The Lord Alone 3

What does “You shall have no other gods before me” mean? Are there any reliable or insightful indicators when we have crossed the line of this command? Or, as too many have suggested, is this really only about being a monotheist — a person who thinks there’s only one God? Are we assaulted with temptations to other gods today?

Patrick Miller’s new book, The Ten Commandments: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church, is an exceptional study of the Ten Commandments. A gifted Old Testament scholar and a churchman, Miller gives us a book that is eminently useful in the church.

The “this is not to happen” element is the easy part.

Miller cuts to the chase immediately when he examines the four dimensions of “before Me.”

No god is to be “in front of me” or “alongside me” [in worship, devotion] or “instead of me” [replacing me] or “competing with me” [in hostile confrontation].

And there are many who strive for that place in our devotion: “no other gods” is plural. Thus, “Those other realities, single or multiple, may not take the place of the Lord, may not come before the Lord, may not be set alongside the Lord as objects of equal devotion, may not be placed in conflict with our devotion to the Lord” (20).

What might they be? Fame, power, reputation, money, status, pleasure, things, work, success, time.

There are important connections here: One way this is all expressed in the Old Testament is with the word “follow”: Israel was tempted to “follower after” other gods (Deut 6:14; 8:19; 11:28; 13:2). So, the First Commandment is about “following God.”

Another connection is that the specifics of this following involve fear, keeping commandments, obedience, serving and holding fast. Read this from Deut 13:4:

It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.

But this list of elements of following after the Lord God of Israel is an expression of loving God. Deut 13:3 reads:

The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.

Thus, it can be said with clear biblical support that “having no other gods before me” is prohibiting “not loving” others and implicitly enjoining upon Israel to love God with everything they’ve got.

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  • Susan N.

    This is the hardest commandment to keep. Selling one’s soul to any one of the “other gods” of money/stuff, fame/popularity, power/status/success, or pleasure leads in no time to breaking the commandments directed at loving one’s neighbor well. There’s no conflict in loving God and loving others. However, loving other gods precipitates selfish acts of injustice against one’s neighbor, it would seem to me. Those “other gods” are a slippery slope… This commandment is so hard not only because our human nature tends to be self-oriented in the first place, but also because living in the West, it requires an enormous amount of intentional effort to resist, be countercultural, and not get sucked into that dog-eat-dog, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses lifestyle–which, needless to say, is all-consuming. Been there, done that, once upon a time. As is pointed out in One.Life, all those pursuits won’t satisfy the need for God to occupy the #1 place in one’s heart! Really, God’s way is best all along.

  • I often marvel at Jesus’ thrice-repeated call to display our love for him by our obedience to him (John 14:15, 21, 23). Maybe, just maybe, there’s some linkage with Deut 13:3-4 and the old and the new are really the one … message?

  • I wrote a take on this:

    “. . . Why do we need idols? I think it’s part of our culture. To let go of many of them would mean stepping back from the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed. . . ”

    As westerners, we hold on tight.

  • Taylor G

    Well said Susan N. I also think this is the hardest commandment. It seems to me if you can keep the first one the rest should follow pretty easily–maybe that’s why Jesus shortened them a bit in the NT.

    I think anything that distracts us from our God assigned missions in this life violates the first commandment. John Ortberg calls these shadow missions. It’s different for all of us but we all have one or more that get in the way.

  • Perhaps the one idol that handicaps a good majority of folks is “comparison.” We compare our level of faith, or depth of devotion, our love of God based on what we see in others. Or…we measure another person’s love and devotion based on what we have established as an appropriate yardstick for what is spiritual and Christ-like. Like an internal sonar system, we’re constantly sending out signals to bounce off other people to see how we measure up – or how they measure up.

    Several years ago in a Bible Study class I was teaching one of the folks chided people who did not come and participate in the pre-service prayer meeting. The accusation was simple == If you did not want to come and pray then you did not love God deeply enough. The idol of self-righteousness stood proudly on the mantel of her heart.

  • I suppose as someone who has actually lived and followed other religions, I’ve always found the evangelical characterization of things like “Fame, power, reputation, money, status, pleasure, things, work, success, time” as “gods” a little silly.

    (And hi Scot. I lost track of the blog for a while when it moved. And then for a while Patheos didn’t want to let me comment. Don’t know why. I had tried several times before my last attempt that went through. Hopefully this one will too.)

    Yes, it is wrong to focus on our pleasure and desires rather than on God. And yes, any of those can become passions that rule and consume us. (‘Passions’ in the patristic sense, that is.) But while some of them actually have been personified and worshiped in the past as gods, I don’t believe that’s what most Americans are doing. There are category differences between worship, being consumed by a passion, and focusing on yourself and your own goals and pleasures. I don’t think trying to mix them all together is particular helpful in the wrong. Nobody ‘accidentally’ worships a different god. Worship is always a deliberate, willful act. When you worship, whatever and whoever you choose to worship, you know what you are doing. I’ve never met a person for whom that wasn’t true.

    With that said, strictly speaking the ancient Israelites weren’t monotheists. They were commanded to be henotheists. That’s obvious because they clearly believed other gods existed. They kept worshiping them after all. Monotheism (the belief there is only one God) was relatively late developing. God worked with what he had. He began by commanding them not to worship other gods and built from there. By the time of the NT, the sense is clearly that Israel’s God is the only true God and moreover (from Jesus) that he is the God for all the nations. But you don’t get there from the original commandment alone.

  • T

    Scott (6),

    I think whether you look at the arguments highlighted in the post, or even Paul’s equating of greed with idolatry, it seems not only accurate, but helpful to talk about “passions” that displace or even take an equal place with God as idolatry.

  • Rick Bennett

    My thoughts are drawn to identity. How do I identify myself tells a lot about who I follow and who my gods are.

    I think things like race, sexuality and political party could be considered as well as these types of gods. If I follow Democratic or Republican party line, talking points and interpretation of Christianity, am I not breaking the first commandment?

  • T, I’ll grant that covetousness, or greed, or ‘mammon’ is granted the status of a false god by both Jesus and Paul. But if anything, I think that helps make my general point. If you read Colossians 3:5 (and following), for instance, Paul lists quite a few things which were just as much a problem then as now. Only greed is called idolatry. Same thing with Jesus. Whether in his parables or in the SotM, he discusses a great many things that form barriers in our healing and union with God and others. Out of the ways we miss the mark though, only Mammon is personified.

    I still think it’s a category mistake to over-generalize in this area.

  • I guess I just don’t ask the question, “What does “You shall have no other gods before me” mean?” Having actually done it throughout much of my childhood and most of my early adult life, the answer seems self-evident to me. When I place the command into its historical context, it’s also pretty obvious to me what God was doing as he called the Israelites. And then, when I view the command through the lens of Christ, I see that it was a shadow of the reality we see in Jesus of Nazareth. The God we see in him is the only true God — not one among many and the God who called and rescued a particular people was really the one God of all the nations (even though they didn’t know it or acknowledge him) who was acting to ultimately rescue the whole of mankind.

    Especially now that T brought it up, a more interesting question to me is why greed or covetousness is raised to the level of idolatry when sex, power, gluttony, anger, and all the rest are not? What is it about greed that personifies it as a god and when does it reach that level? I’ve worshiped and believed many things, but though I’m hardly free from the desire for stuff, greed has not really been one of those things. I’ve been among the poorest in our nation and I’ve been more comfortable. While I certainly prefer the latter, money does not feel to me like it’s in the same category as the worship of other gods. So what is it about greed that sets it apart? What makes it more like a god than a vice?

  • T


    I think the answer to your question undermines your thesis that we can’t and don’t idolize many common things. The reality is that money is often an idol without any religiousity at all, without any formal or religious type of “worship” or even any personification of money by the worshiper/servant. Idolatry/worship of money (or of anything else) is functional and practical; it’s about basic issues of what we trust and/or love most. When we trust money more than God to take care of us, when we have greater hope and faith in money and it’s power than in God and his power, when we spend more energy on seeking it than God, when our minds and/or desires are set on the things of this world that money can buy rather than set on Christ and what he values, we are idolaters of money. These are the relevant and practical questions, they involve our real beliefs about who/what can or will come through for us. Worship and service go hand in hand. Service is the unavoidable consequence of worship/fear. To worship or fear anyone or thing more than God is going to lead to serving that thing more than God. That’s idolatry.

  • Jon G

    I posted this late on the last installment of this thread, but for a great sermon on the “10 Commandments” check out this talk from John Ortberg given this last Sunday.

    It was called “You’re Not the Boss of Me” and the date was January 23rd, 2011.

  • T

    To put it more succinctly, “gods” get loyalty and service because of their perceived or actual power to do something we value or prevent something we fear. We can become fiercely loyal and even enslaved to many things or even people with such power (Even God says to people, “I say, ‘You are gods.'”), and having such a relationship with anyone or thing that isn’t God is idolatry.

  • “To worship or fear anyone or thing more than God is going to lead to serving that thing more than God. That’s idolatry.”

    I understand that’s your point and one I hear commonly made, particularly among evangelicals. The problem, though, is not simply that it doesn’t correspond to my experience, though it doesn’t. The problem is that that’s not what Jesus and Paul say. That’s why I referred to Col. 3. Out of a very long list of things people pursued, feared, or ‘worshiped’ (in the sense you’re using), some of which are even reflected in the list in the post above, the *only* one he says is idolatry is greed. Certainly the people in Colossae would have been very familiar with various ancient cults, including the emperor cult. Some of them, at least, would have been converted from those cults. They would have been even more familiar with what the worship of other gods meant than me. Paul does not tell them that pursuing or being consumed by anything other than God is a form of idolatry. He does give them a long list of examples of things they need to ‘put off.’ But he only calls greed idolatry.

    I don’t see his point — except that it correlates to the things Jesus said, but presumably he expected the church to whom he sent his epistle to grasp it. (Or maybe the one who carried the letter was better prepared to explain it.) I don’t see that his point is the sort of generalization you’re making. I can’t think of a reason Paul wouldn’t have generalized if that had been his point. It’s been a long time for me, but I have a vague memory of one or both of the two Gregorys(?) talking about greed as the second idolatry or something like that.

    At any rate, I stand by overall point. You don’t accidentally ‘worship’ something. As a human being, if you are engaged in anything that deserves the description ‘worship’ you know what you’re doing.

  • Jon G

    I think it would be helpful to view your “god” as what you center your life around. What demands your attention, loyalty, time, etc. And pinning these “gods” down can work itself out like moving from larger to smaller concentric circles.

    So, for instance, you may notice a person who is very stingy with his money. He focuses day and night on accumulating it, keeping it, etc. On one level you might say he serves the god of money. Digging deeper, you may learn that his love of money stems from impoverished childhood where his family barely made ends meet and often had to move into less and less desirable living arrangements. So you could say his love for money stemmed from a sort of need for stability/security. Moving further yet, you might come to learn that this person’s interest is in looking out for #1 because he realizes that if he doesn’t, nobody else will. His ROOT god is self-preservation/self-fullfillment. Ultimately, he is SELF-CENTERED. His god is himself. This is, obviously, a simplistic illustration of a complex process, but you get the drift.

    The alternative, is to place something/somebody else at the center of our lives – to have a different god. Doing so changes all the concentric circles as you move outward. I believe that is what God is doing when He gives us a “new heart”. He is refocusing our center point, and our attitudes and motivations towards new goals will be shifted.

    Tim Keller does an amazing job of explaining this theme in “Counterfeit Gods” (my favorite of his books). In it, he relies heavily on Augustine who says that you can’t break any of commandments 2-10 without first breaking #1. If God is at the center of our lives, we will love what He loves and doing so demands following the other commandments. Falling short means that we have something else at our center.

  • I’m also familiar with the metaphor of that which lies at the center of a person. Personally, of the people I’ve read, I think Lesslie Newbigin did the best job with it.

    In most circumstances, though, I don’t agree that generally equates to worship or to idolatry. One of our problems is that we do not keep our lives oriented in Christ. The purpose of most of the disciplines and activities of Christian belief, practice, and worship is to heal us and bring us ever more into Christ. My focus or center can shift a thousand times a day. In fact, it tends to be oriented around whatever I am intent on doing at the moment. Though I need to bring that back to Christ through set prayer, the Jesus Prayer, other breath prayers, or through any of a number of other means, I don’t agree that each of those instances equates to idolatry. That so trivializes the idea of worshiping other gods (or having other gods before the one, true God) that the idea of idolatry becomes effectively meaningless.

    Yes, there are a host of ways we miss the mark or fall short. But I would say the spiritual maxim, that we become like what we worship, is true. Idolatry is not merely falling short of the mark. It’s a deliberate turning toward another mark and through active participation working to reshape yourself in a different image. Since our only true humanity is found in Christ, in a sense it’s an effort to become an ex-human being.

  • T


    A couple of things. First, I don’t know if it matters which label we stick on a destructive pattern at the end of the day, which is good. Second, your understanding is doing two things I find problematic, and they seem related: one, your understanding of idolatry doesn’t allow you to see how greed in the normal sense is idolatry as Paul does. Second, you’ve focused on the personification by Jesus of money as the sole indicator that he’s describing idolatry without expressly using the term. To reconcile Paul and Jesus, it would seem that the other things Jesus points out in his ‘mammon’ teachings are the critical points, namely, the ‘treasuring’ dynamic and the related loyalty and service that follows. Again, Paul talks generally about making good use of the things of this world without becoming attached to any. He talks about being “mastered” by nothing. Further and significantly, even though Jesus personifies money in many of his teachings, there is no indication that the Jews idolizing money to whom he was speaking were doing so. The Pharisees certainly would not have “worshiped” money in the religious sense, but it seems clear in several passages that his teachings on money intentionally cast them as among the guilty. In any case I find it difficult that he was only speaking to those Jews, if any, who were actually worshipping money in some religious way. His intended scope seems much larger. It seems that the personification by Jesus of money to “mammon” was to make the very point that this common and much treasured/sought thing was functioning in exaclty the same way as the named idols in Israel’s history. Once function becomes the real issue, the reason for money to be singled out is that it is, by definition, the thing most easily translated into whatever “thing of the world” we most prefer. Cash is “king” of the world idols; it is the symbol and means to all the things of the world.

  • Jon G

    I agree wholeheartedly with T (#17).

    Scott (#16) I think you are saying similar things to what we are saying in terms of what we need to center on, and yet you are not able to make the same leap in terms of giving it a name (idolatry/worship). We idolize what is at our center. We worship that which we find most important to us. Idolatry is worshipping something in the place of God…whatever that something happens to be (money, sex, power, etc.).

    At our center, we SHOULD have God. That was how He designed us so that we could properly reflect His image. When we commit idolatry, we put something else in God’s place at our center and begin to reflect the image of that “god”. We worship it, we sacrifice for it, we let it control us.

    I absolutely agree with you that our centers change, even daily (mine certainly does) but that is because I have two gods competing for my center (me and GOD). Progressive sanctification is the process in which God moves into that center while pushing me out of it. Still, until that is complete, there will be a back and forth recentering.

  • AHH

    The thread sort of got diverted into semantics, but I think Scot’s question of what common modern idols for Christians (and churches) are is a good one to think about, and I would nominate several others that he did not mention:
    – Country (especially but not exclusively in the US where “God and Country” are often put on equal footing and/or welded together)
    – The American Dream (implied in some of Scot’s list)
    – The ideal family (marriage with no struggles and 2-4 well-behaved kids)
    – The Bible (in some more fundamentalist expressions of the faith)
    – Political philosophies, whether it be the Ayn Rand views of the right or socialism on the left
    – Health, fitness, beauty, youth (I once titled a teaching “Golden Calves and 6-Pack Abs: Idolatry Then and Now”)
    – Human understanding and control (the Enlightenment dream, I plead guilty here)