The second commandment says that we are not to make images of God. Most Christians breezily believe this is one of the easier commandments to keep. Just go through your home – no weird idols statues laying around? – check, I’m keeping the second commandment.
The story of Jeroboam tells us otherwise. Jeroboam was the first king of the northern kingdom after Israel split in two. He was anxious about the people going down to Jerusalem to worship God, so he built two alternative temple sites centered around these huge statues of pure gold, each depicting a bull calf. Now you would think Jeroboam was introducing a new religion. After all, the people were bowing down to a golden calf!
But here’s the kicker. Jeroboam did not say these were pagan gods, but that the golden calves was the God of the Bible. He said, “behold your God*, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:28) Jeroboam believed the golden calves were an accurate picture of God. This might seem ridiculous to us modern people, but in the culture of the day, it made enormous sense. A bull calf was the most valuable animal in a farming society, signifying great worth and strength. And rendered in glittering gold, it must have made an overwhelming impression on the worshippers – surely here is the glory and majesty of God!
The sad truth is that Jeroboam was woefully ignorant of Scripture and thus let his imagination and the culture of his day shape his understanding of God. The question for us is this – how do we know we’re not doing the same thing? How do we know that the God we worship is the true God, and not a golden calf? The answer is that unless we’re immersed in Scripture, we don’t. If we’re not constantly seeking to understand God as he has revealed himself in Scripture, then we will simply depend on our own imagination and the images popular culture gives us. In other words, we will create a god of our own convenience and a god who serves our interests – just like Jeroboam. And just like Jeroboam, we won’t even know. We’ll just think the Bible is too much of a hassle to read, and besides, it won’t tell us anything we don’t already know about God – again, just like Jeroboam. This is a sobering reality.
Here’s what this tells us about how to keep the second commandment. Unless you’re constantly battling the false images our modern culture tells us about God, by soaking yourself in Scripture, you are breaking the second commandment. For, as you read the Bible seriously, you will find yourself constantly surprised and stunned at who the real God is, the God who acts in Scripture and whose final revelation is Christ crucified.
"Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth." (Hosea 6:3)
* Most translations render the verse in the plural, “behold your gods, O Israel.” The original Hebrew word is “Elohim.” The problem here for translators is that this word is both singular and plural – so it can be either “gods” or “God,” depending on the context. Some translators look at the fact that there were two golden calves and so render it “gods.” But if you look at what Jeroboam says, he clearly has the God of Exodus in mind (“who brought you out of Egypt”), and so the better translation is the singular “God.” We also know Jeroboam was not creating a new pagan religion because he establishes identical feast days and priestly responsibilities as what was done in Jerusalem. (1 Kings 12:32)