The Second Commandment: Jealousy and Mercy to Thousands

In our last blog, we covered the first twenty words of the 43-word commandment against idolatry. As previously discussed, God spent those twenty words recalling the creation of the heavens and the earth and all that are within them in His command against idolatry, reminding us that God—not man—is the Creator, and we are to live in His image and likeness rather than attempt to redefine Him in ours.

After teaching us not to worship or serve false gods, He spends the remainder of His words describing His own nature:

I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations to those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:5, 6)

The language in this commandment only appear a few times throughout the Bible:

  • The LORD, merciful and gracious, longsuffering…keeping mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:7)
  • “…The LORD is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.” (Numbers 14:18)

So, what is going on in these two parallel passages, and how can they shed light upon our understanding of the second commandment?

The first passage (Exodus 34) takes place during the giving of the second set Commandment Tablets. Why was a second pair of tablets necessary? Because Moses broke the first set. And why did he break them? Out of anger over the forging of the golden calf. You know, a golden idol. That the Israelites were worshiping. At the exact time God was writing the commandment that His people must not worship idols.

It’s incredible that the Israelites were violating this commandment at the exact moment that God was giving this commandment. And yet God—who knew full well what His people were doing—reinforced His goodness and forgiveness in that commandment, almost as if to show them His mercy to their shortcomings. And then, as He re-gave this commandment, He repeated this passage about his mercy to those who will repent, return, and love.

(It’s worth noting that the golden calf was mainly a violation of the second commandment—idolatry—but not technically a violation of the first commandment—polygamy. At least, Aaron didn’t see it that way. As Aaron formed the false idol, he declared that it was YHWH, the god who delivered them from Egypt. Of course he was wrong and of course this was blasphemy and idolatry, but at its core, it was Aaron’s attempt to worship YHWH in the opposite way that YHWH had commanded. It’s no different than “tithing” to yourself instead of the local church or forsaking the assembling of the saints to “worship” God in your own way.)

So the first parallel story—the golden calf—makes a lot of sense. That calf was a violation of the second commandment that occurred while the second commandment was being written. But what about that second story? What was happening in Numbers 14?

In Numbers 14, the twelve spies have just returned from Canaan. As you’ll recall, the Israelites are 11 days from taking their Promised Land, and they send in twelve spies (one from every tribe) to search out the area and come back with intel.

They return with tales confirming that this land is all that God promised—a bountiful and luscious land flowing with milk and honey. But ten of the spies tell the people that it’ll be impossible for them to take it. The people are too tall and too strong and too numerous, and the Israelites have no hope of victory. Only two spies—Caleb the Judahite and Joshua the Ephraimite—encourage the people to obey God, reminding them that they “are well able to overcome” because “the LORD is with us.”

And what did the people do?

And all the congregation said to stone them with stones.” (Numbers 14:10)

So… the people sided with the evil report of the ten spies. What does that have to do with idolatry?

It may not seem obvious, but the actions of the children of Israel are no different than the actions of an idol-worshiper. At its core, idolatry is about rejecting what God has said in lieu of doing things your own way. It’s about exchanging the glory of God for the image of a false, man-made god. It’s about choosing the lie rather than the truth of God’s Word.

And that’s exactly what the children of Israel did. They thought they knew better than God. Sure, YHWH had said they would take the Promised Land. But He must not have known how tall and strong the Canaanites were. Or worse, God did know, and this whole “Promised Land” thing was simply a ploy to wipe them all out. Things were way better in the oppressive land of Egypt.

Today, you may not be tempted to whittle a bear out of basswood and worship it. But you’re probably tempted to trust in the work of your hands rather than the God who richly gives all things to enjoy. You may not bow the knee to Ba’al, but if the stock market starts to sway you might rethink how much you give in your tithe or how many hours you work on the Lord’s Day.

At the end of the day, we all have a choice to make: Will we live according to the Word and do things God’s way, or are there some areas of life (from loving our enemies to disciplining our children) where God’s Word is wrong?

Choose this day whom you will serve.

The Second Commandment: Images and Likenesses (TEN COMMANDMENTS)

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.

But why?

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)

The First Commandment (TEN COMMANDMENTS)

If a man brings accusation against another man, charging him with murder, but cannot prove it, the accuser shall be put to death.”

This is the first commandment… of the Code of Hammurabi. Other “first commandments” are similar: Sharia Law and the Laws of Eshnunna start by prohibiting theft; The Code of the Nesilim and the Code of Ur-Nammu begin with laws against murder; The Code of the Assura begins by outlawing women from “uttering vulgarity” and the Buddhist Edicts of Ashoka start by protecting animal life.

But the Bible’s Ten Commandments begin in a very different way. Before prohibitions on murder and theft and adultery, God tells us:

You shall have no other gods before Me.

Why does God place this commandment before all of the others? Why is this viewed as more foundational than the other laws? Surely murder is a more offensive crime than polytheism.

The reason this law comes first is that, without establishing this fundamental truth, none of the other laws are binding. Sure, YHWH says that you shall not murder. But Moloch is pleased with human sacrifice, so slaughtering your neighbor won’t be a huge deal if you choose to go with him instead. Jesus condemned sexual immorality. But Ba’al will be glorified when you participate in orgies in the temple, so go ahead and live it up.

If we accept a pantheon of gods and goddesses, there is always another authority who will permit whatever sinful behavior you want to partake in. Even today, when modern Americans aren’t tempted to make sacrifices to pagan statues, we still have a variety of “truths” that we can pick. How often is improper behavior tolerated and celebrated because “he/she/xe/they are just living its truth”? So long as we deny the existence of objective truth—and the existence of one objective Truth-Giver—the remaining nine commandments (and any other biblical, national, or moral law) are optional, subject to our whims.

But if we clear out the pantheon and make room only for one God—for the True God—we now have no other choice but to live for Him and obey His just laws. I can’t choose to go with Ashtoreth or Allah or Oprah or popular opinion instead. Those false gods have been banished, and only YHWH remains.

And if YHWH remains as the only God, then you have a responsibility to follow Him in all areas of your life. So often we adopt this attitude of “putting God first.” But if God is first, that implies that something other than God is second, third, fourth, or fifth. God might come first and be worshipped on Sundays, but career comes second and is worshipped come Monday.

What ends up happening is we create a “God” box and put it out in front, but then have a separate “Family” box and a separate “Work” box and a separate “Me” box, all partitioned away from that first box. God gets first priority on Sunday morning and Wednesday nights, but we keep Him in His box during staff meetings or when we’re out with friends.

But the truth of the First Commandment is that God doesn’t want to be first in our lives; He wants to be only. Every other box—work, friends, family, whatever else—needs to fit into that God box. We pursue our career through the lens of God’s Word. We raise our children to know God. We treat our spouse the way God has commanded us. Every part of our lives is governed by what God has spoken. No other god—Ba’al or Buddha or self—has control over any area of life.

During Jesus’ ministry, He was asked what the first commandment was (Mark 12:28). His answer?

“Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:29-30)

He was quoting the Shema (Deuteronomy 6), but implicitly commenting on the nature of the First Commandment, the commandment against all forms of polygamy. The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You don’t get a pantheon of preferential deities. There’s only one LORD allowed in your life. And you shall love the LORD with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Every part of you, every fiber of your being, belongs to the One God. Don’t hold anything back from Him.

This is the first commandment.