“You shall have no other gods before me”is the first of the Ten Commandments. I don’t believe it is first because of some random or arbitrary decision, but because it is of first (utmost) importance — our obedience to this command will dictate whether we will be able to follow and keep all the other commands. While this command might be simple, and thus easily glossed over to get to the others, it is wise to consider carefully what it means, how we break it, and how we keep it.
What It Means
God forbids His people from putting other gods before Him and commands us not to allow anything in this world to be placed above Him. This means that we are not to trust or honor anything more than God. This means we are not to fear anything or anyone more than God. This means we are not to love anything more than God. In essence, we look to God for everything in this life and see Him as above everything in this life.
This commandment is not just about formal acts of worship – not worshiping other gods in ceremonies- but rather, that we owe God complete obedience and must be willing to sacrifice things that may get in the way of worshipping Him and doing whatever it is God wants us to do. As a reminder of a point highlighted in last week’s post on why the Ten Commandments are still relevant for todaythis obedience is not to earn God’s favor since God has already brought the people of Israel out of Egypt (something the preface to the Ten Commandments highlights: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” [Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6]). Rather, it springs from a love and trust of Him, seeing that His ways are not just above ours, but better than ours; this obedience is a form of gratitude for what He has done, not as a way to earn favor from Him, but as a way to stay in step with Him and to fully experience His goodness.
How We Break This Commandment
We only need rules and guidance for things that we struggle with, so we should consider how we struggle to keep this commandment. The people of Israel were tempted to literally worship other gods alongside of, and in place of, God — both of which violate this command as God does not just ask to be the one, but the only one we worship. While worship can certainly include bowing down to something in an act of homage or ceremony, this is not the only way of worshipping – it is really about love and trust.
Modern America is not a place in which things are often called gods, but there are many gods and things we “bow down” to — things the Bible would identify as idols. We worship celebrities (even having a show called “American Idol”), spending our money on their performances and heeding what they might say. People are driven to find wealth, pleasure, and power, giving up many good things in life in order to meet those needs – those are forms of worship. People trust in the government, the Constitution, their bank account, their family, their credentials, their education and smarts, their own good works and ability to achieve, and other people to protect them from harm and make sure that the right things happen. While idolatry might not be the only way of breaking this commandment – the Heidelberg Catechism includes “sorcery, superstitious rites, and prayer to saints or to other creatures” alongside of idolatry of things that we should avoid because of this command (Q & A 94) – it does seem to be the root of this command, as the worship and trust of other things is what leads to things like sorcery (looking to other forces), superstitious rites (trusting that the right ceremony will lead to the good life), and praying to people or creatures other than God (trusting in others to do what only God can do). One can even view atheism as idolatry — worshipping of either self or of other humans by placing ultimate trust or hope in them.
There are many ways to identify idols, such as considering what you feel you cannot live without or would be completely devastated and destroyed if it was taken from you. I also think another good mark of an idol is whatever tempts you not to come to church on a Sunday morning — you can see what is tempting you NOT to worship God. In fact, when we pursue other interests on the Lord’s Day, we are putting other things before the worship of God which would appear to be a clear violation of this command (as well as the fourth commandment on the Sabbath, but we’ll get to that in due time!).
How Do We Keep It
There are many ways to break this commandment, does that mean there is an equal number of opportunities to keep it? As I thought about that, I wondered if there might be more ways to break it – as there is no shortage of gods out there vying to take the place of or have a place alongside of God, but I think we should recognize there is no one, single way of living that would reflect obedience to this commandment for all Christians. Obedience will include actions – worship of God,but will also involve a number of traits and virtues. Q & A 94 of the Heidelberg Catechism notes that it will involve patience as we look to God, trusting in Him to provide for “every good thing” and also will entail sacrifice, as we should “give up anything rather than go against God’s will in any way.” It is more than singing songs of praise and reading our Bible – it is truly putting Him above others and clinging to Him. The Westminster Larger Catechism (another catechism from the Reformed tradition) also notes that obeying this command involves “thinking, meditating, remembering, highly esteeming, honoring, adoring, choosing, loving, desiring, fearing of him; believing him; trusting, hoping, delighting, rejoicing in him; being zealous for him; calling upon him, giving all praise and thanks, and yielding all obedience and submission to him with the whole man; being careful in all things to please him, and sorrowful when in anything he is offended; and walking humbly with him.”
Concluding Thought – Remembering God Sees All
While I have typically read the words “before me” in the sense of meaning “ahead of me,” the Westminster Larger Catechism Q & A 106 notes that “before me” reminds us that “God, who seeth all things, taketh special notice of, and is much displeased with, the sin of having any other God” and that these words thus serve “to persuade us to do as in his sight, whatever we do in his service.” Even if this idea is not the intended meaning of these words, it is a reminder of the truth that God sees all, and thus sees all of our life. The late theologian R.C. Sproul wrote that the essence of the Christian life is found in the words Coram Deo, which means “in the presence of God.” God sees all of our life and thus sees when we are worshipping other gods; He witnesses our unfaithfulness to Him. This reality is a reminder that we can’t be one person in one place and one person in another; we can’t worship God on Sunday but then money, success, fame, power, or anything else on Monday – He sees it! Because our lives are ever before God, we should be challenged to live consistently and faithfully while also recognizing the power of His grace that offers us forgiveness for Christ for the unfaithfulness He sees. This commandment is a reminder to worship God – and a reminder that we worship a God who is rich in mercy and love towards us who have failed and continually struggle to give Him the glory He deserves. That’s a God – the only God – who is worthy of our worship and praise; may He give us grace to trust Him more and more.
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