Even if we are unfamiliar with the content of Deuteronomy, most of us have probably heard the opening verses of today’s passage. Deuteronomy 6:5, in particular, is well-known in the church as the “great commandment” (Matt. 22:34–40). Yet Deuteronomy 6:4 is also famous, especially within the Jewish community. Central to biblical theology is this affirmation of the oneness of God known as the Shema, which is the Hebrew term that begins verse 4.
In its original historical context, the Shema set the Israelites apart from the nations that surrounded them. Deuteronomy was revealed at the same time the nation of Israel was about to enter the Promised Land in order to drive out the polytheistic tribes living there (12:29–31). The Israelites would be tempted perennially to adopt pagan gods; therefore, the one, true creator God affirmed His uniqueness before sending His people into Canaan. When Yahweh said that His people were to have “no other gods” before Him (5:7), He did not mean that Israel could serve other deities as long as He had first place. Instead, the prohibition against worshiping other gods is grounded in the Shema. Because Yahweh is one, because He is God alone, there can be no service to any other so-called “deity.”
Deuteronomy 6:5 necessarily follows from verse 4. We must love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might because there is no one else worthy of such affection. The only proper motivation for obeying God is love for Him, and obedience that stems from something other than love for the Lord will not be long-lasting. Loving Him with all that we have and all that we are is the Great Commandment, the one all men are called to fulfill.
We understand, however, that the only one ever to have obeyed this command is Jesus. None of us, no matter how devoted we are to the Almighty, can live up to this high standard. We can always do more. We can always sacrifice more for His sake. Our failure to love Him as He has commanded is the reason why we need an atonement. We need the One who has loved God with His whole being to plead our case before our Creator. We need Christ to stand between us and the Father (1 John 2:1–2).
Devotion to the one, true God of Israel means that we must be discerning any time someone uses the word god in public. Not everyone who says “God bless you” believes in the God of Scripture, and so we must take care that they not fool us into thinking otherwise. Let us also not allow people to assume that we worship Islam’s god or affirm the same doctrine of God as Judaism. Non-Christian monotheists do not worship the triune God of Scripture.