The Basis of The Greatest Commandment

The Greatest Commandment (3)

The greatest commandment is a high calling. Loving God with your whole heart, soul, and strength is no easy task. What is the groundwork for such a command? Is this command rooted in our ability to please God and earn his favor? Or is the basis for the command who God is and what he has already done?

There is only one God. This is why Christianity stands out among other religions today as Judaism did in the Ancient Near East—they both worship this One True God. All other religions are man-made and inherently man-centered. Man takes the initiative in creating a deity. Man also takes the initiate in seeking to earn its favor. But the One True God cannot be created because He has first created us. Neither can His favor be earned, because He has first sought us.

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4).

When Jesus stated the greatest commandment, He quoted from the Shema (Deut 6:4-9). Deuteronomy is Moses’ restatement of the Law to a new generation of Israelites prior to their entrance into the Promised Land. This preamble to the restatement reflects the preamble to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:2. This concise statement is pregnant with Theology Proper—revelation of God’s attributes and actions. This is the basis for what He is calling His people to do. Therefore, as J. Gerald Jansen demonstrates, “The purpose of this affirmation is to identify in God the dependable ground upon which an exhortation to wholehearted loyalty may appropriately be made.”[1] Each description of God in this first part of the Shema—Elohim, Yahweh, and one—reveals something regarding both God’s nature and His relation to His people and is meant to bolster our ability and desire to follow the ensuing command.

God (Elohim)

Theologians disagree on the significance of Elohim. Part of the debate revolves around the fact that it is a plural noun. Many point to the plurality as a foreshadowing of God’s Triune nature—a plurality of persons in unity, but is this a legitimate conclusion?

The Superior One

If Elohim was in fact a simple plural, it would be surrounded by a plural syntax (plural verbs, adjectives, and pronouns). This does occur in the Scriptures, and when it does, it refers not to God, but to gods (see 1 Kings 20:10). In contrast, when referring to the one true God, Elohim is surrounded by a singular context (Gen 1:1). This specific syntactical construction creates a plural of majesty rather than a simple plural. Dr. Brian Murphy explains this is “an intensive way to acknowledge the absolute supremacy of the One True God.”[2] Louis Berkhof points out that Elohim has the same root as the Hebrew word for fear and points to the “strong and mighty One,” the Creator, the object of appropriate fear and awe.[3]

The Exclusive One

Making Elohim a simple plural would make its base meaning plural, implying more than one God—more than one divine essence. This would undermine both the OT doctrine of monotheism and the NT doctrine of the Trinity—one God in three Persons, NOT three Gods or essences. The singular syntax surrounding the plural Elohim does not only reveal the nature of God as majestic, but it reveals God as the exclusive Deity, fully supporting the OT and NT doctrine of monotheism. Moshe Weinfeld explains that all the components of this phrase in the Shema “are directed toward deepening the monotheistic conscience.”[4] The point is that God is the One True God and Israel was to forsake all other false gods and serve Him wholeheartedly (Ex 20:3). Weinfeld further explains, “The religion of Israel was the only religion that demanded exclusive loyalty; the God of Israel was a jealous God, who would suffer no rival.”[5]

LORD (Yahweh)

This more personal and proper name of Israel’s God is the most frequently used in the OT. Like Elohim, the exact meaning of Yahweh is somewhat elusive, but at the same time, chock-full of God’s self-revelation.

The Self-Existent One

Yahweh finds it root in the Hebrew verb hayah, meaning “to become, to be.” It is the verb that conveys being and existence. When God revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush, He declared, “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex 3:14). This name discloses God as the eternal, self-existent and self-sufficient One. More than moral separateness, the holiness of God points to His majestic separatenessHis transcendence. While the existence of everything in the universe is both derived from and sustained by God, He is altogether different. He has no beginning or end, nor is He dependent on anything outside of Himself for His existence (Rev 1:8).

The Unchangeable One

God’s eternal essence as self-existent and self-sufficient is the basis for His immutability. He is unchangeable in His nature and therefore He is unchangeable in His relation to His people. Because He is unchangeable, He is faithful to keep word. He swears by His name because He cannot change. God further told Moses at the burning bush to say to the sons of Israel, “Yahweh, the God of your fathers . . . has sent me to you” (Ex 3:15). They were the recipients of God’s promise to the patriarchs. More than Elohim, this name expresses the nearness of God, His concern for His people, and the revelation of His redemptive covenant.[6] In Psalm 19A God is generally revealed as Elohim in creation, but in 19B He is revealed in a more personal way, as Yahweh, in His redemptive works for His people.

One (Echad)

This word “one” is the most important word in the Shema. Like Elohim and Yahweh, the precise meaning of this word echad is unclear because it has several possible interpretations. The possible renderings are one, first, alone, unique, same, or unity.

The Unified One

The key to interpreting this word is to understand it in its literary and historical context. Remember, Deuteronomy is a restatement of the Law to a new generation. The former generation was punished in the wilderness because they refused to take the land promised to them (Num 13-14). This crisis of faith resulted from a failure to believe in God’s trustworthiness. They refused to believe His covenant promises to their forefathers even though they had seen Him fight for them in Egypt and in the wilderness (Deut 1:26-32).

This context helps determine the meaning of echad as unity, or undivided oneness. It is a guarantee of Yahweh’s trustworthiness and reliability. Patrick Miller explains that God is “consistent, not divided within ‘self’ in any way, comprehensive and inclusive.”[7] Janzen writes, “God’s ‘oneness’ is the unity between desire and action, between intention and execution . . . the unswerving dedication with which God pursues the divine purpose.”[8] This word points to God’s essential consistency within Himself—His unity and simplicity.  He is altogether reliable.

Echad is even more fascinating. It allows for plurality in unity. It is used of Adam and Eve who became one flesh (Gen 2:24). When Hebrew expresses absolute unity, it uses a different word, yachid (Gen 22:2; Amos 8:10; Zech 12:10). Therefore, the distinction of Persons with the Godhead can be implied from echad. God’s Triune nature expresses itself in internal unity of purpose and external indivisibility in the execution of those purposes in redemptive history.

The Faithful One

This undivided nature of God is the foundation of His faithfulness. The essential unity of the Godhead is the guarantee of His promises. He cannot contradict Himself. His actions will always be consistent with His Word and with His nature. Janzen explains, “Yahweh is morally and spiritually ‘one’ in the sense that Yahweh can be relied upon to act in the future in a manner consistent with Yahweh’s past actions and consistent with past promises whose fulfillment is as yet outstanding.”[9] This is what the former generation failed to understand and believe. God is wholeheartedly committed to His people because of who He is and because of the covenant He initiated with them.


What is so striking about the Shema is that the two halves mirror each other perfectly. A covenant involves two parties, each entering therein with wholeheartedness—no reservations, no regrets, and no retreats. This call to unrivaled loyalty to God with all your heart, soul, and strength (unity of person) mirrors His loyalty to His people. Therefore, this first part of the Shema provides the basis, the dependable ground, upon which the greatest commandment is made—monotheism. God’s exclusivity, superiority, unity, simplicity, immutability, self-sufficiency, and self-existence reinforce our confidence in His faithfulness.

It is here we find that Theology Proper is not merely an intellectual exercise, but one that is meant to increase our affections for God and bolster our trust in Him, propelling us into corporal acts of worship and sacrifice. This God is wholly reliable and worthy of our worship simply because of who He is. As the Shema taught Israel, this is our God. There is no other. His nature and His actions initiated toward us motivate us to love Him, and not vice versa. Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn 14:15), not “If you keep my commandments, I will love you.” We love Him because He first loved us (1 Jn 4:19).


[1] J. Gerald Janzen, “On The Most Important Word in The Shema,” Vetus Testamentum XXXVII, 3 (1987), 281. Emphasis mine.

[2] Bryan Murphy, “Trinity in Creation,” Master’s Seminary Journal 24, 2 (Fall 2013), 172. Emphasis mine.

[3] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 48.

[4] Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1992), 42.

[5] Weinfeld, Deuteronomy, 81. Emphasis mine.

[6] J. Barton Payne, “הָיָה,” in TWOT I: 210-212.

[7] Patrick Miller, “The Most Important Word: The Yoke of the Kingdom,” Iliff Review 41 (Fall 1984), 17-29.

[8] Janzen, “The Most Important Word,” 287.

[9] Janzen, “The Claim of the Shema,” Encounter 59, 2 (Spr 1998), 244.

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