Exodus 20:4
You shall not make to you 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.
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(4) Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.—The two main clauses of the second commandment are to be read together, so as to form one sentence: “Thou shalt not make to thee any graven image, &c., so as to worship it.” (See the explanation of Josephus, Ant. Jud., iii. 5, § 5: ‘Ο δεύτερος λóγος κελεύει μηδένος εἰκόνα ζώον ποιήσαντας προσκυνεῖν.) It was not until the days of Hebrew decline and degeneracy that a narrow literalism pressed the words into an absolute prohibition of the arts of painting and sculpture (Philo, De Oraculis, § 29). Moses himself sanctioned the cherubic forms above the mercy-seat, the brazen serpent, and the lilies and pomegranates of the golden candlestick. Solomon had lions on the steps of his throne, oxen under his “molten sea,” and palm-trees, flowers, and cherubim on the walls of the Temple, “within and without” (1Kings 6:29). What the second commandment forbade was the worship of God under a material form. It asserted the spirituality of Jehovah. While in the rest of the ancient world there was scarcely a single nation or tribe which did not “make to itself” images of the gods, and regard the images themselves with superstitious veneration, in Judaism alone was this seductive practice disallowed. God would have no likeness made of Him, no representation that might cloud the conception of His entire separation from matter, His purely spiritual essence.

In heaven above . . . in the earth beneath . . . in the water under the earth.—Comp. Genesis 1:1-7. The triple division is regarded as embracing the whole material universe. In the Egyptian idolatry images of all three kinds were included.

20:3-11 The first four of the ten commandments, commonly called the FIRST table, tell our duty to God. It was fit that those should be put first, because man had a Maker to love, before he had a neighbour to love. It cannot be expected that he should be true to his brother, who is false to his God. The first commandment concerns the object of worship, JEHOVAH, and him only. The worship of creatures is here forbidden. Whatever comes short of perfect love, gratitude, reverence, or worship, breaks this commandment. Whatsoever ye do, do all the glory of God. The second commandment refers to the worship we are to render to the Lord our God. It is forbidden to make any image or picture of the Deity, in any form, or for any purpose; or to worship any creature, image, or picture. But the spiritual import of this command extends much further. All kinds of superstition are here forbidden, and the using of mere human inventions in the worship of God. The third commandment concerns the manner of worship, that it be with all possible reverence and seriousness. All false oaths are forbidden. All light appealing to God, all profane cursing, is a horrid breach of this command. It matters not whether the word of God, or sacred things, all such-like things break this commandment, and there is no profit, honour, or pleasure in them. The Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. The form of the fourth commandment, Remember, shows that it was not now first given, but was known by the people before. One day in seven is to be kept holy. Six days are allotted to worldly business, but not so as to neglect the service of God, and the care of our souls. On those days we must do all our work, and leave none to be done on the sabbath day. Christ allowed works of necessity, charity, and piety; for the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath, Mr 2:27; but all works of luxury, vanity, or self-indulgence in any form, are forbidden. Trading, paying wages, settling accounts, writing letters of business, worldly studies, trifling visits, journeys, or light conversation, are not keeping this day holy to the Lord. Sloth and indolence may be a carnal, but not a holy rest. The sabbath of the Lord should be a day of rest from worldly labour, and a rest in the service of God. The advantages from the due keeping of this holy day, were it only to the health and happiness of mankind, with the time it affords for taking care of the soul, show the excellency of this commandment. The day is blessed; men are blessed by it, and in it. The blessing and direction to keep holy are not limited to the seventh day, but are spoken of the sabbath day.Graven image - Any sort of image is here intended.

As the first commandment forbids the worship of any false god, seen or unseen, it is here forbidden to worship an image of any sort, whether the figure of a false deity Joshua 23:7 or one in any way symbolic of Yahweh (see Exodus 32:4). The spiritual acts of worship were symbolized in the furniture and ritual of the tabernacle and the altar, and for this end the forms of living things might be employed as in the case of the Cherubim (see Exodus 25:18 note): but the presence of the invisible God was to be marked by no symbol of Himself, but by His words written on stones, preserved in the ark in the holy of holies and covered by the mercy-seat. The ancient Persians and the earliest legislators of Rome also agreed in repudiating images of the Deity.

A jealous God - Deuteronomy 6:15; Joshua 24:19; Isaiah 42:8; Isaiah 48:11; Nahum 1:2. This reason applies to the First, as well as to the second commandment. The truth expressed in it was declared more fully to Moses when the name of Yahweh was proclaimed to him after he had interceded for Israel on account of the golden calf (Exodus 34:6-7; see the note).

Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children - (Compare Exodus 34:7; Jeremiah 32:18). Sons and remote descendants inherit the consequences of their fathers' sins, in disease, poverty, captivity, with all the influences of bad example and evil communications. (See Leviticus 26:39; Lamentations 5:7 following) The "inherited curse" seems to fall often most heavily on the least guilty persons; but such suffering must always be free from the sting of conscience; it is not like the visitation for sin on the individual by whom the sin has been committed. The suffering, or loss of advantages, entailed on the unoffending son, is a condition under which he has to carry on the struggle of life, and, like all other inevitable conditions imposed upon men, it cannot tend to his ultimate disadvantage, if he struggles well and perseveres to the end. The principle regulating the administration of justice by earthly tribunals Deuteronomy 24:16, is carried out in spiritual matters by the Supreme Judge.

4, 5. Thou shalt not make … any graven image … thou shalt not bow down thyself to them—that is, "make in order to bow." Under the auspices of Moses himself, figures of cherubim, brazen serpents, oxen, and many other things in the earth beneath, were made and never condemned. The mere making was no sin—it was the making with the intent to give idolatrous worship. Thou shalt not make, either in thy mind, or with thy hand, Acts 17:29, or by thy command.

Unto thee, i.e. for thy use, or for thee to worship; for otherwise they were not absolutely forbidden to make any images, but only to make them for worship, as may appear by comparing this place with Leviticus 19:4 Deu 4:15 and Amos 5:26, with Acts 7:43; and from Leviticus 26:1, where the setting up of a pillar, or stone, is as absolutely forbidden as the making of an image. And therefore as the former is not forbidden to be done simply and universally, as appears from Joshua 24:20 1 Samuel 7:12, but only to be done in order to worship, so also is the latter. Moreover there were cherubims and other images in the temple, and afterwards the brazen serpent, which because they were not made to be worshipped, neither were indeed, nor were ever esteemed to be, any contradictions to this law.

Any graven image, or molten, or any other image, as is most evident from the nature and reason of the precept. Nor is any thing more common than such synecdochical expressions, wherein under one kind named all other things of the like nature are contained. But for more abundant caution, and to put all out of doubt, he adds a more general word, nor any likeness.

Anything that is in heaven; as of God, Deu 4:15 Isaiah 44:9,20, angels, sun, moon, or stars, which the heathens worshipped, Deu 4:19 17:3. Or in the earth; as of men, and beasts, and creeping things, which the Egyptians and other Gentiles worshipped as gods. See Deu 4:16,17 Isa 44:13 Ezekiel 23:14.

Or in the water; as of fishes, such as Dagon was; or serpents, crocodiles, and such other Egyptian deities.

Under the earth: this is emphatically added, to note the singular care of Divine Providence in bringing the waters under the earth, which naturally are lighter and higher than it, and therefore might easily overwhelm it. Compare Psalm 104:6. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,.... An image of anything graven by art or man's device, cut out of wood of stone, and so anything that was molten, or cast into a mould or form, engraved by men, and this in order to be worshipped; for otherwise images of things might be made for other uses and purposes, as the cherubim over the mercy seat, and the brazen serpent, and images and impressions on coin, which we do not find the Jews themselves scrupled to make use of in Christ's time on that account; though they vehemently opposed the setting up any images of the Caesars or emperors in their temple, because they seemed to be placed there as deities, and had a show of religious worship: however, any image of God was not to be made at all, since no similitude was ever seen of him, or any likeness could be conceived; and it must be a gross piece of ignorance, madness, and impudence, to pretend to make one, and great impiety to make it in order to be the object of religious worship; on which account, not any image or the image of anything whatever was to be made:

or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above; any form, figure, portrait, or picture of anything or creature whatever, whether in the supreme, starry, or airy heaven; as of angels, which some have gone into the worship of; and of the sun, moon, and stars, the host of heaven; and of any of the birds of the air, as the hawk by the Egyptians, and the dove by the Assyrians:

or that is in the earth beneath; as oxen, sheep, goats, cats, dogs, &c. such as were the gods of Egypt:

or that is in the water under the earth: as of fishes, such as were the crocodile of Egypt, the Dagon of the Philistines, and the Derceto of the Syrians: this is the second command, as the Targum of Jonathan expressly calls it; that is, the first part of it, which forbids the making of graven images for worship; the other part follows, which is the worship of them itself: Clemens of Alexandria (d) observes, that Numa, king of the Romans, took this from Moses, and forbid the Romans to make any image of God, like to man or beast.

(d) Stromat. l. 1. p. 304.

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.
4. a graven image] an image of carved wood (sometimes enclosed in a metal casing, Isaiah 30:22) or stone, such as were common in antiquity, and are so, of course, still among heathen nations. Cf. Deuteronomy 4:16 f.

the likeness of any form, &c.] By an inexactness of language, the Heb. identifies the ‘form’ made with the ‘form’ (in heaven, &c.) upon which it is modelled: RV. eases the sentence by inserting ‘the likeness of.’

in heaven above] as birds (Deuteronomy 4:17).

heaven above … the earth beneath] The same combination (with reference to Jehovah being God in both), Deuteronomy 4:39, Joshua 2:11, 1 Kings 8:23 (both Deuteronomic).

the water under the earth] cf. Deuteronomy 4:18. The waters meant are the huge abyss of subterranean waters, on which the Hebrews imagined the flat surface of the earth to rest (Genesis 49:25, Psalm 24:2; Psalm 136:6), and which they supposed to be the hidden source of seas and springs (see further the writer’s note on Genesis 1:9-10). Fish, at least in certain places, or of certain kinds, were regarded as sacred, and forbidden to be eaten, in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere; and Xen. (Anab. i. 4. 9) says that the fish in the Chalus, near Aleppo, were looked upon as gods. See Rel. Sem.2[175] pp. 174–6, 292 f.; EB. ii. 1530 f.

[175] W. R. Smith, The Religion of the Semites, ed. 2, 1894.

4–6. The second commandment, against image-worship. The prohibition is general; and includes both images of Jehovah,—who, as a spiritual Being, cannot be represented by any material likeness (see the development of this thought in Deuteronomy 4:15-19),—and also those of other gods, or of deified creatures, or objects of nature. Images were widely used by worshippers of Jehovah till the times of the prophets: on the bearing of this upon the date of the Decalogue, see p. 415 f.Verse 4. As the first commandment asserts the unity of God, and is a protest against polytheism, so the second asserts his spirituality, and is a protest against idolatry and materialism. Verses 4 and 5 are to be taken together, the prohibition being intended, not to forbid the arts of sculpture and painting, or even to condemn the religious use of them, but to disallow the worship of God under material forms. When the later Jews condemned all representations of natural objects (Philo, De Orac. 29; Joseph. Ant. Jud. 8:7, § 5), they not only enslaved themselves to a literalism, which is alien from the spirit of both covenants, but departed from the practice of more primitive times - representations of such objects having had their place both in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-34; Exodus 28:33, 34) and in the first temple (1 Kings 6:18, 29, 32, etc.). Indeed, Moses himself, when he erected the "brazen serpent" (Numbers 21:9) made it clear that representations of natural objects were not disallowed by the law. To moderns in civilized countries it seems almost incredible that there should ever have been anywhere a real worship of images. But acquaintance with ancient history or even with the present condition of man in savage or backward countries, renders it apparent that there is a subtle fascination in such material forms, and that imperfectly developed minds will rest in them not as mere emblems of divinity, but as actually possessed of Divine powers The protest raised by the second commandment is still as necessary as ever, not only in the world, but in the very Christian Church itself, where there exists even at the present day a superstitious regard for images and pictures, which is not only irrational, but which absorbs the religious feelings that should have been directed to higher objects. Any graven image. Perhaps it would be better to translate "any image," for the term used (pesel) is applied, not only to "graven" but also to "molten images" (Isaiah 40:19; Isaiah 44:10; Jeremiah 10:14; etc.), since these last were in almost every instance finished by the graving tool. Or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above - i.e., "any likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air." Compare Deuteronomy 4:17. The water under the earth. See Genesis 1:6, 7. The triple division here and elsewhere made, is intended to embrace the whole material universe. Much of the Egyptian religion consisted in the worship of animals and their images. After these preparations, on the morning of the third day (from the issuing of this divine command), Jehovah came down upon the top of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:20), manifesting His glory in fire as the mighty, jealous God, in the midst of thunders (קלת) and lightnings, so that the mountain burned with fire (Deuteronomy 4:11; Deuteronomy 5:20), and the smoke of the burning mountain ascended as the smoke (עשׁן for עשׁן), and the whole mountain trembled (Exodus 19:18), at the same time veiling in a thick cloud the fire of His wrath and jealousy, by which the unholy are consumed. Thunder and lightning bursting forth from the thick cloud, and fire with smoke, were the elementary substrata, which rendered the glory of the divine nature visible to men, though in such a way that the eye of mortals beheld no form of the spiritual and invisible Deity. These natural phenomena were accompanied by a loud trumpet blast, which "blew long and waxed louder and louder" (Exodus 19:16 and Exodus 19:19; see Genesis 8:3), and was, as it were, the herald's call, announcing to the people the appearance of the Lord, and summoning them to assemble before Him and listen to His words, as they sounded forth from the fire and cloudy darkness. The blast (קול) of the shophar (Exodus 19:19), i.e., the σάλπιγξ Θεοῦ, the trump of God, such a trumpet as is used in the service of God (in heaven, 1 Thessalonians 4:16; see Winer's Grammar), is not "the voice of Jehovah," but a sound resembling a trumpet blast. Whether this sound was produced by natural means, or, as some of the earlier commentators supposed, by angels, of whom myriads surrounded Jehovah when He came down upon Sinai (Deuteronomy 33:2), it is impossible to decide. At this alarming phenomenon, "all the people that was in the camp trembled" (Exodus 19:16). For according to Exodus 20:20 (17), it was intended to inspire them with a salutary fear of the majesty of God. Then Moses conducted the people (i.e., the men) out of the camp of God, and stationed them at the foot of the mountain outside the barrier (Exodus 19:17); and "Moses spake" (Exodus 19:19), i.e., asked the Lord for His commands, "and God answered loud" (בּקול), and told him to come up to the top of the mountain. He then commanded him to go down again, and impress upon the people that no one was to break through to Jehovah to see, i.e., to break down the barriers that were erected around the mountain as the sacred place of God, and attempt to penetrate into the presence of Jehovah. Even the priests, who were allowed to approach God by virtue of their office, were to sanctify themselves, that Jehovah might not break forth upon them (יפרץ), i.e., dash them to pieces. (On the form העדתה for העידת, see Ewald, 199 a). The priests were neither "the sons of Aaron," i.e., Levitical priest, nor the first-born or principes populi, but "those who had hitherto discharged the duties of the priestly office according to natural right and custom" (Baumgarten). Even these priests were too unholy to be able to come into the presence of the holy God. This repeated enforcement of the command not to touch the mountain, and the special extension of it even to the priests, were intended to awaken in the people a consciousness of their own unholiness quite as much as of the unapproachable holiness of Jehovah. But this separation from God, which arose from the unholiness of the nation, did not extend to Moses and Aaron, who were to act as mediators, and were permitted to ascend the mountain. Moreover, the prospect of ascending the holy mountain "at the drawing of the blast" was still before the people (Exodus 19:13). And the strict prohibition against breaking through the barrier, to come of their own accord into the presence of Jehovah, is by no means at variance with this. When God gave the sign to ascend the mountain, the people might and were to draw near to Him. This sign, viz., the long-drawn trumpet blast, was not to be given in any case till after the promulgation of the ten words of the fundamental law. But it was not given even after this promulgation; not, however, because "the development was altogether an abnormal one, and not in accordance with the divine appointment in Exodus 19:13, inasmuch as at the thunder, the lightning, and the sound of the trumpet, with which the giving of the law was concluded, they lost all courage, and instead of waiting for the promised signal, were overcome with fear, and ran from the spot," for there is not a word in the text about running away; but because the people were so terrified by the alarming phenomena which accompanied the coming down of Jehovah upon the mountain, that they gave up the right of speaking with God, and from a fear of death entreated Moses to undertake the intercourse with God in their behalf (Exodus 20:18-21). Moreover, we cannot speak of an "abnormal development" of the drama, for the simple reason, that God not only foresaw the course and issue of the affair, but at the very outset only promised that He would come to Moses in a thick cloud (Exodus 19:9), and merely announced and carried out His own descent upon Mount Sinai before the eyes of the people in the terrible glory of His sacred majesty (Exodus 19:11), for the purpose of proving the people, that His fear might be before their eyes (Exodus 20:20; cf. Deuteronomy 5:28-29). Consequently, apart from the physical impossibility of 600,000 ascending the mountain, it never was intended that all the people should do so.

(Note: The idea of the people fleeing and running away must have been got by Kurtz from either Luther's or De Wette's translation. They have both of them rendered וגו ויּנעוּ, "they fled and went far off," instead of "they trembled and stood far off." And not only the supposed flight, but his idea that "thunder, lightning, and the trumpet blast (which were silent in any case during the utterance of the ten commandments), concluded the promulgation of the law, as they had already introduced it according to Exodus 19:16," also rests upon a misunderstanding of the text of the Bible. There is not a syllable in Exodus 20:18 about the thunder, lightning, and trumpet blast bursting forth afresh after the proclamation of the ten commandments. There is simply an account of the impression, which the alarming phenomena, mentioned in Exodus 19:16-19 as attending the descent of Jehovah upon the mountain (Exodus 19:20), and preceding His speaking to Moses and the people, made upon the people, who had been brought out of the camp to meet with God.)

What God really intended, came to pass. After the people had been received into fellowship with Jehovah through the atoning blood of the sacrifice, they were permitted to ascend the mountain in the persons of their representatives, and there to see God (Exodus 24:9-11).

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