The First Commandment: "You shall have no other gods before Me"

THE FIRST COMMANDMENT : "I am the lord thy god, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them. I am the lord thy god, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, to the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."

"I am the Lord thy God"

The pastor should use his best endeavours to induce the faithful to keep continually in view these words: I am the Lord thy God. From them they will learn that their Lawgiver is none other than their Creator, by whom they were made and are preserved, and that they may truly repeat: He is the Lord our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. The frequent and earnest inculcation of these words will also serve to induce the faithful more readily to observe the Law and avoid sin.

"Who Brought thee out of the Land of Egypt, out of the House of Bondage"

The next words, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, seem to relate solely to the Jews liberated from the bondage of Egypt. But if we consider the meaning of the salvation of the entire human race, those words are still more applicable to Christians, who are liberated by God not from the bondage of Egypt, but from the slavery of sin and the powers of darkness, and are translated into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Contemplating the greatness of this favour, Jeremias foretold: Behold the days come, saith the Lord, when it shall be said no more: The Lord liveth that brought forth. the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; but: The Lord liveth that brought the children of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands to which I cast them out; and I will bring them again into their land which gave to their fathers. Behold, I send many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them, etc. And, indeed, our most indulgent Father has gathered together, through His beloved Son, His children that were dispersed, that being made free from sin and made the servants of justice, we may serve before him in holiness and justice all our days.'

Against every temptation, therefore, the faithful should arm themselves with these words of the Apostle as with a shield: Shall we who are dead to sin live any longer therein? We are no longer our own, we are His who died and rose again for us. He is the Lord our God who has purchased us for Himself at the price of His blood. Shall we then be any longer capable of sinning against the Lord our God, and crucifying Him again? Being made truly free, and with that liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, let us, as we heretofore yielded our members to serve injustice, henceforward yield them to serve justice to sanctification.

"Thou shalt not have Strange Gods before Me"

The pastor should teach that the first part of the Decalogue contains our duties towards God; the second part, our duties towards our neighbour. The reason (for this order) is that the services we render our neighbour are rendered for the sake of God; for then only do we love our neighbour as God commands when we love him for God's sake. The Commandments which regard God are those which were inscribed on the first table of the Law.

The Above Words Contain A Command And A Prohibition

(The pastor) should next show that the words just quoted contain a twofold precept, the one mandatory, the other prohibitory. When it is said: Thou shalt not have strange gods before me, it is equivalent to saying: Thou shalt worship me the true God; thou shalt not worship strange gods.

What They Command

The (mandatory part) contains a precept of faith, hope and charity. For, acknowledging God to be immovable, immutable, always the same, we rightly confess that He is faithful and entirely just. Hence in assenting to His oracles, we necessarily yield to Him all belief and obedience. Again, who can contemplate His omnipotence, His clemency, His willing beneficence, and not repose in Him all his hopes? Finally, who can behold the riches of His goodness and love, which He lavishes on us, and not love Him? Hence the exordium and the conclusion used by God in Scripture when giving His commands: I, the Lord.

What They Forbid

The (negative) part of this Commandment is comprised in these words: Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. This the Lawgiver subjoins, not because it is not sufficiently expressed in the affirmative part of the precept, which means: Thou shalt worship me, the only God, for if He is God, He is the only God; but on account of the blindness of many who of old professed to worship the true God and yet adored a multitude of gods. Of these there were many even among the Hebrews, whom Elias reproached with having halted between two sides, and also among the Samaritans, who worshipped the God of Israel and the gods of the nations.

Importance Of This Commandment

After this it should be added that this is the first and principal Commandment, not only in order, but also in its nature, dignity and excellence. God is entitled to infinitely greater love and obedience from us than any lord or king. He created us, He governs us, He nurtured us even in the womb, brought us into the world, and still supplies us with all the necessaries of life and maintenance.

Sins Against This Commandment

Against this Commandment all those sin who have not faith. hope and charity. such sinners are very numerous, for they include all who fall into heresy, who reject what holy mother the Church proposes for our belief, who give credit to dreams. fortune­telling, and such illusions; those who, despairing of salvation, trust not in the goodness of God; and those who rely solely on wealth, or health and strength of body. But these matters are developed more at length in treatises on sins and vices.

Veneration And Invocation Of Angels And Saints Not Forbidden By This Commandment

In explanation of this Commandment it should be accurately taught that the veneration and invocation of holy Angels and of the blessed who now enjoy the glory of heaven, and likewise the honour which the Catholic Church has always paid even to the bodies and ashes of the Saints, are not forbidden by this Commandment. If a king ordered that no one else should set himself up as king, or accept the honours due to the royal person, who would be so foolish as to infer that the sovereign was unwilling that suitable honour and respect should be paid to his magistrates? Now although Christians follow the example set by the Saints of the Old Law, and are said to adore the Angels, yet they do not give to Angels that honour which is due to God alone.

And if we sometimes read that Angels refused to be worshipped by men, we are to know that they did so because the worship which they refused to accept was the honour due to God alone.

It Is Lawful To Honour And Invoke The Angels

The Holy Spirit who says: Honour and glory to God alone, commands us also to honour our parents and elders; and the holy men who adored one God only are also said in Scripture to have adored, that is, supplicated and venerated kings. If then kings, by whose agency God governs the world, are so highly honoured, shall it be deemed unlawful to honour those angelic spirits whom God has been pleased to constitute His ministers, whose services He makes use of not only in the government of His Church, but also of the universe, by whose aid, although we see them not, we are every day delivered from the greatest dangers of soul and body ? Are they not worthy of far greater honour, since their dignity so far surpasses that of kings?

Add to this their love towards us, which, as we easily see from Scripture, prompts them to pour out their prayers for those countries over which they are placed, as well as for us whose guardians they are, and whose prayers and tears they present before the throne of God Hence our Lord admonishes us in the Gospel not to offend the little ones because their angels in heaven always see the face of their Father who is in heaven.

Their Intercession, therefore, we ought to invoke, because they always see tile face of God, and are constituted by Him the willing advocates of our salvation. The Scriptures bear witness to such invocation. Jacob entreated the Angel with whom he wrestled to bless him; nay, he even compelled him, declaring that he would not let him go until he had blessed him. And not only did he invoke the blessing of the Angel whom he saw, but also of him whom he saw not. The angel, said he, who delivers me from all evils, bless these boys.

It Is Lawful To Honour And Invoke The Saints

From all this we may conclude that to honour the Saints who nave slept in the Lord, to invoke them, and to venerate their sacred relics and ashes, far from diminishing, tends considerably to increase the glory of God, in proportion as man's hope is thus animated and fortified, and he himself encouraged to imitate the Saints.

This is a practice which is also supported by the authority' of the second Council of Nice, the Councils of Gangra, and of Trent, and by the testimony of the Fathers. In order, however, that the pastor may be the better prepared to meet the objections of those who deny this doctrine, he should consult particularly St. Jerome against Vigilantius and St. Damascene. To the teaching of these Fathers should be added as a consideration of prime importance that the practice was received from the Apostles, and has always been retained and preserved in the Church of God.

But who can desire a stronger or more convincing proof than that which is supplied by the admirable praises given in Scripture to the Saints? For there are not wanting eulogies which God Himself pronounced on some of the Saints. If, then, Holy Writ celebrates their praises, why should not men show them singular honour ?

A stronger claim which the Saints have to be honoured and invoked is that they constantly pray for our salvation and obtain for us by their merits and influence many blessings from God. If there is joy in heaven over the conversion of one sinner, will not the citizens of heaven assist those who repent? When they are invoked, will they not obtain for us the pardon of sins, and the grace of God ?

Objections Answered

Should it be said, as some say, that the patronage of the Saints is unnecessary, because God hears our prayers without the intervention of a mediator, this impious assertion is easily met by the observation of St. Augustine: There are many things which God does not grant without a mediator and intercessor. This is confirmed by the well­known examples of Abimelech and the friends of Job who were pardoned only through the prayers of Abraham and of Job

Should it be alleged that to recur to the patronage and intercession of the Saints argues want or weakness of faith, what will (the objectors) answer regarding the centurion whose faith was highly eulogised by the Lord God Himself, despite the fact that he had sent to the Redeemer the ancients of the Jews, to intercede for his sick servant?

True, there is but one Mediator, Christ the Lord, who alone has reconciled us to the heavenly Father through His blood, and who, having obtained eternal redemption, and having entered once into the holies, ceases not to intercede for us. But it by no means follows that it is therefore unlawful to have recourse to the intercession of the Saints. If, because we have one Mediator Jesus Christ, it were unlawful to ask the intercession of the Saints, the Apostle would never have recommended himself with so much earnestness to the prayers of his brethren on earth. For the prayers of the living would lessen the glory and dignity of Christ's Mediatorship not less than the intercession of the Saints in heaven.

The Honour And Invocation Of Saints Is Approved By Miracles

But who would not be convinced of the honour due the Saints and of the help they give us by the wonders wrought at their tombs? Diseased eyes, hands, and other members are restored to health; the dead are raised to life, and demons are expelled from the bodies of men ! These are facts which St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, most unexceptionable witnesses, declare in their writings, not that they heard, as many did, nor that they read, as did man­ very reliable men, but that they saw.

But why multiply proofs? If the clothes, the handkerchiefs, and even the very shadows of the Saints, while yet on earth, banished disease and restored health, who will have the hardihood to deny that God can still work the same wonders by the holy ashes, the bones and other relics of the Saints ? Of this we have a proof in the restoration to life of the dead body which was accidentally let down into the grave of Eliseus, and which, on touching the body (of the Prophet), was instantly restored to life.

"Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth: thou shalt not adore them nor serve them"

Some, supposing these words which come next in order to constitute a distinct precept, reduce the ninth and tenth Commandments to one. St. Augustine, on the contrary, considering the last two to be distinct Commandments, makes the words just quoted a part of the first Commandment. His division is much approved in the Church, and hence we willingly adopt it. Furthermore, a very good reason for this arrangement at once suggests itself. It was fitting that to the first Commandment should be added the rewards or punishments entailed by each one of the Commandments.

The Above Words Do Not Forbid All Images

Let no one think that this Commandment entirely forbids the arts of painting, engraving or sculpture. The Scriptures inform us that God Himself commanded to be made images of Cherubim, and also the brazen serpent. The interpretation, therefore, at which we must arrive, is that images are prohibited only inasmuch as they are used as deities to receive adoration, and so to injure the true worship of God.

They Forbid Idols And Representations Of The Deity

As far as this Commandment is concerned, it is clear that there are two chief ways in which God's majesty can be seriously outraged. The first way is by worshipping idols and images as God, or believing that they possess any divinity or virtue entitling them to our worship, by praying to, or reposing confidence in them, as the Gentiles did, who placed their hopes in idols, and whose idolatry the Scriptures frequently condemn. The other way is by attempting to form a representation of the Deity, as if He were visible to mortal eyes, or could be reproduced by colours or figures. Who, says Damascene, can represent God, invisible, as He is, incorporeal, uncircumscribed by limits, and incapable of being reproduced under any shape. This subject is treated more at large in the second Council of Nice. Rightly, then, did the Apostles say (of the Gentiles): They changed the glory of the incorruptible God into a likeness of birds, and of four­footed beasts, and of creeping things; for they worshipped all these things as God, seeing that they made the images of these things to represent Him. Hence the Israelites, when they exclaimed before the image of the calf: These are thy gods, Israel, that have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, are denounced as idolaters, because they changed their glory into the likeness of a calf that eateth grass.

When, therefore, the Lord had forbidden the worship of strange gods, He also forbade the making of an image of the Deity from brass or other materials, in order thus utterly to do away with idolatry. It is this that Isaias declares when he asks: To whom then have you likened God, or what image will you make for hill? That this is the meaning of the prohibition contained in the Commandment is proved, not only from the writings of the holy Fathers, who, as may be seen in the seventh General Council, give to it this interpretation: but is also clearly declared in these words of Deuteronomy, by which Moses sought to withdraw the people from the worship of idols: You saw not, he says, any similitude in the day that the Lord spoke to you in Horeb, from the midst of the fire. These words this wisest of legislators spoke, lest through error of any sort, they should make an image of the Deity, and transfer to any thing created, the honour due to God.

They Do Not Forbid Representations Of The Divine Persons And Angels

To represent the Persons of the Holy Trinity by certain forms under which they appeared in the Old and New Testaments no one should deem contrary to religion or the law of God. For who can be so ignorant as to believe that such forms are representations of the Deity? ­­ forms, as the pastor should teach, which only express some attribute or action ascribed to God. Thus when from the description of Daniel God is painted as the Ancient of days, seated on a throne, with the books opened before hint, the eternity of God is represented and also the infinite wisdom, by which He sees and judges all the thoughts and actions of men.'

Angels, also, are represented under human form and with wings to give us to understand that they are actuated by benevolent feelings towards mankind, and are always prepared to execute the Lord's commands; for they are all ministering spirits, sent to minister for them who shall receive the inheritance of salvation.

What attributes of the Holy Ghost are represented under the forms of a dove, and of tongues of fire, in the Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, is a matter too well known to require lengthy explanation.

They Do Not Forbid Images Of Christ And The Saints

But to make and honour the images of Christ our Lord, of His holy and virginal Mother, and of the Saints, all of whom were clothed with human nature and appeared in human form, is not only not forbidden by this Commandment, but has always been deemed a holy practice and a most sure indication of gratitude. This position is confirmed by the monuments of the Apostolic age, the General Councils of the Church, and the writings of so many among the Fathers, eminent alike for sanctity and learning, all of whom are of one accord upon the subject.

Usefulness Of Sacred Images

But the pastor should not content himself with showing that it is lawful to have images in churches, and to pay them honour and respect, since this respect is referred to their prototypes. He should also show that the uninterrupted observance of this practice down to the present day has been attended with great advantage to the faithful, as may be seen in the work of Damascene on images, and in the seventh General Council, the second of Nice.

But as the enemy of mankind, by his wiles and deceits, seeks to pervert even the most holy institutions, should the faithful happen at all to offend in this particular, the pastor, in accordance with the decree of the Council of Trent's should use every exertion in his power to correct such an abuse, and, if necessary, explain the decree itself to the people.

He will also inform the unlettered and those who may be ignorant of the use of images, that they are intended to instruct in the history of the Old and New Testaments, and to revive from time to time their memory; that thus, moved by the contemplation of heavenly things, we may be the more ardently inflamed to adore and love God Himself. He should, also, point out that the images of the Saints are placed in churches, not only to be honoured, but also that they may admonish us by their examples to imitate their lives and virtues.

"I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, to the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."

In this concluding clause of this Commandment two things occur which demand careful exposition. The first is, that while, on account of the enormous guilt incurred by the violation of the first Commandment, and the propensity of man towards its violation, the punishment is properly indicated in this place, it is also attached to all the other Commandments.

Every law enforces its observance by rewards and punishments; and hence the frequent and numerous promises of God in Sacred Scripture. To omit those that we meet almost on every page of the Old Testament, it is written in the Gospel: If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments; and again: He that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; and also: Every tree that doth not yield good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire; Whosoever is angry with his brother shall be guilty of the judgment; If you will not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offences.

How The Sanction Contained In The Above Words Should Be Proposed

The other observation is that this concluding part (of the Commandment) is to be proposed in a very different manner to the spiritual and to the carnal Christian. To the spiritual who is animated by the Spirit of God, and who yields to Him a willing and cheerful obedience, it is, in some sort, glad tidings and a strong proof of the divine goodness towards him. In it he recognises the care of his most loving God, who, now by rewards, now by punishments, almost compels His creatures to adore and worship Him. The spiritual man acknowledges the infinite goodness of God towards himself in vouchsafing to issue His commands to him and to make use of his service to the glory of the divine name. And not only does he acknowledge the divine goodness, he also cherishes a strong hope that when God commands what He pleases, He will also give strength to fulfil hat He commands.

But to the carnal man, who is not yet freed from a servile spirit and who abstains from sin more through fear of punishment than love of virtue, (this sanction) of the divine law, which closes each of the Commandments, is burdensome and severe. Wherefore they should be encouraged by pious exhortation, and led by the hand, as it were, in the way of the law. The pastor, therefore, as often as he has occasion to explain any of the Commandments should keep this in view.


But both the carnal and the spiritual should be spurred on, especially by two considerations which are contained in this concluding clause, and are highly calculated to enforce obedience to the divine law.

The one is that God is called the strong. That appellation needs to be fully expounded; because the flesh, unappalled by the terrors of the divine menaces, frequently indulges in the foolish expectation of escaping, in one way or another, God's wrath and threatened punishment. But when one is deeply impressed with the conviction that God is the strong, he will exclaim with the great David: Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I pee from thy face?

The flesh, also, distrusting the promises of God, sometimes magnifies the power of the enemy to such an extent, as to believe itself unable to withstand his assaults; while, on the contrary, a firm and unshaken faith, which wavers not, but relies confidently on the strength and power of God, animates and confirms man. For it says: The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?


The second spur is the jealousy of God. Man is sometimes tempted to think that God takes no interest in human affairs, and does not even care whether we observe or neglect His law. This error is the source of the great disorders of life. But when we believe that God is a jealous God, the thought easily keeps us within the limits of our duty.

The jealousy attributed to God does not, however, imply disturbance of mind; it is that divine love and charity by which God will suffer no human creature to be unfaithful to Him with impunity, and which destroys all those who are disloyal to Him. The jealousy of God, therefore, is the most tranquil and impartial justice, which repudiates as an adulteress the soul corrupted by. erroneous opinions and criminal passions.

This jealousy of God, since it shows His boundless and incomprehensible goodness towards us, we find most sweet and pleasant. Among men there is no love more ardent, no greater or more intimate tie, than that of those who are united by marriage. Hence when God frequently compares Himself to a spouse or husband and calls Himself a jealous God, He shows the excess of His love towards us.

Zeal In The Service Of God

The pastor, therefore, should here teach that men should be so warmly interested in promoting the worship and honour of God as to be said rather to be jealous of Him than to love Him, in imitation of Him who says of Himself: With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts, or rather of Christ Himself, who says: The zeal of thy house hath eaten me up.

"Visiting The Iniquity," Etc.

Concerning the threat contained in this Commandment it should be explained that God will not suffer sinners to go unpunished, but will chastise them as a father, or punish them with the rigour and severity of a judge. This was elsewhere explained by Moses when he said: Thou shalt know that the Lord thy God is a strong and faithful God, keeping his covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments, unto a thousand generations; and repaying forthwith them that hate him. You will not, says Josue, be able to serve the Lord; for he is a holy God, and mighty and jealous, and will not forgive your wickedness and sins. If you leave the Lord and serve strange gods, he will turn and will afflict you, and will destroy you.

The faithful are also to be taught that the punishments here threatened await the third and fourth generation of the impious and wicked; not that the children are always chastised for the sins of their ancestors, but that while these and their children may go unpunished, their posterity shall not all escape the wrath and vengeance of the Almighty. This happened in the case of King Josias. God had spared him for his singular piety, and allowed him to be gathered to the tomb of his fathers in peace, that his eyes might not behold the evils of the times that were to befall Juda and Jerusalem, on account of the wickedness of his grandfather Manasses; yet, after his death the divine vengeance so overtook his posterity that even the children of Josias were not spared.

How the words of this Commandment are not at variance with the statement of the Prophet: The soul that sins shall die, is clearly shown by the authority of St. Gregory, supported by the testimony of all the ancient Fathers. Whoever, he says, follows the bad example of a wicked father is also bound by his sins; but he who does not follow the example of his father, shall not at all suffer for the sins of the father Hence it follows that a wicked son, who dreads not to add his own malice to the vices of his father, by which he knows the divine wrath to have been excited, pays the penalty not only of his own sins, but also of those of his father. It is just that he who dreads not to walk in the footsteps of a wicked father, in presence of a rigorous judge, should be compelled in the present life to expiate the crimes of his wicked parent.

"And Showing Mercy, Etc.

The pastor should next observe that the goodness and mercy of God far exceed His justice. He is angry to the third and fourth generation; but He bestows His mercy on thousands.

"Of Them That Hate Me"

The words of them that hate me display the grievousness of sin. What more wicked, what more detestable than to hate God, the supreme goodness and sovereign truth? This, however, is the crime of all sinners; for as he that hath God's commandments and keepeth them, loveth God, so he who despises His law and violates His Commandments, is justly said to hate God.

Of Them That Love Me

The concluding words: And to them that love me, point out the manner and motive of observing the law. Those who obey the law of God must needs be influenced in its observance by the same love and charity which they bear to God, a principle which should be brought to mind in the instructions on all the other Commandments.