The Ten Commandments—of God, Not Men
THE Ten Commandments are without doubt the best-known part of the Bible. Jew, Catholic and Protestant are familiar with them. The righteousness and wisdom they manifest testify to their being of superhuman origin. Eloquently they add their testimony to the Bible’s being the Divine Revelation.
“The brevity, comprehensiveness, forcefulness . . . of the Ten Commandments has caused them to stand out from all other teaching.”1 “No religious document has ever exercised a greater influence on the moral and social life of man than the . . . Decalogue.”2 “The commandments . . . in themselves appeal to us as coming from a superhuman divine source, and no conscientious or reasonable man has yet been able to find a flaw in them. Absolutely flawless, negative in terms, but positive in meaning, they easily stand at the head of our whole moral system, and no nation or people can long continue a happy existence in open violation of them.”3 “All the massive bulk of our English and American law may be reduced to a few very grand principles underlying the whole and which were enunciated by Moses.” The Ten Commandments have also been called “the greatest short moral code ever formulated,” and “the idealized model of all law.”4
Interestingly, the expression “Ten Commandments” is not found in the Bible. Instead, it speaks of them as the “Ten Words.” (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:4) In the Septuagint version they are termed the déka, meaning “ten,” and lógoi, meaning “words,” from which we get the name Decalogue for the Ten Commandments. Fittingly there are ten of them, a symbol of completeness. And from the rest of the Scriptures we learn that Jehovah God used angels to transmit them through Moses to the sons of Israel and that it was “God’s finger” that wrote these ten commandments on two tablets of stone.—Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Ex. 31:18.
The Ten Commandments have been the target of Bible critics for many years. J. H. Breasted would have us believe that “the Egyptians possessed a standard of morals far superior to that of the Decalogue, over a thousand years before the Decalogue was written.”5 Yet the fact is that the Egyptians “were never able to renounce animal worship or to purge it of its grossness or to cease groveling before their kings or to despise the terrors of death or to think of having done in the grave with the delights of the flesh or to cast off magic.” And all this continued down to the last century before the Common Era.6
Particularly since January, 1902, when French archaeologists completed their discovery of the code of Hammurabi, critics of the Bible have endeavored to belittle the Decalogue by claiming that the Israelites borrowed it from this earlier Code, which consists of close to three hundred laws and covers practically every phase of human endeavor. But not so. Even though it may have antedated the Decalogue from 150 to 250 years, there is no basis for concluding that the Decalogue was borrowed from Hammurabi’s Code.7 The emphasis of the Decalogue is on the religious, that of the Code on the secular. Says a leading archaeologist: “A comparison of the code of Hammurabi as a whole with the Pentateuchal laws as a whole, while it reveals certain similarities, convinces the student that the laws of the Old Testament are in no essential way dependent upon the Babylonian laws. Such resemblances as there are arose, it seems clear, from a similarity of antecedents and of general intellectual outlook; the striking differences show that there was no direct borrowing.”8
JEHOVAH GOD FIRST
The “Ten Words” are stated in incisive, terse language, consisting of but 120 words in the Hebrew text.9 They reveal a wisdom and morality far above what fallen man would be able to achieve unaided. Logically, Jehovah God comes first. Yet that is just the opposite of the way worldly-wise men would have written it. University students in listing the commandments in order of importance put first man’s duty to man.10 But the first is the most important: “You must never have any other gods against my face.” Jehovah God, the One who brought Israel out of Egypt proved himself to be the Almighty God, the Most High, the Supreme Sovereign. He was therefore to have no rivals. The first commandment involved his office, his unique position.—Ex. 20:3.
The second commandment forbade idolatry; it involved Jehovah’s person, his Being; making an idol or representation of him was an affront to the glory of his Personage: “You must not make for yourself a carved image or a form like anything that is in the heavens above or that is on the earth underneath or that is in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them nor be induced to serve them, because I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion, bringing punishment for the iniquity of fathers upon sons down to the great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons in the case of those who hate me, but exercising loving-kindness toward thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”—Ex. 20:4-6.
In view of the creature worship in Egypt and the idolatry rampant in Canaan, this law was most vital. The human tendency is to make representations to aid in worship, with the result that the representation rather than God gets the worship. Divine wisdom foresaw that tendency. It is of interest that archaeologists have never found any representation of Jehovah in their diggings. When the Israelites fell from true worship, they made idols of pagan deities and worshiped them.11—Deut. 4:15-20.
Not to be overlooked is the positive element in the second commandment: Jehovah’s loving-kindness is toward those that love him and obey his commandments. The sins of the fathers being visited on their descendants is no injustice but merely the outworking of the inexorable laws of retribution and heredity. Nor is Jehovah a “jealous” (AV) God as humans are jealous, because of selfishness or weakness. No, he requires the “exclusive devotion” of his creatures because that is his due and because rendering it is a safeguard to his creatures. If he failed to require it he would be denying himself as well as manifesting indifference to his creatures’ welfare.
The third commandment reads: “You must not take up the name of Jehovah your God in a worthless way, for Jehovah will not leave the one unpunished who takes up his name in a worthless way.” (Ex 20:7) No doubt the primary purpose of this commandment was to prohibit the name of Jehovah being used in a disrespectful, profane or blasphemous manner. Some who fail to notice the prominence that Jehovah gives to his name throughout his Word question why this should be one of the Ten Commandments. By extension this commandment would also be directed against giving Jehovah lip service, claiming to be one of Jehovah’s people and yet not living up to what is required of such a one. When the nation of Israel became apostate they were in effect taking Jehovah’s name in vain.—Isa. 43:10.
Without parallel in any other ancient code of laws is the fourth commandment: “Remembering the sabbath day to hold it sacred, you are to render service and you must do all your work six days. But the seventh day is a sabbath to Jehovah your God. You must not do any work, you nor your son nor your daughter, your slave man nor your slave girl nor your domestic animal nor your temporary resident who is inside your gates. For in six days Jehovah made the heavens and the earth, the sea and everything that is in them and he proceeded to rest on the seventh day. That is why Jehovah blessed the sabbath day and proceeded to make it sacred.”—Ex. 20:8-11.
This law, while it reminded the Israelites of the propriety of working, acted primarily as a deterrent to their becoming materialistic. Implicit in it was love of God, love of oneself in a wholesome, proper way, and love of one’s neighbor. The seventh day belonged to God; by not working on it they paid their due, a token, as it were, to Jehovah for everything they were able to procure by working the six days. In a tangible way they thereby acknowledged their Creator, and not only by not working, but by worshiping him on that day: “If in view of the sabbath you will turn back your foot as regards doing your own delights on my holy day, and will actually call the sabbath an exquisite delight as belonging to the Holy One, Jehovah, who is being glorified, and will actually glorify it rather than doing your own ways,” then Jehovah God will bless you.—Isa. 58:13.
Additionally this law looked to the welfare of all living creatures in Israel. One could not even drive himself incessantly, but had to rest one day in seven; also, one’s family, one’s slaves, the foreigner; and not overlooked were the beasts of burden. One and all were to have surcease from wearisome, arduous toil one day in seven. The ancient Romans ridiculed the wastefulness of one day’s rest in seven; the godless French revolutionists tried to introduce the decimal system, one day’s rest in ten, but it did not work. Its value is appreciated by all today, even though few use it to honor God.
The first commandment involved Jehovah God’s position and office, the second his Being or Person, the third his name, the fourth his right, due or tax, as it were. These four are generally listed as relating to God and the remaining six as relating to man, to human relations. The fifth commandment, however, may be said to involve both, in that the parents served as God’s representatives, and in honoring and obeying them one was honoring and obeying Jehovah. It required: “Honor your father and your mother in order that your days may prove long upon the ground that Jehovah your God is giving you.” (Ex. 20:12) This commandment, the only one with a promise, got at the root of matters, thereby preventing juvenile delinquency. The implication, of course, is that the parents were obeying God’s law themselves. Other parts of the law of Moses showed that this law had sanctions, teeth, as it might be said. Flagrant violators of this law were stoned to death. (Deut. 21:18-21) Children who honored and respected their parents would be inclined to be respectful to all their elders and thereby follow the course that would prove most wholesome to themselves.
Coming to the next five commandments, we find that in the Hebrew these are stated most bluntly, as, for example, “You must not murder!” It is only in respect to these that a comparison can be drawn between the Decalogue and the codes of other peoples. But that should not prove surprising. Even Cain recognized that his murdering his brother Abel deserved death. Thus in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, written centuries before the Decalogue, we read of one’s pleading one’s virtue in that one had not murdered, stolen, committed adultery or borne false witness.12
The arrangement of these last five commandments is most meaningful, being in order from the greatest to the least harm done to one’s neighbor. Thus the sixth commandment forbids taking the life of one’s neighbor; the seventh, his wife; the eighth, his property. Going from deeds to words, the ninth forbids speaking falsely against him, and the tenth prohibits selfish thoughts against one’s neighbor. This last law is also unique to the Ten Commandments. No man or body of lawmakers ever dreamed of passing a law against coveting. Why not? Because there is no human way of enforcing it. Yet Jehovah made it part of the Decalogue. Why? Because thereby he got at the source or cause of breaking the other commandments involving one’s neighbor, namely, selfishness. And while men could not enforce such a law, Jehovah God in giving it made each one of his people his own spiritual or moral policeman, as it were; made each one accountable to God that he did not desire anything belonging to his neighbor.
Since the Ten Commandments, from beginning to end, both in what they proscribe as well as in their arrangement, clearly demonstrate that Jehovah God alone could be their Author, does this mean that Christians are still bound by them? No, that does not necessarily follow. God can both make and abrogate his laws. The Decalogue, together with about 600 other laws of the Mosaic Law Code, as well as their sanctions such as stoning, was nailed to Jesus’ torture stake by Jehovah God, thereby freeing Christians from the Decalogue. Christians “are not under law but under undeserved kindness.” And in the place of the Decalogue Christians have God’s spirit and love as forces for righteousness. However, the basic principles of the Ten Commandments have not been canceled; they will ever apply. Just how these appear in God’s commandments for Christians we leave for a future issue of this journal to tell.—Rom. 6:14; 13:8-10; Eph. 2:14-16; Col. 2:16, 17.
1 Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics.
2 The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Exodus.
3 Moore v. Strickliny (1899).
4 Clark’s Biblical Law.
5 Ancient Records of Egypt—Breasted.
6 The Book of Books: An Introduction—S. Goldman.
7 Archaeology and Bible History—Free.
8 Archaeology and the Bible—Barton.
9 The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia.
10 Foundations for Reconstruction—E. Trueblood.
11 Journal of Near Eastern Studies—G. E. Wright.
12 Light from the Ancient Past—Finnegan.