What is a Graven Image? By Jack Kettler
In this study, we will seek to understand what a graven image is and the implications for making pictures of God.
As in previous studies, we will look at definitions, scriptures, commentary evidence and confessional support for the glorifying of God in how we live.
“Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths.” (Psalm 25:4)
Question: What is a graven image?
Answer: The phrase “graven image” comes from the King James Version and is first found in Exodus 20:4 in the second of the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew word translated “graven image” means literally “an idol.” A graven image is an image carved out of stone, wood, or metal. It could be a statue of a person or animal, or a relief carving in a wall or pole. It is differentiated from a molten image, which is melted metal poured into a cast. Abstract Asherah poles, carved wooden Ba’als covered in gold leaf, and etchings of gods accompanying Egyptian hieroglyphics are all graven images. *
The context of the “Thou shall not make a graven image” passages is dealing with worship of false things. Exodus 20:4 states that no one is to make an image of what is in heaven, so that you may not worship them or bow down to them (20:5). This is reiterated in Leviticus 26:1. The Deuteronomy passages, contextually, are dealing with the same thing: an admonition against worshipping a false image. God does not want people bowing down before idols and worshiping false gods. **
Synonyms for Graven:
Inscribed, carved, incised, carven, engraved, and etched.
Synonyms for Image:
Likeness, resemblance, depiction, portrayal, representation, statue, statuette, sculpture, bust, effigy, figure, figurine, doll, carving, painting, picture, portrait, drawing, sketch, artist's impression
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven 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. 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.” (Exodus 20:4-5)
Consider Barnes' Notes on the Bible on Exodus 20:4:
“Graven image - Any sort of image is here intended.
As the first commandment forbids the worship of any false god, seen or unseen, it is here forbidden to worship an image of any sort, whether the figure of a false deity Joshua 23:7 or one in any way symbolic of Yahweh (see Exodus 32:4). The spiritual acts of worship were symbolized in the furniture and ritual of the tabernacle and the altar, and for this end the forms of living things might be employed as in the case of the Cherubim (see Exodus 25:18 note): but the presence of the invisible God was to be marked by no symbol of Himself, but by His words written on stones, preserved in the ark in the holy of holies and covered by the mercy-seat. The ancient Persians and the earliest legislators of Rome also agreed in repudiating images of the Deity.” (1)
Why an image of Christ is impossible theologically:
1. We should not forget the first commandment forbids the worship of any other than the true God. The second commandment flows from this first prohibition.
2. An image cannot capture Christ’s divine and human natures and because this, a picture of Christ especially violates his deity.
3. Exodus prohibits the use of images as an aid in the worship God.
4. Pictures of Christ have no semblance to the way He actually looked. Christ's glory cannot be captured in a picture, so they are necessarily inaccurate and false.
As an aside, the Exodus passage does not forbid the making of artwork in general. Painting pictures of your children or wife is okay.
Questions for an artist or promoter of pictures of Christ:
When someone shows you a picture of Christ, ask, who is that? If the person says Christ, follow up by asking if the picture is the product of the artist’s mind or an actual portrait. An actual portrait is impossible. Is the picture is a product of the artist’s mind, or is this image based upon a personal revelation of some kind? If so, this raises a completely new list of questions about private revelations. Is the revelation true or false? If it is from his own mind, is this idolatry?
A mental image of God or the Lord Jesus Christ cannot help but to distort Him. A mental image that becomes a picture is a false image because deity cannot be captured in a picture. Why? Because God in His essence is incorporeal. A false picture is an idol, hence, idolatry.
John Calvin on images of God:
“There are two parts in the Commandment — the first forbids the erection of a graven image, or any likeness; the second prohibits the transferring of the worship which God claims for Himself alone, to any of these phantoms or delusive shows. Therefore, to devise any image of God, is in itself impious; because by this corruption His Majesty is adulterated, and He is figured to be other than He is. There is no need of refuting the foolish fancy of some, that all sculptures and pictures are here condemned by Moses, for he had no other object than to rescue God’s glory from all the imaginations, which tend to corrupt it. And assuredly it is a most gross indecency to make God like a stock or a stone… I do not deny that these things are to be taken connectedly, since superstitious worship is hardly ever separated from the preceding error; for as soon as any one has permitted himself to devise an image of God, he immediately falls into false worship. And surely whosoever reverently and soberly feels and thinks about God Himself, is far from this absurdity; nor does any desire or presumption to metamorphose God ever creep in, except when coarse and carnal imaginations occupy our minds. Hence, it comes to pass, that those, who frame for themselves gods of corruptible materials, superstitiously adore the work of their own hands. I will then readily allow these two things, which are inseparable, to be joined together; only let us recollect that God is insulted, not only when His worship is transferred to idols, but when we try to represent Him by any outward similitude.” (2)
The Ten Commandments — Thomas Watson:
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven 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: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am o jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of then that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.' Exodus 20: 4-6.
I. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
In the first commandment worshipping a false god is forbidden; in this, worshipping the true God in a false manner.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.' This forbids not making an image for civil use. Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, It is Caesar's.' Matt 22: 20, 21. But the commandment forbids setting up an image for religious use or worship.
Nor the likeness of any thing,' &c. All ideas, portraitures, shapes, images of God, whether by effigies or pictures, are here forbidden. Take heed lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make the similitude of any figure.' Deut. 4: 15, 16. God is to be adored in the heart, not painted to the eye.
Thou shalt not bow down to them.' The intent of making images and pictures is to worship them. No sooner was Nebuchadnezzar's golden image set up, but all the people fell down and worshipped it. Dan 3: 7. God forbids such prostrating ourselves before an idol. The thing prohibited in this commandment is image-worship. To set up an image to represent God, is debasing him. If any one should make images of snakes or spiders, saying he did it to represent his prince, would not the prince take it in disdain? What greater disparagement to the infinite God than to represent him by that which is unite; the living God, by that which is without life; and the Maker of all by a thing which is made?
 To make a true image of God is impossible. God is a spiritual essence and, being a Spirit, he is invisible. John 4: 24. Ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake with you out of the midst of the fire.' Deut. 4: 15. How can any paint the Deity? Can they make an image of that which they never saw? Quod invisibile est, pingi non potest [There is no depicting the invisible]. Ambrose. Ye saw no similitude.' It is impossible to make a picture of the soul, or to paint the angels, because they are of a spiritual nature; much less can we paint God by an image, who is an infinite, untreated Spirit.
 To worship God by an image, is both absurd and unlawful.
(1) It is absurd and irrational; for, the workman is better than the work,' He who has builded the house has more honour than the house.' Heb. 3: 3. If the workman be better than the work, and none bow to the workman, how absurd, then, is it to bow to the work of his hands! Is it not an absurd thing to bow down to the king's picture, when the king himself is present? It is more so to bow down to an image of God, when God himself is everywhere present.
(2) It is unlawful to worship God by an image; for it is against the homily of the church, which runs thus: The images of God, our Saviour, the Virgin Mary, are of all others the most dangerous; therefore the greatest care ought to be had that they stand not in temples and churches.' So that image-worship is contrary to our own homilies, and affronts the authority of the Church of England. Image-worship is expressly against the letter of Scripture. Ye shall make no graven image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone to bow down unto it.' Lev 26: 1. Neither shalt thou set up any image; which the Lord thy God hateth.' Deut. 16: 22. Confounded be all they that serve graven images.' Psalm 97: 7. Do we think to please God by doing that which is contrary to his mind, and that which he has expressly forbidden?
 Image worship is against the practice of the saints of old. Josiah, that renowned king, destroyed the groves and images.2 Kings 23: 6, 24. Constantine abrogated the images set up in temples. The Christians destroyed images at Baste, Zurich, and Bohemia. When the Roman emperors would have thrust images upon them, they chose rather to die than deflower their virgin profession by idolatry; they refused to admit any painter or carver into their society, because they would not have any carved state or image of God. When Seraphion bowed to an idol, the Christians excommunicated him, and delivered him up to Satan.” (3)
Confessions on Images:
Westminster Shorter Catechism
Q. 49. Which is the second commandment?
A. The second commandment is, Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven 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: 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 showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
Q. 50. What is required in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his word.
Q. 51. What is forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment forbiddeth the worshiping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word.
The Heidelberg Catechism is relevant to the question of images:
Question 96. What does God require in the second commandment?
Answer. That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his word.
Question 97. Are images then not at all to be made?
Answer. God neither can nor may be represented by any means; but as to creatures, though they may be represented, yet God forbids us to make, or have any resemblance of them, either in order to worship them, or to serve God by them.
Question 98. But may not images be tolerated in the churches, as books to the laity?
Answer. No; for we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have his people taught not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of his word"
FISHER’S CATECHISM, Selections from Q&A #51
Q. What is forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment forbiddeth, the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word.
Q. 1. What are the leading sins forbidden in this commandment?
A. Idolatry and will-worship.
Q. 2. What is the idolatry here condemned?
A. [The worshipping of God by images]: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, etc.
Q. 3. What is an image?
A. It is a statue, picture, or likeness of any creature whatsoever.
Q. 4. Is it lawful to have images or pictures of mere creatures?
A. Yes, providing they be only for ornament; or the design be merely historical, to transmit the memory of persons and their actions to posterity.
Q. 5. Can any image or representation be made of God?
A. No; it is absolutely impossible; he being an infinite, incomprehensible Spirit (Isa. 40:18). “To whom will ye liken God? or, what likeness will ye compare unto him?” If we cannot delineate our own souls, much less the infinite God (Acts 17:29). “We ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.”
Q. 6. What judgment should we form of those who have devised images of God, or of the persons of the adorable Trinity?
A. We should adjudge their practice to be both unlawful and abominable.
Q. 7. Why unlawful?
A. Because directly contrary to the express letter of the law in this commandment, and many other Scriptures; such as, Jer. 10:14-15; Hos. 13:2; and particularly Deut. 4:15-19, 23. “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves, (for ye saw no MANNER OF SIMILITUDE on the day that the Lord spake unto you in Horeb, out of the midst of the fire) lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female,” etc.
Q. 8. How is it abominable?
A. As it is a debasing the Creator of heaven and earth to the rank of his own creatures; and a practical denying of all his infinite perfections (Psa. 50:21).
Q. 9. May we not have a picture of Christ, who has a true body?
A. By no means; because, though he has a true body and a reasonable soul (John 1:14), yet his human nature subsists in his divine person, which no picture can represent (Psa. 45:2).
Q. 10. Why ought all pictures of Christ to be abominated by Christians?
A. Because they are downright lies, representing no more than the picture of a mere man: whereas, the true Christ is God-man; “Immanuel, God with us” (1 Tim. 3:16; Matt. 1:23).
Q. 11. Is it lawful to form any inward representation of God, or of Christ, upon our fancy, bearing a resemblance to any creature whatsoever?
A. By no means; because this is the very inlet unto gross outward idolatry: for, when once the heathens “became vain in their imaginations, they presently changed the glory of the incorruptible God, into images made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things” (Rom. 1:21-23).
Q. 23. Is it lawful, as some plead, to have images or pictures in churches, though not for worship, yet for instruction, and raising the affections?
A. No; because God has expressly prohibited not only the worshipping, but the making of any image whatsoever on a religious account; and the setting them up in churches, cannot but have a native tendency to beget a sacred veneration for them, and therefore ought to be abstained from, as having, at least, an appearance of evil (1 Thess. 5:22).
Q. 24. May they not be placed in churches for beauty and ornament?
A. No: the proper ornament of churches is the sound preaching of the gospel, and the pure dispensation of the sacraments, and other ordinances of divine institution.
Q. 25. Were not images of the cherubim placed in the tabernacle and temple, by the command of God himself?
A. Yes: but out of all hazard of any abuse, being placed in the holy of holies, where none of the people ever came; they were instituted by God himself, which images are not; and they belonged to the typical and ceremonial worship, which is now quite abolished.
“The beauty of the person of Christ, as represented in the Scripture, consists in things invisible unto the eyes of flesh. They are such as no hand of man can represent or shadow. It is the eye of faith alone that can see this King in his beauty. What else can contemplate on the untreated glories of his divine nature? Can the hand of man represent the union of his natures in the same person, wherein he is peculiarly amiable? What eye can discern the mutual communications of the properties of his different natures in the same person?” - John Owen
“Those who make pictures of the Savior, who is God as well as man in one inseparable person, either limit the incomprehensible Godhead to the bounds of created flesh, or confound his two natures like Eutyches, or separate them, like Nestorius, or deny his Godhead, like Arius; and those who worship such a picture are guilty of the same heresy and blasphemy.” - Philip Schaff
“The Bible presents no information whatever about the personal appearance of Jesus Christ, but it does teach that we are not to think of him as he may have appeared "in the days of his flesh," but as he is today in heavenly glory, in his estate of exaltation (2 Cor. 5:46). Inasmuch as the Bible presents no data about the personal appearance of our Saviour, all artists' pictures of him are wholly imaginary and constitute only the artists' ideas of his character and appearance. … [Liberals] inevitably think of Jesus as a human person, rather than thinking of him according to the biblical teaching as a divine person with a human nature. The inevitable effect of the popular acceptance of pictures of Jesus is to overemphasize his humanity and to forget or neglect his deity (which of course no picture can portray). In dealing with an evil so widespread and almost universally accepted, we should bear a clear testimony against what we believe to be wrong.” - Geerhardus Vos
“Thou shalt not make any likeness of anything” for use in worship. This categorical statement rules out not simply the use of pictures and statues, which depict God as an animal, but also the use of pictures and statues, which depict him as the highest created thing we know as human. It also rules out the use of pictures and statues of Jesus Christ as a man, although Jesus himself was and remains man; for all pictures and statues are necessarily made after the “likeness” of ideal manhood as we conceive it, and therefore come under the ban which the commandment imposes.” - J.I. Packer
“The Second Commandment teaches us how we are to worship. We are to worship God only as He had commanded us to worship him. Anything that man devises, invents, or imagines corrupts the true reverence and worship of God. This commandment is frequently violated when Christians have pictures of Jesus. When it is said that they are legitimate because they are not used in worship, we reply that they are not legitimate because one cannot have a proper thought of feeling with respect to Christ other than that of reverenced and worship”. - G.I. Williamson
“Pictures of Christ are in principle a violation of the second commandment. A picture of Christ, if it serves any useful purpose, must evoke some thought or feeling respecting him and, in view of what he is, this thought or feeling will be worshipful. We cannot avoid making the picture a medium of worship. But since the materials for this medium of worship are not derived from the only revelation we possess respecting Jesus, namely, Scripture, the worship is constrained by a creation of the human mind that has no revelatory warrant. This is will-worship. For the principle of the second commandment is that we are to worship God only in ways prescribed and authorized by him. It is a grievous sin to have worship constrained by a human figment, and that is what a picture of the Saviour involves.” - John Murray
“Closely akin to the use of images is that of pictures of Christ. And these, we are sorry to say, are often found in Protestant as well as Roman Catholic churches. But nowhere in the Bible, in either the Old or New Testament, is there a description of Christ’s physical features. No picture of Him was painted during His earthly ministry. The church had no pictures of Him during the first four centuries. The so-called pictures of Christ, like those of Mary and the saints, are merely the production of the artist’s imagination. . . . No picture can do justice to his personality, for he was not only human, but divine. And no picture can portray his deity. All such pictures are fatally defective. . . . For most people the so-called pictures of Christ are not an aid to worship but rather a hindrance, and for many they present a temptation to that very idolatry against which the Scriptures warn so clearly.” - Loraine Boettner
1. Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Exodus, p. 73.
2. John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries, Exodus, Volume II (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House Reprinted 1979), pp.108-109.
3. Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments, (Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Banner of Truth), pp. 59-60.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
* Got Questions https://www.gotquestions.org/blasphemy-blaspheme.html
** CARM Theological Dictionary https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/ctd.html
The Second Commandment by Thomas Watson I. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. http://www.mountainretreatorg.net/classics/ten_second.html
Images of Christ a Violation of the Second Commandment http://www.all-of-grace.org/pub/others/images.html