The Second Commandment and Idols
4 "You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments"--Exodus 20:4-6.
This is part of The Westminster Larger Catechism statement pertaining to this commandment:
"Question 109: What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?
Answer: The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature: Whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense: Whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God has appointed."
This command forbids any representation of God in images. It is not meant to merely forbid the worship of images. The first commandment already did that by denying other gods. Rather, this command forbids worshiping the true God in a false way. Aaron along with the people (Ex. 32:4) and Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:28) wrongly depicted the God they claimed to serve. When God gave the Decalogue, God spoke and wrote. His appearance was irrelevant. This was also true when God spoke to Moses from the bush (Exodus 3). Therefore, Deuteronomy 4 says this:
15 You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16 so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17 or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18 or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. 19 And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. 20 But as for you, the LORD took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.—Deut. 4:15-20.
In the Bible, God sometimes uses images expressed in words to describe who he is. Sometimes anthropomorphisms are used. That is not what the second commandment prohibits. What is anathema is when humans make an image of the divine. They do this for their own control, to domesticate God, so to speak. This corrupts our theological understanding, since no human-shaped image is adequate. Consider the plethora of Scriptures against idolatry. But what is the evil of an idol? Is it that merely it represents a false god, a god of fertility or war? No. The evil of an idol is that it attempts the impossible by merely mortal means: to represent God truly through a graphic image. So, The Apostle John exhorts us: "Dear children, keep yourselves from idols"—I John 5:21.
Romans, chapter one explains the descent into debauchery has having its genesis in a false view (literally) of God:
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal human beings and birds and animals and reptiles.—Romans 1:21-23
Before pagan philosophers in Athens, Paul said this:
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. . . 29 Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead—Acts 17.
Calvin notes that the mercy seat was “so constructed as to suggest that the best way to contemplate the divine is where minds are lifted above themselves with admiration,” since the cherubim wins covered it and the veil shrouded it (Ex. 25:17-21).
These considerations, however, do not exclude all representational art. May it never be! The Tabernacle and Temple contained divinely-mandated representations of things like pomegranates and angels, but no representations of God himself. On this, see Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (InterVarsity Press)and Ryken, Art for God’s Sake (Crossway, 2006).
For more on the prohibition of images, see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, chapters 11-12; J. Douma, The Ten Commandments (P&R Publishing, 1996).