This past Sunday evening I taught on the second commandment in our small group Bible study. We’ve been working our way through Philip Graham Ryken’s book Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis. Ryken is currently the president of Wheaton College, and has been in that position since 2010.
The chapters were borne out of a series of sermons he first preached at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. The book has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, I found chapter five to be one of my favorites thus far, as Ryken skillfully unpacks the second commandment.
It’s one of the longest of the ten:
You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Exod 20:4-6)
Before exploring why fathers need to heed the implications of this command and how it impacts the home (application); we must first understand its original meaning (observation and interpretation). Ryken explains that there are four parts to this second commandment: the rule, the reason, the warning, and the promise.1
The first part of verse four reads, “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” The King James Version names them as “graven images,” and the English Standard Version, “carved image.”
This translation comes close to the original meaning. An idol was something crafted by a tool. Whether it was carved out of wood, chiseled out of stone, or engraved in metal, it was cut and shaped by human hands. It was a man-made representation of some divine being.
Certainly, we could come up with many good reasons for this commandment—this rule, but God mentions one specifically in verse five, “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.”
God forbids idolatry because of his jealousy. To use a more positive and also a more accurate word, it is because of His zeal—the burning passion of His love… a holy jealousy is one that guards someone’s rightful possession. The most obvious example is the love between a husband and a wife… [or] like a mother’s jealous protection of her children, a father’s jealous guarding of his home… What God so jealously protects in the second commandment is the honor of His love.
It is because of this holy jealousy that God then warns the Israelites in verse five, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me.”
The warning is that children will be punished for the sins of their fathers. The word “iniquity” refers to something twisted… a kind of perversion, a turning against God… God holds families responsible for their conduct as families. The Israelites were in covenant with God, and when the covenant head of any family sinned against God, his whole family was judged… [remember] it’s not just the fathers who hate God, but also their children.
Lastly, this commandment also has a promise in verse six, “but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
God also promises to show mercy to those who love Him and keep His commandment not to serve idols. The promise is more powerful than the warning because its blessing lasts not just for three or four generations, but for a thousand; in other words, it will last forever.
A FOREWARNING FOR FATHERS
It’s been said that if you are a man, a believer in Jesus Christ, and a father, then the question is not whether you are a spiritual leader of not. Instead, it is whether you are a good one or bad one. And that is what we find at the heart of this second commandment from God.
Fathers, please take heed:
When a man refuses to love God passionately and to worship God properly, the consequences of his sin will last for generations. The guilt of a man who treasures idols in his heart will corrupt his entire family, and in the end they will all be punished. But a man who loves supremely—a man who bows before Him in genuine worship and serves Him with true praise—will see the blessing of God rest on his household forever.
1 Ryken, Philip Graham. Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2003). 73-77.