No Other Gods
“You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 NKJV. Other texts are from the
Christian Standard Bible, CSB, unless otherwise noted).
The first three commandments of the Decalogue set Israel’s focus on God as the one and only source of national and personal blessings. Israel had just been delivered through the ten plagues in Egypt and the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. Yet believing in one supreme invisible God was a challenge for some Israelites, even up to the Babylonian captivity. A new generation of Israelites were raised in the wilderness, dependent on daily miracles in order to trust in the one true God.
When Canaan was divided among the Hebrew tribes, God instituted a simple administration. Spiritual leadership was provided by the Levites. The national well-being depended on Israel’s ability to avoid worshiping the idols of neighboring nations.
Examples from the Judges
Unfortunately, Israel did worship other gods in Canaan, as early as Judges chapter 2. God raised judges to deliver Israel from the hand of their enemies and to shepherd the nation back to Him. But Israel would turn to other gods as soon as the judge would die (Judges 2:19). Israel relied on their human leaders to show them how to worship God. The record of some judges, such as Gideon, Barak, and Deborah, shows their devotion to God and the challenge to stay true to the first commandment (Judges 5).
After a miraculous encounter with an angel of God, Gideon began his work by building an altar to Jehovah and destroying the altar to Baal (Judges 6). It was imperative that God be publicly proclaimed as the only true God before Gideon could lead his army. With 300 men they went against the “innumerable” army of Midianites and Amalekites, fighting in the name of Jehovah (Judges 7:12). After the victory, Gideon turned down an offer to become Israel’s ruler, saying, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; Jehovah will rule over you” (Judges 8:23). Despite this wise council, Gideon failed as a leader because he used some of the plunder to make an object of worship for Israel. It became a “snare” for him and his family (Judges 8:27). We learn that even in life’s victorious moments, we need to be careful to worship God and understand His hand in them.
Deborah and Barak offer a better example of putting God first. In Judges 4 we learn of Israel’s miraculous victory against Sisera’s mighty army of iron chariots. Judges chapter 5 reveals Deborah and Barak singing praises to God before the nation for Israel’s victories, reminding the people where their strength came from. As a result, Israel was to live in peace for the next forty years (Judges 5:31). So too, when we remember God as the source of all our victories in life, we practice the principle of not having other gods before Him.
A lesson from Samson’s life teaches that putting God first also means not relying on our own strength. His self-sacrifice as a blind, enslaved man came by calling upon God for strength one last time. With it he pulled down the temple of Dagon and slew more Philistines in his death than during his life (Judges 16:30). In God’s strength he freed Israel from oppression in a way he could not do before. This lesson is highlighted by the Apostle Paul. “I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). When we lose sight of the source of our strength, we are not putting God first.
The judges were raised and empowered by God when Israel cried for help. It was an effective method to remind them of the first commandment: you shall have no other gods before me. Israel turned for the worse when they wanted to be like other nations with a king. This request came as a consequence of poor leadership. Decades earlier the religious leadership had failed with the sons of Eli, the High Priest (1 Samuel 2:12). Samuel’s own sons “turned toward dishonest profit, took bribes, and perverted justice” (1 Samuel 8:3). When accepting the role as God’s representative, it is imperative that materialistic desires not be the driving motive. Materialism has been, and continues to be, one of Satan’s most effective snares and can become a god placed before Jehovah.
Lessons from the Kings
There are times when greed was disguised as service to God. This occurred when King Saul tried to benefit from the spoils of war (1 Samuel 15:15). He did so after taking pride in the impressive army he built during his reign (1 Samuel 15:4).
God knew that Israel would not fare better under kings, but it was a necessary lesson for Israel. When the sons of Samuel became corrupt, Israel looked to other nations, rather than to God. They came to Samuel with a request.
“‘Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Therefore, appoint a king to judge us the same as all the other nations have.’ When they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us,’ Samuel considered their demand wrong, so he prayed to the LORD. But the LORD told him, ‘Listen to the people and everything they say to you. They have not rejected you; they have rejected me as their king. They are doing the same thing to you that they have done to me, since the day I brought them out of Egypt until this day, abandoning me and worshiping other gods’” (1 Samuel 8:5-8).
In the desire to be “like the other nations,” Christians can also be tempted to follow human leaders and create unhealthy earthly ties. Electing proper leadership can be a challenge that Christian groups must deal with. Relying on scriptural qualifications is essential when choosing leaders that God wants in place.
God’s reaction to a corrupt king was to replace him with a new king. The first such case led to the anointing of David while Saul was still king. David was a man after God’s own heart. Although he failed on many occasions, David never placed other gods before Jehovah. Through his psalms he praised God even in the hardest situations. David went to God for help in times of need. David also remembered God when things were going well and made detailed plans for the Temple. David wanted those who entered Jerusalem to notice the Temple of God, rather than his own palace.
However, even David slipped and almost failed the first commandment. Throughout his life he found God as his source of strength as he vividly described in Psalms 18. Later in his reign, however, he took pride in his military prowess and demanded a counting of Israel’s able-bodied men. He did this despite the advice of Joab and other commanders of his army (2 Samuel 24). He continued in this frame of mind as the census continued for almost ten months (2 Samuel 24:8). After it was concluded, David’s realized his sin and prayed to God for forgiveness. “I have sinned greatly in what I’ve done. Now, LORD, because I’ve been very foolish, please take away your servant’s guilt” (2 Samuel 24:10). As a consequence of David’s sin, God sent a plague resulting in the death of 70,000 Israelites.
Solomon identified pride as a cause for falling. “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18 KJV). He knew about Saul’s failure along these lines and of his father’s failure in the census. But he did not take this to heart, as pride led to his own downfall as well. Pride is putting oneself “before God.” Solomon considered himself wise and allowed the worship of other gods in
Israel, even building temples for them in Jerusalem. This legitimized the violation of the first commandment, and Israel struggled with idolatry until their return from Babylonian captivity. Even though Solomon eventually realized his failure, most subsequent kings continued to lead the nation away from God.
Lessons from Jesus
Many worthy examples never wavered in their commitment to God, such as Daniel, Elijah, and Jeremiah. But the only perfect example was Jesus. His desire to put God first was manifest at the early age of 12. As his family returned from Jerusalem, he stayed behind to discuss God’s word in the “house of his Father” (Luke 2:41-52). At the beginning of his ministry, the three temptations were Satan’s effort to divert Jesus from keeping God uppermost.
First, Jesus was tempted to use his God-given powers to benefit his flesh by turning stones into bread. When this failed, he was lured to misuse God’s word and impress the people by jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple. Lastly, he was challenged to accept Satan and his methods ahead of God. Jesus’ final answer was the one we can rely on in all such temptations: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him” (Matthew 4:10).
Throughout his life, Jesus was transparent and vocal about his devotion to God. When someone called him a “good teacher,” he was quick to point out that only God should be called “good” (Luke 18:19). He resurrected Lazarus to glorify God and not himself (John 11:40-42). He repeatedly said that he came to do his Father’s will (John 5:30). When he healed a man born blind, it was so that “God’s works might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). It culminated with his prayer in John 17, where Jesus accepted God’s will and then proceeded to obey without hesitation. In doing so, Jesus died for everyone who has ever lived. During his earthly life he was a comforting refuge for anyone who came to him.
The Apostle John learned from walking with Jesus that we cannot love God if we do not love the people around us (1 John 4:2021). Jesus never allowed his gifts of healing and teaching to turn to pride or selfish gain. He did not take credit for his knowledge. He obeyed God at all times, even when it meant humiliation at the hands of lesser men and death on the cross. He stood up to those who misrepresented God but was silent when God’s will required him to do so. No one can duplicate such a perfect example. But as Christians, we can honor the name of God by loving our fellow man, by using our gifts to benefit others, and by not thinking highly of ourselves. In this way we can imitate our Lord in the way that he put God first in everything he did.