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Veneration of Icons: An Unbiblical Tradition or Biblical Truth?

God’s Word expressly condemns the practice of making idols or images of any creature for the express purpose of worshiping it as a god/goddess:

“Now God spoke all these words, saying: 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. You shall not make for yourself any graven idol, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water below 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 on the children to the third and fourth generation of them who hate Me,” Exodus 20:1-5

The Apostle Paul says something similar in regards to reprobates who refused to acknowledge the true God whom they knew exists, and chose to fashion images of created things in order to worship them instead:

“Because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him or give thanks to Him as God, but became futile in their imaginations, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools. They changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man, birds, four-footed beasts, and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their own bodies among themselves. They turned the truth of God into a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” Romans 1:21-25

There are some who take these commands as a clear cut explicit condemnation of any and every image whatsoever. They understand from these prohibitions that Christians should not have images or icons at all, especially ones which they show reverence to.

In this post, I am going to examine the Scriptures to show that this is not what the Holy Bible actually teaches. Rather, what God’s Word condemns is fashioning idols of false gods and of created beings that are wrongly worshiped as gods or goddesses. The inspired Writings, however, do not condemn making an image altogether since God himself authorized the production of specific images.

For instance, God ordered Moses to fashion the image of cherubim, which are heavenly creatures, as part of the ark of the covenant, which represented God’s heavenly throne, which also served as a visible sign and reminder that God’s presence would be with his people Israel:

“Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twisted linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet. Make them with cherubim, the work of a skilled workman… You shall make a veil of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen. It shall be made with cherubim, the skillful work of a workman.” Exodus 26:1, 31 – Cf. 36:8, 35

“He made the mercy seat of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and one and a half cubits wide. He made two cherubim of gold. He made them of hammered metal on the two ends of the mercy seat: one cherub on one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat he made the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim spread out their wings upward, covering the mercy seat with their wings, with their faces toward each other. The faces of the cherubim were looking toward the mercy seat.” Exodus 37:6-9

“So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of Hosts, who dwells above the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.” 1 Samuel 4:4

God would even visibly descend in a pillar of cloud/fire upon the ark of the covenant in order to speak audibly with Moses from between the two cherubim:

You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end and the other cherub on the other end. From the mercy seat you shall make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall stretch forth their wings upward, covering the mercy seat with their wings and facing one another. The faces of the cherubim are to face toward the mercy seat. You shall put the mercy seat above upon the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I will give you. I will meet with you there, and I will meet with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony. I will speak with you all that I will command you for the children of Israel.” Exodus 25:18-22

“And then Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with Him, and he heard the voice of One speaking to him from the mercy seat that was on the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim, and He spoke to him.” Number 7:89

Moreover, since the ark with the cherubim symbolized God’s holy presence among his people, it is not surprising to find the Israelites such as Joshua venerating it:

“Then Joshua ripped his clothes. He and the Israelite elders fell on their faces to the ground in front of the ark of the LORD until evening and threw dirt upon their heads.” Joshua 7:6

In fact, we even have an instance of an idol of a false god falling down before the ark of the true LORD:

“When the Ashdodites arose early in the morning, Dagon had fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. And they took Dagon and set him in his place again. When they arose early on the next morning, again Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD, and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold. Only the torso of Dagon was left to him.” 1 Samuel 5:3-4

This explains why God struck down anyone who approached the ark in an irreverent and unworthy manner:

“Then He struck the men of Beth Shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He struck fifty thousand and seventy men. And the people lamented, because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter. The men of Beth Shemesh said, ‘Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? And to whom will He go up from us?’” 1 Samuel 6:19-20

“Again David gathered all of the chosen men in Israel, thirty thousand. David and all of the people who were with him arose and went from Baalah of Judah to bring up the ark of God, so named for the name of the LORD of Hosts who sits enthroned among the cherubim that are upon it. They loaded the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio the sons of Abinadab were driving the new cart. They brought it with the ark of God from the house of Abinadab on the hill, and Ahio was walking in front of the ark. Meanwhile, David and the entire house of Israel were celebrating before the LORD with all sorts of instruments made of fir wood, on harps, on stringed instruments, on tambourines, on sistrums, and on cymbals. When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen had stumbled. The LORD became angry against Uzzah, and God struck him down on the spot for his irreverence. He died there beside the ark of God. David became angry because of the outburst of the LORD against Uzzah; that place is called Perez Uzzah to this day. David feared the LORD that day, and he thought, ‘How can the ark of the LORD come to me?’ So David did not allow the ark of the LORD to be brought to him in the City of David. Instead, David redirected it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the LORD remained at the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-Edom and his entire household.” 2 Samuel 6:1-11

The ark was the place where God’s presence was manifested in a special and unique way. To, therefore, approach it in an unworthy manner was to show irreverence to the God whose presence dwelt within the ark.

Solomon himself decorated the Temple, which he had built in Jerusalem, with the images of gourds, flowers, trees, lions, oxen, cherubim, etc.:

“The cedar of the house within had carvings of gourds and open flowers. All was cedar. There was no stone seen. He prepared the inner sanctuary in the inner part of the house in order to set there the ark of the covenant of the LORD. The inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high. He overlaid it with pure gold. He also overlaid the altar of cedar. So Solomon overlaid the interior of the house with pure gold, and he made a partition with gold chains in front of the inner sanctuary, and he overlaid it with gold. He overlaid the whole house with gold as well as the whole altar that was by the inner sanctuary. Within the inner sanctuary, he made two cherubim from olive wood, each ten cubits high. One wing of the cherub was five cubits, and the other wing was also five cubits. From the furthest part of the one wing to the furthest part of the other was ten cubits. The other cherub was ten cubits. Both the cherubim were the same shape and size. The height of the one cherub was ten cubits, and so was that of the other cherub. He set the cherubim within the inner sanctuary, and they stretched forth the wings of the cherubim, so that the wing of the one touched the one wall and the wing of the other cherub touched the other wall, and their wings touched one another in the middle of the house. He overlaid the cherubim with gold. He carved all the walls of the house with carved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers both inside and out. He overlaid the floor of the house with gold, both inside and out. For the entrance to the inner sanctuary, he made doors of olive wood; the lintel and doorposts were five-sided. The two doors were also made of olive wood. He carved on them cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, overlaid them with gold, and spread gold upon the cherubim and upon the palm trees. So also he made for the entrance to the nave four-sided posts of olive wood. The two doors were made from fir tree, with two leaves of each door folding. He carved on them cherubim and palm trees and open flowers and covered them with gold fitted upon the carved work.” 1 Kings 6:18-34

“And on the panels that were set in the frames were lions, oxen, and cherubim. On the frames both above and below the lions and oxen, there were wreaths of beveled work… On the surface of its stays and on its panels, he engraved cherubim, lions, and palm trees, according to the space of each, with wreaths all around.” 1 Kings 7:29, 36

Solomon even fashioned statues of 12 lions, which he placed alongside the steps leading up to his throne:

“The king also made a great throne of ivory and overlaid it with the best gold. The throne had six steps, and the back of the throne was round, and there were armrests on either side of the seat with two lions standing beside the armrests. Twelve lions stood on the sides of the six steps, and there was no other like it in any kingdom.” 1 Kings 10:18-20

Solomon isn’t a solitary example since the prophet Ezekiel was given a vision of the restored Temple in Jerusalem where he saw it furnished with palm trees and cherubim:

“It was made with cherubim and palm trees, so that a palm tree was between cherub and cherub. And every cherub had two faces, so that the face of a man was toward the palm tree on the one side, and the face of a young lion toward the palm tree on the other side. It was made throughout the temple all round. From the ground to the top of the door and on the wall of the nave, cherubim and palm trees were carved… There were made on them, on the doors of the temple, cherubim and palm trees like those made on the walls.” Ezekiel 41:18-20, 25

The last place one would expect to find statues is in the very house of God if such images were altogether forbidden.

This brings me to my final point.

When the Israelites were being killed by poisonous serpents for grumbling against God, they beseeched Moses to ask God to remove these snakes from their midst. God’s proposed cure for those poisoned by the serpents was to have Moses fashion a bronze serpent on a pole for the Israelites to look at:

“They journeyed from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom, and the soul of the people was very discouraged because of the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread or water, and our soul loathes this worthless manna.’ So the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, and many children of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, and He will take away the serpents from us.’ And Moses prayed for the people. The LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and put it on a pole, and it will be, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, will live.’ Moses made a bronze serpent and put it on a pole, and if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked at the bronze serpent he lived.” Numbers 21:4-9

Jesus even pointed to the bronze serpent as foreshadowing his being lifted up on the cross as mankind’s remedy for sin:

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:14-16

What makes the example of the bronze serpent all the more interesting is that it illustrates the point I made that God isn’t against the making of images, or even of their veneration. Rather, what God condemns are images that represent false gods/goddesses as objects of worship. This is brought out quite clearly by what King Hezekiah did when the Israelites started to incorporate the bronze serpent into their idolatrous of other deities:

“In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, became king. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi daughter of Zechariah. He did what was right in the sight of the LORD, according to everything that David his father had done. He removed the high places, broke down the sacred pillars, cut down the Asherah poles, and crushed the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the children of Israel had made offerings to it. They called it Nehushtan.” 2 Kings 18:1-4

Pay careful attention that the bronze serpent was destroyed with God’s express approval and pleasure only after the Israelites started to worship it alongside false gods and goddesses such as Asherah.

This corroborates the fact that what God prohibits is images/icons/idols representing false gods/goddesses and/or created beings that are wrongly worshiped. God is against having an image or icon that depicts a false deity or a creature that is worshiped as divine. Yet God doesn’t condemn images, which do not picture false deities or creating things wrongly worshiped as gods or goddesses.

After all, God himself commanded that images or icons be made, and even permitted his servants such as Solomon to decorate the steps leading to his throne with statues of lions.

Scriptural references taken from the Modern English Version (MEV) of the Holy Bible.

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