Graven Images

“You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

— Exodus 20:4

Read that verse again. Think about it. What does it mean to you? Over the years, people have held varying interpretations of that verse. Some people believe that the Second Commandment forbids any kind of visual art including television, motion pictures, books, paintings, and pictures. But this interpretation doesn’t fit with God’s instruction to Moses to build a tabernacle that included visual representations such as embroidery and pictures of flowers and trees. Others believe the Second Commandment forbids three-dimensional art such as statues. But this interpretation doesn’t fit either. If this interpretation were correct, then why would God command Moses to adorn the tabernacle with three-dimensional figures of oxen and cherubim?

These interpretations rely on extremely literal readings of the verse. Let’s take a step back to grasp the bigger picture behind the words. The Second Commandment doesn’t forbid any art form in and of itself. In fact, God loves beauty and has given it to us in abundance. We can use Christian art to glorify God and to produce additional beauty in the world. We can also use it to communicate God’s truth. Pictures bring to mind great scenes of Jesus finding the lost sheep, healing the blind man, or inviting all to come to Him.

Instead of forbidding artwork, the Second Commandment actually forbids idolatry— worshiping a work of art in place of worshiping the living God. That’s why the Israelites shouldn’t have made the golden calf, not because it was a three-dimensional statue, but because they worshiped it instead of God. The Second Commandment commands intolerance of other gods and other religions. While intolerance sounds harsh, God means it for mercy. God is like a parent who won’t tolerate His child eating junk food because it deprives the body of nutrients—He knows that when we worship a false god we deprive ourselves of His greatest blessings and highest good.

Today take a few minutes to evaluate what you worship. If you find it isn’t God, then reorder your priorities so that He is first in your life, before anything humankind has created.

“God forbids us to have other gods instead of Him …
That is when we fear, love, or trust any person, thing, or
creature as we should fear, love, and trust in God alone.”
Martin Luther