No Graven Images

Within the ancient words of the Old Testament dwell 613 commandments regulating everything from soup to nuts.  

And we’re exploring the first 10 – through the lens of the New Testament’s greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself – as you yourself would be loved.  

Historically, scholars have debated how to count the Ten Commandments. God’s Law begins with a shout: As we heard last Sunday, we shall have no other gods, and as we’ll hear this morning, we shall make no graven images.

But are those two different laws, or two sides of the same coin? If you hang around long enough with our Roman Catholic or Lutheran neighbors, you’ll eventually discover that they merge into one law what we regard as the first and second commandments. (They still have 10 commandments, because Catholic and Lutheran math divvies up into two the final commandment about coveting.)  

But we separate the first two commandments, because we believe each covers slightly different territory. The first commandment strongly advises against worshiping gods other than Yahweh. The second commandment says that, even when you worship Yahweh, you may not make any images of the Divine.  

But why? You easily understand why God frowns deeply upon our worship of Marduk, Baal, the Pharaoh of Egypt, Ronald Reagan, or Taylor Swift. But if our hearts are aimed squarely at the true God of the Bible – the God of all time and space, why is it as wrong to make an image of God as it would be to worship a false god in the first place?  

Here’s an explanation that animates God’s emphasis on turning away from false Gods.  

The Golden Calf is the premiere passage with which to unpack the second commandment.

Among the things to note is this: No sooner do the Israelites fashion this blind, deaf, and dumb idol, when they immediately feel authorized to engage in whatever kinds of stupid and idiotic behavior they darn well please.  

The Calf surely isn’t going to say anything about it!  

But isn’t that always the danger when creating our own gods? Or even making over the true God into something more akin to our own image and liking?  

Isn’t that the appeal of idolatry? Neat and tidy authorization of all we wanted to do from the get-go?  When your false god can’t even say “Moo,” he won’t say anything else to upset you, either!  

This is Exodus 32, the story of the Golden Calf, forged while Moses is away on Mount Sinai receiving the Commandments from God. Listen for the Word of the Lord.  

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him,

“Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”

So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.”

They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel. The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'”

The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'”

And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.(Exodus 32:1-14)

In terms of our discipleship walk with the Lord, the second commandment intends to spur three behaviors.

The first was part of my introduction: Since we don’t want to worship a false god, and since images of God inevitably lead us to think of God incorrectly, you start to wonder if even benign use of the most-innocent of images in the end leads us to worship a false god after all.   If you want to know, love, serve, and worship the true Creator of the universe, then let that One reveal themselves to you in their written and living Word.

If you step back and take in the full swath of the God who blankets Genesis to Revelation, your weary heart ought to be strangely warmed! Your comfort nestles deeply in the thick pile of a richly complex, incredibly nuanced, and handsomely textured epiphany: An a-ha! moment so vast and complex, that there flat out is absolutely no way to tie a bow atop Yahweh and make things all neat and tidy.  

Whenever you develop one primary way of painting the divine face or depicting the divine presence, you risk tunnel vision that focuses on what that particular image shows, thus conveniently leaving out the multitude of signals and messages you fail to let it convey or conveniently overlook. That’s why the incompleteness of every image of God also makes that image so potentially wrongheaded.  

A second reason for not making images of God is that it violates God’s otherworldly wholeness. When we use stuff of this earth to bring God down to our level, we easily lose sight of the fact that God is at-once everything and everywhere, spanning every level and dimension of reality.  

But the third and final reason is more personal than such galactic, big-bangy perspectives on God and the cosmos.

Namely, we resist static images of God, because we believe God is so very alive, so very gracious, and so very loving, and therefore enjoys such a vital relationship with each and every blessed one of us.  

Maybe this helps: If you are married, you might have a picture of your spouse in your office, or on your desk, or in your cab.   And if you have a good, loving, and solid relationship with your spouse, such that you daily kiss him or her hello and goodbye, and look forward to breaking bread and sharing supper together every evening, then, although you have that picture at work, you probably don’t spend too much time on the average work day staring desirously at the pic of your spouse or significant other.  

But what happens if relationship with that spouse or significant other suddenly dies?  

Probably the value of that snapshot from your couples’ trip to Branson, Missouri, would rise exponentially.   Probably, then, in the days, weeks, and months ahead, you’ll catch yourself unconsciously staring at that workplace picture with longing, yearning, and fond remembrance. Its value explodes, precisely because the relationship it signals has fallen silent.  

Just maybe something similar lies behind the rule about images for God.  

The Lord sees no need for us to spend our precious time mooning after a mere picture, since he is the One who are with us every moment of every day! Close as the nearest prayer. Nearer my God to thee than flesh is to fingernails and white is to rice. God’s free-flowing relationship to us is lively and living, steady and constant.  

Indeed, maybe you don’t have a picture of your spouse at work, in part because you don’t need the image. The real deal wakes up next to you every morning, and gives you a toothpaste kiss each evening before the light goes out. The Lord wants his presence in our lives to be just that – real and meaningful. We don’t need the picture. We’ve got the Lord!  

Of course, having said all that, lest we forget that God themselves have already given us a wholly authorized image in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  

In her book “The Substance of Things Seen,” Robin Jensen tells the story of a young, devout Baptist woman who visited a Greek Orthodox church one Sunday, only to be scandalized by the vast array of icons and images that filled the sanctuary, illuminated by the rich beams of stained glass that seemed to reach up to heaven itself. After the service, she registered her discomfort with the priest.  

“I was always taught,” she protested, “that we may have no images of God.”

The priest thought briefly before gently replying, “But, my dear, you are the image of God, re-made now in Christ, and brimming with the Holy Spirit.”  

The second word of commandment cautions of believing in one’s own publicity, of thinking more highly of one’s self than one ought, of regarding one’s self as wiser than God – in trying to create images that restrict the nature of God and our understanding of God.  

But neither shall we try to be wiser than God, by ignoring the image that God themselves give to us in Jesus, nor how that very image – thanks to the Holy Spirit – must shine steadfastly in all our living, moving, and breathing.  

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!    

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, July 23, 2023. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Scott Hoezee, Robin Jensen, and The Bible Project inform the message, which is the second in Pastor Grant’s series on The Ten Commandments.

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