In its historical and religious context, it is clear that the 2nd Commandment language concerning the “heaven above . . . earth beneath . . . water under the earth” had specific reference to the Egyptian gods of those domains that the Israelites had long worshiped, and were still worshiping (Ezekiel 20:8-10). Thus the 2nd Commandment was never intended as a general decree forbidding the creation of every sort of image, but a two-imperative law that forbade 1) making images of beings that are worshiped; and 2) the worship of those images.
I am asked about images of Christ and the 2nd Commandment quite often these days, especially since my last article. The below question is typical. My ten-point response follows:
“I know that Reformed churches are not against ALL images. My question is, why are you NOT against all images, given the exhaustive list of Exodus 20:4, “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”?”
1. Egypt worshiped a pantheon of gods that were associated with the physical universe; for example, Ra (sun god), Horus (falcon-headed god of the sky), Hathor (cow goddess), Menhit (lioness goddess of war), Apis (bull god of fertility), Hapi (fertility god of the Nile), Sobek (crocodile god of the Nile), Apep (serpent god of the underworld), etc.
2. These Egyptian gods corresponded to “heaven above (sky gods) . . . the earth beneath (animal gods) . . . and the water under the earth (river and underworld gods).”
3. Israel made a habit of worshiping these gods of Egypt during their captivity. They resisted the Lord even while in Egypt when He commanded them to get rid of these idols. Ezekiel 20:6-8: “On that day I raised My hand in an oath to them, to bring them out of the land of Egypt . . . Then I said to them, ‘Each of you, throw away the abominations which are before his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’ But they rebelled against Me and would not obey Me. They did not all cast away the abominations which were before their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt.”
4. When the Lord brought idol-worshiping Israel out of Egypt and constituted them a nation at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:6), He commanded them to no longer make “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” (Exodus 20:4-5).
5. In its historical and religious context, it is clear that the 2nd Commandment language concerning the “heaven above . . . earth beneath . . . water under the earth” had specific reference to the Egyptian gods of those domains that the Israelites had long worshiped, and were still worshiping (Ezekiel 20:8-10).
6. Thus the 2nd Commandment was never intended as a general decree forbidding the creation of every sort of image, but a two-imperative law that forbade 1) making images of beings that are worshiped; and 2) the worship of those images.
7. That the 2nd Commandment forbade the creation of any and all images of the God of Israel is obvious, as was demonstrated in the Golden Calf incident, where the Israelites exhorted Aaron to “make us Elohim that shall go before us,” and then referred to the image as “Yahweh” and “your Elohim that brought you out of the land of Egypt” (“the Lord…your God,” Exodus 32:4-5), for which they were severely judged (Exodus 32:27-28).
8. Thus God’s people are forbidden to create images of the God that they worship. This is why Reformed Christians are not against the creation of all images in general, but are especially against the creation of images of the three persons of the Trinity.
9. Thus John Calvin: “God is opposed to idols, that all may know He is the only fit witness to Himself. He expressly forbids any attempt to represent Him by a bodily shape . . . We must hold it as a first principle, that as often as any form is assigned to God, his glory is corrupted by an impious lie” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:11).
10. This is why the Heidelberg Catechism does not forbid the creation of all images without exception. “Q97: May we not make any image at all? A: God may not and cannot be imaged in any way; as for creatures, though they may indeed be imaged, yet God forbids the making or keeping of any likeness of them, either to worship them or to serve God by them.”
Joe Vusich is a minister in the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) and is the pastor of Emmanuel Reformed Church in Sutton, Neb. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.