In the Old Testament the Ten Commandments (also known as the Decalogue) is uniformly referred to as “the ten words” (Exodus 34:28 margin; Deuteronomy 4:13 margin; Deuteronomy 10:4 margin), or simply as “the words” spoken by God ( Exodus 20:1; Exodus 34:27; Deuteronomy 5:22; Deuteronomy 10:2 ), or as “the words of the covenant” (Exodus 34:28 ). In the New Testament they are called “commandments” (Matthew 19:17; Ephesians 6:2 ), as with us in most Christian lands.
Content of the Ten Commandments
1. You shall have no other gods before Me
Exodus 20:3 ESV: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
This command is against worshiping any god other than the one true God. All other gods are false gods.
2. You shall make no idols
Exodus 20:4-6: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
This command is against making an idol, a visible representation of God. There is no image we can create that can accurately portray God. To make an idol to represent God is to worship a false god.
3. You shall not take the name of the LORD in vain
Exodus 20:7: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”
This is a command against misusing the name of the Lord. We are not to treat God’s name lightly. We are to show reverence to God by only mentioning Him in respectful and honoring ways.
4. Keep the Sabbath day holy
Exodus 20:8-11: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
This is a command to set aside the Sabbath (Saturday, the last day of the week) as a day of rest dedicated to the Lord.
5. Honor your father and your mother
Exodus 20:12: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
This is a command to always treat one’s parents with honor and respect.
6. You shall not murder
Exodus 20:13: “You shall not murder.”
This is a command against the premeditated murder of another human being.
7. You shall not commit adultery
Exodus 20:14: “You shall not commit adultery.”
This is a command against having sexual relations with anyone other than one’s spouse.
8. You shall not steal
Exodus 20:15: “You shall not steal.”
This is a command against taking anything that is not one’s own, without the permission of the person to whom it belongs.
9. You shall not bear false witness
Exodus 20:16: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
This is a command prohibiting testifying against another person falsely. It is essentially a command against lying.
10. You shall not covet
Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
This is a command against desiring anything that is not one’s own. Coveting can lead to breaking one of the commandments listed above: murder, adultery, and theft. If it is wrong to do something, it is wrong to desire to do that same something.
The Promulgation of Ten Commandments
The “ten words” were spoken by God Himself from the top of the mount under circumstances the most awe-inspiring. In the early morning there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a trumpet exceeding loud. It is no wonder that the people trembled as they faced the smoking and quaking mount, and listened to the high demands of a holy God. Their request that all future revelations should be made through Moses as the prophet mediator was quite natural. The promulgation of the Ten Commandments stands out as the most notable event in all the wilderness sojourn of Israel. There was no greater day in history before the coming of the Son of God into the world.
After a sojourn of 40 days in the mount, Moses came down with “the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.” At the foot of the mount, when Moses saw the golden calf and the dancing throng about it, he cast the tables out of his hands and broke them in pieces (Exodus 31:18; Exodus 39:15-20 ). Through the intercession of Moses, the wrath of God was averted from Israel; and God invited Moses to ascend the mount with two new tablets, on which He would write the words that were on the first tables, which were broken. Moses was commanded to write the special precepts given by God during this interview; but the. Ten Commandments were written on the stone tablets by God Himself (Exodus 34:1-4 , Exodus 34:27-29; Deuteronomy 10:1-5 ). These precious tablets were later deposited in the ark of the covenant (Exodus 40:20 ). Thus in every way possible the Ten Commandments are exalted as the most precious and directly divine of all the precepts of the Mosaic revelation.
Analysis of the Ten Commandments with Brief Exegetical Notes
That there were ” ten words” is expressly stated ( Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; Deuteronomy 10:4 ); but just how to delimit them one from another is a task which has not been found easy.
1. How Numbered:
(1) Josephus is the first witness for the division now common among Protestants (except Lutherans), namely, ( a ) foreign gods, ( b ) images, ( 100 ) name of God, ( d ) Sabbath, ( e ) parents, ( f ) murder, ( g ) adultery, ( h ) theft, ( i ) false witness, ( j ) coveting. Before him, Philo made the same arrangement, except that he followed the Septuagint in putting adultery before murder. This mode of counting was current with many of the church Fathers, and is now in use in the Greek Catholic church and with most Protestants.
(2) Augustine combined foreign gods and images (Exodus 20:2-6 ) into one commandment and following the order of Deuteronomy 5:21 (Hebrew 18) made the 9th commandment a prohibition of the coveting of a neighbor’s wife, while the 10th prohibits the coveting of his house and other property. Roman Catholics and Lutherans accept Augustine’s mode of reckoning, except that they follow the order in Exodus 20:17 , so that the 9th commandment forbids the coveting of a neighbor’s house, while the 10th includes his wife and all other property.
(3) A third mode of counting is that adopted by the Jews in the early Christian centuries, which became universal among them in the Middle Ages and so down to the present time. According to this scheme, the opening statement in Exodus 20:2 is the “first word ,” Exodus 20:3-6 the second (combining foreign gods with images), while the following eight commandments are as in the common Protestant arrangement.
2. How Grouped:
(1) The Jews, from Philo to the present, divide the “ten words” into two groups of five each. As there were two tables, it would be natural to suppose that five commandments were recorded on each tablet, though the fact that the tablets had writing on both their sides (Exodus 32:15 ) would seem to weaken the force of the argument for an equal division. Moreover, the first pentad, in the present text of Exodus and Deuteronomy, is more than four times as long as the second.
(2) Augustine supposed that there were three commandments on the first table and seven on the second. According to his method of numbering the commandments, this would put the command to honor parents at the head of the second table, as in the third method of grouping the ten words.
(3) Calvin and many moderns assign four commandments to the first table and six to the second. This has the advantage of assigning all duties to God to the first table and all duties to men to the second. It also accords with our Lord’s reduction of the commandments to two (Matthew 22:34-40).
Brief Exegetical Notes
(1) The 1st commandment prohibits the worship of any god other than the Lord. If it be said that this precept inculcates monolatry and not monotheism, the reply is ready to hand that a consistent worship of only one God is, for a people surrounded by idolaters, the best possible approach to the conclusion that there is only one true God. The organs of revelation, whatever may have been the notions and practices of the mass of the Israelite people, always speak in words that harmonize with a strict monotheism.
(2) The 2nd commandment forbids the use of images in worship; even an image of Yahweh is not to be tolerated (compare Exodus 32:5 ). Yahweh’s mercy is greater than His wrath; while the iniquity of the fathers descends to the third and the fourth generation for those who hate Yahweh, His mercy overflows to thousands who love Him. It is doubtful whether the rendering ‘showing mercy to the thousandth generation’ (Exodus 20:6 ) can be successfully defended.
(3) Yahweh’s name is sacred, as standing for His person; therefore it must be employed in no vain or false way. The commandment, no doubt, includes more than false swearing. Cursing, blasphemy and every profane use of Yahweh’s name are forbidden.
(4) As the 1st commandment inculcates the unity of God and the 2nd His spirituality, so also the 3commandment guards His name against irreverent use and the 4th sets apart the seventh day as peculiarly His day, reserved for a Sabbath. Exodus 20:11 emphasizes the religious aspect of the Sabbath, while Deuteronomy 5:14 lays stress on its humane aspect, and Deuteronomy 5:15 links it with the deliverance from bondage in Egypt.
(5) The transition from duties to God to duties to men is made naturally in the 5th commandment, which inculcates reverence for parents, to whom their children should look up with gratitude, as all men should toward the Divine Father.
(6) Human life is so precious and sacred that no man should dare to take it away by violence.
(7) The family life is safeguarded by the 7th commandment.
(8) The 8th commandment forbids theft in all its forms. It recognizes the right of personal ownership of property.
(9) The 9th commandment safeguards honor and good name among men. Slander, defamation, false testimony in court and kindred sins are included.
(10) The 10th commandment is the most searching of them all, for it forbids the inward longing, the covetous desire for what belongs to another. The presence of such a deeply spiritual command among the “ten words” shows that we have before us no mere code of laws defining crimes, but a body of ethical and spiritual precepts for the moral education of the people of Yahweh.
Jesus and the Ten Commandments.
Our Lord, in the interview with the rich young ruler, gave a recapitulation of the commandments treating of duties to men (Mark 10:19; Matthew 19:18 f; Luke 18:20 ). He quotes the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th commandments. The minor variations in the reports in the three Synoptic Gospels remind the student of the similar variations in Ex 20 and Dt 5. Already in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had quoted the 6th and 7th commandments, and then had gone on to show that anger is incipient murder, and that lust is adultery in the heart (Matthew 5:27-32 ). He takes the words of the Decalogue and extends them into the realm of thought and feeling. He may have had in mind the 3rd commandment in His sharp prohibition of the Jewish habit of swearing by various things (Matthew 5:33-37 ). As to the Sabbath, His teaching and example tended to lighten the onerous restrictions of the rabbis (Mark 2:23-28 ). Duty to parents He elevated above all supposed claims of vows and offerings (Matthew 15:4-6 ). In further extension of the 8th commandment, Jesus said, “Do not defraud” (Mark 10:19 ); and in treating of the ethics of speech, Jesus not only condemns false witness, but also includes railing, blasphemy, and even an idle word (Matthew 15:19; Matthew 12:31 , Matthew 12:36 f). In His affirmation that God is spirit ( John 4:24 ), Jesus made the manufacture of images nothing but folly. All his ethical teaching might be said to be founded on the 10th commandment, which tracks sin to its lair in the mind and soul of man.
Our Lord embraced the whole range of human obligation in two, or at most three, commands: (1) “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind”; (2) “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:37-40; compare Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18 ). With love such as is here described in the heart, man cannot trespass against God or his fellow-men. At the close of His ministry, on the night of the betrayal, Jesus gave to His followers a third commandment, not different from the two on which the whole Law hangs, but an extension of the second great commandment upward into a higher realm of self-sacrifice (John 13:34 f; John 15:12 f, 17; compare Ephesians 5:2; Galatians 6:10; 1 John 3:14-18 ). “Thou shalt love” is the first word and the last in the teaching of our Lord. His teaching is positive rather than negative, and so simple that a child can understand it. For the Christian, the Decalogue is no longer the highest summary of human duty. He must ever read it with sincere respect as one of the great monuments of the love of God in the moral and religious education of mankind; but it has given place to the higher teaching of the Son of God, all that was permanently valuable in the Ten Commandments having been taken up into the teaching of our Lord and His apostles.