The second commandment stands guard over the first commandment and flows naturally from it. Like a carefully constructed bridge, each one of the Ten Commandments strengthens and supports the entire structure. First, Jehovah calls His people to complete loyalty by reminding them of His redemption: “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2–3).
Then, having called His people to worship Him only, Jehovah next calls them to forsake all forms of idolatry. “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” (Exodus 20:4–6).
On the surface, this second commandment seems old and antiquated. After all, most Christians living in our “advanced and enlightened age” do not have hideous “graven images” displayed in their living rooms. But this commandment addresses far more than carved statues of wood and stone.
In the Biblical account recorded in Daniel Chapter 3, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, made a massive golden image of himself for others to bow down before and worship. Whenever we selfishly follow our own priorities instead of God’s priorities, we are, in essence, doing the same as Nebuchadnezzar. The king of Babylon saw himself as the center of his own universe. When we become proud and self-centered, our attitude is idolatrous. For this reason, God connects pride and idolatry (I Samuel 15:23, Isaiah 2:17–18). This is why God hates pride so much. This idolatry can come in the form of our own predominant thoughts and interests. Other forms of idolatry can also include hobbies, possessions, or relationships that have displaced the Lord Jesus from His rightful place at the center of our lives.
The New Testament application of the second commandment follows, which is an application that we will develop further over the coming weeks:
I am to set my priorities and affections toward God, forsaking all forms of idolatry.
At the heart of the second commandment is the startling statement: “I the LORD thy God am a jealous God” [emphasis added]. What does it mean for Jehovah to call Himself a “jealous” God? Many Christians identify jealousy as a sin and rightly so in most cases. When we are jealous, our jealousy is often corrupted by selfishness, envy, greed, or covetousness. But God’s jealousy is a righteous jealousy—a zeal to hold first place in the hearts of His redeemed people.
The Hebrew word for jealous here is קַנָּא (“qanna”). This particular adjectival form is used exclusively of God in Scripture. The verbal root of this adjective is used widely throughout the Bible to speak of the sinful envy of men, such as the jealousy that motivated the hatred of the brothers of Joseph, the jealousy that Rachel harbored against Leah, and the envy of the psalmist against the prosperity of the wicked. However, the same word is also used in a positive way, such as the jealousy of a husband for the virtue of his wife (Numbers 5:12–15). The word jealous is also sometimes translated “zeal,” such as in the zeal of Phinehas the priest who was “zealous for my sake” (Numbers 25:11).
Just as a loving husband is rightly jealous over the affections of his wife and is deeply zealous to maintain first place in her heart, so the LORD our God is jealous to maintain first place in our priorities and our affections. Jesus, the Heavenly Bridegroom, desires to maintain first place in the affections of His bride, the Church.
The Lord accompanies the second commandment with a strong warning in verse 5: “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.” This verse warns that fathers who fail to give the LORD first place in their hearts will bring down a curse upon the heads of their children and grandchildren.
In the coming weeks, we will see in Scripture the devastating reality of this curse. Fathers who have in their own lives idols—anyone or anything more important to them than allegiance to Jesus Christ—dangerously and unintentionally expose their children to spiritual attack with the potential of ominous consequences. Conversely, the second commandment also states on the positive side that there is a generational blessing for those that “love me, and keep my commandments” (verse 6). Whether for good or for evil, our hearts’ desires as fathers affect the blessings or struggles that our children will face in life.
There are many forms of idolatry. Many things compete constantly for our attention and our affections. In February, we will examine the second commandment in the light of other Scriptures, seeking to learn to identify the dangers of idolatry in our own hearts.
This Thursday, we will read about an Old Testament patriarch who was unaware of the hidden idols that were hindering the Lord’s blessings upon his family. By bringing these hidden gods to the light and abandoning them forever, Jacob experienced the blessing of God upon his home and family for generations.