When Yahweh Elohim said to Adam, “You may eat from any tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:15–17) he was saying, in effect, “you are my prophet, priest, and king but you must respect me as Lord and God over all.” The Lord placed a boundary beyond which Adam, as Yahweh’s servant, was not to go. Adam chose to dishonor his Lord, to break the law, and to break the implied covenant of works. He placed a god ahead of Yahweh Elohim, his Creator, his Lord, and the sovereign God who spoke all things into being, who created Adam in his image out of the dust of the earth. It was Yahweh Elohim who breathed life into Adam. Truly it was in God that Adam lived, and moved, and had his being. Nevertheless, mysteriously, tragically, Adam chose to listen to the serpent and to lies rather than to believe and obey the truth. When he chose death over life, when he aspired to know as God knows, in that moment he became an idolater.
It is against this background and against the background of untold of years of idolatry prior to Abraham (remember the flood?), and against the background of Egyptian paganism and idolatry, and against the background of Canaanite idolatry, that we must understand the first commandment, which says: “You shalt have no other gods before me.” The Hebrew text says literally, “You shall not have any other Elohim before my face.” Elohim is the generic word for God in the Hebrew Bible. When Genesis 1:1 says, “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” the word for God is Elohim. There is perhaps a play on words here. We know that God is essentially one. The most fundamental confession in the Hebrew Scriptures is Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” The irony here is that the intent of the word in Exodus is clearly plural. The nations around the Israelites were idolaters and polytheists. Yahweh, the God who is, who said to Moses, “I am what I am” is completely intolerant of any other gods. He calls them all idols, i.e., gods we’ve made in our own image. That’s the reverse of reality. We were made in God’s image but, as corrupt sinners, we like to turn reality on its head and pretend that we’re God and that we get to say what is what.
This is why, in Heidelberg 94 says
“Q. 94. What does God enjoin in the first commandment?”
That I, as sincerely as I desire the salvation of my own soul, avoid and flee from all idolatry, sorcery, soothsaying, superstition, invocation of saints, or any other creatures; and learn rightly to know the only true God; trust in him alone, with humility and patience submit to him; expect all good things from him only; love, fear, and glorify him with my whole heart; so that I renounce and forsake all creatures, rather than commit even the least thing contrary to his will.
Notice how close is the language we use to describe the 1st commandment to the language we use in a Christian marriage ceremony. We renounce all others. We pledge ourselves completely to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We seek no others. As Christians we give up trying to manipulate God through sorcery, superstition, praying to saints and even to the Virgin Mary. With the Psalmist we say:
“Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Ps 73:25).
The opposite of this complete trust in and submission to Christ is idolatry.
Q. 95. What is idolatry?
Idolatry is, instead of, or besides that one true God, who has manifested himself in his word, to contrive, or have any other object, in which men place their trust.
Any time we put anything before God, in first place, that’s idolatry. 20 years ago people were speaking of “idols of the heart.” Calvin taught us in the 16th century that human heart is an idol factory: “From this we may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols” (Calvin, Institutes, 1.11.8).
On one level it’s easy to tell the difference between idols and the God who is. We did not fabricate him and we cannot change or kill him. He just is (Gen 1:1; Exodus 3:14). Idols, on the other hand, are not necessarily. An idol might exist or it might not exist. Its existence, as such, is contingent upon the will of its human creator. Of course, we confess with the Apostle Paul that “an idol has no real existence” (1 Cor 8:4). Whether we fabricate them with our hands, in our minds, or in our hearts, idols change. They come and go. When they disappoint us, we chuck them and make another hoping for a better outcome.
This is why Christians do not speak about “my Christ,” “my Jesus,” nor do they say “my God would not do that.” All such language at least tends toward idolatry. The language of the third step of Alcoholics Anonymous, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him” is the definition of idolatry. It was turning one’s life over to “God as we understood him” that caused the Israelites to make a golden calf (Ex 32). It was turning one’s life over to “God as we understand him” that cause the Israelites to make golden calves at Bethel and Dan (2 Kings 10). Scripture is stoutly and consistently opposed to thinking of, worshiping, or even speaking of God “as we understand him.”
The 1st commandment also forbids Romanist piety. The invoking of saints, e.g., Luther’s plea when he was in the lightning storm, “St. Anne help me! I will become a monk,” or the invocation of the Blessed Virgin—she is truly blessed and the fruit of her womb is blessed but just because she is glorified does not mean that he is omniscient nor does it make her omnipresent—is forbidden by the first commandment. There is “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). There is no mediatrix. There are no other mediators. To invoke another mediator or an ostensible mediatrix is idolatry.
Popular superstition is idolatry. Athletic superstitions are forms of idolatry. Wearing the same ratty batting glove may make a hitter feel more comfortable. No one can object to that. Wearing the ratty glove because it “brings good luck” is idolatry. God cannot be manipulated by a batting glove or any other (truly) stupid superstition we practice. The first commandment means that the palm reader is a liar and anyone who visits a palm reader is an idolater. Seeking to know what God has not revealed (e.g., “God’s secret will“) is “soothsaying.” How often do we do that under the pretense of piety?
Either one knows the God who, in Christ, or one does not. If one does not like the God who is, then one is an idolater and needs to repent because the God who is there, is coming in judgment.
The good news is that Jesus came to save idolaters—and we’re all idolaters by nature and inclination, are we not? As sinners we love our stuff, our friends, our family, our job, our online image, our social status more than God. Each of those loves is violation of the 1st commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” By his unconditional favor, earned for us by Christ, God receives us idolaters, changes our hearts and minds, and replaces idolatry with true faith in Christ the Son, God the Father, by the Spirit.