One of the most important Bible chapters for you and me and everyone to learn is the first and most important of the “layin’ down the rules” chapters in the opening five books of Moses – the “Torah”, or the “Pentateuch”. Probably half or more of the “Books of the Law of Moses” are simply the rules that God’s People were required to follow – don’t touch feces, anyone with leprous discharges must remain outside the camp for seven days and then be checked by a priest, lists of foods you can and cannot eat, etcetera.
But Exodus 20 is so important that 3500 years later, there are stone tablets being recreated in concrete and placed on courthouse lawns commemorating verses 3 through 17, which were the very first commands spoken BY God TO His People. delineating the ten most important commands they were to follow…
The Ten Commandments.
1 And God spoke all these words, saying,
2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
4 “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. 5 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, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
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.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 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. 11 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.
12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
13 “You shall not murder.
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
15 “You shall not steal.
16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
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.”
18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” 21 The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
22 And the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24 An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it. 26 And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.’
Of these ten, what got Israel thrown out of the Holy Land almost a thousand years later was its consistent violation of commandments one and two – have no idols or other gods before Me. Almost from the get-go, the Hebrews fell in love with the Baal and the Asherath poles and whatever else was in vogue with the tribes they’d most recently conquered; they would only return to God when the money talked and the odds looked stacked against them, or there was a serious threat of conquest without God’s help. Luckily, they knew they had God as their “ace in the pocket”, and He would bale them out of any tight spot …. until He didn’t.
At some point, of course, He chose to stop bailing His child out of jail when the kid was picked up for yet another offense, allowing the nation of Israel to be scattered to Assyria and Bablyonia, returning a fragment 70 years later. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves now…
The Ten Commandments divide into two categories: the first four are our duties regarding how we relate to God, and the second six have to do with our duties regarding how we relate to each other. The first four – I Am your only God; you shall not make any idols; you shall not take My Name in vain; you shall respect the Sabbath – are “God-related”, if you will. Numbers one and two are almost the same; certainly they’re flipsides of the same coin. If Yahweh is your only God, you’re not going to make any idols, and if you’re making idols to worship, He isn’t your only God.
The other two are connected with obedience and respect towards Him: His Name is holy, and we should treat it as such. Of course, there are sects of both Jewish and Christian faith where even saying or writing His Name is considered blasphemous, but that’s not what it says here. Taking His Name in vain means using it irresponsibly, out of proper context. (Swearing. That’s really what we’re talking about here. Even using “OMG” is a violation of the third commandment, TBH)
And “respecting the Sabbath” has a long and complicated history. The western calendar “starts” with Sunday on the left and Saturday on the right because God started the six days of creating the universe, theoretically, on a Sunday, and the seventh day (when He rested, despite His inability to tire) fell on Saturday. That was the Hebrew Sabbath, or “Shabat”, and is still what the Seventh-Day Adventists insist is the Sabbath day. The conventional Christian viewpoint is that when Christ rose from the dead on Sunday morning – Easter morning – He made Sunday the most significant day of the week on the Christian calendar, and so we go to church on Sundays.
Without recopying it here, read the first half of Matthew 12 for Christ’s view of the Sabbath, which boils down to this: The Sabbath is made for man; Man was not made for the Sabbath. His point is that God gave the Sabbath to us as a gift, so that we would not feel the obligation to work all seven days of the week. Rest is important, and whether you rest on Sunday, Saturday, or alternate Tuesday & Wednesday every other week, having one day off every week, having that day of rest is mandated by God.
But there’s another part of the Sabbath: worshiping God on that day of rest. The reason you’re not supposed to travel or work on that day is that you’re supposed to be in prayer and study on that seventh day, devoting yourself to Him to the fullest extent. And I have to admit that I fail at this. Oh, I go to church, at least once and sometimes twice on Sundays, and I still read my several chapters of Scripture that day, mostly, but the Sabbath doesn’t get the extra focus on the Lord that it should from me.
I treat Sundays like a day off. Like Saturday, except I have church in there, too. So forgive me, Father, for I sin every week.
For the sake of time, let’s move on…
Commandments five through ten are directed at our behavior towards each other. Do not murder, do not steal, don’t lie about other people – all pretty straight forward. The other three, I think, bear a moment of inspection…
Six through ten are negatives – “do NOT do this or that”. But number five is not just a postive direction, but it comes with a promise of good things happening to you as a child in particular: “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long…” That is a pretty cool promise! You’ll live a long life ahead IF you respect your parents. Later, in Deuteronomy 21:18-21, God explains why a child who does NOT respect his parents might not live a long life…
“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.”
God didn’t want to mess around with rebellious children! You want to make an impression on your pre-teen and teenaged children? Tell them what God intended to have happen to them!
About commandment 10, Thou shalt not covet. To covet is not to want, exactly. Coveting is more like an obsession. It really falls back under the idol-worship as much as anything else, to be honest. You see your neighbor’s new sports car, and it triggers something inside of you… you hear about a vacation home a friend at work has… your buddy’s taking the new boat out fishing. What’s the issue? Priorities. You should NEVER put things over relationships – ESPECIALLY your relationship with God, your spouse, and your family. (In that order.)
Last one – adultery. (The worst form of coveting.) Did you notice that there’s nothing about homosexuality in here? Or incest? Or any of a thousand other topics that God will cover later, but not in the top ten. But adultery is that important.
Adultery is (A) far more COMMON than any of the other types of sexual misconduct, (B) far more DESTRUCTIVE than the other types of misconduct, because it destroys families (often two families at the same time, if both parties are married), and (C) far more often DENIED as a serious sin against God. It infuriates me more than I can tell you how often I hear holier-than-thou “church people” screaming about homosexuality in particular when the affairs they’ve had are conveniently swept under the covers as if they don’t matter. There’s a reason adultery’s in the Top Ten, you hypocrites! I’m not saying the others aren’t also sins, but repent first, ye of little faith, before you go incriminating people who make you feel uncomfortable!
One last point: verses 18-21 reveal something very important about human beings and their relationship to the God of the Universe: no matter how much He wants to be a personal friend to every human being, God is SO BIG that the vast majority of the people are unable to even comprehend Him. The Israelites couldn’t. They begged not to be that near Him ever again – but what that meant is that they were begging for a god that they could control, that they could bring down to their size.
That’s NOT the real God. But that’s the God most of us are looking for. We want a god (lower-case “g”) when what we really NEED – and what we really HAVE – is a GOD (upper-case all the way!).
(The final few verses, from v 22 onward, are really part of the next chapter and the next section. The guts of Exodus 20 are the verses from 1 to 21 – God lays the law down, through Moses, and the automatic reaction of the people is to be overwhelmed by the fullness of God and beg for something, someONE smaller that they can handle. And in twelve chapters, they’ll come up with one, too!)