God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets and gave them Moses to share with all the Israelites soon after they left captivity in Egypt (Exodus 20:1-26). Moses reiterated them 40 years later in Deuteronomy 5:1-22 as the Israelites neared the Promised Land.
Even after thousands of years since Moses was given these laws directly from God, they still influence and guide the moral principles of mankind today.
The Ten Commandments
1. Thou shalt not have any other gods before God. Exodus 20:3: “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
2. Thou shalt not make yourself an idol. Exodus 20:4-6: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—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 nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
3. Thou shalt not take the Lord's name 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.”
4. Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it 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 the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.”
5. Honor your Father and Mother. Exodus 20:12: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.”
6. Thou shalt not murder. Exodus 20:13: “You shall not murder.”
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Exodus 20:14: “You shall not commit adultery.”
8. Thou shalt not steal. Exodus 20:15: “You shall not steal.”
9. Thou shalt not testify or bear false witness against your neighbor. Exodus 20:15: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
10. Thou shalt not covet. Exodus 20:15: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”
Importance of the Ten Commandments
The law given to Moses provided the foundation for a new Israelite society. They provided the foundation of personal and property rights found in our modern legal system. Jewish tradition holds that all 613 laws found in the Torah are summed up in the Ten Commandments.
Christians view the Ten Commandments as the foundation of God’s moral law. Jesus called people to an even higher standard by obeying the commandments not only in their actions but also in their hearts. For instance, Jesus quoted the command not to commit adultery (Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 5:18)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).
Why Only Ten?
Scholars agree that the Ten Commandments, or more literally, “10 Words,” are found in Exodus 20:1-26 and Deuteronomy 5:1-22. Still, they debate the division of the commands because there are more than ten commands!
In Hebrew scrolls, the text is typically written in a format justified in columns. The Ten Commandments stand out because they are not right and left sides justified, but large white spaces are in the middle of the text. This “parashah setumah” spacing in the text highlights the importance of these words.
In English translations, a new paragraph is started after each commandment. The unusual Hebrew spacing has led to differences in counting the 10 Commandments in Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic traditions. (See the chart on page 31 of The Ten Commandments Reconsidered.)
The Commandments on Our Relation to God
The first several commandments kept the Lord God as the focus. God created the world and everything in it. He knew what was required for a successful, holy life.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (Exodus 20:2-7).
The initial commandments start with the relationship with the “Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2). God told His people He was their Lord, Master, and Creator God. They should have no other gods, and they should not make idols. They should not misuse his name. These commands were a dramatic change from the Egyptian view of a deity. During captivity in Egypt, they worshipped Pharaoh and other Egyptian deities like Ra, Anubis, and Osiris.
A Warning Against Worshipping Idols
You may have noticed a warning regarding the importance of obeying the commandments; disobedience would result in “punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-5)
God wanted his people to know that their choice to obey or disobey his commands would influence their lives and even their grandkids' lives.
This warning may seem vindictive, but it wasn’t meant to be harsh, any more than warning a kid walking along the edge of a sheer cliff face, “If you get too close to the edge of the cliff, you could fall and break your neck and die.” The warning is not harsh. It is realistic, and serious injury is likely in such a dangerous situation. And rejecting God’s commands would have serious consequences.
The Sabbath: Connecting God and His People
The Sabbath bridges our relationship with God, and the following commandments address our relationships with other people.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).
God commanded his people to take the Sabbath for their benefit. God “blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” This phrase in the Ten Commandments is a quote from the creation account in Genesis 2:3, “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested.”
God wants us to delight in His Word, enjoy his creation, celebrate beauty and love, and rejoice in the harvest. God intended for his people to enjoy their relationship with Him and each other by valuing the Sabbath.
The Sabbath is set apart to connect with God and with other people. No one was excluded from the command to rest – even foreigners, servants, and livestock were called to take a break from work on the Sabbath. It was to be a blessing for all of creation.
The Commandments on Our Relation to Other People
Leaving captivity in Egypt meant establishing a new society. The law established healthy boundaries based on respect for God and other people rather than brute strength.
Read these laws and imagine how they would help develop a healthy community.
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:2-17).
Honor Your Father and Mother. Our relationship with our parents is the foundation for our future relationships and choices. Here’s how Paul explained to new believers in Ephesians that the choice to honor your parents has consequences like enjoying a long life.
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’—which is the first commandment with a promise— ‘so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth’” (Ephesians 6:1-3).
Parents are their kids’ first teachers. Kids learn to honor their parents by seeing their parents honor God and His commandments.
Do Not Lie. After establishing healthy relationships with God and family, the next commandments dealt with relationships with other people.
Living in a healthy community meant respecting others’ boundaries. Lying devalues and disrespects another person by not telling the truth.
Do Not Steal. God’s people were also commanded to not steal. In a time when “might makes right,” they were to respect each other’s property rights.
Do Not Murder. Then God commanded his people to not murder. Because people are made in the image of God, life has value. Murder is an intentional act that says that a person’s life has no value compared to another’s priorities.
Interestingly, God did not say, “Do not kill.” Hebrew has nuances that consider the difference between murder, accidental death, or an act of war.
You Shall Not Commit Adultery. God commanded his people to be faithful in marriage and to respect other people’s vows as a model of faithfulness in their relationship with God. Adultery devalues the commitment made between a husband and wife and to God. Interestingly, God’s command not to commit adultery was an equal standard for men and women.
In the New Testament, Jesus called his followers to faithfulness in marriage (Matthew 5:27-28, Mark 10:11-12). Paul explained to the Corinthians how to avoid sexual immorality by being faithful to one’s spouse.
“But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2).
You Shall Not Covet. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17).
Why would God include coveting in the same list as murder, stealing, and adultery?
God knew coveting a neighbor’s servant, ox, or wife was a stepping stone to ungratefulness and discontentment – even lying, stealing, murder, and adultery. Focusing on what others have diminishes our ability to appreciate the good things in our lives.
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Why Were the Commandments on Two Tablets?
According to Exodus 32:15, God engraved both sides of the tablets. Many wonder which words were written on the stone tablets and if the first tablet contained commands 1-5 and the second contained 6-10. Other scholars divide the list between the first two commandments and the following eight based on the word length of the text.
The Ten Commandments are evidence of a covenant between God and his people. Some scholars think that both tablets contained identical copies of the same commands just we have two copies of a legal document.
Two Greatest Commandments from Jesus
You could summarize the Ten Commandments given to Moses in the two "greatest commandments" given by Jesus: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and Love your neighbor as yourself." As Jesus continued, "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:40)
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, "Which commandment is the most important of all?" Jesus answered, "The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." And the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. ~ Mark 12:28-34
Teachings of the Ten Commandments
I think the first thing we need to do is understand who the author of all law is, and that, of course, is God. And here's where we now fall back to our theology and understand God and his attributes. If indeed, God is perfect, which he is and he must be, then we need to think about God as the author of law. First, I think we need to step back and remember natural law. If God is the author of both mosaic and natural law, those laws cannot contradict one another, or else the perfect God has two separate and distinct laws. So what we must remember is natural law is that non-saving law, that all of humanity, every man, woman, boy, or girl has written on their heart or what we'd call the conscience. And so everyone, even though Romans 1 says that "Everyone gladly distorts the truth with a lie," everyone knows that there is a God. He is a perfect God. He is righteous and holy. He is to be served and worshiped. And that there is punishment for not coming to him according to his desires.
What mosaic law is, one, it cannot contradict natural law. And so what it is, it is a special revelation view or exa Jesus, if you will, of natural law, because it tells us the exact same thing, except in a salvific manner, that God is holy. He is righteous. And that he, his laws are righteous. And the only way to him is through perfection or righteousness, according to his law, which of course we do not possess through the fall. And so the only way back to God, the father, is through Jesus Christ, the son, the one who perfectly observes all law, mosaic and natural.
The ten commandments are the embodiment of the mosaic law. It is not as though these ten are the only 10. In fact, when you look at Exodus chapter 20, all the way through 25, you will see in fact, all the way through the Pentateuch, law after law after law. The ten commandments are those ten words in Hebrew which are the embodiment of the mosaic legislation or the mosaic covenant.
And so it's these laws that those who are inside the mosaic covenant are now obligated to abide by. And, of course, in Exodus, chapter 24, Moses repeats the law. And he also repeats the blessings and the curses of the covenant. And then of course, he offers a sacrifice, splashes some of the blood on the altar, and then he splashes the blood on the people who are under an obligation of the covenant. And so, those ten commandments in and of itself in the strictest sense, they belong to the mosaic covenant. However, because they're tied to and are the further exa Jesus of natural law, therein lies that which all of humanity is under. So in that sense, yes, all of humanity, Christians and non-Christians, are under natural law. And through these laws, through these ten commandments through natural law, God teaches that he is holy, that he is righteous, that there is one God, he is perfect. And he is a God of order and that he must be worshiped rightly and according to his mandates rather than our own.
Bar-IlanUniversity, “Counting the Ten Commandments and Writing Them on the Tablets.” Yogev Bar-Gad. 2017.
Britannica.com, “Exodus: Old Testament.” The Editors. 2014.
JewFAQ.org, “Aseret ha-Dibrot: The ‘Ten Commandments.’" Tracy Rich.
Smith, James E., Ph.D. The Ten Commandments Reconsidered. Pg. 31. 2016.
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