Fri May 14 Q 139 The Priority of the First Commandment
139. Why does He mention this at the beginning of His law?
To remind us how much we are bound to obey His good pleasure, and what gratitude it should be on our part if we do the contrary.
After leaving the application of the typology of the Exodus deliverance to the church – and that with reference to the necessity of our obedience to the Exodus Deliverer – the Catechism turns to the order of the commandments. In particular, it seeks to draw out the significance of the placing first in order both the identity of the Deliverer and the priority of the deliverer in the law of the lives of God’s people. As common in the earlier English understanding of the structuring of the commandments, the identity of the Lord as Deliverer is considered to be part of the first commandment.
The Catechism is right to wed the two ideas of identity and priority together, and also to recognize their placing in the Decalogue. For the priority – you shall have no other gods before Me – is based on the work of the Deliverer. The one providential over all is the same who redeemed his people from bondage and is leading them to a place of promise. He is sovereign, merciful and faithful toward his people, freeing them from a bondage of which they could not free themselves, and taking them to a place of pleasure of which they have never seen nor could imagine, nor are able to obtain on their own (cf. Dt. 6:10-11). To worship another god rather than this God would be wrong in light of his salvation and possession of them, and his promises to them. To worship another god also would have been detrimental to Israel, for they would move away from a relationship with sovereign, redeeming, merciful and faithful god, replacing him with gods who are not gods and attempting to live life without the backing of the power and love of the covenant-keeping God.
Moreover, all of the other commandments flow from the first. Israel could not live in peace, obtain the promises, or have the orderly structuring of the ceremonial, cultic, familial, or civil aspects of their society without the proper worship of their Savior. Without God above all, and thus an awareness of accountability to him, there would be no fear of taking his name in vain, no concern for keeping the personal and land Sabbaths, no need to honor father and mother, and no warrant for protecting the life, property, marriage, or testimony of their brother or alien. The worshipper could then seek earthly pleasure in the amoral freedoms offered under the systems of the idols of the nations. Again, however, this would be to the detriment of individual and community: There would be no hope of rest, no harmony in their homes, no regard for life, ownership or truth, and no protection from vigilante justice or savagery. When God is removed from first place, a situation is produced in which society gravitates toward the survival of the fittest and the rise of “superman” (übermensch).
We are bound to obey the Lord’s good pleasure. If not, we do so to our own peril. We should make it our aim to have no gods before our Redeemer, who elected us from eternity past and purchased us at the Cross by his blood. The first commandment establishes him in first place. He alone must be our priority, for he alone is our good and our God.