You shall have no other gods before Me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
For most people in the Western world the horizontal has totally eclipsed the vertical. Human relationships to each other are all-important; their relationship to God is of secondary or no importance. Even in the church, reconciling people to people, rather than reconciling people to God, has become top priority for many. Many Christians find it difficult to grasp that violating the first table of the law—the first four commands related to loving God—is more serious than violating the second table of the law—which addresses love for neighbor—although one table has implications for the other (1 Jn 4:20). We cannot understand the Old Testament’s prescribed punishments for working on the sabbath, for profanity or for worshiping another deity without understanding the centrality of loving God.
Why is the command to love God with all our being the first and greatest commandment? Why are the first four of the Ten Commandments prohibitions of sin against God? Why not put them last, after the important ones like murder and adultery? Obviously Scripture holds that sin against God is of greater seriousness than sin against others. After David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband killed as part of his coverup, he confessed that his sin was primarily against God: “Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight” (Ps 51:4).
The triune God is the ultimate reality, the source and foundation of all other (created) reality, the integrating factor of the universe. Therefore, to be rightly aligned with him is the most important relationship in human existence. To be in right relationship with this personal reality is life itself (Jn 17:3); to be out of alignment is destruction and death. To leave God out of the equation of life or to diminish his role is like seeking to build a skyscraper without mathematics or to drive a car without fuel.
God designed us to flourish in relationship to him, and his commandments simply reinforce this reality. He treats this relationship as the most important because it is the most important.
Yet it is not simply a matter of reality and truth. God cares about this relationship. God is repeatedly called a jealous God. That is, it makes a difference to him whether or not we are rightly related to him. This word for jealousy in the Old Testament is the same word used when a husband is jealous—or zealous—for the affection of his wife. This is not a petty envy of legitimate competition and insecurity. It is a profound caring and total unwillingness to allow any other to replace the prior and ultimate love relationship.
The first commandment has to do with our heart attitude, our thoughts, our personal relationship with God. But God is also interested in our deeds, what we do about how we feel. Furthermore, he is concerned about our words, how we use his name, what we say about him. Some compartmentalize their lives as though God is not Lord over every facet of their existence. While claiming to be right with God, they are careless with the external manifestations of that professed heart relationship. But that God is interested in deeds and words as well as in thoughts is clearly revealed in the first three commandments.
No Other Gods
Having No Other Gods
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me” (Ex 20:2-3). A common theme running throughout Scripture is that of true worship versus the profound evil and danger of idolatry: “Keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn 5:21). A visit to India or other non-Western countries makes this quite evident.
When I (Robertson) arrived in Japan, it grieved me deeply to see people call earnestly on gods who are not gods. But before long, I was among those who enjoyed photographing “quaint oriental customs.” On one occasion an earnest Japanese Christian was giving us a guided tour of a famous shrine.
“What is your reaction to places like this?” I inquired.
“The same as all Japanese. I’m just sightseeing.”
“But,” I responded, “some of these people really worship these idols. What do you think about that?”
“Oh, I think it’s comical, an interesting custom.”
Let us remind ourselves that God does not consider the worship of false gods merely an interesting custom. Here is a sobering warning.
If your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods” . . . you shall not yield to him or listen to him; and your eye shall not pity him, nor shall you spare or conceal him. But you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death. (Deut 13:6-9)
Idolatry in Israel could be compared to an act of treason—an activity that threatened the integrity of the nation as well as its God-ordained destiny.1
Idolatry then and now. In the ancient world, Israel had been surrounded by a culture of Canaanite deities, and God commanded his people not to worship them. Just as the apple often doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to children imitating their parents’ negative characteristics, so God knew that the Canaanites’ moral and spiritual apples fell quite near to the tree of their pantheon of immoral gods and goddesses. So if one’s Canaanite deities engaged in incest, then it’s not surprising that incest wouldn’t be treated as a serious moral wrong. Their religion also approved of adultery (temple prostitution), bestiality, homosexual acts (also temple sex) and child sacrifice (cf. Lev 18:10). The sexual acts of the gods and goddesses were imitated by the Canaanites as a kind of magical act: the more sex on the Canaanite high places, the more this would stimulate the fertility god Baal to have sex with his consort, Anat—which meant more semen (rain) produced to water the earth.
Commenting on the do-nothing idols of the nations, Psalm 115:8 tellingly says: “Those who make them will become like them, Everyone who trusts in them.” What does this mean? Humans are “imaging” or “mirroring” beings, designed to reflect the likeness and glory of their Creator; so if we worship the creaturely rather than the Creator, we’ll come to resemble or “image” the idols of our own devising—ones in which we place all our security and find our significance.2
In coming to resemble finite God substitutes, we become diminished
in our humanity.
Humans have been designed for worship, but we can easily create God-substitutes. Westerners shouldn’t deceive themselves into thinking that idolatry is primitive and perhaps charming. Those who think this do not understand it. John Calvin called the human heart an idol-producing factory—a fact irrespective of West and non-West!
If we won’t worship the true God, many other pseudo-gods will fill the vacuum. Idolatry is essentially placing ultimate value on what is finite and thereby incapable of yielding true satisfaction and contentment. It can also involve false ideas
that diminish the character and authority of God in our lives and enable us to manipulate the gods of our own choosing to do our bidding. Idolatry is a false worldview
or a philosophy of life.
A worldview isn’t simply a set of intellectual beliefs; rather, it is a heart commitment,
and it can squeeze God out in the name of science or philosophy or religion. Or perhaps the pursuit of knowledge becomes an all-consuming intellectualism,
which leads to pride and alienates others.3 Doctrinal rigidity
and theological precision
can lead to arrogance; we exhibit idolatry when we feel superior to other Christians who think differently: “Lord, I thank you that I am not an Arminian”—or “a Calvinist” or “a Pentecostal.” Idolatry can be an all-encompassing attitude
In our hurt, we choose the path of anger and resentment; it becomes our focus and idol, and we become bitter as a result. We become like the choices we make. Hence, true worship must be in spirit and truth
We are all in danger of daily idolatries. To make something central in life, the pivot or ultimate reference point, is to “have a god.” To yield ultimate allegiance to or to consider someone or something as the ultimate happiness or most desirable object, even to fear above all else is to “have a god.” It is worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator (Rom 1:25). And this ultimately diminishes our lives and true well-being.
Notice that the first commandment does not expressly say no other gods exist. But that need not disturb us since the rest of Scripture clearly teaches monotheism—that there are no other gods in reality; there is only one God. There is no god besides the Creator of the worlds and the Lord of Israel (Deut 6:4; 32:39; Is 45:6). Other deities exist only in name—so-called gods and lords; in fact, there is “no God but one” (1 Cor 8:4-6).
In the ancient Near East, gods operated in community—in a pantheon, a divine assembly or with a consort. By contrast, the biblical God works alone and doesn’t share his power or glory with another.4
The first commandment prohibits having other gods before
the true God. It is quite legitimate to have other loves, loyalties and ambitions. But none of these loves and loyalties can come before God, or else we have broken the ultimate relationship and violated the supreme commandment. It is not those who love their father, mother, son or daughter who are unworthy of the Lord Jesus, but those who love someone else more
than him (Mt 10:37). There can be no competing “ultimates” with God—whether money, possessions, a friend, a mate, a child, a parent, love of country, a hero or leader, a philosophy or ideology; all of these can be idols, the self being the most common.
Thus, in the act of true worship of the living God, we renounce all competitors and substitutes. In fact, the act of genuine praise to God is polemical
; to praise God is to repudiate “alternative loyalties and false definitions of reality.”5
Pastor Tim Keller refers to idolatry as turning God’s good gifts into God-substitutes—that is, making good things into ultimate things. In light of this, he advises Christians not to simply “scold” relativists for inferior moral standards or mushy views of truth. Premarital sex and sexual lust, say, are wrong, but these “bad things” are symptoms of something deeper:
Instead of telling them they are sinning because they are sleeping with their girlfriends or boyfriends, I tell them that they are sinning because they are looking to their romances to give their lives meaning, to justify and save them, to give them what they should be looking for from God. This idolatry leads to anxiety, obsessiveness, envy, and resentment. I have found that when you describe their lives in terms of idolatry, postmodern people do not give much resistance. Then Christ and his salvation can be presented not (at this point) so much as their only hope for forgiveness, but as their only hope for freedom.6
Furthermore, one’s trust and obedience, allegiance or love may be quite legitimate and never demand a special, conscious evaluation until the loves or loyalties come into conflict. Then one’s god stands revealed. At the point of choice, which love or loyalty we put before the other will determine who or what our true god is. “What is an idol?” Keller asks. “It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”7
And this is how you can tell you have an idol: “A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.”8
God speaks of Israel’s idolatry as a forsaking of God, “the fountain of living waters,” and carving out for themselves broken cisterns that can hold no water (Jer 2:15). This is the fate of those who trust in God-substitutes. As Augustine reminds us, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their peace in you.”9
Idolatry and the occult. What about the occult? What does this have to do with idolatry? The occult, including witchcraft, astrology, channeling and fortunetelling, has made a strong comeback in the Western world. Satan worship is obviously the most hideous of all idolatry, and all idolatry is, in a sense, the worship of demons (1 Cor 10:20). But what of palm reading, crystal-ball gazing, discernment of the future through tea leaves, astrology, Ouija boards? Deuteronomy 18:9-12 refers to “detestable things” and forbids there to be among Israel “anyone who . . . uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead.”
God repeatedly forbade all varieties of the occult (Lev 19:26, 28, 31; 20:6) and hated this kind of activity so much that he made death the penalty for practicing it (Lev 20:27); in fact, he judged Israel by means of deportation and captivity for allowing it (2 Kings 17:17-18; 2 Chron 33:6). That all forms of the occult are wicked and hated by God is clear enough, but are they a violation of the first commandment against worshiping other gods?
Isaiah seemed to pinpoint the evil in consulting fortunetellers as seeking from other sources that which should be sought only from God (Is 8:19). In other words, disclosing the future or supernaturally affecting the future is the prerogative of God, and when usurped by false prophets, demons, fortunetellers, astrologers, mediums or anyone else, the person has attempted to be godlike, mimicking the Almighty (cf. Is 45:20-21). Those who consult them have given to humans or Satan the confidence and obedience due God alone. Consider Saul’s experience with a medium in 1 Samuel 28 after God refused to speak to him or guide him.
Does the growing influence of occult practices indicate some measure of success in predicting or manipulating future events? How can these activities be successful? In the case of Saul, God himself must have intervened in the mysterious appearance of the dead prophet—for judgment, to be sure! Often it is clearly the supernatural work of unclean spirits (Acts 16:16), and sometimes it is trickery and deceit (Acts 13:10). Occult activity was a constant plague not only in Israel but also in the early church as these enemies of the gospel confronted Paul wherever he went. Today also, the plague is universal and calls down the judgment of a God who will have no oth...