God preceded the giving of the Ten Commandments with this statement: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Exodus 20:2) God was not merely introducing himself here. They knew who he was. What is being given here is the law that will govern Israel as a theocracy – a nation governed by God. It will consist of the famous Ten Commandments, as well as instructions regarding worship and rules governing community life. As a preface to the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law, this description signifies that Israel’s call to covenant faithfulness is preceded by and based upon God’s acts on their behalf in covenant relationship. Israel’s obedience to the commandments is the means by which they are to appropriate and enjoy what the Lord has already done by delivering them from Egypt and taking them to be his possession. The Lord will use the deliverance from Egypt to identify himself throughout Israel’s history, often to call them to remember what he has done for them and to live accordingly (Judges 6:8; 1 Samuel 10:18; Psalms 81:10; Jeremiah 34:13).
1. “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3) The first commandment is about God’s exclusiveness. In other words, God is saying that He and He alone is God. We should worship no one or nothing else as God, because there is no other God but Him. Everyone has failed to keep this one, because a god (little “g” god, a.k.a. an “idol”) is any created thing that we substitute for only what God (big “G” God) can give. And we do this all the time. For example, some people will look to money to meet their security needs that only God can truly meet. Some will look to a career to meet fulfillment needs that only God can truly meet. Some will look to a relationship or a marriage or a child to meet intimacy needs that only God can truly meet. And so forth. This is what it means to have other gods before (prior to or higher priority than) God.
2. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6) The second commandment (the one that said that we should not create images for God) is about God’s transcendence. Don Carson says that when we create images to resemble God, “He becomes something that we can encapsulate, domesticate, and thus in some measure control. God must not be domesticated.” We are not to make images to represent God and worship or revere those. For example, there are people who pray to icons of saints that they have in their homes. Saint Christopher is said to be the patron saint of travel. So, some people will pray to a statue or a medallion of St. Christopher for safe travel before going on a trip.
Some people get hung up on God’s use of the term “jealous” to describe himself. The marital relationship may be the best way to illustrate the difference between sinful jealousy and righteous jealousy. I can be jealous over my relationship with my wife Cristi in a wrong way or in a right way. For example, if I feel resentment or anger merely because I see her talking to another man, that would be self-centered possessiveness and unreasonable domination—in other words, sinful jealousy. It would stem from my own selfishness or insecurity rather than from my commitment to her and to what is right. But, on the other hand, if I see some man actually trying to alienate Cristi’s affections and seduce her, then I have reason to be righteously jealous. God gave her to me to be my wife. Her body is mine just as my body is hers. I have the exclusive right to enjoy her fully, and for someone else to assume that right would be a violation of God’s holy standards. I am zealous for the exclusiveness and purity of our marriage, and that is a righteous jealousy. Yahweh feels the same way about His relationship with His “wife.” There is no selfishness in His jealousy. It is the appropriate expression of His holiness.