This week we come to Question 8 of the New City Catechism, found in Part 1 (questions 1-20), which focuses on God, creation and the fall, and the law.
Question 8: What is the law of God stated in the Ten Commandments?
1. You shall have no other gods before me.
2. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below—you shall not bow down to them or worship them.
3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
5. Honor your father and your mother.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not give false testimony.
10. You shall not covet.
The center of God’s covenant with Israel (the Mosaic Law) is the Ten Commandments. The first four of these commandments focus on Israel’s devotion to God, and the last six focus on how they are to treat others. We will focus on the first four today.
The first commandment—“You shall have no other gods before me”—sounds like it means, “You must put me first above all other gods.” But that’s not what “before me” means in the Hebrew. The words could be translated, “in my presence,” and the meaning is that God forbids Israel from having any other gods, period. He has claimed Israel as his own people, and thus the space they occupy is his space, where his presence dwells. No foreign gods are allowed among his people at all.
The second commandment forbids not only the worship of other gods, but also the representation of the true God by any visible images. Aaron violated this commandment when he made a golden calf to represent Yahweh on Mount Sinai (Exodus 32). If we ever tried to represent God by a visible image, we would obscure his glory and inevitably represent him in ways we want him to be, rather than who he truly is, which would constitute worshiping a false god.
The third commandment forbids taking God’s name in vain, or attempting to use his name for manipulative, “magical” purposes rather than in reverent submission to him. People who “name it and claim it,” or who claim as divine revelation what God has not spoken transgress this commandment.
The fourth commandment set the rhythm of Israel’s workweek to six days, followed by a day of rest. The Sabbath command teaches us that we were not made merely for work, but also for rest, enjoyment, and worship, and that our lives should be oriented to rhythms that show that we do not live only for work. Although the Sabbath command as given to Israel no longer applies directly to us in the new covenant era, the principle of prioritizing worship and rest in our schedules remains something that we must continue to practice.
Suggested passage for family or personal reading: Exodus 20:1-11. What does each commandment teach us about our obligation to God?