Continuing our look at the book of Exodus and the Ten Commandments, we come today to the second commandment, which builds on the first commandment’s concern with the worship of God. The first commandment speaks against idolatry in stressing that our devotion to the one true God must be greater than our devotion to anything else (Ex. 20:3). The second commandment puts limits on how that devotion is to be expressed. As we see in Exodus 20:4–6, we are not to make a carved image or a likeness of anything for the purpose of worship. We are not to make any graven images.
Some Christians have argued that the second commandment warns us against visual imagery of any kind in the context of corporate worship. But Exodus 20:4–6 is not prescribing visual plainness in our church buildings. We know this to be the case from texts such as Exodus 26:31, which directs the Israelites to work images of the cherubim—angelic beings—into the tabernacle curtains. If the Lord could direct the people to include visual imagery in the tabernacle, the second commandment cannot be forbidding all artwork or elegant design in the places where we gather to worship God.
Applying the second commandment can be difficult, but it is clear that the law explicitly prohibits what are often called graven images, or images created for the purpose of worship. When professing Christians treat images as objects of worship and devotion, then the second commandment has been broken. Additionally, in the second commandment we can discern a general rule to follow when it comes to the worship of God—namely, that we need biblical warrant or justification for whatever we do in corporate worship. We are not to do whatever we think is pleasing to the Lord but should be careful to take our cues for worship from Scripture.
Finally, let us address the warning in Exodus 20:5 that the Lord will visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate [Him].” At first glance, some people might conclude that this text means that our Creator will punish people for the sins of their ancestors. Yet we dare not overlook the qualifier “of those who hate me.” It is not that the Lord punishes people for the sins of their fathers when children are innocent of those sins; rather, He punishes the children who hate Him and repeat the sins of their fathers. Ezekiel 18 confirms this by noting that people are not punished for their fathers’ sins if they turn from them.