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Putting God First

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EXODUS 20:3-4

By the Sinai covenant Yahweh confirmed his work of redeeming his vassal people from the overlordship of Egypt by making them his own servants.

§  Their role henceforth would be to mediate or intercede as priests between the holy God and the wayward nations of the world, with the end in view not only of declaring his salvation, but providing the human channel in and through whom that channel would be effected. (Merril, 80).

§  ‘a fresh ordering of the legal side of the nation’s life under the authority of God’.

‘In the first commandment worshipping a false God is forbidden; in the second commandment the worshipping of the true God in a false manner is forbidden’. (Watson, 44)


THE PURPOSE OF THE LAW IS NOT TO ‘GET IN’ TO THE KINGDOM BUT RATHER TO ‘STAY IN’: “I am the Lord thy God who has brought thee out of the land of Egypt…” [Exo.20:3].

1.       The Identity of Suzerain

The preamble of the ten words: “I am the Lord your God…” [Exo.20:2a].

§  Identifies the Suzerain and that in terms calculated to inspire awe and fear.

a. The Lord

The first part of the identity: “I am the Lord…” [Exo.20:2].

·         אָֽנֹכִ֖י - “I am” [20:2], pronoun 1st person common singular; the ‘one who always is’;

·         יְהוָ֣ה - “Lord” [20:2], ‘the one who always is’; ‘Jehovah’; focus on ‘sure existence’ and ‘presence with his covenant people’ [Exo.3:15];

                                                                                                         i.            A Holy Lord

The holy Lord of Mount Sinai: “lo, I came to you in the thick cloud…” [19:9].

·         The holy Presence: “you shall set bounds unto the people round about…” [19:12].

·         The separation: “there shall not a hand touch it…whether it be beast or man, it shall not live” [19:13].

·         The fear of the Lord: “all the people that was in the camp trembled” [19:16].

b. Your God

The second part of the identity: “I am the Lord your God…” [Exo.20:2].

·         אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ - “your God” [20:2], with 2nd person masculine singular suffix,

                                                                                                         i.            The Self-giving & ‘I AM Here’ God

The self-giving aspect of the identity: by the addition of the self-giving phrase “your God” [20:2].

·         Yahweh can only have become their God by his act of giving himself.

·         The self-giving was in God’s coming down, in God’s commitment to covenant, in God’s salvific actions, and in God now speaking to his covenant partner.


The preamble identifies the Suzerain and that in terms calculated to inspire awe and fear.

2.       The Conquering Saviour

The Suzerain Lord cites the benefits he has bestowed on his vassal, Israel. The theocratic covenant relationship is traced to Yahweh’s redemptive election and deliverance.

a. The Location

The location: “which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt…” [20:2].

·         הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ - “brought you out” [20:2], hiphil perfect, ‘bring out’; ‘carry or bear an object from one place to another’;

·         A reminder of the day of salvation: “I bare you on eagles’ wings and brought you unto myself” [Exo.19:4].

·         מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם - “land of Egypt” [20:2], ‘motion away from’;

b. The Bondage

The bondage: “out of the house of bondage” [20:1].

·         מִבֵּ֣֥ית - “out of house” [20:2], ‘motion away from’;

·         עֲבָדִֽ֑ים - “bondage” [20:2], ‘slave’; ‘one who is owned by another for service’;

·         The King of Egypt: “they made their lives bitter with hard bondage…” [Exo.1:14].

·         The redemption: “thou in thy steadfast love hast led forth the people whom thou hast redeemed…” [Exo.15:13].

c.  The Summary

The prologue introduces the Ten Commandments, a series of principles concerned with relationship with Yahweh and with humankind, by reference to what that relationship meant, thus far, for the people of Israel.

§  Yahweh now is speaking has given himself to them. He has brought them out from Egypt. He has made them who were no people, a people; he has given freedom to those who were slaves.

§  What follows is what the relationship, if it is to be continued, must have from the people. 

§  The speaker is none other than God himself; the people addressed are in special relationship with God; the relationship is one based on God’s powerful and gracious deliverance of this people from slavery.


The point of the introduction is not merely to identify Yahweh, but precisely to establish a relationship between Israel’s experience of deliverance and the obligations that would now be imposed.

§  This element in the document was clearly designed to inspire confidence and gratitude in the vassal and thereby to dispose him to attend to the covenant obligations, which constitute the third element in both Exodus 20 and the international treaties.

§  Thirdly, that these assertions – “I am the Lord your God” – are validated by their completely discontinuous new situation, as a people brought forth from Egypt, and from their non-status of slaves to the status of a people to whom Yahweh has given himself.  

Yahweh’s self-revelation – “God spoke all these words” [20:1] – and Yahweh’s self-giving: “I am the Lord your God…” [20:2].


The first commandment: sole allegiance to the Lord lies at the heart of the covenant relationship. It is the foundation on which everything else rests. The people in practice were to be monotheistic, worshipping only the Lord.

1.       The First Word

The one central demand: the vassal must be exclusively committed to the suzerain ruler…

a. The Personal Address

The word is spoken to each individual in a personal address: “you shall have no other…” [20:3].

§  לְךָ֛֩ - “you” [20:3], preposition with second person masculine singular suffix,

b. The Command

                                                                                                         i.            The Exclusive Devotion  

The first word: “you shall have no other gods…” [20:3].

§  לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־ לְךָ – literally, ‘not it shall be to you’;

§  יִהְיֶֽה – “have” [20:3], qal imperfect, ‘to be’;

§  אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים – “other” [20:3], ‘additional’;

§  לְךָ֛֩ – “to you” [20:3], preposition with masculine singular suffix,

§  אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים – “gods” [20:3],

                                                                                                       ii.            The Ancient World

The exclusive claims of Israel’s God were not paralleled in the religions of the ancient world but in the politics of the time.

§  The great kings of the ancient empires demanded exclusive loyalty of their subject peoples. It was high treason to enter into a relationship with another emperor.

§  This was the focus of the treaty relationships with their vassals, and in a far higher sense it is such exclusive allegiance that is the emphasis of Yahweh’s kingship over his people. In his presence there can be no rival for their affection and service.

§  Yahweh is Israel’s King: “for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them” [1Sam.8:7].

                                                                                                     iii.            The Polytheism

Israel was to live as the people of God surrounded by idolatry and polytheism.

§  They were rescued from the idolatry of Egypt; they were to enter into the land of Canaan.

§  Pagan thought saw no contradiction in the pious seeking to please first one god, and then another as circumstances changed

c.  Traditional Interpretation

The traditional Jewish interpretation of this commandment as a prohibition of idolatry is based on the fact that elsewhere in the Old Testament “other gods” refers not to divine beings as such, but to idols of wood or stone worshipped by other nations.

§  This can be clearly seen in Deuteronomy 28:36: “there you will worship other gods, gods of wood and stone” [Deu.28:36].

§  In this view the commandment is concerned with idolatry…

d. Before Me?

The first word is particularly with reference to: “you shall have no other gods before me” [20:3].

§  פָּנָֽ֗יַ עַל־ – “before me” [20:3], ‘front of head’; ‘in my presence’; ‘upon my face’; 

§  Better to take “before me” [20:3] as ‘in my presence’, ‘when you are in the court of the King’.

§  It is the fundamental tenet of their covenant King that he brooks no rivals.

                                                                                                         i.            The Extent

How far does this exclusiveness reach?

§  The court of Yahweh was not merely the sanctuary or the Promised Land; it embraced the whole world of which he was Creator, as is acknowledged in the fourth commandment and as is expressed poetically by David: “whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend…” [Psa.139:7-12].

§  It means before my face; in my sight; publicly and privately: “cursed be he that makes a graven image and puts it in a secret place” [Deu.27:15].


There is no place where this expectation is invalid, since there is no place from which Yahweh’s presence is barred: “from thy presence whither shall I go…” [Psa.139].

§  The first commandment is the essential foundation for the building of the covenant community.

§  Yahweh had opened himself to a special relationship with Israel, but that relationship could develop only if Israel committed themselves to Yahweh alone. 

§  The next step, if there was to be a net step, belonged to them. If they were to remain in his presence they were not to have other gods.

2.       The Essence of True Christianity

Thomas Watson - ‘this may well lead the van, and be set in front of all the commandments, because its is the foundation of all true religion’;

a. The Summary

Our duties to God in the first four commandments are summarised by the Word of God:

§  The summary given by Moses: “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” [Deu.6:5].

§  The summary repeated by Jesus: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your heart…” [Mat.22:37].

b. The Foundation

According to Calvin, the duties which we owe to God are innumerable, but they seem to admit of being not improperly reduced to four heads:

§  Adoration, with its accessory spiritual submission of conscience. By Adoration, I mean the veneration and worship which we render to him when we do homage to his majesty; and hence I make part of it to consist in bringing our consciences into subjection to his Law. This includes the fear of God, and the accompanying desire to do only that which pleases God: “how shall I do this great wickedness and sin against the Lord” [Gen.39:9].

§  Trust, is secure resting in him under a recognition of his perfections, when, ascribing to him all power, wisdom, justice, goodness, and truth, we consider ourselves happy in having been brought into intercourse with him.

§  Invocation, may be defined the retaking of ourselves to his promised aid as the only resource in every case of need.

§  Thanksgiving, is the gratitude which ascribes to him the praise of all our blessings.


To have God be our God is to enter into solemn covenant with him that he shall be our God: “they entered into a covenant to seek the Lord God of their fathers with all their heart and with all their soul” [2Chr.15:12].

§  To have God to be a God to us is to choose him: “choose you this day whom you will serve…” [Jos.24:15].

§  To have God to be a God to us is to obey him: “if thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, the Lord thy God” [Deu.28:58].



1.         The New Commitment

a. The Mountain Top Experience

                                                                                                         i.            At Sinai

Israel was committed to the Lord when they came to Mount Sinai:

§  The role of the covenant people: “if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant…you shall be to me a kingdom of priests” [Exo19:5-6].

§  The commitment: “all that the Lord has spoken we will do” [Exo.19:8].

                                                                                                       ii.            The Sinai Covenant

Israel was committed to the Lord when the covenant was established at Mount Sinai:

§  The words of the covenant: “Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord…” [Exo.24:3].

§  The commitment: “all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the Lord has said we will do” [Exo.24:3].

b. The Place of Testing

The commitment of Israel to Yahweh was short-lived:

                                                                                                         i.            The Delay  

Moses was delayed on Mount Sinai: “Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights” [Exo.24:18].

§  This delay acted as a time of testing for Israel: “when the people saw that Moses delayed…said unto Aaron, Up, makes us gods…” [Exo32:1].

                                                                                                       ii.            The Broken Commandment

The sin of Israel: “make us gods which will go before us…” [Exo32:1].

§  To “go before” is used of the symbol of God’s presence: “my angel shall go before you…” [23:23]; “my angel shall go before thee…” [32:34].

§  Israel desires a substitute which betrays that they had failed to grasp the uniqueness of Yahweh: “you shall have no other gods before me” [Exo.20:3].

                                                                                                     iii.            The Wrath of God

The wrath of Yahweh: “for I will not go up in the midst of thee…lest I consume thee in the way” [Exo.33:3].

§  The guilty people: “you are a stiff-necked people; I will come up in the midst of thee for a moment and consume thee” [Exo.33:5].


2.       The Atonement  

a. The Altar

When the Ten Commandments were given as the seal of the covenant agreement between God and his covenant people at Sinai, there was a sacrifice:

§  The sacrifice inaugurated and established the covenant: “neither was the first covenant dedicated without blood…” [Heb.9:18].

§  The blood of sacrifice was sprinkled on the altar, on the law, and on the people: “Moses took half the blood and sprinkled it on the altar…” [Exo.24:6-8].

§  Israel’s worship centred on sacrifice as the substitute for sinners: “he shall go in unto the altar that is before the Lord, and make an atonement for it; and shall take the blood of the bullock and the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar round about” [Lev.16:18].

b. The Reconciled Presence of God

‘The present structure assures Israel of God’s continued presence before and after the rebellion at Mount Sinai [23:20-23; 33:12-16].

§  The glory-cloud filing the tabernacle was proof positive that the covenant with Israel was confirmed, even though the people were known to be sinful and rebellious by nature.

§  Yahweh’s love, forgiveness, and patience triumphed over their sin and need of restoration’ [Van Gemeren, 137].

§  One consequence of Yahweh dwelling with Israel is that Israel must move as God moves [Exo.40:36-38].



Thomas Watson - ‘the moral law is a glass to show us our sins, that, seeing our pollution and misery, we may be forced to flee to Christ to satisfy for former guilt, and to save from future wrath’ [Gal.3:24].

1.       The Mountain Top Experience

a. The Transfiguration

The mountain-top experience of the transfiguration: “leads them apart up into a high mountain, and he was transfigured before them” [Mar.9:2].

§  The representatives: “there appeared unto them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus” [Mar.9:4].

b. The Presence of God

The glory of God descended on the mountain: “there was a cloud that overshadowed them…” [Mar.9:7].

§  The message from the Presence: “a voice came out of the cloud saying…” [Mar.9:7].

c.  The Message

                                                                                                         i.            The Son of God

The voice identifies Jesus as God’s Son: “This is my beloved Son…” [Mar.9:7].

§  The message: “Listen to him” [Mar.9:7].

                                                                                                       ii.            The Topic

The topic of discussion: “The Son of man must suffer many things…” [Mar.9:12].

§  The new exodus: “who appeared in glory, and spoke of his exodus which he should accomplish at Jerusalem” [Luk.9:31].

§  The first exodus: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” [Exo.20:2].


The topic under discussion is the real meaning of the first exodus under Moses.

§  The failure of the old covenant due to the unfaithfulness of the people is dealt with in the new exodus at the cross: “he takes away the first, that he may establish the second” [Heb.10:9].

§  Through the cross, Jesus is “the new and living way, which he has consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh” [Heb.10:20].

2.       The Divine Son

The first commandment demands devotion to the one true God as it is expressed in devotion to the Son, who alone shows us the Father

a. The Person

We meet with Jesus who is himself God: “in the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God” [Joh.1:1].

§  Jesus is God: “no one has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has revealed him” [Joh.1:18].

§  We see God in Jesus: “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” [2Cor.4:4].

                                                                                                         i.            Jesus’ Claims

Jesus claims identity with God throughout his ministry:

§  Jesus reveals the I AM God in the fullest possible way: “before Abraham was, I AM” [Joh.8:58].

§  He is equal with God: “I and my Father are one” [Joh.10:30].

§  There is a mutual indwelling: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” [Joh.14:11].

b. The New Covenant

                                                                                                         i.            The Work

When the Ten Commandments were given as the seal of the covenant agreement between God and his covenant people at Sinai, the blood of sacrifice was sprinkled on the altar, on the law, and on the people: “Moses took half the blood and sprinkled it on the altar…” [Exo.24:6-8].

§  Israel’s worship centred on sacrifice as the substitute for sinners: “without the shedding of blood there is no remission” [Heb.9:22].

                                                                                                       ii.            The Suffering Servant

Isaiah picks up the theme of sacrifice in his prophecy of the suffering Servant: “you shall make his soul an offering for sin…” [53:10].

§  The substitutionary sacrifice: “he was wounded for our transgressions…by his stripes we are healed” [53:5].

§  Jesus, God the Son in his human nature, can alone pay the infinite price of our redemption: “behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world” [Joh.1:29].

§  Jesus claims the identity of God by doing the saving work that only God could do: “I am the good shepherd…” [Joh.10:11]; “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them” [Eze.34:11].


3.       The New Covenant Response

a. The Worship

In “hearing” [Mar.9:7] the Lord Jesus we honour the first commandment, for in worshipping him we worship the one and only true God, who delivers us from Egypt and from the captivity of our sin. 

§  Conversely, anyone who fails to worship Christ cannot be worshipping the one true God.

§  Jesus claims the worship due only to God: “we are in him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” [1Joh.5:20b-21].

§  The example of Jesus: “you shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” [Mat.4:10].

§  The life of worship: “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” [Rom.12:1].

b. The Love

In the Son of God we see the true character of God: “brightness of his glory and the express image of his person…” [Heb.1:3].

§  The love of God: “this is love, that God loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” [1Joh.4:10].

§  The love of Jesus: “greater love has no man that this, that he should lay down his life for his friends” [Joh.15:13].

§  The personal nature of God’s love: “he loved me and gave himself for me” [Gal.2:20].

§  The response of adoration and love: “we love him because he first loved us” [1Joh.4:19].


‘Love so amazing, so divine, requires my life, my heart, my all’

§  We know love because the Father, in his love, gave his Son, not only in Bethlehem but at Calvary.

§  ‘The flame of our love is kindled at Calvary’ [Clowney, 21].

§  The God of modern Christendom, a kind and tolerant figure, who saves all who are sincere, is likewise an idol which cannot be reconciled with the God who has made himself known in the Bible (Love Rules).

Link to Isaac Watt hymns:


Crucifixion to the world by the cross of Christ. Gal. 6:14

When I survey the wondrous crossOn which the Prince of glory died,My richest gain I count but loss,And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,Save in the death of Christ my God!All the vain things that charm me most,I sacrifice them to his blood.

See from his head, his hands, his feet,Sorrow and love flow mingled down!Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,Or thorns compose so rich a crown!

[His dying crimson, like a robe,Spreads o'er his body on the tree:Then am I dead to all the globe,And all the globe is dead to me.]

Were the whole realm of nature mine,That were a present far too small;Love so amazing, so divine,Demands my soul, my life, my all.


1.       The Catechisms

a. The Shorter Catechism

The writings of the Shorter Catechism:

Q. 46. What is required in the first commandment?

A. The first commandment requires us to know and acknowledge God to be the only true God, and our God; and to worship and glorify him accordingly [a].

[a]. I Chron. 28:9; Isa. 45:20-25; Matt. 4:10

Q. 47. What is forbidden in the first commandment?

A. The first commandment forbids the denying [a], or not worshipping and glorifying the true God as God [b], and our God [c]; and the giving of that worship and glory to any other, which is due to him alone [d].

Q. 48. What are we specially taught by these words, "before me," in the first commandment?

A. These words, before me, in the first commandment teach us, that God, who sees all things, takes notice of, and is much displeased with, the sin of having any other God [a].

[a]. Deut. 30:17-18; Ps. 44:20-21; Ezek. 8:12

b. The Larger Catechism

The writings of the Larger Catechism:

Question 104:  What are the duties required in the first commandment?

Answer:  The duties required in the first commandment are, the knowing and acknowledging of God to be the only true God, and our God; and to worship and glorify him accordingly, by thinking, meditating, remembering, highly esteeming, honouring, adoring, choosing, loving, desiring, fearing of him; believing him; trusting, hoping, delighting, rejoicing in him; being zealous for him; calling upon him, giving all praise and thanks, and yielding all obedience and submission to him with the whole man; being careful in all things to please him, and sorrowful when in anything he is offended; and walking humbly with him.

Question 105:  What are the sins forbidden in the first commandment?

Answer:  The sins forbidden in the first commandment are, atheism, in denying or not having a God; idolatry, in having or worshiping more gods than one, or any with or instead of the true God; the not having and avouching him for God, and our God; the omission or neglect of anything due to him, required in this commandment; ignorance, forgetfulness, misapprehensions, false opinions, unworthy and wicked thoughts of him; bold and curious searching into his secrets; all profaneness, hatred of God; self-love, self-seeking, and all other inordinate and immoderate setting of our mind, will, or affections upon other things, and taking them off from him in whole or in part; vain credulity, unbelief, heresy, misbelief, distrust, despair, incorrigibleness, and insensibleness under judgments, hardness of heart, pride, presumption, carnal security, tempting of God; using unlawful means, and trusting in lawful means; carnal delights and joys; corrupt, blind, and indiscreet zeal; lukewarmness, and deadness in the things of God; estranging ourselves, and apostatizing from God; praying, or giving any religious worship, to saints, angels, or any other creatures; all compacts and consulting with the devil, and hearkening to his suggestions; making men the lords of our faith and conscience; slighting and despising God and his commands; resisting and grieving of his Spirit, discontent and impatience at his dispensations, charging him foolishly for the evils he inflicts on us; and ascribing the praise of any good we either are, have, or can do, to fortune, idols, ourselves, or any other creature.

Question 106:  What are we specially taught by these words before me in the first commandment?

Answer:  These words before me, or before my face, in the first commandment, teach us, that God, who sees all things, takes special notice of, and is much displeased with, the sin of having any other God:  that so it may be an argument to dissuade from it, and to aggravate it as a most impudent provocation:  as also to persuade us to do as in his sight,:  Whatever we do in his service.

2.       Calvin’s Institutes

The comments of John Calvin in his introduction to the Ten Commandments:

§  God thus divided his Law into two parts, containing a complete rule of righteousness, that he might assign the first place to the duties of religion which relate especially to His worship, and the second to the duties of charity which have respect to man.

§  The first foundation of righteousness undoubtedly is the worship of God. When it is subverted, all the other parts of righteousness, like a building rent asunder, and in ruins, are racked and scattered. What kind of righteousness do you call it, not to commit theft and rapine, if you, in the meantime, with impious sacrilege, rob God of his glory? or not to defile your body with fornication, if you profane his holy name with blasphemy? or not to take away the life of man, if you strive to cut off and destroy the remembrance of God? It is vain, therefore, to talk of righteousness apart from religion. Such righteousness has no more beauty than the trunk of a body deprived of its head. Nor is religion the principal part merely: it is the very soul by which the whole lives and breathes. Without the fear of God, men do not even observe justice and charity among themselves. We say, then, that the worship of God is the beginning and foundation of righteousness; and that wherever it is wanting, any degree of equity, or continence, or temperance, existing among men themselves, is empty and frivolous in the sight of God.

§  We call it the source and soul of righteousness, in as much as men learn to live together temperately, and without injury, when they revere God as the judge of right and wrong. In the First Table, accordingly, he teaches us how to cultivate piety, and the proper duties of religion in which his worship consists; in the second, he shows how, in the fear of his name, we are to conduct ourselves towards our fellow-men. Hence, as related by the Evangelists, (Matthew 22:37; Luke 10:27,) our Saviour summed up the whole Law in two heads, viz., to love the Lord with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength, and our neighbour as ourselves. You see how, of the two parts under which he comprehends the whole Law, he devotes the one to God, and assigns the other to mankind.



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