The people of Israel accepted God’s offer of a covenant with Him, a deal in which they will abide by the law He gives them and they will God’s holy priestly people in the world. God has invited the nation to meet Him at Mt. Sinai. No form of God could be seen from the foot of Mt. Sinai where they stood, but His presence was undeniable as the whole mountain was quaking violently and engulfed in blazing fire, thick smoke, constant lightening, blasting the sounds of trumpets and thunder. As the people trembled before His presence, the voice of God then came from heaven. God introduced Himself, “I am Yahveh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Then God spoke to them ten commandments that would serve as the core of what He would require of them in this covenant that they were making. The first commandment will be the topic of our study today. It was this: “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 “In this covenant 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 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 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 ten plagues that the Lord brought on Egypt was a poke in the eye to 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 mountains and hills and under the trees, 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 the 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 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 worshiped 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 our 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 first 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 two 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 first 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.
- Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” We can put wealth in God’s place as having our ultimate loyalty.
You see, 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, 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 most precious affection? Whatever that is that’s the name of your god.
And I think it’s possible to have more than one god. It’s possible to have divided loyalties. Like how it would be possible to try to serve multiple supernatural gods, we can try to serve different natural gods in different areas of our lives. 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. 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 is it 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 named “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 a 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 who 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 first 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?
Why no other gods?
Exodus 20:2 serves as the foundation for all the ten commandments. This is a reason why Israel was to obey these commandments. God could have said, “I’m your creator, sustainer, provider and the Almighty. That’s why you should do as I say.” But instead He said this: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” That statement suggests several truths about God that make Him the rightful recipient of our total commitment and allegiance. It’s suggests first of all that He is the God of Exodus 1-19. He’s the God who showed Himself to be more than all other gods combined. Whatever other gods could do for you, He can do and then some. Secondly, it suggests that they owe Him their lives. They would still be controlled and oppressed by the Egyptians had He not intervened for them. They owe it to Him to use their freedom in a way that pleases Him..And we who are Christians all the more owe God. God has freed us from a far more terrible slavery, the bondage of our sins, and it cost Him suffering and death on a cross to do it. We owe Him every day, every moment, every breath of the rest of this short life. And third, that God freed them and us from slavery suggests that God has our best interest at heart. God’s commands are not intended to enslave and oppress. They are to guide us to a way of life that is truly free and joyful and blessing to others. Only when God has our total allegiance will we have life to the fullest.
And I love the way Samuel the prophet explained why we don’t want to go after other gods. I Samuel 12:20-21, “… do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. You must not turn aside, for then you would go after futile things which cannot profit or deliver, because they are futile.” (See also Acts 14:15.) Nothing else has the power to satisfy our souls or to deliver us from death. “Our hearts are made for Thee, O God, and we will not find rest, until we come to rest in Thee” (Augustine, 5th century). 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 in our souls.” And he said, “The conclusion when all has been heard is this…” Not go after wealth and power and pleasure and these things that I have had and can tell you they’re futile, rather “fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
– James Williams