Redeemer and Lawgiver:
The Gracious Setting of the Ten Commandments
The Speaking God
The unbelieving world burns because the first commandment is ignored and ridiculed. Idolatry may not be as tangible as it once was, or have impressive statuary, ritual, and priesthood, but in the once-Christian West, it is returning with a vengeance, like our Lord’s seven demons. Man’s heart is a factory of idols. Once he throws off God’s yoke, he will worship other gods, any gods, many gods, gods that will kill him and destroy his society, and make him a slave to his own appetites. The first commandment exposes the suffocating danger of idolatry. It brings us face to face with our Maker and only Lawgiver. He spoke these words, and Israel heard them. Even in speaking to them, he was gracious. When God did not speak to Saul, he turned to a witch. When God was silent for a time to David, he begged for God to speak, for the Lord’s silence is a living death to us (Ps. 28:1). Thus, in speaking to Israel, as terrible as his voice was, the Lord elevated them above all the peoples on the earth and showed that he had a special regard for them. He would confirm his covenant with Abraham, show them his holiness and justice, and thus drive them to the promise of salvation through the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
The Lord God our Redeemer
Two other factors in this brief preface deserve special consideration. The first is that he revealed again his name to them. God, or Elohim, stresses his power and greatness. They could see the signs of his majestic power all around them; as terrible as these were, he spoke to them as the Lord your God. Israel was his people as a whole; to each Israelite he was their God. And since he also revealed his name Lord, he was proclaiming himself as their Redeemer, the covenant-keeping God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As his name, so were his works. He delivered them from the land of Egypt because he remembered his promise to their fathers (Ex. 2:24; 6:5). Not many Israelites of that generation knew the Lord; almost all were rebellious and idolatrous. Nevertheless, the Lord had mercy upon them for the sake of their fathers, saved many of their children, and showed by their deliverance from slavery their need for salvation from a worse form of tyranny and slavery – from sin and judgment. The important point is that he gave his law to those who were already his people. Obedience would not constitute them what they were not before. They were already in covenant with him, already blessed to hear his voice.
The law was a gracious bestowal and manifestation of God’s kindness. He might have left them in their slavery and never confronted their idolatry. He might not have terrified them by his holiness and righteousness. He might have left them with the rest of the world in the most abysmal blindness and superstition. In the midst of our fraternal debates about the relationship between law and grace, the old and new covenants, Moses and Christ we must bear this fundamental truth in mind. The law was not against the promises; the law was not opposed to God’s grace (Gal. 3:21-24). Moses was a servant in Christ’s house (Heb. 3:1-6) and appeared on the Mount of our Savior’s glory to bear witness to his coming sacrifice and ascension to glory. The law, therefore, did not and could never prescribe salvation by lawkeeping but judgment because of our lawbreaking. If the law had set forth the way to justifying righteousness, then God would have forgotten our spiritual death and inability. He did not forget it. In the midst of the world’s catastrophic darkness and spiritual blindness, God kindled a light in Israel, a light that revealed his majestic holiness, the sinner’s danger, and the sinner’s deliverance through the coming Mediator. Now that we have come to the new covenant and been delivered from God’s judgment through the shameful and cursed death of our Savior, we relate to the law in him – as a beautiful rule of life so that we may please him and know his fellowship in our lives without offending him or grieving his Spirit (John 14:21; 1 Cor. 9:21; Eph. 4:30).
Only One God:
The Burning Heart of the First Commandment
Heart and Life Monotheism
There is only one God, and he made us for himself. His existence, power, and glory are written indelibly on our hearts, for we are made in his image. Israel had just come from Egypt, which worshipped an army of gods and goddesses. The Lord entered into no long debate to prove that he was the only one and true God. He exposed Egypt’s pantheon of deities as a manmade sham to gain power over others and to manipulate nature. Virtually all man’s idols turn out to be nature and its processes deified, for we worship and serve the creature, rather than our Creator (Rom. 1:25). But God in his word brings us back to the truth we feel inescapably in our hearts and that nature reveals. There is only one, true, and living God (Deut. 4:39; 1 Cor. 8:5-6). The other “gods” that men imagine and make are appropriately called “idols,” or nothings, and we must not worship or serve them (Deut. 4:28; Isa. 2:8,18,20; 40:18-20; 45:20). At the heart of the first commandment is that there is only one God, who made us at the beginning and who alone can redeem us from our sins and give us new life in his Son. Therefore, we must have no other gods but Yahweh, the God of our salvation. There must be nothing in our lives that we love, trust, or fear more than him (Matt. 12:22; 19:22; Jer. 17:5; 1 Tim. 4:3-4; Phil. 3:19). Upon biblical monotheism depends man’s happiness and existence, his purpose in life and God’s honor, and his deliverance from the sins of his heart and from the tyrants of this world. If we get this wrong, nothing else can be right – ever.
Presence and Provocation
For we live before his face. To have other gods before him does not mean it is acceptable for us to have other gods, provided that God is at the head of the line. Most religion in antiquity and even the secularism of modernity is based upon this chain of being idea – there may be many gods, sub-deities, and even divinized natural processes and human institutions, with the super-God at the top. Few empires and nations forbade the worship of these lesser gods, provided their main god and often the emperor were worshipped as the highest expression of the divine on earth. Yahweh wipes all of this away in one sentence. I – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the burning bush, the Redeemer who destroyed Egypt and now bring my people to Sinai, I alone am God. There is no other. I am holy, separate, the highest there is, and because I am holy, you must put none of these idols in my face. This was the astounding claim made by Yahweh’s servants the prophets, for the ancient world was almost completely given over to polytheism, religious and political. Then came the true God. He called out all the sham-gods of other nations as blind, mute, and deaf nothings. He denied the legitimacy of their social and religious order, based as it was upon a lie. He says the same today. There is no God but me, the God of the Bible, the Maker of all things, the Redeemer of my elect, the Father of my beloved Son, who is the only Mediator between me and sinners.
And therefore, no other gods are allowed before my face. Here is something startling. If a nation would be blessed by God, it therefore cannot be open to allowing the public recognition of any God but the Lord, or he is provoked to his face. Yes, we think first of our hearts and desire for God our Savior to reign there alone, without any competition from the idols of our hearts, for he is a jealous God – for his own worship, for his love for us and our love for him, and that he alone be served. But we must learn again that to be blessed anywhere, we must serve him. Therefore, only he can be worshipped by our scientists and politicians, or he is provoked, justly angered, and his glory is diminished in the world. Not that man can do anything to take away even one spark of his glory, but all our lives are to be dedicated to his glory and holiness and righteousness (Zech. 14:20; 1 Cor. 10:31). And there is no limit to this, for he is everywhere and calls upon all men everywhere to repent and kiss his Son. As challenging as it is to confess this, for we have been deceived into defining “nice” and “loving” by the devil’s tolerance doctrine – we must reject all cults and world religions as a provocation of God’s majesty. It is neither kind nor loving to refuse to call all other religions, cultic and political and social, as well as the whole cabal of atheists, to repentance and to warn them of the danger of worshiping false gods and withholding from the true God the worship and service that is rightly his. Political polytheism and the whole program of multiculturalism, when seen as being a provocation in God’s face and in the light of the final judgment, are incredibly hateful to men and absolutely prejudicial to their earthly and eternal happiness.
Supremacy and Saturation
James speaks of the perfect law of liberty holistically. If we offend in one point, we offend in all, for God’s will is unified (James 2:10). This unity of the law is seen vividly in this first commandment and its relation to the rest. We need not look farther than this command for the highest motivation to worship God as he commands and to speak of his name with highest veneration and honor. Keeping his Sabbath sustains the same relationship – why do we keep it but that we are to have and keep God as our God alone? Why are we to keep ourselves pure, honor our parents, respect the property of others, and guard our hearts against covetousness except that Yahweh alone will be worshipped and served. He will be served everywhere, not as some kind of tyrant but as the loving, merciful, forgiving, redeeming, and gracious God and Savior who was pleased to crush his Son and put him to grief for our salvation. We must recover the splendor of this first commandment, and with it God’s supremacy over our lives. And then, we shall feel in our souls his presence and power saturating our lives so that we are led to obey him everywhere, holding nothing back, fighting against sin in every dark corner, and standing for his truth regardless of cost or sacrifice. He is worthy of all our worship, obedience, love, and allegiance.
Positive Duties and Clear Prohibitions:
Living Out the First Commandment
The Way We Have and Keep God as Our Only God
With every negative comes the positive; we are to have no other gods before the Lord, and therefore we must have and keep the Lord continually before us. We do this, first, by confessing that he alone is God, our Maker and Redeemer, and that he alone is our Judge, King, and Lawgiver (Isa. 33:22). Having and keeping God requires that we confess him, as Scripture everywhere teaches. There is no private, unknown worship of God; we must confess him before men and it is our privilege to do so. Along with confessing him, we must determine to walk in covenant with him. These Ten Commandments or words are a covenant. We have broken them, but Jesus Christ has kept them. They are now written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit’s renewing grace (Heb. 8:8-10), not as a covenant announcing death to lawbreakers but as a new way of life that we have through our Savior’s resurrection from the dead (Rom. 6:1-6; 8:1-3). Thus, one important aspect of keeping the first commandment is a whole-souled determination to worship and serve God alone – no matter what the world may say or think, or the weakness of our hearts, or the trouble such a commitment may bring to us at given times in history. Since God has redeemed me, then I will, I must delight to do his will, as my Savior did. I have his power, his Spirit, his presence. It is my privilege to do those things that please my God and Redeemer. At the top is to have and to hold no other God but him, and this especially when the whole world seems to be running after its deadly array of idols. We cannot worship “mother earth,” or think that somehow if we turn on our automobiles, then “our mother” will be angry with us. This is idolatry, nature worship, Baal resurrected.
Positively, we must worship God – tell him how great he is, that he is “glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders,” abundant in loving-kindness, goodness, and truth. Worshipping God is not about looking for happy spiritual feelings but an active service to God that we are hereby called to give him when we assemble to sing his praises, call upon his name hear his word, and keep our vows to him. And closely related to this is the holy fear and love of God to which this commandment binds us – O, happy binding! For by these words, God says to us, “Be happy in me alone; adore me alone; love me alone. I am your Maker and your Redeemer, and I hereby command you to be utterly ravished by my love, awed by my majesty, stabilized by my sovereignty, trusting in my care, and joyful in my presence!”
Love, faith, and joyful obedience are thus at the heart of the positive duties of the first commandment. The reason men run after idols is that they do not love God, do not have faith, and will not yield themselves to obey him. This is much more culpable now, for the Light of the world, Jesus Christ, has come, and like the sunlight his word has gone into every corner of this world. The first commandment calls upon us to relate to God as he has revealed himself. He is our Redeemer, and therefore we should love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. The next three commandments will guide us in this love, for love for God comes to concrete expression in obedience (1 John 5:3). But since we have not seen him, the first commandment also calls upon us to trust him: with our lives, our futures, with eternity itself. We cannot have and keep God as our God unless we depend upon his word and trust that he will always do what is good and right by us. And this leads us to obey him. When we set him always before us (Ps. 16:8), as our Savior did. How did he have and keep God as his God and Father? He always did those things that pleased him (John 8:29). We have not done this, but Jesus Christ obeyed in our place. We may be washed from our disobedient filth in his wounds; our shame may be removed when we are enfolded in the robes of the shame he endured for us. Then, do we love him? Let us obey him with all our hearts, fight against the flesh, and always trust that he will intercede for us and wash away our many sins and failings (Gal. 5:17; Tit. 2:14; 1 John 1:9-2:2).
The Identification and Overthrow of Heart Idols
Idolatry begins in the heart. The tenth commandment teaches this – wanting, craving something other than God and what he is pleased to give us. The heart is “deceitful and desperately wicked,” Jeremiah would later say, and Moses called upon the people to “circumcise their hearts” (Deut. 30:6). The idea that God is satisfied with external obedience, or that he cared little for the heart provided ritual and externals were kept up, is a complete misreading of Scripture. Later, when the prophets were warning God’s people against their idolatry, they were continually rebuking them for “turning their back to the Lord, and not their face” (Jer. 2:27; 32:33), or “drawing near to him with their lips, but having a heart far from him” (Isa. 29:13). Biblical religion, true religion begins with the heart, and this first commandment filets our hearts before God’s majesty, opens them to his scrutiny, and utterly condemns our wayward, unsettled hearts. God will reign here first; he will have our heart, which is the moral center, the driving impulse, the living center, the very soul of our existence that determines the whole course of our lives.
The first commandment, then, calls us to bring our hearts before the Lord and to judge them before him (1 Cor. 11:31). Do we live for his praise or the praise of men (John 12:43)? Upon what have we set our hearts so that unless we have it, we cannot live contentedly and simply before him? One way we can tell is if something we love is taken away, do we turn to the Lord and yield it willingly to him, or do we pine away for it, and then seek something else to take its place? These are questions each one of us must honestly answer, for what we fret for when it is lost, or grieve over so that we cannot give ourselves to serving God, is an idol of our heart. What we love, for it we shall give away our heart; upon it, our contentment depends – does this love compete with God? And what of our confidence? Where do we turn in trouble? When we sin, do we run back to Jesus Christ, or to forgetfulness, despair, or excuses? If sick, do we seek the physicians but not the Lord, as Asa did (2 Chron. 16:12)? How do we respond when disappointed – do we lean upon other creatures more than God?
Idols of the heart are many. They are sometimes illusive and difficult to identify, for we live with them and become comfortable with them. Some are easier to identity, such as love for the world, the belly, man’s power, reputation, wealth, fame, and praise. Then, there are those lawful contentments and gifts from God, to which we become addicted and think our entire happiness depends upon them. This first commandment calls upon us to examine our hearts carefully. We shall never in this life understand or identify all our idols, but let us at least tell the Lord to “search me and know me, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and then lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23). And since we are convicted that he searches the heart and that we are naked and open before his gaze (Heb. 4:13), let us recognize that since he demands our exclusive worship and allegiance, he is especially opposed to all forms of the occult or dabbling in black magic, even if only in the forms of games, for he is holy and will not have his world or word tampered with. He would not have us fearful of omens or spells, for while Satan is a roaring lion, he has no hold over us. Equally important in the light of this commandment is that our worship is vibrant and warmly offered from the heart, that we are not impatient under affliction but yielded, and that all the education we pursue sets Jesus Christ as the source of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3-8). God will be loved and serve everywhere. He calls upon us to believe his word and yield ourselves to be governed by him in all our works, recreations, worship, and family life. He is wonderful and worthy! He is our God and Redeemer! He is our Life in Jesus Christ, our heaven and our inheritance, and our wisdom and our happiness!!
The Evil of Political and Cultural Polytheism
There is another breakage of the first commandment, one that former generations would never have countenanced, and one that if continued will bring an end to liberty and justice in western and formerly Christian nations. It is the toleration of other gods, the refusal to confess nationally the existence and authority of the Christian God alone, and the legalization of idolatry in our lands. This all goes under the name of toleration, which is but hell’s language for folly, blindness, and destruction. Even in the church, preachers justify political polytheism by positing multiple kingdoms or so spiritualizing the kingdom of Christ that there is no public obedience to God’s law required from those in authority over us. What! If a man is elected to public office or becomes a judge, he is suddenly at liberty in that capacity to dishonor the Lord God by respecting Alah and giving his blind followers liberty to pursue their madness? It may seem pointless now to speak against cults and false religions, but it only seems so. We must as a church renounce these things not only as theologically false and untenable, but also as dangerous for men’s souls, dishonoring to God, blasphemous against his Christ, and destructive to national liberty and prosperity. It is philosophical madness and historical blindness not to recognize these truths. It is not tolerance that leads so many to say otherwise but hatred for the first commandment and an unwillingness to bend the knee to the living and true God. For that would obligate us to believe in the crucified and resurrected Savior, to bow before the Lord of glory, to kiss him as kings and judges, and to rule in terms of his law – something most are unwilling to do.
Of course they are unwilling – they are still enemies of God and of righteousness, and have not his good and holy law written upon their hearts by his Spirit. Let us cut to the chase. The only source of liberty and justice in the world has been the Christian faith. Christians themselves have often been a bad and conniving lot, to be sure, abusive, mean-spirited, covetous, vindictive, advocates of murder and rapine. It has often been true of us as it was of the Jews of old – “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:24). Nevertheless, national blessing will come only through national righteousness (Prov. 14:34), which is impossible apart from obedience to the first commandment, which only the Christian faith empowers. Let us not at this late hour back down from this high claim. Many non-Christians have made their contributions to society, but this is because they built upon the spiritual capital found only in the Christian faith as set forth in the Bible. As long as the church denies this, we are part of the suicidal pact with secularism and multiculturalism, which is a deadly dance with the devil. He never willingly allows men to change partners, and thus the West is sunk into an abyss of her own embarrassment over her high claims, guilt over her crimes against heaven, and rebellion against her legitimate King, Jesus Christ. These convictions will be recovered again, but it may be too late here. Perhaps God will have mercy upon us as we proclaim another King, one Jesus, to whom the kings of the earth must give their allegiance or face his wrath. Let us begin at least with confessing again that all in authority should obey the first commandment.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. How is the giving of the law gracious? How did Paul teach this in Galatians 3:21-24?
2. Why is biblical monotheism the foundation of truth and all good?
3. What does “before my face? Mean?
4. How are political polytheism and multiculturalism disobedience to the first commandment?
5. How are the other nine commandments related to the first – see James 2:10?
6. What are some ways we keep God before us?
7. How does the first commandment impact worship? Education? The occult?
8. What are some practical ways to identify heart idols?
9. Why must we say that the first commandment is concerned with heart obedience, as well as practical decisions and actions?
10. What are the national and political implications of the first commandment?