233. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS: The First – Are you an idolater? The Second – Are icons forbidden?

Once during a sermon I asked my people “What is the Eighth Commandment?” and they all just stared at me. Well, I caught them off guard. I probably would have done the same. But then I thought: In my fifty years as a priest, I had never once done a teaching series on the Ten Commandments, which are foundational to our Faith.

Nor have I done a Blog series on them. So… the time has come!

Hebrew Letters
by Akivar  Images today are from Wikimedia Commons, unless so noted.


In the Pocket Prayer Book of my Antiochian Archdiocese, the Self Examination to help us prepare to make a Confession of Sins is based on the Ten Commandments (“the Decalogue”) – as are some other similar “examinations of conscience” online.

available from Antiochian Village Bookstore

The Books of Deuteronomy and Exodus tell how Moses received the Ten Commandments from God atop Mount Sinai. The movie “The Ten Commandments” (which emerges every Lent on TV), follows the Bible fairly closely in this regard.

16th c Russian, anonymous, from Wikimedia

Some other parts of the movie are, uh, fictional, shall we say  – especially the Egyptian women dressed in pastel chiffon! Also, Moses did not stand before Pharaoh and cry out commandingly “Let my people go!” Moses had a speech impediment and so chose his brother Aaron to speak for him. Exodus 4:10  So actually Moses stood there while Aaron told the Pharaoh: “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: Let my people go…” Exodus 5:1

So … you’ve seen the movie. Now let’s do the Book!

The Ten Commandments

These are part of an elaborate law code (read Leviticus sometime) which almost for the first time united religion and worship with ethics and morality. Most ancient religions kept these separate: cult, sacrifice, worship were over here as a way of dealing with the gods – and morality and ethics over there as a way of establishing social order. The Ten Commandments united them clearly and forever: “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods but me”, and “You shall not kill”. 

Are the Ten Commandments still in effect as Law? For Christians, the answer is No! by decision of the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem, Acts 15. The issue was whether Gentile converts needed to “keep the Law of Moses”. The determination was: We should not “put this yoke on their neck” which “neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear”. Therefore, so long as Gentile converts “abstain from idols, from unchastity and from blood” (that is, in cooking which offended Jewish sensibilities), that is sufficient.

This and all following icons permission by Saint Isaac’s Skete at skete.com 

Christians have not interpreted the Ten Commandments legalistiscally – for example, Commandment Four, “Keep holy the Sabbath Day”. Which day is the Sabbath? Saturday. Christians make Sunday our weekly holy day. * And sometimes we have expanded the meaning of the Commandments, as we shall see.

  • I’m old enough to remember when most stores were still closed on Sundays. “You want groceries? Shop on Saturday. Our employees need some time off.” Would that we still had still a day of rest, whatever the day. 

Why then do we still reverence the Ten Commandments?

1 Because Jesus did, and we look at all things in His light. A rich young man asked Him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In reply the Lord told him to keep the last six of the Ten Commandments: “Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honor your father and mother, do not defraud anyone.” Mark 10:17-27  He taught that following these Commandments is the key to gaining eternity – but then added that it takes more than that to actually open the door and enter.

 Christians have discovered by experience that the Ten Commandments are central to right living. As someone said, “If we break the Ten Commandments, they break us” – peoples’ lives are broken, society breaks down.

An obvious example is Commandment Six, “You shall not kill”. What would it be like if murder were acceptable? “Bang! you’re dead!” “Hey, no problem.” We’ll come to that later.

These Commandments are not arbitrary. They are given for our good, so that society can function, so that people can be secure and happy, because this is the way God created us to live. The Ten Commandments are so needful that, had they not been revealed, mankind surely would have invented them.  

Note: The first four Commandments relate directly to God. The last six are about how we relate to people. But they are all about God, because God loves people. “If anyone says, ‘I love God’, yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” 1 John 4:20

Therefore the two greatest laws in the Old Testament are “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” Deuteronomy 6:4-5 [and] “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 9:18 All good Jews knew this. Christ only endorsed it as correct.

Now let’s look at each Commandment. (This should take five weeks. Time will tell.) In the Scriptures, there are two texts, not quite identical: Deuteronomy 5, and Exodus 20 which is the one we’ll use here. 

The First Commandment

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. 

As we say these days: Get your priorities straight. Who do you think created you? Who keeps you alive moment by moment? Who gives you all you have? To Whom will you return and give account at the end of your days? The one God, Creator of heaven and earth. The one God who is the source of life, power, goodness, truth. The one God who has revealed Himself and His will  in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, if God is not at the center of your life, nothing will ultimately go right. As you know, the New Testament word for “sin” (amartia, αμαρτία) is an archery term, meaning simply “missing the mark”. The mark, the bullseye is God.

Jesus also used another image: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” John 15-5-6 

Or a modern image: Unplug yourself from the one source of power, and your lights go out.

Likewise, a society that cuts itself off from God and His will eventually collapses.

If God is not at the center, we’re playing games with Reality. 

The text of the First Commandment  – “You shall have no other gods but me” –  indicates there are other gods. Of course there are! The old pagan deities are now ignored. Hardly anyone offers incense before statues of Zeus any more. No one sacrifices their children to the Ba’als – or do they…?

An ancient idol – Zeus

But certainly there are lesser “gods”, lesser powers in the world which compete with the true God. I mean, some people might just as well frame a dollar bill and hang it on the wall and bow down before it. God has a multitude of modern competitors.

A modern idol

What are these potential idols? Anything! Everything! Money, power, popularity, pleasure, pride, ambition, family, profit, success, ethnicity, philosophic or economic or political ideologies, kings and even the occasional politician – and above all my selfwhen I place my desires and opinions before God, the teachings of God, the worship of God, and instead center my life on the great god Me!

Do you want to know how to destroy a nation or an ideology or your career or your marriage or your family or your self? Make it into an idol, as your ultimate value – and it will break! because it will not be able to bear this impossible load. Only God is God. And we were made for God, nothing less.

Furthermore, the best things can become the most dangerous idols. Because they are so good we are easily tempted to substitute them for God. And then they become not only idols but demons. 

An example: C.S. Lewis said that because true patriotism, love of one’s country, is such a good and exalted thing, it can become a particularly vicious idol. What horrors have been committed against God and man in the name of country (or class, or ethnic or racial group). Lewis wrote, “A man may have to die for his country: but no man must in any exclusive sense live for his country.” (The Weight of Glory, chapter 47). Only God is worth living for, for only God is the source of life. 

Another and potentially even more demonic idol: Religion. True Religion is the highest thing of all, the quest for and dedication to the Ultimate. Religion has brought great and wonderful things into the world. But dreadful things have also been done in the name of and under the cover of Religion – in order to impose “the True Faith” on others, or to protect clergy and religious institutions, or because we clergy come to believe that we possess The Truth.

Fall of the Great City Constantinople to the Crusadeers (David Aubert, 16th century)

If you want more examples, just ask.

The Second Commandment

You shall not make for yourself a graven image or 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 upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. 

This is probably the most often misunderstood of the Commandments. It was used by the iconoclastic emperors to justify destroying icons, and by Muslims and fundamentalist Christians to ban all religious images. But that is a misinterpretation! Evidence for that is this: Only five chapters later, in Exodus 25, God directs golden cherubim (graven images) to be placed above the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, in recent years archaeologists have excavated some ancient Jewish synagogs adorned with murals.

Furthermore if the Commandment is to be misread this way, does it forbid images only in synagogs? in churches? in mosques? No, it bans all images everywhere. That means: out with the TV, out with the picture of grandma, out with the dolls, out with the computer and its “icons”. If you think the Second Commandment bans images, then it bans imaages!

No matter, images of the invisible God are no longer prohibited because something new has happened. God Himself has taken on an image. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father.” John 1:14.  Because of this God can now be imaged, “iconed” (it’s the same word in the Bible), and so here He is now, before you.

Furthermore, we also honor icons of His Saints. Human beings were created in the image, the icon of God, and in God’s Holy Ones that image has now been restored.  Genesis 1. 

Some worry that when we Orthodox bow before icons and kiss them, surely that is idolatry – we are worshiping wood and paint. Of course we aren’t! (Even intelligent pagans didn’t do anything that ridiculous.) As the Seventh Ecumenical Council made clear, the veneration shown to images passes through them to God and the Saints.

Zadonsk, Russia (Licensed under Creative Commons)

The pagans’ problem was not that they had images. It was that they had images of the wrong gods. They worshiped lesser powers. That was idolatry. But Orthodox icons, far from being idolatrous, in fact protect us from idolatry, for they portray the true God. 

The latter part of the Second Commandment tells us the results of  idolatry, of disobeying God and serving the wrong gods – as shown in our mistreatment of people whom God loves. God visits “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate” Him. To put anything before God and the good of people has lasting destructive effects. This is no secret. It is obviously the way things work.

For example, the sins of slave traders and slave holders, who disobeyed the law of God to love others: We, their great great grandchildren and great great great grandchildren, are still paying the price of that.

Take the Seventh Commandment, as Christians interpret it: Today all these children conceived irresponsibly, contrary to the will of God, and then either aborted or born “out of wedlock”, many growing up in poverty and without fathers around – the results of that will continue to be visited on our society for a very long time to come.

Or when politicians put wealthy contributors or quest for power above the welfare of the people whom God has given them to serve, leaving God’s people to go hungry and sick, ignoring what is happening to the environment  – the results of that will be visited on the second and third generation and many more.

However, God shows steadfast love to those who love Him and keep His commandments”. And future generations will look back and call them blessed.

Next Two Weeks: Commandments Three, Four Five and Six

2 thoughts on “233. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS: The First – Are you an idolater? The Second – Are icons forbidden?

  1. Thank you, for this excellent information, Father Bill. The info re icons is important for my devout, Protestant friends, with wbom I will share this blog.

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