Imagine if a woman’s husband found out that his wife routinely told her friends, “I like to see my husband as a 6’2” Antonio Banderas who lifts weights, whose perfect idea of date night is perusing the aisles at TJ Maxx, who drinks froufrou smoothies made out of strawberry, and who delights in talking about fashion trends and home furnishing ideas.”
If she kept saying that, her real husband, 5’6” Frank, who likes to work on his truck, wears Wrangler jeans, whose idea of the perfect date is to shoot deer together, and who drinks his coffee black, might get a little upset at being misrepresented so badly. He would have the right to ask her why she has to re-imagine him in order to love him.
In the same way, it’s an insult to God when we have to reshape him into something else in order for us to love him. That is God’s point when he issues the second commandment:
4 “You shall not make for yourself 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; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting] the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
With this commandment, God is saying that we shouldn’t imagine him differently than he is, differently than he has revealed himself in nature and in Scripture.
To summarize the points of the first two commandments, therefore, the first commandment exhorts us to worship the true God, while the second commandment instructs us about how to worship the true God. In reverse, the first commandment commands us not to worship the wrong gods, while the second commandment tells us not worship the right God in the wrong way. As we are turning out backs to false gods, we must turn our face to the true God as he actually is.
That is the point being made about not making images of God. God, as he truly is, cannot be captured by any literal image we might make with our hands or any metaphorical image we make up in our heads. And there is most likely no command individuals and societies break more often than this one. It comes out like this: “The way I like to think of God is …” or “I don’t think God would really have a problem with me doing such and such…” But, it doesn’t really matter how we “like to see God.” God is who he is.
When God appeared to Moses and Moses asked him his name, God didn’t say, “Moses, I am whoever you wish for me to be.” He said, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14 ESV). In fact, in Exodus 20:4-5, God equates reshaping him into a new image with hating him, because you are saying, “God, I don’t like the real you. I need you to be this for me to love you.”(We don’t want God to be God.
One way that our society makes a false image of God is to picture him as an evolving deity who is continually updating his moral law to conform with the latest trends in American society. We envision him as a God who is OK with a consequentialist ethic (an ethic in which the end justifies the means). In other words, if we are upset enough about the way things are going in our society, we can behave sinfully in our political posturing and in what we give approval to in the political arena as long as our posturing and our approvals are likely to achieve a desired outcome. Similarly, we may envision God as being quite flexible in his views of gender and sex or of marriage and family.
Yet, the true God does not evolve. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is who he is and we must worship him as he actually is. As we stand with our back to false gods, we must still learn to kneel properly before the one true and living God.
Think about it. If we imagine human persons differently from what they really are, we get in trouble. Psychologists and marriage/family therapists will tell us that. We need to love people as they really are. And loving God is no different. In fact, it is even more true with God than with other people.
Additionally, we must note that this commandment comes with a warning. A man who worships falsely will see the horrific consequences of his sin inflicted upon his children and grandchildren, up to the fourth generation and will ruin his reputation as a Christian. Conversely, a man who worships truly will experience God’s blessings and mercy both on him and his descendants.
In conclusion, we must guard ourselves against false worship of the true God. We must guard ourselves the same way bank tellers guard themselves against counterfeit bills. Tellers expose themselves continually to genuine currency and thus are able easily to spot the “feel” and “look” of a counterfeit bill. Similarly, we must expose ourselves to God—as revealed in nature and Scripture—repeatedly until we are quick to spot counterfeit images of God. We study our Bible and listen to good Bible-teaching until we are full to the brim with truth about God.
If our society begins to flourish again, it will be because a critical mass of people stops worshiping God in a diminished or distorted manner. And because it starts worshiping him as he really is, thus becoming God-restored (image-bearers) in the process.