The people of Israel accepted God’s proposal to enter into a covenant with Him, a covenant in which they are His special people of all the nations of the earth, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation and they obey His laws. And God has manifested His presence on Mt. Sinai with an incredible display, engulfing the whole mountain in blazing fire and thick smoke, continuous lightning and thunder and a violent localized earthquake and a loud trumpet sound. He’s had Moses lead the people to the foot of the mountain to hear God’s voice for themselves. And God has given to them 10 commandments that will be the core of what He will require of them in this covenant that He’s making with them. The first commandment God spoke was this, from Exodus 20:2-3, “I am YHVH [in the Hebrew. Jehovah in an Englishly modification of the word, “the LORD” in most our modern English translations. I am YHVH] your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me [or it could be “besides Me,” or “in addition to Me.”]”
God was saying to the people “If we’re going to have this covenant relationship with one another, I will have no rivals. I will have no competition in your heart and life. This will be an exclusive relationship. I alone will be your God.” If you put the commandment in the positive form, it is as Jesus said to Satan in Matthew 4:10 “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’” If you’ve been married, it is sort of like the commitment that you made to your spouse when you entered into the covenant of marriage. Do you remember your vows? They probably contained something like, “I take thee so and so to be my lawfully wedding wife or husband, and I promise before God and these witness to love and honor you in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, in prosperity and in adversity, and I promise to FORSAKE ALL OTHERS and keep myself to you and to you only, so long as we both shall live.” Marital vows are a pledge to a lifetime of exclusive relationship. That’s what God was saying He was going to require of the people of Israel if they were going to have this covenant relationship with Him. They must forsake all other gods and keep themselves to Him and to Him only as their God so long as they live. And that’s has always been and is still today what God has wanted of the men and women He has created.
When God spoke the first commandment, the people of Israel would have primarily understood it to mean that they must no longer worship and serve the other gods believed to reside in the spirit realm like the nations around them.
In Egypt, where they had just come from, the god Khnum was worshiped, who was believed to be the guardian of the source of the Nile River. And there was the god Hapi, the spirit of the Nile River, and Osiris, whose life blood was believed to be the waters of the Nile. But you remember what YHVH, Jehovah, the Lord did to the waters of the Nile? He turned them to blood. And in Egypt was also worshiped Geb, the god of earth, the dust of which the Lord turned into gnats. There were many many gods in Egypt associated with the crops and livestock that the Lord destroyed with pestilence and hail and lightening and locusts. There was even a god who was supposed to protect them from locusts. There was Ra, the god of the sun, the sun which the Lord veiled for 3 days in Egypt. Everyone of the 10 plagues that the Lord brought on Egypt was a poke in the eye of one or more of the Egyptian gods.
And the people of Israel were on their way to the land of Canaan, a land full of altars and scared pillars on the high mountains and on about every hill and under about every green tree and temples to gods like Baal and Asherah and Molech and many others.
For the people of Israel especially and for many in other parts of the world today who fear many gods in the spirit realm, this command is a relieving, liberating command, because it simplifies life. It gives just one object for worship and devotion instead of many. Can you imagine having one god that looks after your kitchen and the things that happen there, and another god that looks after your children and what happens with them, and another god that looks after your garden and the plants in it, and another that looks after your business, and another that looks after your health, and another that looks after your travel, and maybe a god that looks after Sunday and another that looks after Monday and another for Tuesday? What a complicated life, and stressful life worrying about appeasing all of these gods and feeding all of these gods and having the favor of all these gods. That was sort of the situation in the ancient world, and still the sort of situation for people in other parts of the world today. This commandment is a wonderful simplification of life for such people. It says you’ve only got to deal with one God. It’s a liberating commandment. It’s an offer of a simple life. It’s God saying “I will cover every need. I will provide everything you need by way of protection, guidance, provision, meaning, purpose, fulfillment. Everything you depend on any god for, I can provide.”
I think of what freedom the converts to Christianity in the city of Athens must have felt when the apostle Paul brought them the good news of the one true and living God. Acts 17 tells us of Paul going into the city of Athens and everywhere he looked he saw idols and temples and altars to various gods. It’s said that the city of Athens was a place so full of gods that the Athenians “must have needed something equivalent to the Yellow Pages just to keep tabs on the many deities represented in their city.” You remember Paul even saw an altar with this inscription on it “To an unknown god.” There’s a story told in a 3rd century writing by a man named Diogenes Laertius that may give us the origin of the altar to an unknown god. He tells of a time in mid 6th century B.C. when Athens was suffering some plague, some epidemic and they assumed they had offended a god who was punishing them, and they made sacrifices to all these various gods that they thought they may have offended, but it wasn’t working; they couldn’t figure out which god was mad at them. And so they invited the great prophet Epimenides from Crete to come help them. Epimenides decided to take a bunch of sheep, some black, some white, up Mars Hill in Athens and let them loose and told people to follow the sheep and watch where they lie down and wherever sheep lie down they are to be sacrificed to the god associated with that piece of ground. Many of the gardens and areas around buildings and altars in Athens were associated with a specific god. So follow the sheep and sacrifice them to the god of the place where they lie down. Well, some of those sheep went and found a piece of ground not associated with any known god and laid down. And so Epimenides told them that there’s probably another god that we don’t know about that’s been offended and he told them to build an altar where those sheep had laid down and sacrifice those sheep to an unknown god. And the story goes that the plague immediately began to subside and was over within a week.
Well, Paul in Athens got into a conversation with some philosophers in the market place and they brought him to the forum on Mars Hill so he could tell a bunch of them about his religious ideas. There Paul said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” And Paul proceeded to tell them that the God that they don’t know is the One who made the world and all things in it. And He’s Lord of heaven and earth. And since He is Lord of heaven and earth, He does not dwell in temples made by hands, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything from us. He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things. He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on the face of the whole earth. He determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation. He rules of kingdoms of men. He has so worked that men might seek Him, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He’s not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being. What a liberating message for those Athenians who accepted the evidence that Paul then gave them and who came to realize that they don’t need to worry about having the favor of all these gods. There’s just one you need to deal with. He has all the power. He is more than all the gods combined. And He’s available to us, He wants a relationship us.
Now, those of us who grew up in this country have probably not really been pressured or influenced much to believe in any other gods in the spirit realm except for one, YHVH, Jehovah, the God of the Bible. For the most part over the last few centuries here in America we’ve worshiped only one supernatural God. But I think the influence to believe in and worship others is on the rise in America. Due to immigration and the internet and other factors, I think the generations to come in America, if God allows more generations to come, will be more influenced than we have been to worship other gods in the spirit realm. A few years ago on an airplane, I sat next to the owner of the Travelodge over on Main Street. I found out he’s Hindu in religion, he believes in hundreds and hundreds of gods. I had a friend in high school whose parents were from, I think, Vietnam. In their living room was this big shelf that had incense sticks and burning candles and bowls of fruit for their deceased ancestors that they believed were still able to protect and guide and assist them in their lives. I remember knocking on a guy’s door in college and asking him if he’d like to study the Bible with me, and he told me he’s Wicca, and not at all interested in the Bible. And he worships multiple supernatural gods. There’s a rising interest today in occult practices connecting with demons or Satan or spirits or the dead for guidance or information or enlightenment or help with something. And it’s not too strange now to run into somebody here from southeast Asia who believes in just one God, but his name Allah. And he’s a different god. He is not the same god that we believe in. So the 1st commandment I think is gradually becoming more relevant to Americans in regard to their consideration of deity in the spirit realm.
But does this 1st commandment have anything much to say to us, since we are not tempted to go out and call on the name of some other unseen being? Do we not need the 1st commandment? Do we have no problem with idolatry? I wish that were true. But I think there is no commandment that we need more than this 1st one. America is a land full of practicing idolaters. Even in many American churches there is a large percentage that worship and serve other gods.
Because in the Bible we find there are 2 categories of gods that people can have. There are the supernatural gods and then there are natural gods. There are objects of devotion that are believed to lie outside the natural realm. And then there are those that are part of our material world, that you can see and touch and taste and hear.
Listen to these Scriptures. Colossians 3:5, “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.” Greed, covetousness, when your love and devotion is to money or possessions or pleasure or power or any earthly thing, it amounts to idolatry, it’s a violation of the 1st commandment. Philippians 3:18-19, “For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, 19 whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite…” Their god is their wants, their desires.
You see, whatever your heart clings to and relies upon; the object of your love and devotion; whatever has your ultimate allegiance and loyalty; whatever you depend on for security and meaning and purpose; the focal point of your affections and ambitions, what controls your decisions and governs your conduct, the Bible calls your god. Everybody has a god. The atheist has a god. Some have made pleasure a god. Some have made money a god. Some have made a god of science and learning. Some have made a god of health and fitness. Some a god of sports. Others have made youth and beauty a god. Some have made their spouse and their children their god. Others – alcohol or food or entertainment or their career. What is the last thing that you would like to lose, or the last person? What is your more precious affection? Whatever that is that’s the name of your primary god.
But like how it’s possible to have multiple supernatural gods, like one over your garden and another that looks over your health and another over this area and that area, I think it’s also possible to have various natural gods over different areas of your life. And to see who or what your god is over any particular area of life, you just ask the simple question, “Who’s in charge of this area? Who or what controls the decisions I make in this area?”
Who’s in charge of your Mondays? Probably you give Sunday to the Lord, the God of the Bible. But who gets Monday? Do you have a different god on Monday?
Who’s in charge of your work life? Is your devotion still to God at work? Or is work another department under a different god, his name is the boss, and you’ll do whatever the boss says whether honest or not, whether good for your family or not?
What’s the name of the god over your free time? Is his name hobby? Is his name skiing? Is his name movies and games? Or his name the Lord because you will push everything else aside if the Lord brings you some good work to do during that time?
What’s the name of the god over the money spending area of your life? Is it a goddess named wife, or gods and goddesses name kids? They want this luxury and this entertainment and that, and so whatever that is, that’s what you buy? They determine how you use your money? Or is the Lord your god over that area too?
Who or what is god over you future planning? Is his name “retirement in house by the golf course”? Doe he determine your plans? Jesus told a story if you remember about a man who had a god sort of like that, the god’s name was “so that for many years to come I may take my ease, eat, drink and be merry.” That was the god over his plans, and that god told him to tear down his old barns and build bigger ones and store up all this extra produce from his fields. And he just did whatever that god told him to do.
Think of all the different areas of your life, at the ball field, at the hunting cabin, on your vacation, figuring your income tax, by yourself with nobody else around to see what you do. You can have different gods over these different areas. To see who or what it is just as “Who is in charge over this area? What determines my decisions here?”
The 1st commandment is literally “You shall have no other gods beside Me,” not on Monday, not at work, not during your free time, not in your spending, not in your planning, not over any department of your life.
We’re not just serving and worshiping a God here at this building this morning, when we walk out these doors we are going out to serve and worship a god. What’s his name? Who’s the god of your Sunday afternoons? Who or what is in charge?
Now, let’s end addressing a question.
Why would we want to obey this command?
And I want to give you 4 answers that God gave to the Israelite people to that question.
Exodus 20:2, the first statement God made just before the 1st commandment was, “I am YHVH your God.”The word for God in Hebrew is elohim. It’s a plural of the word el. El means mighty one, great one, powerful one. But in Hebrew making a word a plural didn’t always mean more than one, sometimes it just intensified or magnified or emphasized the word. Elohim when used in the singular sense like here means very very very mighty one, mighty as mighty can be, mighty to the umpteenth power, supremely powerful one. The little kids have a song, “Our God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing our God cannot do.” That’s what elohim means. It means He is not just el, not just a mighty one, a powerful one, a great one. He is el to the plural, he is so big, so strong, so mighty, there’s nothing he cannot do. It means whatever any other god could do for you, Jehovah can do all and more. It means if you have nothing else, no friends, no family, no money, no insurance, failing health, but you have Him, you have more than those who have it all but don’t have Him, because He is elohim. He is more than all the other gods combined.
The second statement God made just before giving the 1st commandment was, “I brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” For one that would remind the Israelite people that He’s proven Himself to be elohim, because freeing them from slavery in Egypt involved bringing the 10 plagues on Egypt and parting the Red Sed. He showed His almightiness. But it also meant to them that they owe Him their freedom. They owe it to Him to use their freedom in a way that pleases Him. And as Christians, God has done something so much greater for us, freed us from a far more terrible slavery, the bondage of our sins. And it cost Him greatly to do it. And not just that, but He’s decided to adopt us as his children and make us heirs of eternal life in a new heavens and a new earth with Him and with one another. We owe Him 7 days a week, work life, home life, free time, the way we use our money, our plans, we owe Him every breath of the rest of this short life, but that’s not even a fraction of what we owe Him. “Were the whole realm of nature of mine that’d be a present for too small,” wouldn’t it? So He’s elohim and we owe Him our freedom.
And then if you turn with me over to Deuteronomy 6 we find 2 other statements that God made as to why He’s given this 1st commandment. Look at Deuteronomy 6:13-15, “You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name. 14 “You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you, 15 for the Lord your God in the midst of you is a jealous God; otherwise the anger of the Lord your God will be kindled against you, and He will wipe you off the face of the earth.” He is a jealous God. The image that God used often in the OT to describe how He felt when His people went and worshiped and served other gods, was that of a husband when the wife that he loves decides to go be intimate with other men. In the book of Hosea we read of God using the prophet Hosea and his relationship with his wife to illustrate how He is with us. God told Hosea to go marry a prostitute, so he married this woman named Gomer. And he loved her dearly. But she was unfaithful to him. It broke his heart. He pleaded with her to stop. But she continued to be with other men. It appears she had 2 children by other men. When you get to Hosea ch3 she’s no longer living with Hosea, presumably she’s living with another man. And God tells Hosea to take her back. And the text says that he went out and bought her for 15 shekles of silver and a bunch of barely. I don’t know if that means he paid it to her or to the man she was living with or what. But he gets her back and brings her home and basically tells her if she will give evidence over a period of time of her repentance he will take her back with all the love of before. It’s a picture of God. He’s jealous for us. And He’s an unusually forgiving husband. But if we refuse to repent, He cannot accept us.
And lastly let’s look here in Deuteronomy 6 at v18 and v24. v18, “You shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may be well with you and that you may go in and possess the good land which the Lord swore to give your fathers“. v24, “So the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God for our good always and for our survival, as it is today.” That it may go well with us, for our good, that’s always a purpose of God’s commands. That it may go well with us in the hereafter, but also even now in this present life. Remember Paul said, “godliness is profitable for all things, since it hold promise for this present life and also for the life to come.” Things turn out best when you do things God’s way in every area, every department of your life.
And I don’t know who came up with it, but it’s a great and truthful metaphor, that every man and woman has a God-shaped hole in their soul or their spirit or heart. And it feels empty and hallow. And like nature abhors a vacuum and wants to fill it with something, no person can let this God-shaped void in their soul remain empty. Everyone must fill it with something or someone. Something or someone has to draw our love and devotion. But everything and every person aside from God that we try to put in that God-shaped void is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. It doesn’t fit. It doesn’t satisfy. It doesn’t fulfill us. I don’t know who came up with the metaphor, but many throughout history have spoke of the same truth. Blaise Pascal (1600s), “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him… since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and unchangeable object; in other words by God himself.” (Pensees 10.148) The emptiness inside which most try to “fill with everything around,” only God can fill. Augustine around the beginning of the 5th century, “Our hearts are made for Thee, O God, and we will not find rest, until we come to rest in Thee.” And way before him, you remember Solomon in his book of Ecclesiastes, over the fountain of wealth and pleasure and success and power and knowledge, over all that one could gain from the world, he wrote “Vanity. It’s all vanity. It’s all a striving after the wind. None of it satisfies. None of it fills the void.” And he said, “The conclusion when all has been heard is this…” The conclusion is don’t seek wealth and power and pleasure and these things that I have had and can tell you they’re not worth it, rather “fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole of man.”
– James Williams