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Author:Rev. C. Bouwman
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Congregation:Smithville Canadian Reformed Church
 Smithville, ON
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
 Kelmscott, Western Australia
Title:God insists that we make no images of Him, lest we provoke His jealousy
Text:LD 35 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic: 2nd Commandment (No images)

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Text: Lord's Day 35

96. Q. What does God require in the second commandment?
A. We are not to make an image of God in any way,[1] nor to worship Him in any other manner than He has commanded in His Word.[2]
[1] Deut. 4:15-19; Is. 40:18-25; Acts 17:29; Rom. 1:23. [2] Lev. 10:1-7; Deut. 12:30; I Sam. 15:22, 23; Matt. 15:9; John 4:23, 24.

97. Q. May we then not make any image at all?
A. God cannot and may not be visibly portrayed in any way. Creatures may be portrayed, but God forbids us to make or have any images of them in order to worship them or to serve God through them.[1]
[1] Ex. 34:13, 14, 17; Num. 33:52; II Kings 18:4, 5; Is. 40:25.

98. Q. But may images not be tolerated in the churches as "books for the laity"?
A. No, for we should not be wiser than God. He wants His people to be taught not by means of dumb images[1] but by the living preaching of His Word.[2]
[1] Jer. 10:8; Hab. 2:18-20. [2] Rom. 10:14, 15, 17; II Tim. 3:16, 17; II Pet. 1:19.

Scripture Reading:
Exodus 32:1-14
Job 42:1-9

Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise" Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Psalm 95:2,3
Psalm 115:5,6
Psalm 85:3,4
Psalm 106:9,10,11
Psalm 106:23,24
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!

What Israel did at Mt Sinai -construct a golden calf and worshipping it- strikes us as so bizarre; surely, we say, it's not something we would do. Make graven images? No, we know better.. Result: we put the second commandment at arm's length from ourselves; we don't really relate to it..

In His care for His people, congregation, the Lord our God has given to His people of long ago, and to us today, also the second commandment. He sees danger for His people here, a way for His people to offend Him, provoke His jealousy, and so get hurt. It's true that this command has a very outdated taste to it, but it's so very modern in its application.

I summarize the sermon with this theme:


The ancient setting of this command,
The modern application of this command.

1. The ancient setting of this command.

The Lord God delivered a people from bondage to Egypt and brought them to Mt Sinai. In cloud and smoke, with thunder and lightning He came to His people congregated at the foot of the mountain, and spoke to them the Ten Commandments. We heard last week that the Lord forbade all idolatry amongst His people; they were to have no other gods before the Lord. So: they were not to seek their happiness in Baal or in Sex or in Approval, etc.

Hard on the heels of the first commandment, the Lord voiced a second: "You shall not make for yourselves any graven image." Straightaway we wonder: what is really the difference between the second command and the first? No idols, said the first commandment; no images, says the second - what's the difference?

This: with the first the Lord forbade other gods; His people are to find their happiness in Him alone, serve Him. But in their service of their God, Israel must not make any image of God. In the words of Lord's Day 35: "We are not to make an image of God in any manner."

Now, why would the Lord give Israel an instruction not to make any image of Him? To understand the point, I need to take you back to Israel's time and to the habit of their day. For Israel -like we- lived in the world and were invariably influenced by the thinking of the peoples around them.

Israel had lived in Egypt for so many years. According to the Egyptians, there were any number of gods, none almighty, but all able to do something for you. There's a god of fertility and there's a god of flood, there's a god of storm and a god of war, etc. If you in your circumstances, then, wanted the attention of the god of war (for, say, your enemy was attacking), you had to do something to get this god's attention. For all you know, he could be sleeping, or on holidays, or fighting a war somewhere else. Or maybe he had a grudge against you.. So what did you have to do? First you had to get him into your house, and then you had to ensure his favor.

How you got the desired god into your home? You made an image of this god. You took some creature from heaven above (a bird), or from the earth beneath (maybe a cow), or from the waters under the earth (perhaps a fish), and used that to portray the god whose attention you sought. You took the most flattering creature you could think of, the creature that most appropriately captured the qualities you saw in your god. You set this image in your house, then worshipped your god through the image. You prayed to this god in front of this image and explained your need, did ceremonies in front of it and offered sacrifices to impress this god. You'd offer the best bull from the paddock, maybe sacrificed your oldest son - that would really demonstrate your devotion to this god! The purpose of the exercise? To get the god to do what you wanted - help in the war against your enemy!

Do you follow, brothers and sisters, the line of thought here? It's this: through making an image you can influence the god of your choice, can exercise some control over him, persuade him to come into your house and do this-and-that for you. The thought behind this thought? The gods are whimsical, moody, certainly not almighty and caring; they're open for your influence, need to have their backs stroked. And since these gods don't speak and tell you what they want, you decide what they want and how to stroke them.

This is the environment in which Israel lived. When the Lord, then, established His covenant with Israel at Mt Sinai, He addressed this popular theology and forbade it amongst His people. They were, He said, to make no images of God, were not to take a creature from heaven above or the earth beneath or the waters under the earth in order to portray what they thought God was like and worship God through that creature.

Why God forbade it? Simple: no creature adequately conveyed what He was like. No stallion or bull or fish or star conveyed His holiness and His power and His love and His justice, etc. But more: you didn't have to persuade God to come to you to begin with! After all, the Lord Himself had just said in the Introduction to the Ten Commandments that He was Israel's God, and it was His firm intent to live amongst His people. On top of that, He didn't sleep or go on holidays; He was always there with His people so that they could always pray to Him, tell Him their needs. More still: no one had to stroke this God to win His favor; the Lord loved His people, was a Father to them, supplied them with all good and averted all evil or turned it to their benefit. That was the lesson of all the Israelites had seen of God so far: the ten plagues displayed God's mighty arm and His love for His people; the dry path through the Red Sea displayed again His mighty power and His care for His children; the manna in the desert displayed the same. In a word: this God was always there, always caring, using His almighty power -for He's the Creator!- to protect His people - for He's Father. That's the lesson of the introduction to the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." And exactly because this is Who I am, therefore "you shall not make for yourselves any graven image.." I'm not like the gods of the heathens, and therefore you may not treat Me as if I am!

But see: it didn't take long for the people of Israel to transgress precisely this commandment. That is: it didn't take long for the influences Israel had received from their environment to affect the way they worshipped their God-by-covenant. I refer to the passage we read from Ex 32.

Scarcely a month after the Lord had given the Ten Commandments to His people, and while the cloud and smoke remained over the mountain, the people feared that God -like the gods of the Egyptians- had deserted them. For "Moses delayed coming down from the mountain" - was he dead? And to be alone in the desert without this God - how terrible! So "the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him (says our translation), 'Come, make us gods that shall go before us'" (vs 1). But that translation can be improved. For it's the same with the Hebrew word for 'God' as it is with the English word 'sheep'; the word 'sheep' can be both singular and plural. So here: you can translate both as the NKJV has done, so that the people tell Aaron to "make us gods", but you can also translate as, "Come, make us God." That the people in fact mean 'God', the Lord, is clear from vs 4; once Aaron has an image together, the people say of it, "This is your God, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" And in vs 5 Aaron declares that tomorrow is "a feast to the Lord." The thinking amongst the people was that the God who had delivered them from Egypt and made His covenant with them at Sinai was gone -like the heathen gods would come and go- and so they had to bring Him back somehow. Hence the people's willingness to give so much gold for this image; they want God, and hence also their rejoicing once the image is complete; they're convinced they have God back in their midst again.

But see, beloved, God's response! Vs 7: "Go, get down! For your people whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves." Notice the word 'you' and 'your'. God disowns this people, doesn't call them 'My people' anymore, but "yours". More, He says to Moses in vs 10 to "let Me alone, that . I may consume them." Back in the second commandment God had said something about His being "a jealous God," and here He displays it. The people would treat Him as if He were like those bumbling heathen gods that don't really exist?? The people think they can influence God, carry Him hither and thither as they please? No way! God is there, God is almighty, God is not dependent on people stroking Him! They would do it nevertheless? Hereby they demean God, and that in turn offends Him; hence the anger of Ex 32. And it's only because Moses intercedes for the people, mediates for them, that the Lord turns from His holy anger and spares this nation of sinners.

Can you think now, brothers and sisters, of other examples where the people sinned against the second commandment? Take that the passage about the ark being taken to the battlefield against the Philistines. The reason for bringing the ark to battle? Israel had been defeated in the first round of fighting, and so the question arose: how do we get God to help us? And the answer was: bring God to the battlefield! Hence they took the ark from the Holy of Holies., as if moving the ark will move Him who is enthroned over the ark.. The Philistines understood the point: "God has come into [their] camp! Woe to us!" But you know what happened: God will not let people move Him around, and so God let Israel be defeated in the battle and the ark be captured (1 Sam 4). As He said in the second commandment: He's a jealous God..

Do you see, brothers and sisters, what this sin against the second commandment really is? The heart of this sin is not making a graven image per se; the heart of this sin is having in your mind a concept of God different from what He has revealed in His word. That is: you have a mental image of God. Once you have a warped mental image of God, a twisted perception in your mind of what God is like, you are open for serving this God as the heathens serve their gods. That was Israel's problem at Mt Sinai, they had a faulty perception of God, one not based on God's own revelation, and so they felt free to worship God as they had seen the Egyptians worship their gods.

Here we have to take instruction also from the passage we read from Job. Job was the richest man in the East, and godly also, but in one day he lost his every possession, including his children, and even his wife told him to curse God and die. His friends came to bemoan his loss with him and comfort him. But at the end of the book, God's wrath was aroused against the three friends, and God insisted that Job pray for them as Moses had to pray for Israel. Why God's anger was aroused against the three friends? It's because they insisted on a faulty understanding of God, that is, they were guilty of sin against the second commandment. In their speeches they portrayed God as spiteful. They said: 'Job, God punishes evil doers, you are being punished, so it's clear that you have sinned; you must repent.' But is that how God had revealed Himself? Not at all! God Himself has said that He has more reasons for reaching in the lives of His children; in fact, exactly because He is God can He do whatever He wishes - as Job said in vs 2. These friends, then, had a mental image of God that portrayed God as being bound to people's behavior; if people act uprightly God must give you good things, and if people sin God must give you bad things. Here God's sovereignty and freedom was forgotten; these friends did not accept what God had revealed about Himself, but let their understanding of God be determined by some influence outside of God. And see: that provoked God's anger. Said God to the friends at the end of the book: "My wrath is aroused against you., for you have not spoken of Me what is right" (42:7). Here's the jealousy of God as described in the second commandment!

Let's move now to our second point:

2. The modern application of this command.

We live in different times than Israel did in the Old Testament. Certainly our culture does not think in terms of using images to compel the gods to come into our homes and do what we want them to do. But there's a more significant change: the God who established His covenant with Israel at Mt Sinai has sent His only Son into the world to reconcile sinners to Himself. This Son was the perfect image of the Father, showed mankind exactly what the Father was like - in all His love and holiness and wisdom and justice and grace. During all the time He lived on earth, the Lord Jesus Christ obeyed the second commandment perfectly, never permitted in His mind an understanding of God that differed from His holy revelation. Even when the Father rejected the Son on Calvary, the Son did not make an image of God -neither molten nor mental- in an attempt to get God to do what He wanted Him to do. Always He remembered Who God was, what He was like, and so served Him not as was easy and attractive but as was pleasing to God.

Through His perfect obedience to the second commandment, the Son of God has paid for the sins of God's people - including our sins against the second commandment. More: through His obedience the Son of God has obtained for us the life-giving Spirit. That Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts, and that's to say that the Lord our God is always with us - Immanuel. More: this God -our Father in Jesus Christ- speaks to us. How? He speaks to us through His Word, and so through the preaching of that Word.

To deny that, to under-value that Word - yes, then one can still serve God, keep the first commandment, but then one has embraced a different perception of what God is like than God has revealed in Scripture. That's sin against the sin commandment. That's why our Catechism -written as it was in the time of the Reformation some 450 years ago- mentions something called "books for the laity".

"Books for the laity." The word 'laity' refers to the people as opposed to the clergy. The expression 'books for the laity' comes from the practice of the Roman Catholic Church in the time before the Reformation to teach the people through dumb images; those images were 'books for the laity'. Roman Catholic teaching had it that God was far removed from the uneducated masses of the street, and these uneducated folk could not understand God. That's why they couldn't pray directly to Him, but had to pray via saints (cf Lord's Day 34.94). Equally, that's why they weren't allowed to have a Bible; only the clergy, the priests, could have the Bible (and even they were bound in their reading of the Bible to the official Roman Catholic interpretation). How could the people, then, get to know anything about God? The churches were packed with images, images of Mary or of Jesus on the cross or of Jesus carrying a lamb or of Peter doing something, etc. That God actually speaks to His people through the Bible and the preaching of His Word - no, that was a perception of God not embraced in the RCC. You see, they still spoke of God, still served God (and not Baal or Zeus or Allah), but had embraced a different perception of God than what God had revealed in the Bible - just as the friends of Job had a different perception of God than God had revealed. They had a mental image, which in turn prompted the RCC at the time to try to teach the people through images, and that provoked God's jealousy.

This particular problem -doctoring your perception of God so that it differs from God's self-revelation- abounds today. It pleases God to speak to His people, to speak to them through the Bible and the preaching of the Bible. But what does one see in the modern liturgical movement? One sees a shift away from the preaching, and an emphasis instead on drama and entertainment. That shift comes about because of a changed perception of who God is. That is: the Biblical understanding of God is replaced by a more user-friendly understanding, a God who likes to see His audience enjoy themselves, feel good. That changed perception of who God is results in different conduct in church. But it provokes God's wrath, and therefore leads to empty churches, apostasy.. This is the point of our Lord's Day, where we confess that we are not "to worship Him in any other manner than He has commanded in His Word."

We can, brothers and sisters, bring the matter much closer to home still. A warped perception of God occurs not only in church. Consider this: when we tell a dirty joke, where, to our minds, is God? Beside us? No. In practice we deny His omnipresence; subconsciously we've removed God from the picture and act as if He didn't hear that dirty joke. We visit a pornography page on the internet, and again, subconsciously we've removed God for the moment; He didn't see that I visited that page. Whilst we won't say it out loud, in fact we permit into our thinking a perception of God that has God being with us, say, on Sunday and at club and when we read the Bible at the kitchen table, but has Him being absent, say, when I'm online or out for my Friday evening out with the boys. It may all be subconscious, but it's a mental image of God nevertheless, and it does not agree with His revelation of Himself.

Again: we know that God hates sin. But, we tell ourselves, God hates that brother's sin more than my sin. And actually: he ought to repent; how dare the consistory let him get away with this and that! But me, well, God understands., so leave me alone.. Again, here we've made an image of God in our minds that does not agree with God's revelation about Himself - as if He easily turns a blind eye to my sin but not to his sin. Let it be clear to us: it's sin against the second commandment!

That's why we need to know how much such mental images provoke God's jealousy! It's what He said in the second commandment, it's what He displayed in Ex 32, it's what He displayed with the loss of the ark, and it's what He declared to Job's three friends. And God, congregation, does not change - so He has revealed!

What God does with those who make an image of God - be it molten or mental? Says the Lord: He "visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Him." "Hate Him," He says. That's a strong word for those who 'only' doctor their understanding of God somewhat. But that's what God calls it, beloved! This God revealed Himself in all His wonderful glory, and if someone would replace that glorious God with a different perception of Him, that can only be because He does not love God as He really is - and God calls that hatred! Then He makes His jealousy felt in the generations, three generations, four - unless the children repent from the sins of the fathers. But let us be honest: my children shall certainly pick up from my conduct what I really think of God - notwithstanding all my pious talk. And they shall serve God not according to my talk, but according to my example. That is why it is so imperative that I make sure I have a correct perception of God in my mind, and not one with which I'm comfortable. No mental image; instead, I must serve the Lord according to His Word. Then He holds on to His own, to the thousandth generation of those who serve Him faithfully.

Getting doctrine right is the first step to getting your life right. It's true also of our doctrine of God. That's why we're so very, very comforted that our Lord Jesus Christ knew His Father so well, had His doctrine of God right. That's our salvation. In gratitude for His redemption, we shall stay busy with the Scriptures, always striving to listen humbly to God's revelation, and so to serve Him not as suits us but as He has revealed. Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was:

(c) Copyright 2003, Rev. C. Bouwman

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