The Ten Commandments: The Second

There’s something of a progression when one moves from the first commandment  – “You shall have no other gods before me” – to the second commandment forbidding the making and worship of idols. It’s a move delineating how the one true God is to be worshipped. And it tells us something about God. Namely, that the Creator God is a spirit, invisible, infinite, and holy. In other words, there’s an unholy absurdity in making a finite representation of an infinite and immense God.

The full commandment, promises and all, reads thus:

“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.”

For a fuller exposition of the commandment as a whole you could do no better than reading The Westminster Larger Catechism (questions 107-110), Thomas Watson’s The Ten Commandments, and Wilhelmus à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service, volume 3 – in that order. Go. Read. Grow.

It could be argued, as we’re reading the ten commandments from the top down, that there’s a little bit of the second commandment that drips down and finds itself in every other commandment. That is, there’s an idolatry problem usually at the heart of every other sin. To be sure, I’m sympathetic to an earlier article written by another Alliance contributor who makes the point that idolatry as such is its own unique sin; bowing down to carved images is not the same thing as committing adultery.[1]  He’s pushing back on what seems to be a modern trend of identifying idolatry as the core issue behind all our sin. I think there’s something to that. And yet, as the puritan Thomas Watson notes, “the Jews have a saying, that in every evil that befalls them, there is an ounce of the golden calf in it.”

Indeed, it should be noted that in the Bible idolatry is consistently linked with both sexual immorality and greed.[2] Sexual immorality because idol worship usually involved participating in ritual orgies or fornication with the temple prostitutes. As the saying goes, sex sells, and the demons behind any given idol know this (1 cor. 10:18-22). There’s no shortage of jarring passages where God, in calling out his people’s idolatry, speaks of them as sexually impure, whores and adulterers.

“You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited…”(Ex. 34:13-15).

Again, just as startling is the connection to greed. Consider Ephesians 5:5 – “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” The reason seems to be that a desire for money is really a desire for control, power, ability, security, safety, and comfort. A man who serves money in his covetousness, makes money his God, and so greed is idolatry.

What this means then is that idolatry can’t just be confined to bowing down to (serving and worshipping) carved and painted images. That is idolatry, to be sure. And that kind of idolatry is more pervasive than many think – even here in the west and even in the church. But it is striking to me that as the west becomes more and more greedy and at the same time more and more sexually devious, the worship of God as he has regulated it in his word is devalued and imagery - be it the image a pastor sets up for himself, or the ambiance and hipness of a church – image is exulted, even coveted.

In Deuteronomy 4:12-18 God makes a clear distinction between word and form, between worshipping Him according to his revealed word and not worshipping him according to what we can see in an image or see around us. As Jesus will later say, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  When we begin to devalue the sufficiency of God’s word (which is truth) it’s only inevitable that we return to worshipping what we can see. 

As the Larger Catechism reminds us, “The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself…”  Perhaps we today would do well to listen to Christ’s instruction to the church in Pergamum. “I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality… Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] Carlton Wynne, Is Idolatry the New Sin? Blog-post at Reformation 21, November 2009

[2] See Brian S. Rosner, The Concept of Idolatry, published in Themelios 24.3 (May 1999): 21-30




Stephen Unthank