Exodus 20:1-17: The Ten Commandments - Horizontal
We are continuing to examine the Ten Words. The all-important setting here is still Mount Sinai, the people of Israel assembled with Moses, Yahweh speaking to all of them from the mountain, and the mountain burning with fire while Yahweh is clothed in deep darkness. Recall that the purpose of the exodus was to bring the people to Sinai and the purpose of Sinai was to make Israel into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
In the previous devotional we saw how Yahweh's self-giving (20:2) is foundational to the commandments: "I Am Yahweh, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." The commandments arise out of Yahweh's self-giving. The commandments must be obeyed if Israel/we are going to continue to live in the saving, sanctifying Presence of Yahweh. We focused on the first four commandments, which directly concern our vertical relationship with Yahweh: no other gods, no idols, no misuse of Name, and keeping Sabbath. The first commandment is foundational to the other three (indeed, the other nine). If one keeps the first, the remaining three are kept. If one keeps two through four, one is well on the way to keeping the first.
Now our focus in on the remaining six: honor your parents, no murdering, no adultery, no stealing, no false testimony, and no coveting. These are horizontal in nature, having to do with social relationships. But remember, these six, no less than the first four, are rooted in Yahweh's identity and self-giving. We ought to hear 20:2 before each of these commandments: "I Am Yahweh, your God, who brought you out. . . , therefore, you shall honor your parents; therefore you shall not murder; therefore, etc. The demands of social relationships are rooted in Yahweh's deliverance and salvation. Horizontal and vertical both arise out of Yahweh's self-giving. To break or bend either dimension is to impede one's ability to remain in Yahweh's Presence, to receive Yahweh's self-giving.
Honor your father and your mother. In a sense, this is foundational to the remaining five because it has to do with our first relationship. The relationship with our parents is the first relationship that we build and that is built with us when we come into this world. If we cannot get this relationship right it will be very difficult to get the rest of life's relationships to work well. The word "honor" is a translation of a Hebrew word whose root means "heavy." The parent relationship is a heavy relationship. It is not to be lightened, trivialized, or cheapened. Parents are to be high on the priority list. Without them, we would not be.
It is important to remember that while these commandments must be obeyed individually, they have a corporate focus. Yahweh is creating a people. Notice that with the parent command comes a promise, or s result: "so that you may live long in the land." I don't think that is a promise for a long personal life so much as it is one for a long community life. If Israel honors its parents, its society will enjoy a long and healthy life. If Israel's children learn to obey and respect their parents, then they will also know how to show respect to others and even receive instruction and correction from persons in authority positions. If children do not learn to honor their parents they will have difficulty honoring anyone. Imagine a society in which there is no honor. That society will not last.
But this commandment is not just for children. It is for adults. If adult children trivialize their parents, that too introduces dishonor in society. Parental self-giving runs parallel to Yahweh's self-giving. Just as Yahweh's self-giving requires a giving response, so does parental self-giving. Parents are not to be neglected or put on a shelf any more than Yahweh. The parental relationship is a heavy relationship and the welfare of society depends upon its support. To drop the relationship when it becomes inconvenient is to set oneself up to be dropped. And how can adults teach children to honor parents if they themselves do not prioritize their parents? When this first relationship is neglected it is not a very big step to the neglecting of all relationships. Convenience or personal preference rather than persons becomes the priority. Such a society will not last.
You shall not murder. This commandment does not refer to war or capital punishment, but to "murder." It helps me to think of this commandment in reference to our "second" relationships. Do you remember the first murder on the face of the earth? It was Cain on Able, brother on brother. This command is concerned that murder be ruled out as a means of "solving" conflicts between brothers, as a means of settling disputes within the community. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, pushes this prohibition even further so that one who engages in name-calling is already guilty of committing murder in his/her heart. Jesus interprets the prohibition as a commandment to keep peace with your brother, to reconcile differences quickly and peacefully.
You shall not commit adultery. If our first relationship is with our parents, and our second relationship is with our brothers/sisters, then this commandment has to do with our third relationship, our spouse. (Actually, as we grow and mature this third relationship becomes our first relationship in terms of priority: Gen. 2:24.) Again, see how this commandment is rooted in Yahweh's self-giving. Yahweh's self-giving requires "no other gods." So also the self-giving in marriage: "no others." The only appropriate response is faithfulness. Also, bear in mind that Yahweh has the people as a whole in view. Adultery is not a private sin. While only two people may be guilty of it, the consequences are extremely public. The fall out of it has a rippling effect, hurting spouses, children, family, friends, even acquaintances, all the way out to the shores of society. A society filled with adultery is a society filled with unfaithfulness. Such a society will not last. Such a society cannot represent Yahweh to the nations.
You shall not steal. This is a prohibition against blatant thievery as well as against taking advantage of someone. It condemns the poor thief as well as the rich oppressor or swindler. To steal betrays a lack of trust and a lack of faithfulness. Needless to say, this too breaks down a society. It goes against Yahweh.
You shall not give false testimony against a neighbor. We might say that with stealing and false testimony we have moved to the fourth relationship: neighbors. Yahweh's word is true, so must be Israel's word. There can be no community, no witness to the nations of Yahweh's saving deed and sanctifying work, if there is corruption among the people, if their words are for sale. A society that buys and sells testimony will not last, neither in Yahweh's presence nor eventually on the face of the earth.
You shall not covet your neighbor's house, nor anyone or anything within it. This commandment is different than the others. The others were primarily action oriented; this one focuses on desire. Coveting reduces people to things and elevates things to gods. Desiring my neighbor's wife turns her into an object for my pleasure. It also turns my relationships with my own wife and family, as well as with my neighbor, into disposable commitments, which are no commitments at all. Coveting attempts to dispose people, but people are simply not disposable, any more than Yahweh is.
At the core of it, coveting elevates self-satisfaction above neighbors, brothers, sisters, parents, and Yahweh Himself. The one who covets displaces God from the center of life, replacing God with "me." When this last commandment is broken, it will not be long till one of the first nine is broken. What's more, it's not the breaking of a commandment so much as the breaking of relationship(s). When the Yahweh relationship is broken, either directly or via a social relationship, it becomes impossible to fulfill the purpose of being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. How can a people be holy apart from the Holy One? How can a people mediate Yahweh's Presence apart from Yahweh? Israel must embrace these Yahweh words, must live Yahweh centered, if Israel is going to continue in the relationship and further experience Yahweh's great salvation.
Because Israel was a nation it is easy to read these commandments in terms of our nation. One cannot help but sense that our society has not done well at keeping the commandments in recent decades, and thus the shredding of the moral fabric of our nation and even question marks about how long our society can last.
While this may be true enough, we must keep in mind that the focus of the commands is not Israel the nation but Israel the saved people of God. When we think about the commandments today, we need to think first about the church rather than the nation. The Church, not the United States, or Canada, or Great Britain, or even modern Israel, corresponds to Israel of old. The Church is called to be the mediating Presence of Christ in the world, even to the United States or to any other country. My concern is that the Church, we Christians as the people of God, are not faring too well at keeping the commandments, or better, keeping relationship.
May the Lord have mercy upon us. May the Lord sanctify us. May the Lord make us fit for His abiding Presence, that He might be Present to the world through us.