4 “You shall not make for yourselves an idol, nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 you shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them, for I, YHWH your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and on the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 and showing loving kindness to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. Exodus 20:4-6WEB
This passage contains a negative command, framed in two imperatives, directed toward Israel: "You shall not make for yourselves an idol, nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: you shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them".
The command is followed by an explanation of the rationale for the command: "For I, YHWH your God, am a jealous God...".
The command was promptly ignored by the Jews at the foot of Mount Sinai, where they generated a golden cow and called it "god" (Exodus 32). The Bible records that the Jews broke this command frequently in history, but that God always preserved for himself a group who did not bow the knee to any false god (1 Kings 19:18).
The command continues to be obligatory for all humanity, Covenant Israel (Christians) in particular. It will find its ultimate fulfillment in the completion and culmination of all promises associated with the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:34).
Notes on Interpretation/Application
This is the second in what is called the "Ten Commandments".
Graven Images (for)
A plain and isolated reading of this passage readily yields the understanding that it implies no images of anything should be made for any purpose, but this is plainly defeated when God later commands that images should be made of various things, including cherubim on the ark (Exodus 25:18), and a bronze snake (Numbers 21:8).
The above acts of God, (whereas God's standards of morality, expressed in part by this command, do not change), and the second imperative (verse 5), "you shall not worship them", enables us to qualify our understanding of the command, and better grasp the spirit of the law. The command is not to be interpreted in such a way that would make obedience to God's commands in Exodus 25:18 and Numbers 21:8 sinful. Rather, the heart of the command is such that we should not create any graven image for the purpose of worship.
There is some division in Reformed Christianity about the scope of this rule. We do worship Jesus, so should we not make any images of Jesus? The answer at face value may depend on whether you interpret the command to mean, (A)"don't make any images of things you worship", or (B)"don't worship any images you make". The wording of the second imperative (verse 5), and its apparent scope when combined with a qualified understanding of the first imperative (verse 4), bears a direct correspondence to the latter phrasing, (B).
However, as it turns out, an argument is occasionally made to the effect that both readings, (A) and (B), are obligatory. That is, having once made an image of Jesus, though not intending to worship the image, one might later visualize Jesus during worship by means of the image, and inadvertently find oneself worshiping the image rather than Jesus. And, given that there are people who claim that this is an inevitability, should one who has no genuine compulsion toward that particular unintentional sin refrain from making any image of Jesus, in order to protect his weaker brother from falling into the same sin?
Certainly a person who refrains from possessing or generating any images of Jesus does a noble thing, if he does so to protect his brother from sin. However, as we are not in the business of making "fence laws" to protect ourselves from inadvertent disobedience (Deut 4:2, 12:32), we do not call this a legal requirement.
Graven Images (against)