The Ten Commandments. 20:1-21


The people of Israel had journeyed out into the wilderness to meet with their God. As they encamped about Mount Sinai, the Lord appeared on the mountain in thunder and lightning, and then, as the people stood before the mountain, the Lord proclaimed the ten commandments. The words were wonderful, but at the sound of God's voice, the people are filled with fear.

The Passage

v1-2. The preamble. In the preamble, God declares that he is Israel's God, the one who has saved them and brought them to himself. Then follows the ten commandments.

v3. The Lord is unique. Our service to him must be undivided.

v4-6. The Lord is Spirit. He must be worshiped within the framework of his revealed knowledge, ie. as a spiritual being. Any attempt at representation produces only devotion of the thing rather than that which it represents. The reference to the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons does not mean that God punishes the sons for their fathers' sins, rather that the evil of the parent's rubs off onto their children, ie. the children pick up on their parent's behavior and perpetuate it and so continue to receive the trouble that goes with the sin.

v7. The sanctity of God's name. The ancient view was that a person's name expressed their very nature and being. So, to treat God's name with disrespect is to treat God himself with disrespect. To use God's name in false, flippant and mischievous oaths, is to affront the very person of God. The command is probably not directed against making oaths as such.

v8-11. The Sabbath. Remembering, or keeping the Sabbath, involves using the seventh day (Saturday) as a day focused on God. The early Christian saw this special day fulfilled in Christ's resurrection and so the one-day-in-seven became Sunday.

v12. The honoring of parents. This command calls for respect and care toward parents. Note the promise emphasized in the commandment. The point is that the right and proper ordering of the family will produce a positive foundation for the life of the individual, the family and the nation. This is the thrust of all the commands. They are not just given to take away people's fun, rather they are given to God's people to enable them to enjoy the benefits of the creation, ie. they are a channel of practical blessing, providing a manual for life.

v13. The sanctity of human life. Murder is the issue here, not manslaughter, capital punishment, or a death caused by war.

v14. The sanctity of marriage. Here the stress is on the bond of family life. Unity between a husband and wife is not to be interfered with. This is a fundamental law for a positive and healthy society.

v15. The sanctity of property. The right of ownership of property is a God given right and its removal by deceit, or strength, is condemned.

v16. The sanctity of a person's good name. The undermining of a person's good character, whether by lying, or whatever, is also condemned.

v17. Against covetousness. It is not only actions that are destructive, but thoughts as well. It is the evil intention which actually prompts the evil act. Covetousness is that which lies behind the preceding four commandments.

v18-21. As the Lord descends onto Mount Sinai, the people of Israel respond in fear.

The Ten Words

Port Macquarie, on the East coast of Australia, was once a convict settlement. The Anglican church in the town was built by the convicts; they laid the bricks and constructed all the church furniture, including the box pews with their little doors. On the wall over the communion table there once hung a large board listing the ten commandments. I have always wondered what was in the mind of the person responsible for that board listing the Ten Words. Was it particularly directed at the convicts?



The Ten Words are in the form of a covenant agreement, a legal document common in the ancient Near East which codified an agreement between two parties. Each party would hold a copy, which is possibly why Moses was given two tablets. In the preamble, God declares that he is Israel's God, the one who has saved them and brought them to himself. As promised, God is now present with his people and will bless them. The agreement then goes on to outline the responsibilities of covenant compliance with a set of guidelines for living. The Ten Words describe the substance of a life of faith lived under God's covenant mercy. The attached blessings and cursings serve as a warning. As Moses put it, "keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the Lord gives you for all time", Deut.4:40. Where there is a failure to comply, the Ten Words carry a curse. The sacrificial rites, detailed in the book of Leviticus, although unable to lift the curse, did convey two substantial truths: First, that as with Abraham of old, Israel's existence under the covenant is totally dependent on divine grace appropriated through faith; Second, that God would necessarily have to provide a perfect sacrifice himself. Only in Christ is Israel, and the stranger within its gates, freed from the curse of the law and this only for those who, in faith, rest on the mercy of God.

So then, what about the convicts who sat in their allocated boxes in the church they built, the talkative ones with a cork in their mouth? Was the Ten Words just for them? It is important to remember that the Ten Words are not regulations for entry into the kingdom, they are not rules for salvation. For those, with a faith like Abraham, salvation is already guaranteed. Neither are the Ten Words rules for staying in the kingdom, rules for keeping saved, or even rules for the appropriation of divine blessings. The Ten Words serve two very simple ends: First, they serve as a guide for the life of faith; they give direction in the Christian life. Second, they remind us that apart from the perfect standing before God that is ours in Christ, we would stand eternally lost under their curse. So yes, the Ten Words were for the convicts, but also for the guards, soldiers, government officials, the governor and the minister - they are there for everyone of us.


1. Does the first commandment have something to say about the way we use our resources of time, talent and tinkle? Illustrate.

2. Discuss the use of images in Christian worship. Is the cross a valid focus for worship?

3. Does the practice of giving an oath on the Bible in the name of God, break the third commandment? Support your point of view.

4. On what grounds do we fail to keep Saturday as a day of rest?

5. After we are married, must we always "honor" our parents? What does this mean in practice?

6. What does the sixth commandment have to say about manslaughter, capital punishment and war?

7. Can you see any links between infidelity and societal breakdown?

8. Discuss how socialist philosophy, and specifically taxation, might contravene the eighth commandment.

9. Discuss some of the ways we malign the good character of others - particularly within the Christian fellowship.

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