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THE FIRST COMMANDMENT.
I am the Lord thy God.-Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.
I. THE first thing which the text presents to our observation is that there is only one God; that is, one supreme and almighty Being, endued with all perfections, by whom all things were made, and are governed, and upon whom their continuance depends; who in times past manifested himself to our first parents, and to the patriarchs, gave the law by Moses, instructed the Jews by a succession of prophets, and then revealed himself to the world by his only begotten Son, and who in the New Testament is called, The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.-The wisest and best men in the heathen nations have seen and maintained a doctrine of one God; and even though they worshipped gods many and lords many, yet they generally held one God in a true and eminent sense, one Supreme and Independent; and other deities, as inferiour to him, as his children, his offspring, his agents, and ministers in various parts of the world. So deeply was the unity of God impressed in the minds of men, and so hard was it to be effaced by tyranny, vice, and ignorance !
II. The second thing contained in the text is, that God alone is to be served and worshipped.
To acknowledge him and him only to be God, must be understood to signify every virtuous and religious principle and habit by which a due regard is showed to God in our thoughts and affections, in our speech and conversation, and in the actions of our life.
To worship God as it relates to our thoughts, judgments, sentiments, and affections, implies a firm belief of his existence, not a speculative faith, but a rational considerate practical persuasion impressed on our minds that he is the author, preserver, governour and director of the universe. From this belief will arise just and honourable notions of his perfections; and from a serious consideration of his perfections will arise a settled veneration, and that habitual reverence, gratitude and sense of duty, which to Him who seeth the heart is the most acceptable part of worship.
The worship of God implies also a suitable and visible confession of our inward affections. It is our duty not only to have a constant sense of God upon our minds, but to honour him also before men, and industriously to promote the knowledge of him, and of his holy will, and the love of virtue and of truth. We are obliged to make profession of our faith, though it may be detrimental to our present interest, as undoubtedly it will sometimes be, even in peaceful times and in christian nations.
We are obliged to speak reverently of God upon all occasions, and to worship him in public as in private, and above all to honour him by our moral conduct, without which the rest is formal grimace and grave hypocrisy. The sacrifice truly acceptable to God is, presenting ourselves a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service. Other things indeed there are which must not be left undone; and the worship of God is by no means to be neglected but the great end and design of all is the uniform and constant practice of righteousness.
Grant me, Eternal One! Thy light to cheer,
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
THIS commandment follows the first as a natural consequence, stating idolatry to be a breach of its fundamental principle.-Idolatry is paying religious worship, and directing acts of devotion, to other beings besides God, upon a supposition that they are able to do us good or harm, and that they are entitled to such adoration.
Let us now examine this idolatry by the light of nature, by the Jewish dispensation, and by the gospel.
By the light of nature we are very certain of two great truths, of our own existence, and of the existence of one Creator, of the God and Father of all. We are also certain that we ought to worship and serve him. Our dependance declares His independence.
By the same light it appears extremely probable that besides us men, and the God and Father of all, there are other beings superiour to us, and inferiour to God; and with this notion ancient and general tradition agrees in supposing beings called angels, good demons, and celestial spirits.
In the Jewish religion, God particularly guarded his people against all idolatry. He informed them that there were ministering spirits, or angels, who executed his commands, but he did not permit the Jews to worship them; he confined worship to himself alone.
In the New Testament the doctrine of the unity of God is likewise established and confirmed. Though there be gods many and lords many, says St. Paul, improperly or falsely so called, yet to us, to us Christians, there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things.
There are several kinds and degrees of idolatry. The first and highest degree is mixed with atheism, when men, totally casting off the belief of the true God, set up in opposition to him, nature, fate, fortune, necessity, chance, and the like, to which they ascribe the beauty, order, regularity, and preservation of the world.
The next kind of idolatry is to set up fictitious gods; not indeed totally in exclusion of the true God, but in conjunction with him. Such was that of those pagans, who, acknowledging one supreme God and Father, yet worshipped along with him many inferiour and imaginary gods. Such was the idolatry of the Jews in the time of their judges and kings; and does not similar idolatry pervade some christian sects ?
It is idolatry when God is represented and worshipped under visible images; and when he is worshipped through false mediations. To us christians there is but one God and one Mediator.
In a figurative sense, the covetous are idolators, since they put their trust in riches.--To gratify sensual appetites is idolatry, for we read of those whose god is their appetites.-The selfish slaves of the great and powerful are idolators, sacrificing time, honour and conscience to another's sordid ambition.
Idolatry is most fatal in its effects. Pagan gods were honoured with ridiculous, impure and cruel rites. Christians have divided the glory which belongs only to God.--Idolatry is a crime generally disowned, yet it is very apt to spring up where superstition is encouraged, and ignorance prevails. Thus it grew upon the people of Israel and Judah, and thus it crept into the church of Christ.
I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, und keep my commandments.
THERE is this plain difference between promises and threatenings, that by promising God enters into a covenant, and becomes in a certain sense and manner a debtor; and he who answers the conditions has a claim to the promise and to the reward: but when God threatens, the transgressor surely has no right, any more than he can have a desire, to require punishment; and if God exert not his right, none is wronged.
The denunciation in the text is against idolatry. It was a national and temporary rather than personal threatening; and as God's truth depended on its purity among the Jews, the threat was not too great. God is able to compensate any individual for loss sustained under the operation of his temporary laws.-To us, his later will is expressed by Ezekiel,-"The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.”— The Roman history affords us a remarkable instance relating to this point. When Cassius, a man in high station, had conspired against Marcus Aurelius, his emperor, and his friend and benefactor, the revolt was soon quashed, and Cassius was slain by his own soldiers. Upon this occasion, the emperor, who would certainly have perished if his enemies had prevailed, yet forgave those who had been engaged in the rebellion, and took the wife and children of Cassius under his protection, and desired the senate to forgive them, or rather, said he, to treat them as persons entirely innocent; since not they, but Cassius was the offender.
Where a child suffers for his father's folly it is from natural causes. Human calamities are not to be called divine judgments. They are temporal inconveniences, which a state of trial allows for calling forth peculiar virtues.
There is a sense in which the denunciation and promise of the text pertain to us. We are not to deem temporal evils as proofs of our guilt, or of God's displeasure, since there is one event to the righteous and the wicked. It is physical evils which parents of the present day may have visited on their children, by the laws of nature. If a man be debauched and intemperate, careless and extravagant, unjust and insolent, faithless and perfidious, cruel and malicious, if he give loose to his passions, and spoil his temper, it is more than probable that his children will suffer for it many ways, and not only in their fortunes and their bodies, but perhaps in their minds and their dispositions; for vices as well as diseases will sometimes run in the blood. A dreadful patrimony this, to leave to one's children. a kind of original sin, or evil propensity, which, next to bad habits, is one of the hardest things to conquer and correct.
How important is it that a parent should impart to his child a pure constitution, a wise education and a safe example. The effects of these may be visible through generations. What can exceed the happiness of saying at the bar of God, "Here am I and the children thou hast given me. ""
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
THE crime here forbidden, is perjury, or swearing falsely by the name of the Lord. Making vows was an ancient Jewish custom, and we are told to perform our vows unto the Lord-This commandment relates, also, to contracts made between men, societies and nations. Promises are sacred in themselves, but peculiarly so when confirmed by an oath. He who makes declarations before God, and then violates his word, or says what is false, he breaks this command, and invites the fiercest punishments of omnipotence. He who takes upon himself religious vows, at moments of excitement, fear, passion and disappointment, or from motives of self interest, spiritual pride or ambition, breaks this third commandment. He therefore, who thus signs a creed, whose terms are eternally binding, does he not violate the spirit of this prohibition, binding in God's name what cannot be bound, thereby producing fruitless regret, which is a fool's repentance?-God's name is not to be used to confirm what is true, but when extreme circumstances render it indispensable. To use it in levity and wantonness on trivial occasions, is impious, and leads to perjury, for he who swears lightly, frequently and habitually, will swear to many falsehoods.-He who calls upon God to curse man, commits the double crime of disrespect to God and hatred to man.
To speak irreverently of God is to set him at defiance, and is blasphemy. The text says, God will treat the profane swearer with keen severity.This odious vice has not even the common apology of temptation. There is no motive to it. In cursing and swearing there is no pleasure, profit, or honour. It is a vice which reigns amongst many, ignorant, vicious and profligate people, who have no education, no sense of religion, no moral principles; and who not only are wicked, but love to appear so. A thoughtless stupidity, hardened villany, consummate impudence, bad company, and the imitation of other reprobates, concur to produce this profane language. It has also, as they fancy, an air of liberty and courage, and it shews a resolute spirit to set God and men at defiance, and to curse themselves and others.-Anger is one incentive to this crime; but drunkenness is a greater. Drunkenness stupifies men's senses, weakens their understanding, spoils their temper, inflames their passions, shortens their days, withers their strength, ruins their health, keeps them in beggary, transforms them from human creatures into beasts, and entails sickness and infirmities both of body and mind upon their miserable children.--Gaming, which is connected with sudden, heavy, and irretrievable losses, is another incentive to profaneness.-These abuses ought to be corrected by legal penalties. Every one is able to do something towards reforming the evil of profaneness. Every family is a little society; and he who presides over it should use his best endeavours to keep his children, his servants, his domestics, in good order, and to allow no irreligious conversation, no irregularities and immoralities in his house. If this duty was tolerably practised by masters of families, the good effects of it would soon be visible. Whosoever acts thus, acts the part of a friend and benefactor to the public, and must certainly reap the benefit of it at home; and, whether others will or will not follow his example, he has performed his own part, and delivered his own soul.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
KEEPING holy the christian sabbath enjoins rest from all unnecessary work, and the sincere worship of God through Jesus Christ. Setting aside a certain day is the ritual part, and the solemn worship of God, at stated times, is the moral part of this command. The sabbath was instituted in general for the preservation and promotion of religion; and some such law, divine or human, is necessary for that end. For we cannot perform a reasonable service to God without some knowledge of his nature and of his will; nor is this knowledge to be acquired without instruction and serious meditation, nor to be kept up without stated times for public worship.
It appears from some passages in the New Testament, and from other ancient writings, that the disciples and their converts agreed to set apart for public worship the first day of the week, the day of Christ's resurrection, which was also the day on which the holy spirit descended on the apostles. By setting aside the Lord's-day for the solemn worship of God, they observed all that was moral in the fourth commandment, namely, a stated time for religious exercises; and they thought it proper to retain the same portion of time one day in seven.
The Christians, as a very ancient writer tells us, met together every Sunday, at which time portions of scripture, says he, from the Old and New Testament were read, and discourses were made, to exhort them to piety; then they joined in prayer, then they partook of the holy communion; and lastly, they made collections for the poor. The first christians were so persuaded that this was an indispensable duty, that they observed it, not only in peaceable times, when they were permitted to make open profession of their faith, but in times of persecution, and at the hazard of their lives. The cruelty of princes and magistrates could not make them neglect it; for we find by their writings that they used to come together before break of day, and in small companies, and in different places, when they could not meet openly and in great numbers. Thus was the Lord's-day kept by the first believers, whose example in this, as in some other things, is worthy of our respect and imitation.
The advantages of public worship and instruction are more than we can number. They keep the great moral truths of life constantly before us, thereby exciting our minds by knowledge, and warming our hearts by sympathy. To have the scriptures publicly read and explained is an incalculable blessing.-Public instruction fortifies our weakness, reminding us of acquisitions which we must make, shewing us evils we must avoid, and urging us to duties which we know better than we practice. It makes us fear God, and set a good example; it promotes public virtue, and above all, it keeps alive the flame of devotion to God and charity to man.
Setting aside all weak and deceitful notions, we should shew that respect to the Lord's-day, and employ it in that manner which ancient custom, and the laws of our own country, and the practice of sober and virtuous persons, and the rules of decency, and the duty of setting a good example, and the care of our own souls, require from us.
The sabbath may exceedingly benefit children, by avoiding undue strictness, by procuring attractive books, and speaking of it with a cheerful attachment.