The Nash Papyrus, dated to the 2nd century BC, includes an early version of the Ten Words. (Wikimedia Commons considers this photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional work of art to be in the public domain in the United States.)
(Adapted from a homily presented in AGST chapel, 29 January 2018.)
And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord. For you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said:
“ ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.
“ ‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on 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.
“ ‘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.
“ ‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 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 or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
“ ‘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.
“ ‘You shall not murder.
“ ‘And you shall not commit adultery.
“ ‘And you shall not steal.
“ ‘And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
“ ‘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.’
“These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me.
— Deutoronomy 5:1–22 ESV
In our chapel services this semester, we are invited to stand with the children of Israel and hear afresh the Ten Words that God spoke to his people from the mountain. The first time these Ten Commandments are enumerated in Scripture, in Exodus, chapter 20, it’s quite a production. The people of God stand before a great mountain, covered in thick cloud, out of which issue bolts of lightning and peals of thunder, and on which the LORD descends in smoke and fire. These sorts of things tend to concentrate the attention. And out of the fire the LORD speaks these Ten Words in the hearing of all Israel. It’s a lesson, I think we’d agree, you’re not likely to forget.
And yet Israel did forget it, more than once. A few days after the smoke clears, the people that God has claimed as his own possession are ready to abandon these Ten Words starting at the top; they make a graven image of another god and bow down before it in worship. Then they proceed a bit further down the list, to offenses that Cecil B. DeMille could depict vividly so as to awaken viewer interest. (There’s a rebroadcast coming up on Easter weekend if you’ve forgotten.) Then, once they leave the mountain and proceed a few miles into the wilderness, Israel shows herself ready to throw off the yoke of God represented by these Ten Words and seek her own path, to the extent that a whole generation is judged and denied entry to the land of promise. So when Moses speaks in Deuteronomy, chap. 5, Israel already has a history with these Ten Words, and it’s not an encouraging one.
But as we join the story in Deuteronomy, chap. 5, it is a new day in Israel. Now the children of those who stood at the base of the mountain stand just across the Jordan, at the boundary of the land God promised to Abraham’s descendants. And Moses again speaks to them. He says these Ten Words weren’t given only to their fathers who stood at the mountain; they were given to the children, too. They were given, in fact, to everyone in every time and place who seeks to live in the presence of God. And so they are given to us, as members of the people God is gathering for life in his new creation in Christ.
This time, the address comes without the fireworks; and that’s how we hear them today. There’s no mountain, no lightning and thunder, no smoke and no fire — unless something goes terribly wrong in chapel. Just one member of God’s people reminding another of the life that God calls us to. And that may be a challenge all by itself. Some of you will remember Lanny Henninger, longtime minister of the University Avenue Church of Christ. A friend visiting University Avenue once commented, “It’s like having Charlton Heston as your preacher!”
I don’t doubt Moses was an impressive preacher — even more impressive, perhaps, than Charlton or Lanny. But can we really take with all the seriousness the text suggests we should what we’re told we should do by another person no more infallible than we are? We’re told there’s been a collapse of authority in our time, and that’s one of the challenges we have hearing these Ten Words, or any moral instruction. When we hear someone telling us how we ought to live, if we’re good Americans, we hear a voice welling up within us, posing a question we feel compelled to ask: “Says who, buddy? Who do you think you are to tell me how to live and what to do?”
That’s an obstacle we have to overcome to hear this word from Scripture this semester. For Scripture will tell us that these Ten Words aren’t arbitrary. These aren’t just words Moses tosses off on a whim; nor is it as if God was framing a test and thought up the ten hardest questions he could — “Let’s see how they do with these!” In Israel’s world, these Ten Words are offered to them as the basic stipulations of the covenant that God offers them as his people. If you would have the true God as your God, and if you would live as his people, here are the basic commitments you’ll keep; here’s how you’ll order your life.
If we look around and listen to our neighbors, including those distant neighbors who chatter at us incessantly from the screens in our media rooms and our pockets, you may notice that we’re living in a society that’s on the whole making its best effort to live apart from the guidance of these 10 Commandments — especially perhaps the ones against having other gods before the one true God, and taking his name in vain, and adultery, and coveting. (Our society’s still holding pretty firm against murder in most cases, unless the killer has a really interesting back story, and against stealing unless the method is really complicated and involves computers and derivatives and other financial instruments I dimly understand. So we’ve got that going for us.) You may have heard the Ten Commandments referred to in jest as “the Ten Suggestions” or “the Ten Guidelines.” That’s what many people in our time and place appear to think of them.
But in the perspective we are granted this side of Jesus’ cross and resurrection and the outpouring of God’s Spirit on all flesh, God is inviting humankind to live in his presence and to live with one another as his people, and these Ten Words set the baseline; here’s where to begin if you would live in hope of entering into the presence of God and dwelling there. The book of Deuteronomy itself and the prophets of Israel and the Lord Jesus and his apostles all show us how much more is required to enter fully into communion with God, but if we want to get on the path, the Ten Commandments are the only on-ramp there is. “Begin here,” the Scripture says.
Our psalm for the day, Psalm 72 is an interesting one to juxtapose with Deuteronomy, chap. 5. “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son,” the psalmist prays. And so Israel prayed repeatedly in the days when she was ruled by kings, hoping always that this king, the new son of David rising to occupy the throne, would be the one under whom Israel would really live as God had decreed. Israel’s hopes were always disappointed, because the kings who reigned over her were merely human, and fallible as we are. But the Gospel tells us that the true king prayed for in the psalm has come among us in the person of Jesus Christ. Truly God and truly man, he has the power to transform us into people who will live in accordance with God’s will, if we will open ourselves to the work of his Spirit within us. And so we can become a people among whom “the ordinance of the law [is] fulfilled” (Romans 8:4 ASV).
We have the opportunity in chapel this semester to hear these Ten Words afresh and to consider the light they cast on our journey. May the Lord bless as we seek to enter more fully and deeply into covenant with him.