Image of God and Images of God: The Second Commandment and Semi-realized Eschatology, Part 1

Glen J. Clary

In the iconoclastic controversies of the eighth and ninth centuries, the chief argument of the iconophiles in favor of iconography was the incarnation of Christ.[1] According to the seventh ecumenical council of the church (AD 787), the incarnation of the eternal Son of God, who is the image of the invisible God, necessitates the production of sacred icons and their use in divine worship. That doctrine is based, in part, on the assumption that the incarnation of Christ has rendered the prohibition of images in the second commandment obsolete.[2] A proper understanding of the rationale for the prohibition of cultic images, however, will demonstrate that the incarnation of Christ does not sanction iconic worship. Lawful worship in the new covenant, just as in the old covenant, is aniconic.

The Second Commandment

You shall have no other gods before me. 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. 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, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exod. 20:3–6)

In Exodus 20:3–6, there are two distinct but related commandments.[3] Both commandments belong to the same genus, but they are different species. Both prohibit idolatry, but they deal with two different species of idolatry.[4] The first teaches us “whom we are to worship;” the second, “how we are to worship.”[5] Even though the second commandment only explicitly prohibits the use of icons or images in worship, the scope of the commandment is much broader.[6] God not only proscribes images as means of worship; he prescribes other means of worship including prayer, the reading of Scripture, the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and the singing of psalms and hymns. God regulates worship prescriptively not merely proscriptively. The second commandment has a broad scope; it deals with the overall governance of worship. In this article, however, we will focus on the narrow question of cultic images.

That the Ten Commandments begin by addressing the sin of idolatry points up the fact that “idolatry is the ultimate sin” and, in some sense, “the root of all other sins.”[7] Idolatry was the chief sin of Israel and, indeed, the chief sin of humanity. As Tertullian said, “The principal crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgment—is idolatry.”[8] In Romans 1:21–25, Paul indicts all people for rebellion against God, his chief accusation being the sin of idolatry. Cornelius Van Til observed, “Paul knows only two classes of people, those who worship and serve the Creator and those who worship and serve the creature.”[9] All people fall into one of these two categories: true worshipers or idolaters. Every unregenerate person is an idolater. Idolatry is not merely an external cultic act, it is “a matter of the heart and its ultimate attachments.”[10] Idolatry was both the root of Adam’s sin and the result of it. All who descend from him by ordinary generation are idolaters by nature. “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”[11] Idolatry pervades the life of all who are in a state of sin. To put it in Pauline terms, all who are “in Adam” are idolaters; true worshipers are those who are “in Christ.” Conversion, therefore, may be described as turning away from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9; cf. Acts 14:15; Rev. 9:20).

The second commandment contains a twofold prohibition: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image” (v. 4), and “You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (v. 5). The grounds of the prohibition are as follows, “for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers,” etc. (vv. 5–6). The prohibition deals with the production of any representations of God and the use of such images in the worship of God. You shall not make them, nor shall you bow down to them. Both idol-making (iconography) and idol-worshiping (iconolatry) are forbidden. A breach of the first would necessarily lead to a breach of the second.

The second part of the prohibition makes it clear that the first part has in view cultic images. It is not a prohibition of the visual arts in general but of cultic images in particular. Turretin explains, “The making of images is not absolutely interdicted, but with a twofold limitation—that images should not be made representing God (Deut. 4:16), nor be employed in his worship.”[12] It is helpful to make a distinction here between cult and culture. Images are forbidden with regard to the former not the latter. The second commandment does not forbid the cultural use of visual arts or images, only their cultic use.[13]

What is especially in view in the second commandment is the iconic worship of Yahweh. Israel must not worship Yahweh like the pagan nations worship their gods. Iconic worship was a prominent feature of the nations that surrounded Israel, but the worship of Yahweh was to be aniconic. Even before leaving Mount Sinai, however, Israel broke the second commandment. Aaron made a golden calf as a symbolic representation of Yahweh (Exod. 32:5; cf. 1 Kings 12:28).[14] Aaron made an image of a bull not because he thought Yahweh possessed the form of a bull, but to symbolize Yahweh’s power. His image was “never intended to portray a photographic likeness, but only to control Yahweh’s power.”[15] He “saw a passing representation of precisely that power in the strong bull with its fertility.”[16] Thus, the golden calf was an attempt to secure Yahweh’s presence among his people and to harness and channel his power. That is, it was an attempt to walk God around on a leash.[17]

After their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness, the Israelites entered the Promised Land with orders to destroy all cultic images of the Canaanites. The conquest of Canaan was meant to be a war against the idols of Canaan. In place of the false worship of the Canaanites, Israel was to establish the true worship of Yahweh “in the midst of his sanctuary-kingdom.”[18] However, Israel failed to do that, and as a result, the idols of the nations proved to be a snare to them (Ps. 106:36). They soon fell into idolatry just as God had forewarned (Deut. 7:16).

Throughout Israel’s history, there were many periods of repentance and reformation accompanied by the destruction of images and recovery of true worship. The forbidden means of worship were destroyed, and the divinely prescribed means were restored.[19] Indeed, the whole history of Israel’s dynastic period can be told and evaluated in terms of her faithfulness to or disregard of the first and second commandments. Gregory Reynolds explains:

While First and Second Kings focus on the prophetic dimension and First and Second Chronicles focus on the priestly dimension of Israel’s dynastic history; the history of Israel’s kings in both places is viewed uniformly from the perspective of idolatry. The Former Prophets [Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings] form a court brief, used by the prophets in prosecuting God’s Covenant lawsuit against idolatrous Israel. Asa, Jehoshaphat, and especially Joash, Hezekiah, and Josiah stand out as heroes by destroying idolatry in varying degrees.[20]

Despite the occasional periods of reformation in Israel’s history and the repeated prophetic warnings and calls to repentance, Israel continued to descend into deeper depths of depravity, which ultimately led to the departure of God’s glory from his temple, the temple’s destruction, and the exile of his people—all because of their idolatry. In his mercy, however, God graciously preserved a remnant of his people and promised to make a new covenant with them, which included, among other things, a promise to cleanse and cure them of their idolatry (e.g. Ezek. 36:24–27).

Verbal Revelation at Mount Sinai

Another version of the second commandment is found in Deuteronomy 4, where Moses reminds the Israelites that when they came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, the Lord spoke to them “out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice” (4:12). The word translated “form” here is the same term used in the second commandment. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness” (Exod. 20:4). The Hebrew word temunah (תְּמוּנָה), meaning “form” or “likeness,” occurs only ten times in the Old Testament, including Numbers 12:8, which I will examine below.[21] As the basis of the prohibition of images, Moses appeals to the fact that Israel did not see Yahweh’s form (temunah). “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form (temunah) on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image” (Deut. 4:15–16).

“Carved image” (pesel, פֶּסֶל) is the other term used in the second commandment. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image” (Exod. 20:4). In the Old Testament, pesel refers to any image made from wood, stone, or metal that represents God (whether the true God or a false god).[22] Moses writes,

Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form [temunah] on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image [pesel] for yourselves, in the form [temunah] of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. (Deut. 4:15–18)

This is another version of the second commandment, but notice that the rationale for the prohibition is different than the rationale given in Exodus 20. In Exodus 20, the grounds are, “for I the LORD your God am a jealous God,” referring to God’s conjugal jealousy.[23] But in Deuteronomy 4:15–18, we find a different rationale for the prohibition, namely, the fact that Israel saw no form when God spoke to them at the mountain. Since you saw no form or likeness (temunah), do not make an image (pesel). The common interpretation of this rationale appeals to the spiritual (nonphysical) nature of God. Since God is an invisible spirit, he cannot be imaged. It is an ontological impossibility.[24]

There are two problems with that interpretation. First, on several occasions, God visibly appeared to certain people like Abraham, who saw him in human form (Gen. 18:1–21), and Jacob, who declared that he had seen God face to face (Gen. 32:22–32). Likewise, Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel ascended Mt. Sinai, beheld God, and ate and drank in his presence (Exod. 24:11). The second problem with that interpretation is that Deuteronomy 4:15–18 is making a historical argument not an ontological one about the immaterial and invisible nature of the divine essence.[25] It is true that God is a pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions (WCF 2.1), but that is not the point of the rationale in Deuteronomy 4:15–18. Rather, the rationale is based on God’s chosen mode of revelation at Mount Sinai. God chose to reveal himself to Israel by means of words not images. His chosen mode of revelation was verbal not visual. Therefore, since you heard a voice but saw no form, do not make an image (Deut. 4:15–16). There is an inseparable link, therefore, between the prohibition of images in the second commandment and God’s choice of verbal revelation.

Direct and Indirect Revelation

Bearing in mind the link between the prohibition of images and divine revelation, let us examine Numbers 12:6–8. Out of jealousy over Moses’s unique role as prophet-mediator of the covenant, Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses. Consequently, the Lord rebuked them:

Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream.[26] Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form [temunah] of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses? (Numb. 12:6–8)

This rebuke of Miriam and Aaron highlights the priority and uniqueness of Moses in comparison to all other prophets of Israel, particularly with respect to the various modes of revelation by which God made himself known to them.[27] God distinguishes Moses from all other prophets and places him in an entirely different category in terms of how he receives divine revelation. God spoke to the other prophets in dreams and visions—not clearly but in riddles, not directly but indirectly. To Moses, however, God spoke mouth to mouth or face to face as it is stated elsewhere in the Pentateuch. “Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exod. 33:11).[28] “There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10). Again, the priority and uniqueness of Moses is stressed in terms of his face-to-face communion with God.

God spoke to the other prophets of Israel in dreams and visions, but that is not how he spoke to Moses. “With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles” (Numb. 12:8). The term translated “riddles” here means through obscure or enigmatic words.[29] Furthermore, Moses “beholds the form [תְמֻנַ֥ת temunah] of the LORD” (Num. 12:8). Temunah here is the same word used in the grounds of the prohibition of the second commandment. Since you saw no form (תְמֻנַ֥ת temunah), make no image (Deut. 4:15–16).[30] Robertson explains the significance of Moses seeing the form of the LORD:

Scripture says elsewhere that no man can see God and live (Exod. 33:18–19). Yet Moses as prophet shall see the form of God. These statements are not contradictory. Moses will not see the essential nature of God. Yet he will see a form that shall manifest the nature of the invisible God to the understanding of mortal man. This experience by Moses places him in a category distinct from all the other prophets. He is unique in the history of prophetism in Israel, and by God’s appointment he holds a position of priority that will belong to no one else.[31]

The contrast in Numbers 12:6–8 is between two modes of revelation that we can label face-to-face communication versus non-face-to-face communication, or, if one prefers, direct versus indirect communication. “Face to face” is an idiom that denotes direct, intimate communication in contrast to indirect communication by means of an intermediary or medium.[32] In the ancient world both in Jewish literature (particularly with reference to Numb. 12:6–8) and in Greco-Roman literature, the metaphor used to describe an indirect mode of communication was a mirror.[33] When one looks at something in a mirror, one does not see the thing itself but only a reflection of it. If we apply the mirror metaphor to Numbers 12:6–8, we can paraphrase the idea as follows: Unlike Moses with whom God spoke face to face, the other prophets of Israel only beheld God indirectly as if they were looking at his reflection in a mirror. Similarly, if we apply the same metaphor to the rationale of the prohibition of images in Deuteronomy 4:15–18, we can paraphrase the prohibition as follows: Since you did not behold my form but only saw my reflection in the mirror of my Word, do not make an image of me.

It should be noted that the direct, intimate, face-to-face encounter with God that Moses experienced pointed forward to and was a foretaste of the consummative revelation of God’s glory in the age to come, the eschatological hope of every believer. When Moses prayed “Please show me your glory,” the LORD said to him, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exod. 33:22–23). Moses’s face-to-face communication with God in which he beheld the form of God (Num. 12:8) does not refer to the consummative revelation of God’s glory at the end of the age, though it was certainly a foretaste of it.

Like Moses, many other saints of old longed to see God. The psalmist states, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness [תְמֻנַ֥ת temunah]” (Ps. 17:15). Again, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple” (27:4; cf. Job 19:25–26). The desire to see God is good. It is, in fact, the pinnacle of Christian eschatological hope.[34] This desire is partly fulfilled in the incarnation of the eternal Son of God who is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). When Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us,” the Lord responded, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8–9).

In part two of this article, we will turn our attention to the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ and consider whether the incarnation has any effect on the second commandment’s prohibition of cultic images.


[1] See Daniel Sahas, Icon and Logos: Sources in Eighth-Century Iconoclasm (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), 178–79. Cf. Ambrosios Giakalis, Images of the Divine: The Seventh Ecumenical Council (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2005), 107–13; and Andrew Louth, Three Treatises on the Divine Images: St. John of Damascus (Yonkers, NY: SVS Press, 2003).

[2] Cf. Giakalis, 108–10; and Marjorie Boyle, “Christ the EIKΩN in the Apologies for Holy Images of John of Damascus,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 15, no. 2 (Fall 1970): 175–86.

[3] Cf. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), 137.

[4] Cf. The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1985), 518.

[5] G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964), 138; cf. Joachim Douma, The Ten Commandments (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1992), 35; and John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 106; hereafter, Harmony of the Law.

[6] Calvin, Harmony of the Law, 107.

[7] G. I. Williamson, The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1993), 95.

[8] Cited in David Bercot, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), 350.

[9] Cornelius Van Til, Paul at Athens (unidentified publisher, 1956), 1; cited in Gregory Edward Reynolds, The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 17.

[10] Reynolds, The Word, 15.

[11] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles, ed. by John T. McNeill (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960), 108.

[12] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, volume 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994) 65.

[13] Cf. Douma, The Ten Commandments, 54–56.

[14] After making the calf, Aaron proclaimed, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD [Yahweh]” (Exod. 32:5). Hence, the golden calf was an image of Yahweh. In Acts 7:41, the calf is called an idol even though it was intended as a representation of Yahweh. God treated the calf as a rival and substitute for himself; he made no distinction between Israel’s worship of him through the golden calf and the pagan worship of false gods (1 Cor. 10:7–14).

[15] Douma, The Ten Commandments, 39.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 40.

[18] Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, second edition (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997), 50.

[19] Reynolds, The Word, 8.

[20] Ibid., 9; cf. Kline, Structure of Biblical Authority, 58–59.

[21] See Exod. 20:4; Num. 12:8; Deut. 4:12, 15, 16, 23, 25; 5:8; Job. 4:16; and Psalm 17:15. Cf. Francis Brown, et al., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001), 568; hereafter BDB.

[22] See BDB, 820; cf. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew, electronic edition (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

[23] Vos, Biblical Theology, 136. Idolatry is spiritual adultery, which arouses jealousy in Yahweh much like jealousy is aroused in a husband if his wife leaves him for another man (cf. Douma, The Ten Commandments, 43).

[24] E.g., Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 60. For a critique of this interpretation, see Vos, Biblical Theology, 136; Douma, The Ten Commandments, 45; and David VanDrunen, “Iconoclasm, Incarnation and Eschatology: Toward a Catholic Understanding of the Reformed Doctrine of the ‘Second’ Commandment,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 6, no. 2 (April 2004): 130–47.

[25] VanDrunen, “Iconoclasm, Incarnation and Eschatology,” 134–35.

[26] Visions and dreams are prophetic modes of revelation (cf. Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17–18).

[27] Cf. O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Prophets (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2004), 31–39

[28] The idiom “face to face” denotes intimacy of relationship and access. See Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1070.

[29] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1068.

[30] It is significant that the Septuagint uses the word doxa (δόξα) in Numbers 12:8; Moses “beholds the glory of the Lord”; cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

[31] Robertson, The Christ of the Prophets, 38

[32] Cf. David Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 624.

[33] See Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010) 658–60; cf. Garland, 623–25; and Thiselton, 1067–70.

[34] VanDrunen, “Iconoclasm, Incarnation and Eschatology,” 143.

Glen J. Clary is associate pastor of Providence Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Pflugerville, Texas. Ordained Servant Online, January 2020. See also Part 2 of this article.

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Ordained Servant: January 2020

Images of God 1

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