Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 34 – No Other Gods
Question 92: What is the law of the LORD?
Answer 92: God spoke all these words (Ex. 20:1-17; Deut. 5:6-21):
I am the LORD your God
Who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
Out of the house of slavery.
N.B.: the individual commandments are included with the questions that follow.
The law does not begin with the first commandment, but with an introduction. In it God introduces himself as the deliverer of his people. Apparently, this is important in order to properly understand his intent with the law. He connects this introduction or preamble so closely with all of the Ten Commandments that no one can avoid it.1 Each of the ten is as directly connected to this preamble as keys are to a key ring.
I Have Set You Free
“Thou shalt” and especially “thou shalt not”. This is how God speaks in his law. He demands and forbids. He gave this law to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. It happened a few months after he had delivered them from harsh slavery.2
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. Thus he greets his recently freed Israelites in the vestibule of his law. It is therefore a foregone conclusion that his commandments are going to be vastly different from the “you must...” of the former Egyptian oppressor. He is and remains their liberator. That is the background of his ten commandments. He did not give them to shorten their newly found freedom, but to give full expression to it. Therefore his law is as much a gift as the act of liberation itself. To live in true freedom means to live according to his commandments.
The special thing about this law is that it does not contain a set of demands, but instead provisions — demands and promises — of his covenant. The stone tablets on which the law was written are called “tablets (or “tables”) of the covenant”.3 In a certain sense one could say that the Ten Commandments are the covenant.4 In that covenant — and in the law that accompanied it– God established his unique relationship with his people Israel. It received the position of most a privileged nation.
God wanted to interact continually with this people. Right from the start that was the intent of his rescue operation. The very first time he addressed Moses — a shepherd near Sinai at that time — he immediately spoke about this: “when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain”.5 That was also the reason Pharaoh was told from the beginning to let Israel go.6
The end goal was not merely to give them their political freedom as a nation, but a new life in the service of God. Their deliverance therefore required infinitely more than the downfall of Pharaoh. All the Israelites could see this by the blood-red doorposts on the night of their departure. That blood came from a lamb that was symbolic of the coming Messiah.7 That blood saved their own sons from death. It was also the high price required for their entry into the LORD’s service.
What God had in mind for them became abundantly clear a day or so before he issued the law. He reminded them of his good care: just as an eagle carries its young on its wings through the air, so he had carried them through the desert. He had done so in order to make them his “property” at Sinai, his most precious possession from “among all the nations”.8 When they, for their part, desired it too, he gave his law. In doing so, he ratified their privileged position. As the only people on earth they were ruled directly by God himself: “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (v. 6). The law needs to be read from this festive perspective. It is for that reason also that the observance of God’s commandments is under the heading of “a life of gratitude”.
The Enduring Significance of the Exodus
None of us has experienced the exodus from Egypt. Here we touch a sensitive point. It does make a difference whether you heard this opening at the foot of the impressive Sinai or in a relatively quiet church building where no relief was experienced during the previous week. Gideon already complained: “where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us?”9 And yet the LORD says to churchgoers who have never witnessed the labour camps of Egypt, every Sunday morning, word for word, the same thing he says to that newly liberated Israel. He does so because these churchgoers belong to that same people. They too are children of Abraham.10 Therefore he also says to them, “I have delivered you out of Egypt.” This refers not only to a distant past. This exodus also holds a promise for the Christian church of today. To discover this, we must pay attention to what motivated God at the time to liberate his people. He heard them cry out and “he remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”.11 Their groaning reminded him of what he had promised to the three patriarchs centuries earlier. He would bring their descendants safely into the land of Canaan. When he brought this to mind he was moved and intervened in their situation.12 He reminds his people of this even now in the introduction to his law: Once I led you out of the house of slavery, because I remembered my covenant, and I continue to remember this.
The actual fact of the exodus is past, but he remembers his covenant forever. He will never forget it.13 This is why the unique event of the exodus received an unstoppable continuity. Because God continued to remember his covenant, Jesus came to earth.14
Eventually, the exodus will culminate in the coming of a new heaven and earth. Then God will have fulfilled all his promises and the exodus will be complete. He gives that guarantee every time that we hear or read the introduction of his law. There is a great future perspective!
So Let Us Celebrate
On the night of their deliverance, the Israelites did not treat themselves to fine pastries. They ate some sort of emergency bread. Because of their quick departure, there was no time for the dough to rise. The flat round cakes that they hastily baked without yeast are the “unleavened breads,” the so-called “matzoth”.15
When later they would celebrate the exodus, they would have plenty of time to let the dough ferment. Yet they were required to eat unleavened bread during every Passover celebration. This made the memory of the rush of that night much more realistic. However, this was not the only motive. Anyone who ate fermented bread during that week was to be “cut off” from Israel. This severe punishment makes it plausible that eating unleavened bread represented more than just a reminder of the haste of that night. This is also indicated by the precept that there was to be no yeast in the house. And if there was any, it had to be carefully removed.16 This indicates that yeast denoted something negative. It has turned sour and the dough is actually spoiled. Therefore, it became a symbol of sin. Get rid of it! Start a new life. Go celebrate!17
It is striking the way Paul extends the celebration of the ancient Passover to the life of every day: so let us celebrate! He calls on Christians to make all their lives a (Passover) feast. Let them celebrate it “not with old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth”.18 Let them no longer feast on what is spoiled or poisonous, but let them enjoy all that is pure and will give true joy. Those who get this far are grateful for God’s commandments. Nothing tastes better than his law. There were some composers of the psalms who considered it a festive treat. They feasted on it like honey.19
Question 93: How are these commandments divided?
Answer 93: Into two parts.
The first teaches us how to live in relation to God;
the second, what duties we owe our neighbour.
The two tablets are the stone slabs or tablets on which the ten commandments were engraved.20 They were thereby given a distinct status.
Ten Commandments on Two Tablets
God personally engraved the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets. He even did this for a second time after Moses had broken the first ones. That second time, he instructed Moses to carve out two new tablets. God himself again took care of the engraving of the commandments.21 No written word of God comes so directly from him as these commandments. Thus he marked these out as a separate unit within the whole of the other laws.
The commandments are short or even very short. There are only ten of them. They can fit on one sheet of paper. A child can understand them.
What makes the ten even more uncomplicated is the division into “two tables”. In every situation it comes down to two things: how we stand in relation to God and how we stand in relation to our neighbour.
The Catechism assumes that on the first tablet were engraved the first four commandments (how we should conduct ourselves with respect to God) and on the second were the last six (what we owe to our neighbour). The division into two given here would then coincide exactly with the division between the two tablets. Whether this is correct is impossible to prove. The Bible does not tell us anything about the size and thickness of the tables or where the first table ended and the second part began. What is decisive is that Jesus summarizes the law in two core commandments (Matt. 22:37-40).
It has been claimed that each of the two tables contained the complete text of the Ten Commandments. If so, they were identical to each other. The idea behind this is, that in those days both parties — in this case the LORD and the people of Israel — had access to the text of the agreement made. The Bible itself remains silent on such details. What is certain is that the tablets were inscribed on both sides.22
Furthermore, there is a difference in the classification and counting of the commandments of ten commandments between Jews, Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed. This will be left out of consideration here.23
The Ten Commandments did not apply only to Old Testament times. “In the NT the decalogue enjoys an undisputed authority.”24 We will come back to this when we explain the individual commandments.
- The first commandment:
You shall have no other gods before me.
Question 94: What does the LORD require in the first commandment?
Answer 94: That for the sake of my very salvation
I avoid and flee
all idolatry, witchcraft, superstition,
and prayer to saints or to other creatures.
that I rightly come to know
the only true God,
trust in him alone,
submit to him
with all humility and patience,
expect all good from him only,
and love, fear, and honour him
with all my heart.
that I forsake all creatures
rather than do the least thing
against his will.
Question 95: What is idolatry?
Answer 95: Idolatry is
having or inventing something
in which to put our trust
instead of, or in addition to,
the only true God
who has revealed himself in his Word.
According to the first commandment, we cannot have other gods besides or apart from God.“25 Other gods? Do they even exist, according to this commandment? It seems so, for it does not say succinctly that we must consider the existence of gods as nonsense.26 Do they exist — yes or no? What does the Bible say about them?
Gods are “Nobodies” but this does not imply they are “Nothing”
Not every Christian in Corinth was convinced “that an idol has no real existence”.27 In the minds of some, sacrifices were offered in the idol temples to gods that actually existed. Paul calls that “being weak” and fully agrees with those who say: “we know that there is no God but One”.
Does the first commandment also speak of “other gods” as if they were real powers? Yes and no. On the one hand, the Old Testament regards other gods to be dead puppets. Isaiah mockingly tells how such a god is crafted: people weigh some gold and place their orders with the goldsmith. When the time comes, the installation of such a god becomes a pathetic spectacle. They lift him up on their shoulder, drag “him” to his place-and put him down like a piece of furniture. Everyone shouts enthusiastically at him, but he does not make a peep.28
That is the continuous theme of the Old Testament: all such gods are idols.29 The word “idol” means: nothing, zero, a nullity, zilch.
On the other hand, these “nobodies”’ are not just “nothing”’. For centuries they have exploited entire peoples and even forced them to sacrifice their children. They were not fairy-tale characters from another world, such as Tom Thumb or the giant. To a pagan’s mind, the gods were active in his own living experience. When the harvest was ripening, Baal was clearly visiting them and when the thunders echoed through the skies, Thor audibly passed by. People attributed to such gods what only the Creator can do and does. Thus it happened that big fat zeros gained great power and influence. Modern unbelief has blasted this primitive superstition. Nobody believes in Zeus anymore. What has remained is the need for “something else” to rely on. That is why modern unbelief creates new gods. Baal had to make way for agricultural technology, and the Greek god Asclepius had to give up his place to modern medicine. Popular gods who gave people a right to sensual pleasure are now called sex and free love.
We usually think of idolatry only when someone is kneeling down before some idol. Strikingly, the Catechism does not even need the word “gods” at all for its definition of idolatry. Idolatry is when instead of or in addition to God there is “something else” in which people place their trust. It can be something very innocent: no Baal, but relying on your sprinklers at a time of drought; no sacrifices to Thor, but relying on our lightning rod. Granted, both sprinklers and lightning rods are lawful means of controlling nature. There is nothing to prevent their proper use. But once these — and the same applies to all those other tools — become “something else” that we rely on besides God, they have become “other gods”. How easily we cross that line and start to trust in the means — technology, money, health, and economics — rather than in God himself. Where is the boundary? Therefore the first commandment has a staggering topicality even in our modern society.30
How do you prove that you trust in God alone? The least is that you avoid all bizarre connections to a “higher world”. Therefore: no sorcery and any such magic. Through such channels people hope to get what is otherwise hidden or unattainable. The Catechism is thinking of power to be protected against dangers (witchcraft), of knowledge about the future (superstition) and of help in distress (invocation of saints). These are three counterfeits of what God wants to give us through his Word and Spirit, namely: his saving power, knowledge and help.
Many people seek these three — power, knowledge, and help — in vain in the tangible world. They realize that science can never have the ultimate solution. The physician needs to keep a proviso. Planning and forecasting offer no guarantee of the future. No one knows what tomorrow may bring. In this anxious uncertainty, people are looking for support from anything that hints at the supernatural. A random newspaper proves how much value people attach to horoscopes. A modern businessman may use a fortune-teller similar to how pagans used to consult the oracles. It is liberating to read how the Catechism details the first commandment: avoid and flee all magic and superstition.
It is not possible to give a razor-sharp formula of what nowadays is included or what is just not part of sorcery or divination. There are people who have inexplicable — yet natural — gifts. Think of magnetisers and clairvoyants. It would be permissible to consult such people as long as they do not present themselves as magicians or soothsayers.31
The Catechism warns not only against fraud or humbug but against the ultimate catastrophe: “for the sake of my very salvation”. Those who put their trust in magic are playing with their salvation. The flip side of this warning is that your wellbeing lies in boundless confidence in God. This commandment follows after his guarantee that he has set us free. Anyone who puts an end to all forbidden or dubious connections and falls back on this one God is not short-changing himself, but instead loves his salvation.
God Wants to be Trusted
With the word “further” Answer 94 explains what God is asking of us in this commandment in the most profound sense. It becomes a compelling and moving sentence. The speaker is someone who allows the meaning of this commandment to sink in deeper and deeper and who becomes ever more impressed by its liberating power. Let him or her say it themselves: God commands me first of all “that I rightly get to know the only true God” and “trust in him alone”. In that respect, he treats me no differently today than he used to treat the Israelites. They had experienced the spectacular exodus and found themselves in the heart of that great and dreadful desert. All of them were doing well. They could rely on such a God. They had come to know him “rightly” in a few months. He is the God whom they can trust. Therefore, for them no other gods were to be allowed to exist besides him.
Even today God inextricably links the first commandment with his introductory assurance: I have delivered you from the house of slavery. I gave my Son for you, and he gave his blood. Therefore, the first thing I ask of you is that you come to know me rightly from the gospel. As it is written there, so I am truthfully am. Therefore, he wants me to “trust in him alone” and sooner let go of everything and everyone than that I would “do the least thing against his will”. In a profound way he asks of me that I “love, fear, and honour him with all my heart”.
All in all, this first commandment is his stirring call to serve him only and to expect all good from him alone — thanks to Christ.