So, what is it about the Ten Commandments that makes them so special? Again, if you're a Christian or a church goer at all you probably know they were given to Israel by God on Mount Sinai a long time ago. They were to form the moral foundation for God's people. But I want to go much deeper into the heart and soul of the Ten Commandments than just where they came from or even how they have been applied. I want to push you to consider where this amazing “decalogue” (meaning the “ten words”) actually originated. Yes, it came from God. But it wasn't some arbitrary compilation of “ten suggestions.” I believe the Ten Commandments, or what I will also call the Moral Law, is actually a structured but simple description of the character of God himself. It describes the things important to God, yes; his values and priorities. But it's more than that. It's also a way to glimpse the very soul of God; who he is in his nature.
I want to spend a few minutes explaining what I mean by that. But I will quickly go on to show you how those windows into God's soul also define what God wants us to be and what happens when we lose sight of them. For at their very core, the Ten Commandments represent to us what it means to be a person and when the Moral Law ceases to be the guiding light of our understanding of personhood we become psychopathic monsters.
No Other Gods – God is Focused The first command says we are to have no other gods but God. It's a command about priorities; what is most important. Thus, the law is often summarized in the phrase, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength...” This also tells us something about God himself. It tells us that God is, in his nature, focused. He never loses sight of the most important things.
Because the Bible presents God as not just one but three-in-one—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—this means that God is not just focused on himself in some selfish way but each person of the triune God lives to exalt the other.
No Idolatry – God is Analytical The second command sounds similar to the first: we are not permitted to make images of God. That is a very dated notion sounding like it's a prohibition of little statues and shrines. It is that. But in the larger sense it's a prohibition against idolatry of any kind. Idols come in all forms—from the primitive statues and icons that come to mind to the more “modern” variety—from food to technology. Basically, an idol is anything we worship. It's anything we turn into a religion. Hopefully I don't need to warn you that humans are continuing to make “religions” and idols to this day. Most people are clueless about the deception of false religions, false philosophies and systems of belief. That's why commands us not to have idols but also expects us to be analytical and discerning.
So, what does this tell us about God's personality? What does it reveal about God's nature? I believe it shows us that God is discerning, discriminating and analytical. He is not fooled by false ideas and systems of thought.
No Profanity – God is Respectful God warns humanity not to use his name in a “profane” manner. Included here is swearing and course talk, but more than that, it means any form of conversation that demeans and diminishes God or the values he holds dear. That would mean that it is not only a violation of the third command to use God's name in profanity but to speak direspectfully about those made in God's image: other humans.
You see, God is, in his essence, respectful. The word “respect” literally means “looking again and again” and is intended to create a word picture of one who honors another with his gaze. Even in our careless informal day we have retained some hints of this ancient concept. When a parent is reprimanding a child he sometimes insists the the child “look at me when I'm talking to you!” That's because one of the marks of disrespect is to look away.
It may sound a bit strange when I say that God is respectful. Isn't God superior to all other creatures? So, why would he respect them? Well, I think that's the whole point of respect. It's a way of looking at others that acknowledges their value and worth. Certainly this doesn't mean God approves of everything his creatures do. He doesn't agree with it. But he respects them.
No Sabbath-breaking – God is Diligent Fourthly, God says we mustn't violate the sabbath day. Of all the commands this one seems to bother many Christians the most. It seems so old-fashioned. What's so bad about going to the grocery store on Sunday? That's certainly a good question and one that we could discuss at length. But I don't intend to do that here. I would rather focus on the underlying issue in this commandment: it's about work and rest. That's why I say that the Fourth Commandment teaches us about God's diligence. God knows how to work. God knows how to rest. He always keeps those two things in balance and harmony. He expects us too as well and when we fail to do so it leads us serious social, psychological and spiritual problems.
No Rebellion – God is Humble When God commanded us to honor our father and mother in the Fifth Commandment the audience was much more than just children living at home. Children are to obey their parents, yes. But this command extends to all areas of obedience to authority and warns against rebellion. It teaches us not only how we are to relate to those in positions of authority over us—from parents to policemen—but also gives us a glimpse into the character of God. God is not rebellious himself. In other words, he is humble.
No Murder – God is Merciful The Sixth Commandment likewise is much more than a prohibition against killing (better, murder). It is a warning against all kinds of unholy hostility and aggression. Notice I said “unholy.” This command does not prohibit the use of force to against evil. I can't prove that point here but there is ample evidence in Scripture that evil must be confronted and conquered and it is never a peaceful process. However, this does not undermine the commandment. God himself demonstrates to us the quality of mercy. In practical or behavioral terms, mercy is not simply a way we feel or view others but the way we act toward them. Mercy seeks to restore relationships rather than destroy them.
No Adultery – God is Content What does the Seventh Commandment teach us about God? Well, the Seventh Commandment is a prohibition against adultery. But, as we saw above, all these commands have a much broader underpinning. Adultery is but one manifestation or demonstration of a moral transgression rooted in discontentment. Discontentment means a person wants something that is not his because he refuses to be grateful for what he has. This command teaches us that God himself is contented.
No Stealing – God is Just The Eighth Commandment is against stealing. But be careful not to limit your idea of stealing to robbing banks or cars. Certainly people steal those things. But any time they violate the rights of others they are stealing. That's why I suggest that there is an underlying character quality for the Eighth Commandment of “justice.” Justice literally means a balance of truth and mercy. It means right triumphs over wrong. Justice does not exist without a consistent application of truth. And so, God himself is just.
No Lying – God is Reliable The commandment against “false witness” is often limited to court rooms and depositions but goes much further. It really means that we are prohibited from being false messengers; of communicating false or unreliable messages to others. Therefore, it is a warning against lying and deception of any kind. Notice that word “reliable.” Although we could also say that the Ninth Commandment instructs us to speak “truthfully” at all times, I decided to focus on “reliability” instead. Reliability suggests that a message is dependable and decisions can be made based on it. In other words, it's “reliable.”
God is reliable in this way. We can depend on what he says. He doesn't lie. He doesn't shade the truth.
No Covetousness – God is Generous Finally, the Tenth Commandment warns against covetousness. And in those familiar phrases, lists a variety of things we must not covet: our neighbor's animals or wife or property. Since God owns everything, how could it even be said that God doesn't covet? Certainly it's all his anyway and so he could lay claim to it. But I think that notion misses the spirit of the commandment. For I believe it teaches us that God is, in his nature, generous. He is continually giving of his abundance to others—especially those who do not deserve it. God wants us to be generous in this way too.
So, this is the moral foundation of the universe. A family or society whose laws and practices is grounded in the Ten Commandments will be a better place to live than one that is not. Why? Because these ten expressions of morality give us a glimpse into the very “DNA” of the cosmos. It's the way God intended it to function because it's a reflection of God himself.