The First Commandment

The First Commandment

Could it be that many of us have a limited understanding of how we break the first few commandments? I gave an example of this in a previous article when I related how a Church member had flung at me: “And besides, just give me an example of how I broke the first or second or third commandments this past week. I did not have any other gods before God! I did not make or bow down before any images, and I did not take the Name of the LORD my God in vain!”

I therefore set out to gain an increased understanding of how we can and do so easily break these commandments of our LORD – not in an effort to weigh us down with an increased burden of our guilt, but to discover how particular God is in seeking our undivided love and obedience, as well as consequentially increasing our awareness of how great His love is for us, in that He provided a way for us to be counted worthy of His undivided love in His beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

And yet, the ten commandments are framed within a negative context. Eight times we hear “You shall not ..” and we can conclude from this that God formulated these laws from the perspective that man is a sinner – conceived and born in sin and inclined to all evil. In the law we have a mirror in which we look to see ourselves as we really are: You shall not kill, because by nature you are a murderer; You shall not commit adultery, because by nature you really are an adulterer. And the prohibition does not just apply to the deed, but very much also to the thought! As stated by Prof. Douma (1996, p.10),

It is absolutely essential that we come to know the law in this unmasking function. For then it delivers us from all conceit and self-righteousness. We might also put it this way: the law of God liberates us from conceit and self-righteousness. It tells us clearly that we had better not look for our salvation in being decent or moral or law-abiding, but that we can only be declared righteous through a living bond with Christ – who has fulfilled the whole law. Apart from Christ, the law condemns us; but in the hands of Christ, the law remains the charter of our liberty. It functions this way as the fountain for knowing our misery (it drives us to Christ) and as the rule for gratitude (it teaches us the form for Christian living).

Since the law can be summarised with the words Christ Himself gave: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself, it becomes evident that every commandment can also be understood as having a positive context. Thus “you shall have no other gods before me” implies: “you shall serve the LORD your God, and Him only shall you serve!” And again it needs to be kept in mind that the starting point and goal of all the commandments is love. God desires our heart, a heart of flesh that beats with love for Him and His service.

The first commandment reads: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Short, simple and to the point. Is perhaps our first reaction: That is an easy one to keep – I serve only one God? If we were to take this commandment literally, then yes, there are no other gods, so this commandment does not appear to have any relevance for Reformed people today. Modern man knows better than to believe in Baal or Zeus or Thor. But if we understand what idolatry really is – that it is having something or someone else in which we place our trust besides God, then it will become readily apparent that we so easily can slip into the sin of idolatry. Scripture teaches us that idolatry can also live apart from idol names. We read that a man’s strength can be his god (Hab.1:1). We are familiar with the god of money – Mammon (Matt. 6:24), and covetousness is explicitly called idolatry (Coll. 3:5). We can also make our stomach our god (Phill.3:19) The thing you work for, sacrifice for, and live for, and cannot do without – that is your god!

The gods of today are extremely powerful. The god of man’s manipulation of science determines how we interpret the origins of this world; the god of reason can determine how we interpret Scripture; the god of technology can determine how we spend our time and how we think. Douma (p18) refers to how ancient interpreters used to speak of the three-headed idol when they quoted John’s warnings against worldliness: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (1 John 2:16) Man’s passion for power and riches so readily become addictions, something to depend on, something that has a powerful hold on our heart so that it becomes something we are unable to do without – and thus it becomes the god whom we serve. And in so doing, we are falling into the idolatry Paul warns us against in Romans 1:24 – 25:

Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonour their bodies amongst themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forevermore. Amen.

It is this aspect that makes idolatry so utterly foolish, so utterly evil. All of the idols referred to above, such as money, power, science, reason, technology, sex, food – all of these things are good and wonderful gifts from our Creator to be used in His service for the benefit of man! But when they are separated from God and used to satisfy man’s sinful desires and lusts, then they become his gods – cruel taskmasters which will ultimately destroy him. We do not need to look beyond the lives of today’s film and pop stars to see how this is so true!

This is the world we live in, which confronts us whichever way we turn. It exerts a powerful attraction on our old nature, so that we readily immerse ourselves in it and join in with this worship of creation rather than the Creator. How shall we ever be able to resist this influence in our lives? How will we be able to remain holy to the LORD?

In a sermon from Rev. S ‘tHart focussing on Daniel 1:8, we are instructed by the response of Daniel and his three friends to the requirement by King Nebuchadnezzar to conform to Babylon. We read in verse 8 that Daniel “purposed that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank.” And why was this so important for Daniel? Writes Rev ‘tHart:

By eating and drinking from the king’s table, not only would Daniel and his friends have had new, Babylonian names imposed upon them, but they would have accepted and embraced their new identities as being – not children of God and members of Zion, but – belonging to Nebuchadnezzar and citizens of Babylon.

In drawing parallels with today’s world, Rev ‘tHart writes:
The world isn’t content with you just learning about them: the world wants you to become one with them. The world isn’t content with you tolerating the things they believe and practice, the world wants you to champion what they believe and practice. The world wants you to approve of their way of life and to join them in it.

So how were Daniel and his friends able to resist this very real temptation, this attack on their identity as children of God? Scripture only reveals to us that Daniel purposed not to defile himself. This implies that he gave careful consideration to how he could remain faithful, no doubt with fervent prayers for wisdom and strength and courage, as well as discussing this together with his friends and encouraging each other in their resolve. And the rest of Daniel 1 demonstrates clearly that there is no doubt that God enabled them and richly blessed them.

Allow me to conclude this article with the observations of Prof Douma again:
As you listen to the first commandment, you hear in it the liberation of which the prologue to the Ten Commandments bears witness. Yahweh demands the whole person, but in this total commitment of the person to this one God, lies his greatest freedom. The one who serves Yahweh will live under His blessing, but the one who serves idols will always languish in bondage. … It makes no difference whether you kneel in terror before images of deities, or stand arrogantly on your own two feet. You either glorify God or you enthrone a creature (Rom. 1:21 – 32) Man stands free only if he is willing to live by grace, otherwise he stoops like a slave oppressed by the powers of this world.

Hopefully, food for thought again. Next time: what do we think of God?

1. Douma J., The Ten Commandments, Manual for the Christian Life. Inheritance Publications, Neerlandia, 1996.
2. ‘tHart S., Sermon on Daniel 1 :8

Gerrit van der Wal

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