The Second Commandment

Exodus 20:4-6

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
September 2016

“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 your 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.”

We are studying the Ten Commandments, the basis of all morality. They were given in the context of the greatest theophany of history.  God spoke audibly to the entire nation from the top of the mountain.  He spoke out loud the Ten Commandments.  They are divided into two parts.  The first part of the Ten Commandments deal with God.  Last week, we looked at the First Commandment, the first of God’s top ten.

General Observations

Today, we will be looking at the Second Commandment.  There are several things unique about this commandment.  It is one of the longest of the Ten Commandments.  It contains both a warning and a promise.  The warning is for those who hate God.  God will replay them.  He will replay them to the third and fourth generation. Deuteronomy 7:10 says that those who hate God, He will repay them to their face.

There is also a promise of blessing to all who love God.  God shows love to a thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments.  God’s mercy far exceeds his wrath. There is no limit to God’s mercy.

This was the first of the ten to be broken.  The Jews did the very thing they were told not to do in Exodus 32, the Jews made a golden calf and said it was the god who delivered them from Egypt.  They even called the calf Jehovah.  Moses’ brother Aaron helped build it.

The Second Commandment is not the same as the First Commandment.  Many confuse them but they don’t say the same thing.  There is an important difference.  The First Commandment says “You shall have no other gods before me”.  It deals with WHO we worship.  It deals with the OBJECT of worship.  We are to worship the one true God and no other.

The greatest sin in the Bible is idolatry.  It made number one on God’s top ten list.  The Second Commandment It deals with HOW we worship.  It deals with the MANNER of worship. The First Commandment says, “Don’t worship a false god”.  The Second Commandment says, “Don’t worship the true God through images, any image on heaven, earth or the sea”.

This commandment has two prohibitions in it.  We are not to make an idol of a god (even the true God).  We are not to be god makers.  Making an image of a god or even of the true God is a sin.  We are also not to worship an image of God or any divine being.  Both are forbidden by this commandment.

Lessons about God

This commandment tells us several things about God.  We learn several things about God.

1. We learn that God is jealous

You shall not bow down to them or worship them; FOR I THE LORD YOUR 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” (20:5 NIV).  This is a sin that makes God jealous. Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, WHOSE NAME IS JEALOUS, is a jealous God (34:14 NIV).

That sounds a little strange. Shakespeare called jealousy “a green eyed-monster.” The Bible says that it is a sin. It is a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-20; I Corinthians 3:1-3). It is a work of darkness (Romans 13:11-14). God says that this is His name. How can a holy God be jealous? If jealousy is a sin, how can God be jealous?  The Bible says that love is not jealous (I Corinthians 13:4).  It also says that God is love (I John 4:8), so how can God be jealous?

The problem is that we use jealousy in only a bad sense.  It has a negative connotation but jealousy is not always a sin. Sometimes it is right to be jealous. Psychologists say that human jealousy is a result of insecurity.  It is a result of fear, not love but a wife should be jealous of her husband spending quality time with another woman.

If your spouse is having an affair, it should bother you. You should be upset about a spouse who commits adultery. You should be jealous.  God is the same way.  He also demands exclusive loyalty. The GNB paraphrases the idea of God being a jealous God with the rendering, “I tolerate no rivals.”

2. We learn that God judges sin

You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your 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(NIV)

God rewards obedience.  He rewards those who love him and keep his commandments.  That is an encouragement.  He also punishes sin and idolatry.  The Second Commandment is one of the very few of the Ten Commandments that contains a warning.  The warning has caused some controversy.

Four times in the Bible we are told that “God punishes the children FOR THE SINS OF THE PARENTS to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20:4; 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9). That is strange. Why are children punished for the sins of their fathers to the third and fourth generations? Why are sons punished for the sins of their ancestors?

Why would I be punished for something my great-grand father did?  Why should I be punished for something that I did not do?  That does not seem right.  That is not right but it is also not what the verse is saying. The Bible teaches very clearly that you are not punished for what someone else did.

God does NOT punish children for the sins of the fathers.  Ezekiel 18:20 says, “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.” The Mosaic Law said the same thing (Deuteronomy 24:16).

What does Exodus 20 mean when it talks about God punishing children for the sins of their parents?  Whenever you read a difficult passage, try reading it again.  Then read the context and any parallel passages.

The first clue to what this means is found at the end of the verse.  Exodus 20:5 says, “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation OF THEM THAT HATE ME”.   When all else fails, try reading the rest of the verse.

The only people are punished are those who hate God.  There are only two kinds of people: lovers of God and haters of God.  Which are you? Those who love God, keep his commandments.  Those who hate God, do not.   Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15).  Do you keep His commandments?   Only haters of God are punished, not innocent children who REFUSED to participate in their parent’s idolatry. Those who love God are not punished.

The second clue is found in a parallel passage.  Exodus 34:7 says that God maintains “maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. YET HE DOES NOT LEAVE THE GUILTY UNPUNISHED; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”  The only people who are punished are guilty.

The children are just as guilty as the parents.  God is not punishing innocent grandchildren for the sins of their grandparents or great-grandparents.  He only punishes THE GUILTY, not the innocent (Exodus 34:7).  The children are punished because they hate God and they show that they hate God by continuing to worship idols, as their ancestors did.

3. We learn that God is invisible

The First Commandment teaches that there is only one God.  The Second Commandment teaches that he is invisible.  God is invisible (Colossians 1:15; I Timothy 1:17).  When God spoke to the Jews from the top of this mountain, they did not see anything but fire.  They did not see a body talking to them.  They just heard a voice talking to them out of the fire.

You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. 12 Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. 13 He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets. 14 And the Lord directed me at that time to teach you the decrees and laws you are to follow in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess.

15 You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16 so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17 or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18 or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. 19 And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. (Deuteronomy 4:11-19 NIV).

This commandment was completely counter-cultural when it was given.  Every religion in the ancient world had an image of their god.  They all worshiped a physical god.  The Jews were to worship an invisible God.  That must have seemed very strange to the ancients.  They worshiped a God you couldn’t even see.

Jesus said that God is a spirit (John 4:24).  A spirit does not have a physical body (Luke 24:39).  When the Bible talks about God having a face, hands, eyes and ears, these are just figures of speech. God wrote the Ten Commandments with his finger on two stone tablets but this does not mean that God has literal fingers or a literal hand.

That is why images cannot represent God. The whole point of this command is that we have to worship God as He is, NOT as we want Him to be.  Many of us have a lot of pictures of ideas about God that are unbiblical. They do not come from Scripture but from our own ideas about what we think God is like. They come from people’s own imagination.

We have heard people say, “My God would never send anybody to Hell” or “My God accepts everyone just as they are.  He does not judge people”. The problem is that their god does not exist.  It is a figment of their imagination.  Worship has to be biblical. We are to worship God only as He has revealed Himself.  Jesus said that those who worship God must worship God IN TRUTH (John 4:24).[1]

Myths about the Second Commandment

There are many myths about the Second Commandment.  This is one of the most misunderstood of the Ten Commandments.  Three things need to be remembered about this commandment.

1) This commandment is NOT a prohibition of art

This is not a prohibition of art, even religious art. It doesn’t prohibit all images, sculptures, paintings, drawings and statutes, only images of God. It is not against painting.  After the Reformation, many stain glass windows were smashed because they depicted things in heaven, earth or sea.  Statutes were destroyed.  How do we know that this was not a prohibition of art?

There were some carved images for the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple (Exodus 25:17-22; I Kings 6:25-26) and God told them to do it, so it was not wrong. This is not a prohibition of creativity or construction or artistry.  There is nothing wrong with making things and using tools to do it.  This is a prohibition of idolatry.  It is not wrong to make artwork as long as you do not worship your artwork.

2) This commandment is NOT a prohibition of religious jewelry

This Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that it is idolatry to wear a cross around your neck. What do you think? It is not idolatry, unless you worship the cross. Wearing religious jewelry as a symbol of your faith is not the same thing as making a carved image, bowing down to it and worshiping it.

3) This commandment is NOT a prohibition of religious movies

When The Passion of the Christ came out some fanatics said, “You cannot watch that movie because it violates the Second Commandment.”  A Movie about Jesus is simply a depiction of a historical event.  Everyone knows the one who plays Jesus is an actor.  No one bows down and worships the actor.

Pictures of Jesus

Are pictures of Jesus a violation of the Second Commandment, since the Bible teaches that Jesus is God?  Here’s where it gets a little tricky.  The answer is yes and no.  In one sense they are a violation of this commandment and in one sense they are not.

They are not a direct violation of the commandment because, while the Bible teaches that Jesus is God, it also teaches that he is man. God is invisible. Jesus is visible. God doesn’t have a body. Jesus had a body. God doesn’t have a face. Jesus has a face. So it would not violate the letter of the law to draw a picture of him.

However, they might violate the spirit of the law. We have absolutely no idea what Jesus looked like. The Bible does not give us a description of Jesus’ appearance.  It does not say that He was tall or short, skinny or fat.  It does not say that he had brown hair or black hair, long or short hair.

The NT gives us no description of his physical appearance. The earliest picture of Jesus from history comes from the third century. The problem with drawing a picture of Jesus is that the only Jesus an artist can draw is the Jesus of his or her imagination, since we do not know what He looked like.

Everyone draws Jesus differently.  Western Europeans give Jesus blond hair and blue eyes. Asians artists portray him with Asian features. African Americans portray him as black. Many in the black community believe that Jesus and the Apostles were all black.[2]  There is a joke that Jesus must have been black.  He came from a poor background.  The deck was stacked against him.  He couldn’t get a fair trial. He liked gospel and called people “brother”.

Drawing or painting a picture of Jesus might violate the spirit of the law, because it is simply a Jesus of our imagination but there is one exception.  Many people have had real visions of Jesus.  It would not be wrong to try to paint or draw what you saw.  That is not based on imagination but on eye-witness testimony.

Generational Curses

Before we leave this commandment, we need to make one final comment.  Many have used this commandment to teach the concept of generational curses, which is popular in some circles.  There are books on the topic, like Marilyn Hickey’s Breaking Generational Curses (2001).   Whole ministries dedicated to helping people break free from these generational curses over their lives.  What does the doctrine teach? It teaches several things.

One, many problems that people have are due to generational curses (e.g., obesity, heart disease, insomnia, alcoholism) . These problems even affect Christians. These problems come into our life, not because of anything we have done but become of something that one of our ancestors has done.

It is a result of the sin of the parents or great-grandparents and can have detrimental effects on the lives, even of Christians.  They believe that many Christians are under a curse. Putting your faith in Christ does not break these curses. God must reveal to you if a curse is involved.

Three, you must bind Satan through prayer to deal with the demons that demons have ground in your life because of some generational sin.  A spiritual mechanism must be used to break the curse line of demonsThey get this idea from Exodus 20:5.

Biblical Evaluation of Generational Curses

Is this doctrine biblical?  Does it come from the Second Commandment?  Some parts of this doctrine are biblical and some are not.  Let me point out several things about this passage.

1) Exodus 20:5 is only talking about haters of God

That does not describe Christians.  Saved people are not described as haters of God.  This passage does not describe a curse on Christians at all.

2) Exodus 20:5 is not a curse on innocent children

As we have already seen, that is an unbiblical concept.  God punishes children for their own sins and the only ones being punished in Exodus are guilty people who hate God (guilty fathers and guilty sons).  Hebrew scholars Keil & Delitzsch tell us that the words “them that hate Me” apply to both the parents and the children.  This is not talking about some curse on innocent people because of the sins of their ancestors which they have no control over.

3) Exodus 20:5 says nothing about demons.

It is not Satan who visits iniquity on people. God does that. He is the active agent. The curse in Exodus 20:5 does not come from demons. God is the one who is doing the visiting.  He is doing the punishing.

4) Exodus 20:5 does not mention prayer to break the curse

There is not a word in the text about this.  The punishment can be stopped.  There is a remedy but the remedy in the context is not to say a prayer in Jesus name asking to be released from some generational curse that has been traveling through your ancestral line.  The way to remove the punishment would be to stop worshiping idols and being a hater of God.

The way to remove the punishment is to repent.  Ezekiel 18:21-22 says, “But if a wicked person turns away from all the sins they have committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, that person will surely live; they will not die. 22 None of the offenses they have committed will be remembered against them” (NIV).

Generational Sins

The Bible does not talk about generational curses but it does talk about generational sins.  It talks about family sins.  There is such a thing as family sins. Over and over again in Kings and Chronicles, it says that a king walked in the sins of his father (I Kings 15:3, 26, 34).  Parents have a tremendous influence on their kids. Whatever is important to us is important to our kids.

Children often imitate and repeat the sinful habits of their parents. The second generation often repeats the sins of the first generation. Children often repeat the bad example set by a parent. If parents swear all of the time, kids will swear. If parents do drugs, kids will as well. If a father abuses a mother, the kids grow up thinking that this is the way to treat women. Many sexually abused kids grow up to become abusers themselves.

The First and Second Commandments are dealing with false worship. We pass on to our kids our view about God and the Bible. If we worship a false god, our children will worship a false god. If we attend a spiritually dead church, our kids will as well. If we mock and ridicule the Bible, those attitudes will be passed on to the children. If the parents hate God, that hatred will be passed on to the kids.

Do we have a family sin?  They way to break a family sin is by confession and repentance.  You may live in a family whose parents and grandparents were alcoholics or abusers.  You have a choice to continue in that path or stop the cycle of sin.  Nehemiah 9:1-2 says, “On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their headsAnd the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers” (ESV).  Other passages say the same thing (cf Leviticus 26:40, 42).

[1] The only image of God in Scripture is Jesus. Jesus is called “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).  He is the express image of God (Hebrews 1:3).  In Jesus, the invisible God was made visible.  Jesus said, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father”.

[2]Cf. The Original African Heritage Study Bible (Nashville: James C. Winston Publishing Company, 1993)

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