You shall not make you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath…
"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image," etc. (Exodus 20:4-6). The first word on Sinai declares that there is but one God; the second word teaches us that God is not to be worshipped under any visible representation or form. Isaiah asks, "To whom, then, will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto Him?" In the early ages of history there were no images of the Deity known. Herodotus, when writing of the manners and customs of the Persians, says, "They have among them neither statues, temples, nor altars; the use of which they censure as impious, and a gross violation of reason, probably because, in opposition to the Greeks, they do not believe that the gods partake of our human nature. Their custom is to offer from the summits of the highest mountains sacrifices to Jove, distinguishing by that appellation all the expanse of the firmament." The worship of the heavenly bodies was the earliest form of idolatry, and Moses warns against it: "Take good heed lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them." The origin of idolatry may be traced to this fact, that men looked about for some visible representations of the invisible Deity, and that in course of time the image or the symbol became a substitute for the Deity Himself. Men looked for God everywhere, and they could not see Him; they could see the stars crowning the night with glory, they could see the sunlight flooding the universe, and they said, "The sun and the stars shall be to us an image of the all-glorious Deity, a symbol of His greatness, and power, and goodness." But, as time advanced, the symbols themselves were deified, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, were worshipped and served. The Israelites, then, were forbidden to set up an image of the true God; not only forbidden to worship false gods, but also forbidden to make any image of the true God. When Aaron made the golden calf, and Jeroboam the son of Nebat made similar images, in both instances it was the worship of Jehovah as represented by the image that was intended; and in both instances a connecting link with Egypt is afforded us in the sacred narrative. In the case of Aaron we have the fact of Egypt having been the birthland of the sinning people; while in the case of Jeroboam we have the fact that it was after a long residence in Egypt, in the court of Shishak, that he devised this worship. The prophets of Jehovah denounced it; and in the Second Book of Kings the fall of the kingdom is expressly attributed to the gods of Jeroboam. Animal worship was common among the Egyptians; a multitude of beasts, birds, and fishes were regarded and served as representatives of their deities; the hawk, and the crocodile, and the serpent, and the lion, and the wolf, and other creatures, were the forms under which the gods were worshipped. We believe that the masterpieces of art, whether in painting or sculpture, have a refining and elevating influence on those who admire and study them. But art is not necessarily religious, and some of the ages in which art has flourished were not remarkable for their purity or refinement. Painting and sculpture were not forbidden by this second word of the law — and we read of the forms of the cherubim in the temple — but no image was to be set up as an object of worship; and the influence of this prohibition upon the history of the Jews is perceived in the fact that no painters or sculptors have ever risen among them. They have had poets and musicians, but no painters; and while among the Greeks Phidias and Praxiteles were carving the statues that became the wonders of the world, on the roll of Hebrew worthies we find the name of no painter or sculptor. It is remarkable that in the four Gospels we have no description of the person of our Lord, no hint as to His stature, or His face. Art has embodied its loftiest conceptions of that Divine face on the canvas, but, Raphael's "Transfiguration," Holman Hunts "Light of the World," Dore's "Christ leaving the Praetorium," Munkacsy's "Christ before Pilate," marvellous as they all are as works of genius, do not satisfy the soul that has entered into fellowship with the Perfect life, and who feels that there is an unspeakable, infinite beauty in Him. It is one of the strangest things in the history of the world that a rational, intelligent being should take a piece of metal, or of wood, and mould it into a certain shape, and then, investing it with the attributes of divinity, fall down before it, and pray to it, and worship it. Well might the inspired prophet wield the lash of satire when speaking of it. He says, "The carpenter stretcheth out his rule (Isaiah 44:13), falleth down unto it, and worshippeth it, and prayeth unto it, and saith, deliver me, for thou art my god." This is done, not by a little child who nurses and talks to the doll as if it were a living creature; but by an intelligent man, who can conduct business, frame wise laws for a nation, discuss great moral problems, or speak eloquently in the forum or the school; this man falls down before the idol, the toy, the nonentity, and saith, "Deliver me, for thou art my god." Idolatry robs Jehovah of His honour, and it is therefore denounced as a crime, an injustice, an offence against the Majesty on high. "Ye shall bear the sins of your idols, and ye shall know that I am the Lord God." Would not a true patriot look with indignation upon a foeman's flag planted On England's shore? Would not his desire be to trample that flag in the mire, or tear it to ribbons, and unfurl the old English standard that "has braved a thousand years the battle and the breeze"? And the apostle looked upon idol worship in Athens as the flag of an enemy on the territory of God, as the occupation by an enemy of the palace that belonged to God. Idolatry was the sin to which the Jews were most prone. Surrounded by heathen nations, and forgetful of the mercies they had received from Jehovah, they were often contaminated with idol worship; and even Solomon forsook the temple of Jehovah for an idol grove. This image worship is prohibited by this second word of the law; how, then, did Rome deal with this prohibition? With the cunning craftiness of men who lie in wait to deceive, it omitted this word from the Decalogue, and divided the last commandment into two, in order to make up the number ten. The idolatry practised in the Romish Church is one of the signs of its apostasy, and of the certainty of its doom; for, as Max Muller says, "One of the lessons which the history of religions certainly teaches is this, that the curse pronounced against those who would change the invisible into the visible, the spiritual into the material, the Divine into the human, the infinite into the finite, has come true in every nation on earth." Consider, then, the reasons by which this prohibition is enforced.
1. He is a jealous God. Our character will receive its form and impress very much from the notions we entertain of God. If we regard Him as an impassive, emotionless, heartless Being, who is too high to take any interest in this world, who is not affected by our sorrows, by our circumstances, by our entreaties who requires, not our worship, then the effect will be that we shall meet indifference with indifference, we shall lead careless lives, we shall not be watchful in the formation of a character that will never be inspected by the eyes of Divinity. "How doth God know? Can He judge through the dark cloud?" But if we regard Him as the righteous and merciful Father, who is looking with pity on His rebellious children, the effect will be seen in our penitential return to Him, and in our desire to please Him and serve Him. Now, this verse reveals to us something of the nature and character of God. He is a personal Being, not an abstraction, not a mere force; not a tendency or (as Matthew Arnold puts it) "a power not ourselves that works for righteousness," whatever such a phrase may mean. To worship a God who is nothing more than that would be like paying homage to a sum in algebra, or praying to a theorem in Euclid, or worshipping the Gulf Stream. He is a personal Being, who loves, who may be offended, who is jealous; not jealous lest He should suffer any diminution of His glory and blessedness through man's sin, but jealous lest sin should deface and destroy the nature He accounts so precious. His jealousy is His love on fire, love wounded, love insulted, love incensed. If your son were led astray by evil companions, if your daughter became the prey of the tempter, and fell from the fair Eden of purity to the hell of an abandoned life, would you not be jealous and angry? Man is God's child; and when the child is led astray, and becomes an Absalom, with the fire of defiance in his eye and the weapon of hostility in his hand, it is no wonder that God is jealous.
2. He punishes His enemies. "Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation," etc. Right across the brightness of the world lies the dark shadow of suffering. It is there, whether you believe the Bible or not. We see everywhere that moral characteristics and physical infirmities and sufferings are transmitted from one generation to another. And this principle of hereditary transmission is recognised in the Bible. The Jews said, "Our fathers have sinned, and are not, and we have borne their iniquities." And these words of doom were pronounced by Christ, "That the blood of all the prophets which was shed from the foundation of the world may be required of this generation; from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zecharias, who perished between the altar and the temple; verily I say unto you, it shall be required of this generation." Do you not see this principle illustrated in daily life? Children inherit the physical constitution, the propensities, the diseases, the wealth or penury, the glory or disgrace of their parents. Sometimes men are proud of their ancestors, and they "borrow merit from the dead," and if a baronet or lord has ever appeared in their family, they forget not to proclaim the fact. Good and evil are transmitted from one generation to another. But though a man may suffer on account of the sins of his ancestors, yet the suffering is never in the nature of retribution, unless the man's own guilt has called for it. If the penalty goes down to the third and fourth generation, then they are, God says, "the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me." And although innocent children may suffer the consequences of the sins of their parents, yet those consequences are temporal; in another world, and in the coming day of account, everyone will be judged personally and separately; the son will not be punished for the sins of his parents, nor will he be excused on the ground of the righteousness of his parents. A man feels, and rightly, that he is not responsible for his grandfather's sins; but he may be in some measure responsible for the conduct of his children, and even grandchildren. And men are entreated to act wisely for the sake of their descendants — to be good and to do good for the sake of others. The Israelites gathered round the base of Sinai were the founders of a new nation, a nation that was to play an important part, that would have a name in history to the end of time, and if the fountainhead were defiled, the streams would be muddy also.
3. And He blesses His friends. "And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me and keep My commandments" — unto thousands of generations. "Where sin hath abounded, grace hath much more abounded." "Mercy rejoiceth against judgment." There is mercy shining even in the law. In the midst of the storms of Sinai mercy is appearing like a quenchless star. I have said that moral qualities are transmitted, as well as physical features. Lying had become so characteristic of the inhabitants of Crete that the apostle quoted the proverb, "The Cretans are always liars." And habits of industry and temperance and truthfulness may go down like healthy blood from one generation to another, even to thousands of generations. But do not think that the renewing grace of God in the heart may be transmitted from sire to son, or that the spiritual life will flow down with the natural life from fathers and mothers to their children. Inherited dispositions backed by education, and example may do much to secure this result, but every child must seek for himself "the good part that shall never be taken away from him." It is not the godliness of the parents, but the mercy of God, that goes down unto thousands of generations, and converts them into generations that love Him and keep His commandments.
Parallel VersesKJV: Thou shalt not make 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 waters beneath the earth: