No Idols

Click here for more messages on The Ten Commandments.
Click here to return to the Sermons page.

Exodus 20:4-6 (Second Commandment)

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is called “The Ten Commandments for Today,” and this morning we will look at the second commandment, which has to do with idols.

Exodus 20:4-6 – 4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand [generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (NIV)

As I was preparing this morning’s message on idolatry, I couldn’t help thinking about something that happened at the 2007 Emmy Awards. Comedian Kathy Griffin came forward to accept her award and said something along these lines. “A lot of people come up here and they thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. He didn’t help me a bit . . . So all I can say is, “[Forget you] Jesus! This award is my god now!”

Now what she actually said was even worse than that. I just gave you the edited-for-church version. I find that a very blatant picture of modern idolatry – a celebrity clinging to a statue claiming it as her god. But idolatry can be a lot more subtle than that. And that’s part of what we will be talking about this morning.

The first two commandments are closely related. “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol … You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (Exodus 20:3-5) They are similar, but there is an important difference. Puritan preacher and writer Thomas Watson puts it this way. The first commandment forbids worshiping a false god. The second commandment forbids worshiping the true God in a false manner. The first commandment has to do with whom you will worship. The second commandment has to do with how you worship. The first commandment already prohibited worshiping the false gods and idols of other nations. The second commandment prohibits the use of idols in worshiping the one true God.

Aaron broke the second commandment when he presented the golden calf to the people and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt,” and then built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.” (Exodus 32:4-5) Moses later instructed the people, “You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-16)

The first commandment prohibits worshiping a false god or the idol of a false god. The second commandment prohibits making or worshiping an image of the true God.

So, let’s take a closer look at this commandment and see exactly, what does it mean for us today?

I. What does the second commandment prohibit?

    A. You shall not make idols (verse 4)

There are two things specifically prohibited in the commandment. The first is found in verse 4 – “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” So the first prohibition is that you shall not make idols. An idol was a material object used to represent God for the purposes of worship. The second commandment makes it clear that it is wrong to make an image of anything for worship. In fact, the whole universe of potential objects is covered by verse four.

First of all, you shall not make for yourself an idol “in the form of anything in heaven above.” The word “heaven” has several layers of meaning in the Scriptures. Sometimes it refers to the heavenly or spiritual realm. This would preclude making images of angels or demons or imaginary gods for the purpose of worship. The apostle John writes in Revelation 22: “I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing [these things] to me. But he said to me, ‘Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and of all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!’” (Revelation 22:8-9)

“Heaven above” can also refer to the heavenly bodies, and so would prohibit someone from making an idol in the form of the sun or the moon or the stars. It could also refer to the sky, which would prohibit making an idol in the form of any of the creatures of the air, such as birds or flying insects. “On the earth beneath” would prohibit making idols in the form of land animals, such as cows or elephants or even man. And “in the waters below” would prohibit making idols in the form of animals that live in the water, such as fish, or crocodiles or sea animals. In other words, you shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything, anything at all in either the material or spiritual realms.

What is wrong with making an image of God for worship? It has to do with making up our own thoughts about God. Idolatry starts in the mind. As J. I. Packer puts it, “Metal images are the consequence of mental images.”

The word “image” is related to the word “imagination.” How can we possibly imagine God adequately? We cannot. When we make an idol to represent God, we seek to bring God down to our level. Remember, sin was introduced into our world with the temptation, “You will be like God.” God created man in his image. When we make an idol, we attempt to create God in our image or according to our own ideas.

Idolatry is wrong, therefore, because it gives a distorted image of God. We must worship God as he has revealed himself to us in his word, and not according to our own imagination. Whenever we say the words, “This is how I like to think of God . . .” we should realize that we are treading on dangerous ground. It does not really matter how you or I “like” to think of God. What matters is who God has revealed himself to be. The second commandment forbids you from thinking that God is like you or something that you imagine.

    B. You shall not worship idols (verse 5)

And so the first thing prohibited by this commandment is the making of idols, either out of materials or in your mind. The second prohibition is found in the beginning of verse 5: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”

This means, “Do not worship your own image of God, and do not worship anyone else’s image of God.” Thomas Watson in his book on the Ten Commandments gives three good reasons why you should not worship an image of God.

First of all it is impossible, in that you cannot represent God accurately by an image. In Isaiah 40:25 God says: “‘To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal’ says the Holy One.” Think of an artist who is hired to paint a portrait for the king. He would probably be very nervous. What if he didn’t do a good job? Well, it is impossible for us to capture God with an image.

Secondly, it is absurd or irrational to worship an image of God. Listen to Isaiah’s description of a man making and worshiping an idol in Isaiah 44: “The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in the form of man, of man in all his glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak . . . Some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.’ From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, ‘Save me; you are my god.’” (Isaiah 44:13-17)

What is Isaiah’s evaluation of those who act so irrationally? “They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, ‘Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?’” (Isaiah 44:18-20)

You say, “That’s crazy! No one in their right mind would do anything like that today!” Need I remind you of Kathy Griffin holding her Emmy award in her right hand proudly proclaiming to a national TV audience, “This is my god!”?

And then thirdly, it is unlawful for you to worship an image of God. I was teaching the Ten Commandments to a junior high class once, and I was bewildered by what the curriculum told me to do. The curriculum said, “Set up a lamp and an idol on a table in another room. Turn out the lights except for the lamp illuminating the idol on the table. Now, take your students into the room one at a time and ask them to bow before the idol. Then discuss how they felt about it afterwards.” I remember reading that and going, “What????!!! Teach the second commandment by inviting the kids to break it first?” I threw the curriculum out. I was afraid of what it might recommend when we got to the commandments against murder and adultery! It is unlawful to worship an image of God. It breaks the second commandment.

Someone might ask the question, “What about religious artwork? Is it wrong to have crosses or pictures of Jesus? I believe the key parts of the commandment here are the word “idols” and the phrase “you shall not bow down and worship them.” There is nothing wrong with religious symbols or artwork just by themselves. Just look at tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament. They were full of religious artwork by God’s command. The problem takes place when the symbol becomes the substitute. Idolatry is a common sin in paganism, because people find it difficult to worship a God they cannot see.

Human nature is prone to this mistake of substituting the symbol for God. For example, God commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent in the wilderness. (Numbers 21:6-9) There was nothing wrong with the bronze serpent itself, but later on the people of Israel began to worship it as an idol. (2 Kings 18:4) God had intended it as a reminder of God’s power over the serpents and as a pre-figuring of Christ on the cross. The people corrupted it into an idol. And, unfortunately, the same thing has happened with crosses and crucifixes throughout Christian history. When people bow down and pray to a crucifix, or an image of Mary, or a statue of a saint, they are breaking the second commandment which forbids using an object for worship.

What about pictures of Jesus? Does the second commandment forbid making pictures of Jesus? Are pictures of Jesus an image of God? Jesus is God’s son, and Jesus is God. And yet Jesus is also God who came in the flesh. Jesus had a body with arms and legs and a face and hair. So I think it is okay to show that through a picture. The danger comes if a person begins to use that picture for worship or to somehow identify the real Jesus with an artist’s rendering.

II. Why should I obey the second commandment?

So we have learned what the second commandment prohibits. It prohibits the making or worshiping of idols, that is, images that we make of God. Next, God gives us three reasons why we should not make or worship idols

    A. God is a jealous God (verse 5)

First of all, God is a jealous God. Verse 5: “For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.” As we saw from the first commandment, God demands total loyalty from his people. Unfortunately, the people of Israel provoked God to jealousy again and again by their idolatry. We read in Deuteronomy 32: “They made him jealous with their foreign gods and angered him with their detestable idols. They sacrificed to demons, which are not God — gods they had not known, gods that recently appeared, gods your fathers did not fear.” (Deuteronomy 32:16-17) Almost the entire history of Israel in the Old Testament is a history of their struggle between worshiping God properly and worshiping God by means of idols.

You might wonder, “Isn’t jealousy wrong? What does it mean that God is a jealous God?” Jealousy can be wrong, but not always. God has a holy jealousy, a zeal for what is right. He demands the center throne. God doesn’t try to hide his jealousy as if it were wrong. The Bible even says that God’s name is Jealous. “Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” (Exodus 34:14)

Idolatry is compared in the Bible to spiritual adultery. Ezekiel 23:37 says, “They have committed adultery with their idols.” So yes, God is jealous, but it is the righteous jealousy of a husband for his spouse. A good husband will not stand idly by and let his wife be unfaithful to him. Her love belongs to him alone. In the same way, God says in Isaiah 42:8: “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” God will not look the other way when we worship an image of God rather than God himself.

Adrian Rogers gives the following great illustration of why it is wrong to worship an image of God:

Suppose a woman walks into a room and finds her husband embracing another woman. He sees his wife out of the corner of his eye and says, “Now wait a minute, honey. Don’t get the wrong idea here. Let me tell you what I was doing. This woman is so beautiful, she reminded me of you. I was really just thinking of you when I was embracing her.”

There’s not a woman in America who would buy that, including my wife, Joyce! And God doesn’t buy it either when we worship something else and say, “Now, Lord, wait a minute. Don’t get the wrong idea here. I was only worshiping this thing because it reminds me of You. I’m really worshiping You.”

No, you really aren’t. That’s what the Second Commandment is all about.

(Adrian Rogers, “Ten Secrets For a Successful Family”, pp.44-45)

    B. God punishes the children for the sin of the fathers (verse 5)

A second reason God gives us for not making or worshiping idols is the reality of God’s punishment. Idolatry is the most punished sin in the whole Bible. But the punishment is not only for us but extends to our children. Look at verse 5 again: “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” Notice that those who worship God falsely are described as “those who hate me.” Verse 5 is a strong warning to get our worship of God right. The influence of false worship and idolatry is passed down from generation to generation. Just look at how entire nations are captive to the false religion of Islam even today. Allah is a false image of God.

God appeals here to your love for your family. Please understand that your personal walk with the Lord affects your family for good or for ill. A.W. Pink said, “It is a terrible thing to pass on to our children a false conception of God, either by precept or example.” How many parents pass on their own scattered impressions of God from generation to generation instead of the truth of God’s word? Parents, you have a sacred obligation to teach your children accurately about God as He has revealed himself. You must read and study the Bible yourself, if you are to pass on true knowledge of God to your children.

When God talks about punishing the children for the sin of the fathers, he is not talking about children inheriting the guilt of their parents’ sin but the consequences of their sin. This is such an important distinction that we are going to devote all of next week’s message to this section of verse 5 on the sins of the fathers, and what the Bible says about generational sin.

    C. God shows love to a thousand generations (verse 6)

Back to our three reasons for keeping the second commandment.

1) God is a jealous God.
2) God punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generations, and
3) God shows love to a thousand generations.

That’s what we find in verse 6: “but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” God’s punishment for those who hate him may stretch three or four generations, but his love for those who follow him extends to thousands of generations.

God has revealed himself as a God who delights in showing mercy. Micah 7:18 says, “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” God is slow to anger, but always ready to forgive. God’s mercy is far greater than your sin.

Notice this promise is given to those who love and keep God’s commandments. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:15) True love for God always results in obedience to God. Of course we can never offer God perfect obedience. That’s why Christ died for our sins. But God looks at your heart. Do you long to obey him? Do you seek to obey him? Do you confess your disobedience as sin?

If so, then this promise is for you. Proverbs 20:7 says, “The righteous man leads a blameless life; blessed are his children after him.” A. W. Pink asks the question, “Are you storing up wrath for your children, or prayers?” There is a quote from O. Hallesby that Rose and I have kept on our dresser mirror for years that goes like this:

“See to it, night and day, that you pray for your children. Then you will leave them a great legacy of answers to prayer, which will follow them all the days of their life. Then you may calmly and with a good conscience depart from them, even though you may not leave them a great deal of material wealth.” (O. Hallesby)

Are you storing up punishment for your children’s future, or are you storing up blessing by your prayers for them and by your own walk with God?

III. What are some modern examples of idolatry today?

We have looked at the meaning of the second commandment. We have seen three reasons why we should keep the second commandment. Now I would like to close by looking at some modern examples of idolatry today.

The first would be false images of God that we carry around in our minds. As we said earlier, false images of God do not have to be stone carvings. Some people allow the image of their earthly father to interfere with the worship of their Heavenly Father. They have allowed an image to take the place of the real thing. How about when we think of God as the old man upstairs? Or the kindly old grandfather? the celestial Santa Claus in the sky? the mean, old grump spoiling all our fun? J. B. Phillips in his classic book, “Your God is Too Small,” names all sorts of false images people have of God. The Resident Policeman, the Parental Hangover, the Grand Old Man, the Managing Director are some of the names he comes up with.

None of these are true images of God. They are false images or idols that seek to contain God within the limits of our own imagination. King Solomon prayed in 1 Kings 8:27: “Will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” Can anything contain God? The idolater thinks so. He says, whether consciously or unconsciously, “I will place God in a box. I will keep him here on my shelf. I will make him so that I am comfortable with him.” Some people want to limit God to church. They are comfortable worshiping on Sundays, but they don’t want God to interfere with the rest of the week. They view God as a religious artifact for Sundays rather than the Lord of the universe and all of life.

False images of God are one big way that people break the second commandment today. Stuart Briscoe comments, “All our idolatry attempts to whittle God down, suit him to our way of doing things, fit him in a ‘comfortable’ pattern that does not harm our own ideas or challenge our way of thinking. By the time we have finished, we have denied God his power, muddied or defaced his image, and left ourselves with pitiful, empty lives that benefit neither him nor us.”

The Bible tells us that greed and covetousness is another form of idolatry. Colossians 3:5: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” You might wonder why greed is considered idolatry. Remember, idolatry is really worshiping things instead of God. How accurate is that of society today? Jesus said, “A man’s life is not measured by the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15) And yet people continue to measure their life according to things, rather than according to their relationship with God.

Sexuality impurity is another form of idolatry. Romans 1 says that sexual impurity is a form of worshiping “created things rather than the Creator.” It is an example of exchanging “the truth of God for a lie.” (Romans 1:25) Romans 1:30 goes on to identify all those who choose not to retain the knowledge of God as “God-haters.” This goes back to Exodus 20:5 where God describes those who break the second commandment as “those who hate me.” Homosexuality is a specific form of sexual impurity that is identified as idolatry in Romans 1. Think about it. God made man in his own image; male and female he created them. Therefore, homosexuality defaces God’s image in man. It is idolatry because it substitutes another image for God.

Superstition is another form of idolatry. Whenever we put our confidence in a charm or bracelet or in some relic or ritual instead of in God, we are also substituting an image for the reality. The Bible relates superstition to idolatry. “They are full of superstitions from the East … their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made.” (Isaiah 2:6-8)

IV. Positive Corollary

We said in our introduction to the Ten Commandments that each of the negative commandments has a positive corollary. What is the positive corollary to the second commandment? I believe we find it in Jesus’ words in John 4:24: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” An idol is neither spirit nor a true representation of God. It is wrong on both accounts. We must worship God in spirit and in truth.

That means:

We must worship God for who he is and according to his attributes. We worship him for his holiness, his love, his mercy, his grace and his power.

We must worship God according to his commands. This would include prayer, thanksgiving and fasting; singing hymns and praises; reading, preaching, and hearing God’s Word; observing baptism and the Lord’s Supper; giving to the Lord; practicing appropriate church government and discipline; and whatever else God has commanded us in the worship of his holy name.

And finally we must worship God through Jesus. If you want a true image of God, read the gospels and learn about God from who Jesus is. Colossians 1:15 says of Christ, “He is the image of the invisible God.” Hebrew 1:3 says, “[He] is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) When you break the second commandment, you demean Christ who is the true image of God. If we are to worship God in spirit and in truth, we must worship God through Jesus his Son.

The second commandment leaves you with this pressing challenge: are you worshiping the true God of the universe, or are you worshiping your own image of God? There is an infinite difference between the two, and the consequences are just as great.

© Ray Fowler

You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this message provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and that you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For any web postings, please link to the sermon directly at this website.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copies:
By Ray Fowler. © Ray Fowler. Website:

Click here for more messages on The Ten Commandments.
Click here to return to the Sermons page.