By Saint Nicholas Varzhansky
In Holy Scripture a great deal is said concerning sacred depictions and sacred objects. Some depictions were absolutely forbidden as being false; one could not make them, possess them or honour them. However, God did command the making of other images and objects, and it was ordained that they should be considered holy and be honoured. First let us consider the false depictions.
False depictions and objects were absolutely forbidden by the Second Commandment of the Law given on Sinai:
"I am the Lord thy God, Which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; thou shalt have no other gods before My face. Thou shalt not make unto thee any idol 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: thou shalt not bow thyself down to them, nor serve them, for I the Lord, thy God, am a jealous God" (Ex. 20:2-5; Deut. 5:6-9).
The false depictions are the idols of:
The calf (Ex. 32:4); Moloch (Lev. 18:21); Baal-phegor (Numbers 25:3); Baal (Judges 2:13; 3 Kings 18:21-29); Astarte (Judges 2:13).
The idols are nothing:
"We know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but One" (1 Cor. 4-6).
Idols are the works of the hands of men:
"The customs of the people are vanity; they cut down a tree in the forest, they work it with the hands of the carpenter with the help of the axe; they cover it with silver and gold, they fasten it with nails and the hammer, that it move not. They are as turned columns, but they do not speak; they must needs be borne because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them for they cannot cause evil, and neither is in their power to do good" (Jer. 10:3-5).
The laws of nature do not yield to the idols:
"Every man is mindless in his understanding; every smelter is shamed by his graven image, for what he hath fashioned is false, and there is no breath in them. It is a complete vanity, the work of delusion; in the time of their visitation they shall perish" (Jer. 10:14-15).
The idols cause depravity and abomination:
"The idea of making idols is the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them the dissipation of life" (Wisdom of Solomon 14:12).
Near the idol of Astarte there was a house of ill-fame. Osias the king "brought" the Astarte "out of the house of the Lord, outside Jerusalem, to the brook of Kedron, and he burned it at the brook of Kedron, and stamped it small to powder, and cast the powder thereof out upon the cemetery of the peoples. And he brake down the houses of ill-fame, which were by the house of the Lord, where the women wove garments for Astarte, and he brought all the priests out of the cities of Judah" ( 4  Kings 23:6-8).
God commands to make true depictions:
"Make ye an ark of shittim wood, two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof" (Ex. 25:10).
"Make thou a mercy seat of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof. And make thou two cherubims of gold, make thou them of beaten work, at the two ends of the mercy seat. Arid make one cherubim at the one end and the other cherubim at the other end; standing out from the mercy seat make the the cherubims on both its ends, and the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall be one to another; towards the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be. And place the mercy seat above the ark on high, and in the ark place the revelation, that I shall give thee" (Ex. 25:17-21).
"Moreover make thou the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen, and of blue and purple and scarlet stuff, and cherubims of skillful work make thou on them" (Ex. 26:1).
"And make thou a veil of blue, and purple and scarlet stuff and of fine twined linen; cherubims of skillful workmanship must be made upon it" (Ex. 26:31).
The Ark of the Covenant was itself called Lord:
"When the ark was taken up on the way, Moses said: Arise, O Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Thee flee from before Thy face! And when the ark rested, he said: Return, O Lord, unto the ten thousand thousands of lsrael!" (Number 10:35-36).
"Exalt ye the Lord our God, and worship the footstool of His feet, for it is holy” (Ps.98:5).
David spoke before the ark and he said: "Before the Lord will I play and will dance, and I will be more abased, and will make myself even more lowly in mine eyes" (2 Kings [Samuel] 6:21-22).
The ark was called God as being the highest holy thing of God:
"O God, when Thou wentest forth before Thy people, when Thou didst traverse the wilderness, the earth was shaken and the heavens dropped dew, at the presence of the God of Sinai, at the presence of the God of Israel"(Ps. 67:8-9).
God commands to make sacred objects:
"Make thou an altar of offering, from shittim wood make thou it" (Ex. 30:1).
"Upon it Aaron shall burn sweet-smelling incense every morning, when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense thereon; and when Aaron lighteth the lamps at evening, he shall burn incense thereon - a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations" (Ex. 30:7-8).
"And make thou a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work must this candlestick be." "And make thou seven lamps therefor, and set its lamps thereon that they might light over against it" (Ex. 25:31;37).
The tabernacle, the sacred depictions and objects were sanctified and most holy.
"Make thou of it a chrism for sacred anointing, an ointment, compounded by the art of one who compounds ointments; it shall be chrism for sacred anointing; and anoint thou the tabernacle of the congregation, and the ark of the testimony, and the table and all that pertains thereto, and the candlestick and all that pertains thereto, and the altar of incense, and the altar of the whole burnt offering and all that pertains thereto, and the laver and its stand; and sanctify them and it shall be a holy great thing: all who touch them shall be sanctified" (Ex. 30:25-29).
All the sacred objects and depictions were made not only by God's command, but also according to the pattern revealed by Him:
"Make thou them according to that pattern, which was shown thee on the mountain" (Ex. 25:40).
True depictions were not only found in the tabernacle, but also in the Temple of Solomon:
"He made two cherubims of olive wood, each ten cubits high. And five cubits was the one wing of the cherubim, and five cubits the other wing of the cherubim; from the uttermost part of the one wing unto the uttermost part of the other were ten cubits. And the other cherubim was ten cubits; both the cherubims were of one measure and of one form. The height of one cherubim was ten cubits, and so was it of the other cherubim. And he set the cherubims in the centre of the inner part of the temple. The wings of the cherubims were stretched forth, and the wing of one touched one wall and the wing of the other cherubim touched the other wall; and the other wings came together wing upon wing in the midst of the temple. And he overlaid the cherubims with gold. And on all the walls of the temple around he made various depictions of cherubims, and of palm trees, and of open flowers, within and without" (3  Kings 6:23 -29).
The Lord sanctified this Temple and approved Solomon on its account:
"The Lord appeared unto Solomon the second time, as He had appeared to him at Gabaoth. And the Lord said unto him: I have heard thy prayer and thy supplication, that thou has made before Me (I have done all according to thy prayer). I have hallowed this temple, which thou hast built, that My name might continue there unto the age; and Mine eyes and My heart shall be there in all days… But if ye shall at all turn from following Me, ye or your sons, and will not keep My commandments and My statutes that I have given you, but go and begin to serve other gods and worship them, then will I cut off Israel from the face of the land, which I have given it, and the temple which I have sanctified for My name will I turn away from My face, and Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And at this temple, which is high, everyone that passeth by shall be astonished and shall hiss, and they shall say: Why hath the Lord acted thus with this land and with this temple? And they shall say: Because they forsook the Lord their God, Who brought forth their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and did take unto themselves other gods and worshipped them and served them; therefore hath the Lord brought all this calamity upon them" (3  Kings 9:2-3, 6-9).
There were sacred depictions in the true temple seen in vision by the Prophet Ezekiel:
"Show them the form of the temple and the fashion thereof… and all the images thereof"(Ezek. 43:11).
Idols were always distinguished from true depictions. The Lord sanctified the temple with its true depictions, but when Solomon introduced false depictions the Lord condemned him:
"And Solomon began to serve Astarte, the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milchom the abomination of the Ammonites. And Solomon did what was displeasing in the eyes of the Lord, and followed not the Lord wholly, as had David his father. Then did Solomon build an idol-temple to Chalmos, the abomination of the Moabites, on the mountain that is before Jerusalem, and to Moloch the abomination of the Ammonites. And likewise did he for all his foreign wives, who burnt incense and offered sacrifices unto their gods. And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart was turned from the Lord God of lsrael, Which had appeared unto him twice, and commanded him that he not follow after other gods, but he did not fulfil that which the Lord (God) had commanded him. And the Lord said unto Solomon: Forasmuch as this is done of thee, and thou hast not kept My covenant and My statutes, which I have commanded thee, I will surely rend the kingdom from thee, and will give it unto thy servant" (3  Kings 11:5-11).