After God reminds his people that he graciously rescued them out of Egypt (Exodus 20:1-2), he begins the Ten Commandments in earnest: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The Hebrew literally says, “…no other gods before my face.” That is, “You shall have no other gods except me.” For the Israelites to worship any other god would be a form of covenant disloyalty. No other god saved them out of Egypt. No other god loved them and entered into a covenant with them. So, why would they worship any other deity?
Moreover, Yahweh is supreme: “See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me” (Deuteronomy 32:39). Or again: “I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:5). By his very nature, then, God deserves the exclusive devotion of his people. There was no need for the Israelites to be unkind to the worshippers of other nations, or the adherents of other religions, but there was every reason for them not to participate in their worship. That would be a form of spiritual unfaithfulness to the God who had saved them.
Unfortunately, Egypt was one of the most polytheistic countries in the ancient Near East, worshiping over 1,400 different gods and goddesses in their temples, shrines, and homes. Having lived and labored in Egypt for more than 400 years, the Israelites were influenced by their surrounding culture. They found it difficult to let go of the false gods they picked up along the way. God said to them, “Each of you, get rid of the vile images you have set your eyes on, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. But they rebelled against me and would not listen to me; they did not get rid of the vile images they had set their eyes on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt” (Ezekiel 20:7-8).
Despite cultural pressures, God wants—and deserves—to have preeminence in his people’s lives. He finds it revolting to have competition from substitutes, whether from the things he created or the vain imaginations of human beings. Those things are not ultimate. So, the first commandment is not given because God is narcissistic but because he wants his people to live in sync with reality. Yahweh is supreme in the universe! Therefore, worshiping any other God besides him is not only disloyalty but a form of insanity.
The same is true today. God allows the existence of alternatives in our lives, but he wants us to choose the best. Nothing else should be king in our lives, whether our job, our peers, our desires, our denomination, our theology, or even our families. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). God’s people are to worship God alone. Who or what is first in your life?
Note: Many people—including believers—have trouble reciting all Ten Commandments in order. The beginning of this message provides a silly acronym to help us recall them.
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