Dumb Idols: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 35


  1. What does God require in the second commandment?

That we in no way make any image of God,1 nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.2

[1] Deut. 4:15–19; Isa. 40:18, 25. Rom. 1:22–24; Acts 17:29. [2] 1 Sam. 15:23; Deut. 12:30–32; Matt. 15:9; *Deut. 4:23–24; *Jn. 4:24. 

  1. May we not make any image at all?

God may not and cannot be imaged in any way; as for creatures, though they may indeed be imaged, yet God forbids the making or keeping of any likeness of them, either to worship them or to serve God by them.1

[1] Ex. 23:24–25; 34:13–14; Deut. 7:5; 12:3; 16:22; 2 Kgs. 18:4; *Jn. 1:18. 

  1. But may not pictures be tolerated in churches as books for the people?

No, for we should not be wiser than God, who will not have His people taught by dumb idols,1 but by the lively preaching of His Word.2

[1] Jer. 10:8; Hab. 2:18–19. [2] 2 Pet. 1:19; 2 Tim. 3:16–17; Rom. 10:17.


Dumb Idols

The second commandment is all about how we worship God.  It is very closely related to the first, for if we place our trust purely and fully in God alone, then obedience to the second naturally follows.  We will submit ourselves entirely to Him in our relationship with Him.  Idolatry ultimately is about worshiping and trusting myself instead of God, and this will express itself in my worship as I try to take control of my relationship with God, shaping God to fit my own lusts and imagination and dictating how and on what terms God blesses me.

When the idol worshiper makes a statue or a picture of God, he puts himself in charge of the relationship.  It is his own mind which creates the image.  Now, rather than God being a mighty and powerful, and above all sovereign being, the idolater has fixed God into a controllable form.

The classic example of this dynamic at work is seen with the Israelites at Mount Sinai.  They were confronted with the awesome, terrifying, powerful God, who was death to look on.  As time wore on and Moses did not return from the mountain, the Israelites demanded that Aaron make them gods, meaning idols, to follow (Exodus 32).  They wanted to control the relationship.  So Aaron made them a golden calf, and the worshiped it and celebrated.

The issue here was not abandoning the worship of Jehovah to worship some other god.  Aaron said, “This is the God that brought you out of Egypt,” and then declared a feast to Jehovah, the name of Israel’s God (verse 5).  The problem was their refusal to submit to God’s sovereignty; they demanded they be in control of the relationship rather than accepting that God was.  This is the heart of idolatry, the elevation of the self to the throne instead of God.  In worship it expresses itself in the demand that I decide how I will worship, a demand that I be in control of how the relationship between me and God will work.

The making of a picture of God, or the use of a picture of anything in order to worship God, always falls into this category, perhaps more directly than anything else.  This is because we have no description of God in Scriptures, and any picture we make therefore comes out of one’s own head instead of as revealed truth from God.

The Catechism says that God will have His people taught by the lively preaching of the Word, and not by dumb idols.  “Dumb” here means “mute” or “wordless,” not “stupid,” so the idol is contrasted to the word most explicitly; the idol does not speak, but God does, through the Word.  But all worship and teaching will be according to a truth system, so the dumb idol doesn’t remain mute.  Its mouths are filled with ideas from some man.  The human worshiper puts himself on the throne, worshiping his own conception of who God is instead of who God reveals Himself to be.

One need not look for golden images of bulls to see this at work all around us.  Constantly people worship the work of their own hands rather than God.  People decide for themselves what formal worship will look like instead of being guided by the Scriptures.  People invent their own doctrine of what God is like instead of learning who God is from the Scriptures.  They invent a god that acts the way they want him to, and refuse to accept what the Scriptures say about God.  So they worship their own conceptions; essentially, they worship themselves.  Their worship services are all about their feelings and personal ideas about God rather than about God Himself.  And it is no accident that their worship services are often full of pictures, pictures which root their worship in their emotional responses to their own conceptions of God rather than rooted in God’s own self-revelation, which is always in words, and never in visual images.

In a less mature time in the church’s history, God did indeed use visual representations of different things to illustrate various truths about Himself, such as the furniture in the temple or the sign-acts of Ezekiel.  But in this last age He has revealed Himself fully and perfectly in the person and work of Jesus Christ, to whom every knee will bow and whom every tongue will confess.  He is the Word of God, and of Him we have no physical description.  Indeed we need none, since the revelation of Jesus was never in how He looked (totally unremarkable) but in His words, words that are Spirit and Life, words which changed the world, words which gave meaning to His great act of self-sacrifice on behalf of His people.  It is faith in Him, and in His words, that give us life.  God has chosen to deliver His revelation to us His people in the form of these words, and in submission to God we will accept His provision for us as sufficient, and not try to supplement or replace it with dumb idols of our own invention.