The Heart Behind the Ten Commandments

In Exodus 19:4-6, God tells Moses “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” He then gives Moses the Ten Commandments, which Moses was to inscribe on a tablet and present to the Israelites. Today, it’s easy to gloss over the Ten Commandments and miss out on their significance. But the Ten Commandments actually reveal a lot about God’s character and His plan for the Israelites and for the world. God used these laws to shape the nation and culture of Israel into something holy. If we look into each law through the lens of ancient near eastern culture and through the lens of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel, we will find that the Ten Commandments are abounding with love, goodness, and protection.

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.” The first commandment is the foundation of every other commandment. In order for the people of God to obey Him in full, they needed to recognize Him as their one and only God. Covenant exclusivity was essential for the growth and flourishing of Israel. It sealed Israel’s identity as a nation of God, with God. Should Israel choose to worship and partner with God and God alone, they would become a blessing and mediator for all nations.

“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.” The second commandment is a like a firewall. In it, God anticipated the tendency of humanity towards pride and sin. The worship of carved images and idols was a common practice in the nations that surrounded the Hebrews, making them very susceptible to it. If Israel failed in this commandment, they would surely fail in the first. Thus, God gives them two laws that protected them from turning their hearts away from Him.

“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.” This didn’t just refer to using God’s name disrespectfully but also prohibited the people from the use of God’s name to make a deceptive oath. This commandment required upmost honor from the people of God. Not only did it teach Israel to appreciate the importance and value of God’s name, but it taught the practice of honesty and mutual dignity within relationships.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The act of keeping the Sabbath was an invitation for the Israelites to mirror what God Himself did in Creation. The Sabbath was intended to establish a rhythm of creativity and rest, a pattern unique among other nations. God called His people to remember the Sabbath, not to create another stifling rule, but to invite them into a life-long practice of imitating Him. The Sabbath provided for the basic human need of rest and also created a nation with a holy work ethic.

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” The fifth commandment is a relational commandment that implied honoring the role of the parent through respect and through taking care of one’s parents in their old age. This concept enabled the strengthening of families, keeping them intertwined. Because the family was the axis of ancient life and culture, it makes sense that God would provide an honorable, loving structure for Israelite families to hold to.

The next three commandments, “you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal,” are the actions that post-fallen humanity had given themselves to. We see humanity’s propensity for evil in Genesis 4 through 6 where murder, injustice, and perverse sexual relations ran rampant. These commandments protect Israel from falling into the depths of evil and sin again.

"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The effects of a false witness were disastrous. False witnesses compromised justice, led to wrongful death, and corroded trust in relationships. In this commandment, God called Israel to a higher standard of justice that matched His character.

“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.” The tenth and final commandment may seem out of place, but, again, it is God’s omniscient knowledge of His people that leads Him to provide this law as protection. God knew the threat jealousy posed to the holiness of the Israelites so He chose to stop it at its source.

We will continue to learn about many laws, some will make sense, and some may be hard to swallow. What we can know confidently is that God used the Law to faithfully expose the sins of men, to protect them from falling further, and to accomplish His promise of creating a holy nation with a priestly mission.