Six observations on the Ten Commandments
These are the commandments the LORD proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness; he added no more. Then he wrote them on two tablets and gave them to me. (Deuteronomy 5:22, NIV)
We’re reading speedily through the Ten Commandments at church on Sunday evening at the moment, and in preparing for this a number of things have struck me.
1. These commandments are uniquely important. As Moses says in the quote above, He [God] added no more. That is a rather surprising claim, when we read through the Bible’s “books of the law” and find tons of regulations of one sort or another. But what Moses says makes sense when we realise that those other regulations are either (a) arrangements to help us keep the law (such as how miscreants are to be treated, or annual festivals to remind us to stick with the LORD); or (b) expansions of the ten commandments (for instance, in the way the prohibition of adultery is applied).
2. These commandments are spoken by God. We can be in no doubt: they came with a loud voice from the fire. The application of this point is simple: we must listen!
3. These commandments are given by God to a people He’s setting free. I am the LORD your God, He says, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery (Deuteronomy 5:6). That is a surprise, for it is the exact opposite of how we think of laws! To us, freedom is the absence of law. But here are laws God gives to a free people, to help them stay free. It is in the rejection of God’s laws that we find ourselves in slavery.
4. These commandments reflect the character of God. This should not surprise us, because they are His likes / dislikes. But thinking this through should help us appreciate them all the more. Other gods are banned because He is the only God. Image-making is banned because He is real. Adultery is banned because He is faithful. False testimony is banned because He is just. And so on. Truly these laws reveal Him to us!
5. These commandments are mainly prohibitions. You shall not comes in all of them but one. That sounds horribly negative - wouldn’t we rather have “you shall do all you can to protect life” rather than “you shall not murder”? Certainly the principle of protecting life spins out from the commandment, but we need a prohibition because of what we are capable of. To the original readers, murder, adultery and so on needed no explanation. They were familiar features of the world, because people did these things. We are all tempted to do them. Such is our nature, that God must start with a prohibition.
6. Finally, these commandments all concern relationships: the first four with God, the second six with our fellow humans. That second six would be hard to apply on a desert island! The very shape of the ten commandments shows that relationships are at the heart of Christian life: we are not just solo creatures. I recently saw a new set of ten commandments for life drawn from a large poll among atheists. They included “be open-minded” and other such principles. What struck me most was that eight of the ten were not about other people - just me. The Bible is wonderfully different!
We continue our series on God’s Ten Commandments this Sunday at 5pm.
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