The first of the Ten Commandments prohibits the worship of false gods. The second prohibits false worship of the true God.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4–6)
God, apart from Jesus–whom the original recipients of the Decalogue did not know, does not have physical dimensions or limitations, so any sculpted or painted artwork intended to depict Him directly is lying. It is a false representation of God so it cannot honor Him. Even though creation points to God, nothing in the ocean, on land, or in the sky can stand in for Him.
God desires exclusive worship and He wants that worship to be pure. He forbids whatever would misrepresent and distract from the revelation of Himself in the Word.
It is interesting that He attaches His own jealous character as a reason for this commandment rather than to idolatry. Those who claim to worship Him alone but who worship Him according to their own imaginations will be punished generationally. Certainly this applied to Israel, but Peter’s description of “futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18) seems related. Error propagates. Error about God is itself one of the judgments on those who hate God.
On the other hand, God spreads blessing over and through those who love Him. Well beyond three or four generations, His steadfast love extends “to thousands.” Our obedience to His commandments starts with undivided and undistracted worship in spirit and truth.
We started a string of exhortations on the Ten Commandments and last week we considered how Jesus summarized the first four commands by calling men to love God with all that they are (Matthew 22:37-38). It is also true that all men must love God, and all of man’s love must be for God, not split among gods.
In Exodus 20 we read that God spoke the following words (verse 1), starting with a reminder to the Israelites that He delivered them out of Egypt (verse 2). Because of His saving work, they were to worship Him only.
You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3)
The words “before me” could be read as if one were sorting a list by priority; i.e., put eggs above milk. But that’s not what it means here. God is not requiring the right ordering of busts along the pantheon wall. The LORD did not command them to make Him the first chair in their orchestra of gods, He commanded their undivided worship. There are to be no others in addition to, none together with, none other “besides” Him.
The words “before me” also indicate that the first commandment is of first concern to God. In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “These words before me…teach us that God, who sees all things, takes notice of, and is much displeased with, the sin of having any other god.” The Lord is close and pays close attention to whomever (or whatever) else we worship.
While it’s true that the LORD hasn’t chosen the United States as His covenant people, we still owe our existence to Him individually and collectively. By His common grace He has blessed us greatly but we have given glory to those which are not gods. Some god is always being praised and obeyed in public view, even if that is us–the people. Apart from repentance and faith and thanks to God our nation will continue to deserve His wrath.
Likewise, in the church we are often distracted, if not at times even acting as if we were independent of Him. But more than Israel’s exodus, He has delivered us from our slavery to sin. He has brought us out of a house of darkness and death. Therefore we are responsible to acknowledge all things as being from Him and through Him and to Him alone.
We know, according to Paul, that the law was given to point men to Christ (Galatians 3:24). The law tutored sinners toward the Savior because the law required perfection and none of us are. Only Christ fulfilled every jot and tittle (Matthew 5:17-18), the rest of us, failing at even one point have become accountable for all of it (James 2:10). The law teaches us that we have not obeyed the law and that we must believe in Christ for our righteousness.
What good, then, are the Ten Commandments for us as Christians? Historically, the Church has acknowledged a few different uses, but one of them is to show us the types of lawful behavior that God desires and that God enables believers to perform by His Spirit. God’s character didn’t change after Christ came. And Christ came to redeem and remake us to share more of God’s character.
Christ also summarized the law–epitomized in the Decalogue–in the Great Commandment and the Second like it. Love for God and love for one’s neighbor aren’t a replacement for the Ten, they represent two Tables within the Ten.
Loving God with all we are is a way to say that we will serve no idols, carve no images, not say His name in vain, and that we will take one day out of every seven to honor Him by not going about our business as usual. Loving one’s neighbor fulfills the remaining six which all function in human relationships–parents, spouses, those we’re mad at or lust for, ones we want to hurt or want what they have.
The law in Exodus 20 applies uniquely to Israel as part of the Old Testament, but we are endowed uniquely to understand it in light of Christ’s fulfillment and to obey it in His likeness by His Spirit.