Previously, we discovered the purpose of the Law together. The Law was given as a sign of the covenant that God made with the people of Israel for the purpose of serving as a witness against the people. In this sense, the Law was given in order that sin, which was already present, would be exposed. So, as we read through the Law (especially the Ten Commandments), we read with the expectation that we will fall under great conviction. Since we live in a world that has not yet been fully restored and since we ourselves are still being sanctified, we should expect that the Law will point out the insufficiencies in our own lives.
Thus, we arrive at the first and second commands that serve as a sign of God’s covenant with Israel.
Exodus 20:1-6 HCSB
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.
Do not have other gods besides Me.
Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the fathers’ sin, to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing faithful love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commands.
God’s purpose and promise
The Israelites had come out of the land of Egypt, where many gods were worshipped (including Pharaoh himself). The creation story of the Egyptian culture was very different from the one that Moses gave in Genesis 1-3. In fact, one of the reasons I think Moses began with creation was because the story of the Egyptians was so prominent. In the Egyptian story, the ‘father’ god, Atum, created himself out of chaos. Atum then created other, lesser, gods to order the chaos. One day two of Atum’s children got lost and he sent his all-seeing eye to find them. When they returned, Atum wept because of his joy and his tear drops sank into the ground and grew into human people. As human people worshipped the gods, the gods would bless them. So it was that the Egyptians, and perhaps some of the Hebrews, would worship the gods in order to earn the favor of the gods.
The creation story we see in Genesis, that was written down for the people after they were delivered from Egypt, stands in stark contrast to the Egyptian story. God never began to exist and is the originator of all things (unlike Atum who was born out of chaos). God created the material universe and has control over all of the natural phenomena (unlike Atum who created other gods to bring order). While Atum was depicted as passively creating people, God is depicted as actively creating humanity in His own image. According to the Egyptian story, people worshipped the gods in order to earn their favor. Moses wrote, in Genesis 3, that even when people fail God, God still has great grace toward them because He does not depend on people like the supposed gods of the Egyptians. This idea that the one, true and holy God, the creator of all things, the all-powerful, the all-knowing, and the all-gracious God is better than any god that could possibly be designed by people presents itself not only in the creation story, but in the first line of the Law.
We have already discovered together that God is working to accomplish His purpose, the purpose that He has had from the foundation of the world. In Genesis 15, God chose Abraham and made him a promise. His descendants would inherit the land of Canaan and all nations would be blessed through them. In the very first line of this law, which served as a sign of the covenant God made with Israel, God clarifies something very important for us. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.”
God started His Law not by telling people what they had to do, but by reminding people of what He had already done. God reminded the Israelites that He was fulfilling His purpose and His promise. Before giving the Law, God had already delivered the Israelites from the nation of Egypt. He did not depend on them, nor did He require their worship to issue His blessings.
In Egypt, there was a profusion of worship to a multitude of gods. We might think about this in the context of the book of Exodus as a whole. The people of Egypt believed that worshipping their gods earned them the blessing of the gods. Yet, their worship of their gods did not save them from the plagues we see in the beginning of the Exodus story. Their gods did not secure their land or defeat the God of Israel. The Israelites witnessed God, the I AM, out maneuver and overpower the plethora of false Egyptian gods. Through Moses, God spoke to the Israelites and reminded them that the Egyptian gods could not hold them. He chose them and He delivered them. No longer would they be in the bondage of Egypt.
This is the very first thing that we discover as we actually break into the Law: God looks upon us, not because of what we have done, but because of what God has done for us. The Egyptians had to earn the favor of their false gods. God comforted His people by delivering them even though they could not earn His favor. It was God who gave His favor according to His choice to fulfill a promise that He made to accomplish His purpose.
This revelation ought to shed some light on the way in which we view our own spirituality. William Elkins Jr. has this to say about the way we see ourselves: “We tend to evaluate our faith based on what we have done for God instead of what God has done for us.”
If we ever prop ourselves up based on the things that we have done or gauge our spiritual maturity by the things that we have accomplished in the faith, then we are worshipping a god that is more like the Egyptian gods than like the true God. If we worship God, we recognize that we did nothing to earn His blessing. It is to recognize that no matter how much we accomplish, we can never boast in ourselves. It is God who, in His great mercy and in His great grace, has delivered us and allowed us a place of service in His kingdom. As we take time to look into this mirror called the Law, we come to notice that we do prop ourselves (and others) up on our accomplishments. The Law reminds us that God is the one who delivers and that God is the one who gives His blessing. He does not depend on us, that we might earn those gifts. This is both humbling and encouraging for us. God is not like the false gods of Egypt. This brings us to the first instruction given in the law.
No other gods
God first gave His grace, then He gave His instruction so that sin would be exposed. “Do not have any other gods besides me.”
Of course, the issue being exposed, here, was the worship of the false Egyptian gods. As we have already mentioned, the people would worship the gods in order to earn their blessing and have a prosperous life. After coming out of Egypt, this is the first instruction God gives in His Law.
Considering this, we have to ask ourselves why the people worshipped this pantheon of false gods in Egypt. They did so to earn blessing. We see this play out in Exodus 32. Moses is taking so long receiving the Law from God that the Israelites begin to worry that they will not be successful. They craft a golden calf as and idol and made sacrifices to it. They wanted success. For us to have a god other than God, in this sense then, is to worship something else in order that we might receive blessing or have success. These false gods in our own context look different than in the context of Israel at this time. We worship money, thinking that more of it will solve our problems. We worship personalities, thinking that if we just get the right people we will be better off. We think that if we please other people, things will be better for us. We believe that a good education leads to success and to a better life. We insinuate that when we accomplish more, we are also blessed more. We seek pleasure because we think we are better off being pleased. We pursue entertainment because we think it benefits us. We desire more material possessions because they mean we are successful in this life. In our own culture, we also have a great multitude of gods that we worship, hoping to receive blessing and success.
If we then look to anything other than God to find blessing or success, we have a god other than God. If we place our identity, even slightly, in anything other than God, we have worshipped a false god. God wants to be our one and only pursuit.
This brings about an interesting question. Can I give God all of me and still give myself to my wife, my children, the rest of my family, my friends, and my responsibilities? I have found that when we give God one hundred percent and hold nothing back, God orders our lives where we can love others well without making gods out of them. If this is a mirror for us, we have to ask ourselves whether or not we are depending on anything other than God. If the answer is yes, we are guilty. Make no mistake, we are all guilty.
If any of us are tempted to think that we are not guilty, then we probably ought to do a little more introspection. When you woke up this morning, what was your first thought? Did you praise God and ask Him to order the steps of your day, or did you were you thinking about all of the things you had to do? Did you praise our Lord, or did you did you complain about something in the secrecy or your own mind? Often, the first thought we have in the morning is worship to a false god. As we look into the mirror of the Law, this is made plain to us.
God desires to be our one and only, and it is He alone who can rightly order our steps.
Idols were the material embodiment of the gods that the Egyptians worshipped. Worship began in the heart and in the mind and manifested itself in these material idols. The same is true for us, in our day. If we worship false gods, it comes out materially. All of the sudden, the higher numbers are the more satisfied we are. We watch our bank accounts and the more assets we have the happier and less stressed we become. Idols can include church buildings, methodology, cars, shoes, technology, and even our own image. If we prop ourselves up, then we have made ourselves into an idol. If we place others on a pedestal because of what they have accomplished, we have made them into an idol. If our worship is rightly placed in the only God, then we will not create idols for ourselves. If our worship is not rightly placed, then we will undoubtedly create idols for ourselves.
In our culture, the greatest idol is self. We want to make ourselves look good, so we brag about all we accomplish and all of the work that we do. On social media, we try to make ourselves look like stars. We try to do things that others will notice and congratulate us for. We display our trophies, awards and degrees; and we dress up so that others will praise us and so that we can feel good about ourselves. These are the possible material idols that are produced when we worship the false gods of this world. If we find that we have created idols for ourselves, then we have also broken the first commandment not to have any other gods besides God. If we read this like a mirror, then we are asking ourselves whether we have created any idols in our own lives. Do we display our accomplishments so others might praise us for those? Do we present our work as if it somehow makes us holy? Do we become discouraged when numbers are low? do we worry when our bank accounts have little in them? Are we constantly trying to improve the circumstances of our lives? If so, then there are some idols in our lives. Again, everyone is guilty to some degree.
God is jealous for us. When we worship these false gods in our hearts and when this worship materializes outwardly, God is jealous. He yearns to have us fully, but we keep giving ourselves to the false gods of this world.
In reference to this, God states that He punishes sin to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Him. Hate, in this instance, refers specifically to idol worship. God also states that He shows loving kindness to one-thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments. If no one perfectly keeps these commandments, what are we to think?
As we noted previously, every generation is under the condemnation of the Law. Since no one perfectly keeps God’s commands, all are punished under the Law. This is what the mirror reveals to us: we are to be punished for our idolatry. Since there is no one who has not practiced idolatry, there is no one deserving of God’s loving kindness. We all, having the freedom to choose, chose punishment by not keeping the Law.
This is not the end of the story. Luckily for us, the Law was never meant to be a checklist. It is a mirror meant to expose our sin, and indeed, our sin has been exposed. We need someone to rescue us from the punishment that we are doomed to receive under the Law. This covenant was fulfilled in Christ. In Christ alone can we receive the free gift of grace, by which God’s loving-kindness is revealed to us.
God delivered Israel as a sign of His grace before giving the Law. He gave the Law to be a mirror for us and to expose our sin. He provided the gift of grace to all of His people through all time by the sacrifice of Christ on a cross. Despite our idolatry, God offers to us His loving-kindness as He works to accomplish His purpose.