Last time, we discussed two principles for understanding the Ten Commandments. First, God gives His law to us as redeemed people. For Christians, the law is not a way to life. It is a way of life. This includes continually driving us back to Christ. Second, God’s law is the law of love. That is, the Ten Commandments give us the means for displaying our love for God and our love for our neighbors. We now look at the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3).
First, let’s clear up the meaning of the words, “before Me.” The Bible uses similar language with regard to a sequence of events. “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD” (Malachi 4:5). We may also think of a place in line. We put another so-called god in line before the True God. By implication, the so-called god, therefore, has priority over the True God. But these are not the best ways to interpret this commandment.
The literal meaning of “before Me” is, “before My face.” Picture the whole created universe. Picture the whole universe under the watchful eye of the living God. The whole world including every living creature is under His gaze. In this sense, we are before His face. Looking up from our position in this world, we should see the face of God. We are all before him in this sense.
Psalm 139:7 asks these questions, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” We may rephrase the second question: “Or where can I flee from Your face?” The answer is simple, “Nowhere!” All of creation including every living thing is in His presence. All of creation including every living thing is before His face.
Then we have the little word “other” in the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” As you live and work under the care and watchful eye of the living God, you are not to have other gods or alternate gods. Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, erected alternate gods in Israel, the Northern Kingdom. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28).
Why did Jeroboam do this? He was consolidating his power. “Jeroboam said in his heart, ‘Now the kingdom will return to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will return to their lord, even to Rehoboam king of Judah….’ So the king consulted, and made two golden calves” (1 Kings 12:26-28). He did all this before the face of God.
Toward the end of his 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy declared, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Today, too many Americans and too many in government advise the opposite: “Ask not what you can do for your country—ask what your country can do for you.” Some believe, and I use this word intentionally, “only government” is capable of addressing our problems. All this is playing out before the face of God. The First Commandment is a shot across the bow of our ship of state. “You shall have no other gods before Me.”