As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites were exposed to the polytheism of the Egyptians; the catalog of Egyptian gods and goddesses numbered at least two thousand.
While the Israelites certainly never forgot about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they likely were influenced—some maybe even indoctrinated—by the Egyptian culture they lived in for 400 years.
So, it would have come as quite a shock to many of these people when God gave Moses the first commandment on Mount Sinai: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).
While today, belief in one God is widely accepted by most major religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—millions of people worldwide still worship many gods.
Some historians have numbered the total number of named gods in human history to be around 12,000, while other historians note that Hinduism alone may worship more than 12,000 deities in that one belief system alone.
And when you add all the rulers— like pharaohs and emperors— who declared themselves to be gods, and the native cultures who worshipped all of nature as deities, it is not an exaggeration to summarize that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of imaginary beings, inanimate objects, and philosophical ideas have been worshipped as gods throughout human history.
This claim by God to Moses was a foundational diversion from the polytheism of ancient times, and it is still a worldview shattering claim to many people today. Rather than struggle to please a myriad of gods, God essentially says, “Focus on Me; worship Me; obey Me; I am everything you need.”
This first commandment provides a critical foundation for the remainder of this chapter, and for the entirety of our relationship to God’s law. It clearly and concisely tells us why we follow the law. Do we obey from fear? Do we obey as an attempt to earn God’s favor?
God provides us with at least four timeless principles from this foundational commandment, demonstrating who He is and why He is worthy of our unquestioning obedience.
THE PRESUPPOSITION OF FAITH IN GOD.
The ability to walk with God begins with faith in God. Just as we believe God created the universe, because He said so, we can believe that God’s law is good and worth following—because He says so.
Because of our faith in His word, we believe all that God declares about who He is and what He desires from us. Because God says murder, theft and covetousness are immoral, we believe it to be true, not because we trust in our own moral standards— because we trust His.
THE PREEMINENCE OF GOD.
As we discussed in the last article, God prefaced the Ten Commandments with a reminder to His people of what He had already done for them: delivering them from slavery and bringing them to the promised land.
But notice how the Lord begins— not with a declaration of what He has done, but the declaration of who He is: “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2).
Because of who God is, He has the rightful claim on the preeminent place in our hearts and lives. And God demonstrates that preeminent place through the way He loves us, cares for us, and provides for us—not based on our merit, but His mercy.
There are many false perceptions of God: He exists to give us our will; He enjoys punishing us; He affirms our desire and wants to give us our own way!
Some of these perceptions may sound outrageous, but even Christians can allow false views of God invade their thinking. For instance, do you find yourself praying more often when you need something? Do you most desire God’s presence when you’re suffering and then forget Him when times are easy? Do you think He should fix something for you, rather than allow you to suffer through it?
We often can view God as Mr. Fix-it—we know He’s always present, but we’d rather see Him arrive with tools in His hand than step up to repair things according to His Word.
THE PROMINENCE OF GOD.
As God explained His attributes to the Israelites, this first commandment should have been the logical conclusion for them. In other words, if God really is all He claims to be, how can anyone possibly need any other god to fill in the gaps?
Martin Luther once wrote: “That is a God whom you cherish and to whom you yield your life. That is who your God is.”
THE PROVISION OF GOD.
While we know that we cannot follow the law to earn God’s favor, we should desire to follow His commands because we have received His favor.
Because of the magnitude and significance of His sacrifice for us, we submit to Him out of gratitude for what He has done. We make it our ambition to please Him with our lives (2 Timothy 2:4).
There is truly no one else worth worshiping than our life-giving, sin-cleansing, grace-offering, Heaven-preparing Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.