“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” (Exodus 20:4). Whereas the first commandment was a prohibition against worshiping anyone other than God, this commandment focuses more on how one is to worship God. It deals with the habit in fallen man of seeking to make God into an image he can cope with and feel some control over.
The original sin of Adam was to want to be God and rule his own life. Ever since that fall, we have sought to rid ourselves of God’s authority. Our most subtle technique for doing so is refashioning our image of God. By viewing God as someone who is more like a human we can now think of ways to manipulate Him. This soon devolves into magical thinking, believing that if we can figure out the characteristic of this God and make an image like that characteristic, we have somehow captured God in the image. Having an idol of one’s god is therefore having a way to control Him. That tangible object becomes for us a sacred relic which binds us to our god and our god to us.
This is why Protestants have always been suspicious of relics and statues and icons used by Catholic and Orthodox Christians. Though they can be told over and over that such things have no special power, it is most easy for us to begin to invest them with special power.
“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” (20:5). God is a jealous husband. His wife, His people, cannot “hate” Him and not suffer consequences. God will see to it that the natural consequences of parents building false values into their children’s lives will continue to the fourth generation. This is not to say that He may not sovereignly save individuals from among those generations, but there is no promise that He will. When men reject the true image of God as sovereign in their lives, He exercises His sovereignty in judgment.
“…but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (20:6). This is the promise to those who obey the second commandment. God will bless their generations with the grace to come to the knowledge of the true God. No amount of godly training alone can bring a person to Christ. Only God can turn hearts toward Himself. No idol of man’s making, no God fashioned in man’s image has such sovereign control.
Even if we don’t worship a fashioned likeness of God, we may still be operating with a purposely distorted image of Him. The Pharisees fashioned a God of rigid standards (true to an extent) that they believed they could keep and therefore expected certain rewards from Him. What false images of God have you constructed?