No Images: Commandment 2
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; For I, the Lord you God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
This commandment is relatively simple: No images. The people of God are to make no images of YHWH whatsoever, whether for use in worship, public display, or private devotion. (And obviously, based upon the first commandment, they are not to have any images of other gods, either.) Within their cultural context, this is a somewhat strange command. All the other peoples had prominent images, or idols, of their gods displayed in their temples and the public square. The ancients believed that the image, or idol, of their god contained its power and presence, and that it was a real, physical manifestation of the deity. For them, a god without an image would be no god at all.
However, there are two reasons why YHWH will not abide this practice.
First, YHWH’s power and presence cannot be contained by anything in the material world. He is supernatural, transcendent, and the Creator of all that is. He is not a being; he is being itself, the source of everything that exists. No image could contain his glory, much less provide an accurate representation of his likeness and nature. Representing him with any created thing, and then worshipping that thing, amounts to blasphemy because, for YHWH, the thing itself will always be infinitely less than that which it is attempting to characterize. It is, at best, a misguided attempt to honor YHWH in the same way that all the other gods are honored by their people. At worst it is done with the intention to manipulate and control him. In either case, YHWH will not abide it.
We are the place where God’s presence abides by his Spirit.
Second, YHWH has already created his own image – human beings. We are the bearers of the image of God on the earth. We are the place where God’s presence abides by his Spirit. God’s living, creating images are the evidence that God himself is the living Creator. For us to make an inanimate image of YHWH dishonors both him and ourselves because it replaces a greater thing with a lesser, substituting a human creation for the crown jewel of divine creation. The image of God already exists, and he himself has created it. We are it, and we need to take that seriously.
Our task is to repair this image within ourselves, broken as it is by sin, with the help of God’s Spirit. We must orient ourselves back to God. As image bearers, we are tempted to believe that we bear our own image, that we are both the idol and the god. Though we are endowed with glorious purpose, it is not our own glory that we were created to radiate, but rather the glory of YHWH. When we turn to God we reflect his glory and goodness to the world, shining his brilliant radiance, rather than our own half-light, into this dark world. And he himself lives within us by faith, slowly and expertly rebuilding the broken image that we are so that we might shine like stars in the sky.
The question has been raised whether the ancient view of this command prohibits images of Yahweh. Some scholars have proposed that the golden calf made by Aaron (while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments) was supposed to represent Yahweh, or perhaps a throne or steed on which the people were to envision Yahweh. According to Exodus 32:7-8, in a divine speech to Moses, Yahweh reveals the events going on at the base of Mt. Sinai to Moses, judging the golden calf to be a violation of the recently revealed law: “They have turned aside quickly from the way that I commanded them”.