Topical Scripture: Exodus 20:1-6
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? was the most popular show on television a few years back, with as many as 33.6 million viewers. It looks like a simple game, but I discovered personally that if you don’t play by the rules, you cannot win. At the game’s peak of popularity, its producers advertised a phone number which viewers could call if they wanted to qualify as a contestant.
Out of curiosity, I called the number one night. I knew the answer to the question which the recording asked. But I got flustered and didn’t push the buttons on the phone in the right order. I broke the rules. And so, sadly, I couldn’t play.
When did you last play a game? Chess, cards, golf, basketball at youth camp (a big mistake I made this week)—they’re all the same in one respect: every game requires rules. The rules do not exist to frustrate the players, but to enable the game. Those who make and enforce the rules are not trying to hurt the participants but help them.
In the same way, the Ten Commandments are “rules of the game.” These ten principles tell us how life works, and how to live if we want to live well. They are guideposts along the road, designed to keep us out of the ditch. They are road signs pointing the way home. They speak to life’s most crucial subjects—God, ambitions, religion, stress, parents, enemies, sex, possessions, lies, and lust.
These two weeks, we’ll consider the first four commandments as we learn to relate to God; then we’ll explore the last six commandments as we learn to relate to ourselves and each other. We’ll be vertical these weeks, horizontal the next.
Join Moses on the mountain
The precise location of the mountain where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments remains open to question. A mountain known as Gebel Musa is the place preferred by most historians. It rises to an elevation of 7,363 feet, and forms part of a sandy plateau roughly two miles long and half a mile wide. There is more than enough room for two million people to camp there. The plain is itself some 4,000 feet above the Mediterranean Sea, with the mountain towering another 2,200 feet overhead. It is a huge granite peak, altar-shaped and awesome.
On this mountain or one like it, God inscribed two tablets. He wrote on both sides of each. If these tablets were 27 inches long by 18 inches wide, the 172 Hebrew words of the Ten Commandments could easily have been inscribed on them.
Moses shattered these tablets in rage when he descended from the mountain and confronted the idolatry of the people. God then made them again. Moses eventually laid them in the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred box carried before the people for centuries and eventually placed in Solomon’s Temple.
When the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 598 B.C., they likely took the Ark and the Commandments it held. Most historians speculate that it is buried somewhere in modern-day Iraq, while some believe that Jeremiah took it to Egypt to prevent theft by the Babylonians and still others believe it is buried somewhere on the Temple Mount. The latter is my guess, believing that the Jews would not have risked traveling with the Ark, or losing it to the Babylonians.
While the Ark is lost to us, the words it contained are not. Imagine it: an obscure tribe of Egyptian slaves plunges into the desert to hide from pursuit, and emerges with a code of ten laws which are still authoritative today, 34 centuries later. A depiction of Moses and these Ten Commandments adorns the courtroom where the Justices of the Supreme Court meet, deliberate, and lead our nation’s legal system. These ten principles are still the foundation stones of moral and legal systems the world over.
We don’t need to find Mount Sinai to live by the words God recorded there. As you study this week’s text and prepare to teach its truth, you join Moses on the mountain of God. And you continue his crucial work of giving the word of God to his people.
Who comes first?
Our text begins, “And God spoke all these words” (Exodus 20:1). What follows is not based on human rules or principles, laws to be changed by the voters or the legislators they elect. The Author of these commandments is “the Lord your God” (v. 2). He is “the Lord,” the Hebrew word YHWH—the holiest name of God, meaning the One who is, who was, and who ever shall be.
And he is “God,” the Hebrew word “Elohim—the typical name for the Creator God of the universe. Note that he is “the Lord your God”—this Deity is personal. No Buddhist would say, “Your Buddha,” or a Muslim “your Allah.” But we can know this God personally, as we might know “your wife” or “your husband” or “your children.” He is the holy Creator of the universe and all time, who is yet our personal God.
What does he want of us? Here is his first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (v. 3). It is categorically impossible to overstate the significance of this statement of monotheism and worship.
Remember that the Hebrews have just come from Egypt, where the people worshiped Ra, Phthah, Osiris, Isis, Horus, the animals, and the pharoahs. And they were going into polytheistic Canaan, the land of Baal, Ashtoreth, Asherah, Molech, and Dagon.
Their own ancestors had made the Tower of Babel, to make themselves God. Joshua had warned them, “Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods” (Joshua 24:3). This would be their tendency as well. In fact, they would make and worship the golden calf even as YHWH was giving this command to Moses on the mountain above.
So God says, “Have no other gods before me.” “Before me” means “against my face,” and requires absolute and unconditional allegiance to God and worship of him alone.
What a shocking surprise!
Before this, everyone knew that the universe was wild and chaotic, a jungle of warring powers: wind against water, sun against moon, life against death. There was a god of the spring planting and another god of the harvest, a spirit who put fish into fishermen’s nets and a being who specialized in caring for women in childbirth; and at best there was an uneasy truce among all these, at worst a battle.
Now along comes this Moses, from an insignificant band of desert wanderers, and shouts that all these processes are one process from a single source, that the obvious many are the unthinkable One. And he shouted it so loud that it has echoed down all time. This was the greatest discovery ever made.
How are you doing with this, his command to have no God but God?
Paul Tillich, the German theologian, spoke of “ultimate concern” as an issue at the heart of all religion. We all have something or someone of ultimate importance to our lives. How do you know what yours is? Three questions may help:
Where and how do you spend your time? That’s the real currency of our day. The average Christian spends ten minutes a day in prayer and Bible study. If I told you I loved my family, that they come first in my life, but only spent ten minutes a day with them, would you believe me? Does your time serve God?
Who are you trying to impress? If you had to choose between pleasing God and impressing your friends, or your girlfriend or boyfriend, or your boss, or your employees, who would you choose? Is it your ambition to please God?
For what would you sacrifice? When was the last time it cost you something significant to follow Jesus? Today, I hope.
How’s your soul with the first commandment this morning?
What comes first?
“Worship” is putting something or someone first in your life. The verb can take any noun as its object. We can worship something made of wood, stone, flesh, paper, or spirit. If that which is first in our lives is anything or anyone but the Lord God, by definition it is an idol. What does God say about it?
“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4). “You” is plural, applying to every one of them and every one of us. “Shall not” is a command. If you and I find that we have an idol in our lives this morning, we must get rid of it, right now.
“Make for yourself” reveals a basic principle for life: if you can make it, don’t worship it. If you can buy it, or sell it, or destroy it, don’t worship it. I would rephrase this statement for our culture: “You shall not make of yourself” an idol. Anything we make for ourselves or of ourselves must not have first place in our lives, or it becomes an idol.
The ancient Canaanites made their idols of wood, sometimes of stone, often covered with some kind of precious metal. They made them in all sorts of forms, which is why the Second Commandment prohibits forms from the sky, the earth, or the seas—everything.
Such idolatry was a huge problem in the ancient world. The Egyptians worshiped idols, as did the Canaanites and the Jews’ own forefathers. The ancient Greeks, the most brilliant civilization of all time, also worshiped gods such as Athena and Zeus—so many, in fact, that Paul commented on the number of idols he found in Athens (Acts 17.22-23). Idolatry was such a problem that there are fourteen different synonyms and words for “idol” in the Old Testament, and the Hebrew Scriptures say more about this commandment than any of the other nine.
Why was idolatry so common? Because every human being is created with a need to worship God.
We each have a “God-shaped emptiness” inside us. As Augustine confessed to God, “you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”
But it’s hard to worship something we cannot see. So the ancients would make physical images for spiritual gods, seeking to portray divine characteristics such as power, fertility, or glory. In time the means became the ends, and they began worshiping the idols themselves.
This God cannot allow, for he is a “jealous” God (Exodus 20:5a). The word is better translated “zealous,” and points to God’s desire for an exclusive relationship with us. Just as no husband who truly loves his wife could wish to share her with another man, so God will not share us with another god. The term also shows that God truly cares for us, for we cannot be “jealous” or “zealous” about someone unless they matter to us.
Is the Second Commandment law or grace?
God says that he “punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (v. 5b). This is simply a Hebrew idiom, not a mathematical statement. The Bible teaches repeatedly that we must pay for our own sins, not those of others (Deuteronomy 24:16; Jeremiah 31:29,30; Ezekiel 18:1-4).
God is saying that our present-day idolatry has consequences for those who come after us, for they will likely follow in our footsteps. If I worship money, my children probably will, too. If I love Jesus, my family probably will as well.
This is why God says that he “shows love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (v. 6). “Love” is the Hebrew word “hesed,” like “agape” love in the Greek—unconditional, unbreakable. God is not saying that we earn his love when we worship him alone. He is saying that we put ourselves in position to receive this love by his grace. Then we respond by keeping his commandments. Jesus said, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love” (John 15:10); his disciple John said, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands” (1 John 2:3).
We can be idolatrous as easily as the ancient Jews or Canaanites, if anyone or anything becomes more important to us than our Lord. Consider again our three questions related to the First Commandment: where do you spend your time? who are you seeking to impress? for what would you sacrifice? Your answer is your “ultimate concern.” Any answer which comes before your Lord is your idol. Do you have business with the Father on this issue?
How do these vertical commandments affect our horizontal relationships?