Ancient Israel, almost alone among the peoples among the peoples of the ancient world, held to the belief that there is only one God, the Maker of heaven and earth. Most of the surrounding nations were polytheistic and idolaters. They worshipped a variety of anthropomorphic deities. How, then, did Israel come to be so different?
The answer recorded in Scripture is that God chose to reveal Himself to Israel, especially through the prophet Moses. And the introduction to that revelation came in the form of the Ten Commandments given at Mt. Sinai. And the first two of those Commandments stated in bold terms the basic premises of monotheistic religion.
The First Commandment states simply that “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Ex. 20:3; NKJV). Unlike the surrounding pagan nations Israel was to worship only one God. Moreover they were told, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image – any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them” (vv. 4,5c). The implication here is that there is only one true God, and that He cannot be compared with any earthly thing. He alone is the Creator. Thus to represent Him in the form of a heavenly body or an earthly being would do a grave injustice to what God really is, and is positively insulting and offensive to Him.
But then God gives a reason for all of this. “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God . . .” (v. 5). What this points to is that God is not just an abstract philosophical principle to be contemplated intellectually. Rather, He is a conscious, intelligent, personal Being who created us for His own purposes; and thus He wants us to know Him on a personal level. If then we worship some other god, who is no god at all, we are being unfaithful to the true and living God to whom we owe our very existence.
And this, in turn, introduces a moral principle. For God goes on to say that He is “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me” (v. 5). Here idolatry is viewed as an “iniquity” or crime, and is punishable as such. In other words, we are responsible for our actions and will be held accountable accordingly. To “visit the iniquity” means essentially to punish the crime. And God does this “on the children of the third and fourth generations.” Sad to say, descendants often suffer the consequences of their ancestors’ bad decisions. And the reason for this stern judgment is that, at the bottom of it, the reason that people worship other gods than the one true God (or worship no god at all) is because they “hate” Him (v. 5). People do not want God in their lives.
But, on the other hand, God is “showing mercy [or, “lovingkindness,” NASV] to thousands, to those who love Me . . .” (v. 6). God is by nature loving and compassionate, and He desires to have a relationship with us.
But then this points to the nature of morality itself. What ultimately makes an action morally right or wrong? Philosophers have wrestled with the question for literally thousands of years, but the answer that the Bible gives is that it is a matter of keeping God’s commandments (v. 6). This is sometimes dismissed as “the divine command theory.” And yet if God is our Creator, the sovereign Lord of the universe, and in the end our Judge, He is the One who determines right and wrong. We are obligated to obey Him.
This, then, is the essence of monotheism. It is a worldview distinct from all pagan and secular systems of thought, and it has far-reaching implications for us as human beings. If it is true that we were created by a personal, rational Supreme Being we owe Him our love and obedience. And in the end no other system of thought offers an adequate explanation of reality.