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Alexander Whyte on the Second Commandment

August 23, 2010


Q. 49. Which is the second commandment?

A. The second commandment is, 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 showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. [FN:G]

Q. 50. What is required in the second commandment?

A. The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his word. [FN:H]

Q. 51. What is forbidden in the second commandment?

A. The second commandment forbiddeth the worshipping of God by images,[FN:I] or any other way not appointed in his word.[FN:J]

Q. 52. What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment?

A. The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us,[FN:K] his propriety in us,[FN:L] and the zeal he hath to his own worship.[FN:M]

The unity and sole supremacy of Jehovah is the subject of the first commandment, and in the same manner the spirituality of the Divine Nature is taught and guarded in the second. Locality, limitation, shape, and all such-like creaturely conditions, are to be put out of our minds when we would think aright about God. These things are never in any way to be associated with God. The worship of God is to be purely spiritual, and lest its spirituality should be invaded or infringed, it is here fenced round with a most explicit and rigorous commandment against the worship of images, and even their manufacture. The unity and spirituality of God are accordingly the two corner-stones of the Decalogue, and indeed of all divine revelation, Mosaic and Christian. The law that came by Moses, and the grace and truth that came by Jesus Christ, all alike rest on those eternal and immutable truths of our holy faith.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image— In Cruden’s article under image, he characterizes and illustrates nine scriptural senses of this word, and Aldis Wright in Smith’s Bible Dictionary tells us that there are no fewer than twenty-one different Hebrew words that have been rendered in the Authorized Version either by idol or image. Nothing could be more instructive and significant than this multiplicity and variety of words designating the incentives, instruments, and objects of idolatry. At the same time, stringent and indispensable as this commandment was in such circumstances, it gives no countenance to the superstitious position that some have taken up against all works of art even for purposes of culture and pleasure. Referring to this misreading of the second commandment, Calvin says: “I am not so superstitious, however, as to think that all visible representations of every kind are unlawful. But as sculpture and painting are gifts of God, what I insist on is, that both shall be used purely and lawfully. We think it unlawful to give a visible shape to God, because God Himself has forbidden it, and because it cannot be done without in some degree tarnishing His glory.”

“It may be admitted,” says Kalisch in his commentary on Exodus, “that the prohibition expressed in our text has exercised a retarding influence upon the progress and development of the plastic arts among the Hebrews, as a similar interdiction in the Koran has produced a similar effect among the Arab tribes. . . . But it is an incomprehensible mistake, if it is believed that the plastic arts in general, sculpture and painting, are forbidden in our text. Josephus tells us that the Jews would not even suffer the image of the emperor which was represented on the eagles of the Roman soldiers, and a temple in Tiberias was, by decree of the Sanhedrin, burnt down, merely because it was ornamented with figures of animals (Josephus’ Life, xii. ). Such a barbarous and irrational law could not possibly emanate from a legislator who erected a holy tent, furnished with all adornments of art and beauty, and who even ordered two cherubims to be placed in the Holy of Holies. In the first temple as well as the second, was an abundance of plastic works, which nobody has found to be at variance with the spirit of Mosaism.” “The commandment which forbade the making of graven image or likeness was not observed in the sanctuary itself. By this exception it was made evident that the enactment was directed against accidental abuses of imitative art, and not against the art itself” (Westcott).

any likeness of anything that is in heaven above— “Left to themselves, to their own appetites, fears, caprices, imaginations, men made originally capable of discriminating truth from falsehood sought out many inventions. Sun, moon, and stars, from being accounted symbols, came to be rated as gods; rivers were deified; beasts, birds, fishes, reptiles, all were adored; trees waxed oracular, mountain-tops grew sacred, light and darkness engrossed each its representative deity; fire had its own formidable divinity, and the world of the dead its own. Mere attributes, mere operations, became embodiments capable of undergoing invocation and receiving worship; and destruction claimed its horrid ritual of human sacrifice, and fruitfulness was adored with such rites as it is a shame even to speak of” (Miss Rossetti’s Letter and Spirit).

for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God— In the scientific language of theology, this is called an anthropopathic or economical manner of speech. God here speaks to man after the manner of men. He takes the human passion of jealousy to himself in a figure. But while making this explanation, it must be made in a reverent, guarded, believing manner. To say God is jealous is to say that while all human infirmity and evil are to be taken out of the expression, yet, at the same time, we are to receive it as the truest mode of conveying to us what, owing to the imperfections of the human mind and human language, cannot otherwise be impressed upon us. All Scripture, at least all Revelation, is and must be more or less anthropomorphic and anthropopathic. And the text is but an arresting and solemn example of this necessary and universal manner of divine communications. When Jehovah represents Himself as the husband of the Church in Israel, and as having loved her with an everlasting love, her infidelity and idolatry come then in awful impressiveness to be spoken of as kindling jealousy in the divine bosom. The thoughtful reader of the Old Testament will recall many passages where these figures of speech are powerfully employed. But let it here and in all such passages be remembered that the scriptural metaphors never exaggerate or in any way misrepresent the reality; the prophetic figures never overstate the facts. Nahum is within the truth when he utters his burdensome vision: “God is jealous, and the Lord revengeth; the Lord revengeth, and is furious; the Lord will take vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserveth wrath for His enemies.”

visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children— Mozley in his able work, Ruling Ideas in Early Ages, exhibits the operation of this judicial principle in the old dispensation, and points out that while the second commandment and its sanctions of terror and of comfort remain entirely valid to this day, yet that it is to be read now in a providential and didactic sense rather than in a judicial and penal. Children are not now punished for their fathers’ sins though they still suffer in many ways on account of them. (See Lecture v.) “That God doth [or did] so is certain, because He saith He doth [or did]; and that this is just in Him to do so, is also certain therefore, because He doth it. For as His laws are our measures, so His actions and His own will are His own measures. He that hath right over all things and all persons, cannot do wrong to any thing. He that is essentially just, it is impossible for him to be unjust” (Jeremy Taylor’s Sermon on “The Entail of Curses cut off”).

keeping pure and entire— Flavel’s warning not to invent ceremonies to make God’s institutions “more decent than Christ left them,” should be laid to heart and pondered by those who have the charge of public worship.


“‘Tis mad idolatry
To make the service greater than the god.”

appointed in his word. “Particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ; the reading, preaching, and hearing of the word; the administration and receiving of the sacraments; Church government and discipline; the ministry and maintenance thereof; religious fasting; swearing by the name of God, and vowing unto Him” (Larger Catechism).

forbiddeth the worshipping of God by images— The theological student will search in vain in the Catechism of the Council of Trent for the second commandment. He will find ten commandments in that authorized and imposed symbol of the Popish Church, but the Decalogue is made up by the division of the tenth commandment into two. “The natural and obvious meaning of the second commandment is, that God there, in regulating the mode in which He is to be worshipped, forbids the making of the likeness of any object with the view of introducing this likeness into religious worship, or paying unto it any of the external marks of religious honour and veneration. And so sensible are Romanists that this is the natural and obvious meaning of the second commandment, that they have been accustomed to exclude it wholly, while professing to quote the Decalogue, from the Catechisms commonly used in the instruction of their people” (Cunningham, i. 377). How far popular Romanism has declined not only from apostolic spirituality in public worship, but even from that of the Old Testament, any one who has seen a modern Popish cathedral or chapel, and will compare it with the following testimonies, will see. Milman tells us that the heathen world beheld with astonishment a whole race whose deity was represented under no visible form or likeness. The conqueror Pompey, when he entered the violated temple, was filled with wonder at finding the sanctuary without image or emblem of the deity: and Tacitus, “the philosophic historian, whose profound mind seems struggling with hostile prejudices, defines, with his own inimitable compression of language, the doctrine, to the sublimity of which he has closed his eyes. The worship of the Jews, he says, is purely mental; they acknowledge but one God, — and that God supreme and eternal, neither changeable nor perishable.”

The reasons annexed— In his learned sermon Of the Nature of Pride, Hooker has an introductory passage which will be the best note on the annexing of reasons to a commandment: “The nature of man, being much more delighted to be led than drawn, doth many times stubbornly resist authority, when to persuasion it easily yieldeth. A law simply commanding or forbidding, is but dead in comparison of that which expresseth the reason wherefore it doth the one or the other. And, surely, even in the laws of God, although that He hath given commandment be in itself a reason sufficient to exact all obedience at the hands of men, yet a forcible inducement it is to obey with greater alacrity and cheerfulness of mind, when we see plainly that nothing is imposed upon us more than we must needs yield unto, except we will be unreasonable. In a word, whatsoever we be taught, be it precept for direction of our manners, or article for instruction of our faith, or document any way for information of our minds, it then taketh root and abideth, when we conceive not only what God doth speak, but why.”

The reasons annexed to the second commandment as here drawn out are three — (1) God’s sovereignty over us; He is our King, and we are His subjects, and therefore we are bound to obey His laws: (2) His propriety in us — an obsolete form; property has taken its place in modern English — His property in us; we belong to Him, He created us, and He hath redeemed us, and therefore we are not our own, least of all in our worship of our Maker and Redeemer: and (3) the zeal or jealousy He has to His own worship. The prophets and psalmists are full of that zeal and jealousy. For example, Isa. i. 10-15; Ezek. xiv. 1-11.

Uses. — 1. Though we do not build our places of worship with niches to hold images, yet this commandment is not on that account an obsolete precept, or the study of it the study of an antiquarian topic. The iconoclastic Puritanism of our fathers removed the temptation to idolatry from us. But they bequeathed to us a very spiritual law, — a law that does not so much search our sanctuaries for statues and images as it turns its scrutiny into our own hearts. “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.”

2. But if the law against images in divine worship came by Moses, then the grace that obviates the supposed necessity for them, — the grace that meets and answers the craving in the human heart to see God, that grace came by Jesus Christ. For it is one of the noblest and most expressive of the scriptural titles of our Lord to call Him the Image of God. For just as a man’s face is the image of his soul; just as we address ourselves to a man’s face in addressing his mind and heart; so is it when we seek God in Christ. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared him.”

3. “The sins of fathers descend very often to their children, both in the way of nature, that the children inherit strong temptations to their father’s sins; and by way of example, that they greedily imitate, and often exaggerate them. Wouldest thou not have children whom thou wouldest wish unborn, reform thyself. . . . Parents who are careless as to themselves, and as to their own lives, still long that their children should not be as themselves” (Pusey).

4. “I am to consider what remedies there are for sons to cut off the entail of curses. . . . The heirs and sons of families are to remove from their house the curse descending from their father’s loins — (i) by acts disavowing the sins of their ancestors; (2) by praying for pardon; (3) by being humbled for them; (4) by renouncing the example; (5) quitting the affection to the crimes; (6) by not imitating the actions in kind, semblance, or similitude; and lastly (7) by refusing to rejoice in the ungodly purchases, in which their ‘fathers did amiss, and dealt wickedly'” (Jeremy Taylor).


1. Note the nine Biblical senses of the word image as they are classified and illustrated by Cruden.

2. How would you meet the objection that the Jews in later times took against all painting and sculpture from their commandment?

3. Remark on Hausrath’s statement, ii. 4: The Semite is a man without any sense for art, otherwise his laws would never have forbidden him to make images and symbols.

4. Derive and explain the theological terms anthropomorphism and anthropopathy, and point out how these terms apply to the contents of this commandment.

5. Derive iconoclast. To whom is the saying popularly attributed: Pull down the nests, and the rooks will fly away?

6. What may he inferred from hence? Hence we learn, that spiritual worship is most agreeable to God’s nature and will; and the more spiritual it is, the more acceptable it will be to Him (John iv. 24). Externals in worship are of little regard with God; as places, habits, gestures, etc. Apply this: First, to superstitious men (Isa. lxvi. 1, 2, 3) ; Secondly, to children that say a prayer, but mind not to whom, nor what they say (Flavel).

7. Calvin warns against importing things into the worship of God that are full of display, but have no solidity. Apply this criticism, and give illustrations.

8. His propriety in us. Explain Dr. John Duncan’s comment: God cannot be injured, but He may be wronged.

[FN:G] Ex. XX. 4, 5, 6.

[FN:H] Deut. xxxii. 46: And he said unto them, Set your hearts unto all the words which I testify among you this day, which ye shall command your children to observe to do, all the words of this law. Matt. xxviii. 20: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. Acts ii. 42: And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.

[FN:I] Deut. iv. 15: Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves, (for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire.) Ver. 16: Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female; Ver. 17: The likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air; Ver. 18: The likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth: Ver. 19: And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the Lord thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven, Ex. xxxii. 8: They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said. These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

[FN:J] Deut. xii. 31: Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God: for every abomination to the Lord which he hateth have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. Ver. 32: What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.

[FN:K] Ps. xcv. 2: Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms. Ver. 3: For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. Ver. 6: O come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our maker.

[FN:L] Ps. xlv. 11: . . . he is thy Lord, and worship thou him.

[FN:M] Ex. xxxiv, 13: But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves. Ver. 14: For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

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