This post is an excerpt from On Worship: A Short Guide to Understanding, Participating in, and Leading Corporate Worship by H.B. Charles. The book is out now from Moody Publishers and wherever Christian books are sold.


In the first word of the Ten Commandments, God commanded His people to worship Him exclusively: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). The second word is linked to the first:

“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 fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Ex. 20:4–6)

There is some disagreement about how the Ten Commandments should be numbered. Roman Catholics and Lutherans read the first and second commandments as one commandment. To keep ten commandments, they call the preamble (Ex. 20:2) a commandment or divide the tenth commandment (Ex. 20:17) into two parts.

Exodus 20:3 and 4–6 record two different commands. They are two different sides of the same coin. The first commandment is about the proper object of worship. The second commandment is about the proper mode of worship. The first commandment addresses orthodoxy (right belief). The second commandment addresses orthopraxy (right practice). The first commandment tells us whom to worship. The second commandment tells us how to worship. God says, “Worship Me alone.” Then God says, “Worship Me this way.” How we worship matters to God.

The second commandment does not prohibit God’s people from being artistic. The Lord will instruct Moses to have artisans construct the ark of the covenant with artistic elements. The Spirit of God would inspire and empower men to creatively build the tabernacle. This is not a categorical prohibition against carved images. The Lord’s concern here is liturgical, not artistic. We must not make carved images for worship.

The second commandment warns us how misguided sincerity can be. When the children of Israel danced around the golden calf, the Lord did not respond, “Look how sincere they are!” The Lord became so angry that only the passionate intercession of Moses saved their lives. God demands proper worship.


It is remarkable that the first commandment was necessary. After delivering the children of Israel from Egypt, God still needed to instruct His people not to worship false idols. The second commandment is a natural progression from the first. God disabuses His people of the assumption that it does not matter how we worship, as long as we worship the right God. Redeemed people can still offer unacceptable worship if it is not on God’s terms.

God cannot be controlled. That is what happens with carved images. A symbol makes visible what is invisible and tangible what is intangible. In so doing, the reality behind the symbol is tamed, controlled, and neutered. Why do you think there is so much controversy over the American flag? It is a symbol that points to a reality. How one treats the symbol is a statement of what one thinks about the reality it represents.

The Babylonians had to carry their gods away on wagons to flee Cyrus of Persia. Yet the Lord reminded the house of Israel that He carried them since birth and will continue to carry them and save them (Isa. 46:3–4). This is why God forbids carved images. God carries us and refuses to be put in a position where we try to carry Him.

This second word may seem irrelevant. But we need this commandment today. Many Western contemporary Christians are ancient Hebrew idolaters in disguise. We make symbols for God; then we make gods of our symbols. We profess to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus, and the church. We actually worship the God of our cause, understanding, experience, race, nation,
comfort, and success.


There are two primary ways finite man seeks to know the infinite God: by imagination or revelation. Seeking to know God by trying to imagine who He is does not work. The second commandment prohibits any attempts to shape an image of God according to who or what we think God is. Habakkuk asked, “What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols!” (Hab. 2:18). The only way to know God is by revelation. We cannot imagine the nature, character, attributes, purpose, or glory of God. God must reveal Himself to us.

In a general sense, God reveals Himself in the created world. Creation advertises its Creator (Ps. 19:1). Heaven and earth proclaim the reality of God. But creation cannot declare the name of God. To know God personally, we need special revelation. God has personally revealed Himself to us in the Bible (2 Tim. 3:16). We must worship God on the basis of His revelation of Himself to us. God-pleasing worship is Word-driven worship.

When Israel met with God for the first time, they heard a voice but saw no image (Deut. 4:11–12). Moses reminded Israel of this to prepare them for the non-appearance of God. In the days to come, Israel’s worship would not be in video format. There would only be audio. They would have CDs to listen to, not DVDs to watch (Deut. 4:15–18). Worship is not about images to see. It is about words to hear. True worship is Word-based, Word-saturated, and Word-driven. We are to sing the Word, read the Word, pray the Word, preach the Word, and see the Word.


God commands us not to make any carved images in the likeness of anything in heaven, on earth, or in the sea. Those who make images of God mar the image of God. What is the image of God? Genesis 1:26–27 says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . . ’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

We are the image of God. This does not mean we have physical attributes that represent God: God is spirit (John 4:24). It means that God has given us personhood—mind, will, and emotions. We are free moral agents who can choose between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and error. Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden of Eden. All of humanity has fallen into sin as a result of our first parents’ original sin. Mankind was doomed to live in misery, die in sin, and suffer in hell. But God sent Jesus to save us. The Lord Jesus Christ is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3).

Jesus is God in the flesh. Truly God, truly man. Paul sang, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). Paul also said, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). To worship God is to worship Jesus. Christian worship is Christ worship. The Lord should have supremacy in everything we say and do in worship (Col. 1:18).

On the way home from church, a child told her parents she did not want to go to Sunday school anymore. When asked why, she griped, “Because they never do anything new there. Every week it’s the same thing. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” May that little child’s complaint be the legitimate critique of our corporate worship services. No one should ever catch us doing something new when they attend our worship services. It should be the same thing every week, every month, every year. Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!