatry, but for some reason God doesn’t just come out and say, “Thou shalt not commit idolatry.” He goes on for 43 words in Hebrew (for comparison, commandments 6, 7, and 8 are two Hebrew words each), spelling out many details about various kinds of idolatry and His own personal nature and so forth.
So, what is God trying to communicate through this commandment?
Let’s take a look at the opening section of the command:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—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 nor serve them…” (Exodus 20:4, 5)
Does any of that language sound familiar? Is there an earlier story in scripture that uses many of these words? As it turns out, much of this language is recycled from the very first chapter of the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the beginning, God made (עָשָׂה, asa) the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars, the beasts of the earth, the cattle, the creeping things that creepeth, and Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:7, 16, 25, 26, 2:18). And when He made Adam and Eve, He made them in His own image, after His own likeness (Genesis 1:26). In that same chapter, we are told how God made the heavens (שָׁמַיִם, shamayim) and everything in them, the earth (אֶרֶץ, erets) and everything that grows upon it, and the waters (מַיִם, mayim) and everything that swims within them. Over and over again, God is using this commandment to remind us of that first chapter of creation.
The second commandment isn’t just a law about carving images out of stone or wood or clay. It’s about where we direct our service and worship, and how we direct that service and worship. Do we serve and worship ourselves as creators, do we serve the things we attempt to create for ourselves, or do we worship the One who formed us out of clay?
Thousands of years later, the apostle Paul calls back to this commandment in his letter to the Roman church:
“For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made… they did not glorify Him as God… changing the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things… who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator… exchanging the natural use for what is against nature.” (Romans 1:20-26)
Paul repeatedly uses this pattern of creation language to reinforce what happens to a man when he gives in to idolatry, when he trades in God for himself, when he exchanges truth for a lie. It doesn’t end with burning incense to a piece of wood. When you choose to reject the obvious reality of God in exchange for a god in your own image, your hearts become darkened and your thoughts become futile (the word for futile is used throughout the LXX in connection with idolatry). When you turn against the God who created nature, you begin to live and act against nature, denying the biological realities of the human race or the humanity of other people based upon the color of their skin. When you worship and serve the creature rather than the blessed Creator, you are given over to a debased mind, and descend into all unrighteousness.
Among the sins Paul lists that flow from idolatry are sexual immorality, covetousness, envy, murder, disobedient to parents, and untrustworthy (Romans 1:29-31). These include the second table of the Decalogue, as well as a host of other trespasses. And they all originate with idolatry, with the choice to reject YHWH and His ways and forge a way for yourself.
God created us in His image, not the other way around. We don’t get to say things like, “I know the Bible says this, but I don’t think God is really like that.” When we do that, we create a false god in our own image, exchanging what we know to be true for a convenient lie.
But if instead will reject the false god of self and worship and serve for the Creator; if we will fulfill our calling to be Image-Bearers of the Most High God as we live out our days among the beasts of the earth and the fowl of the skies and the fish of the waters; if we will exchange our own corruption for the glory of the incorruptible God, we will position ourselves to be remade into the image of the righteous God, and continue our days in His likeness.
“Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)