In the Ten Commandments, immediately after the command, "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me," is the prohibition of all graven images. Few commandments are more badly interpreted. All too many read it as a total ban on any religious art. This is clearly not true. God Himself required a variety of carvings in the tabernacle, on the ark, and on various furnishings (but not on the altar), and He Himself called and inspired men to do the work (Ex. 3l:l-6, etc.). While depictions of God were forbidden, more is in this law than is often recognized. No graven images, or any forms or likenesses, are permitted as objects to use for worship in the sense of bowing down to them, or serving them. "Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them" (Ex. 20:4): these words are the key, and their meaning must be understood in order to obey this commandment.
Paul had this commandment and more in mind when he cried out against the worship the people of Lystra gave him and Barnabas after the healing of a cripple (Acts 14:8-18). The priest of Jupiter was ready to serve them, and the people to bow down to them.
To bow down and to serve is an ancient sign and symbol of the recognition of sovereignty. Because the pagan kings of antiquity claimed lordship or sovereignty, they required all men to acknowledge it on coming into their presence. This meant bowing down before them, sometimes prostrating themselves completely. It also commonly meant bringing gifts, a token of service. Thus, the wise men came seeking the Christ child, the newly born king, whom they knew to be the great Messiah or God-King. They demonstrated this faith by falling down before the child, and worshipping Him; they then presented their gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, as tokens of their service to Him as Lord and King (Matt. 2:11).
Thus, the law, when it reads, "Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them," has reference to two related facts: first the recognition of lordship or sovereignty; the one to whom we bow is he whom we acknowledge as our lord; second, he whom we serve is the one to whom we pay our tax or tithe, and to whom we bring gifts. (Hence, God requires both tithes and offerings, the tax and gifts above the tax, as evidence of our service and love.)
In the Christian era, monarchs revived the pagan doctrine of kingship. They claimed lordship or sovereignty. They promoted the doctrine of their divine rights. In the 18th century, both Protestant and Catholic kings disapproved of the use of Mary's Magnificat in churches, because of the sentence, "He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree" (Luke 1:52). They wanted no Lord Christ who could put them down and scatter them.
The modern state is even worse, far worse. It does not hesitate to claim sovereignty; it presents itself, after Hegel, as God walking on earth. It claims jurisdiction over Christ's church and school as lord, and it demands that we bow down and serve it as sovereign.
This is the meaning of the law: no graven images means no representations of sovereignty or lordship. Neither a man nor an image can represent sovereignty, nor can a church nor a state. God alone is the lord. "I am the LORD, and there is none else, there is no God beside me" ( Isa. 45:5). All too many churchmen are balking at a cross over the church (a symbol of Christ's triumph over sin and death), while bowing the knee to Caesar, and serving Him. Alan Stang rightfully and wisely titled his studies of the statist persecutions of the church, Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me - Including the State.
The Bible is emphatic that Christians are to render obedience to whom obedience is due. Again and again, this duty of obedience to, and prayers for, all those in civil authority is stressed. Moreover, because the godly way is regeneration, not revolution, Christians are warned against being humanistic social revolutionists (I Cor. 7:20-23), but they are at the same time to work lawfully to avoid being a slave people, i.e., "the servants of men."
At the same time, the nature of civil (and other) authorities is at all times and in all things limited by the word of God. Civil authorities are specifically spoken of. as ministers of God, and the word translated as "minister" is in the Greek our English word "deacon," meaning servant. "Rulers" are thus to be servants under God, not lords or sovereigns. When the civil authorities divorce themselves from God and His law-word, they become self-styled lords and lawless as well. As Augustine pointed out, godless civil rulers are no more than bands of robbers, a more powerful Mafia, and a more dangerous one. Being lawless in relation to God, they are lawless and predatory in relation to men.
There is an important aspect to this commandment which is commonly neglected. Of the Ten Commandments, one other contains the promise of particular judgment, and one other of particular blessing. Honoring parents has the promise of life: "Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee" (Ex. 20:12). The promise of judgment is given in Exodus 20:7, "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" (See Chalcedon Position Paper no. 2, "In the Name of Jesus Christ, or, In the Name of Caesar?")
Here, in this law, we have the longest promise, and it is of both judgment and blessing: "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: 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; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments" (Ex. 20:4-6).
The judgment here promised is a lingering one: sin has social consequences. Where a false doctrine of sovereignty prevails, there is a radical social disorientation, and all life is warped and placed on false premises. A generation which asserts a humanistic doctrine of sovereignty will so alter life and society, and all the institutions thereof, that the evil consequences will persist for three and four generations. On the other hand, a true doctrine of sovereignty will affect the lives of thousands who do not share it, because it will keep society on a godly foundation.
The prohibition is against any form of idolatry, i.e., any alien or ungodly doctrine of sovereignty. Sovereignty or lordship cannot be located on earth, in the heavens, or in the seas: it is in God alone. Covetousness, indeed sin in any form, is idolatry (Colossians 3:5), because sin asserts our will as primary, and our will replaces God's law in all sin.
Sovereignty or lordship is the source of judgment and grace, either directly or by delegation. In Scripture, parents, pastors, civil authorities, employers, and others are instructed as to how to judge and reward faithful obedience and service. Their powers are under God; they are strictly delegated. The Bible recognizes no power independent of God, "For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God" (Rom. 13:1). For any of these delegated spheres of authority to speak of themselves as powers which are independent from God is rebellion and sin. For courts, the Internal Revenue Service, and other civil agencies to speak of allowing us so many "days of grace" is blasphemy.
Today, however, autonomy is claimed by virtually every civil government, autonomy from God. All see themselves as sovereign, and hence their own source of law and power. We live in an age of statist idolatry, and we have become so blind that we do not see this obvious fact. Ail too many churchmen will quibble about trifles but fail to see themselves surrounded and ruled by the enemies of God, humanists, and their idol and false lord, the state.
We are ready to entertain the rule of other gods when we ourselves have openly or quietly rejected the true God, or are secretly in quest of "freedom" from the living God. It is a very comforting illusion to tell ourselves that evil men did this to us, or that a conspiracy is responsible for our captivity to false lords or sovereigns. Every conspiracy begins, however, in the human heart as a conspiracy against God. The conspiracies of history, including our time, are all too real, but they make it convenient for all too many of us to forget our own sins. All over the country, I find men retreating into Phariseeism rather than advancing into dominion, and their excuse is a false holiness. No church is good enough for them; granted, the church scene is a sad picture, but will withdrawal improve it? Moreover, are we so holy that we cannot afford to associate with other sinners saved by grace? Again, many refuse to vote, failing to recognize that voting is a means of exercising dominion. Given the faults of all candidates, there is still a choice, and a duty. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians that they should discipline and excommunicate a fornicator, warned them against trying to require a like standard of the world, "for then must ye needs go out of this world" (I Cor. 5 :10). They are not to leave the world but to conquer it. "Super-holiness" exalts us, not the Lord.
The law says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20:3), including ourselves. It is not our will and law but the Lord's which must govern. "Before me" means "beside me," sharing to any degree lordship or sovereignty with Me. The relationship with God can only be exclusive.
Moreover, the modern reading of the prohibition of graven images or idolatry in any form is seriously misread if its meaning is limited to worship, or the place of worship. There are all too many today whose idol is Caesar who have no images, symbols, or signs in their plain churches. To have no other gods beside Me, beside the Lord God, means that no other lord has sovereignty over us in any and every area of life. It means that our total way of life is governed exclusively by God the Lord. To limit the scope of the law to what goes on in a church building is to deny the sovereignty or lordship of the living God. The Lord God and His law-word must govern, control, dominate, inform, and regulate every atom of our being and every sphere of life and the world. Anything short of this is idolatry.
There can be no substitute for God in any sphere. Moreover, since any and every created representation of God is banned, it is clear that God cannot be absorbed into or identified with this world and its aspects. He is the eternal God, the Creator, not an item in an already existing universe. The creation cannot define Him: He creates and defines all creation. Man seeks to define and understand all things in terms of his experience, reason, and life; this is at the heart of all idolatry, whether simplistic and primitive, or rational and philosophical. By means of this law, God rejects all man-made efforts to define Him, or comprehend Him. He is to be known only in terms of His revelation. He also makes clear that the scope of His jurisdiction is total: There can be no other gods beside Him in any sphere of life and thought.
An hour ago, I talked with a pastor whose church rebels against any application of Christ's lordship to anything outside the church, especially to anything in the sphere of the state. I was reminded of one well-known country where, at least until recently if not now, a husband's adultery gives the wife no actionable ground for complaint unless the act or acts of adultery occur in the family home! All too many churchmen have a like view of idolatry: if it does not occur in Sunday morning or evening worship, it does not count.
The key to idolatry comes to the surface in Exodus 20:7, "Thou shalt not take the Name of the LORD thy God in vain." Umberto Cassuto rendered it thus: "You shall not take up the name of the Lord your God for unreality." To take God's Name for a valueless purpose is to treat God as unreality, rather than as Lord and Creator. To limit God's sovereignty and law to the church, and to the inner life and to the "private" morality of man, is to deny His lordship and to treat Him as an unreality. When we treat God as an unreality, we will prostrate ourselves before false gods, including and especially the state, and we will serve them. Man is a religious creature; if he rejects the living God, he will serve other gods. And this God will not tolerate.
The jealousy of God (Ex. 20:5) is grounded in His absoluteness and His universal dominion. The "gods" of paganism were not jealous, because they were not universal. Their jurisdictions were limited to one nation, state, or people, and to a particular sphere within that realm. They were simply powerful "spirits" seeking to control the weather, or the sea, love, the family, or some like limited sphere. Even within those limits, their powers were faulty and uncertain. Such "gods" could not afford the luxury of claiming a broader sphere: they had enough problems minding their own shop! The God of Scripture is a jealous God, because He has total jurisdiction over all things. "I am the LORD: that is my Name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images" (Isa. 42:8). No other religion has anything comparable to this law prohibiting idolatry.
Gerhard von Rad, in commenting on this same law as it appears in Deuteronomy 5:8-10, noted: "This prohibition of idols must be understood with the purpose of the idols in mind, namely to manifest the deity." (Deuteronomy, p.57). God reserves the power to manifest Himself to Himself. I John 3:8 declares that Jesus Christ is God manifest, and I Timothy 3:16 tells us also that "God was manifest in the flesh" in Jesus Christ. In all idolatry, physical, philosophical, or institutional, man seeks to determine what God's manifestation shall be. Wherever there is any talk of sovereignty, there is a claim to the manifestation of lordship, or deity.
Paul gives us some telling insights into idolatry. For example, in I Corinthians 10:7, he writes: "Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play." Paul's reference is to the golden calf incident of the Exodus journey there were, clearly, fertility cult practices on that occasion; he refers to these in the next verse: "Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed..." (I Cor. 10:8). Thus, Paul separates two kinds of acts on that day; the simple eating and playing, and the fertility cult sexual acts. The word play in the Greek text is paizo, children's play, harmless play, as it were. Paul's point is that even those who abstained from the fertility cult practices were guilty of idolatry because they agreed with the general dismissal of God and Moses; they were "moral" idolaters. They shared the general feeling, "for as for this man Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him" (Ex. 32:1). The feasting and playing was in the Name of the LORD (Ex. 32:5), but it was in contempt of Him and His authority. In brief, Paul's meaning is that any aspect of life outside of God is idolatry. "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23). George Bush was right when in 1841 he wrote of this law that its meaning and spirit are "plainly exceedingly broad." (Exodus, l, 263). Churchmen have limited its scope in order to lessen sin.
The time has come for us to confess, in the words of Isaiah 26:13, "O LORD our God, other lords beside thee have had dominion over us: but by thee only will we make mention of thy name."
We must renounce and war against all statist and other doctrines of lordship or sovereignty in the Name of the LORD. The great baptismal confession of the early church, that "Jesus Christ is Lord," must be our confession and banner now. Jesus Christ is LORD: He is King of kings, and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16).l.et the nations tremble before Him.
(Taken from Roots of Reconstruction, p. 84; Chalcedon Position Paper No. 19)