Everything in nature, from the mote in the sunbeam to the worlds on high, is under law. And upon obedience to these laws the order and harmony of the natural world depend. So there are great principles of righteousness to control the life of all intelligent beings, and upon conformity to these principles the well-being of the universe depends. Before this earth was called into being, God’s law existed. Angels are governed by its principles, and in order for earth to be in harmony with heaven, man also must obey the divine statutes. To man in Eden Christ made known the precepts of the law.
As the symbol of God’s authority and the embodiment of His will, there was delivered to Moses a copy of the Ten Commandments engraved by the finger of God Himself upon two tables of stone. See Deuteronomy 9:1O; Exodus 32:15, 16. Its principles are adapted to all mankind, and they were given for the instruction and government of all. It was love that prompted God to express His will in the ten precepts of the commandments. God honored the Hebrews by making them the guardians and keepers of His law, but it was to be held as a sacred trust for the whole world.
[Editor: Far from being simply a list of restrictive “thou shalt nots,” the ten commandments are a list of promiSes. Enfolded in every command of God is the promise of its fulfillment, power by which the command may be fulfilled. God said, “lam the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:2. The same miracle working power that delivered the children of Israel from Egypt is available to bring you and me out of the bondage of sin.]
Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Exodus 20:3
This is the first great command, and upon this command depends all the rest. This is the substance of all obedience.
Jehovah, the eternal, self-existent, uncreated One, Himself the Source and Sustainer of all, is alone entitled to supreme reverence and worship. Man is forbidden to give to any other object the first place in his affections or his service. Whatever we cherish that tends to lessen our love for God or to interfere with the service due Him, of that do we make a god. It is as easy to make an idol of cherished ideas or objects as to fashion gods of wood or stone.
It is essential to our eternal wellbeing to know more of God, for love to God depends on a conception of His goodness, His excellence, and a knowledge of His will. It requires an appreciation of His character. His law, which is the transcript of His character, God gave to His people as a blessing. God is a God of truth; justice and mercy are the attributes of His throne. He is a God of love, of pity and of tender compassion. He is a God of patience and long-suffering.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. Exodus 20:4-6
The second commandment forbids the worship of the true God by images or similitudes. Many heathen nations claimed that their images were mere figures or symbols by which the Deity was worshiped, but God has declared such worship to be sin. The attempt to represent the Eternal One by material objects would lower man’s conception of God. The mind, turned away from the infinite perfection of Jehovah, would be attracted to the creature rather than to the Creator. And as his conceptions of God were lowered, so would man become degraded.
God has given us many things in this life upon which to bestow our affections, but when we carry to excess that which in itself is lawful, we become idolaters. The law of God requires that every son and daughter of Adam shall love Him supremely; anything that separates our affections from God and lessens our interest in eternal things is an idol. With some their lands, their houses, their merchandise are the idols. Professed Christians adorn themselves with jewelry, laces, costly apparel, while the Lord’s poor suffer for the necessities of life.
“I the Lord thy God am a jealous God.”“ The close and sacred relation of God to His people is represented under the figure of marriage. Idolatry being spiritual adultery, the displeasure of God against it is fitly called jealousy.
“Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me.” It is inevitable that children should suffer from the consequences of parental wrongdoing, but they are not punished for the parents’ guilt, except as they participate in their sins. It is usually the case, however, that children walk in the steps of their parents. By inheritance and example the sons become partakers of the father’s sin. Wrong tendencies, perverted appetites, and debased morals, as well as physical disease and degeneracy, are transmitted as a legacy from father to son, to the third and fourth generation. This fearful truth should have a solemn power to restrain men from following a course of sin.
“Showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me, and keep My commandments.” In prohibiting the worship of false gods, the second commandment by implication enjoins the worship of the true God. And to those who are faithful in His service, mercy is promised, not merely to the third and fourth generation as is the wrath threatened against those who hate Him, but to thousands of generations.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. Exodus 20:7
This commandment not only prohibits false oaths and common swearing, but it forbids us to use the name of God in a light or careless manner, without regard to its awful significance. By the thoughtless mention of God in common conversation, by appeals to Him in trivial matters, and by the frequent and thoughtless repetition of His name, we dishonor Him. “Holy and reverend is His name.” Psalm 111:9.
All should meditate upon His majesty, His purity and holiness, that the heart may be impressed with a sense of His exalted character, and His holy name should be uttered with reverence and solemnity.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. Exodus 20:8-11
The Sabbath is not introduced as a new institution but as having been founded at creation. It is to be remembered and observed as the memorial of the Creator’s work. Pointing to God as the Maker of the heavens and the earth, it distinguishes the true God from all false gods. The Sabbath is the sign of man’s allegiance to God as long as there are any upon the earth to serve Him. The fourth commandment is the only one of all the ten in which are found both the name [“The Lord thy God”] and the title [Creator— “The Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that in them is,”] of the Lawgiver. It is the only one that shows by whose authority the law is given. Thus it contains the seal of God, affixed to His law as evidence of its authenticity and binding force.
Man was to rest upon this sacred day, that as he should look upon the heavens and the earth, he might reflect upon God’s great work of creation; and that as he should behold the evidences of God’s wisdom and goodness, his heart might be filled with love and reverence for his Maker.
God has given men six days wherein to labor, and He requires that their own work be done in the six working days, but on the Sabbath unnecessary labor is to be avoided. God’s holy rest day was made for man, and acts of mercy are in perfect harmony with its intent. The sick and suffering are at all times to be cared for. To relieve the afflicted, to comfort the sorrowing, is a labor of love that does honor to God’s holy day.
Those who discuss business matters or lay plans on the Sabbath are regarded by God as though engaged in the actual transaction of business. To keep the Sabbath holy, we should not even allow our minds to dwell upon things of a worldly character. And the commandment includes all within our gates. The occupants of the house are to lay aside their worldly business during the sacred hours. All should unite to honor God by willing service upon His holy day.
The Sabbath is a sign of creative and redeeming power; it points to God as the source of life and knowledge; it recalls man’s primeval glory, and thus witnesses to God’s purpose to re-create us in His own image.
Had the Sabbath been universally kept, man’s thoughts and affections would have been led to the Creator as the object of reverence and worship, and there would never have been an idolater, an atheist, or an infidel. The keeping of the Sabbath is a sign of loyalty to the true God.
Since the Sabbath is the memorial of creative power, it is the day above all others when we should acquaint ourselves with God through His works.
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. Exodus 20:12
Parents are entitled to a degree of love and respect which is due to no other person. God Himself, who has placed upon them a responsibility for the souls committed to their charge, has ordained that during the earlier years of life, parents shall stand in the place of God to their children. And he who rejects the rightful authority of his parents is rejecting the authority of God. The fifth commandment requires children not only to yield respect, submission, and obedience to their parents, but also to give them love and tenderness, to lighten their cares, to guard their reputation, and to succor and comfort them in old age. It also enjoins respect for ministers and rulers and for all others to whom God has delegated authority.
This, says the apostle, “is the first commandment with promise.” Ephesians 6:2. To Israel, expecting soon to enter Canaan, it was a pledge to the obedient of long life in that good land, but it has a wider meaning, which includes all the Israel of God, and promises eternal life upon the earth when it shall be freed from the curse of sin.
Thou shalt not kill. Exodus 20:13
“Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder” (Matthew 19:18), and describes it as first existing in the mind. All acts of injustice, the spirit of hatred and revenge, the indulgence of any passion that leads to injurious acts toward others; a seffish neglect of caring for the needy or suffering, all self-indulgence that tends to injure health—these are, to a greater or lesser degree, violations of the sixth commandment.
The spirit of hatred and revenge originated with Satan, and it led him to put to death the Son of God. Whoever cherishes malice or unkindness is cherishing the same spirit. In the revengeful thought the evil deed lies enfolded, as the plant in the seed. “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer.” 1 John 3:15. If the love of Christ dwells in us, we shall not only cherish no hatred toward our fellows, but we shall seek in every way to manifest love toward them.
Thou shalt not commit adultery. Exodus 20:14
This commandment forbids not only acts of impurity, but sensual thoughts and desires, or any practice that tends to excite them. Purity is demanded not only in the outward life but in the secret intents and emotions of the heart. Christ, who taught the far-reaching obligation of the law of God, declared the evil thought or look to be as truly sin as is the unlawful deed.
“Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Matthew 5:28. When the thought of evil is loved and cherished, however secretly, said Jesus, it shows that sin still reigns in the heart. He who finds pleasure in dwelling upon scenes of impurity, who indulges the evil thought, the lustful look, may behold in the open sin the true nature of the evil which he has hidden in the chambers of the soul. The temptation under which one falls into grievous sin does not create the evil that is revealed, but only makes manifest that which was hidden in the heart. As a man “thinketh in his heart, so is he;” for out of the heart “are the issues of life.” Proverbs 23:7; 4:23.
Like every other one of God’s good gifts entrusted to the keeping of humanity, marriage has been perverted by sin, but it is the purpose of the gospel to restore its purity and beauty. The grace of Christ, and this alone, can make this institution what God designed it should be—an agent for the blessing and uplifting of humanity. And thus the families of earth, in their unity and peace and love, may represent the family of heaven.
Thou shalt not steal. Exodus 20:15
Both public and private sins are included in this prohibition. The eighth commandment condemns manstealing and slave dealing, and forbids wars of conquest. It condemns theft and robbery. It demands strict integrity in the minutest details of the affairs of life. It forbids overreaching in trade, and requires the payment of just debts or wages. It declares that every attempt to advantage oneself by the ignorance, weakness, or misfortune of another is registered as fraud in the books of heaven.
As we deal with our fellow men in petty dishonesty or in more daring fraud, so will we deal with God. Men who persist in a course of dishonesty will carry out their principles until they cheat their own souls and lose heaven and eternal life.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Exodus 20:16
False speaking in any matter, every attempt or purpose to deceive our neighbor, is here included. An intention to deceive is what constitutes falsehood. By a glance of the eye, a motion of the hand, an expression of the countenance, a falsehood may be told as effectually as by words. All intentional overstatement, every hint or insinuation calculated to convey an erroneous or exaggerated impression, even the statement of facts in such a manner as to mislead, is falsehood. This precept forbids every effort to injure our neighbor’s reputation by misrepresentation or evil surmising, by slander or tale bearing. Even the intentional suppression of truth, by which injury may result to others, is a violation of the ninth commandment.
Everything that Christians do should be as transparent as the sunlight. Truth is of God; deception, in every one of its myriad forms, is of Satan; and whoever in any way departs from the straight line of truth is betraying himself into the power of the wicked one. Yet it is not a light or an easy thing to speak the exact truth. We cannot speak the truth unless we know the truth, and how often preconceived opinions, mental bias, imperfect knowledge, errors of judgment, prevent a right understanding of matters with which we have to do! We cannot speak the truth unless our minds are continually guided by Him who is truth.
The spirit of gossip and talebearing is one of Satan’s special agencies to sow discord and strife, to separate friends. He whom God accounts a citizen of Zion is he that “speaketh the truth in his heart,” “that backbiteth not with his tongue,” “nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbor.” Psalm 15:2, 3.
Thou shaft not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s. Exodus 20:17
The tenth commandment strikes at the very root of all sins, prohibiting the selfish desire, from which springs the sinful act. He who in obedience to God’s law refrains from indulging even a sinful desire for that which belongs to another will not be guilty of an act of wrong toward his fellow creatures.
Every selfish desire, every degree of discontent, every act of overreaching, every selfish gratification works to the strengthening and developing of a character which will destroy the Christlikeness of the human agent and close the gates of the city of God against him.
All who seek to make honesty the ruling principle in the daily business of life will need to be on their guard that they covet “no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel.” While they are content with convenient food and clothing, it will be found an easy matter to keep the heart and hands from the defilement of covetousness and dishonesty.
The Greatest Commandment
The Pharisees prevailed upon a certain learned scribe to question Jesus as to which of the ten precepts of the law was of the greatest importance.
The lawyer approached Jesus with a direct question, “Which is the first commandment of all?” The answer of Christ is direct and forcible: “The first of all the commandments is, Hear, 0 Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.” The second is like the first, said Christ, for it flows out of it, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The first four of the Ten Commandments are summed up in the one great precept, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.” The last six are included in the other, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Both these commandments are an expression of the principle of love. The first cannot be kept and the second broken, nor can the second be kept while the first is broken. See James 2:10. When God has His rightful place on the throne of the heart, the right place will be given to our neighbor. We shall love him as ourselves. And only as we love God supremely is it possible to love our neighbor impartially.
And since all the commandments are summed up in love to God and man, it follows that not one precept can be broken without violating this principle. Thus Christ taught His hearers that the law of God is not so many separate precepts, some of which are of great importance, while others are of small importance and may with impunity be ignored. Our Lord presents the first four and the last six commandments as a divine whole, and teaches that love to God will be shown by obedience to all His commandments.