“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.”
The second commandment of the Lord God prohibits idolatry, that is, forbids making any idols for worship, or rendering homage to likenesses of anything that we see in heaven (sun, moon, stars), or that is found on earth (plants, animals, people), or found in the waters (fish). The Lord forbids worshipping and serving these idols instead of the true God, as pagans do. In forbidding worship of idols, one must never be confused about the Orthodox veneration of holy icons and relics. Protestants and various sectarians criticize us for "worshipping them." But in venerating holy icons we do not consider them gods or idols. They are only likenesses, representations of God, or of the angels or of the saints. The word icon comes from the Greek and means likeness. In venerating icons and praying before icons, we do not pray to the material icons (the paint, wood or metal), but to the saint who is represented thereon.
Everyone knows how much easier it is to turn one’s thoughts to the Savior when he sees His Most-pure Image or His Cross, than when he sees only empty walls, or a bookcase. Holy icons are given to us for venerating the memory of the acts of God and His saints and for devoted elevation of our thoughts to God and His saints. Veneration of icons warms our hearts with love for our Creator and Savior. Holy icons are similar to the Holy Scriptures, except that they are written with faces and objects instead of letters.
Even in the Old Testament icons were used. At the same time that Moses received the commandment forbidding idols, he received from God instructions to place in the Tabernacle, the mobile Hebrew temple, holy gold icons of Cherubim on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. The Lord said to Moses, Make them in the two ends of the mercy seat... and there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat from between the two Cherubim which are upon the Ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel (Exod. 25:18,22). The Lord also ordered Moses to make likenesses of cherubim on the veil separating the Sanctuary from the Holy of Holies; and on the interior side of the veil covering, a fine cloth of ancient times, thought to have been made of linen, fine wool, cotton or silk, which covered not only the top but the sides of the Tabernacle (cf. Exod. 26:1-37).
In Solomon’s Temple there were sculptured and embroidered icons of Cherubim on all the walls and on the Temple veil (cf. I Kings 6:27-29; II Chron. 3:7-14). The Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant were consecrated (cf. II Chron. 3:10). When the Temple was ready, the glory of the Lord (in the form of a cloud) filled the temple (I Kings 8:11). The likenesses of the Cherubim were pleasing to the Lord, and the people, looking at them, prayed and worshipped. There were no icons of the Lord God in the Tabernacle or in the Temple of Solomon, because He had not yet revealed Himself in the flesh as God incarnate. There were no likenesses of the Old Testament righteous men, because the people had not yet been redeemed and justified (Rom. 3:9, 25; Matt. 11:11).
Likenesses of animals or even of the Devil do not defile a holy icon if they are necessary to depict an event necessary for visual instruction. As is known, mention of them in writing does not defile the Holy Scriptures. Nor does veneration of holy relics contradict the second commandment. In the holy relics we honor the Grace of God, which acts through the remains of the saints.
For Christians, idolatry in the form handed down to us from pagans is impossible. However, instead of uncivilized idolatry, there exist among us much more subtle forms of idolatry, such idolatry as worship of sinful passions like greed, gluttony, pride, vanity, lust and so on.
Covetousness (greed) is the desire to acquire wealth. The Apostle Paul says that covetousness... is idolatry (Col. 3:5). For the rich man love of gain is an idol which he serves and worships more than God. Gluttony consists of love of dainty dishes and drunkenness. The Apostle Paul says about people who put the feeling of satisfaction for food and drink as the highest thing in life, that their god is their belly (Philip. 3:19). Pride and Vanity. The proud and vain man has an excessively high opinion of his worth, his intelligence, beauty, and wealth. The vain man considers only himself. He considers his ideas and wishes higher than the will of God. He regards the opinions and advice of other people with contempt and derision, but his own ideas he does not reject, no matter how false they may be. The greedy and vain person makes an idol of himself, both for himself and for others. By prohibiting these lesser idols, the second commandment inspires the following virtues in their place: unacquisitiveness, generosity, self-denial, fasting, and humility.