"You shall have no other gods before Me" : A Brief but Fresh Look at Dt. 5.7

This week I was translating what is perhaps the most famous section of the entire Bible: Deuteronomy 5.1-22 (The Ten Commandments). While translating verse 7, the first commandment, I came across something interesting, something I had never thought of before. In English, the verse reads, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Of course, this is God speaking to the Israelites. But the statement is rather interesting because that term “before” can be taken a couple of different ways (e.g. in terms of degree or in a locative sense).

In Hebrew, the word used for “before me” here, is ’el-panay. This term is associated with the word face and has a number of nuances to it (e.g. “face,” “above,” “presence,” etc.). A derivative of the same term is used in Genesis 1.2 “…darkness was upon the face of the deep.” However, it might well be the case that here, in Dt. 5.7, the term is supposed to be taken in a locative sense and thus, meant to connote “presence.”

One might even appeal to Dt. 5.4, which comes just a few lines earlier and uses the term twice (probably as a Hebraism, “face-to-face”). The idiom certainly denotes being in someone’s presence, face-to-face with them (in this case, God & Israel). If we remember, Moses had just finished giving a long lecture on idols and idolatry (4.15-31); the Israelites were not to have any idols in God’s presence—it detracted from and distracted true worship. Thus, one reading of the passage could be as follows: “You shall have no other gods in my presence.”

It is interesting to read the passage this way because now, while there is still some emphasis on priority, the passage suddenly becomes more focused on entering into a state of pure worship, not desecrating the covenant or the gift of worship. One cannot bring idols into God’s presence or before His face! Thus, while God is still to be number one, with no others in second, third or fourth places (and so on), He also desires true and pure worship. Here, we see a strict call to monotheism in a world that was plagued with pantheism. Here, too, we see worship that is focused on God, not a song set that talks all about me and how much I enjoy and reap benefits from God (perhaps the type of song list found in most 21st century American Church bulletins on Sundy morning). When we come into God’s presence, it is to glorify Him and Him alone; as a byproduct, the Body of Christ is edified but even this is to, and for, His glory.

Next time you enter into worship, keep these words in mind and be careful about how you enter into the presence of God. But also be reminded that His face is shining upon you with glowing exuberance, as Dt. 5.5 describes it, like a great “fire." May we all be immersed in the warm and loving presence of the one true and living God. Amen!

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