“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
When we consider the words “before me,” we are to know that the Hebrew literally means “in the face of,” “in the sight of,” or “in the presence of God.” There are many of us that have erroneously believed that this “before” only means that God simply comes before all things in life. Like “God first, then other things come.” While this may be an implication, a list like this is not the thrust of this command. God is not trying to climb to the top of your favorites list. The thrust of what is commanded here is exclusivity. For example, in your marriage vows, you are not vowing to you wife that she will be your favorite and most loved wife above all the other wives you might want or desire. No, you are vowing to exclusivity – “You and you only. I am a one-woman man and will seek no other in my heart, mind, or actions.” He is saying that we shall have no other gods period. He has created and claimed you and you are to honor Him only as God and nothing or no one else. There shall be no other gods in the sight of Him or in His presence and there shall be no competition for His status of Lordship over your life. John Frame said, “We are to recognize from the heart that God is Lord of all things and that therefore he will tolerate no rivals” (Doctrine of the Christian Life, p. 407). It is to be an exclusive allegiance to God, as He has revealed Himself in the Bible, alone.
We cannot consider this command without taking notice of the loving embrace that God desires to have with us through these ten commands. The opening words that precede this command are characteristic of ancient covenants or treaties that a greater lord would make with a lesser to establish a relationship of peace and friendship. So, the purpose of a covenant, that God is giving here, is a legal document that defines a relationship of mutual loyalty and love- it is a steadfast, unchanging, betrothing manner of binding with God. And just because this is wrapped up in legal language does not mean it is void of any love. This legal language enhances the nurturing relationship between God and His people.
It also begins with the Lord’s great name, YHWH, His covenant name that was given to Moses at the burning bush, the familial and intimate name. This ensures that it is a personal relationship between God and His people. We have the foundation of this relationship here, as Frame said, as “Ethics… based on a family relationship,” (402).
This is not a hard, fast, and arbitrary command. God here is not simply the God who is “out there” as a cold, distant force, but He is our God. It is a voluntary giving as a possession, stooping down from His heavenly throne, gently drawing us near to make Himself known to His chosen people. There is a depth of intimacy and covenantal bond in this command where God is binding Himself to a loyal relationship with His people and calling for loyalty in return from us. It is a having and holding, like only in the way that a man and a wife can have for one another and can share with one another. It is a lifelong, permanent bond whose foundation is love that spurs on both covenant parties to honor all other covenantal commands. So, what God is calling for in this first command is the intimacy of worship, or our duty to God, where love is the motivator for a right and proper esteeming of God.
So, the scope of this command is that the object of all the acts of our worship should be to God alone. It is not enough that our worship is to be refrained from alien gods, but it is to look like delighting in Him above all else, enjoying Him greater than any other thing, resting in Him as the greatest comfort, esteeming Him as the ultimate object, and to be one who is so taken by God that there are no competitors. John Calvin said, “He thus would have us honour him with true feelings of piety… if we would really keep this commandment, true religion must come first, pointing our souls toward God so that, once they know him, they are led to honour his majesty, to place their trust in him, to entreat his help, to acknowledge all his gifts, to extol all his works and, in short, to aspire to him as to their only goal,” (Institutes of the Christian Religion- 1541, p. 122-23). Wilhelmus a’Brakel said, “We honor God when we rejoice in this contemplation, delight ourselves with sweet enjoyment, and when thereby all glory of the creature disappears from view. Then in the acknowledgment of the honor and worthiness of God everything stirs within us to honor, glorify, magnify, and praise Him,” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 3, p. 103).
So what is another god? a’Brakel says that another god is “the setting up of something in the stead of God, or to esteem, honor, and serve something as God as if it were God Himself… [or] when one designates something alongside of God to which he renders divine honor,” (3:90-91). And I would add that it is any motion of the heart that begins to ascribe more worth to something else, nearing equality to God. This is an inordinate affection and is beginning to place alongside God another god. Augustine, commenting on Psalm 14, said that the denial of the true God, by outright denial or by placing something alongside Him, is the height of folly because denial places the most worthy thing outside of its seat, places something else there, and sees it as the highest being or equal to it. This may come in the form of: monotheism that looks to anything but Yahweh, polytheism, pantheism, panentheism, materialism, atheism, and the list can go on. Everyone in the world has a sense of God, but they place something else as the ultimate, greatest, highest, and most valuable in their life. Whatever it is that’s there, it becomes the object of worth, either real or imagined, and is endowed with more power than it really has and therefore becomes an idol.
What does it mean to have no competitors for worship? It means we must be exclusively Christian. We cannot enter into a situation of mind, or endorse a situation where God is merely one among many, which is hard to do in our materialistic and pluralistic society. For example: this may raise questions and prohibitions as far as any participation in inter-faith prayer meetings. By praying alongside these other religions who believe in a god different from the God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible, your prayer is placing Jehovah God upon the same plane as these other gods, saying He is simply one among many. This is impermissible. All worship is to be ascribed to Him alone, and this is to be done by following His will- not by following the fashionable trends and pressures of secular culture, or other organizations, that may cause you to compromise your confession of exclusivity.
Where do we see “other gods” in society? Some cultures do have charms and idols, and we can think of the Buddhists or the Hindus or many other religions. But even the Hindus and the like do not believe that their statue is their god, but that the statue is representative of what is behind it. They know that their statue is just wood or gold, and they wouldn’t say that the wood or gold is their god. But Scripture says that this is all that these idols are; even what is “behind” these objects are not real gods. Yet even in the West, which is a society that basically prides itself in godlessness, these kinds of gods and idols are everywhere. People look to political/economic gods or ideologies, thinking that these things will bring salvation or a golden utopia. People may look to a form of superstition, where people endow physical objects with more power or control over life than what it really has. We can look to jobs as our ultimate, social status, praise of men, academic degrees, accolades, entertainment, sex, pleasure, hobbies, and this list can be endless. Calvin said, “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols,” always creating new objects of worship and worth.
What does breaking this command look like in an every-day sort of way? Since we are all guilty of breaking this commandment, there are many things in your life that rival the position of God. It is not going to look like having a shrine in your closet that you bow down to, but it works in much more subtle ways, ways that we barely notice. What sort of thing do you immediately look to for comfort and peace when you have a bad day? Food? Alcohol? Friends? TV? What sort of things do you go to immediately when you have a good day? The same things? The desires of our heart quickly seek after the satisfaction from the unsatisfying and broken cisterns of this world. How quickly do we forget God, and how quickly do we not retain Him in our thinking and knowledge in whatever we do? How often does any thought of Him and His majesty have little no effect or impression upon our hearts?
This command is an issue of the heart. The greatest worth is to be ascribed to God because He is infinitely worthy. So, because of this, we are to worship Him alone as He has revealed Himself. His majesty and glory are to be always set before us in all that we think, say, or do. The heart, then, is to consist “in the pure inclination to have communion with God and to be satisfied in and with Him, to be in willing subjection under Him, to be in agreement with His will in regard to His doings and the manner in which He leads, and joyfully to live for God with the totality of one’s being,” (a’Brakel, 3:101).
Disclaimer: The content of this series is drawn from much of my notes of Dr. Bruce Baugus’ lectures. The language and arguments are adjusted to fit an easier reading flow, the content is catered to my writing style, and may not always accurately reflect Dr. Baugus’ sentiments or statements. Other sources are also used to draw in information.