Skip to main content

Commandment #2: No Idols

Exodus 20:4-6

4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or 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 or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

The second command is a prohibition on idols. There is to be no physical representation of God of any kind. This has a few very significant implications.

First, Remember back to the creation account in Genesis 1. There God makes mankind in his image. Humans are the image of God, therefore God requires no image.

Second, this distinguished the people of Israel from just about every other culture around them. Idols prevailed in the ancient world. For Israel to have no idol to worship was certainly unique.

Third, it reinforced the idea that God is transcendent. He exists outside of creation, in fact he created it all, so to represent him with inanimate material will necessarily diminish him.

To illustrate the necessity of this command, when Moses is up on the mountain receiving the stone tablets and the Law from God the people of Israel are demanding Aaron fashion them a golden calf, which of course he does (see Deut. 9). This is really the beginning of the pattern that we will see throughout the rest of the Old Testament. God has given them these laws, they know how to worship him, yet they continually fail. This leads us to see the need for something more, something better (cue dramatic music and enter Jesus stage right).

The words “bow down” (hawah) and “serve” (abad) in v. 5 are the two most common Hebrew words translated as worship in the OT. So here we see the twofold sense of worship: a sense of homage in recognizing one as greater than yourself and the physical acts that we do in service of that one. “Serve” (abad) is also the word in Genesis 2:15, there translated “work”. Remember that is in the garden where God rests them and tells them to work it and to keep it. Remember we said that was more at home in the context of worship than in gardening. Here we see an example of that connection.

The word “jealous” may seem a little strange here. We tend to think of jealousy as a negative trait. In the Hebrew Bible this word is only used to describe God which creates some distance between God’s jealousy and our human jealousy. And remember the context here. Remember the first commandment that they are to have no other gods before God. God is making a covenant with his people Israel. God is saying that if they break the covenant agreement and worship another god, he will be jealous for them. Remember his relationship with them is to be exclusive. Think of it like a marriage covenant. If a wife cheats on her husband (Israel worshipping other gods) the only proper response from a husband would be jealousy precisely because their relationship is meant to be exclusive. So this jealousy of God is a good, desired thing.

Interestingly, one would expect the laws given by God to his people to reflect more of a king to subject sort of relationship, but here we see a much more intimate husband-wife relationship that God creates with his people.

Finally the promises of verses 5 and 6 can be a little disconcerting as well. It’s not that God holds the children morally responsible for their parents sin; instead it is likely that the consequences (visiting the iniquity) of the parent’s sin carries over 3-4 generations. Also these 2 lines are meant to be read in comparison. God visits the iniquity of the parents on the children for a mere 3-4 generations while his covenant faithfulness, steadfast love will extend to essentially limitless generations of those who love him. God’s anger lasts only for a while but his steadfast love lasts forever. Just as in Exodus 34 when God announces his character, this is meant to be a juxtaposition of both God’s justice and God’s great mercy.


That’s all for today, as you go about your day today reflect on the concept that God is jealous for you. That he, like any good spouse, wants your devotion exclusively directed towards him. Think of how it must grieve the heart of God when you set up silly, idols (like another person, a sports team, money, etc) and worship them with your time, devotion and care more than him. Do your best today to give him that.