God Comes First

Ten Commandments  - 1

God Comes First:
The Challenge of the First Commandment
(Exodus 20:1-21)

The Ten Commandments are the fountainhead of Western civilisation. Yet, in today’s secularised, post-Christian society, the revolutionary significance of the Ten Commandments is seldom appreciated. This message, given by Rob Yule at St Alban’s Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 9 August 1998, shows the surprising importance of the first commandment for religion, science, human rights and personal fulfilment.

Joy Davidman, the high-spirited American Jewish woman who later married C. S. Lewis, called the first commandment ‘the greatest discovery ever made.’ (Smoke on the Mountain: an Interpretation of the Ten Commandments [London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1963], p. 23). Today we’ve become so blasé about the Ten Commandments that we miss the stupendous novelty of its opening salvo, ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ This was a revolutionary innovation when it was first announced to the world. It was like the crashing opening of a Beethoven symphony, rudely interrupting the etiquette and decorum of the earlier chamber music tradition.

A Religious Revolution

It was, first and foremost, a religious revolution. A literal translation of the first commandment is, ‘You shall have no other gods before my face.’ This commandment doesn’t deny the existence of other gods. It recognises that there are rival deities which could easily usurp first place in our lives. But it says, in clear and unequivocal terms, that God can’t stand them, and God’s people are to have nothing to do with them either.

The first commandment expresses what scholars call ethical monotheism. It commands us to give God his first and rightful place, as the only supreme being worthy of ultimate allegiance. There are plenty of god substitutes out there vying for first place in our affections. Whether they be ancient pagan gods and goddesses, or progressive modern god-substitutes, whether they be mischievous spirits or malignant spirits, whether they be horned protrusions from the pit or civilised projections of our passions, these rival entities always threaten to take the place that God rightly claims and rightly deserves in our lives. God won’t have a bar of them.

Well, you say, what’s revolutionary about that? We have grown so accustomed to a world made safe by monotheism, by belief in one supreme God, that we no longer realise what this belief saved us from. This is how Joy Davidman explains it:

. . . the belief in one God slew a host of horrors: malign storm demons, evil djinn of sickness, blighters of the harvest, unholy tyrants over life and death; belief in God destroyed the fetishes, the totems, the beast-headed bullies of old time. It laid the axe to sacred trees watered by the blood of virgins, it smashed the child-eating furnaces of Moloch, and toppled the gem-encrusted statues of the peevish divinities half-heartedly served by Greece and Rome.

The old gods fought among themselves, loved and hated without reason, demanded unspeakable bribes and meaningless flatteries. While they were worshipped, a moral law was impossible, for what pleased one deity would offend another. If your wife ran away from you, it was not because you beat her, but because you’d forgotten the monthly sacrifice to Ishtar; just offer a double sacrifice, and you’d get two new wives prettier than the old. (Op. cit., p. 23).

We forget what the religions of the ancient pagan world were like, what the first commandment saved us from. Pagan religions were wild and disordered, arbitrary and unjust. They had neither rhyme nor reason. There was certainly nothing ennobling or humanising about them, for women or for men. They encouraged men to fight and lust, they made women slaves of religiously validated passions. These ancient religions were far from kind and far from benign. They were crude, and cruel.

Into this world, at Sinai, came the thunderous revelation of the one God. Invisible, apart from the sound and light show that accompanied his appearing, God, says Davidman, was ‘An almost unimaginable person - a single being, the creator of heaven and earth, not to be bribed with golden images or children burned alive; loving only righteousness. A being who demanded your whole heart.’ (op. cit., p. 23).

A Scientific Revolution

The commandment to have no other gods led, secondly, to a scientific revolution. It made it possible for science to happen. Joy Davidman again (op. cit., pp. 22-3): 

Everyone [before the time of Moses] knew that the universe was a wild and chaotic thing, a jungle of warring powers: wind against water, sun against moon, male against female, life against death. There was a god of the spring planting and another god of the harvest, a spirit who put fish into fishermen’s nets and a being who specialised in the care of women in childbirth; and at best there was an uneasy truce among all these, at worst a battle. Now along comes a fool, from an insignificant tribe of desert wanderers, and shouts that all these processes are one process from a single source, that the obvious many are the unthinkable One!

Whoever he was [Joy Davidman thinks it was Moses. In my previous message I gave reasons for believing it was a divine revelation, the thunderous voice of God himself], he shouted it so loud that it has echoed down all of time. . . . The universe is one process, created by One Maker.

It was the greatest discovery ever made.

Monotheism made possible the rise of modern science. Science is the product of a world view which says the universe has a single origin. The first commandment expresses a profoundly simple, but enormously significant truth: the universe is one. It is a universe, not a pluriverse or a multiverse. It derives from one God, one source, one originator. This truth divested nature of spirits and demons. It gave the world a reality and integrity of its own. It led to the understanding that the world was rational, coherent, orderly. It meant the natural world, instead of being feared as the preserve of evil spirits, could be studied by human beings and put to practical uses.

It is therefore no accident that modern science arose not in any of the ancient civilisations like China, but in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Not until belief in one God displaced the ancient pagan conception of the world could scientific study of the natural world occur. The first commandment made the world safe for science, with all the blessing that has been to humanity.

A Moral Revolution

The first commandment, thirdly, brought about a moral revolution, a revolution of justice, by guaranteeing the unity of the human race. Monotheism, belief in one God, is the linchpin of human equality.

The unity and equality of the human race can only be established if humanity has a single origin. If human beings spontaneously arose from different origins - as the theory of evolution affirms - there would be no basis for defending the unity of the human family and the equality of all human beings against those who say some races are inferior.

God is one, therefore humanity is one, therefore all races are equal - none are inferior. Because God is one, racism is wrong. Because God is one, Nazism, the elevating of the Aryan race, is wrong. Because God is one, apartheid, the subordinating of black races, is a sin - as the World Alliance of Reformed Churches rightly called it in the early eighties. It is no accident that the movements for the abolition of slavery, the ending of suttee (widow burning), the opposition to apartheid, and the raising of the dignity and rights of women have all arisen in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, not within other religious traditions. Belief in one God has been a profoundly humanising influence throughout history.

A Personal Revolution

Finally, belief in one God can lead to a personal revolution. The first commandment can change your life. ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ Who does not tremble when they hear that? This commandment affirms God’s claim to our lives and our loyalty. God comes first. He brooks no rivals. He has made us for himself alone, and our lives are restless and unsatisfied if we fill the place that God should occupy with lesser loves and lesser loyalties.

‘Your God is really that to which you are prepared to give all your time, all your strength, all your obedience,’ says William Barclay, former Professor of New Testament at Glasgow University. ‘Your God is that which is most important in your life.’ (The Old Law and the New Law, [Edinburgh, St Andrew Press, 1972], p.9). Barclay suggests that today money, pleasure, and self most commonly take the place of God. What holds first place in your affections?

We are to love God undividedly, with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength. Personal frustration is always the result of having other gods or consuming interests than God. A person trying to serve two masters has divided loyalties, is always half-hearted. The great nineteenth century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, ‘Purity of heart is to will one thing.’ A consuming passion for the one God is the key to an integrated personality and a fulfilling life. Let go whatever has usurped God’s place in your life, whether it be work, sport, money, comfort, worry about future security, a wrong relationship. Put God first.