Idol Worship, Statues in Churches, and the 2nd Commandment

Q. Why has the Catholic church changed the Second Commandment?…set no graven image before me nor the likeness thereoff? Is this , again, adding to the Word of God.

A. You have taken a phrase out of context from Exodus 20 and the Ten Commandments. Let’s take a look at the whole commandment first—in context. This is not adding to the Word of God. I will even put a Protestant version and a Catholic version here for you to compare. So that you can plainly see we are not adding or taking away anything from scripture. Since you used KJV I will too.

Protestant: King James Version Ex. 20:3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 4 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. 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God…

Catholic: Douay-Reims Version 3Thou shalt not have strange gods before me 4 Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. 5Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them: I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous..

As you can see the phrase, ” Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven image” is referring to the worship of an idol or statue. It absolutely cannot mean that all statues, of anything, are strictly forbidden in sacred places of worship. What IS forbidden is the worship of these statues. How can I be so sure? Because in the very same book, only five chapters later we find this:

Exodus 25: 18 And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. 19 Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. 20 The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. 21 Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you. 22 There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.

And where were these two cherubim placed? In the Holy of Holies! In the cult of Israel there was no place more sacred than the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was placed; the very seat of God Most High. And this was the express command of God. Therefore, we KNOW that statues were not forbidden, only and emphatically, their worship.

Later, in Solomon’s temple despite the 2nd Commandment:

“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”

As you can see below, the Temple was decorated with many different things in the likeness of things in Heaven and on Earth. The Jews clearly understood that the 2nd Commandment did NOT forbid the creation of art in the likeness of things in Heaven and Earth.

I Kings 7:18 He made pomegranates in two rows19 The capitals … were in the shape of lilies, four cubits [l] high. 20 On the capitals of both pillars, a…were the two hundred pomegranates in rows all around. 22 The capitals on top were in the shape of lilies …24 Below the rim, gourds encircled it—ten to a cubit …25 The Sea stood on twelve bulls, three facing north, three facing west, three facing south and three facing east…. its rim was like the rim of a cup, like a lily blossom. …27 He also made ten movable stands of bronze; …between the uprights were lions, bulls and cherubim—and on the uprights as well. … 36 He engraved cherubim, lions and palm trees on the surfaces of the supports and on the panels, in every available space, with wreaths all around. 42 the four hundred pomegranates for the two sets of network (two rows of pomegranates for each network, decorating the bowl-shaped capitals on top of the pillars…44 the Sea and the twelve bulls under it …49 … the gold floral work and lamps and tongs;

The bulls are perhaps the most surprising given the Golden Calf incident in Exodus. But then again they were worshiping the Golden Calf. Catholics do not worship the statues and pictures in our churches or our homes. During all the long ages when most people could not read the Bible they could understand the language of art. The purpose of art in our Churches is instruction. They remind us of the people and events in scripture and Christian history.

10 Responses

  1. What constitute worship? Is bowing down an act of worship? Does the Church permit bowing to images, and kneeling before them to say prayers. Please, if you can give me Church’s document on this, I will greatly appreciate.

    IGBOZULIKE, Augustine O.
    Postgraduate Coordinator,
    Nigeria Federation of Catholic Stdents
    NFCS (IMCS-Nigeria)
    University of Ibadan
    Ibadan, Nigeria.

  2. What constitute worship?
    Adoration, prayer and sacrifice.

    Is bowing down an act of worship?
    It can be. But Christian Europeans bowed and knelt before their kings and queens
    and it was not considered worship but simply honor and respect. It is what is in the heart.

    Does the Church
    permit bowing to images, and kneeling before them to say prayers.


    Please, if you
    can give me Church’s document on this, I will greatly appreciate. There may be others but you can click on the link below to see the Council of Trent document on this issue.

    Session 25 of the Council of Trent

    The anathema is in the second paragraph.
    But this anathema is no longer against those born into Protestantism. I
    It is just instructive to know how strongly the Holy Council felt about
    any teaching contrary to this canon.

  3. 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.

    From the beginning, God’s covenant with Israel was based on exclusive worship of Him alone (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7). The Israelites were not even to mention the names of false gods (Exodus 23:13) because to do so would acknowledge their existence and give credence to their power and influence over the people. Israel was forbidden to intermarry with other cultures because they embraced false gods, and God knew this would lead to compromise. 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. The books of 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, and 1 & 2 Chronicles reveals this destructive pattern. The Old Testament prophets endlessly prophesied dire consequences for Israel if they continued in their idolatry. Mostly they were ignored until it was too late and God’s wrath against idol-worship was poured out on the nation. But ours is a merciful God and He never failed to forgive and restore them when they repented and sought His forgiveness.

    In reality, idols are impotent blocks of stone or wood and their power exists only in the minds of the worshippers. The idol of the god Dagon was twice knocked to the floor by God to show the Israelites just who was God and who wasn’t (1 Samuel 1:1-5). The “contest” between God and His prophet, Elijah, and the 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel is a dramatic example of the power of the true God (1 Kings 18:19-40) and the impotence of false gods. The testimony of Scripture is that God alone is worthy of worship. Idol worship robs God of the glory that is rightfully His and that is something He will not tolerate (Isaiah 42:8).

    Even today there are religions that bow before statues and icons, a practice forbidden by God’s Word. The significance He places upon it is reflected in the fact that the first of the Ten Commandments refers to idolatry: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 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 fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:3-5).

    Idolatry extends beyond the worship of idols and images and false gods. Our modern idols are many and varied. Even for those who do not bow physically before a statute, idolatry is a matter of the heart—pride, self-centeredness, greed, gluttony, a love for possessions and ultimately rebellion against God. Is it any wonder that God hates it?

  4. Jeronie,

    All of your arguments are based on a false premise. That premise is that all Christian truth can be found in Sacred Scripture and ONLY sacred scripture. The irony is that this Protestant Doctrine of Scripture Alone or Sola Scriptura cannot be found anywhere in Scripture.

    You base your beliefs and criticism of the Catholic doctrine on Protestant interpretation of scripture which is actually Protestant Tradition.

    Click the links for more posts on Catholic TRADITION

  5. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven

  6. Amen Thomas.

  7. What’s up, I just found your blog – thank you for writing. Just wanted to let you know that it’s not showing up properly on the BlackBerry Browser (I have a Bold). Anyway, I’m now on your RSS feed on my laptop, so thanks!

    • Thanks. someone else mentioned that. sorry. but it must be something with I don’t know what to do about it . but I could mention it to them.

      God Bless Pam Forrester

  8. The early Christians detested statues in Churches, and anyone with even the least feel for Monotheism will be aghast at the current situation. To justify it on the basis of – it is acceptable unless you worship them is wordplay.

  9. Dear Adam,
    Thanks for your opinion. However you seem unaware that in the OT God Himself prescribed that the Temple have images of things in Heaven and Earth. And He even wanted two statues of Angels in the Holy of Holies. You have let Protestant tradition sidetrack you from scripture. You might want to see my recent post on the 2nd Commandment –>Another Protestant Tradition: Catholics worship Idols.

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