Idolatry is the religious worship of idols or the excessive or blind adoration, reverence, or devotion to something or someone. Idolatry is a form of heresy, fetishism, or paganism in some religions. Some examples of idolatry are the worship of statues, icons, celebrities, cars, homes, or money.
After reading Exodus 20:3-5, this definition has led to some very interesting arguments that have brought questions to the minds of people about whether we should have pictures, statues, or images, which are an artist’s rendering of God the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. Some go as far as to say even having the cross is idolatry. So, the question that really remains, is.
Is it Idolatry, Memory, or Reminder?
When God gave Moses the Decalogue, or what we call the Ten Commandments He wrote on the tablets the second and third law that prohibits the making of an image. If we legalistically examine verse five closely enough, God does not want us to have any form of art.
“You shall have no other gods before me. “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. Exodus 20:3-4
Let us pick out the bolded words in the above Verse. Wow! That means we would not have art of any kind about anything. We would not have pictures of what Heaven as described in Scripture, or Angels, or Demons, and the list goes on. There would be nothing to help us remember, nothing to aid us in our memories. Photographs, sketches, drawings, renderings, statues, sculptures of any kind - God would not allow! Then that means He prohibits the taking of photos of your family, friends, memories of trips. He would not allow illustrations in books, pictures or images or statues of past Presidents and their memorials, or other famous people, etc., and the list goes on. That is not the God of the Bible. It is not our God. Yes, He is a “jealous God” However He is the God that always wants us to remember Him and what He, His Son, and Holy Spirit has done and continues to do for us.
Combining verse 3 with verse 5 explains it all. We are not to “. . .have no other gods before me;” and “You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God,” (Exodus 20:3–5a, ESV)
On the surface, His command is negative; but as we look more deeply into it, the commandment does not prohibit art. His mandate is to put Him first, always; remember who He was and is and will always be. He demands we put Him first in everything we do. He rightfully demands we Worship and Glorify Him.
Even taken alone, verse 4 still allows for nonfigurative art, both abstract and decorative. When not worshipped, we can exclude naturalistic, decorative, and imaginary art. Was there something about the sculpture of a calf that was evil? No, not really. It was verse 5 that commanded them not to worship any idol. It was their hearts and evil minds that wanted a physical God, even though Moses had warned them!
“Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire,” (Deuteronomy 4:15, ESV)
Let us look further into the Scriptures with some additional emphasis added.
God has created us and made us to reflect Him. He further uses imagery in His Creation of the world.
“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (side note: another topic)” (Genesis 1:26–27, ESV)
When the people (Israelites) realized that they had sinned in the desert following the Exodus, they came to Moses to plead with the Lord. The Lord had sent serpents among them to punish them for sinning against Him.
“And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery
serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” (Numbers 21:7–9, ESV)
That serpent was a symbol of their chronic dissatisfaction, and the act of looking at it brought them face-to-face with the cause of their suffering. They did not worship the serpent, nor did they idolize it. When they looked at it in the way the Lord gave to Moses, the serpent became a symbol of God's power to forgive and remove judgment. Christ extends this specific metaphor to a universal one when He compares His own crucifixion to the brass serpent (John 3:14-15) “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14–15, ESV)
Another example is God commanding Solomon to make a brazen basin for the cleansing of the priests. This is an example of the same subject, however illustrating a crucial difference. ““You shall also make a basin of bronze, with its stand of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it,” (Exodus 30:18, ESV)
God told Solomon to support it on the hindquarters of twelve oxen (2 Chronicles 4:4). The animal is the same, but the meaning is quite different. Aaron's calf stood on its own pedestal with all attention focused on itself as an object of worship. Solomon's oxen serve as support for the brazen basin: they are servants, helping to perform the Lord's work, as commanded by God. The image was the same, but the content was the opposite.
Total censure of artistic expression was not the issue; the absolute condemnation of idolatry and false worship was. God condemns Idols and idolatry throughout Scripture and is a subject worth exploring further at another time.
Illustrators create images, graphic designs, and drawings to communicate an idea or story in visual terms. Publishers use these imageries in various forms such as books, newspapers, magazines, greeting cards, and advertisements. Illustrators understand and reinterpret a text written by an author which they then communicate into an illustration or multiple illustrations. The psalmist proclaims: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1, ESV). Should we not show pictures of the heavens, the stars and the planets? Yet another declares, “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12, ESV). Shall we or an illustrator not envision this in his artworks? I have seen both demonstrations in some form or another as an illustration or picture.
While there are no photographs of the characters mentioned in the Bible, Illustrators have pondered history, surroundings of the time, and other possible ways to look into the description given in the text and so much more. They produce what they believe in their mind to be a close representation of how that person may have looked; not the way they did look. The publishers of the articles or books incorporate them to give a broad conception of what that individual may have looked like. Is it correct? No! Does is somehow put us back in the period?
Consider this example. There is no picture of what George Washington actually looked like, as there were no photographs back then. There is only one unfinished portrait of him (that’s another story). Yet his image is all over the dollar bill and we accept that as him. While some people may worship the almighty dollar (idolatry), it is a reminder of the first President of the United States (not idolatry).
If we do not worship, or otherwise idolize pictures, images, statues, etc., they can and often do convey helpful purposes. They aid us in our memories and often help us remind us of what we may have forgotten.
Memory is the ability to store and recall information that we learned or experienced. We divide memory into different types, such as sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. It is essential for learning, reasoning, problem-solving and decision-making. Various factors can affect memory, such as attention, emotion, stress, and aging. Looking over pictures of family, friends, or trips often brings back good - sometimes bad memories to help in those areas.
Likewise, pictures and symbols trigger a reminder of something that we must do or an event that is about to take place, or took place some time before. Reminders can be useful for various purposes, such as remembering appointments, tasks, deadlines, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. We receive reminders in different ways, such as by phone, email, text, alarm, calendar, note, a speech we hear, or even a television show, etc. Reminders can help people stay organized, productive, and on track with their goals. They can remind us of past events that are important, if only to us. Seeing pictures of the Twin Towers on 911 brings back horrific memories, yet as horrific as those memories are, they remind us of the evil that God providentially allowed to accomplish His purpose for His glory. We my not understand it, but thus says the Lord, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8–9, ESV)
Pictures are visual representations of objects, events, or emotions that can trigger our memory and imagination. They can remind us of various things, such as our past experiences, our goals, our dreams, or our feelings. Pictures can also help us learn new information, communicate with others, or express ourselves creatively. Pictures are powerful tools that can influence our thoughts and emotions in different ways. We just need to remember what not to do - idolize them.
Images, illustrations, or even statues so long as we do not idolize them can be artistic. For example, “The Sistine Chapel or “The Last Supper.” Are they to be worshiped? Empathically no! They are to remind us as in the Last Supper of just that. The night He was betrayed.
What is depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Central to the ceiling decoration are nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, including The Creation of Adam. The complex design includes several sets of figures, some clothed and some nude, allowing Michelangelo to demonstrate his skill in depicting the human figure in a variety of poses.
Yet, are we to worship it or the depictions. No, we are reminded of the nine scenes from the Book of Genesis. One should be drawn into an interest in exploring at least those nine chapters.
We use decorative art of various varieties for just that purpose. While not necessarily correct, these images may help us to remember things, times, or events. Just as the Cross is an effective reminder of what our Lord and Saviour did for us. Should we remove that from our churches? So then, should we have pictures, statues, or images that are an artist’s rendering of God the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit?
Is it Idolatry, Memory, or Reminder?
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.