“Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:3-4)
As we considered last time, some have interpreted Verses 3 and 4 of Exodus 20 to cover only one of the Ten Commandments. The actual manufacturing of the graven image is simply seen as being an expression of the idolatry forbidden by the statement: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Yet it seems far more fitting that what we have in these two verses are really two separate commandments being given. We looked at some of the reasons before as to why I believe this and, now, I would like to take a closer look at the distinction between the two:
Commandment 1: Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me
Polytheism is definitely in view here, as is idolatry. Having spent more than 400 years in the land of Egypt, many of the Children of Israel doubtlessly had been influenced by the wosrhip of a pantheon of pagan deities prevalent in that nation. Whatever worship and reverence the Hebrews had given to these “gods” before was now prohibited. No man can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24), the Lord Jesus would later declare, and this was a law every bit as true under the Old Testament as it is in the New.
If a person is going to serve the true and living God, then he cannot serve any other “god.” The Israelites would dabble with idolatry throughout their history in the Old Testament and the Lord would repeatedly send prophets to warn them to stop violating this first of His Commandments. Elijah would reprimand his people’s infidelity to the Lord with the ultimatum: “How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21). God will not share His glory and rightful position as the One true God with any other idol, real or imagined.
There aren’t many people today bowing down before Osiris or worshiping Baal, so this particular Commandment might seem a little outdated to us. We believe ourselves to be far removed from the superstitions and mythologies of the ancients and the notion of serving an imaginary deity seems absurd. But many of us do, in fact, serve other “gods” nonetheless. Our idols just have different names. Whether it’s money, sex, drugs and alcohol, the pursuit of fame, a job, or another individual; anything that we value above God is another “god” whom we serve instead of Him. What is it that captivates our attention? What is it that we spend our time and energy in devotion to? Are we honoring the Living God in all aspects of our lives, or is there an area where we seek fulfillment and validation apart from the Lord? Our hearts belong to that which we treasure above all else; if that is not God, then we are idolators just as much as the Hebrews who worshiped Baal.
Commandment 2: Thou Shalt Not Make Any Graven Image
We move now to the physical act of expressing idolatry. Whereas the First Commandment prohibits even the inward worship of another god, the Second Commandment is concerned with the outward acts of worship. The Hebrews could violate the First Commandment without ever physically bowing down before a sculpted idol, which would directly violate the Second Commandment.
The distinction between the first two Commandments becomes even more subtle and relevant to us when we consider the phrase “any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above…” This would seem to include the Lord Himself. Not only were the Hebrews forbidden to make idols of pagan gods, but they were forbidden to make any likeness of Jehovah as well.
It is indeed possible to focus our attention toward the One true God, yet in reality be rendering our worship to something else, some other “idol” or “image” that is not God. To whom do we really submit ourselves when we seek to come to God? Many in the Roman Catholic Church pray to images of human beings, the “saints” of long ago; or else to the Virgin Mary in the hope that she will persuade the Lord to answer their petition. Many bow down before crucifixes and statuaries of Christ, or even portraits of His supposed likeness. Are not all of these things “images?”
Many of us in the Protestant churches do little better when we put our eyes on a particular pastor, leader, or even our own specific denomination; sometimes even the sanctuary where we meet can become a stand-in for the invisible God of Heaven. Are these not also “images” which we substitute for the Living God?
We may not worship pagan idols, but the danger exists for us as Christians to substitute something else in the place of God. We live our lives through the windows of our five senses and it is our inate human desire to want something visible and tangible to relate to when we think of God. Yet there is no likeness, no image which can ever do justice to all that God really is; there is nothing that can even come close to capturing His majesty. God is a Spirit, and we must worship Him in spirit and in truth.
To God goes all glory. In service to Him,