"Images and Idolatry"

John Calvin famously referred to the hearts of men as “idol factories” (fabricum idolarium), which means that by nature, in our fallen condition, our tendency is to create idols and false gods for ourselves to serve and worship.  How ironic it is that in an age in which American Christianity is in rapid decline, one of the most popular television programs is called “American Idol.”  Hollywood and its teen idols and heartthrobs and the modern media, through television, movies, videos, DVDs, and the internet, have captured the minds of nearly all of us through their flashing images.  Even American Christianity has its video screens and multimedia presentations, Jesus films, nativity scenes, passion plays, and portraits of Jesus.  How do we reconcile all these things with the Bible’s teachings regarding idolatry and images?

The second commandment of God’s everlasting moral law declares: “"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Exodus 20:4-6, NIV). 

Colossians 1:15 tells us that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God.”

The Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms teach more fully what the second commandment means and how it applies to Christians. 

WSC 50  What is required in the second commandment?

A.     The second commandment requires the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God has appointed in His word.(1) Deut. 32:46; Matt. 28:20; Acts 2:42.

WSC 51  What is forbidden in the second commandment?

A. The second commandment forbids the worshipping of God by images,(1) or any other way not appointed in His word.(2) (1)Deut. 4:15-19; Exod. 32:5,8 (2)Deut. 12:31,32.

WLC 108  What are the duties required in the second commandment?

A. The duties required in the second commandment are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God has instituted in His word;(1) particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ;(2) the reading, preaching, and hearing of the word;(3) the administration and receiving of the sacraments;(4) church government and discipline;(5) the ministry and maintenance thereof;(6) religious fasting;(7) swearing by the name of God, (8) and vowing to Him; 9) as also the disapproving, detesting, opposing, all false worship;(10) and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry.(11) (1)Deut. 32:46,47; Matt. 28:20; Acts 2:42; 1 Tim. 6:13,14 (2)Phil. 4:6; Eph. 5:20 (3)Deut. 17:18,19; Acts 15:21; 2 Tim. 4:2; James 1:21,22; Acts 10:33 (4)Matt. 28:19 (5)Matt. 18:15-17; Matt. 16:19; 1 Cor. 5 throughout; 1 Cor. 12:28 (6)Eph. 4:11,12; 1 Tim. 5:17,18; 1 Cor. 9:7-15 (7)Joel 2:12,13; 1 Cor. 7:5 (8)Deut. 6:13 (9)Isa. 19:21; Ps. 76:11 (10)Acts 17:16,17; Ps. 16:4 (11)Deut. 7:5; Isa. 30:22 [see also Ex. 34:13; Num. 33:52; Deut. 7:25-26; 12:2-3]

The second commandment requires us to maintain purity in our worship of God.  It requires us to receive, observe and keep purely and completely that religious worship and those ordinances that God has appointed (or “instituted”) in His Word.  It also requires us to voice our disapproval, detestation, and opposition to all manifestations of false worship.  And, according to our place in Christ’s church and the calling that God has given to us, the second commandment requires us to labor diligently for the removal of all false worship and all monuments of idolatry.

WLC 109  What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?

A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, (1) counseling,(2) commanding,(3) using,(4) and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God Himself; (5) tolerating a false religion;(6) the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatever; (7) all worshipping of it,(8) or God in it or by it;(9) the making of any representation of feigned deities,(10) and all worship of them, or service belonging to them;(11) all superstitious devices,(12) corrupting the worship of God,(13) adding to it, or taking from it,(14) whether invented and taken up of ourselves,(15) or received by tradition from others,(16) though under the title of antiquity,(17) custom,(18) devotion,(19) good intent, or any other pretence whatever;(20) simony;(21) sacrilege;(22) all neglect,(23) contempt,(24) hindering,(25) and opposing the worship and ordinances which God has appointed.(26) (1)Num. 15:39 (2)Deut. 13:6-8 (3)Hosea 5:11; Micah 6:16 (4) 1 Kings 11:33; 1 Kings 12:33 (5) Deut. 12:30-32 (6) Deut. 13:6-12; Zech. 13:2,3; Rev. 2:2,14,15,20; Rev. 17:12,16,17 (7) Deut. 4:15-19; Acts 17:29; Rom. 1:21-23,25 (8) Dan. 3:18; Gal. 4:8 (9)Exod. 32:5 (10) Exod. 32:8 (11) 1 Kings 18:26,28; Isa. 65:11 (12) Acts 17:22; Col. 2:21-23 (13)Mal. 1:7,8,14 (14)Deut. 4:2 (15)Ps. 106:39 (16)Matt. 15:9 (17)1 Pet. 1:18 (18)Jer. 44:17 (19)Isa. 65:3-5; Gal. 1:13,14 (20)1 Sam. 13:11,12; 1 Sam. 15:21 (21)Acts 8:18 (22)Rom. 2:22; Mal. 3:8 (23)Exod. 4:24-26 (24)Matt. 22:5; Mal. 1:7,13 (25)Matt. 23:13 (26)Acts 13:44,45; 1 Thess. 2:15,16

The second commandment forbids us from worshipping God in any way not appointed in His Word.  This is the essence of the Biblical “Reformed” regulative principle of worship, as is reflected in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 21, paragraph 1.  It forbids all superstitious devices and all corruptions of pure worship.  It forbids us from adding to or subtracting from the religious worship that God Himself has instituted.  Whether these additions or subtractions were “invented and taken up of ourselves,” or received by church tradition, or received by an appeal to antiquity or to custom or to our own good intentions, they are still forbidden by the second commandment.  Also, the second commandment forbids us from opposing the worship that God has appointed. 

This brings us to Jeremiah’s teachings on idolatry and images.

Jeremiah 1:17 "Therefore prepare yourself and arise, And speak to them all that I command you. Do not be dismayed before their faces, Lest I dismay you before them.”

Whenever Scripture uses these expressions, it means to say that there is extreme madness in those men who worship in the place of God not only the sun and moon and other created things but also the idols which they form for themselves.  For how is it that they worship their own idols, except that they have formed for them a nose, and hands, and ears?[1]

Jeremiah 2:13 "For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, And hewn themselves cisterns -- broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

He says that they had done two evils: the first was, they had forsaken God; and the other, they had fallen away unto false and imaginary gods. . . . God is a fountain of living waters; and He compares idols to perforated or broken cisterns, which hold no water.  When one leaves a living fountain and seeks a cistern, it is a proof of great folly, for cisterns are dry except water comes from elsewhere; but a fountain has its own spring.  Furthermore, where there is a spring perpetually flowing, and an everflowing stream of waters, the water is more pure and much better.[2]

The superstitious think that they labor not in vain, when they worship false gods.  There are some resemblances to true religion in false religions; hence the Prophet compares false gods to wells, because they were made hollow, suitable to hold water, but there was not a drop of water in them, as they were broken cisterns.[3]

Jeremiah 2:18 “And now why take the road to Egypt, To drink the waters of Sihor? Or why take the road to Assyria, To drink the waters of the River?”

Those who are stubborn refuse to repent, but rather they seek false remedies for their woes:  “If you carefully inquire,” says God, “how it is that you are so miserable, you will find that this cannot be ascribed to Me, but to your own sins.  Now, then, what ought you to have done?  What remedy ought you to have sought, except to reconcile yourselves to Me, to seek pardon from Me, and to strive to correct your wickedness?  I would then have immediately healed you; and had you come to Me, you would have found me the best Physician.  Why do you now act in a way quite contrary?  For you run after vain helps; now you flee to Egypt, then you flee to Assyria; but you will gain nothing by these expedients.[4]

It is as though Jeremiah said to the unrepentant people, “What advantage do you gain?  How great is your folly, since you know that God is angry with you, and that you are suffering many evils?  God is adverse to you, and yet you think nothing of reconciliation.  Your healing would be to flee to God and to be reconciled to Him; but what do you now do?  You flee to the Assyrians and to the Egyptians.  How wretched is your condition, and how great is your folly in thus wearying yourself without any advantage![5]

God alone can give us living water (John 4:10).  Jesus said, "He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38).  He said, “I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost” (Rev. 21:6, NAS).

Jeremiah 2:19 ““Your own wickedness will correct you, And your backslidings will rebuke you. Know therefore and see that it is an evil and bitter thing That you have forsaken the LORD your God, And the fear of Me is not in you," Says the Lord GOD of hosts.”

We may hence learn that we are not to seek drink either from the Nile or from the Euphrates, that is, from the enticing things of the world, which make a great show and display; but that we are, on the contrary, to drink from the hidden fountain which is concealed from us, in order that we may seek it by faith.[6]

Are superstitions just an innocuous thing?  No, for all superstitions are deemed idolatries by God.[7]  And idolatry is demonic:  The gods of the heathens are demons and all their superstitions are sacrilegious.[8]

All idolaters are fools; the apostle Paul declared, “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man--and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:22-23).  All men who neither worship nor fear the only true God are detestable beings, because so much of His glory shines forth, that all men are bound to acknowledge Him.  It then follows that those who are carried away into various superstitions are to the last degree stupid and brutish; for God renders His glory conspicuous [clearly seen] everywhere, so that it ought to engage and occupy the thoughts of all men; and it would do so were they not led away by their own vanity.[9]

Jeremiah 10:8 “But they are altogether dull-hearted and foolish; A wooden idol is a worthless doctrine.”

There is no one, he says, however intelligent, who does not approve of the superstitions of the people, who does not bend the knee before a wood or a stone.[10]

Those who are wise in the eyes of the world affirm idolatry:  It is evident that the grossest superstitions of the nations were ever approved by all their wise men.[11]  As the apostle Paul says, “Professing to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:22). 

Yet, God commands all people to hate idolatry:  It is commanded to all without exception to detest idols.[12]  The apostle John said, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen” (1 John 5:21).

Jeremiah 23:23-24 "Am I a God near at hand," says the LORD, "And not a God afar off?  Can anyone hide himself in secret places, So I shall not see him?" says the LORD; "Do I not fill heaven and earth?" says the LORD.”

Religious hypocrites are by nature idolatrous:  For while they thus set themselves up as arbitrators, so that they subject God to their own laws, they think Him to be dull of apprehension, as though He sees nothing, or at least very little.  God says that He is not only a God near at hand but also afar off.  Hypocrites greatly detract from His majesty, when they, according to their own notions, imagine that God can see no more than a mortal man.[13]

In our fallen condition, apart from God’s regenerating grace, all people are led to create a god after their own image:  This error of imagining a God like ourselves is inbred almost in us all.  Hence it is, that men allow themselves so much liberty; for they consider it a light thing to discharge their duty towards God, because they reflect not what sort of being He is, but they think of Him according to their own understanding and character.  As, then, we are thus gross in our ideas, it is necessary for us carefully to reflect on this passage, where God declares, that He is not only a God near at hand, that is, that He is not like us, who have only a limited power of seeing, but that He sees in the thickest darkness as well as in the clearest light.[14]

As they are superstitious, idolaters seek superstitious places to worship God (Jer. 32:30):  Idolaters ever sought high places, as they imagined that they were thus nearer to God.[15]

Jeremiah 51:17 “Everyone is dull-hearted, without knowledge; Every metalsmith is put to shame by the carved image; For his molded image is falsehood, And there is no breath in them.”

Paul, in the first chapter to the Romans, assigns it as the cause of idolatry that men become vain in their own wisdom, because they follow whatever their own brains suggest to them.  This doctrine is in itself true and useful; for men have devised idols for themselves because they would not reverently receive the knowledge of God offered to them but rather believed their own inventions.  Whatever man imagines according to his own thoughts is mere vanity; therefore, it should not be surprising that those who presumptuously form their own ideas of God become entirely foolish and infatuated.[16]

The Holy Spirit enables us rightly to see that idolatry is foolishness:  The craftsmen who cast or forge idols or form them in any other way are completely delirious in thinking that they can by their own art and skill make gods.  A log of wood lies on the ground, is trodden under foot without any honor; now when the craftsman adds form to it, the log begins to be worshipped as a god; what greater madness can be imagined than this?  The same thing may be said of stones, of silver, and of gold; for though it may be a precious metal, yet no divinity is ascribed to it, until it begins to put on a certain form.  Now when a melter casts an idol, how can a lump of gold or silver become a god?  The Prophet then sharply reproves this monstrous madness, when he says that men are in their knowledge like brute beasts, that is, when they apply their skill to things so vain and foolish.[17]

As we conclude our study of idolatry based on the prophecies of Jeremiah, let us consider a subtopic of idolatry, the question of images. 

Images--The Books of the Simple-Minded?

Jeremiah 10:8 “But they are altogether dull-hearted and foolish; A wooden idol is a worthless doctrine.”

Now we may from this passage draw a general truth—that when men seek to represent God under any visible form, they give way to the delusions and lies of Satan.  Well known is that sentence of Gregory to Serenus, the Bishop of Marseilles, when that good man cast down the images which he saw led to ungodly worship and purged the churches of Marseilles from such pollutions:  Gregory, though a pious man, yet wrote very foolishly—that Serenus acted rightly and wisely in forbidding images to be worshipped, but that he yet acted inconsiderately by emptying the churches of them; for “they are,” he said, “the books of the simple;” this is the conclusion of his letter.  And it is ever in the mouth of Papists—that images are the books of the simple.  At the same time I wish they retained this truth avowed by Gregory—that they ought not to be worshipped.  But as I have already said, that answer of Gregory was puerile and foolish: for we hear what the prophet says—that in wood and stone and in every outward representation there is vanity.  The Prophet Habakkuk declares the same thing in the second chapter of his prophecy, where he calls an idol the teacher of vanity (Hab. 2:18-19).  Every statue, every image, by which foolish men seek to represent God, is a teacher of falsehood.[18] 

So the Prophet Jeremiah says that the teaching of vanities is found in all statues, because God is thus misrepresented; for what can be in a wood or stone that is like the infinite power of God or His incomprehensible essence and majesty?  Men, therefore, offer a serious affront to God when they thus deform Him.  Likewise, Paul says in Romans 1:25 that the truth was thus changed into falsehood, that is, when He is supposed to be in any way like external and dead figures.  (Idolaters “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”)  The same Paul further reasons in Acts 17:29, saying, Do you think that God is like wood or stone, silver or gold?  (“we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising.”)  And his argument was at that time suitable; for Paul had to deal with heathens: he did not refer to the law, though he might have quoted a passage in Deuteronomy, where God reminded the people that He so appeared to them that they saw no resemblance; and he might have referred to the testimonies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and of the other Prophets; but as he addressed heathens, even the Athenians, Paul says, “One of your poets has said, that we are the offspring of God;” if we are then, he says, the offspring of God, do you not draw God down from His celestial throne, when you seek to depict Him according to your impressions and suppose that He lies hid in wood or stone, in silver or gold?  For some life appears at least in men; they are endued with mind and intelligence, and so far they bear some likeness to God; but a dead wood and stone, which are void of sense—gold also and silver, which are metals without reason, which have no life—what affinity, he says, can these have to God? . . . [19]

Jeremiah 16:10-13 " And it shall be, when you show this people all these words, and they say to you, 'Why has the LORD pronounced all this great disaster against us? Or what is our iniquity? Or what is our sin that we have committed against the LORD our God?'  "then you shall say to them, 'Because your fathers have forsaken Me,' says the LORD; 'they have walked after other gods and have served them and worshiped them, and have forsaken Me and not kept My law.  'And you have done worse than your fathers, for behold, each one follows the dictates of his own evil heart, so that no one listens to Me.  'Therefore I will cast you out of this land into a land that you do not know, neither you nor your fathers; and there you shall serve other gods day and night, where I will not show you favor.'

The prophecy of Jeremiah refutes the folly of the Papists [the followers of the Pope] who deny that they are idolaters, because they worship pictures and statues with dulia, that is, with service (if we may so render it) and not with latria, as though Scripture in condemning idolatry never used this verb.[20]

Jeremiah 51:18 “They are futile, a work of errors; In the time of their punishment they shall perish.”

The Papists [the followers of the Pope] seem to themselves to find a way to escape when they confess their images are not to be worshipped, but that they are books for the unlearned.  They who wish to appear more enlightened than others under the papacy repeat the same saying, that images ought to be tolerated, because they are the books of the ignorant.  But what does the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, declare here, and also by the Prophet Habakkuk?  The Holy Spirit declares that they are the works of falsehood, even mere snares or traps (Hab. 2:18).  All, then, who seek instruction from statues or pictures gain nothing, but rather become entangled in the snares of Satan and find nothing but lies.  And doubtless, whatever draws us away from the contemplation of the only true God, ought justly to be deemed a counterfeit or a deception; for who by the sight of a picture or a statue can form a right idea of the true God?  Is not the truth respecting Him thus turned into falsehood?  And is not His glory thus debased?[21]

For we have then only the true knowledge of God when we regard Him to be God alone, when we ascribe to Him an infinite essence which fills heaven and earth, when we acknowledge Him to be a spirit, when, in short, we know that He alone, properly speaking, exists, and that heaven and earth, and everything they contain, exist through His power.  Can a stone or wood teach us these things?  No; but on the contrary, I am led by the stone to imagine that God is fixed and confined to a certain place.  And then the life of God, does it appear in the stone or in the wood?  Besides, what likeness has a body, and that lifeless, to an infinite spirit?  It is, then, not without reason that He complains, as it is recorded by Isaiah, that He is thus entirely degraded: “To whom have you made Me like?  For I contain the earth in My fist, and you confine Me to wood or stone” (Isa. 40:12, 18).  If, in a word, the minds of men received no other error from idols than the thought that God is corporeal, what can be more preposterous?”[22]

In conclusion, all the deities which the world devises for itself are false and mere inventions of Satan, by which he deludes mankind.  Doubtless no one can courageously oppose such errors, except he who believes in the one true God.”[23]  May all God’s people take their stand for the one, true God, and let us stand on guard against idolatry.  

[1] From John Calvin, Commentaries on The Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations, Vol. I, trans. Rev. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 60.  Scripture quotations are from the New King James version.
[2] Vol. I., 93.
[3] Vol. I, 93-94.
[4] Vol. I., 100-101.
[5] Vol. I., 101.
[6] Vol. I., 103.
[7] Vol. I., 156. 
[8] Vol. II, 17.
[9] Vol. II, 21.
[10] Vol. II, 22.
[11] Vol. II.
[12] Vol. II, 33.
[13] Vol. III, 186-187.
[14] Vol. III, 189.
[15] Vol. IV, 189.
[16] Vol. V, 223.
[17] Vol. V, 223.
[18] Vol. II, 23-25, emphasis added.
[19] Vol. II, 23-25, emphasis added.
[20] Vol. II, 317.
[21] Vol. V, 224-225, emphasis added.
[22] Vol. V, 225.
[23] Vol. II, 34.

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Revised: 01-14-2012