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S. M. Hutchens on the First Commandment
At the foundation of the gospel is the law, which has not been destroyed by the coming of Christ, but has been incorporated into his gospel as the lesser into the greater. The sacrifices of the old covenant, for example, are still with us. They have in one sense ceased, but only to become greater in their comprehension in Christ’s sacrifice, in which we still partake. And so it is with all the law, which has not been revoked but remains alive in Christ.
At the center of the law are the commandments written once in stone by the finger of God, and now still written in the hearts of those who know him, for the Lord did not come to destroy the law, but to perfect it. The Ten Commandments, James Russell Lowell once observed, “will not budge.” This is because they are the Word of God, and are as such our food and drink—something we must have, for man does not live by bread alone, but by every word—including the law—that proceeds from the mouth of God.
The commandments must be as firmly fixed in our minds as the Creed, for our confession as Christians includes not only articles of belief, but also a way of life that cannot be separated from them. There are things believers do and refrain from doing by which they may be identified—not only by other people, but also by God—as people who fear him and live in his power. I am very concerned that Christians concentrate too much on mere belief—on confessing things that are clear even to the demons—and upon pneumatic experience, but not enough upon the concrete actions and avoidances that make us good, that identify us before the visible and invisible worlds as children of God, and upon which our eternal reward is based.
The first word of his commandment to the children of Israel—and so also to us, for we are by faith Abraham’s children—is this:
“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.”
The existence of the commandments implies our ability either to obey or disobey. They take for granted our power to do or not to do what we are told. That may seem obvious, but I assure you that it is not and that many have denied it. One does not have to become a mad philosopher to deny the freedom of the will. One can be a simple, sensible person, when one day, out on a walk, the feeling will wash over you that there is nothing you can do about your existence, that you are trapped by heredity and environment, and that, more than that, one’s place in the universe is fixed by movements that are so much greater than one’s self that freedom is an illusion, and that one cannot help being what one is or doing what one does. I have often been haunted by the intuition that once the first element arose into being all else naturally followed, for the end and the trajectory of the whole that leads to it is fixed inevitably and inexorably in its beginning. What can God expect from me? one says, for down to my very ability to will or desire he made me what I am, and put me where he did, and I cannot escape it.
That is true, he did, and you cannot. But even so, we cannot presume to know what that means about the deep character of freedom, nor about our or anyone else’s eternal destinies—that one’s beginning or end are fixed in any way we can comprehend—for the sovereignties of the Creator and the little gods that we are shall in the end work together. While we cannot escape the force of his decrees, we also know, when another mood is upon us, that something else is true: that we are free to do, within the boundaries he has set, what we wish. We are, in fact, free to do good or evil—and we know it well—or to become different people than we are by choosing, and moving along one of the two paths that he has laid before us. Within the bounds of God’s inscrutable sovereignty we are free, and within that freedom we freely and meaningfully choose to become what he has made us to be.
No one who truly desires love and light and salvation shall fail to find it, for the Lord has promised that he will. He who seeks will find. To him who knocks, it will be opened. No one who desires the darkness shall fail to find it as well. The damned will not like the misery that comes with his choice, but neither will he be able to claim that he has not freely chosen the thing he hates.
So the commandments are not frivolous. They were not given to taunt people who cannot do what they say; rather they were given to be followed by those who have the ability to follow them. How we can obey them perfectly (for perfection is what is required) when we so often transgress them is another story, and awaits the gospel. In the meantime we must believe (since we demand it of both ourselves and of others) that the commandments can be followed, and that there is an absolute obligation to do so.
The preamble is important: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” God is speaking here to people he knows, who have experience with him, who have seen and acknowledge his mighty works on their behalf. The Lord does not appear to us as a foreign God with a list of rules that he made up to suit himself, and we are obliged to follow because he is bigger than we are, and will punish us if we do not. He shows himself to us as a part of our personal and family histories—and more than this, as the cause of our salvation—who has authority over us because he first made and preserved us. We in every respect owe our lives to him, and because of this he has the right to command us as he will.
This is the first truth of the commandments, and causes the first offense, for we bridle at the notion that we should be infinitely obliged to even the most benevolent savior. Such an obligation threatens to do away with—as we call it today—our individuality. We may find ourselves trusting him to do what is good for us, but at the same time secreting the conviction that we will not like it, for we too are gods, with sovereign ambitions and designs over our own lives. We may not even be clear as to what these ambitions and designs are, but it is certain that we have them. It is not our will to conform to another will, even an infinitely good one. We are the masters of our fate, we are the captains of our souls, and, thank you very much, we will do as we please. The very thing we do not want to hear is: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
It is fascinating the way the command is put. It is not, “I am the only God, so when you are dealing with divinity you have not choice but to deal with me.” Rather, the Savior of Israel here puts himself among all the gods as the only God toward whom his people should turn because he is their God. He does not require, or grant here, fuller knowledge of his being, but rather obedience based upon his historically proven right to be their tribal God. (More will come later—indeed, more cannot come until this at least is established.) This is a God who both reveals and hides himself, a God who not only is known, but also at the same time unknown, and must be sought among the other gods who present themselves for our consideration. St. Paul says that indeed, there are many gods, both in heaven and earth, but for us there is one God, the Father, through whom are all things and for whom we exist.
Recently I picked up a book meant to advise business people about the changes that are taking place in the world so that they might plan accordingly. Making money is largely dependent upon making correct judgments about the shape of reality and adjusting one’s strategies accordingly, so able business people are very interested in advice that will help them do it. The author made a strong point of informing his readers that the world was re-sacralizing—that intelligent and educated people were beginning to understand that there is more to reality than science can master, and that the most powerful forces that move and shape human life are, for want of a better term, spiritual. People are rediscovering the gods, and people who want to make money in the world would do well to know it.
Now Christians believe that these gods exist, and that they are powerful, but also that they are spirits who hate God and have been defeated by Christ. In the face of these gods, we remember the commandment and are comforted by it, that we are to have no other gods before the God who is our Savior. We are free to have no other gods before him, to seek his face and no other, to leave behind all the terrors of those who will not acknowledge him, and so are thrown back upon the less than tender mercies of the gods who are not God—for if you do not worship the Creator, you will eventually find yourself beholden to a destroyer.
There is sill a class of clever, scientific people who try to live in the space between God and the gods. They are agnostic about the God of the Jews and the Christians, but neither will they acknowledge the gods of the New Age, that is, the old, pagan gods reborn among us. They believe none of this supernaturalist hogwash, whether it be pagan or Christian, and will believe in only what is comprehensible to their science. They do not understand that the age in which they live is passing away. It has been an age in which they have been protected from the pagan gods by the influence of the Christian God, a God who asks that they believe in him, but does not demand it. For the man of science who wills to believe, there is copious evidence for faith, yet those who do not are not obliged to, for there is also adequate reason to disbelieve, should they choose to do so. Such men take advantage of the God who does not force them, first by living ungratefully in a world that, through the influence of Christ and his church, had weakened the power of the demons, so that the other gods could not easily exert themselves upon unbelievers, and second, by not believing in the true God, who did not force himself upon them, who did not make them believe either in the demons or in himself
Those who chose to believe in the Christian God could have God and science too, but the time is coming when those who refuse will have neither, for the gods who are not God are being invited back, and they will fill the world with things that science cannot explain without recourse to a faith in human knowledge that is clearly as religious as the religion it rejects. The embarrassing spectre of the Victorian intellectual who attended seances and dabbled in ectoplasm will arise again with crushing force, and the skeptical scientist will find himself dancing with demons that only he—in the face of what the rest of the world will by then know them to be—will insist on calling by another, suitably scientific, name. Laboring in the name of the old god, Science, that is, he will appear risibly naive.
“You shall have no other gods before me” has the shape and force of not simply a command, but a promise as well, at least to those who are being saved. To those who reject it, then it is simply a command, an unpleasant command, which will be broken, and for which there will be eternal resentment for its imposition. For those who are entering life, however, the command is a strait gate that opens upon hope and joy. One must enter the gate by way of the command, by accepting that it is unlawful to have any other gods before the Lord, and that those who transgress this law are liable to the appropriate penalties. The law, the terrible and impossible law, that is posed by God as both a possibility and a requirement, must come first, and with the acceptance of the law comes the despair of keeping it. Only at the point of despair will we have ears for the gospel
What the gospel gives us is a different view of the command—as a promise that our present natures shall be changed so that we shall indeed have and desire no other gods before him. When the command is observed from the heavenward side of the gate, it looks completely different than it did from the other. When on this side we bent our backs to acknowledge its truth, accepting the burden that we should put no other gods before him, we did not expect to feel the weight lifted by our Savior who, once we had come through the gate of death—for death is what the law gives us—says, “You, beloved of God, shall at long last have your wish. The days of temptation are over, and you shall have no other gods before me.”
We will be glad to hear it. But then we shall ask ourselves whatever else we should have expected, for isn’t he, after all, the Lord our God, who brought us out of the land of Egypt, our of the house of bondage? •
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.