A number of years ago, as I was doing some teaching on the Ten Commandments, I came across this insightful and very striking statement by John Durham in his Exodus volume in the Word Biblical Commentary series. It comes in his treatment of the second commandment in Exodus 20:4 about not making images of God. Durham says,
The worshiper who has made a commitment to worship only Yahweh must not compromise that worship by making it easy, that is, by adopting for his own use shaped images to provide a concrete center for worship, a practice common to all of Israel’s neighbors.
Worship of the God who has revealed himself in Scripture must conform to the content and shape of that revelation. It must not go beyond it. This was the exact problem the Israelites had in Exodus 32, as related in the narrative of the making of the golden calf. They wanted a god they could see, one that was the product of their imagination, and in the process, a god they could control. They wanted their worship to be easy, by worshiping a god they could imagine, rather than by worshiping the God who is, who though he revealed himself, hid himself at the same time.
A little bit later on, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses explains why the use of images in worshiping Yahweh is out of bounds for the Israelites.
12 Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. 13 He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets. 14 And the Lord directed me at that time to teach you the decrees and laws you are to follow in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess.
15 You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16 so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17 or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18 or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. (Deut 4:12-18)
We are not to use images in our worship of God, precisely because he did not use images to reveal himself. The person who would worship God, as Durham says, must not compromise that worship by making it easy. It is just too easy to conjure up, in our own imaginations, a picture of what God must look like, a picture that, by the way, bears a striking resemblance to what we ourselves look like, and then to worship that image, to worship the god we want God to be, rather than the God who is.
I was prompted to make this blog post today when I read a comment by someone who was defending a fairly heretical teacher of recent years. This person wrote that the writings of this heretical teacher had become for him “an invitation to imagine God in new ways.” That is precisely the reason why this heretical teacher should not be followed. The invitation to imagine God in new ways is an invitation to destruction.
To imagine God in new ways. That is the Old Testament job description for false prophets and crafters of golden calves. I encourage you not to apply for the position.
December 2, 2016