First Command

What is the first command?

לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗יַ׃ You shall not have for yourself other gods before Me. (Exodus 20:3)


What is meant here by gods?

In the immediate Israelite context, it would refer to all the deities which they had seen in the land of Egypt; see Dollinger p436.  More broadly, it refers to any person or object which is worshipped as God.


Is this not what the Old Testament means by an idol?

Yes, an idol is any created thing that we make ultimate in our life.


Explain this.

Consider the fact that nearly all of our choices are secondary to some larger purpose or goal that we have in mind.  We don’t put gas in our car for its own sake; we put gas in our car so we can drive from place to place.  And this driving too is not ultimate.  We are doing it so we can obtain some higher purpose such as getting to work or school.  You can carry this on;  why do we go to work or go to school?  Eventually, we reach the ultimate thing in our life.  That thing which we choose for its own sake.  In other words, we don’t choose it because it will bring us to something else.  It is our ultimate.  Now an idol is any created thing (or person) which we raise to this ultimate status.  We come to rely so entirely on this thing that, without it, our entire life would be worthless and without meaning.

An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” (Keller, Counterfeit Gods, Introduction)

An example would be someone who has made some sport this ultimate thing in their life.  Their whole identity is wrapped up with this sport.  Every choice they make is geared towards making them a better basketball player or whatever sport they play.  When they lose or are unsuccessful in some way, they are utterly devastated and cannot function.  Their world comes crashing down.


Do not the words “before Me” carry this meaning in the words of this command?

Yes, putting something before God means elevating some created thing to the place of God.  See a thorough analysis of this Hebrew phrase in Lange (p72).


I am guessing that the key word here is “created” thing.

Yes, when we make the eternal God our ultimate, then we have no idol but a true, living, loving heavenly Father.


What did this look like in the life of Israel?

“The history of Israel had been one long rebuke of idolatry.” source  The first example we have of this is the incident with the golden calf.  Note that after Aaron finished building it, he announced to the people, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4)  Here, Aaron takes the most significant event in Israel’s history, the event that defined them as a people, and attributes it to the golden bull which he had just constructed for them.  Thus, he took something earthly and gave it ultimate significance.  This is idolatry.

Thus says the LORD, “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the LORD. (Jeremiah 17:5)

Thus says the LORD, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; (Jeremiah 9:23)


How did God break Israel from this love of idols?

He sent them into exile.  This is likely why the books of history (Kings & Chronicles) were written.  They document Israel’s unfaithfulness and thus God’s just punishment on His people for their sin.  Note this:

Now this [the exile] came about because the sons of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up from the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and they had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the LORD had driven out before the sons of Israel, and in the customs of the kings of Israel which they had introduced. The sons of Israel did things secretly which were not right against the LORD their God. Moreover, they built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city.  They set for themselves sacred pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they burned incense on all the high places as the nations did which the LORD had carried away to exile before them; and they did evil things provoking the LORD.  They served idols, concerning which the LORD had said to them, “You shall not do this thing.”  Yet the LORD warned Israel and Judah through all His prophets [and] every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep My commandments, My statutes according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you through My servants the prophets.” However, they did not listen, but stiffened their neck like their fathers, who did not believe in the LORD their God.  They rejected His statutes and His covenant which He made with their fathers and His warnings with which He warned them. And they followed vanity and became vain, and [went] after the nations which surrounded them, concerning which the LORD had commanded them not to do like them.  They forsook all the commandments of the LORD their God and made for themselves molten images, [even] two calves, and made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal.  Then they made their sons and their daughters pass through the fire, and practiced divination and enchantments, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking Him.  So the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them from His sight; none was left except the tribe of Judah. (2 Kings 17:7-18)

The message of the prophets was also that Israel’s idolatry would soon bring down the judgment of God.  Jeremiah’s words here are consistent with all the pre-exilic prophets.

“Now when you tell this people all these words, they will say to you, ‘For what reason has the LORD declared all this great calamity against us? And what is our iniquity, or what is our sin which we have committed against the LORD our God?’  “Then you are to say to them, ‘It is because your forefathers have forsaken Me,’ declares the LORD, ‘and have followed other gods and served them and bowed down to them; but Me they have forsaken and have not kept My law.  ‘You too have done evil, even more than your forefathers; for behold, you are each one walking according to the stubbornness of his own evil heart, without listening to Me.  ‘So I will hurl you out of this land into the land which you have not known, neither you nor your fathers; and there you will serve other gods day and night, for I will grant you no favor.’ (Jeremiah 16:10-13)

Hosea says very succinctly that Israel is “joined to” or addicted to idolatry. (Hosea 4:17)


Was the exile successful in breaking Israel from her addiction to idolatry?

Yes, in the sense that, from this point on, Israel had a vigorous hatred for any kind of idolatrous statue or picture.  As in all humans, however, the need for and the itch to generate new idols carried on.


Are there any positive examples in Israel’s history of idolatry?

Yes, consider the heroic resolve of the three friends who refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s image.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king.  “But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)


You said in the introduction that each command protects a sacred thing in the life of God’s people.  What sacred thing is protected by this command?

The first command protects the sanctity or the holiness of God Himself.  For this reason, it is the most important of all the commands.  It is the reason why we honor God, not just for what He does for us, but for His own sake.  This means that God is worshipped and honored by us simply because of who He is in Himself.  It is what the Psalmist called beholding the beauty of the LORD. (Psalm 27:4)  To put it simply God must be worshipped exclusively because of who He is. (Exodus 34:14)


What are some common ways the first command is broken in our time?

When we use spells or charms for protection or good luck.  Also, believing that dreams, mediums, spiritists, or fortune-tellers can tell us the future are sins against the first command.


Why are these sins against the first command?

Because by trusting in these things, we are attributing to a created thing, a power which belongs to God alone.  We are saying that this object or person has knowledge or power independent of God, so that they are able, without His aid, to reveal to us the future or to perform miracles.  Thus, we raise these things or persons to the place of God.  We repeat the sin which we saw so often in Israel’s history where something earthly and created was raised to a position of ultimacy.  Obviously, it is just a small step then to begin worshipping and adoring such an object or person.


What are spells and charms?

Spells and charms are certain words, by the saying of which superstitious persons believe they can avert evil, bring good fortune or produce some supernatural or wonderful effect. They may be also objects or articles worn about the body for the same purpose. source


What are dreams and why is it forbidden to believe in them?

Dreams are the thoughts we have in our sleep, which are not governed by our minds.  It is forbidden to believe in them, because they are often ridiculous, unreasonable, or wicked, and are not governed by either reason or faith. source


If this is true, then why do we read so many times in the Bible that God made use of dreams to make known His will?

God can certainly make use of any means He chooses (including dreams) to reveal His will to us.  Because of what a dream is, however, we must not trust to it alone as a revelation of God’s will.  We must believe that the revelatory dreams we read about in Scripture were accompanied by some other indication which made it clear to the recipient that the dream was meant to be a revelation from God.  Consider the following:

  • But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:20)
  • And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.  Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” …  But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, …  But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he [Joseph] left for the regions of Galilee, (Matthew 2:12-13, 19, 22)
  • While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message, saying, “Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him.” (Matthew 27:19)

In each of these cases, the recipients do not appear to have any doubts that what they had received came from God Himself.  Even Pilate’s wife was aware that her dream was something unique; same with the cupbearer and the baker who were in prison with Joseph.  What it was that made this clear to them is not told us, but everyone has dreams, so something must have established the one dream as revelatory in distinction from all the other dreams which they may have had that night.


What are mediums and spiritists?

Mediums and spiritists are persons who pretend to converse with the dead or with spirits of the other world.  They pretend also to give this power to others, that they may know what is going on in heaven or hell. source


What are fortune tellers?

Fortune tellers are liars who pretend to know the future and who are willing to share this knowledge with anyone usually for a fee.  Sometimes, they pretend to know the secret thoughts, actions or intentions of other people. source


How do we, by believing in spells, charms, mediums, spiritists and fortune tellers, attribute to creatures the perfections of God?

Because we expect these creatures to perform miracles, to reveal the hidden judgments of God, and to make known His designs for the future with regard to His creatures, things that only God Himself can do. source


How does the Bible command us to keep the first command?

The common expression used in the Old Testament is the fear of God.


What is meant by the fear of God?

It means to make God, in light of His perfect holiness, the ultimate source of meaning in our life.

  • Al Martin:  “To summarize, I believe it is accurate to say that the fear of God, which is the soul of godliness, is a fear that consists in awe, reverence, and honor, and all of these things in a profound measure of their exercise. It is the reaction of our minds and souls to a sight of God in His majesty and holiness.   The Forgotten Fear p. 35-36
  • John Murray:  “The controlling sense of the majesty and holiness of God and the profound reverence which this apprehension draws forth constitute the essence of the fear of God.”   The Forgotten Fear p. 35-36
  • John Brown (p40):  Let us now, in the third place, turn our attention to the account here given us of our duty to God—we are to FEAR him: that is, we are to cherish an awful sense of his infinite grandeur and excellence, corresponding to the revelation he has made of these in his works and word, inducing a conviction that his favor is the greatest of all blessings, and his disapprobation the greatest of all evils, and manifesting itself in leading us practically to seek his favor as the chief good we can enjoy, and avoid his disapprobation as the most tremendous evil we can be subjected to. Such is the fear which the Christian man ought to cherish and manifest towards God.
  • The fear of God does not mean servile terror, but loving reverence; it means piety. The subject of these words is the nearness of salvation to piety. They are so near that they are inseparable; in truth, they are essentially one. Where there is piety there is salvation, and nowhere else; where there is salvation there is piety, and nothing else. This vital connection between salvation and piety serves two purposes. source
  • John Cotton (bottom of p133):  The fear of God, it is a holy affection of the heart, whereby we are affected towards God offended with the greatest terror, and towards God reconciled with greatest reverence, Heb. 12:28; godly fear, Isa. 8:13; Ps. 90:11, and 119:53; Luke 12:4, 5; Heb. 12:28; Ps. 130:4; Exod. 15:11; fearful in praise, Hosea 3:5. Hence being affected to God offended with greatest terror, first, We eschew all sin whereby God is offended, whether man take notice of it or no, Job 1:8, and 31:21, 23. Secondly, No worldly dangers feared so much as God’s displeasure, Luke 12:4, 5. Thirdly, No matter so weighty as to seek Christ, in whom our reconciliation is wrought, 2 Cor. 5:11, 14.
  • Manton (p120):  When they stand in awe of God, and are afraid to disobey his laws: Job 20:28, ‘Behold the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding;’ and Prov. 9:10, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ It is the first point and the chiefest point, first both in time and dignity. Now what is the fear of God but to be sensible of God’s majesty and presence, that we dare not sin against him and affront him to his face? Wicked men, that can break through a commandment when it standeth full in their way, are simple and witless, for they enter into a plain contest with God, which none but a madman would do: Prov. 13:13, ‘Whoso despiseth the word shall be destroyed; but he that feareth the commandment shall be rewarded;’ and Ps. 119:161, ‘My heart standeth in awe of thy word.’ A choice frame of heart! more than if a thousand dangers stood in the way. He dareth not, whatever profit or pleasure might ensue upon the breach, or danger for not breaking through.
  • Luther:  In Hebrew “to fear God” really means “to serve God.” The fear of God is the service of God. Now we cannot serve Him bodily and visibly here on earth, for He is invisible. We can serve Him spiritually by honoring, teaching, and confessing His Word and by living according to it. Of course, crosses, suffering, and affliction from the devil, the world, and our flesh are the results.  Works vol. 14, p57


What instruction is given us in the New Testament on how we can keep the first command?

In the New Testament, the honor we owe to God is given us in the three virtues.  Paul writes: But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)


Why do you call these virtues?

Because in the Christian life, these are not just one off actions but are habits of the mind which incline us to believe or to love or to hope.  These virtues come to make up our character.



What does it mean to have faith in God?

This means that out of a sense of our guilt, we have taken refuge in the saving work of Christ for our salvation.  This is the highest honor we can put upon God.


Where does the Bible teach that the highest honor we can put on God is to believe in Jesus?

Consider the teaching of John where he writes: who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. (1 John 2:22)  Anyone denying the truth about Jesus allies himself with antichrist or the kingdom of Satan (Luke 11:18), the world (James 4:4), the serpent (Genesis 3:15), and all that is opposed to God.  They deny both the Father and the Son.  Furthermore, not believing in Jesus is making God out to be a liar.

The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son. (1 John 5:10 )


What else does faith do?

It leads us to make a wholehearted surrender of our thoughts to the word of God and to regard the Bible as the only infallible source of truth.  The Bible becomes the standard by which we measure truth and error, right and wrong.


When we act contrary to this faith, do we then violate the first command?

Yes, any action that contradicts this virtue of faith is an action contrary to the holiness of God Himself; and therefore, violates the first command.


In what ways do we sin against our faith in God?

In many different ways but consider these three:

  1. By making no effort to learn the truths which God teaches in His word;
  2. By refusing to believe the truths which we find in God’s word;
  3. By failing to profess our belief in what God teaches us in Scripture.


Suggest some ways we can learn what God teaches in His word.

The Bible itself clearly points to the ministry of the church as the primary way to grow in our understanding of what God has given us in His word.  When we are young, we have Sunday school and catechism classes and many other instructions specially suited to our age.  As we mature, we have the regular preaching ministry of the church to guide us into a fuller understanding of Scripture.  In our own day, we have access not only to numerous books and periodicals but also a vast amount of audio content which we can listen to as we drive or do our work.


What are the different classes of people who do not believe what God teaches us?

We can list the following classes of people:

  1. A heretic is someone who denies one of the fundamental articles of the Christian faith such as the Jehovah Witnesses who deny the divinity of Jesus.  So long as such a person continues in this, he cannot be saved.
  2. Atheists who deny the very existence of God.
  3. Deists who admit the existence of God but deny that He has any concern for His creation.  They deny all divine revelation and miracle.
  4. Agnostics who shrug their shoulders and will neither admit nor deny the existence of God;
  5. Rationalists who refuse to believe anything they cannot understand completely;
  6. Materialists who believe only in material things;
  7. Pantheists who believe that there is no distinction between creation and Creator.  They believe that everything that exists is god.


In what ways are Christians guilty of not professing their belief in God?

By refusing to make their faith in Christ public.  They will not make a public profession of their faith, submit to baptism, and become members of a local church.  See here.


Why do some Christians refuse to profess their faith?

Some Christians do not publicly profess their faith because they will be exposed to mortal danger if they do.  Christians who converted from the Muslim faith are especially vulnerable to this (see here).   Obviously, such Christians are not to be judged too harshly for their hesitation in this.  In our own day, many Christians are so lukewarm (Revelation 3:15) that they cannot be troubled to go through the work of joining a church.  Others are afraid of what others might think of them and fear losing influence, power, or even wealth by taking a stand for Christ.  Some Christians have come to believe that church membership is not a Christian duty; see here.



What does it mean to hope in God?

Hope is a confident expectation in the mercy of God and especially in God’s promises.  Think of Abraham who we are told hoped against hope. (Romans 4:18)  The saints of God listed in Hebrews 11 are described as those who refused to give up their belief in God’s promise even though they died still not having received what God had promised them.

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own.  And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16)


How do Christians sin against this virtue?

By one of two extremes; either presumption or despair.


What is presumption?

This is trusting that God will forgive our sins and bring us to heaven just because He is good.  Such persons see no need to trouble themselves with a Christian lifestyle.  Paul speaks of such in his letter to the church in Rome:

do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?  But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: (Romans 2:4-6)

Note that these wicked persons are presuming that the kindness, tolerance, and patience of God will bring them salvation without any need for repentance.


What is despair?

This is the absence of hope in God’s mercy and a failure to trust that God is a promise keeping God.  The final tragic end of this sin is suicide. (Matthew 27:3-5)  This sin can also exist in the hearts of real Christians such as Abraham (Genesis 15:2), Heman (Psalm 88), David (1 Samuel 27:1), and Peter. (Luke 5:8)



How is loving God an obedience to the first command?

Because this love is not a desire to do good to God as we usually mean by the term charity but is a love of complacency (see here).  This means a love of delight in the object of our love.  It’s a love that leads to worship and adoration.  It’s a love that is drawn out of us by seeing the perfect holiness and beauty of God.  It’s seen in the prayer of David:

One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the LORD And to meditate in His temple. (Psalm 27:4)

Edwards (bottom of p273):  They that have much grace will be likely to have much communion with God, and so consequently will have much joy. Such have the most love to God. Love is a grace that is so much of the very same nature as Joy, that it almost falls in with it: it is called love of complacency; complacency is pleasure and comfort: faith necessarily carries comfort in the nature of it, a dependence upon the sufficiency and grace of God.


How do we sin against God by violating this love?

All sin contradicts the love for God which we have in our heart.  Every sin is a shameful betrayal both of God’s love to us and of ours to Him.

Now I ask you, lady, not as though I were writing to you a new commandment, but the one which we have had from the beginning, that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, that you should walk in it. (2 John 1:5-6)


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