Exploring the 10 Commandments

The Ten Commandments are some of the most referenced moral guidelines in history. Christian, Jewish, or not, most people have at least heard of the stone tablets.

But that doesn’t mean they’re familiar with them.

The Barna Research Group says that 60 percent of Americans can’t name even five of the Ten Commandments.

That’s right. Five.

Why do we still need them?

Long after Moses brought God’s law to the world, Jesus brought God’s summary in Matthew 22:37–40.

But doesn’t the phrase, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” suggest that each of the Ten Commandments points back to one of these two?

Before Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments with “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” he explained what it means to love God with your heart, soul, and mind in Matthew 5:21–48.

Man’s definition of God’s law isn’t good enough

He pointed to the Pharisees, who followed man’s definition of God’s law, and said:
“unless your righteousness exceeds theirs, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. . . . you therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:20 and Matthew 5:48).

Righteousness isn’t skin deep. It’s heart, mind, and soul deep. (Click to tweet)
God designed each of the Ten Commandments to help us love him and love others.
Let’s take a look at what the world’s most advanced study Bible has to say about the Ten Commandments.

Exodus 20: The Ten Commandments

At the end of Exodus 19, Moses comes down from Mount Sinai to tell the people what God has said.

Exodus 20 begins with a reminder of God’s power and provision: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2).

The first commandment

“You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).
The Faithlife Study Bible says this commandment “forbids any personal loyalty or relationship with any deity besides Yahweh—the core idea behind the modern term ‘monotheism.'”
If you dig into the second layer of study notes, we see: “Biblical Hebrew has no verb for ‘to have’ but expresses possession in a variety of ways. The most common is the phrasing found here, ‘there shall not be to you.’ When used of items that are animate (e.g., a wife, livestock, a deity), the phrase also connotes a personal relationship.”

The second commandment

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or 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 or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:4–6).
The FSB makes the distinction that a ‘divine image’ “Prohibits the worship of any image created, not the creation of the image.” It is the worship of the thing he despises, not the thing itself.

It goes on to say, “Together, the first two commands describe the sin of idolatry. Since the core idea behind idolatry was an attempt to localize a deity to barter with it or control it, an important element of Israelite religion was that Yahweh not be depicted the way other deities were: by means of an idol. This rejection of Yahweh’s physical representation is called ‘aniconism.'”

For some, this may call into question depictions of Jesus or the cross.
The FSB says, “Having or creating a depiction of Jesus is not a violation of this command, since Jesus is with the Father in the heavenly realm. If this second command forbade the mere creation of such imagery without respect to worship, God Himself violates the command in Exodus 25:19 when He orders the Israelites to fashion cherubim for the lid of the ark of the covenant.”

Exodus 20:5 appears to suggest that God punishes us for the sins of those who came before us. The FSB notes on ‘third and on the fourth generations’ says otherwise: “[this] illustrates the Israelite concept of corporate responsibility: in addition to the individual, a community is also collectively responsible for the behavior and sin of its members. This passage does not suggest that future innocents will be held morally accountable for the sins of ancestors but refers to the mutual consequences of sins.”

If we mislead someone, they experience the consequences of our sin not because God passes down his wrath, but because our sin distorts his life-giving truth and the ripple reaches beyond our initial blunder. Alcoholism, abuse, and other sins affect far more than ourselves.

The power of a life changed by Christ has the power for exponential growth, and our sin inversely has the potential for exponential destruction.

The third commandment

“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” (Exodus 20:7).
This verse “Prohibits hypocritical, insincere, or frivolous use of God’s name. In the original Hebrew, the phrase ‘take in vain’ combines the Hebrew verb ‘to take up’ (nasa) and the noun shawe, which can be rendered ‘falsehood’ or ‘vanity, uselessness.’ In Old Testament theology, using the ‘name’ (shem) of God was a way of referring to the person of God Himself (e.g. Isaiah 24:15, Isaiah 30:27, Proverbs 18:10, Psalm 75:1). God takes personal offense to any affiliation or association with Him that denigrates His character or reputation.”

The third layer of study notes includes an article called “The Name Theology of the Old Testament” by Dr. Mike Heiser.

The fourth commandment

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep 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, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates” (Exodus 20:8–11).
Here, the FSB point us back to Genesis 2:2—the first Sabbath. One of the notes on Genesis 2:2 says, “The Hebrew verb shavath means ‘cease’ or ‘rest.’ The English word ‘Sabbath’ comes from the related Hebrew noun shabbath. The word implies that God’s work of creation was completed, so He stopped.”
After he finished his work, “. . . God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:3).

The Sabbath meant that the the pattern of the Israelites’ lives perpetually pointed back to their creator. It was a command to rest and remember the act of creation.

The fifth commandment

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).
The FSB tells us, “This acts as a hinge law between the two categories of laws (see note on Exodus 20:1–21) since it has elements of both a divine and interpersonal relationship. The dual focus demonstrates that faith to God was of central importance for the family; the family was also responsible for teaching loyalty to God. This is also the only law with an entirely positive focus and offer of reward.”

In the second layer of notes we learn, “The Hebrew verb for “honor,” kabbed, refers to reverence and respect. It is used with both parents and God as its object, reflecting the dual emphasis of the command noted (Exodus 21:17; Deuteronomy 21:18–21; Leviticus 24:10–16, Numbers 15:30; 1 Kings 21:10).”

There’s also a note on the phrase, “the Lord your God is giving you”:
“Like the book of Proverbs and many other instances of proverbial language in the Old Testament, this promise is not a prophecy. It is an aphorism—a saying whose general validity is demonstrated by life experience.”

The sixth commandment

“You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).
In this verse, the FSB examines murder: “The Hebrew verb for ‘murder,’ tirtsach, appears over 12 times and applies only to the unlawful taking of innocent life (it is used once of an animal taking a life, Proverbs 22:13). It is not used in the Old Testament for capital punishment or killing in a war, or when its subject is God or an angel.”

Innocent life

The FSB has more to say about this complicated Hebrew verb:

“Since tirtsach only refers to taking innocent life, the command of Exodus 20:13 should not be used to justify pacifism or to argue for the immorality of capital punishment. In the Old Testament, the death penalty was established by God prior to the law (Genesis 9:6). Thuse the law itself did not allow human beings to commute a death sentence (see Numbers 35:31). Extrabiblical Jewish writings from antiquity suggest that instances of capital punishment in Israel were rare.
“To take an innocent life was tantamount to killing God in effigy, since humans were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27). Protecting an innocent human life showed reverence for God, the primary object of all Old Testament law.”

At the end of this verse in the ESV, there’s another note on “murder.” It says, “The Hebrew word also covers causing human death through carelessness or negligence.”

In Matthew 5:21–22, Jesus shows us how this commandment goes heart, mind, and soul deep.

The seventh commandment

“You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14).
In this section, the FSB isolates its discussion of adultery to the Old Testament’s definition of adultery.

It says:
“The Old Testament defines adultery as sexual intercourse by mutual consent between a married woman and a man who is not her husband. It did not consider a married man taking an additional unmarried (or unbetrothed) woman as a wife—i.e., polygamy—to be adultery. Conversely, a woman was not permitted to have more than one husband (polyandry).”
Digging deeper, the second layer of notes says:

“These laws are consistent with those of the wider ancient Near Eastern world at the time. The sexual act itself did not constitute marriage; Old Testament law and culture distinguish wives, concubines, and prostitution.
“The Old Testament definition of adultery reflects the ancient Near Eastern view that wives and daughters were the property of their husbands or fathers. Adultery ultimately amounted to theft from a man and also theft of inheritance rights (i.e., economic survival) from that man’s children. The connection between women, marriage, and property also underlies the rationale of levirate marriage, which was designed to protect widows and their offspring (see Genesis 38:8; Deuteronomy 25:5–10).”

If you own the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, and the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, your FSB serves as a portal three scholarly articles: “Marriage,” “Family Relationships,” and “Sexuality, Sexual Ethics.”

In Matthew 5:27–28, Jesus redefines this commandment, helping us formulate a New Testament definition of the Old Testament law.

The FSB note on Matthew 5:28 says, “Thoughts as well as actions constitute sin. Jesus focuses on the source of the problem by dealing with sin where it starts: the mind.”

The eighth commandment

“You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).
Stealing isn’t always black and white. The FSB says, “The Hebrew verb for ‘steal,’ tignov, is ambiguous—the object of the theft is not definable. Just as in modern law, punishments for theft in Old Testament laws have varying degrees of severity. While kidnapping is a capital offense (Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 24:7), other theft is punished by restitution. This lack of specificity makes the distinction between this command and the last command (Exodus 20:17) unclear. This law likely speaks to personal property rights but may involve more.”

To help you learn more about stealing in the Old Testament, the FSB links this verse to the article, “Steal;Theft;Thief” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
The article states: “The general prohibition against stealing also occurs in Leviticus 19:11, where it is grounded in the name, and hence the nature, of God: ‘You shall not steal . . . and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.’ Stealing as a sin against God’s name also occurs in Proverbs 30:8, where Agur asks God to give him only his ‘daily bread’ lest he be rich and deny God, or poor and turn to stealing and so profane God’s name.”

The ninth commandment

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).
The FSB takes a closer look at the implications of “false witness”:
“The wording points to a judicial context, the purpose of which was to establish the truth or falsehood of an accusation of the commission of a crime. The integrity of ancient legal proceedings depended entirely on the validity of witness testimony. The command is important, since confidence in the judicial system is necessary for a stable society.”

False witnessing can steal the life of an innocent.
The second layer of notes gives more context to help us understand the Jewish judicial system, and the seriousness of false witnessing:

“Old Testament law required at least two witnesses to establish guilt or innocence (Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 17:6, Deuteronomy 19:15, 1 Kings 21:10, Isaiah 8:2). Bearing false testimony would result in ‘eye for eye’ punishment—the one bearing false testimony would incur the punishment meted out to the criminal. In the case of capital offenses, the witnesses initiated the execution (Deuteronomy 13:10; 17:7; 19:16–20)—thus the penalty for lying in such cases would be death.
“Since the context for the command is judicial, it cannot be used to condemn God Himself for using deception (e.g., Joshua 8:1–8, 1 Samuel 16:1–5) or to condemn those whom God rewards for lying or using deception (e.g., Exodus 2:15–22, Joshua 2:8–14; 6:17–25, Hebrews 11:31, James 2:25, 1 Kings 18:4), particularly when human life is at stake.”

The tenth commandment

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17).
Let’s see what the FSB says about what it means to covet:
“The Hebrew verb for ‘covet,’ thachmmod, does not condemn the general acquisition of possessions or the desire to collect things. It speaks to obsession or a desire so strong that it compels someone to violate another person’s property.”

This internal struggle with jealousy and desire often manifested itself in stealing.

Building on the note about “covet,” the second layer of study notes looks at the word in the context of the command:
“The command, however, speaks to more than just an internal disposition (compare Proverbs 6:25). Parallel passages indicate that the act of theft is associated with this command (Exodus 34:24, Joshua 7:21), as well as the earlier prohibition against stealing (Exodus 20:15). Consequently, the relationship and distinction between the two commands is not completely clear.”

The final note on this commandment points out that in the phrase “your neighbor’s house” can also be translated as “household,” encompassing all of the items inside a house, not just the house itself.
Basically, intense desire for anything that does not belong to you is coveting, no matter how small or significant that thing may be.

But wanting something is not the same as coveting it.
Don’t beat yourself up for wanting something someone else has. When you see a friend with a fancy new dress, or a new car, or a TV, your desire for those things isn’t necessarily coveting. If you go out and purchase the same item for yourself, it’s not the same as biblical coveting.

Coveting, as we see in the tenth commandment, is the desire for your neighbor’s dress (from their closet to yours), your neighbor’s car (right out of their garage), or your neighbor’s TV (straight from their living room)—the very one they own.

The FSB tells us the tenth commandment is talking about when you act upon your desire and jealousy for the possessions of someone else—meaning, you take them for yourself.

Your neighbor doesn’t “possess” all of the dresses in the shop, all of the cars at the dealership, or all of the TVs in the store. You’re allowed to appreciate something someone else has, then go get it for yourself.

What if your friend has the latest book by Timothy Keller, and you want a copy? If you take it out of their hands without asking to borrow it, that’s coveting (which is easily identified by the fact that you’re also stealing).

But what if your desire results in (or is motivated by) greed?
Keeping up with the Joneses is a whirlwind of jealousy, desire, and greed. There may be some good in there (like the desire to provide for your family), but if your purchases are the direct result of someone else’s, it’s probably time to stop and take a look inside. Greed is just as toxic to your heart, mind, and soul.

Each of the Ten Commandments begins with an internal sin, which was measured by external signs (e.g., lying, stealing, making idols). In Matthew 5, Jesus says the commands aren’t about the external symptoms of sin—the internal struggle is just as significant.

The Ten Commandments exist to help us love God and love others—and that starts on the inside.

To learn more about the Ten Commandments, check out these great resources:
The Ten Commandments by A.W. PinkThe Ten Commandments by G. Campbell MorganThe Ten Commandments for Today by Brian Edwards

Written by
Ryan Nelson

Ryan Nelson is a writer for OverviewBible, where he uses Logos to explore the characters, groups, places, and books of the Bible. He has served in a variety of volunteer ministry positions, primarily through Young Life.

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Written by Ryan Nelson