Question: "What is the true meaning of the second commandment?"
Answer: The Ten Commandments are recorded in the Bible in Exodus 20:1–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21. The second of those commandments, in its entirety, is this: “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. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8).
This command is closely linked with the first, which says, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Having other gods is idolatry. Idol worship was rampant among the nations surrounding Israel. Most of those nations had carved images to which they bowed, sacrificed, and performed various acts of worship. Often that pagan worship involved infanticide and prostitution (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 23:17). The Israelites were strictly warned to keep themselves separate from the pagan nations around them and to avoid any activities that resembled their vile worship rites (Leviticus 20:23; 2 Kings 17:15; Ezekiel 11:12).
God hates idolatry in any form (Deuteronomy 6:14–15; 32:21; Jeremiah 2:5; Leviticus 26:1). It steals the attention and honor that belong only to God (Deuteronomy 6:5; Luke 10:27). In many nations today, carved gods and goddesses are still an obvious violation of this commandment. However, the sin of idolatry is ultimately a sin of the heart. An idol is anything we depend upon to meet the deep needs of the heart—love, security, worth, or significance. When we seek to find identity and security in something besides God, we have made it an idol. John Calvin said, “The human heart is an idol factory.” We often search for peace or identity through relationships, substances, money, or entertainment. Addictions are forms of idolatry, as are a host of other worldly enticements that cannot ultimately satisfy. When we give ourselves to the pursuit of manmade gods, we are breaking the second commandment.
Even good things can become idols if we are not careful. Ministry, hobbies, charity work, or family can usurp the rightful place only God should hold in our lives. When we emotionally rely on anything other than our relationship with Him to validate us, we are breaking the second commandment.
This commandment also contains a warning for future generations. God is saying that, if we don’t deal with idolatry in our generation, we will pass it down to our children and to their children. Children learn to handle life by watching their parents. When children observe mom and dad running to a bottle, a pill, another romance, or a shopping spree to make them feel good about themselves, they follow that pattern. When children watch their parents spend time, money and energy on worldly pursuits, they naturally copy those values and will raise their own children to do the same.
However, God also promises blessing for those who model godly values for their children (Deuteronomy 7:9). Just as children learn to run to idols by watching their parents do so, they can also learn to turn away from idols by observing their parents giving God His rightful place in their lives. When we make Him our hiding place (Psalm 32:7), He fills our deepest heart needs like nothing else can. When we have no gods but Him, He is faithful to shelter us with His love and protection (Psalm 36:7; 144:2; Malachi 3:17–18). Psalm 103:17 says, “The LORD’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children.” We must give the Holy Spirit free rein to smash any idols our hearts have erected. When we allow Him to remove anything that has established itself as an idol, we can then be filled with His joy and peace (Galatians 5:22; Ephesians 6:18).