You shall have no other gods before me.
Exodus 20:3-6. These two commandments are complementary: one God only to be worshipped, one way only in which to worship him. Consider: -
I. THE FIRST COMMANDMENT.
1. How Israel would understand it. "No foreign god in opposition to me." The natural idea would be that Jehovah was one amongst many deities; that possibly, away from Egypt, some other god might have higher authority (cf. 2 Kings 18:33-35). In any case it would be hard to realise that he was more than God of gods; others might be inferior to him, but surely they might claim an inferior worship. All such notions are set aside at once. Whether there are other gods or no, all such must be Jehovah's enemies; to offer them worship of any kind was to be disloyal to Jehovah, and to break the covenant.
2. How it applies to ourselves. Polytheism, a thing of the past! In theory perhaps, but how about our practice? Obedience is the best evidence of worship; our God is he by reference to whom we govern our conduct, and regulate our actions. Illustrate from the case of the man whose life is given to the pursuit of wealth - wealth is practically his deity; or the case of one whose conduct is regulated by constant reference to public opinion; wealth, public opinion, and the like may be nothing more than personified abstractions, none the less we may serve them far more consistently than we serve God. Such service is worship, worship of an alien deity; it involves disloyalty to Jehovah, and enrols us amongst the forces of his foes. Quite as easy for us to break this commandment as it was for Israel; it needs to be reiterated in our ears no less persistently than it was in their ears.
II. THE SECOND COMMANDMENT. As the first has to do with the object of worship, so this has to do with the manner of worship. An image degrades the ideal, it can only present God, and that imperfectly, under one out of many aspects. One image of God alone is adequate (Colossians 1:15). To the Jew, this second commandment was a fence to guard the empty shrine, which shrine could only receive its occupant when "the Word was made flesh" at the incarnation of our Lord. Notice: -
1. The effect of braking the commandment. Degrading the God worshipped, it led on naturally to the degradation of the worshipper, and through the worshipper his posterity was affected, so as to become yet more degraded. Who could have a better excuse than Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, for breaking the commandment? Who could have broken it more carefully? Considerations of utility seemed to justify him. He might have argued that the first commandment was all-important, and that to ensure respect for it he must tamper with the second. None the less the effect was manifest (2 Kings 17:22, 23). The sin of Jeroboam was the ruin of his people.
2. The bearing of the commandment on ourselves. Christ has come. The empty shrine is filled. We possess the true image, and can worship God in Christ. "But Christ, you say, is unseen; thoughts wander in prayer, I need some object by which to fix them, some symbol upon which they may stay themselves and rest." The excuse is plausible; but it is the same excuse as a Jew in old times might have offered. A man may use, as good men have used, the crucifix, e.g., as an aid to devotion. But the crucifix, or any other symbol, is utterly inadequate; it shows Christ only under one aspect: we must worship him in all his fulness if we take him as the image of the invisible Jehovah. To confine our thoughts to Calvary is to limit, and by limiting to degrade the ideal. The crucifix has much to answer for in narrowing men's views, and making their religion one-sided and incomplete. For a Christian to obey the second commandment, he must worship Christ in all his fulness. Only so can he worship God with that pure worship which is alone acceptable.
"Show me not only Jesus dying,
As on the cross he bled,
Nor in the tomb a captive lying,
For he has left the dead.
Not only in that form suspended,
My Saviour bid me see;
For to the highest heavens ascended,
He reigns in majesty!" - G.
Parallel VersesKJV: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.