And the Lord spake unto you. It is a confirmation of the Second Commandment, that God manifested Himself to the Israelites by a voice, and not in a bodily form; whence it follows that those who are not contented with His voice, but seek His visible form, substitute imaginations and phantoms in His place. But here arises a difficult question, for God made Himself known to the patriarchs in other ways besides by His voice alone; thus Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew Him not only by hearing, but by sight. Moses himself saw Him in the midst of the burning bush; and He also manifested Himself to the Prophets under visible figures. Since it would be superfluous to heap together many citations, let the remarkable vision of Isaiah suffice, which is related in (Isaiah 6), and those of Ezekiel, which we read of in (Ezekiel 1 and Ezekiel 10) And yet God was not forgetful of Himself, when He thus presented Himself to the sight of His servants. Wherefore, this argument does not appear to be valid and good, that it is sinful to represent God in a visible image, because His voice was once heard without His being seen; when, on the other side, it is easy to object that visible forms have often been exhibited, wherein He testified His presence. The solution is twofold: first, that, although God may have invested Himself in certain forms for the purpose of manifesting Himself, this must be accounted as a peculiar circumstance, and not be taken as a general rule; secondly, that the visions shewn to the patriarchs were testimonies of His invisible glory, rather to elevate men's minds to things above than to keep them entangled amongst earthly elements. In the promulgation of His Law, God first prescribed what believers must follow; because He saw that this was the best method (compendium) for retaining the minds of His people in true religion, and at the same time the best remedy for idolatry. Unless we submit to this counsel of God, we shall not only betray a licentious spirit of contention, but shall run directly against God, like butting bulls. For it was not in vain that Moses laid down this principle, that when God collected to Himself a Church, and handed down a certain and inviolable rule for holy living, He had not invested Himself in a bodily shape, but had exhibited the living image of His glory in the doctrine itself. Hence we may conclude that all those who seek for God in a visible figure, not only decline, but actually revolt, from the true study of piety.
If any one should object that God is not inconsistent with Himself, and yet, as has been said, that He has more than once taken upon Himself a visible form, the reply is simple and easy, that, whenever He appeared to the patriarchs in a visible form, He gave a temporary sign, which still was by no means contradictory of this commandment. Isaiah saw the Lord of hosts sitting on His throne; yet he boldly cries out as from the mouth of God, |To whom will ye liken me?| (Isaiah 40:25.) Nor need I repeat how constantly he speaks against idolaters; certainly he inveighs more strongly than any of the prophets against the folly, nay, the madness of those who make to themselves any image of God; because they thus turn truth into falsehood; and finally he assumes the same principle as that of Moses, that the true nature of God is corrupted by tricks and delusions if a corruptible thing be called His image. But what was His vision itself? The seraphim, who surrounded God's throne, sufficiently shewed by their covering their faces with their wings that the sight of Him could not be borne by mortals. As to what Ezekiel relates, no painter could represent it; for God has always appeared distinguished from the shape of any creature by those marks which surpass man's apprehension. This conclusion, therefore, always remains sure, that no image is suitable to God, because He would not be perceived by His people otherwise than in a voice. But then also fire was a symbol of His presence, yet He testified by it that His glory is incomprehensible, and thus would prevent men from idol-making. We have elsewhere explained what it is |to guard themselves as to their souls.| But we infer, from his anxious exhortations, that they should take heed, how great is the leaning of the human soul to idolatry. This is the tendency of that attestation against them, which I have inserted from (Deuteronomy 8); for Moses not only threatens them, but, as if summoning witnesses according to the custom of solemn trials, denounces that they shall perish, in order to inspire them with greater fear by this earnest mode of address. Whence it appears that this insane lust (of idolatry) is not to be repressed by ordinary means. With the same object he says that they are |corrupted, or corrupt themselves,| who make any similitude of God. Thus Paul also declares that in this way the truth is changed into a lie, (Romans 1:25;) and Jeremiah and Habakkuk condemn images for their falsehood. (Jeremiah 10:14; Habakkuk 2:18.) No wonder, then, that an idol should be called the |corruption| of men, since it adulterates the worship of God; and it is a most just recompense to those who pollute the pure and perfect knowledge of God, that they should be thence infected with a rottenness which consumes their souls. Hence, also, the stupid ignorance of the Papists is confuted who confine this prohibition to the ancient people, as if it were now permitted to paint or to sculpture (images of God) as if they had been Jews whom Paul was addressing, when he reasoned from the common origin of our nature: |Forasmuch as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver,| or corruptible matter. (Acts 17:29) There is no necessity for entering into details; but the Spirit declares no less plainly now that we must keep ourselves from idols, (1 John 5:21,) than He of old forbade their being made. Moreover, it was an act of diabolical madness to make away with one of the Ten Commandments, in order that they might rush into this foul and detestable extravagance with impunity. They pretend that the Jews were formerly prohibited from idolatry with greater strictness, because they were too much disposed to it, as if they were not themselves much worse in this respect. But, setting aside this, who does not see that the vice of superstition, which is natural to the human mind, was corrected by this remedy? Until, therefore, men have laid aside their nature, we infer that this Commandment is necessary for them.
19. And lest thou lift up thine eyes. Moses proceeds further, lest the Jews should imagine any divinity in the sun, and moon, and stars; nor does he only recall them from the error with which many were imbued, thinking that these were so many gods; but also anticipates another superstition, lest, being ravished by the brightness of the stars, they should conceive them to be images of God. And to this the expression, to |be driven,| refers. For since God represents His glory in the heavenly host, so also Satan, under this pretext, confuses and stupefies men's minds by a wily artifice, in order that they may worship God in these luminaries, and thus stumble at the very threshold. Therefore, that the Israelites may the better acknowledge how absurd it is to seek for God in earthly things, or in the elements of the world, or in corruptible matter, he expressly declares that they must not even lean on heavenly creatures; since God's majesty is superior to the sun, and moon, and all the stars. Besides, he reproves the absurdity of transferring the worship of God to the stars, which, by God's appointment, are to minister to us; for when he says that |God hath divided them unto all nations,| it implies subjection; as if he had said that the sun was our minister, and the moon, together with all the stars, our handmaid. Still, by the word |divided,| God's admirable providence is fitly commended in respect to their varied position, and course, and different offices; for the sun does not enlighten and warm all lands at the same moment; and, again, it now retires from us, and now approaches us more closely; the moon has her circuits; the stars rise and set as the heaven revolves. I pass over the slower movement of the planets; but, according to the aspect of the stars, one climate is moister, another drier; one feels more heat, another more cold. This variety is aptly called by Moses |dividing | Yet it aggravates the sin of superstition, if the Jews give themselves to the service of the stars, which minister also to heathen nations; for what can be more unworthy than for the children of God to worship the sun, which is the servant of all the world? whence again it follows, that in proportion to the dignity and excellence of the creatures themselves, so is the ingratitude of men towards God all the more base, if they adorn with His worship as with spoils, those creatures which He has appointed to minister to their advantage. The silly notion in which some of the Rabbins delight themselves, is unworthy of mention, viz., that God has divided the stars to the Gentiles, since they are subject to their influences, from which by special privilege the Jews are free; as if the condition of the human race had not been the same from the beginning. But the reason which I have adduced plainly shews, that they depart most widely from the meaning of Moses, and therefore pervert his intention; viz., that the creatures which are destined for our use, are by no means to be worshipped as God.
23. Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget. There is no contradiction in the sense, that he should first of all altogether forbid that idols should be made; and, secondly, speak only of worshipping and adoring them; for it is already in itself a wicked error to attribute any image to God; and another superstition always accompanies it, that God is always improperly worshipped in this visible symbol. There is a strong confirmation here of what I have previously stated, that whatever holds down and confines our senses to the earth, is contrary to the covenant of God; in which, inviting us to Himself, He permits us to think of nothing but what is spiritual, and therefore sets His voice against all the imaginations, whereby heathen nations have always been deceived; because they have been deprived of the light of that doctrine which would direct them to the heavenly greatness of God Himself. But those who have been taught by God's Law, not only that He alone is to be worshipped, but that He may not be represented by any visible effigy, are justly accounted covenant-breakers, if they do not confine themselves within these bounds; for they violate that Second Commandment (caput) by which they are commanded to worship God spiritually; and consequently are forbidden to make to themselves likenesses, or images, whereby they would deface and pollute His glory. At the end of the verse, which some translate |the likeness, which your God hath forbidden,| the proper rendering is, |hath commanded, or enjoined:| and hence the relative 'vr, asher, must be taken, as in many other places, as an adverb of comparison. The meaning of Moses is indeed by no means obscure; viz., that we must simply obey God's word; and that we must not dispute whether what He has forbidden is lawful or not; and that no other rule of right is to be sought for, except that we should follow what He has prescribed. Let the Papists dispute as they please, that images are not to be removed because they are useful for the people's instruction; but let this be our wisdom, to acquiesce in what God has chosen to decree in this matter. Although the threat which is subjoined might have been placed amongst the sanctions, which we shall hereafter consider in their proper place, yet I have been unwilling to separate it from the Second Commandment, to which it is annexed. A confirmation is added in Deuteronomy; viz., that God, who has not spared foreign nations, will much less pardon His people; inasnmch as it is a greater crime, and fouler ingratitude to forsake God when once He is known, and to cast aside the teaching of His Law, than to follow errors handed down from our forefathers. I have already explained in what sense He is called a |jealous God;| but in Exodus 34:14, Moses has not deemed it sufficient simply to honor God with this title; but, in amplification, he has added that this is His name, in order that we may know that He can no more bear a companion, or a rival, to be compared with Him, than He can cast away His Godhead, or deny Himself. He compares Him to fire, to increase our terror of Him. We know how audaciously the world indulges itself in superstitions; so that, as if in very sport, it metamorphoses God just as fancy leads. Wherefore, in order to incline men's minds to reverence, he sets before us in this figure God's fearful vengeance; as though He would instantly consume them, just as fire consumes stubble, if they shall have dared to think of God otherwise than is right.