We have to remember that the first four of the Ten Commandments are summarized by the greatest commandment to love God, while the last six are summarized by the commandment to love our neighbor. We should also keep in mind that the law of God is not a series of different panes of glass — it is a unity, one large picture window. As James reminds us, to break one of God’s laws is to break them all (Jas. 2:10). These laws are distinct, but they are not separated from one another.
With this in mind, the first of the ten says, “You shall have no other gods before Me“ (Ex. 20:3). The phrase before Me refers to sinning before the face of God, or in the presence of God. When this commandment is broken, it is broken with a high hand. God is forbidding us to worship anything else in His presence, and He is never absent.
The folly of atheism is in view here. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none who does good.“ (Ps. 14:1). Now Paul teaches us in Romans 1 that atheism is never pure, never honest, but it is professed. God must not be denied.
At the same time, the folly of idolatry is also in view. As Christians we should never applaud any kind of idolatry. This includes any generic theism. A Vanilla God is an idol — as much as Baal, Molech, or Allah. Idols can be fashioned with the hands or with the mind. As Christians who worship the triune God, we reject the god with no name, the god of American civic religion. The god in the Pledge of the Allegiance is an idol.
God’s attributes are a description of His character, a definition of who He is. The Christian understanding of His attributes is not a condiment which can be added to the neutral substance of Deity, resulting in the true God.
Becoming a Christian is a matter of turning from idols (1 Thess. 1:9), and keeping oneself from idols (1 John 5:21). “I am the Lord, that is My Name; and My glory I will not give to another, nor My praise to carved images“ (Is. 42:8). God must not be replaced.
We are also to reject false opinions we might have concerning the true God. We want to believe that we have a right to our own opinions about God. How many times have you heard someone say, “I could never worship a God like that.“ The Bible is absolutely intolerant of this kind of thinking. “For My people are foolish, they have not known Me. They are silly children, and they have no understanding. They are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge” (Jer. 4:22).
In another place, we read, “Hear the word of the LORD, You children of Israel, for the LORD brings a charge against the inhabitants of the land: ‘There is no truth or mercy or knowledge of God in the land'” (Hosea 6:1). God must not be redefined.
The commandment also prohibits giving the glory of worship to another. Giving religious worship or reverence to any in addition to the true God is also prohibited. The Bible shows us how this is an understandable temptation. Respected leaders in the church can be a point of stumbling (Acts 10:25-26). Angels can also be a snare (Rev. 19:10). In neither of these cases were Cornelius or the apostle John thinking that God had been replaced by Peter or the angel. But they did worship, and they were prevented from doing so. God must be alone in His glory.
What happens when we murmur at providence? When we murmur or complain about anything, we are saying in effect that God is not a competent God, and that we wish for someone to replace Him. This is what we see in other situations — complaints are the prelude to something else. Job acted wisely in this regard. “In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong“ (Job 1:22). The psalmist almost fell but was spared (Ps. 73:2). Complaining does not mean that we believe in another God, but it does mean that we wish we could believe in another God. As we consider the demands of the first of the Ten Words, we must remember that God must not be accused.