You shall not make you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath…
In this glorious description three points are misunderstood, and therefore demand explanation. He says, "I am a jealous God." In his learned book on the Study of Words, Dean Trench has given us a chapter on the "mutation of language," showing how a word may change its meaning through the lapse of years. Perhaps no word in our language has been more abused than the word "jealous." In the Scriptures it has a double significance. Primarily it implies, "I am sensitive of My rights and honour." And who is not? He who is indifferent to his rights and honour is unworthy of manhood; for underlying this sensitiveness is the appreciation of highborn character, out of which come those forces that make men good, powerful, and dignified. This is the meaning of Elijah, when he said, "I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts" — that is, "I have been very sensitive as to Thine honour; I have proclaimed Thy majesty and declared Thy law on the plains of Esdraelon, on the summit of Gilboa, and on the heights of Mount Carmel; I have risked everything because I knew that Thou hadst Thy rights and honour, and that I was set for their defence." St. Paul uses the term in another signification, implying a solicitude and deep concern for the welfare of others. "I am jealous over you with godly jealousy" — that is, "I am deeply solicitous for your happiness; my concern is profound." It is in this endearing sense, as if the Almighty had said, "I cannot allow My creatures to place themselves in a position wherein I cannot love and bless them." Could we ask more of the Infinite Father than to be solicitous for His children, that they may not place themselves in the position of idolaters and thereby forfeit His gracious blessing? As a patriot, true and ardent, might say, "I cannot allow my country to be placed in a position, by a false administration, by the enactment of unrighteous laws, by the adoption of a foreign policy, whereby it would be excluded from the favour of Jehovah and the prosperity which springs from its principles and history." And so a true husband would say, "I cannot permit my wife to place herself in such a state wherein I cannot love and cherish her." No true man is indifferent to the welfare of the woman he has wedded, nor would he expose her love and person to companionship fraught with temptations and dangers; to do so would prove his unworthiness of husbandry and of honourable manhood. A husband is the eternal guardian of the wife of his bosom. He is to protect her to the last degree; to preserve her honour he is to sacrifice everything, even life itself. In this loftier sense Jehovah says, "I am a jealous God; do not worship idols, and thereby place yourselves beyond the limitations of My love and benediction." There is another declaration in this ancient law capable of an explanation reflective of a better and truer view of our sovereign Creator: "Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation." The old interpretation is both false and cruel, that "the Lord of heaven holds the children responsible for the sins of their parents." How monstrous this conception of the Creator! To vindicate Himself against such a degrading charge He has left on record this answer: "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin." What, then, is the meaning of this extraordinary expression? The term "iniquity" is not equivalent of punishment. He does not say that He visits the punishments due the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation, but simply declares a great truth, brought out distinctly by the most eminent scientists of our day, that the law of transmission is a fact, that the past is handed down, that virtuous and vicious tendencies are transmitted from generation to generation. The whole history of the world is in proof of this; every man is a living illustration of a fact which cannot be denied. Our physical, intellectual, and moral characteristics are an inheritance. Men are born liars, thieves, murderers, as others are born truth-loving, the soul of honour, and tender of the life of every living thing. Gibbs, the pirate, was a pirate from his mother's womb; the elder Booth, the famous tragedian, who could personate murder on the stage with such apparent actuality that his auditors cried "Murder, murder!" yet, from his birth to his death, was tender of everything that had life. It is one of the proverbs in all literature that men are born poets, orators, warriors. Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Columbus, Voltaire, and David Hurtle represent this great law of transmission, whose characteristics were inherited, and were as conspicuous in childhood as in their riper years. In these words of His law God only proclaims what He had already written on the whole order and constitution of nature, Herein He applies this law, in its operations, to the transmission of idolatrous tendencies to the third and fourth generation. The "third and fourth" may here be proverbial, as the terms "seventh" and "tenth" are proverbial; and it is a significant and historical fact that, in the history of the Jews, it requires three or four generations for the taint of idolatry to run its course and become extinct. The Hebrew captives, on their return from Babylon, were no longer idolaters. Whatever their offence may have been, charged against them prior to their exile, the generation who came from the banks of the Tigris and of the Euphrates, and who were of the third and fourth generations, were free from the sin which led to the captivity of their ancestors. Here, then, is simply a declaration of the operation of a law which we recognise in the dog that caresses us, in the horse which carries us, in the flowers that cheer us, in almost everything that lives. We have seen the son inherit the evil tendencies of his father, and have witnessed the results of a vicious, prodigal life of a father through succeeding generations. If fault is found with the teachings of the Bible in this regard, fault must be found with the order of nature. And it is as remarkable as true, that what, can be affirmed of individuals may be of nations; for this law of transmission binds national life as it does the life of individuality. What we are today we are under the operation of this fearful law, and what American generations may be, through unnumbered centuries, will be under the operation of this same marvellous law of heritage. It is in this light that when Jehovah speaks of visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations He speaks of the taint of idolatry, and utters a fact for which all history stands in proof. There is a third point in this wonderful picture worthy a moment's consideration — God declares Himself a discriminating judge, "that will by no means clear the guilty." And who would have Him clear the guilty? Out of this question grows the deeper one, Shall we have government or no government? A government without justice is unworthy the name thereof. Law that can be infracted with impunity, where no penalties are executed for the violation thereof, is unworthy the honourable designation of law. If the right to punish inheres in the family and in organised society, why may we not assume that it is in accord with the government of the Infinite Sovereign of the universe? A system of pains and penalties is everywhere prevalent. We may make a distinction between penalties and consequences, yet the issue is the same — pain attends transgression of law. The whole universe moves in orderly procession. The uniformities of nature declare that order is the first law of heaven. Man is no exception to this rule of administration. He is a living, walking code of law, and, whatever his religious faith or his purpose, he suffers if he sins. There is more beneficence in the prohibitions of law than in the permissions and mandates. Doubtless the Almighty had a choice, in the creation of man, whether His noble creature should be a machine, whose every act should be automatic and subject to another's touch, or whether he should be dignified with the sovereignty of liberty, to stand or fall for himself, to obey or disobey, to live in harmony or in dissonance with his Creator. Man's crown of glory is liberty. Liberty means free will, free will means government, government means law, law implies penalty, penalty implies pain. The Almighty could have been simply our Creator, and been indifferent to our acts and the results of our actions; but in the boundlessness of His beneficence He has placed us under the rule of justice, and in keeping thereof there is great reward.
(J. P. Newman, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Thou shalt not make 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 waters beneath the earth: