Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor 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: thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them; for I Jehovah thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation of them that hate me, and showing lovingkindness unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.Exodus 20:4-6 ASV
To the modern mind, this prohibition seems like “much ado about nothing.”
What could be the harm of images?
Well, to begin with, the prohibition here is not against the aesthetic arts, photography, or anything like that.
Note also that the prohibition is multiple:
(1) religious images must not be made
(2) men must not bow down to them
(3) men must not serve them. The reasons for this are profound.
By its very nature any religious image is false, being a lying, man-made, presentation of what is allegedly represented.
How can that which is material represent anything spiritual?
How can that which is helpless represent eternal omnipotence?
How can that which decays represent life eternal?
How can that which is not intelligent represent omniscience?
How can that which is dumb, unfeeling, blind, and dead represent any of the vital realities of God and holy religion?
That the conscience of the Medieval Church which introduced such things into the Christian religion, precipitating the controversy that has torn Christendom, is pure with regard to this is denied by their treatment of this passage in God’s Word, which they have:
(1) either removed from the Decalogue
(2) relegated to a footnote
(3) explained away in the notes.
The consecration of so-called holy or sacred images for use in Christian worship must be understood as sinful.
Centuries after the founding of Christianity, at the first proposal by Romanists to consecrate images, “Three hundred-eighty-three bishops from all over the world were present and passed resolutions condemning image worship.”
And yet papal authority installed them.
How was this justified?
It was done by the adoption of the old pagan device by which the apostate Israelites “justified” the golden calves at Dan, Bethel, and Samaria.
They were treated as outward symbols of deity, and not as deity itself, and they had just as valid a claim to be used in the religion of Israel as images in Christianity.
Israel was rejected and destroyed for their acceptance of such sinful things; and it cannot be imagined that the apostate Church will avoid judgment in the same manner.
“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them …” Thus, it is not merely the making, or consecration, of graven images which is proscribed in the Decalogue; it is the act of “bowing down” in the presence of them, genuflecting before them, making the alleged “sign of the cross,” or any other recognition whatever.
As for the proposition that one may bow in the presence of an image and in doing so actually be bowing down to God in the presence of the image, this is disproved absolutely by the apostle John’s being forbidden to bow down to God Himself even in the presence of a holy angel (See proof of this in Revelation 19:9 and Revelation 22:8,9).
It was not allowed even in the presence of a mighty angel.
How much less could it be presumed to be allowed in the presence of a dead piece of wood or metal.
“Nor serve them …” This prohibited the exercise of any care or provision to preserve, maintain, install, decorate, paint, or use images in any manner.
That such “serving of images” is still going on in the world was made quite evident to this writer on a visit to Japan’s great Diabutsu, a great wooden temple surrounded by many niches usually housing various idols.
On that day, however, there were large signs in black and red letters in two languages, saying, “Sorry, these gods are out for repair!”
The corruption of Christianity evident in the introduction of sacred images into the worship of Christ is a marvel, the mystery of Satan himself being present in it.
Satan achieved this in spite of the fact that, the greatest writers, thinkers, and bishops of the first four centuries protested against it.
The spirit of Christianity, and the spirit of figurative art are opposed, because art cannot free itself from sensuous associations.
When the worshipper would fain ascend on wings of ecstasy to God, the infinite, ineffable, unrealized, how can he endure the contact of those splendid forms in which the lusts of the eye and the pride of life professing to subserve devotion, remind him rudely of sensuous existence.
As meteorites become luminous in traversing our terrestrial atmosphere, so the thoughts that art employs immerse themselves in sensuousness.
Our deepest thoughts about the world and God are incapable of personification by any aesthetic process.
The use of sacred images also degrades the conception of God.
Paul’s remarkable first chapter of Romans speaks eloquently of those who, “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man” (Romans 1:22-23).
The testimony of the Word of God and the experience of all history demonstrates the wisdom of this great Second Commandment in the Decalogue.
We shall conclude this with one of the sonnets of Michelangelo, one of the greatest artists, greatest sculptors, and greatest poets of a whole millennium:
Now hath my life across a stormy sea,
Like a frail bark, reached the wide port where all are hidden ‘ere the final reckoning fall of good and evil for eternity.
Now, know I full well how that fond fantasy which made my soul the worshipper and thrall of earthly art is vain; how criminal is that which all men seek unwittingly!
Those amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed, what are they when a double death is nigh?
The one I know for sure, the other dread?
Painting nor sculptor now can lull to rest my soul that turns to His great love on high, whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread!Michelangelo