First words are important. “I have a dream,” “Call me Ishmael,” “Mother died today,” “In the beginning God.” There are countless great examples of first lines that pack a ton of meaning into their few words. As readers begin to investigate the Ten Commandments recorded in Exodus 20 they should note the importance and significance of its first words too. These first few verses establish the grounds for obedience to God.
In reading the legal portion of Exodus we encounter a structure similar to that of the Suzerainty Treaties of ancient culture. In a Suzerainty Treaty a conqueror would make a contract with those whom he had conquered, wherein they were promised certain “benefits” provided that they abided by the stipulations detailed in the treaty. In such documents there was a typical pattern, echoed here in Exodus.
- Preamble – which identified giver and recipient
- Prologue – a reminder of the relationship between the twof
- Stipulations – laws and obligations imposed on the people
- List of witnesses to the Covenant
- Document Clause – calling for the writing down of the covenant for periodic readings and relearning
- Sanctions – blessings and curses detailed to motivate obedience.
Four of the six are found in the legal code of Exodus, though all six are present as one reads the rest of the Sinai Covenant details in Leviticus and Numbers. In following this pattern God is establishing His identity, relationship, and authority for the people of Israel.
The text starts by establishing the identity of the one who is giving the law. “I am the Lord your God.” Having recently come out of Egypt and having, while there, come under the influence of idolatrous worship (see Ex. 32), they need this reminder. Yahweh is their God, He is the Lord. No other (see v. 3). Yet the language is not just demanding it is highly personal. This covenant document is personal in nature. The name that God gave to Moses in chapter 3, He now gives to the whole assembly. He is revealing His identity to them.
The motivation to obey God comes from knowing who He is. In counseling I often talk to people about the “triangle of God’s attributes.” There are many important attributes of the Triune God, but I focus on three that I find are often significant to our problems: goodness, sovereignty, and wisdom. Knowing that God is good reminds us that He wants what is best for us. Knowing that He is wise reminds us that He knows how to achieve what is best for us. Knowing that He is sovereign reminds us that He is able to make it happen. Knowing God, then, can motivate us to obedience even in the most difficult of circumstances and in the face of great doubts. The character and identity of our God can be empowering for godly living. It was certainly part of God’s intent to communicate not simply the laws, but himself to the people of Israel. In communicating Himself, He is intending to motivate their submission.
God even goes so far as to remind them of who He is in relationship to them, revealing Himself as Lord particularly in their redemption. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). He is reiterating just how involved in their lives He really is. The establishment of this Covenant is not with an entity (like an Empire), nor even with a distant king or ruler. The Sinai Covenant is a highly relational document, between a personal God and a people He cares about. Ultimately, then, the motivation to obey the commands is not rooted in there ethical value (that is, the rules are good for us). Rather, obedience should be motivated by relationship to the personal God who issues these rules.
This relationship Yahweh has with the people is an important motivator to their obedience. He has redeemed and rescued them, that is an act of His grace. Yet, they are expected in light of that redemption to obey Him. Often we pit, in both our readings of the Old and New Testament, grace and obedience against each other. But the Bible does not do this. Obedience is an expectation God places upon those whom He redeems. So, we are redeemed for good works, the Scriptures say (Titus 2:14; Eph. 2:10). Of course, under the New Covenant, He also empowers our obedience (Jer. 31:33-34; Phil. 2:13). Obedience flows from redemption.
It is such truths that ultimately motivate us to keep the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). God’s uniqueness in character, identity, and relationship are the grounds for worshiping Him alone. There is no other God like Him. There is no other God. No God but God. He stands alone, above all would-be-gods. We can submit to monotheistic worship when we know who this God is and what His relationship to us is. God makes this point clear as He sets up the first commandment. Why worship only Yahweh? Because He is the only one truly worthy of such worship (identity), because He has reached into history to rescue mankind and set apart a people for Himself (relationship). In truth the first commandment holds weight because of the transcendence and immanence of this unique deity.
God is both above us in holy transcendence and yet present with us in covenant relationship. He is unlike any god in any other world religion past, present, or future. He is holy, pure, and perfect in ways that compel and demand our worship. Yet, He deigns to be present with us, in relationship with us. He loves us though He does not have to. For all these reasons and more the first commandment compels our obedience.
All of these reflections reveal just how valuable and applicable the first commandment is to even modern day people. These words are not true simply for their original audience. They compel a response of submission and praise from us too. God is worthy of worship alone because of who He is, and how He relates to us. He continues to be the God of wisdom, goodness, and sovereignty. He has redeemed us once again from slavery, but this time by the blood of His Son. Not only should you have no other gods but God, in truth you have no need of other gods. These first words are weighty, and worthy of reflection. They set the grounds for obedience to God, both in the Old Testament and today.