God wanted the Israelites to thrive in their new homeland. So after they crossed the Red Sea, he began preparing them to build a successful society.
As part of this preparation, God gave the Israelites a moral code to govern their relationships with him and each other. This code is commonly called The Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments are universal and timeless. Their explicit meanings and implicit principles are reiterated throughout the Bible. We therefore know they still apply to us today,
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
God declares that he is the sole author of the commandments. They are not rules promulgated by Moses. They are not the consensus of ancient societies.
God validates his moral authority to issue the commandments by referencing an event the Israelites could attribute only to him—their newfound freedom.
If God were to likewise present the commandments to us individually, he might say something like, “I am the Lord your God, who miraculously rescued you from that raging house fire last week.”
We would immediately know who was speaking. We would recognize his moral authority and heed what he was about to say.
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.
God wants us to worship only him because he is the one true deity. All other gods are human constructs.
This prohibition pertains to more than just the deities we invent. It also includes the things we value excessively, such as money, power, prestige, fame, beauty, etc.
A society that worships multiple deities abides by a variety of moral codes. This creates a disjointed society.
A society that worships God alone unites around a single moral code. This creates a cohesive society.
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
God values his reputation.
He condemns those who attribute his good works to Satan or to other sources. He forbids the use of his name to justify the perpetration of sin and evil.
God disapproves of those who minister insincerely in his name for personal gain or glory. The flippant and profane use of his name displeases him.
Individuals and societies that heed their impact on God’s reputation are more likely to do good things that benefit others and thus glorify him.
Conversely, they are less likely to do selfish, immoral, or hateful things that harm others and thereby discredit him.
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.
God cherishes our will so much that he institutionalized a day for us to pursue our own interests.
He intends us to use our free day to worship him, bond with our families and friends, and pursue our personal interests. These activities refresh us and build durable societies.
As we enjoy our day of rest, God wants us to remember that it was all his idea.
The ultimate reason we have the day off is because he rested on the seventh day of creation, not because society thinks a short work week is a nice tradition.
Note that God applies this precept equally to adults, sons, daughters, male and female servants, foreigners, and animals.
Inherent in this equality are several important principles.
- Individual liberty is an inalienable right, given to us by God, not granted by human authorities. Successful societies codify and protect this right.
- God gave everyone, at every level of every society, the same day of rest. He effectively declared that we all have the same inherent worth. Individual dignity is thus a divine absolute, uniformly ascribed to everyone by God, not a human construct, subjectively assigned to favored individuals, groups, or classes by society.
- God esteems women and children. He considers them first-class citizens, on par with adult men. He gave them equal rights to enjoy the same day of rest.
- God values workplace fairness. He wants employers to treat their employees—servants, in this context—with the same dignity they afford themselves.
- God condemns discrimination and oppression. He says the minority groups in society—identified as foreigners in this commandment—are entitled to the same day of rest as the majority group.
- God wants animals to be treated humanely. Even they deserve a day of rest.
So what about the servant reference in this commandment? Does God endorse slavery?
No. The servitude mentioned here is indentured service, not involuntary slavery.
Government welfare was uncommon in Bible times. The poor often agreed to serve the wealthy, for a specified period, in exchange for subsistence. They traded their labor for food, clothing, and shelter. God established civil laws to protect indentured servants from abuse and injustice.
God abhors involuntary slavery in which people are captured, sold, and forced to work. Soon after delivering this commandment, he decreed that slave traders should be executed.
Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
Honoring parents binds families across generations, which builds durable societies. Hence the reference to living long in the land.
This commandment applies to both children and adults.
The honor children give their parents teaches them respect for other authorities, including coaches, teachers, military commanders, employers, and government institutions. This translates an orderly society.
As adults, we see character flaws and behavioral deficiencies in our parents. We recognize their parenting mistakes that negatively impacted us. We may have to accommodate their physical frailties.
Honoring parents in our adulthood, despite their shortcomings, requires us to be kind, patient, forgiving, and magnanimous. This translates into a compassionate society.
Note that God commands us to honor our parents, not to love them. He makes this distinction because he knows some parents are hard to love.
You shall not murder.
God supremely values human life. He considers the malicious taking of innocent human life to be immoral.
The specificity of this commandment distinguishes murder from other types of killing.
For instance, killing an assailant in self-defense is moral. Preemptively slaying hostile attackers before they can inflict harm is permissible.
God prescribed capital punishment for certain offenses, so we know it is lawful when preceded by due process. On the other hand, vigilante justice is unlawful.
God incorporated animal sacrifices into his initial atonement plan. He arranged for the Israelites to eat quail after they crossed the Red Sea.
We therefore know that killing animals for legitimate purposes is not murder.
Societies that tolerate murder are unsafe for everyone. If murder, the ultimate act of violence, is allowed, then it is easy for individuals to justify other violent acts that do not end lives, such as rape and battery.
You shall not commit adultery.
This commandment is intended to minimize divorce, preserve families, and protect society’s future, i.e., its children.
God knows sexual infidelity often destroys marriages and breaks up families. This can harm children and destabilize societies.
Removing adultery as a viable option in unhappy marriages can motivate spouses to preserve their relationship.
Done right, this effort makes both spouses less selfish and more thoughtful. These attributes characterize good families and benevolent societies.
You shall not steal.
God forbids us from taking that which does not belong to us, either directly though theft, or indirectly through deception, coercion, manipulation, or fraud.
Societies become dysfunctional when stealing is rampant.
The generality of this commandment indicates that it concerns more than just the physical theft of tangible property.
It also pertains to the illicit taking of intangibles others possess, including their dignity, identity, innocence, ideas, and opportunities.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
Our neighbors are those we encounter as we go through life. God wants us to be honest with everyone in what we do, say, imply, and represent.
Successful societies cherish trust and justice, individually and corporately. Upholding these values requires us to be truthful and honest.
Common sense tells us there are exceptions to this commandment, especially when something less than the truth protects innocent lives from harm.
For example, we are not compelled to answer honestly when a violent home invader asks if our children are in the house.
Some state and military secrets are so important they must be shielded from public disclosure by obfuscation.
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.
Covetousness is greed compounded by envy. We covet when we desire something so much that it prevents us from experiencing true contentment.
God is the source of true contentment. Coveting means we have elevated the object of our desire above him. Thus, it is a form of idolatry.
Covetousness fosters anger, resentment, and bitterness. It sours our relationships with God and others. If allowed to fester, it impairs our emotional health.
Coveteousness is often the underlying motivation for lying, theft, adultery, and murder, which are prohibited in the preceding commandments.
Abstaining from coveteousness makes us more likely to uphold these commandments.
Societies fracture when coveteous individuals and groups act adversely on this impulse. The absence of covetousness helps societies unify.
New Testament Perspective
Jesus distilled The Ten Commandments into two.
He said we should love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves.
He proclaimed that we effectively fulfill The Ten Commandments, and all of God’s other precepts, when we do these two things.