Moses goes on to show some other instances of godlessness against the First Commandment and moves on to discuss the outward act—all, of course, in proper sequence. Since first he has set straight the heart, the source of works, he then also sets straight the hand and the other members, teaching that they shall slay and curse the Gentiles in the land, not enter into marriages or pacts with them but cast down their altars, statues, groves, and images. In this matter, too, he follows the right order. First he commands them to destroy the makers of the images, then the images themselves, because it is useless to remove the images if their makers and proponents are left behind to worship them.
Here it must be noted that God does not decree that these nations be destroyed outright, but only if they continue to be obstinate. Otherwise peace was to be offered them, and they were to be endured if they were turned to Israel. So it happened to the Gibeonites and the harlot Rahab.1 Furthermore, He commanded this work, not because He wanted this to be a permanent obligation of His people, but because He had decreed to destroy those Gentiles completely on account of their sins, a work for which He wanted to use His people. He who overthrew Sodom without using another nation is wont at other times to punish one nation through another nation. Therefore one should not apply this literal and fleshly understanding of the First Commandment to Christians, whose business it is to kill Gentiles and cast down images with the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17). For this task was assigned specifically to this nation for a time, just like everything else that is commanded to this nation, for example, the rules concerning marriage, covenants, and all outward ceremonies.
Here I must digress to discuss our new prophets, who boast that they are impelled by the First Commandment (even though they are not Jewish, but Christian) to destroy images by resorting to violence. They rage exceedingly here and boast that they are altogether full of the Spirit, and they accuse everyone else of sin against the First Commandment and of a breach of majesty. I, however, affirm that they are bloodthirsty, seditious, and murderous, and that they have nothing else in their mind but slaughter and murder. This I shall prove easily from this passage as follows: If they refuse to consider anything as ceremonial in the First Commandment but maintain that everything in it must be done of necessity, they will be forced by this passage to kill the whole world; for it has images even if it does not worship them. The command to kill the Gentiles is as explicit here as the command to destroy images; if they affirm the one, they must necessarily concede the other. In fact, here He commands the killing of the Gentiles first as an act more necessary than the destruction of the images.
And this is what I saw coming if their teaching were to prevail: that the common people could not be held back from bloodshed, because it would rely on this Commandment and on their teaching. Therefore I was of the opinion that they should be thrown out of the country as men who are truly bloodthirsty and seditious, men who in their whole life have nothing else to do but to shed blood. Since it is now certain that among Christians the godless should not be killed with the physical sword (and this part of the Law was temporary until Christ, but has now been done away with as merely ceremonial), it follows at the same time that there is no necessity for the images to be cast down, since they relate to the same part of the Law. Therefore no one who sees the iconoclasts raging thus against wood and stone should doubt that there is a spirit hidden in them which is death-dealing, not life-giving, and which at the first opportunity will also kill men, just as some of them have begun to teach. For they are forced to teach and act this way by logical consistency, since the Law of Moses impels them, even though some of them are crafty enough to mask this death-breathing spirit beautifully.
There is also another raging of this same spirit, namely, when they do not properly assign the execution of this law even when the law does pertain to us. For both in this book and elsewhere Moses first established the magistrates, who were to administer the laws; but these fanatical spirits refer such authority to the masses and despise the magistrates. God commanded—and not in one place only—that sins be dealt with by means of public judgment, witnesses, and sentences, which those people usurp because of their own frenzy. There is no instance on record anywhere where the masses broke down images without a leader or government, whether regular or given by God, as is to be seen in the cases of Gideon, Hezekiah, Josiah, and Ahab.
Their third frenzy is that they cast down all images altogether, while Moses gives a command concerning only those which are worshiped and in which one trusts. This is not only what the text itself indicates; but it is also the intention of the First Commandment when it says that one should make no likeness of God to be worshiped. God nowhere forbids images other than those of God, as long as they are not adored. Why, He Himself raised up and allowed the bronze serpent among that very people until it began to be worshiped. In fact, at the Jordan the Reubenites raised up an altar which the others deemed godless; but when they saw that it had been erected merely as a sign and for a memorial, not for sacrifices and worship, they left it untouched (Joshua 22:10–34). Furthermore, Lev. 26:1 plainly says that images are not to be made for the purpose of worship.
Therefore let us avoid these men of blood and not allow them to draw us into Judaism. Paul says to us (1 Cor. 8:4): “We know that an idol is nothing in the world,” and all those external things are free, even if they are images assigned to some divine worship. Let us remove such external things through the Word or do away with them with the common consent of the government and of those under whose power they are. Those things, however, which we have only for a sign and memorial, let us have freely, so that we ourselves do not finally also succumb to the spirit of bloodshed and sedition by allowing liberty to be turned into necessity. These frenzied people might somehow be tolerable if they only destroyed images and did not also bind conscience by calling this a necessary work, put us under the wrath of the Law, and robbed us of freedom. But since one must now affirm the liberty given by God, let us tell them that Moses in no wise pertains to us in all his laws, but only to the Jews, except where he agrees with the natural law, which, as Paul teaches, is written in the hearts of the Gentiles (Rom. 2:15). Whatever is not written there we should include among the ceremonies that were necessary for the people of Moses but free for us, as also the Sabbath is, as Paul (Col. 2:16)7 and the last chapter of Isaiah (66:23) bear witness.
One wonders, however, why those enemies of images are so pious and mild toward the images engraved on gold and silver coins, likewise on silver vessels. Why do they love these images so much and not even burn them or throw them away? Or do we perceive here the mischief of Satan ruling in their hearts by means of the height of greed and the height of insanity? Furthermore, why do they not also rend their hearts, since they cannot be without an image whenever they either hear the preaching of Christ crucified or think about Him or other saints? Or is a picture before our own eyes outside us more damaging than that which is in the heart inside us? It is a frenzy and insanity, by which they seek nothing but the reputation of performing an outstanding deed. For us it is enough to know that “an idol is nothing in the world.” If it is nothing, it will do no harm whether it stands or falls.
Of course, I do not love images very much either, and I would prefer not to have them set up in places of worship. I make this judgment not only because I see that they are worshiped—which I think happens rather seldom—but because trust in a work is expressed in their price and beauty, as though by that work something of a devotion were offered to God, while meantime the cost is wasted, and everything which is directed toward them could be directed to better purposes for the need of the brethren. Otherwise I cannot condemn images of graceful design in a private home. But since others have raised this issue, the maniacal prophets see that they shall achieve no glory in it; for they concoct a necessity of Law against the freedom of the Spirit, and this can by no means be endured.Martin Luther on Deuteronomy 7:2 (LW 9:79-82)