4. You shall not make for yourself a carved image—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;
Yet when the LORD gave commands for the making of the ark of the covenant, He commanded the making of two cherubim to be placed on the mercy seat in Exodus 25:18.
18. And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work you shall make them at the two ends of the mercy seat.
Moreover, there were cherubim woven into the fabric of the tabernacle, according to Exodus 26:1.
1. Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine woven linen and blue, purple, and scarlet thread; with artistic designs of cherubim you shall weave them.
Solomon made two cherubim for the temple as well, as we read in I Kings 6:23.
23. Inside the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olive wood, each ten cubits high.
There were cherubim carved into the walls of the temple as well, just as they were woven into the fabric of the tabernacle. Other images are in the picture here as well, for palm trees and open flowers are included, according to I Kings 6:29.
26. Then he carved all the walls of the temple all around, both the inner and outer sanctuaries, with carved figures of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers.
Along with cherubim and palm trees, lions, another creature that is “in the earth beneath,” were engraved on the carts used in the temple, according to I Kings 7:36.
36. On the plates of its flanges and on its panels he engraved cherubim, lions, and palm trees, wherever there was a clear space on each, with wreaths all around.
Pomegranates are also common in the décor of the temple, first of all as part of the priestly robe, as we read in Exodus 28:33-34.
33. And upon its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet, all around its hem, and bells of gold between them all around: 34. a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, upon the hem of the robe all around.
Pomegranates were also on the two pillars, Jachin and Boaz, that were made for Solomon’s temple, according to I Kings 7:18.
18. So he made the pillars, and two rows of pomegranates above the network all around to cover the capitals that were on top; and thus he did for the other capital.
There is probably no need to multiply examples beyond this. There are figures, both of living beings like cherubim and lions and plants such as palm trees, flowers, and pomegranates carved, woven, or engraved into the decoration of both the tabernacle and the temple. Yet how can this be, considering that the making of carved images, likenesses of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth, are forbidden in the ten commandments of Exodus 20:4? Is this not an example of God commanding, in the very building of His temple and tabernacle, the breaking of His commandment, of insisting on “sin by command”?
The first fact that we should notice is that the word for “carved image” in Exodus 20:4 is the Hebrew word pecel, coming from the root pacal, which means to cut, hew, or hew into shape. While it does refer therefore to a cut or carved image, we would note that the word pecel is never used in a positive sense. It appears thirty-one times in Scripture, and every time it appears it speaks of an idol. (This is not true of its root pacal, which occurs six times and five times is used in a positive sense.) The word pecel is never used of the cherubim, or any of the other images that appeared in the tabernacle or the temple. The words for “carving,” “engraving,” and so forth used of the figures in the temple are never this word. It seems clear that the word pecel is used synonymously for an idol, as is clear from Leviticus 26:1, among other places.
1. ‘You shall not make idols for yourselves;
neither a carved image nor a sacred pillar shall you rear up for yourselves;
nor shall you set up an engraved stone in your land, to bow down to it;
for I am the LORD your God.
It is clear that the figures of cherubim, lions, and other things made in the temple were not idols, and were not made for the purpose of worship. Therefore, it was not simply the making of figures that was outlawed, but rather the making of idols. This becomes clear when we consider the bronze serpent Moses was commanded to make in the wilderness, as we read in Numbers 21:9.
9. So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
This serpent was made as an object of faith, not an object of worship. Those who were being bitten by serpents had rebelled in their hearts against the LORD by speaking against Him. If they would submit to the LORD by looking to the object of faith that was held out to them, their sin would be forgiven and the deadly poison that resulted from their sin would be healed. This was made to be a symbol, never an idol. Yet later on this serpent became an object of worship, and so Hezekiah destroyed it, as we read in II Kings 18:4.
4. He removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan.
For whatever reason, the serpent Moses made had never been destroyed, but had been kept by the sons of Israel ever since. In Hezekiah’s day, it had been corrupted into an idol. So whatever the original intent of its making, it now had become an object of sin. Therefore, Hezekiah destroyed it, calling it Nehushtan, “a thing of bronze.” Something could then be innocent in its making, but if corrupted into an idol, would be worthy of being destroyed.
Therefore, the LORD’s command to make images, and even statues, for His tabernacle and temple was not “sin by command.” It was never the making of statues or other images, but the making of them for the purpose of worshipping them, that was outlawed. This is even clear from Exodus 20:5.
5. you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me,
The making of statues and other images is not a sin, as long as they are not made for the purpose of worshipping them, and they remain not sinful as long as men do not begin to worship them. Therefore, there was no sin in the LORD’s command for them to make images for the tabernacle and temple, since the purpose of them was not for them to be worshipped.