It was early morning and still dark as we left home and made our way through the deserted streets. Soon the glow of the city had vanished behind us and we continued boring along the tunnel of light created by our headlights. For a long time the only sound was the hum of the engine and the tyres on the road.
At last a touch of red on the horizon began to announce the approach of day and before long we saw it: a slim sliver of intense luminosity. It was the sun peeking from behind the nearby hill. Somehow, without seeming to move, it slipped farther into view until, a few minutes later, it was day.
It was our firstborn who broke the silence. Just four years old, David was constantly surprising us with his curious observations.
“Daddy,” he said, “if we come here early tomorrow morning and climb up that mountain, do you think we could reach out and touch the sun when it goes by?” And I thought: What an insight into a child’s mind! It’s not that children consider themselves large— rather, they make the world small. The vast immensities of the universe do not fit into their little minds, so they bring everything down to size.
Out there in the forest a man is working. “First I’ll dig some clay,” he says. “Then I’ll shape it just so. See, here are the eyes and nose. Now I’ll put it out in the sun for awhile, and when it’s dry I’ll paint it with all my favourite colours. You want to know what I’m making? It’s God, of course. Couldn’t you tell? No, not God Himself. It’s His portrait. This is what He looks like.” My four-year-old thought that he could reach out with his little hand and touch the sun. And the man in the forest believes that he can make an image of God. Both are making the same mistake.
King Solomon had a better concept. He built a beautiful Temple in Jerusalem. When it was finished, he organised a celebration that lasted for days. But even in the midst of all the euphoria, he did not lose sight of the true meaning of the event. He spoke to God and said, “The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple that I have built!” (2 Chronicles 6:18).
Why does the second commandment forbid us from making an idol to represent God? Because no matter how big we make it, or how much gold, diamonds or other things we use to cover it, the only thing it can do is make Him smaller. Inevitably we bring Him down to a strictly human concept of things. And that is really the heart of the problem. A poor mental image of God is the fundamental sin the second commandment tries to help us avoid.
The Father Himself loves you
In ancient times, the logical result of idolatry was polytheism, the belief that many gods exist. People invented more gods because they couldn’t imagine that one was enough, that one deity could take care of everything.
The early Christians held the idea that there was only one God, but many of them had a poor concept of who He was. They tended to think of Him as being like the deities they had once worshipped— beings who were forgetful and indifferent, not willing to help them. The converts from paganism felt they had to beg and plead constantly to overcome His apathy and convince Him to take an interest in their needs.
It would be hard to imagine a greater error. The Bible compares God with the most powerful kind of human love, declaring: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.” (Isaiah 49:15, 16).
But despite that assurance, many people still came to picture God as forgetful and reluctant, with an army of intercessors around His throne clamouring day and night for His attention to convince Him to help us. But Jesus told His followers: “I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you” (John 16:26, 27). And the apostle urged: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
Why did you doubt?
One day I was standing on the dock at Guanaja, Honduras, while a friend showed me the shrimp boats tied up to the dock there. They had their gantries raised, and the gigantic trawling nets dried in the sun. That evening they would go out again. The friend told me how many tonnes of shrimp the boats brought in every day. Alarmed, I thought: At this rate, it won’t be long before the oceans are depleted! The next morning I left, flying along the coast to Puerto Cabezas. Under the left wing of out plane we could see the blue outlines of the costal mountains, and to the right, the immensity of the sea. I tried to guess how far it was to where the horizon melted into the sky.
We continued on our way, and a few minutes later I caught a glimpse of three shrimp boats far below us, bobbing and dipping in the waves as they dragged their nets behind them. They were some of the same ones I had seen the day before, but how tiny they appeared.
And what a contrast between their size and the vastness of the ocean! Then I thought: What can such tiny boats do to exhaust all the treasure that God has stored in His pantry? How things change when we see them from a different perspective! And I wondered, What about God’s perspective? At times our problems seem to fill earth and sky. How do you think God views them? That was the lesson Peter learned one stormy night on the Sea of Galilee. The gigantic waves and winds filled him with panic, and he shouted, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30).
“Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:31).
Fear and anxiety come from a lack of faith, and they violate the second commandment, because they show that in our minds God is small. Never underestimate the power of an idol.
David wrote about idols: “Those who make them will be like them” (Psalm 115:8). The apostle Paul observed the same phenomenon in his day. He said that idolaters had exchanged “the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (Romans 1:23, 24). He continues with a list of sins that include greed, evil, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, insolence, arrogance, boasting, disobedience to parents, and being untrustworthy, unloving and unmerciful (see Romans 1:28-31).
Not a pretty picture, is it? But do you think it’s an exaggeration? Recently I went to see the impressive ruins of Monte Alban in Oaxaca. It has images of the ancient Zapotec gods in the form of feathered serpents, crouching wild animals, and dozens of human figures.
Violent expressions of anger and hatred distorted the faces of the idols.
The guide showed us an altar where the priests ripped hearts from living victims on ceremonial occasions. Then he took us to a sports field, explaining that either the winning or the losing team was always slaughtered as a sacrifice to the gods.
At noon I returned to the city and went into a local eatery. The place was vibrating to the ka-boom, ka-boom of a popular rhythm and a modern “idol” was screaming: “All day long I dream about sex. And all night long I think about sex. And all the time I think about sex with you, with you.” The songs that followed were different only in that they used even more common street terms to repeat the same message. Who can doubt that modern idols have at least as much power over the people as the ancient ones? And it is still true that those who make them become like them. In many ways the result of modern idolatry are surpassing what the apostle Paul described in his day.
Thousands of generations
The second commandment contains a serious warning about images: “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 fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5).
God says He is “jealous.” He declares that even the third and fourth generation are going to suffer because of the sins of their ancestors. Their problem comes from a superficial reading of the text. The commandment says the “sin of the fathers” is punishing them, not the revenge of God. As people become like their idols, the earth becomes filled with violence and people give their hearts over to “wickedness, evil, greed and depravity . . . envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice” (Romans 1:29). They become “slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:30, 31).
This is the consequence that reaches to “the third and fourth generation,” the fateful result that God gave the second commandment to spare us from. This is why He is “jealous.” God is jealous for our benefit. He wants the best for us.
A message of freedom
The second commandment is the perfect complement to the first. People who have made a decision to put God at the centre of their existence will not allow any created thing to occupy the place that belongs only to the Creator.
And there will be no confusion with regard to true worship, because they will turn away from anything that diminishes the importance of God in their lives.
For those to keep the first commandment and the second, obedience in the rest will be natural. If we love God— if He is on the throne of our lives—our hearts will overflow with love for other people as well.
The apostle James called the Ten Commandments “the perfect law that gives freedom” (James 1:25). The meaning of such perfection and freedom is clear. “Great peace have they who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble” (Psalm 119:165).