When I lived in California, I would always treat out-of-state visitors to one of the most impressive scenes in all of nature. I would take them to Redwood National Park to see the awesome beauty of the redwood forest.

If you've ever been there, you know how majestic and inspiring those enormous trees are. And if you've ever tried to explain them to someone who hasn't been there, you've probably noticed how difficult it is. It really can't be put into words; it can only be experienced.

Now suppose I gave you a box of toothpicks and a bottle of glue and told you to make a model of the redwood forest as a way to demonstrate its majesty for those who have never experienced it. How would you respond?

You might try to explain to me how insufficient any toothpick model would be. Or you might not even be able to stop laughing long enough to get the words out. Obviously, any image of the forest itself would do it injustice. It wouldn't capture it at all.

That's why God gave us the second commandment. In the first commandment, He told us who to worship. But He knew our hearts. The second commandment deals with the manner in which we worship. "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" (Exodus 20:4-5).

What does this have to do with us? This was a command for ancient peoples who were used to idols made of carved wood or molten metal. They knew nothing about an invisible, transcendent God, so God told them not to reduce Him to an object. But that's not a problem these days, is it? People just don't do that anymore; we don't make wooden or metal images of God. Can't we take a breather on this commandment?

No, and here's why. There is something in the human heart that wants to reduce God, to shrink Him and make Him manageable. We want to get Him on our terms where we can control Him. So we come up with some system of religion where we envision God, because if we can see Him or systematize Him, we can predict Him or even manipulate Him. And if we can predict or manipulate Him, we can get Him to fulfill our agenda.

Reducing God

We can see that happening in Exodus. Right after the Ten Commandments were given, the Israelites made a golden calf while Moses was up on the mountain talking to God. It was the first example of the slippery slope of idolatry. Their golden calf wasn't a violation of the first commandment; the text implies that they were worshiping the God who brought them out of Egypt. But all they knew about deities was in terms of material objects, so in order to honor God's power, they crafted a bull, or a calf.

What's so wrong with that? Why can't we have little picture or statue to help us remember what God is like? Because shrinking Him a little bit in order to worship Him more concretely is going to fall short. It will always devalue Him. The Israelites' bull may have represented God's power, but it missed His holiness and purity, as evidenced by the immoral revelry that characterized their worship. The reason God tells us not to make idols is because they reduce Him. It's kind of like making a model of the redwoods with toothpicks and glue.