Understanding The Second Commandment

The second commandment is very misunderstood. I’ve seen the second commandment used to condemn Christians who own crucifixes, or statues of St. Michael, or some statue of Jesus. Some Christians won’t have any religious ornaments at all. And some non-Christians have charged that God commanding the Israelites to have statues of Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18) contradicts the second commandment, so therefore we have a contradiction in scripture and The Bible is not inerrant. 

The second commandment is “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.” – Exodus 20:4

People argue that because God said “don’t make any graven images in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” that statues of Jesus and crucifixes are sinful to make and/or own. After all, those are graven images, aren’t they? And they’re in the form of something in heaven above; i.e Jesus Christ the Son of God, right? A statue of St. Michael is likewise a graven image of something in Heaven above, right? So case closed, these things are sinful in the eyes of The Lord!

Hold the phone! Don’t shut the case just yet! The second commandment should be interpreted in light of the first. God told us that we are not to make any graven images. Why? Does God hate statues? Are statues intrinsically evil? No. It's because idolatry back in ancient times almost always involved a graven image of some sort. People would carve a statue from wood (or in the case of the Israelite's first case of Idolatry, gold) and morph it into the shape of a person or animal. They would then bow down to it, and offer sacrifices to it. This is what God finds abominable. This is what are to avoid.

 Interpreting Exodus 20:4 in isolation from the first commandment would result in all kinds of pictures being sinful. Even photographs would be sinful. I mean, just look at how the second commandment is worded

“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.”

By this logic, the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial is a blasphemous image. After all, that statue of Lincoln is “an image in the form of something on the earth below”. Any statue of Washington is a sinful image, since its an image of something “on the earth below”. Even photographs would be sinful according to this logic since all photographs are “images of something on the earth below”, or they’re images of something “in the water below” if they’re photographs of sea creatures, so even pictures of fish are evil in God’s sight apparently.

Am I arguing against God? Not at all. I agree wholeheartedly with the second commandment as I do all of God’s laws. I’m just saying that this interpretation of what God said has bizarre implications. The reason these bizarre implications follow is because these people are misinterpreting what God said. Why are they misinterpreting what God said? Because they’re taking what He said out of context. Let’s look at the entire context of the second commandment, shall we?

“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. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Exodus 20:4-6 (emphasis mine)

As the Christian rapper Flame put it in his song “Context”, “The words of God will change your life if you keep the text in its context.” Context matters. After saying “Don’t make graven images, any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;” he immediately says “don’t bow to them”. The context indicates that Yahweh's concern was not statues, but idolatry.

God knew in advance that idolatry would be a severe and recurring problem, which is why He essentially gave the same commandment twice in a row. God essentially said “Here are my rules. Number 1: Don’t worship other Gods. Number 2: I mean it! Don’t make statues and worship them!” Just as people sometimes repeat themselves for emphasis, so God repeated Himself for emphasis. The first and second commandments go hand in hand. God is clear that we are not worship anything or anyone besides him. To worship a man made object instead of the Creator of all is a sin and an abomination in God’s sight.

A statue of anything is ok as long as you don’t worship it as an idol. I have a statue of Jesus that sits on my desk that I received at Easter back in 2010. But I don’t worship the Jesus statue. It’s just a decoration. The Jesus I worship is the divine Logos who took on flesh (John 1:14) and died on the cross to pay for my sins (John 3:16, Romans 5:8, 1 Corinthians 15:3), and rose from the dead 3 days later (Matthew 28, 1 Corinthians 15). That’s the Jesus I worship.


  1. If making images of any heavenly object is wrong, then why did God command Moses to make some on the ark of the covenant?

    The prohibition against making graven images was distinctly set in the context of worshiping idols. There are, then, several reasons why making the cherubim does not conflict with this command not to bow down to graven images.

    First, there was no chance that the people of Israel would fall down before the cherubim in the most holy place (1 Kings 8:6-9), since they were forbidden to go in the holy place at any time. Even the high priest went only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16).

    Further, the prohibition is not against making any carved image for decorative purposes, but of those used in religious worship. In other words, they were not to worship any other God or any image of any god. These cherubim were not given to Israel as images of God; they were angels. Nor were they given to be worshiped. Hence, there is no way in which the command to make them violated the commandment in Exodus 20.

    Finally, the prohibition in Exodus 20 is not against religious art as such, which includes things in heaven (angels) and on earth (humans or animals). Rather, it was against using any image as an idol. That idolatry envisioned is evident from the fact they were instructed not to “bow down to them nor serve them” (Ex. 20:5). The distinction between non-religious use of images and a religious use is important:


    Even language about God in the Bible contains images. God is both a shepherd and a father. But each of these is appropriately qualified. God is not just any father. He is our Heavenly Father. Likewise, Jesus is not just any shepherd, but the Good Shepherd who gave His life for His sheep (John 10:11). No finite image can be appropriately applied to the infinite God without qualification. To do so is idolatry. And idols are idols whether they are mental or metal.

  2. In Numbers 21:4-9, Moses makes a bronze serpent on a stick to heal the Hebrews' snake bites, as per God's instructions. They don't worship it, but they are to look at it in order to live. Isn't this sort of like an idol, or a graven image?

    The bronze snake on the pole was something God instructed the Israelites to make in order to represent the serpents who were sent by Him to inflict Israel with death. Putting a snake on the pole was representative of killing it. That is why Jesus used this as a picture of his own sacrifice in John 3:14,15: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

    The lifted up snake died so the Israelites would not have to. If they put their trust in that they would be healed. The lifted up Jesus died so we would not have to. If we put our trust in Him (look to Him) we will be forgiven.

    Over time, the serpent came to be worshipped and given offerings to. So King Hezekiah destroyed the serpent.

    In 2 Kings 18:4 " He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)

    This strongly seems to suggest the bronze serpent was only to be looked upon, not worshipped. It seems that what Moses made was good in what was intended by God, but later on the Israelites worshipped it like an idol and was therefore destroyed by King Hezekiah.


Post a Comment