OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.
THE FIRST COMMANDMENT.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
That is, you should regard me alone as your God. What does this signify, and how should it be understood? What is it to have a god, or what is God? Answer:– A god signifies a being to whom we should look for all good, and to whom we should have recourse in every necessity; so that, to have a god, is nothing else but to rely on and to believe in him cordially; as I have frequently asserted, that it depends on the confidence of the heart alone whether we have the true God or an idol. if, then, your faith and confidence are right, your god is also right: and again, if your confidence is false and incorrect, your god is likewise untrue; for these two belong together, faith and God. Upon whatever, then, I say, you depend and have your heart fixed, that is properly your god.
Wherefore, the meaning of this commandment is, that it requires of the heart true faith and confidence, which approaches to and depends alone upon the true and only God. And it would indicate as much as this: Be careful, and allow me alone to be your God, and do not seek after any other; that is, look unto me for whatever good is wanting with you, and seek it from me, and if you suffer want and misfortune, come and depend on me, I, I will give you sufficient, and relieve you of every need, only let your heart cleave to or rest on no other.
This I must explain by ordinary examples, in order that it may be understood and observed. Many believe they have God with all abundance, when they possess money and goods, on which they rely with so much pride and confidence, as to have no regard for any one else. Behold! these also have their god, which is called Mammon,– an idol the most extensively adored on earth,– gold and property,– upon which they have fixed all their affections. Whoever possesses treasures of gold and of wealth, feels secure, full of joy, and free from alarm, as if in the midst of Paradise. Whoever, on the other hand, possesses no wealth, trembles with doubt and fear, as if he had no idea of a God. For we shall find but few, who are not disheartened, and do not mourn or complain, when they have not Mammon, to which nature cleaves and adheres through life.
In like manner, he who relies and presumes on his great ingenuity, erudition, power, influence, dignity, and friends, has a god also, but not the true and only God. You can always perceive without difficulty, how confident, secure, and haughty we are who enjoy such advantages, and how desperate and abject we are, when we do not possess these, or when they are withdrawn from us. I therefore say again, that the true interpretation of this expression, to have a god, is to have something upon which the heart wholly depends.
Consider, again, what follies we have hitherto pursued, and what we have done through blindness under the Papacy. When any one had pain in his teeth, he had recourse to, and adored St. Apollonia; if he was fearful that his property would be consumed by fire, he sought the assistance of St. Laurence; if he was in fear of pestilence, he paid his vows to St. Sebastian or Rochio, and similar abominations besides, without number, were practised, in which each one chose his own saints, invoking and imploring them for aid in time of need. To this class those also belong, who exceed every limit in these things, forming an alliance with Satan, in order that he may give them a sufficiency of money, or aid them in intrigue, or protect their stock, or restore their lost property, &c., as magicians and necromancers; for all these place their hearts and confidence elsewhere, rather than upon the true God, neither do they expect or seek any good from him.
In this manner, then, you easily understand what and how much this commandment requires, namely, the whole heart of man, and entire confidence upon God alone and no other. For you will be at no loss to judge, that to have God, is not an ability to seize or grasp him with your hands, or to enclose him in a purse, or to secure him in a chest: but this is apprehending him, when the heart embraces him and cleaves to him. To cleave unto him with the heart, however, is nothing else, but to depend upon him wholly. For this reason he desires to divert us from all external things, and to draw us unto himself, because he is the only eternal good. As if he should say: all that you have hitherto sought from the saints, and for which you have depended upon Mammon, or upon some other source, expect of me, and esteem me as him who will assist you, and bless you abundantly with all good.
From this, then, you can form an idea of what the true honor and worship of God are, which are acceptable to him, and which he also commands under the penalty of eternal wrath; namely, that the heart should have no consolation and confidence but in him, and should not permit itself to be torn away from him, hazarding and encountering all that is upon earth for him. On the other hand, you can easily perceive and judge how the world practise idolatry and mere false services to God; for there never has been a nation so profligate, as not to have established and observed some kind of worship; for all have assigned unto themselves a certain god to be reverenced, unto whom they looked for blessings, assistance, and consolation.
As for example, the heathen, who placed their hope on power and dominion, elevated their Jupiter as Supreme God; others, who sought after riches, voluptuousness, prosperity, and success, venerated Hercules, Mercury, Venus, or others. Pregnant females, claimed Diana or Lucina for protection. And thus, to whatever each one's heart inclines he makes it a god; so that, properly, even according to the view of all heathen, to have a god, is to trust and believe. But the defect exists in this, that their confidence is false and incorrect; for it is not based on the only true God, without whom there is really no god, either in heaven or on earth.
Wherefore, the heathen really constitute an idol out of their own fantasies and dreams which they form concerning God, and rely on a mere nonentity. This is plainly the case with all idolatry. For it does not consist merely in the erection and adoration of an image; but especially, does it consist in the heart which is intent on something else, seeking help and consolation from creatures, saints or demons, and not embracing God, nor regarding him as merciful as he really is; much less believing that the good which it receives, proceeds from him.
There is, moreover, another species of false service to God and of extreme idolatry, which we have hitherto exercised, and which still prevails in the world, and upon which all ecclesiastical orders are based, which refers to the conscience alone. It is seeking assistance, comfort, and salvation in our own self-devised works, presuming to wrest heaven from God, and estimating the number of institutions we have founded, how often we have fasted, held masses, &c.; which relies on and glories in these things, as if it would receive nothing from him as a favor, but desires to acquire or superabundantly to merit it of itself, precisely as if God must be at our service, and our debtor, but we his creditors. What else is this, but constituting out of God a useless representation, yes, an idol, (Pomona, Apfelgott,) and regarding and elevating one's self as God? But this is rather too subtile to be comprehended by young pupils.
But in order that they may correctly observe and retain the meaning of this commandment, this may be mentioned to the inexperienced, that we should rely upon God alone, and look unto him for all good, and await it from him, as the one who gives us body, life, meat, drink, nourishment, health, protection, peace, and all temporal and spiritual blessings; and in addition, guards us against every misfortune, and if any adversity befalls us, he aids and delivers us; so that God alone, as fully stated, is he from whom we receive all good, and by whom we are delivered from every misfortune. Hence, I conclude that we Germans, from ancient times, call God (more beautifully and elegantly, than any other language) even by this name, deriving it from the word Gut (good), as he who is an eternal fountain-head which overflows with pure good, and from which issues all that is and can be called good.
For even if much good is otherwise obtained from men, it is, however, still received from God; for it is effected through his command and order. For our parents and all who are in authority, are commanded to do all kinds of generous offices to us, as well as each one towards his neighbor; so that we do not receive these from them, but from God through them. For the creatures are only the hand, the channel, and the medium, through which God gives all things, as he gives the mother's breasts and milk to nourish her infant, and grain and every kind of vegetables springing from the earth for support; none of which blessings or products a creature is able to produce by himself.
For this reason, no person should undertake to receive or to present any thing, unless it be commanded of God, that it be acknowledged as his gift, and thanks returned to him for it, as this commandment requires. These media, therefore, for the reception of benefits through the creatures, are not to be rejected; nor should other ways and means than those which God has commanded, be sought through presumption; for this is not receiving from God, but seeking from one's self.
Let each one, then, be careful in himself that this commandment above all things, be greatly and highly esteemed, and that it be not regarded with derision. Ask and search your own heart carefully, and you will truly discover whether it cleaves to God alone, or not. If you have a heart which can look unto him for all good, especially in time of need and want, as well as reject and forsake all that is not God, you have the true and the only God. Again, if it cleaves to something else, from which it expects more benefits and assistance, than from God, and does not approach him, but flees from him, when adversity surrounds it,– you have an idol.
In order, then, to let us now that it is not the will of God that this commandment should be lightly esteemed, but sincerely observed, he has adjoined to it, first, a terrible menace, afterwards, a beautiful and consolatory promise; which should be diligently urged and impressed upon young people, so that they may take them into consideration, and retain them:
"I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."
These words relate, indeed, to all the commandments, as we shall hereafter show, but they are here applied, with great justice, to this chief commandment, as the human body is guided by the wisdom and prudence of the head, upon which the happiness of life chiefly depends. Learn, then, from these words the wrath of God against that man who depends on any other being; that his anger ceases not even to the fourth generation; that we are not so secure, so well fortified as the undevout imagine, who pretend that little depends upon these things. On the contrary let us learn how benevolent and gracious he is, how his beneficent goodness extends over many thousands of those who trust and believe in him with their whole heart. He is a God who does not suffer us to turn away from him with impunity; nor will his anger subside till in the fourth generation, even until we shall be entirely exterminated. He, therefore, wishes to be feared,– not to be despised.
This he has also shown in all past history, as the Scriptures abundantly testify, and experience still teaches daily; for from the beginning he has entirely extirpated all idolatry, and, on account of it, has overthrown both Jews and Gentiles, as he now in our day also overthrows all false worship, so that ultimately, all, who persist in it, must be destroyed. Therefore, although, at the present day, haughty, mighty, and opulent misers are found, who insolently depend on their mammon, disregardful of God's anger or pleasure, as if they would without hesitation venture to withstand his wrath; yet they shall, however, not be able to accomplish it, but before they are aware of it, they shall be wrecked with all upon which they have depended, even as all others have been destroyed, who presumed to be more secure and powerful.
And on account of these obstinate persons who imagine that because God conceives for a time, and permits them to rest in their security, that he is unconscious of it, or feels no concern about it, he must necessarily execute his wrath and his punishment, since he cannot forget it until it is visited on children's children, so that every one may perceive and observe that with him there is no jest. For these are those to whom he refers, when he says: "Them that hate me;" that is, those who persist in their pride and haughtiness, unwilling to hear that which is preached or proclaimed to them. If they are reproved, so that they may judge themselves and amend their lives, before punishment is executed, they become furious and enraged, so that they really deserve wrath; as we daily experience at the present time in bishops and princes.
But terrible as are these menacing words, so much the more powerful is the consolation contained in the promise, that those confiding in God alone, shall be certain that he will manifest mercy to them; that is, exhibit pure goodness and favor, not only to them, but also to their children, unto thousands and thousands of generations. This should indeed move and urge us to place our hearts on God, with full confidence, if we desire to have all blessings, temporal and eternal, since the Supreme Majesty itself so kindly offers, so affectionately induces, and so abundantly promises.
Let each one, then, reflect seriously and profoundly upon this matter, so that it may not be regarded as having been declared by a man; for it effects for you either eternal salvation, blessings, and happiness, or everlasting wrath, misery, and grief. What more would you have or desire, than his promise so affectionate, that he will be yours with every blessing, and protect and assist you in every necessity? But alas! here is the defect, the world does not believe any of these, or regard them as being the words of God, because it sees that those who place their trust in God, and not on mammon, suffer grief and want, and the devil opposes and resists them, so that they may obtain no money, favor, or honor, nay, scarcely sustain life. Again, those who serve mammon, have power, favor, honor, and wealth, and every convenience in the sight of the world. We must, therefore, embrace these words, even in opposition to this apparent contradiction, and know that they do not lie or deceive, but that they must be verified.
Reflect for yourself, or make inquiry, and tell me, what have those ultimately accomplished, who have devoted their whole care and attention to the accumulation of great wealth and possessions? And descend even to the third generation. You will find examples enough in all history and in the experience of aged persons, to this effect; only observe them, and turn your attention to them. Saul was an illustrious king, chosen of God, and a pious man; but when he was established on his throne, and permitted his heart to decline from God, depending on his crown and power, he lost all his authority and possessions, with all that he had, even so that none of his children survived. Again, David was a poor man, so persecuted and despised, that his life was nowhere secure; yet he was to be preferred to Saul, and become king; for these words had to continue and be verified, since God cannot lie or deceive. Do not then allow the devil and the world to deceive you with the outward appearance, which truly endures for a time, but ultimately vanishes.
Let us, therefore, carefully study the first commandment, so that we may see that God will not suffer any presumption or reliance on any thing else, and that he requires nothing more of us than a cordial confidence of all good from himself, in order that we may proceed judiciously and correctly, and use all the blessings which he confers, not otherwise than a mechanic uses his tools or materials in his vocation, and afterwards places them away; or, than a traveller enjoys an inn, nourishment, and a couch; only for temporal necessaries,– each one in his condition according to the order of God, not permitting any thing to become his lord or idol. This is sufficient concerning the first commandment, which it was necessary for us to explain at length, since upon it the sum and source of all piety turn, becaise, as we have already said, if the heart is reconciled with God, and this commandment is observed, all the others follow properly.