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Exodus 20:1-17 - Homiletics

The ten commandments severally.

THE FIRST COMMANDMENT . To the Christian the First Commandment takes the form which our Lord gave it—"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all-thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment' ( Matthew 22:37 , Matthew 22:38 ). Not merely abstract belief, not merely humble acknowledgment of one God is necessary, but heartfelt devotion to the One Object worthy of our devotion, the One Being in all the universe on whom we may rest and stay ourselves without fear of his failing us. He is the Lord our God—not an Epicurean deity, infinitely remote from man, who has created the world and left it to its own devices—not a Pantheistic essence spread through all nature, omnipresent, but intangible, impersonal, deaf to our cries, and indifferent to our "to us making for righteousness" in actions—not an inscrutable "something external to us making for righteousness," in the words of the religious Agnostic—but a Being very near us, "in whom we live; and move, and have our being," who is "about our path and about our bed, and spieth out all our ways," a Being whom we may know, and love, and trust, and feel to be with us, warning us, and cheering us, and consoling us, and pleading with us, and ready to receive us, and most willing to pardon us—a Being who is never absent from us, who continually sustains our life, upholds our faculties, gives us all we enjoy and our power to enjoy it, and who is therefore the natural object of our warmest, tenderest, truest, and most constant love. The first commandment should not be difficult to keep. We have only to open our eyes to the facts, and let them make their natural impression upon our minds, in order to love One who has done and still does so much for us.

THE SECOND COMMANDMENT . On its prohibitive side, this Commandment forbids us to have unworthy thoughts of God, to liken him to all idol, or regard him as "even such an one as ourselves." Considered as directive, it requires us to form in our minds a just and true idea of the Divine nature, and especially of its spirituality, its lofty majesty, and its transcendent holiness. All materialistic ideas, and consequently all Pantheistic notions, are degrading to the dignity of God, who "is a Spirit, without body, parts, or passions, not mixed with matter, but wholly separate from it, yet everywhere present after a supersensuous manner. Again, anthropomorphic notions of God are degrading to him; though it is scarcely possible to speak of him without anthropomorphic expressions. When we use such terms—as when we call God just, or merciful, or long-suffering—we should remember that those qualities in him are not identical with the human ones, but only analogous to them; and altogether we should be conscious of a deep mysteriousness lying behind all that we know of God, and rendering him a Being awful, inscrutable—whom we must not suppose that we can fathom or comprehend.

THE THIRD COMMANDMENT Primarily, the Third Commandment forbids perjury or false swearing; secondarily, it forbids all unnecessary oaths, all needless mention of the holy name of God, and all irreverence towards anything which is God's—his name, house, day, book, laws, ministers. Whatever in any sense belongs to God is sacred, and, if it has to be mentioned, should be mentioned reverently. The true main object of the Third Commandment is to inculcate reverence, to point out to us that the only proper frame of mind in which we can approach God is one of self-abasement and deeply reverential fear. "Keep thy foot, when thou goest to the house of God," says the Preacher, "and be more ready to hear than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they consider not that they do evil. Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter anything before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth; therefore let thy words be few" ( Ecclesiastes 5:1 , Ecclesiastes 5:2 ).

THE FOURTH COMMANDMENT . In the Fourth Commandment we have the basis for all that is external in religion. The dedication of one entire day out of seven to God, and the command to abstain on that day from the ordinary labours of life, led on naturally to the institution of sacred services, holy convocations, meetings for united worship and prayer. Man is an active being, and a social being. If the ordinary business of life is stopped, some other occupation must be found for him: he will not sit still from morning to night with folded hands wrapped in pious contemplation. The institution of the Sabbath stands in close relation to the appointment of a priesthood, the construction of a holy place, and the establishment of a ceremonial. On the Christian the Fourth Commandment is not binding in respect of the letter—he is not to remember the Seventh day to keep it holy, but the First; he is not tied to hallow it by an abstinence from all labour, but encouraged to devote it to the performance of good works; but in the spirit of it, the commandment is as binding as any. Men need, under Christianity as much as under Judaism, positive religious institutions, places of worship, hours of prayer, a liturgy, a ritual, ceremonies. The value of the Lord's Day as a Christian institution is incalculable; it witnesses for religion to the world; it constitutes a distinct call on men to take into consideration the aim and intent of the day; and its rightful use is of inestimable benefit to all truly religious persons, deepening in them, as it does, the sense of religion, and giving them time and opportunity for the training of their spiritual nature, and the contemplation of heavenly things, which would otherwise to most men have been unattainable. It has been well called "a bridge thrown across life's troubled waters, over which we may pass to reach the opposite shore—a link between earth and heaven—a type of the eternal day, when the freed spirit, if true to itself and to God, shall ,put on for ever the robe of immortal holiness and joy."

THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT . The honour which this commandment exacts from us is irrespective of our parents' personal merits or demerits. We are to honour them as being our parents. Difficulties may be raised easily enough in theory; but they are readily solvable in practice. Let us defer to our parents' commands in all things lawful—let us do everything for them that we can—let us anticipate their wishes in things indifferent—let us take trouble on their behalf—let us be ever on the watch to spare them vexatious annoyance—let us study their comfort, ease, peace—and without any sacrifice of principle, even if they are bad parents, we may sufficiently show that we feel the obligation of the relationship, and are anxious to discharge the duties which it involves. Comparatively few men are, however, severely tried. We are not often much better than our parents; and it is seldom difficult to honour them.

1 . For their age and experience.

2 . For the benefits which they have conferred on us.

3 . For the disinterested affection which they bear to us, and which they evince in their conduct. As a rule, parents have very much more love for their children than these have for them, and make sacrifices on their children's behalf, which their children neither appreciate nor reciprocate. The honour which, according to this commandment, has to be shown to parents, must of course be extended, with certain modifications, to those who stand to us in loco parentis —to guardians, tutors, schoolmasters, and the like. It is not perhaps quite clear that the commandment extends also to those who are set over us in Church and State, though it is usual so to interpret it. There are certain relations of parents to their offspring which are altogether peculiar; and these are absolutely incommunicable. There are others, which are common to parents with rulers; but these, unless in very primitive communities, can scarcely be said to rest upon the domestic relation as their basis. The ordinary relation of the governed to their governors is rather one parallel to that of children to their parents, than one which grows out of it; and though either may be used to illustrate the other, we must view the two as separate and independent of each other.

THE SIXTH COMMANDMENT . How wide is the scope of this commandment to Christians, our Lord has shown. Not only are murder and violence prohibited by it, but even provoking words, and angry thoughts ( Matthew 5:21-26 ). The "root of bitterness" whence murder springs, is either some fierce passion, or some inordinate desire. To be secure from murderous impulses, we must be free from such emotions as these,—we must have tender and Joying feelings towards all our fellow-men. "Love is the fulfilling of the law;" and unless a man really "love the brethren," he has no security against being surprised into violence towards them, which may issue in death. Nor is there one species of murder only. The sixth commandment prohibits, not only violence to the body, but—what is of far greater consequence—injury to the soul. Men break it most flagrantly when they lead another into deadly sin, thereby—so far as in them lies—destroying his soul. The corrupter of innocence, the seducer, the persuader to evil, are "murderers" in a far worse sense than the cut-threat, the bandit, or the bravo. Death on the scaffold may expiate the crimes of these latter; eternal punishment alone would seem to be an adequate penalty for the guilt of the former. He that has eternally ruined a soul should surely be himself eternally unhappy.

THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT . Here again we have the inestimable advantage of our Lord's comment on the commandment, to help us to understand what it ought to mean to us. Not only adultery, but fornication—not only fornication, but impurity of any and every kind—in act, in word, in thought—is forbidden to the Christian. He that looketh on a woman with the object of lusting after her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart ( Matthew 5:28 ). He that dallies with temptation, he that knowingly goes into the company of the impure, he that in his solitary chamber defiles himself, he that hears without rebuking them obscene words, transgresses against this law, and, unless he repents, cuts himself off from God. And observe—the law is one both for men and women. We are ready enough to speak with scorn of "fallen women,"—to regard them as ruined for ever, and treat their sin as the one unpardonable offence; but what of" fallen men"? Is not their sin as irreversible? Is it not the same sin? Is it not spoken of in Scripture in the same way? "Whoremongers and adulterers God will judge" ( Hebrews 13:4 ). "Murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone; which is the second death" ( Revelation 21:8 ). And is it not as debasing, as deadening to the soul, as destructive of all true manliness, of all true chivalry, of all self-respect? Principiis obsta. Let the young keep that precious gift of purity which is theirs, and not be induced by the ridicule of unclean men to part with it. Once gone it can never return. Let them be pure, as Christ was pure. Blessed are the pure in heart!

THE EIGHTH COMMANDMENT . Simple direct stealing, being severely punished by the law in most countries, is seldom practised, unless it be by children and slaves. But indirect stealing of various kinds is common. It should be clearly understood that the Christian precept forbids any act by which we fraudulently obtain the property of another. Adulteration, concealment of defects, misrepresentation of quality, employment of false weights or measures, are the acts of a thief, as much as pocket-picking or shop-lifting. Servants steal when they take "commission" from tradesmen unknown to their masters, or appropriate as "perquisites" what their masters have not expressly agreed to allow, or neglect to do the work which they undertook, or do it in a slovenly manner, or damage their master's property by carelessness or diminish it by waste. Masters steal when they do not permit their servants the indulgences they promised, or allow their wages to fall into arrear, or force them to work overtime without proper remuneration, or deprive them of such "rest" as they had a reasonable right to expect upon the Sunday. Those steal who cheat the revenue by smuggling, or false returns to tax-collectors; or who cheat tradesmen by incurring debts which they can never pay, or who in view of coming bankruptcy pass over their property to a friend, with the understanding that it is to be restored to them, or who have recourse of any of the "tricks of trade," as they are called. All men are sure to steal in one way or another, who are not possessed by the spirit of honesty, who do not love justice and equity and fair, dealing, who do not make it the law of their life to be ever doing to others as they would that others should do unto them.

THE NINTH COMMANDMENT . False witness in a court is but rarely given. We most of us pass our lives without having once to appear in a court, either as prosecutor, witness, or accused. The false witness against which the generality have especially to be on their guard, is that evil speaking which is continually taking place in society, whereby men's characters are blackened, their motives misrepresented, their reputations eaten away. It is dull and tame to praise a man. We get a character for wit and shrewdness if we point out flaws in his conduct, show that he may have acted from a selfish motive, "just hint a fault and hesitate dislike." It is not even necessary in all cases to establish our character for shrewd insight that we should say anything. Silence when we hear a friend maligned, a shrug of the shoulders, a movement of the eyebrows, will do. Again, false witness may be given in writing as well as in speech. The reviewer who says of a book worse than he thinks of it, bears false witness. The writer for the Press who abuses in a leading article a public man whom he inwardly respects, bears false witness. The person who vents his spite against a servant by giving him a worse character than he deserves, bears false witness. We can only be secure against daily breaches of this commandment by joining the spirit of love with a deep-seated regard for truth, and aiming always at saying of others, when we have occasion to speak of them, the best that we can conscientiously say.

THE TENTH COMMANDMENT . The tenth commandment is supplementary to the eighth. Rightly understood, the eighth implies it, covetousness being the root from which theft springs. The command seems added to the Decalogue in order to lay down the principle that the thoughts of the heart come under God's law, and that we are as responsible for them as for our actions. Otherwise, it would not be needed, being implied in the eighth and in the seventh. Since, however, it was of the greatest importance for men to know and understand that God regards the heart, and "requires truth in the inward parts;" and since covetousness was the cause of the greater portion of the evil that is in the world, the precept, although already implied, was given expressly. Men were forbidden to covet the house, wife, slaves, cattle, property of their neighbour—in fact, "anything that is his." They were not forbidden to desire houses, or wives, or cattle, or property generally—which are all, within limits, objects of desire and things which men may rightfully wish for—but they were forbidden to desire for themselves such as were already appropriated by their fellows, and of which, therefore, they could not become possessed without their fellows suffering loss. A moderate desire for earthly goods is not forbidden to the Christian ( Matthew 19:29 ; 1 Timothy 4:8 ); though his special covetousness should be for "the best gifts"—the virtues and graces which make up the perfect Christian character ( 1 Corinthians 12:31 ; 1 Corinthians 14:1 ).

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