What’s the second commandment? You know it: “You shall not make for yourself a carved 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…” No idols. Don’t try to image God. Don’t try to make something to look at, and then say, “There—that’s God. Finally, something I can see.”
It was a major problem throughout Israel’s history. A little while later the people of Israel were asking Aaron, “Come, make us gods that shall go before us!” And he, obliging them, “received gold from their hand, and fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf,” and then stood and made this speech: “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” This is your God—this visible, easily located thing. This thing you can see is right here—right with you in all your troubles.
Because Israel was only human, and in fact, represented and recapitulated the story of all humanity, the people struggled, for their entire history, with this impulse to act on their desire to create a visible representation of God (at least up till the Babylonian captivity). God knows how human and normal this impulse is. In Deuteronomy Moses says this: “Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth.”
If you try to image God, you’ll totally ruin your ability to know him. You’ll settle for less than God, and put some thing in between you and God, and block yourself off from knowing him at all. Over and over again we see this temptation to capture God with some kind of image rear its head. It ruined Israel, and obviously, it dominated every other nation for most of history. In fact, it’s so normal and ubiquitous, I’m sure you’ve wondered whether it ever really went away. Sure, most of the people we’re around don’t literally bow down to statues or anything like that. But how do we “modern” people actually do the same thing? It’s at least worth thinking about.
With all this focus on the damaging evil of wanting to make idols, it’s reasonable to conclude that God never wants us to see him—that somehow, seeing God ruins his god-ness, or something like that. But then, something else emerges, right in the beginning of the Bible, that puts an interesting spin on all of this.
In fact, if you’ve missed it, it kind of smacks you in the face, right in the story of Moses himself. Just a few short chapters after Moses records God’s explicit command not to image him, we have the record of a conversation between God and Moses again. They were talking about some difficult topics, when all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, Moses said, “Please, show me Your glory.”
Moses asked God, to His face, if he could see Him. At this point, you might expect God to break in with some serious rebuke like, “Moses, are you serious? Haven’t I been clear that you aren’t to have a visual of me? That’s totally against who I am!” That’s the point of the laws against idols, right? Well, the answer must be…no. Why? Because God didn’t rebuke Moses for his desire to see God at all. In fact, he seems to be glad Moses asked. He replied:
“I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before you…” But He said, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live…Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”
And then, the next day,
“Moses rose early in the morning and went up Mount Sinai, and the LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed before him…”
This is just fascinating. God knew that Moses had the (very human) desire to see him. And he granted it. It was a limited view—there was something about a direct look that Moses couldn’t handle, but it wasn’t wrong for Moses to want it. And God was all about it. And then, contemplating this, we might realize that God granted all kinds of these moments through the whole Old Testament. Consider:
Now the Angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. And He said, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai…” Then she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, You-Are-the-God-Who-Sees; for she said, “Have I also here seen Him who sees me?” (Genesis 16)
Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him…And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32)
Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity. But on the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand. So they saw God, and they ate and drank. (Exodus 24)
And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, a Man stood opposite him with His sword drawn in His hand. And Joshua went to Him and said to Him, “Are You for us or for our adversaries?” So He said, “No, but as Commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and said to Him, “What does my Lord say to His servant?” Then the Commander of the LORD’S army said to Joshua, “Take your sandal off your foot, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5)
Then the Angel of the LORD put out the end of the staff that was in His hand, and touched the meat and the unleavened bread; and fire rose out of the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened bread. And the Angel of the LORD departed out of his sight. Now Gideon perceived that He was the Angel of the LORD. So Gideon said, “Alas, O Lord GOD! For I have seen the Angel of the LORD face to face. Then the LORD said to him, “Peace be with you; do not fear, you shall not die.” (Judges 6)
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple… So I said: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 6)
Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the River Chebar, that the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. (Ezekiel 1)
There’s a lot there. And it begs the question—Is it wrong to want to see God? Well, it can’t be. It can’t be because Moses’ request to see God pleased God, and it can’t be, because God himself is not averse to being seen. It’s incredible, but the truth is that it is normal and right to want to see God. There’s something very human about it. And here is the amazing thing—God Himself wants us to see him. The warnings against idolatry, then, do not mean that we never will, or should never want to, see Him. They just mean that we must never make the image of God ourselves. We don’t know how. We can’t possibly do it right. But God knows how to show Himself.
I was thinking about all this recently after my wife and I finished watching the first season of The Chosen. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it. Maybe it’s the only thing I’d recommend you binge watch during this shutdown. (You can find it on YouTube for free right now. Just search for The Chosen, Global Live Stream.) I never thought I’d like a series about the life of Jesus so much, but there it is. And the most powerful part of it, for me, is the portrayal of Jesus himself. The conversations with him come across as very powerful, and they’ve left me thinking about why watching someone portray Jesus this way feels so gripping to me. (Other than, “props to the actor and writers!”) I’ve actually found myself wondering, is this wrong? Is it “making an image of God,” to enjoy seeing Jesus portrayed like this? What do you think?
Here’s where I’m at with it. It could be wrong. In other words, I could only love the portrayal of Jesus I see on screen. I could make that my image of Jesus when I pray to him. I could find the Bible boring and the show exciting. I could need the show to feel close to God. And that would be idolatry.
But I already know, from scripture, that we humans have powerful drive to see God, and that God desires to fulfill this desire. And actually, that’s what Jesus was all about, right? The Gospel of John admits that, in the same way God told Moses that he could not see His face, “No man has at any time seen God,” by which John (who knew all the scriptures I quote above) seems to mean, “no one has seen God directly, or seen His ‘face.’” But then, John says, when Jesus came, that’s exactly what they saw. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory,” he writes. And Paul completes the thought: “It is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” In other words, in Jesus, we saw what Moses didn’t see—we saw God’s glory, visible, in a face. A human face.
And what is the final word on why the new earth (“heaven,” as we usually say) is so great? Well, as Revelation says, “They shall see his face.”
You want to see God. And it’s right that you do. And you will.
You don’t see it when you watch The Chosen, but you will see it when you see Jesus—the face of God, looking out of human eyes.
One day, you’ll look him in the face.
Let that hope draw you forward, until the moment you do.