You are not to make, worship, or serve idols. Why? God gives the answer in Exodus 20:5-6. “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
God is a jealous God. His relationship with His people is likened to marriage. “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, So your God will rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). Straying from the Lord is also characterized as adultery. Jeremiah 3:8 uses strong language. “I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce.” Any spouse violating the marriage covenant provokes jealousy and wrath. “Wrath is fierce and anger is a flood, But who can stand before jealousy?” (Proverbs 27:4). We readily connect the human emotion of jealousy with drastic action. The jealousy of a violated spouse provokes sharp and definitive action.
But God is a “pure spirit.” He is “without body, parts, or passions” (WCF 2:1). God does not have human body parts. He does not have human eyes, human hands, human ears, a human face or mouth. To speak of God’s eyes, hands, ears, face, or mouth is to speak metaphorically. Similarly, as pure spirit, God does not have human, I say again, human emotions, such as hatred or jealousy. To use such language is again to speak metaphorically. You see, to experience human sorrow and weep human tears, to feel human pain of body and soul, God must take on human form. For the Second Person of the Trinity to suffer physically and emotionally requires incarnation.
When God says, “I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau” (Malachi 1:2-3), Paul interprets God’s action in rejecting Esau as hatred toward him (Romans 9:10-13). Notice that the Second commandment also interprets your acts of making and worshiping idols as hatred toward God. In the same way, Exodus 20:5 interprets God’s action of “visiting iniquity” as the emotion of jealousy. When God takes action against idolaters we see it as jealousy. When God rejects Esau we see it as hatred.
When Exodus 20:5 speaks of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children,” it means that God visits guilt for the iniquity of the fathers on the children. The children suffer because of the iniquity and guilt of the fathers. In other words, the commandment presupposes covenant solidarity within families. As Matthew Henry puts it, “The children shall be cast out of covenant and communion together with the parents, as the children were at first taken in with the parents.”
If parents are excommunicated and separated from the means of grace, the children suffer with them. Covenant violation results in the covenant curse. “I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce” (Jeremiah 3:8). This involves whole families. Failure within families affects children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
For those in covenant relationship with the Lord and displaying their love by keeping His commandments and shunning idolatry, covenant love abounds. The “lovingkindness” of verse 6 is “covenant love.” Verse 6 also shows this is reciprocal love. Obedient love does not earn or merit God’s covenant love. Rather, loving obedience indicates you genuinely are in covenant with God. Faithful obedient love for God within families affects children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond.