The 10 Commandments Series : #2 No Graven Images

by Christian Townson

This is a part of a 10 Commandments Series.
You can find Commandment #1 here.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or 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 or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Exodus 20:4-6

With the 10 Commandments, God commanded Moses to come up to Him as He spoke these words to give to the Israelites. If God kept Moses on Mount Sinai for forty days, and Moses returned with two tablets of stone with these words inscribed on them, then they must be important.

What Does It Mean?
The first commandment shows us we must worship the right God. “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). We are to have no other gods before Yahweh, the Lord of Hosts. He must be first and foremost in all things in our lives. Everything else should appear as hate in comparison (Luke 14:26).

He then moves to say in verse 4, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or 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.” This word for carved image/idol, pesel in Hebrew, is mentioned 57 times in the Old Testament. In each instance, this word is referring to a lifeless, constructed item used in worship. Created by tools, idols often looked like animals, other creatures, or creations from the craftsman’s imagination. These stood as man made representations of the divine.

Idol-worship shows up in the Bible typically to differentiate those who are worshiping God from those who are not. Consider how Paul reacted when he was left in Athens. “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols…For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:16, 23). He was unhappy with all the idols of the Greek gods throughout the city. He was so angry that when he got the chance, he shared that none of these idols were a true god, and did not represent the One True God.

However, this issue is not what the second commandment is addressing. We should not worship idols of other gods, but this pertains more to the first commandment than to the second. According to Philip Ryken, “Whereas the first commandment forbids us to worship false gods, the second commandment forbids us to worship the true God falsely” (P. Ryken).

The second commandment says we must worship the correct God in the correct manner. Mankind is not to make any carved image or idol to worship Yahweh. God directs them not to make or bow down and serve any other because He is jealous. He does not want any created thing receiving the worship He deserves, even if the attempt is to worship Him. He wants no depiction of Himself because nothing can properly present Him. God is the Creator. Even though we are made in His image (Genesis 1:26), we are not an exact representation of Him only Jesus is. He is one person in the Triune God, therefore deserving of worship (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is fully God and fully man, so when we worship Christ, we worship God.

Why Does God Command It?
If we worship a created picture of God, then He does not receive all the glory. God Himself says, “for I the LORD your God am a jealous God.” He is jealous. He wants no worship to go any direction except toward Himself. Archaeology shows that Egyptians worshiped many gods who were in the forms of animals. They represented one being while appearing as another. For the Egyptians, this was common practice. Any animal could represent any god. But for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, nothing could represent the LORD our God.

You may be asking, “Isn’t jealousy a sin? Does this mean God is sinning?” Jealousy is a sin for us because we are imperfect creatures, and jealousy is a direct command. We are not to “covet.” However, when God is jealous, it is not the same kind of jealousy we think about when we picture a person spitefully wanting a job promotion, bigger house, or exotic experience. .

God’s jealousy is a desire for the world to be proper. It is a unique and right reaction. It is His zeal and burning passion to receive what He deserves. The word for jealousy, qanna, is only used five times in the entire Bible. This type of jealousy is only characteristic of God. It is even another name for Him. “For you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). God is jealous for the worship He deserves. He created everything. He is Holy. He is the “Big C” Creator. He is God.

We do not need idols to worship Him. “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25).

God wants the right worship from His people. He is jealous for them alone. This is why the Church is compared to a Bride. No one else gets the bride the same way the groom does. If you spent time worshiping a picture or statue of your spouse, they would not get the glory they deserve. You are honoring something lesser than the real thing. If I have a choice between a photo of my wife and my physical wife in-person, I want her in-person because it is her-100%. In a similar way, God wants us 100%. We should want God 100%. He wants wholehearted, unadulterated worship.Why would we try to complicate the matter by worshiping idols or graven images of Him? God has given us Himself. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came so we could see God in the flesh and receive God in the Spirit. We worship in spirit and truth. We need no creaturely representation of Him. We know God by the revelation of His character and His actions.

What Should We Do About Icons/Pictures of God?
This commandment brings up the question of icons and pictures of God. Does this commandment disallow iconography? Many churches have statues, pictures, paintings, stained-glass windows, and symbols representing God. Are these churches sinning against the second commandment?

The answer from Scripture appears to be that unless it is an image that takes the worship of God, it is allowed. The only direct answer from Scripture is that there must be no images created to take the place of God’s worship (Exod. 20:5).

Martin Luther dealt with this issue during the Reformation. One of his contemporaries, Andreas Karlstadt, led a charge to destroy anything that represented an image of a creature in the sky, in the sea, or on the ground, after years of the Church utilizing icons in their buildings. He took this commandment to the extreme. Luther came out of hiding to preach against this sentiment. He led the charge to show that changes within the Church should come  through the work of the Word and the conviction of the Gospel, not by violent force. Luther points out many false teachings from his contemporary opponents at the time.

Luther shows that he also worked to destroy images, but it was for a different reason.  Karlstadt approached the physical only, while Luther tried to address the spiritual issues that could arise. Luther argued against his friend in his work “Against the Heavenly Prophets. “I approached the task of destroying images by first tearing them out of the heart through God’s Word and making them worthless and despised. This indeed took place before Dr. Karlstadt ever dreamed of destroying images. For when they are no longer in the heart, they can do no harm when seen with the eyes. But Dr. Karlstadt, who pays no attention to matters of the heart, has reversed the order by removing them from sight and leaving them in the heart. For he does not preach faith, nor can he preach it; unfortunately, only now do I see that. Which of these two forms of destroying images is best, I will let each man judge for himself.”

Luther clarifies what he means by “images” also to ensure that they can discern the difference. “I will first discuss images according to the Law of Moses, and then according to the gospel. And I say at the outset that according to the Law of Moses no other images are forbidden than an image of God which one worships. A crucifix, on the other hand, or any other holy image is not forbidden. Heigh now! you breakers of images, I defy you to prove the opposite! Now I say this to keep the conscience free from mischievous laws and fictitious sins, and not because I would defend images. Nor would I condemn those who have destroyed them, especially those who destroy divine and idolatrous images. But images for memorial and witness, such as crucifixes and images of saints, are to be tolerated.”

If an image is attempting to gain divine worship, it should be forbidden. If it is simply for remembering the past or witnessing the stories of Scripture, then it can be allowed. You are not sinning if you have a cross in your house. But if you are worshiping that cross, or making an altar, then you must repent and turn away from worshiping an image of God rather than God Himself.

How Do We Respond?

We must recognize we are not free to worship God however we please.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “The second commandment forbiddeth the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word.” We are not free to dictate how we worship God. He has set the standards for His way of worship. It is rooted in the Word. We can see that we must sing praises to God, read the Word of God, pray in reverence to God, and practice the sacraments of God in proper order. We cannot treat worship as a Burger King order. We cannot “have it your way.” We must worship God in God’s way.

We must recognize the warning and the promise.
The commandment ends with a warning and a promise. “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exod. 20:5-6). God warns of punishment if we worship idols and joy if we love Him and keep His commandments. This is one of the longest commandments given, and it is not by accident. If we do not worship and love God as He commands, we face the consequences. God wants to show how serious He is about this. If we do not obey God and keep His commandments, then we do not put our families on a good path. If we love God, then we experience the benefits of his steadfast love. We see this today. The measure of whether families attend church regularly is most often based on the father. While being a Christian does not guarantee your family to be saved, it does give them a much better chance than if you do not. We must see the warning and promise of obeying all God’s commands.

We must recognize the difference between idols and icons.
Christians are not on a rampage like Karlstadt was to take down every symbol, icon, or stained glass window today because we recognize the difference between idols and icons. Some people worship the images of Jesus, Mary, or other saints, and this is not proper. This is idolatry. Idols should never be allowed. However, as we see from Luther, if there are pictures and icons that help us remember our history and tell the story of Christianity, these can and should be allowed. It is good to remember what we have done. In illiterate areas, these can even work as  Gospel sharing tools. Icons can be used for good to help us learn more about the past and the Scriptures, but if they are misused as items of worship, then they must be removed.

We must have no graven image or idol before us to worship. God is jealous and deserves proper worship. We must worship God as He has commanded us. If the first commandment is about worshiping the right God, the second commandment is centered on worshiping the right God in the right way.


Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary

Exodus- Saved for God’s Glory | Philip Ryken

Christian serves as the Director of Mobilization/Missions
as he leads the For the Nations ministry for The Journey Church in Lebanon, TN. He is married to his wife Danyel. 



  • Old Testament,  The 10 Commandments