You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me
by Eric Watkins
There are certain aspects of our relationship with God that are described in unmistakably legal terms, while others are remarkably personal. Our justification is a legal declaration of righteousness in the courtroom of God. Our adoption is the legal declaration that we are indeed the children of God, and are thus entitled to all the benefits that belong to His children.
Flowing from these benefits, however, are aspects of our relationship with God that are beautifully tender and relational. Such is the expression of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). The command stands upon the foundation of the Mosaic covenant: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (vv. 1–2). This statement is the starting point of the covenant by which God reveals who He is and what He has done for His covenant people. From this indicative flow all the imperatives of the Ten Commandments, and thus God reveals what it means for Him to be our God and for us to be His people. This is the structure of the covenant and the lens through which we must understand our obedience to God’s commands.
God’s grace is the necessary foundation of our obedience. He is the covenant-keeping God who swore promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as the covenant name LORD (Yahweh) signifies. He is also the creator God who alone made the heavens and earth, as the name God signifies. In particular, He is the God of the exodus, the God who did not forget His promises to His covenant people. In the fullness of the time promised to Abraham, He returned to His people to perform all His redemptive word and deliver them from physical and spiritual bondage. He did this through the work of His servant Moses, who spoke the word of the living God to Israel, and mediated that word to them as they sat trembling at the bottom of Mount Sinai, fearing the holiness of the One who so graciously rescued them.
It is a sobering reality that Israel should enjoy such a mixed relationship with God. On the one hand, God brought them out of Egypt so that they might keep the very commands He gave them, beginning with the first commandment—to have no other gods before Yahweh. At the same time, the sinfulness of their hearts was exposed by the commandments the Lord gave them. The commands demanded not only an external obedience, but also an obedience of the heart. God alone is worthy of their love and worship. No other god had saved them; no other god could uphold them; and with no other god would the Shepherd of Israel share their affection and loyalty.
This first commandment is oft-repeated in the covenant relationship between the Lord and Israel. God frequently reminded them of who He is and what He had done for them, and that they were not to allow false gods to come between Him and them. As God described Himself in Hosea, He had married Israel and was a perfectly faithful husband to her; what He expected from Israel was the love and faithfulness of her heart, soul, and might (Deut. 6:5). Sadly, simply stating and restating His expectations did not elicit the love and faithfulness God desired from Israel. In time, Israel’s heart, mirroring our own, longed for other gods and wandered from the commands of the covenant. God would have to do something radical, something invasive, something His people could not do for themselves in order to free them and us from the infidelity of our hearts. In short, another exodus would have to occur, bringing a greater salvation.
It is for this reason that the gospel of John describes Jesus as not only the God of Israel in the flesh, but also as a new Moses, who has come to bring about a better redemption. As the Lord went before Israel, so Jesus went ahead of us, all the way to the cross. He showed us what it meant to have “no other god” before His Father in heaven, for Jesus not only obeyed the law of the Lord, He also loved the Lord His God with all His heart, soul, and might. His love and loyalty toward His heavenly Father were as unmistakable as His love and loyalty toward us. His love for His Father in heaven was displayed in the way He loved those whom His Father loved and in the way He gave Himself as the sacrifice for our sins.
As the old hymn says, our hearts are “prone to wander … prone to leave the God [we] love.” Day after day, we need to be reminded of God’s unfailing love for us in Christ. We also need to walk in newness of life in loving obedience toward God, by keeping Him first in our hearts. We are Christ’s church, and in Him we have been washed, redeemed, and loved. We love and obey His commands because, to paraphrase another hymn, “From heaven He came and sought us to be His holy bride; with His own blood He bought us and for our life He died.”