The Second Commandment tells us we “shall not make for [ourselves] a carved image – 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; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.”1 This commandment flows right from the first, which commands us to “have no other gods before [Him]” (See Self-Evident Truths Part I: No Other Gods Before Me).
At first glance, it almost seems redundant. But we take them separately for a very specific reason. Notice the prohibition includes an image of God Himself. We are not to “bow down” to any image.
If you take time to consider this, you will find it to be both reasonable and sensible. An image of something is not the thing itself. You might cherish immensely an image of your mother or father, for they remind you of them, but you would not love that image as if it were actually your mother or father. That would be foolish. An image of an orange may look appealing, but it won’t satisfy your hunger.
In the same manner, we are to worship God alone and not any representation of God, for He alone can satisfy our thirst for meaning and purpose.
Some might be tempted to argue this is not a problem for us today as it was for the Israelites with the golden calf,2 for example. But we just substitute other things for the calf.
Noted Christian apologist and former atheist C.S. Lewis reflected on this concept by writing:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.3
Idolatry goes far beyond simple caricatures. When we attribute the work or characteristics of God to anything else, we create idols for ourselves. When we look elsewhere for what we know comes only from God, we break this commandment, violating what we know to be true.
Think the Founding Fathers overlooked this commandment? Think again. Its violation was one of the most powerful arguments fueling the American Revolution. Consider Thomas Paine:
[W]hen a man seriously reflects on the idolatrous homage which is paid to the persons of kings, he need not wonder that the Almighty, ever jealous of his honor, should disapprove a form of government which so impiously invades the prerogative of heaven.4
Or, in the words of James Otis:
It is the greatest idolatry, begotten by flattery, on the body of pride, that could induce one to think that a single mortal should be able to hold so great a power. … The power of GOD Almighty is the only power that can properly and strictly be called supreme and absolute.5
In his famous speech the day before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Samuel Adams said:
We have explored the temple of royalty, and found that the idol we have bowed down to has eyes which see not, ears that hear not our prayers, and a heart like the nether millstone. We have this day restored the Sovereign, to Whom alone men ought to be obedient. He reigns in Heaven, and with a propitious eye beholds His subjects assuming that freedom of thought, and dignity of self-direction which He bestowed on them. From the rising to the setting sun, may His kingdom come.6
Idolatry was very much alive at the time of our country’s founding, and it is still alive today. Though few would actually admit it in theory, in practice we lift up very definite idols.
Many worship at the altar of science, for example, or a distortion of science, really. So they make claims like, “Evolution is the creator of life. “7
Still others idolize money, with many making it the central pursuit of their lives, foolishly believing it can bring them security or stability and forgetting that we take nothing when we die.8
Others make pleasures king. This is perhaps the more modern approach, where we make ourselves the idol. “Believe in yourself,” we proudly proclaim. We decide what is right and what is wrong, and we end up saying things like, “Well, that is true for you, but not for me.”
Some make a god of government, hoping it will provide for their every need. We talk about government health care, government jobs, and government charity. Everyday we move closer and closer to believing the lie that our rights come from government, instead of from God.
Our founders recognized the perils of such a state when they wrote that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights.9 Our Constitution was founded on that principle. That idea guards us from making an idol of the Constitution itself, as some may also be tempted to do.
No matter what the idol is, we will pay a heavy price every time we attribute to earthly things that which belongs only to God. Like the man jumping off a building to disprove the law of gravity, continuing to break this commandment will only get us hurt and prove God right!
It’s a shame we sometimes have to endure such pain before we acknowledge what is self-evident.
- Exodus 20:4 (NKJV).
- Exodus 32 (NKJV).
- C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 30-31 (HarperCollins March 20, 2001) (1949).
- Thomas Paine, Common Sense 13 (Signet Classic July 1, 2003)
- Philip Kurland and Ralph Lerner, The Founders’ Constitution, Vol. One, p. 52 (Liberty Fund Inc. May 1, 2000) (1986). (1776).
- Samuel Adams, American Independence Speech, August 1, 1776, available at http://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com/american-independence-speech-by-samuel-adams-august-1-1776.html.
- Richard Dawkins, Man vs. God, The Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2009, available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203440104574405030643556324.html.
- “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Matthew 16:26 (NKJV).
- Declaration of Independence, para. 2 (U.S. 1776).