This continues a series on the Ten Commandments. In the last post we discussed the The 3rd Commandment. With object of demonstrating that we base our laws upon the Bible, in this post we will discuss the relationship between the 2nd commandment and government.

What is the 2nd commandment?

Exodus 20:4-6 The New Revised Standard Version

4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

The Numbering Of The Ten Commandments

Note that for reasons we first discussed in PART 2 of this series Catholics number the commandments differently. Catholics apparently consider (See this portion of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.) what other denominations call the 2nd commandment merely explanatory to 1st commandment.

As  The Ten Commandments in Wikipedia makes clear, the numbering of The Ten Commandments is a somewhat arbitrary convention devised by men. The Bible mentions Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13, and Deuteronomy 10:4), but it does not specifically number them. Apparently, the Lord God has a predilection for letting us figure out things for ourselves.

Nevertheless, even if the numbering is obscure, Deuteronomy 5 does make clear what is included in The Ten Commandments. That is probably why Catholics traditionally cite Deuteronomy 5 instead of Exodus 20.

The Crux Of The Controversy

So why have some denominations chosen to separate Exodus 20:3 and Exodus 20:4-6 into two separate commandments whereas others have not? Let’s first consider what Exodus 20:3, the 1st commandment, says.

Exodus 20:3  The New Revised Standard Version

3you shall have no other gods before me.

At first blush, the notion that Exodus 20:4-6 is purely explanatory to Exodus 20:3 seems reasonable. However, an alternative translation, popular in the period immediately after the Protestant Reformation, suggests what those who broke Exodus 20:3-6 into two separate commandments had in mind.

Exodus 20:3-6 King James Version (KJV)

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

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 shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

As the etymology of the term suggest, an idol is a graven image. Exodus 20:3 demands that we worship the Lord our God (or Jehovah (see Exodus 20:3-6 American Standard Version (ASV)); whereas Exodus 20:4-6 prohibits us from making and worshiping “any graven image.”

In his notes on the Bible John Wesley explains the importance of the 2nd commandment. Because it is relevant to the controversy (not to give offense), I include the portion that takes the Catholic Church to task for idolatry.

On Exodus 20:3-6

The first commandment is concerning the object of our worship, Jehovah, and him only, Thou shalt have no other gods before me – The Egyptians, and other neighbouring nations, had many gods, creatures of their own fancy. This law was pre – fixed because of that transgression; and Jehovah being the God of Israel, they must entirely cleave to him, and no other, either of their own invention, or borrowed from their neighbours. The sin against this commandment, which we are most in danger of, is giving that glory to any creature which is due to God only. Pride makes a God of ourselves, covetousness makes a God of money, sensuality makes a God of the belly. Whatever is loved, feared, delighted in, or depended on, more than God, that we make a god of. This prohibition includes a precept which is the foundation of the whole law, that we take the Lord for our God, accept him for ours, adore him with humble reverence, and set our affections entirely upon him. There is a reason intimated in the last words before me. It intimates,

  1. That we cannot have any other god but he will know it.
  2. That it is a sin that dares him to his face, which he cannot, will not, overlook. The second commandment is concerning the ordinances of worship, or the way in which God will be worshipped, which it is fit himself should appoint. Here is, [1.] The prohibition; we are forbidden to worship even the true God by images, Ex 20:4-5. First, The Jews (at least after the captivity) thought themselves forbidden by this to make any image or picture whatsoever. It is certain it forbids making any image of God, for to whom can we liken him (Isa 40:18-,25)? It also forbids us to make images of God in our fancies, as if he were a man as we are. Our religious worship must be governed by the power of faith, not by the power of imagination. Secondly, They must not bow down to them – Shew any sign of honour to them, much less serve them by sacrifice, or any other act of religious worship. When they paid their devotion to the true God, they must not have any image before them for the directing, exciting, or assisting their devotion. Though the worship was designed to terminate in God, it would not please him if it came to him through an image. The best and most ancient lawgivers among the Heathen forbad the setting up of images in their temples. It was forbidden in Rome by Numa a Pagan prince, yet commanded in Rome by the Pope, a Christian bishop. The use of images in the church of Rome, at this day, is so plainly contrary to the letter of this command, that in all their catechisms, which they put into the hand of the people, they leave out this commandment, joining the reason of it to the first, and so the third commandment they call the second, the fourth the third, &c. only to make up the number ten, they divide the tenth into two. For I the Lord Jehovah, thy God, am a jealous God, especially in things of this nature. It intimates the care he has of his own institutions, his displeasure against idolaters, and that he resents every thing in his worship that looks like, or leads to, idolatry: visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation – Severely punishing. Nor is it an unrighteous thing with God if the parents died in their iniquity, and the children tread in their steps, when God comes, by his judgments, to reckon with them, to bring into the account the idolatries their fathers were guilty of. Keeping mercy for thousands of persons, thousands of generations, of them that love me and keep my commandments – This intimates, that the second commandment, though in the letter of it is only a prohibition of false worship, yet includes a precept of worshipping God in all those ordinances which he hath instituted. As the first commandment requires the inward worship of love, desire, joy, hope, so this the outward worship of prayer and praise, and solemn attendance on his word. This mercy shall extend to thousands, much further than the wrath threatened to those that hate him, for that reaches but to the third or fourth generation.

(from here)

Was John Wesley right about the correct enumeration of the Ten Commandments? Was he right to accuse Catholics of worshipping graven images? The answer to those questions goes beyond what I have in mind for this post.

  • Are you curious how the commandments should be numbered? I suggest reading various Bible translations, considering more than a few Bible commentaries, and deciding for yourself.
  • Do you want to explore what Catholics think about the answer to this question: Do Catholics Worship Statues? Then click on the link.

Does the exact numbering of the commandments matter to God? Maybe. Nonetheless, the Bible does not say explicitly how we should number the commandments. So I suspect we should give more concern to exactly what the text says.

What Is Idol Worship or Idolatry?

Various websites discuss idolatry. Here is a small sample.

  • Idolatry at Wikipedia. This article considers idolatry from the perspective of the various major religious traditions. Some actually involve idol worship.
  • Idolatry at The Catholic Encyclopedia. This article provides an interesting analyzes of the moral problem and the causes of idolatry
  • Idol Worship, the Unforgivable Sin (if maintained until death) at Submission to God (Islam), an Introduction. This article list various possibilities for idolatry. That includes Jesus as item number three.
  • What is the definition of idolatry? at This article provides this interesting observation.

    The book of Hosea uses the imagery of adultery to describe Israel’s continual chasing after other gods, like an unfaithful wife chases after other men. The history of Israel is a sad chronicle of idol worship, punishment, restoration and forgiveness, followed by a return to idolatry. also provides this definition.

Question: “What is the definition of idolatry?”

Answer:  The definition of idolatry, according to Webster, is “the worship of  idols or excessive devotion to, or reverence for some person or thing.” An idol is anything that replaces the one, true God. The most prevalent form of idolatry in Bible times was the worship of images that were thought to embody the various  pagan deities.

When Exodus and Deuteronomy were written, those with evil intent sought out idols to further their schemes. In those days, most people apparently considered it reasonable to believe a man or woman could communicate their desires to a god through a graven image. With a show of respect and the right sacrifice, the god or goddess would deliver the goods.

The Holman Bible Dictionary: God, Pagan at and Gods and Goddesses, Pagan at provide lists of the gods and goddesses mentioned in the Bible. Worship of these gods included human sacrifice — even one’s own children — and holy prostitutes.

How many Pagan/false gods does the Bible mention? at Jesus Alive and False gods in the Bible at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Manville NJ, also provide lists of the false gods and cite Bible verses.

How Does The 2nd Commandment Affect Government?

How does the 2nd commandment affect government? When I first considered that question, I found myself flummoxed. We do not claim God created our government or our legal system, and we allow the free exercise of religion. That means we do not have explicit laws against idol worship, but does that mean that the 2nd commandment is irrelevant to our government? I do not think so.

When we choose to worship an idol, we choose to put whatever we want from that idol before the love of God and man. That means we will sacrifice anyone and anything for our idol. Thus, the ancient Canaanites and latter the Jews sacrificed their children to the god Molech. Thus, in the Apostle Paul’s time the Ephesians’ temple to the goddess Diana (or Artemis) maintained temple prostitutes.

Similarly, in our own era some will sacrifice the welfare and even the lives of their fellows for our modern idols: power, money, fame, ….. Therefore, we create laws to restrict prideful and unruly ambitions. Consider these examples.

  • Because we understand that some men worship power, our Constitution contains checks and balances. That’s why we divide powers of the Federal Government between Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court. That is also why we spread government power over Federal, state, and local governments.
  • Because we understand some men worship money, we have laws against child labor, a forty-hour work week, and support for labor unions.
  • Because we understand that some men worship fame, our government awards honors such as medals for heroism. Instead encouraging foolish stunts, we try to encourage those seeking fame to earn honor by doing what is right.

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