The Second Commandment: No IdolsDaily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
“You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods..."
In the past, some Christians understood the second commandment as prohibiting visual art within a worship context, especially imaginative representations of God. These were “graven images” that Christians should never make or employ. In fact, the second commandment was not outlawing all visual art, even artistic images of the divine, but rather the making of such images in order to worship them. The NLT captures the correct sense of the Hebrew original by translating, “You must not make for yourself an idol...”
Nevertheless, there is wisdom in being careful about how our images of God can limit our knowledge and experience of him. Every image, no matter how accurate or moving, has built-in limitations. For example, when I was a boy, one of my favorite images of Jesus was a painting of him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Heinrich Hoffmann’s portrayal of Jesus, which is now in the Riverside Church in New York City, moved me to understand the suffering of Jesus more truly and to love him more deeply. When I bought a wooden plaque of this painting at summer camp, it never occurred to be that this fairly tidy portrait of a non-Semitic Jesus might limit my understanding even as it enriched it.
It’s not wrong to have images of Jesus that inspire us and teach us. But we must remember that these are just images, not the real thing. At best, visual representations of God become windows through which we can peer into a reality that is so much more than the windows. This is also true, by the way, of theological formulations of God, which are limited in that they use human words and ideas to capture something that exceeds all language and thought. The second commandment reminds us not to let our human creations become idols that keep us from knowing the God whose greatness exceeds our comprehension.
“You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me. But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.”
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: Do you have any favorite images of Jesus (or God)? What do these images mean to you? What do they convey? What limitations do they have?
PRAYER: Dear Lord, I thank you for the manifold images and ideas that help me to know you. How grateful I am for artists that have captured something of your nature! And I thank you for theologians who have found words to help me understand you.
Yet, even as I am inspired and taught by images and ideas, help me not to become so enamored with these that they become idols. May I always remember that you are greater—indeed, infinitely greater—than any human formulation. May works of art and works of theology become windows that allow me to glimpse you. Yes, now I see as through a mirror, dimly. But someday I will see you face to face!
All praise be to you, O God, because you are infinitely great. All praise be to you, O God, because you make yourself known to us even in our human limitations and sinfulness. All praise be to you, O God, because you lavish your unfailing love upon us. Amen.