In previous posts I dealt with some preliminary concerns about the ten commandments as a whole – things which are helpful for us to understand before going into detail about the individual commandments themselves. (More could certainly be said in that regard.)
But now I would like to spend some time going through each of the ten commandments, one at a time, and in order. That brings us to the first commandment, which simply says,
“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3, ESV)
Notice that the very first commandment (indeed, the first four commandments!) deals with our relationship with God. It should be instructive for us that this is where the ten commandments begin. In his book, The Ten Commandments, Thomas Watson writes,
“This may well lead the van, and be set in the front of all the commandments, because it is the foundation of all true religion. The sum of this commandment is, that we should sanctify God in our hearts, and give him a precedence above all created beings.” (p.49)
If you were to rank the commandments in the order of their importance, how far up (or down) the list would you rank this one? Perhaps the commandment against murder (6th commandment – Exodus 20:13) comes to mind first, or maybe the commandment against adultery (7th commandment – Exodus 20:14)?
Murder or adultery might strike you as “bigger” sins, so to speak. But what about breaking the first commandment? Does it strike you as a particularly heinous sin and offense? It should. The Lord clearly places this commandment first in order to show us its importance. You could say that breaking the first commandment is just as bad as, if not worse than, murder. That is a pretty startling thought, isn’t it?
That this commandment comes first also shows us that true morality or ethics starts with one’s relationship with God. Doing what is right starts with doing what is right with regard to God himself.
What does it mean to have other gods before God? It means to trust, love, worship, and serve anything else in the place of God – to give something else other than God your first allegiance.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of what is forbidden in the first commandment:
“Q.47. What is forbidden in the first commandment? A. The first commandment forbids the denying, or not worshiping and glorifying, the true God as God, and our God; and the giving of that worship and glory to any other, which is due to him alone.”
How many millions of souls break this first commandment simply by denying God and so failing to worship Him as God! And how many millions more do so by worshiping and serving other (false) gods! Indeed, in the book of Romans the Apostle Paul tells us that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven” against such sins (Romans 1:18).
This can be done in a literal way through false religion, or worshiping false gods. In Isaiah 44:6 God says, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (ESV). If God is the only true god, than to worship anyone or anything else is to have another god (even if a false one) before him. And Isaiah 42:8 likewise says, I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (ESV).
Having other gods before him can also be done in seemingly non-religious ways as well. In Matthew 6:24 the Lord Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (ESV).
Money can be a false god if it takes top priority in your life. In fact, serving money may be the most common form of false religion or idolatry in the history of humanity.
The first commandment teaches us that it is our duty to know the one true God and Creator, and to acknowledge him as such by trusting, loving, worshiping, and serving him above all else.