The Second Commandment—Exodus 20:4-6


Levi Durfey




1 And God spake all these words, saying, 2 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 


4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. 


7 Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. 


8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. 


12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee. 

13 Thou shalt not kill. 

14 Thou shalt not commit adultery. 

15 Thou shalt not steal. 

16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. 


17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s. 




Before we can dig into the second commandment, we need to understand a little about idolatry in the ancient world. 


Simply put, idolatry, or the worship of gods, was the ancient man’s way of making sense of and trying to control his world. 


Particularly important was agricultural issues—why did it rain? How can we make it rain? A bad year was not simply a year to collect on insurance or maybe file bankruptcy—a bad year could mean death.


An image of a god was taken to be a communication conduit to the god that it represented. These gods could act on behalf of man, but they needed to be fed by the means of sacrifices. 


These sacrifices “bought” the god’s service (quite different from Biblical sacrifices covering sin). As long as you made your sacrifices, your gods would work on your behalf, and you could live your life anyway you pleased (again, different from the true God, who is concerned about how you live your life and wants your obedience). 


There were specialist gods for every facet of life—gods of rain and sun and fertility were very common because of the great dependence ancient man had on crops and animals. 


Temple prostitution was common because it was believed that a sexual act with a prostitute in the temple would cause a reciprocal reaction between two gods—say Baal (a male god) and Asherah (a female, mother goddess)—thus causing things to be born on earth.


This was the world that God called the Israelites out of to be a different people who worshipped one God. But it was difficult for the Israelites to break off from worshipping other gods, in part because, as one scholar explains…


Ancient people also believed in three categories of gods, all of which any individual was likely to differentiate by his or her own beliefs and worship: the personal god, the family god, and the national god. 


For most Israelites at most times, and for all other people who knew anything about Israel’s God, Yahweh [Jehovah] was merely a national god. 


Ancient Israelites might have, say, Dagon (Judg 16:23; 1 Sam 5; 1 Chr 10:10) as their personal god and perhaps Baal (e.g., Judg 2:13; 6:25, 28, 30–32; 1 Kgs 16:31–32) as their family god, but they would always have Yahweh as his national God. 


No Israelite, no matter how totally immersed in idolatry, would ever answer no to the question, “Do you believe in Yahweh?” (Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, The New American Commentary, [Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006], 2:452)


Doesn’t that sound familiar to what many “cultural Christians” do today? They will gladly say that Jesus is their God, even while in their lives they follow the gods of money, personal success, fame, or whatever.


The fact that the Israelites were so immersed in a culture of other gods, and worshipping images of those gods, necessitated that God be very clear about what they could and could not worship. 


Would the mighty Jehovah mind if I had a small wooden idol to help me with my crops? It wouldn’t hurt anything, honest!




A. God Cannot Be Represented By Creation


Exodus 20:4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 

Exodus 20:5a Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them:


At first glance, it seems like the first and second commandments are teaching the same thing. God is a jealous God, so don’t have other gods, or images of other gods.


In fact, some, like Catholics and some Lutherans, combine the first and second commandments and separate the tenth commandment into two commandments.


But there is a distinction between the first and second commandments—the first commandment forbids false gods, the second forbids false worship. You see, it’s possible to have the right God, but worship him incorrectly.


We find this in the days of Jehu, when Jehu had done a commendable job eliminating Baal worship—


26 And they brought forth the images out of the house of Baal, and burned them. 27 And they brake down the image of Baal, and brake down the house of Baal, and made it a draught house unto this day. 28 Thus Jehu destroyed Baal out of Israel. (2 Kings 10:26–28)


Great job Jehu! But then listen to the next verse—


29 Howbeit from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, Jehu departed not from after them, to wit, the golden calves that were in Beth-el, and that were in Dan. (2 Kings 10:29)


Jeroboam had instituted a state religion to counter the one in Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:27-30). The golden calves may have been used, not to worship other gods, but to worship the true God, but wrongly.


The problem with worshipping an image, even the person claims to be worshipping the true God, is that they confuse the creation with the Creator. God is a spirit…there is nothing in Creation that can come close to representing him truly. 


God is infinite…to make an image to worship would make him finite. God is all-powerful; an image can do nothing. God is everywhere present; an image is only in one place. It makes a mockery of God to make an image to worship him with.


A second thing about God that we learn from the second commandment, at least from the explanation given us, is that…


B. God Shows Justice And Mercy


Exodus 20:5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 

Exodus 20:6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.


Here we have a difficult passage because it seems to say that God will be angry with even the great-grandchildren of a sinner—how can they be held accountable for what an ancestor had done?


There are a few things to say that help us understand these verses better. First, we have a statement in another place that clearly states that God does not punish children for the sins of their fathers—


16 The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin. (Deuteronomy 24:16)


Second, using that verse as a guide, we can say that Exodus 20:5 must be understood as meaning that the succeeding generations continued to commit the sins of their fathers. 


It’s also possible to understand this as to mean that the consequences of some sins are passed down to the next generation (e.g., Fetal Alcohol Syndrome).


Third, God’s overriding principle is mercy. Where it says, “thousands of them that love me,” it is referring not to thousands of people, but to thousands of generations. God visits the iniquity of people to the third and fourth generation, but, he shows his mercy to a thousand generations! 


Anyone, in any generation, who turns to him will find mercy, not a God who says, “Sorry, your grandfather hated me, so I am going to punish you for his sin—so there, take that!”


The second commandment shows us that God cannot be represented by anything in Creation and that he is a God of justice and mercy.




A. Don’t Worship Images Of God


How does a Christian obey the second commandment? Is it right to portray Jesus in a movie? In a painting? What about the cross?


Lew Wallace, the author of Ben Hur, initially opposed making his popular 19th century book into a stage play because he did not want to have Christ portrayed by someone. Eventually, he relented when the idea was proposed to portray Christ as a beam of light on stage (


Nowadays Christ is freely portrayed in many movies, including an upcoming remake of Ben Hur.


Which is right? Consider our text closely—


Exodus 20:4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 

Exodus 20:5a Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God…


Now we’ve seen that God cannot be represented by an image, that is true. But what is the main concern about creating images here? Is it merely that merely the creation of them is wrong? Or is it something more?


The prime concern is that we not worship the image. Tami and I like the Tom Selleck TV show, Bluebloods, about a New York cop family. We like the traditional values that it often portrays. For example, a centerpiece of every episode is that they always have Sunday dinner together. 


The family is Catholic, however, so we’ve gotten some insight into how that works. Occasionally, an episode will show someone bowing and crossing themselves before the crucifix. 


It seems to me to be such a clear violation of the second commandment (which, remember, Catholics merge into the first commandment), because they turn it into an actual object of worship.


B. Don’t Worship Ideas Of God


But we would be remiss if we stopped thinking of the second commandment as worshipping an image—it’s also possible to worship an idea. 


That’s one reason I want to bring out the character of God as we look at each of the Ten Commandments, because, in our day, we’ve often substituted worshipping images for worshipping our wrong ideas of God—which is just as wrong.


1) Gay believers want a tolerant God.


2) Liberal believers want a God of love, but not justice (unless it’s for the damage we’ve done to the environment).


3) Feminists want a God who is a mother, not a Father.


4) Whenever we start thinking about God, what do we tend to emphasize? What do we minimize? 


Often, when people say, “I like to think of God as…,” they are walking in “worshipping the idea” territory.




So how do we worship God correctly? Jesus told us…


24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24)


A. In Spirit


To worship in spirit does not refer to worshipping in the Holy Spirit. Jesus is referring to worshiping from our spirit in this verse. He is contrasting physical action and the inward heart. To worship in spirit means to worship with the right attitude. David said:


16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: Thou delightest not in burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Psalm 51:16–17)


So the proper place of worship is not Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim, but the human heart. 


But, the human heart doesnʼt qualify unless it has been born again. Jesus said in John 3:6, “…that which is born of the Spirit [the Holy Spirit] is spirit.” You canʼt worship in spirit unless you have been born again of the Holy Spirit. 


He creates a new spirit within you when you trust in Jesus Christ. Until then, you are dead in your sins (Ephesians 2:1) and you canʼt worship God. 


Thatʼs why Jesus exposed the Samaritan womanʼs sin of living with a man, so that she could repent of her sin and come to the point where she could truly worship.


B. In Truth


To worship in truth has to do with worshipping the one God truly. Jesus told the woman, “…ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship” (John 4:22)? 


The Samaritans only accepted the first five books of the Bible. They had an incomplete knowledge of God. 


Likewise, Jews today only accept the Old Testament, so they have an incomplete knowledge of God. The Bible must be taken completely in order to be taken correctly. 


To worship the true God, you must turn to the Bible for the true picture of God. Some people try to worship a made-up God. They take a little from the Bible (usually what they heard in Sunday School as kids) and then build whatever they like on it. They create their own image or idea of God.


They never turn to the Bible to see if they are correct or not, and they donʼt want to either. To worship God in truth, we must turn to his truth. Study it, learn it, and adjust your worship as it corrects you. 


Worship must come from the heart and it must be based on a true perception of God. Does this describe your worship?

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