16 “‘Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
17 “‘You shall not murder.
18 “‘And you shall not commit adultery.
19 “‘And you shall not steal.
20 “‘And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
21 “‘And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.’” – Deuteronomy 5:16-21 ESV
The first four of the Ten Commandments are focused on man’s relationship with God. Yet, while they are vertical in their orientation, they have a horizontal aspect to them. In other words, they are intended to impact man’s earthly life.
The Israelites were prohibited from worshiping other gods. The fact that these false gods were non-existent should have made this command a no-brainer, but mankind has been in the habit of replacing God substitutes and stand-ins ever since the fall. And the Israelites had even been so bold as to have made a golden calf while Moses had been up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from God.
The prohibition on worshiping false gods was accompanied by a command against creating idols of those gods. This was a particular temptation for the people of Israel, because their God was invisible. But while their God was unseen, His character was not. God had revealed Himself in a variety of ways and had proven His power, holiness, love, and trustworthiness. That is why the third commandment prohibits using His name in vain. This is not a ban on using profanity, but a demand that the people of God protect the integrity of God’s reputation. We can profane God’s name by speaking falsely about Him by questioning His love, reliability, power, or presence. To say, “God does not care” is to treat His character with contempt. To imply that God is unfair or unjust is to drag His holy name through the mud.
The fourth command centers around the keeping of the Sabbath. While the emphasis appears to be on rest from labor, the Sabbath is tied directly to the creation account found in the book of Genesis and the creation of Israel as a nation, as described in the book of Exodus. By setting aside this one day out of seven as a day of rest and contemplation, God was requiring that the Israelites reflect on His role as the Creator-God, the maker of all things. In all the activity and busyness of life, they were not to forget that their very existence was totally dependent upon God.
The second set of commands are more horizontal in nature, focusing on mankind’s interpersonal relationships. The first of these commands covers the family unit, a God-ordained institution that was to be treated with reverence and respect. He commands children to honor their parents, treating them with dignity and seeing them as the God-appointed overseers of the household. Headship and authority are essential for life to function properly. Without it, there is anarchy. And because God is invisible and unseen, He has provided tangible expressions of His divine authority through human agents, such as mothers and fathers, pastors and elders, and governmental leaders. Our ability to show honor to those we can see is ultimately a form of showing honor to the One we cannot see.
The next command takes a dramatically negative turn, with God explicitly banning the taking of another person’s life. But the context is murder and it harkens all the way back to the days following the fall, when Cain killed his brother, Abel. In a fit of anger, fueled by jealousy, Cain took his brother’s life. In doing so, he set himself up as God, becoming the arbiter of his brother’s fate. If we turn back and look at the details surrounding that fateful event, we see that Cain and Abel had brought offerings to God, but that God did not accept the offering made by Cain.
In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. – Genesis 4:3-4 ESV
And it was God’s rejection that that angered Cain and caused him to lash out against his brother. He offered an unacceptable offering to God, which is most likely a statement about the condition of his heart, not the quality of his offering. And the true nature of his heart was revealed in how he reacted to God’s rejection. He played God and removed the one whom God had approved. Murder is man playing God. It is an attempt to diminish the value of that which God has made – human life – by determining another person’s right to exist. It is the most egregious expression of idolatry that a human being can commit.
The next command covers another God-ordained institution: Marriage. The Israelites were to respect marriage by refraining from adultery. Tied into this is the idea of covenant faithfulness and commitment. Just as a child’s honoring of their parents is ultimately an expression of honor to God, so the husband and wife who honor their marriage covenant are expressing their reverence for God. In a world where unfaithfulness was ubiquitous, God was demanding faithfulness and fidelity.
In a sense, adultery is a form of theft. It is taking what does not rightfully belong to you. And God takes this ban on stealing to another level by banning it outright. The prohibition on stealing was intended to teach the Israelites to honor the rights of their neighbors, but it was also meant to teach reliance upon God. The motivation behind stealing is usually discontentment. James put it this way: “You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them” (James 4:2 NLT). Stealing is nothing more than rewarding yourself with that which you think you deserve, but which God has chosen to deny you. It is the taking of what rightfully belongs to someone else, and along with material things, we can steal someone’s reputation.
And this sets up the next command. Lying is a form of hatred toward others that supplies disinformation in order to place self-preservation over anything and everything. It is meant to deceive and distort the truth for personal gain. We lie to protect ourselves or to inflate our perceived worth. We fabricate facts that make us look good. We make up false narratives intended to make others look bad. Lying can murder another person’s reputation. It is a purposeful attempt to misrepresent the facts in order to alter outcomes or improve outlooks. But God is a God of truth. And as Numbers 23:19 reminds us, “God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?”
The final command involves an insidious and invisible cancer that infects each and every human being: Covetousness. This is less an action than an attitude. It is an expression of the heart. It can remain hidden from those around us, but all the while it is spreading in our hearts like a deadly infection. Covetousness is ultimately selfish and self-centered, placing our own desires ahead of God’s will and the needs of others. It drives so many of the other behaviors banned by the other commands. Adultery takes place when we covet that which is not ours. Murder occurs when one person places more value on their desire for revenge than another person’s life. Stealing is the ultimate expression of covetousness. It is coveting consummated. But at its core, covetousness is a dissatisfaction with God. It is an expression of disfavor with God and His ability to provide for our needs. His gifts are not enough. His goodness is not good enough. We have to have more.
The law is good and holy. But as we saw yesterday, the law could only prescribe and prohibit. It could command and demand, but it could not force compliance. God made it perfectly clear what He expected of His people. But they were going to have to choose to obey. They could not claim ignorance, but in time, they would display their obstinance. Their knowledge of God’s law would be of little value if they failed to live in compliance with it.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.