The Second Commandment
Chapter 7 – Acceptable Worship
Two of the Ten Commandments are noteworthy for length – the Second and the Fourth. God knew that future generations would discard these as unnecessary, sub-moral categories of ancient legislation. He also knew the dire consequences of this decision, so He emphasized two truths about worship. True worship is that in which God reveals Himself, and true worship takes place in the context of a day set aside for God.
In spite of all arguments to the contrary, these are significant moral issues. God shows us what matters in His law by responding to sin in a measured sense. While much of the Mosaic Code dealt with civil regulations, at no point do we read that God judged Israel or cut off some for violations of those regulations. Rather, He punished for major moral lapses: worshiping other gods, sexual impurity, violence and oppression, improper worship, and Sabbath-breaking. In Nehemiah 13:18 we read that one cause of the Babylonian Captivity was Israel’s failure to observe the Sabbath.
Later on we will return to the issue of the Sabbath, but for now, understand that Biblical history also abounds with harsh punishment meted out for Israel’s failures to worship in the manner prescribed by God. Let there be no doubt: Improper worship is a serious moral failing.
The intent of the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4-6) is to confirm that God alone reveals Himself to men. A statue of a man with a fish’s head was as good a representation as a false god like Dagon would ever require, but the Almighty who toppled Dagon could not be portrayed so easily. Any attempt to mold a statue which would convey the awe and wonder of Yahweh’s Person would certainly fail. All such attempts were consequently proscribed.
After God gave the Commandments, Moses was hidden on the mountain to receive the rest of the law. God, clearly knowing what would happen next, told him to remind Israel of the Second Commandment before he left. (Exodus 20:23) Nevertheless, the Israelites demanded that Aaron break that law. We may read of what happened in Exodus 32.
Aaron may have thought that a golden calf would adequately represent the majesty and power of God, but the resulting worship quickly degenerated into a debauched pagan festival so loud that Joshua thought war had broken out! What was God’s response? The covenant was broken, the people were forced to drink the remains of the shattered idol, three thousand worshipers were put to the sword, and those who survived were struck with a plague. God did not view their sin lightly.
Jeroboam revived the same idolatry for his own political purposes in a later age. Though his sin was very great, it was not the sin of worshiping false Gods. Ahab would be the first king to introduce worship of false gods into the Northern Kingdom. The history of Baal worship demonstrates the distinction between the First and Second Commandments, while subsequent events show that even idolatry related to the one true God is an abomination.
Ahab built the temple of Baal, and the author of Kings introduces this fact with the words, “as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam.” (I Kings 16:31) Baal worship was a whole new category of sin, but we should not imagine that it was a “light thing” to worship God through an idol! Jehu, who destroyed Baal worship in Israel, was adamant about serving Yahweh, but he continued to worship the golden calves. (II Kings 10:28-29) Eventually this sin was one of the causes of the destruction of the Northern Kingdom. (II Kings 17:21-23)
Many artists persist in the foolishness of Aaron to this day. They are convinced that somehow their portraits, sculptures, and dramas will reveal something true about God. He yet remains a mystery. His greatness and majesty can only be revealed one way: by His Word. What, then, do we see in artistic portrayals? Do we perceive the One True God, or have idols returned to the church?
There are further implications of the Second Commandment. Worship in its essence is a meeting with God. Its function is to reveal God to His people, but God can only be revealed by His Word. Worship must then be pervasively biblical. It must be scriptural not only in content, but in form. If we innovate in worship, doing anything other than what God commands, we are endeavoring to reveal Him ourselves rather than patiently waiting for Him to reveal Himself. Innovation in worship is thus a violation of God’s Moral Law. Such an interpretation of the Commandment is supported by the history after Sinai.
Before Israel left the mountain Aaron and his sons were consecrated as priests. They would represent all Israel in worship. They learned immediately that innovation is a deadly error. In Leviticus 10 we read, “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them.” These were consecrated priests of God. They were not setting up idols, nor were they worshiping false Gods. They were doing one of the tasks prescribed by God. In some way, though, their fire was “strange.” This is clarified by the words “which he had not commanded them.”
God’s reaction is stunning: “And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” They had not followed the procedure laid out by God. They innovated, and God burned them to death on the spot. We recoil in horror from the scene. Why would God do such a thing? It fell to their uncle to explain God’s action: “Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said, ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'” And Aaron held his peace.”
Priests were not permitted to make even minor changes to the worship prescribed by God, and this rigor was not limited to the priesthood. Consider the case of Uzzah in II Samuel 6:5-14. Uzzah was one of the attendants when David first attempted to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. He was not a priest, though his family had kept the Ark for years. The problem that day was that the Ark was not transported according to the regulations in the Law.
David was trying to restore biblical worship to Israel. His intent was sincere, but He did not act as God had prescribed. Instead, he imported a pagan innovation into the worship of God, setting the Ark on a cart. God’s response was sudden and severe. When the oxen stumbled, Uzzah, not wanting the Ark to tumble to the ground, reached out to steady it. As soon as he touched the Ark, God struck him dead.
Consider how seriously God responds to innovations in worship! Those who attempt to represent Him apart from His Word are cut off and carried into captivity. Those who offer a “strange” sacrifice are burned to death. Those who adopt worship practices from the pagan world risk sudden death. The details of worship matter to God.
Today no one is struck dead for false worship. Much of the rigor of the Old Testament has been relaxed, but its moral standards are unchanged. Do we imagine that God, who once killed men for improper worship, is now pleased with whatever worship we may choose to offer? Such error is no longer fatal to the body, but it may yet kill the soul. God demands true worship according to the Spirit. (John 4:24) To offer less is not to worship at all.