"You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me"

The first of God’s fundamental Ten Commandments to Israel was, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Modern English readers might easily assume that “before” in that sentence means “ahead of” or “in preference to,” and so understand this verse to teach that nothing in our lives should take precedence over God. But that thought, true though it is, doesn’t fully capture the meaning of the instruction here.

The phrase “before Me” is literally “before My face,” a Hebrew idiom equivalent to “besides Me” or “in addition to Me.” The point, then, is not just that Israel must honor no other god above Jehovah, but that they must honor no other god at all. “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (verse 5). The first commandment was a demand for absolute allegiance. Jehovah is not content to be one among a pantheon of gods, even if He is regarded as the greatest, because that does not reflect reality. He alone is God, and any other god, by definition, is false. “God was in effect saying that anytime Israel turned to a false god they had to know that the Lord was there—it is always in his presence, or before him” (NET Bible textual notes).

For a rather imperfect analogy, think of it this way: When Sara and I married, I made a vow “to keep myself to her and her alone.” That wasn’t just a promise to have no other partner above her, but to have no other partner at all. If we can understand that, then we can understand the meaning of Exodus 20:3. As God told Israel through the prophet Hosea, “I have been the Lord your God since the land of Egypt; and you were not to know any god except Me” (13:4).

Israel struggled with this very problem time and time again. They tolerated or embraced the worship of false gods and goddesses alongside the true God. Sometimes they honored those phony deities above God. And sometimes they even seemed to forget God entirely. From the wilderness journey, to the days of the judges, to the twilight of Solomon’s reign, to the era of the divided kingdom, they repeatedly succumbed to the temptation to make Jehovah just one god among many. This, even though the Lord proved over and over—through prophecy, providence, and miracles—not just that He is the best god, but that He is the only God.

Though I may not face the temptation to literal pagan idol worship, I still need to hear this instruction. Because whatever I allow to become the guiding, motivating, controlling force of my life becomes my god. Even if I continue to honor the true God to some degree. That other thing—whether it is wealth, addiction, power, comfort, or something else—has divided my allegiance and become a rival to God, and thus an abomination. “No one can serve two masters,” said Jesus, “for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24). The rival master envisioned in that passage is money, but the words are just as true of anything else. “You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only” (Matthew 4:10; cf. Deuteronomy 6:13).

God said, “You shall have no other gods before My face.” Let’s see to it that we don’t.