The first commandment was first for a reason.
Martin Luther wrote on the first commandment in his larger catechism:
“That is: Thou shalt have [and worship] Me alone as thy God. What is the force of this, and how is it to be understood? What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust be right, then is your god also true; and, on the other hand, if your trust be false and wrong, then you have not the true God; for these two belong together faith and God. That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.
Therefore it is the intent of this commandment to require true faith and trust of the heart which settles upon the only true God and clings to Him alone. That is as much as to say: “See to it that you let Me alone be your God, and never seek another,” i.e.: Whatever you lack of good things, expect it of Me, and look to Me for it, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, creep and cling to Me. I, yes, I, will give you enough and help you out of every need; only let not your heart cleave to or rest in any other.”
If we flip through the pages of the Old Testament long enough, we will inevitably find the theme of Israel’s false hopes that they had trusted in. Idolatry was a running theme in those books. Many prophets likened this seeking of other deity to seeking out another lover (Hosea 4:12-14).
The New Testament also borrows on this idea of idolatry when Paul says of certain people that their “god” is their “appetite”. Of course, we don’t think that they literally worshipped their appetite, but this is an expression of idolatry. Paul also borrows the concept in Colossians 3:5;
Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.
And so, I think its safe to say that humanity has a worship problem (See Rom. 1:18-22). We are invariably inclined to worship something other than the God who made us for His worship, and thereby the deserve the wrath which we had coming to us. The examples of this tendency of false worship are legion; engaging both the living rooms in small-town America and court rooms in our city centers.
An Example From Isaiah
When we look at the book of Isaiah, God’s beef with the people of Israel takes on a slightly different form, namely covenants with other nations. While this might not be classified as “idolatry” it does reflect a heart that is turning to the Lord in trust but rather seeks protection from surrounding nations, like Egypt. This is obviously the case in Isaiah 28.
In 28:15, the Lord rebukes the leaders of Judah for making a covenant “with death”. God is calling out their covenant with Egypt to protect them from Assyria (most notably because He Himself is raising up Assyria to bring His judgement—see Is. 10:5). Regardless, God tells them that they shouldn’t have turned to other nations for safety they should have come to Him— like Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20.
In the midst of this interaction, notice how God speaks of their plan for self preservation;
The bed is too short on which to stretch out,
And the blanket is too small to wrap oneself in. (Is. 28:20)
God draws attention to the idea that their false refuge won’t provide them any rest. Its like a bed thats 6 inches shorter than you are, or like a blanket that isn’t wide enough to really cover your body—you’re never actually going to rest. Israel’s false hope in Egypt would turn out like a night of fidgeting and fighting—seeking out the comfort they so desperately needed but never actually finding it.
Isn’t this the way our Savior-replacements go? The Egypts of life hold out so much promise of deliverance, yet rarely deliver what they promised. In fact, the idols of our heart consistently need stroked and, often times, require larger sacrifice on our behalf for less return.
It stands to reason though, doesn’t it. God has made us for His purpose and when we live within His framework—keeping His first commandment we find life to Go easier. Transgression of that law is “hard” (Pr. 13:15).
And so, we have this massive irony whereby we turn to idols for comfort and yet find them decidedly uncomfortable. We pick up extra shifts at the job thinking that the extra money will afford a life of ease—but in the end, your work life crowds out your available time to enjoy your money. You think that a Saturday filled with Netflix binging will cure your stress problem, until the next Saturday’s workload is doubled. The stress alleviation provided by your morning run seems to provide diminishing returns, not to mention aching knees. All of these can be false hopes that never actually provide the comfort they promise.
We have to think of our idolatry as a contract whereby we promise to appease these idols with constant sacrifice so that they, in turn, provide us with comfort or pleasure, or whatever it is that we seek. But the fine print (which no sinner can read on his own) tells us that the sacrifice will grow increasingly larger and the payoff will shrink smaller throughout the life of the agreement. In the end, our idols promise large and deliver small. They hold out promise of comfort and ease but only bring complication.
A Necessary Remedy
But we find a familiar passage in Isaiah 28;
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD,
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone,
A costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed.
He who believes in it will not be disturbed.
“I will make justice the measuring line
And righteousness the level (Is. 28:16-17)
God has provided a means by which we would not be “disturbed”—namely, Jesus. Literally, the prophet is telling us that our trust in Jesus will not allow us to be “disturbed” or “hurried”. God promises to build His people shelter (notice the construction terminology—“cornerstone”,”measuring line”, “plumb line”) in the midst of their troubles. Long after their pact with Egypt falls apart, God would build them a shelter from their enemies in a person. And even after they tore that temple down, He would rebuild it in three days (John 2:19-22).
Tim Keller says it this way;
“The living God, who revealed Himself both at Mount Sinai and on the Cross, is the only Lord who, if you find Him, can truly fulfill you, and, if you fail Him, can truly forgive you.” (Counterfeit Gods, p. xxiv)
Only Jesus can provide us real rest (Heb. 4:9-10). We don’t have to live our remaining days running from one idol to another, frantically seeking some respite for our tired souls. All we need is Jesus, who grants us pardon from our past failures and holds out true fulfillment for future delight.