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The Ten Commandments (Ex 20, Deut 5)

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

How to interpret OT law Covenants in the OT
Names of God in the OT

The summary of the Law of Moses (Ex 20:1-17, Deut 5:6-21)

For Old Testament Israel, the ten commandments formed the first section of the law of Moses. This was the covenant which stated and set the conditions of their relationship with God. The ten commandments are a summary of the law, and so are the foundation of the nation of Israel in the OT. They are also known as the Decalogue, meaning the ten words.

British law is also based on the ten commandments, even though we are rapidly departing from them today. King Alfred the Great (849-901) was one of the first translators of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon English, when he translated the ten commandments to include them in his law code for the country.

They are simple statements, brilliant in their simplicity. In modern times, we tend to make law very complex. The ten commandments they have immensely wide application into all areas of life, including personally, in the church, and in wider society. This page mostly focuses on the principles behind each commandment and what we can learn from them today.

Why are the ten commandments repeated twice in the Bible?

The law was given twice. The first time was on Mt. Sinai (Ex 20-23), to the first generation who left Egypt. The second was when the law was repeated on the Plains of Moab (Deut) to the second generation who had grown up in the wilderness. Both sets of law begin with the ten commandments, as an introduction and summary of the law which follows.

The style of the ten commandments

The laws can seem very negative to us. They give a list of negative imperatives. "You shall not ...". However, behind these is a positive principle. They teach us about the character of God, the way he wanted his people to live, and the way he wants us to live today.

The ten commandments can be divided into two groups. Commandments one to four concern mankind’s relationship with God. These are much longer and more detailed. Commandments five to ten concern human relationships with each other. These are much shorter and succinct. It is important to notice the order. If we get the relationship with God right, and have God in his proper place in our lives, then out of that comes our relationship with others.

Jesus was asked by one of the scribes which was the most important commandment (Mark 12:28). His answer is well known: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength’” (Mk 12:29-30, quoting from Deut 6:5). We should also notice that even in the law itself there was great emphasis on loving God, not just on law-keeping. His answer summarises the first four commandments.

Even though he was not asked, Jesus continued by saying, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:31, quoting from Lev 19:18). His answer summarises the last six commandments.

The Jewish Rabbis claimed that there were 613 different laws in the Law of Moses. The ten commandments form a summary of these, which are in turn summarised by Jesus into his two greatest laws.

Introduction (Ex 20:1)

The commandments are introduced by, “God spoke all these words” (Ex 20:1). One of the most important aspects of God's character is that he communicates with us, he speaks to his people. He is a God of self-revelation, and continues to desire to speak to us today.

Commandments 1-4: Relationship with God

"You shall love the Lord your God ..."

As noted above, these form the foundation of rest of the commandments. All of the commandments come out of relationship with God.

First Commandment. No other Gods

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. (Ex 20:2-3, Deut 5:6-7).

All the following nine commandments, and the rest of the law are based on this one.

The principle behind this commandment is that God demonstrated his power and proved his faithfulness in saving his people from slavery, and therefore demands absolute commitment from them in return. For OT Israel, they were saved out of slavery in Egypt. For believers today, we are saved out of life of sin. We are bought for a price. We should note the order of events, that God first saved the Israelites from Egypt, then gave them the law. God's action came first. For believers the order is the same, first he saved us, then we live for him, as our response to his love. It is certainly not a message of keep the law to earn his favour.

This commandment is a challenge to faith, to trust in the One True God. For the Israelites, they were called to worship God alone, and not worship or trust in the Egyptian gods, or in Baal and the other fertility Gods in the Promised Land. They were called to trust him to provide all they needed.

Through the great miracles of the plagues, he had shown his superiority to the gods of Egypt. He had demonstrated his power in bringing them across the Red Sea on dry land. No other god could bring two or three million people out of Egypt.

For believers, we need to remember that no other god can deal with the problem of sin. Therefore we are called to absolute commitment to God. God demands an exclusive relationship, like a marriage covenant. We are called not to compromise, and to avoid involvement with any other religions, or occult practices. There is no logical reason why should we want to compromise. We already have the best. We have the most powerful God. The question is whether we believe that.

We must guard against distractions. There is one God, and he deserves our total allegiance. Our lifestyle should be dominated by our relationship with God. We need to be careful with today's idols, which are distractions from commitment to God. These include pleasure, possessions, relationships or social position. These gods (idols) are appealing. They are often good, but following them is at the expense of the best. God alone is worthy of our worship, and all other idols will fail us. We need to consider where we find our security?

Second Commandment. No idols ... jealous God

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Ex 20:4-6, Deut 5:8-10).

The commandment basically states that we are not to make physical images of God. We are not to worship any other physical image. The principle behind this is that God refuses to be limited by our misconceptions of him. God is not to be reduced to an image to be worshipped. No image is adequate to represent Almighty God. Any image will misrepresent God, reducing his power and dishonouring him. Images in our minds also restrict God, and limit our faith and trust in him.

For Israelites, this commandment guarded them from having a physical representation of God. They broke this commandment in with the building of the golden calf, and claiming that, “these are the gods which brought you up out of Egypt.” (Ex 32:5)

We need to be careful not to put God in a box, effectively limiting his power in our minds We need to remind ourselves, 'Your God is too small'. We need to live life on the edge of expectancy, ready for God to surprise us, being open to let God show us new depths of his nature and character. We must be careful not to box God in with our theology, saying, 'He never does this'. He is a jealous God, concerned at us breaking our relationship with him.

This command states two consequences. The first is that sin has effect. We pass that on to following generations negatively. Our choices in life have great effect to the next generation. Ungodly lifestyles causes great damage to the children, particularly through divorce, or broken homes.

The second is that the blessing of being faithful has even more effect positively. Our commitment to God is a great heritage we can pass on to the next generation, whether this is in our own physical family, in our church through teaching the young people, or in wider society. The thousandth generation is a hyperbole, that would be between 20,000 and 40,000 years.

In the UK and much of the western world we are losing our Christian heritage. We have been living in the benefits of this for many centuries, but now it is rapidly fading, bringing great danger. There is a challenge for believers to pass on a good heritage to the next generation, to our own physical children, but also to have lots of spiritual children, those you have led to the Lord, discipled, or taught.

Third Commandment. Taking his name in vain

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. (Ex 20:7, Deut 5:11)

In Leviticus there is an account of a man stoned for death for blaspheming the Name of God in a curse during a fight. (Lev 24:10-16).

The principle behind this law is that by having God's name entrusted to them, the Israelites (and us) are given responsibility to guard his glory and majesty. Taking his name in vain, is not taking God as seriously as we should.

God revealed his personal name, Yahweh, to Israel (Ex 3:14), which was a great privilege. In the Ancient Near East, a name reveals much more than a persons identity. To know a name is to know the person's character. There is power inherent in a name. God revealed his character through his name, so to misuse God's name it to dishonour him and his character.

In modern application, we need to be careful not ‘in the name of Jesus’ as a magical formula. It is easy to misuse prayer, by reducing prayer to ritualistic formulas. We need to maintain a healthy sense of the fear of the Lord.

Through our speech and actions, we represent God to the world, either positively or negatively, as Israel did. Who God is, what God is like, his character. We need to be careful in using God's name to justify our actions and to further our ambitions. Nations often claim that ‘God on our side’ in a time of war.

Grumbling and complaining shows dissatisfaction with God and his creation, detracting from his glory as creator, and is a bad witness. We are called to be thankful for God's blessings. And certainly not to use God's name in swearing.

Fourth Commandment. Sabbath day

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work - you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (Ex 20:8-11).

The wording is different in Deuteronomy:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days ... ... your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD you God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. (Deut 5:12-15)

We should notice that the pattern of six days work, and one day rest is based on the creation (Gen 1), when God created the world in six days and rested on seventh. This is a strong confirmation that we are to believe that he really did create the world in six days, or 24 hours each. The ten commandments were written by the finger of God (Ex 24:12). God wrote the commandments and he created the world. He knew how long he took to do that. He could have created the world in one day, but didn't. This was to give a pattern of work and rest, for individuals, and for society. The seven day week has no astronomical reason for it (unlike the year, month or day), but is universal around the world, even in cultures which have no contact with the Bible.

The sabbath is a call to faith. It takes faith not to work. The sabbath is an invitation to relax in our salvation. It points to the rest and fulfilment in Christ's completed work (Heb 3-4). We can cease in our efforts to find salvation. We are to enjoy our salvation, not work for it. Every day is a sabbath for a Christian.

On a practical level, we need to take time to rest, to rest our bodies (as good stewards), also have time for fellowship with God and with his people. It is a time for quiet reflection, and a time for rejoicing.

However, it is important to avoid legalism. Jesus had many controversies about the sabbath, and declared that "The sabbath made for man, not man for sabbath" (Mk 2:27). God intended the sabbath for the benefit of the people, showing that he was against the Jewish legalism characteristic of the Pharisees.

In the past, the church has often been legalistic about Sunday, but now we often over-react the other way. We all need to rest, and to have a day different from the others. It is also beneficial for the whole of society.

Commandments 5-10: Relationship with neighbours

"You shall love your neighbour ..."

These final six commandments show our duty towards others, to protect and build the community. They are built on the foundation of the first four, to love God.

Fifth Commandment. Honour parents

Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (Ex 20:12)

The wording is slightly different in Deuteronomy:
Honour your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (Deut 5:16)

Honour includes obedience, but also making sure parents are cared for in their old age. The principle is that the family unit is the basis of society and of the community, and the reality of our love for God is shown in our love to those around us. The covenant and community are guarded as we respect the orders of authority over us. The breakdown of the family is the cause of many of the current problems of society. For Israel, the family was the way of continuing the covenant to the next generation. Parents were to teach the law to their children, children were to listen and respect.

It is important to recognise the position of responsibility held by parents, and to respect them in it. However this does not imply blind obedience, particularly once children become adults. It is inevitable that the Gospel will gospel will divide families (Mk 13:12). The promise is the Israelites will live long in the land, the promise of a continued relationship with God.

Sixth Commandment. Murder

You shall not murder (kill). (Ex 20:13, Deut 5:17)

This is the wilful taking of human life as a pre-meditated act. In the law of Moses, it was to be distinguished from accidental manslaughter (Num 35, Deut 21).

The principle is that human life is holy, and a gift from God. There is a sacredness of all human life. The poor, orphans, widows are special, and should be protected. We are all made in the image of God, so to kill a person is to destroy God's image.

We honour God by respecting the lives of those around us. This law also protects the individual within the community.

Seventh Commandment. Adultery

You shall not commit adultery (Ex 20:14, Deut 5:18)

The definition of adultery is given in other laws. It is defined as a sexual relationship between two people when one of them is married to someone else (Deut 22:22). Engaged couples are included in this law, as they are considered as being married (Deut 22:23-24). Sexual relationships between two single people was defined as fornication, rather than adultery (Deut 22:28-29).

The principle behind this law is that the marriage covenant demands total faithfulness and total commitment to each other. Through the Scriptures, the marriage relationship is often used as a way of understanding the relationship between God and his people. God's concern is that the marriage covenant is held in honour and respect.

Within a marriage, both are called to be faithful to one another, as God is faithful to us. The sexual relationship is to enhance the marriage relationship. The couple belong exclusively to one another, and without reserve. Today’s society ignore the fact that the main biological purpose of the sexual relationship is to reproduce. Sex outside marriage does not fulfil the purpose, so is a misuse of sex.

The consequences of ignoring this law is the disastrous effects on family life, including divorce and the ruining of the lives of our children.

Eighth Commandment: Stealing

You shall not steal (Ex 20:15, Deut 5:19)

For most of the other commandments, the penalty was death. For stealing the penalty was restitution.

"When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep (Ex 22:1). This would be a great deterrent, as well as ensuring justice is done from the victim's perspective.

Stealing includes taking anything that rightly belongs to another person. This is normally thought of as material possessions, but can also include their time, and their reputation. Breaking copyright by copying material including music and videos is also stealing.

Ninth Commandment: False witness

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour (Ex 20:16, Deut 5:20)

In the context of the law court, a false witness destroys system of justice. In the law, two witnesses were required for guilty verdict to be declared (Deut 19:15-21, Ex 23:1-2). Giving witness was serious, as the penalty for many crimes under the law of Moses was death. To give a false witness could result in a person being wrongly convicted, and condemned to death when they were innocent.

During his trials, false witnesses were brought against Jesus, who did not agree in their testimony (Mk 14:55-59).

This law is a call to total truthfulness in seeking a neighbour's best. We are not to put others in a bad light through exaggeration or lying to further our own interest or to protect ourselves. This is a denial of the rights of others.

Tenth Commandment: Covet

You shall not covet your neighbour's house; you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbour (Ex 20:17, Deut 5:21)

This commandment sums up all the rest, looking at heart attitude, rather than outward action. We should not even want to do these things. We are called not even to desire something unlawful, or something that God has not given to us.

The principle is a call to live in contentment with what God has given us (Phil 4:11). We need to be confident of God’s love, care, sovereignty and presence. This law is a call to control the thoughts of our mind. Things we covet and desire become our gods, which is idolatry. We are called to respect one another, and not desire to satisfy our own greed. This law prevents us using one another, but is instead a call to build one another up.

Ten positive commandments

Because the ten commandments can seem rather negative, it can be interesting to turn them around to create ten positive instructions for life.

1. Honour the One True God in everything.
2. Worship the One True God, and enjoy his invisible presence with us.
3. Honour and give glory to his name.
4. Take our true rest in Jesus, and look after our physical bodies.

5. Honour and respect our parents, and create good family relationships
6. Make life meaningful and productive for others.
7. Sex is to be enjoyed within marriage.
8. Be good stewards of our money and possessions.
9. Honour our neighbour's name and make them look good publicly.
10. Be generous.

Related articles

How to interpret OT law Covenants in the OT
Names of God in the OT

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Handling Disappointment

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

What is Preaching?
I. Two Approaches to Preaching
II. Study a Passage for Preaching
III. Creating a Message Outline
IV. Making Preaching Relevant
V. Presentation and Public Speaking
VI. Preaching Feedback and Critique
Leading a Small Group Bible Study

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.

Teaching on SBS Book Topics for SBS