The first commandment, which we have just considered, points out the one true object of worship; this commandment is to tell us the right way in which to worship. The former commands us to worship God alone; this calls for purity and spirituality as we approach Him. The former condemns the worship of false gods; this prohibits false forms. It relates more especially to outward acts of worship; but these are only the expression of what is in the heart.
Perhaps you will say that there is no trouble about this weight. We might go off to other ages or other lands, and find people who make images and bow down to them; but we have none here. Let us see if this is true. Let us step into the scales and see if we can turn them when weighed against this commandment.
I believe this is where the battle is fought. Satan tries to keep us from worshipping God aright, and from making Him first in everything. If I let some image made by man get into my heart and take the place of God the Creator, it is a sin. I believe that Satan is willing to have us worship anything, however sacred, -- the Bible, the crucifix, the church, -- if only we do not worship God Himself.
You cannot find a place in the Bible where a man has been allowed to bow down and worship any one but the God of heaven and Jesus Christ His Son. In the Book of Revelation, when an angel came down to John, he was about to fall down and worship him, but the angel would not let him. If an angel from heaven is not to be worshipped, when you find people bowing down to pictures, to images, even when they bow down to worship the cross, it is a sin. There are a great many who seem to be carried away with these things. "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me." "Thou shalt not bow down thyself to any graven image." God wants us to worship Him only, and if we do not believe that Jesus Christ is God manifest in the flesh we should not worship Him. I have no more doubt about the divinity of Christ than I have that I exist.
Worship involves two things: the internal belief, and the external act. We transgress in our hearts by having a wrong conception of God and of Jesus Christ before ever we give public expression in action. As some one has said, it is wrong to have loose opinions as well as to be guilty of loose practices. That is what Paul meant when he said: "We ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver or stone, graven by art or man's device." The opinions that some people hold about Christ are not in accordance with the Bible, and are real violations of this second commandment.
The question at once arises -- is this commandment intended to forbid the use of drawings and pictures of created things altogether? Some contend that it does. They point to the Jews and the Mohammedans as a proof. The Jews have never been much given to art. The Mohammedans to this day do not use designs of animals, etc., in patterns. But I do not agree with them. I think God only meant to forbid images and other representations when these were intended to be used as objects of religious veneration. "Thou shalt not make unto thee. . . . Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them." In Exodus we are told that God ordered the bowls of the golden candlestick for the tabernacle to be made "like unto almonds, with a knop and a flower;" and the robe of the ephod had a hem on which they were to put a bell and a pomegranate alternately. How could God order something that broke this second commandment?
I believe that this commandment is a call for spiritual worship. It is in line with Christ's declaration to that Samaritan woman -- "God is a spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth."
This is precisely what is difficult for men to do. The apostles were hardly in their graves before they began to put up images of them, and to worship relics. People have a desire for something tangible, something that they can see. It is so much easier to live in the sense than in the spirit. That is why there is a demand for ritualism. Some people are born Puritans; they want a simple form of worship. Others think they cannot get along without forms and ceremonies that appeal to the senses. And many a one whose heart is not sincere before God takes refuge in these forms, and eases his conscience by making an outward show of religion.
The second commandment is to restrain this desire and tendency.
God is grieved when we are untrue to Him. God is Love, and He is wounded when our affections are transferred to anything else. The penalty attached to this commandment teaches us that man has to reap what he sows, whether good or bad; and not only that, but his children have to reap with him. Notice that punishment is visited upon the children unto the third or the fourth generation, while mercy is shown unto thousands, or (as it is more correctly) unto the thousandth generation.
THE FOLLY OF IMAGES.
Think for a moment, and you will see how idle it is to try to make any representation of God. Christians have tried to paint the Trinity, but how can you depict the Invisible? Can you draw a picture of your own soul or spirit or will? Moses impressed it upon Israel that when God spake to them out of the midst of the fire they saw no manner of similitude, but only heard His voice.
A picture or image of God must degrade our conception of Him. It fastens us down to one idea, whereas we ought to grow in grace and in knowledge. It makes God finite. It brings him down to our level. It has given rise to the horrible idols of India and China, because they fashion these images according to their own notions. How would the president feel if Americans made such hideous objects to resemble him as they make of their gods in heathen countries? Isaiah bore down with tremendous irony upon the folly of idol makers: upon the smith who fashioned gods with tongs and hammers; and upon the carpenter who took a tree, and used part of it for a fire to warm himself and roast his meat, and made part of it in the figure of a man with his rule and plane and compass, and called it his god and worshipped it. "A deceived heart hath turned him aside."
A man must be greater than anything he is able to make or manufacture. What folly then to think of worshipping such things!
The tendency of the human heart to represent God by something that appeals to the senses is the origin of all idolatry. It leads directly to image-worship. At first there may be no desire to worship the thing itself, but it inevitably ends in that. As Dr. MacLaren says: "Enlisting the senses as allies of the spirit is risky work. They are apt to fight for their own band when they once begin, and the history of all symbolical and ceremonial worship shows that the experiment is much more likely to end in sensualizing religion than in spiritualizing sense."
PICTURES AND IMAGES.
But some one says -- "I find pictures are a great help to me, and images. I know that they are not themselves sacred, but they help me in my devotions to fix my thoughts on God."
When Dr. Trumbull was in Northfield, he used an illustration that is a good answer to this. He said, "Suppose a young man were watching from a window for his absent mother's return, with a wish to catch the first glimpse of her approaching face. Would he be wise or foolish in putting up a photograph of her on the window-frame before him, as a help to bear her in as he looks for her coming? As there can be no doubt about the answer to that question, so there can be no doubt that we can best come into communion with God by closing our eyes to everything that can be seen with the natural eye, and opening the eyes of our spirit to the sight of God the Spirit."
I would a great deal sooner have five minutes communion with Christ than spend years before pictures and images of Him. Whatever comes between my soul and my Maker is not a help to me, but a hindrance. God has given different means of grace by which we can approach Him. Let us use these, and not seek for other things that He has distinctly forbidden.
Dr. Dale says that in his college days he had an engraving of our Lord hanging over his mantlepiece. "The calmness, the dignity, the gentleness, and the sadness of the face represented the highest conceptions which I had in those days of the human presence of Christ. I often looked at it, and seldom without being touched by it. I discovered in the course of a few mouths that the superstitious sentiments were gradually clustering about it, which are always created by the visible representations of the Divine. The engraving was becoming to me the shrine of God manifest in the flesh, and I understood the growth of idolatry. The visible symbol is at first a symbol and nothing more; it assists thought; it stirs passion. At last it is identified with the God whom it represents. If, every day, I bow before a crucifix in prayer, if I address it as though it were Christ, though I know it is not, I shall come to feel for it a reverence and love which are of the very essence of idolatry."
Did you ever stop to think that the world has not a single picture of Christ that has been handed down to us from His disciples? Who knows what He was like? The Bible does not tell us how He looked, except in one or two isolated general expressions as when it says -- "His visage was so marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men." We don't know anything definite about His features, the color of His hair and eyes, and the other details that would help to give a true representation. What artist can tell us? He left no keepsakes to His disciples. His clothes were seized by the Roman soldiers who crucified Him. Not a solitary thing was left to be handed down among His followers. Doesn't it look as if Christ left no relics lest they should be held sacred and worshipped?
History tells us further that the early Christians shrank from making pictures and statues of any kind of Christ. They knew Him as they had seen Him after His resurrection, and had promises of His continued presence that pictures could not make any more real.
I have seen very few pictures of Christ that do not repel me more or less. I sometimes think that it is wrong to have pictures of Him at all.
Speaking of the crucifix Dr. Dale says; "It makes our worship and prayer unreal. We are adoring a Christ who does not exist. He is not on the cross now, but on the throne. His agonies are passed forever. He has risen from the dead. He is at the right hand of God. If we pray to a dying Christ, we are praying not to Christ Himself, but to a mere remembrance of Him. The injury which the crucifix has inflicted on the religious life of Christendom, in encouraging a morbid and unreal devotion, is absolutely incalculable. It has given us a dying Christ instead of a living Christ, a Christ separated from us by many centuries instead of a Christ nigh at hand."
THE INDWELLING CHRIST.
No one can say that we have nowadays any need of such things. "Behold I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." If Christ is in our hearts, why need we set Him before our eyes? "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." If we take hold of that promise by faith, what need is there of outward symbols and reminders? If the King Himself is present, why need we bow down before statues supposed to represent Him? To fill His place with an image (some one has said,) is like blotting the sun out of the heavens and substituting some other light in its place. "You cannot see Him through chinks of ceremonialism; or through the blind eyes of erring man; or by images graven with art and man's device; or in cunningly devised fables of artificial and perverted theology. Nay, seek Him in His own Word, in the revelation of Himself which He gives to all who walk in His ways. So you will be able to keep that admonition of the last word of all the New Testament revelation: 'Little children, keep yourselves from idols.'"
I believe many an earnest Christian would be found wanting if put in the balances against this commandment. "Tekel" is the sentence that would be written against them, because their worship of God and of Christ is not pure. May God open our eyes to the danger that is creeping more and more into public worship throughout Christendom! Let us ever bear in mind Christ's words in the fourth chapter of John's gospel, which show that true spiritual worship is not a matter of special times and special places because it is of all times and all places:
"Believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship Him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth."