Ex 20:3, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
Deut 5:7, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
“Gods,” is the Hebrew Noun ELOHIM, אֱלֹהִים that is also used for the One true God in vs. 2 and elsewhere in the OT. The “IM” ending makes it a plural noun speaking of the many other “gods” that existed in ancient societies, Ex 20:23, such as Egypt, Philistia, Canaan, Amor, Sidon, Moab, Milcon, Ammon, Syria, Babylon, etc., and ones that would come with the Greek and Roman empires. Whether these societies believed in one or many gods (Pantheon), they all were false gods put before the One true God of Israel.
When ELOHIM is used of the One true God of Israel, it is singular in meaning, (as it sometimes is used for singular pagan gods of other nations), yet, subtly pointing out the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as in the great SHEMA of Israel in Deut 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! 5You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
“Before Me,” is the Preposition AL, עַל with the Noun PANIM, פָּנִים that literally means “face.” This word can also function as a Preposition and literally means, “facing,” and is often translated “before” or “in front of.” Likewise, it can mean in the presence of. Therefore, it means, “in opposition to Me,” as well as, “in My presence.”
This is not an admission that other gods exist. The simple fact is there are no other gods beside God, Isa 45:21; 45:6; cf. 42:8. So, if any are worshipped, they are nothing more than man-made fallacies.
This commandment not only means other gods being worshipped to the exclusion of God, but also prohibits other gods from being considered to be in the presence of God. As noted above, most religions of that day had a pantheon, a divine assembly that ruled the realm of the gods, the supernatural, and ultimately, the human world. In their systems, there would typically be a deity who was designated head of the pantheon, and he, like the other gods, would have at least one consort; female partner. Therefore, this commandment forbids Israel to think in these terms. God is not the head of a pantheon, and he does not have a consort. Therefore, there are no gods in His presence, meaning above Him or worshipped alongside of Him.
Therefore, this first mandate, upon which all of the subsequent commandments are based, means that God was to be their only object of worship, and they were to live in blessed fellowship with Him as their glory and their guide. Unfortunately, Israel often disobeyed this very first command by worshiping the idols of other nations. This eventually resulted in her being exiled to Assyria and Babylonia.
Therefore, this was a mandate for pure monotheism that presented a theology completely at variance with the pagan nations all around them. Though the Israelites had grown up in a grossly polytheistic culture in the land of Egypt, where idols were erected to a large array of imaginary deities, (some of which were bulls, hawks, vultures, crocodiles, snakes, and beetles), nothing could have been more opposing to the cultures of the then Gentile world than the statement that there is only one God, the living and sovereign Lord of all creation who also sustained all things in their order.
The delusion of polytheism began in the antediluvian culture and was continued post flood as demonstrated at the Tower of Babel which was a monument to the greatness of the human race, irrespective of God. The various representations of deity, embodied in anthropoid statues or birds or beasts or crawling creatures, flourished especially in Egypt, from where the Israelites had emerged as the only ethnic unit that retained a knowledge of the One true God. As such, the One true God was in polar opposition to the beliefs, practices, and customs connected with the polytheistic superstitions of the ancient Gentile world. The Jews lived in a world of blind and superstitious nations that worshiped many gods. As such, Israel was to bear witness of the true and living God, Psa 115, and invite their neighbors to trust Him.
Conclusion: This commandment prohibits every species of mental idolatry, and all inordinate attachment(s) to earthly and sensible things.
New Testament Usage:
We see this command reiterated it the NT, when Jesus railed against Satan after his third temptation in Mat 4:10; Luke 4:8; Cf. Rev 14:7.
Mat 4:10, “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY’.”
Our Lord also reminded the Pharisees of the greatest commandment given in the Law, Mark 12:29, the “Great SHEMA.”
Mark 12:29, “Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD’.”
Mark 12:32 (NKJV), “So the scribe said to Him, ‘Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He’.”
Other passages include:
1 Cor 8:6, “Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.”
Eph 4:6, “One God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.”
1 Tim 2:5, “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
James 2:19, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.”
Having other gods before God, means to worship falsely any other man-made god, whether it be of human image or animal or of creation. Worshiping the One true God was still a shocking thing in Paul’s day to the Gentile world. Paul spoke of this in Rom 1:21-23.
Rom 1:21-23, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.”
In ancient times and even today, there have been made many wooden, metallic, or clay images of false gods like totem poles, the Buddha, or various paintings of presumed deified beings that people pray to and worship. Even inside “Christianity,” there are many statues of “saints” that are erected and prayed to by their followers, which are nothing less than false pagan idols.
Finally, there can be many other things or objects in your life that become a false god to you, when you trust and rely upon its presumed power to protect you. This can include, but is not limited to, your President or country, a bottle or drug, money, hobbies, sporting events or sports stars, entertainment stars, etc., as our Lord stated in Mat 6:24; Luke 16:13; cf. Gal 1:10; James 4:4.
Mat 6:24, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Gal 1:10, “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.”
James 4:4, “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
Committing adultery against God is worshipping or prioritizing other things in life rather than God, including false pagan god worship.
For us today, Alexander Maclaren puts the 1st Commandment like this, “For what is it but the declaration that at the center of things is throned, not a rabble of godlings, nor a stony impersonal somewhat, nor a hypothetical unknowable entity, nor a shadowy abstraction, but a living Person, who can say ‘Me,’ and whom we can call on as ‘You,’ and be sure that He hears?” (Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture)
He goes on to say, “The first commandment enjoins, or rather blesses us by showing us that we may cherish, supreme affection, worship, trust, self-surrender, aspiration, towards one God. After all, our God is that which we think most precious, for which we are ready to make the greatest sacrifices, which draws our warmest love; which, lost, would leave us desolate; which, possessed, makes us blessed.” (Ibid)