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.