The Ten Words

This week I have been working on a book of meditations on knowing God that will be reissued in January. They are based on Moses’ meeting with the Lord in Exodus 33 and 34. One of the meditations is on the Ten Commandments and I thought I would pass it along as a good summary of our series and an introduction to our series in Galatians. (Once the book comes out I will let you know—I hope many at New Life will find it helpful.)

Reading for the Day: Exodus 19:16-20:21

No set of statements or commandments has been so revered and studied (or vilified) as the words we know as the Ten Commandments. And this is appropriate.  These commandments, unlike any other law given to Israel, were spoken in a voice that could be heard by the people themselves. (If this is not clear in Ex. 20, it is explicitly stated in Deut. 4:11-13; 5:4,22, where Moses recounts this event for a new generation.) It is little wonder that they were terrified and begged Moses to be the messenger through whom they would hear the Law (20:18-20). It was these same “ten” that were recopied when Moses returned to the mountain in chapter 34. They were then placed in the Ark of the Covenant as a perpetual witness to the people of the character of their God.

The Old Testament abounds in laws, commands, and decrees, but these Ten clearly stand out as the Law from which “laws” are derived. In fact, the Ten are not even called “commandments” in Scripture. They are literally the Ten “Words,” even though the usual English translation is “commandments.” (Cf. Ex. 32:16, 34:28; Deut.  4:13, 10:4, where they are also called the “covenant” or the “testimony”) There is no end of thoughts that could be offered about the Ten. But for the purpose of a deeper appreciation of what transpired in Moses’ second trip up the mountain, I found it necessary to reconsider the setting in which the Ten were given.  Reflect on the fact that redemption by grace alone had occurred well before they were spoken. God’s saving his people from bondage had nothing whatsoever to do with the Law. It was accomplished by his mighty power and through the sacrifice of the Passover lamb.

In his first meeting with Moses at the base of Sinai, the LORD told him that once the people had been delivered, Moses would lead them back to the very place where they were meeting (Ex. 3:12). Now they were there, still infants in their faith, not even sure if being “saved” from the bondage of Egypt was better than the life they knew before. They were God’s people because of a mighty act of grace done in their lives. But they didn’t know what that meant, and they didn’t know the God who had saved them. And so God graciously came to meet with them. As Moses later interpreted this event, he explained, “Has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation … by a mighty hand and outstretched arm? … To you were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; beside him there is no other.” (Deut. 4:32-37). He further made it clear that the LORD’s intention in giving the Ten was not to be punitive, but to give them a basic direction “so that it might go well with them and their children forever.” (Deut. 4:40). All of Deut. 4 and 5 is a marvelous commentary on the meaning of Ex. 20.

Once again we are encountering the God of grace and mercy. Even in the actual giving of the Ten, he began (the Preface) with a reminder of his unconditional love: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” In the words that follow, he gave ten unambiguous statements that he expected to be obeyed. He spoke as a loving father would to children who need simple but firm directions for their own good (cf. Deut. 10:10-13). The LORD had a life of unspeakable joy and fulfillment for his people. It was his plan to make them his “treasured possession” (Ex. 19:4). But this could never be experienced until they learned to obey. Knowing God includes obedience. Here at Sinai the people of God were introduced to that essential lesson.

Do we ever get away from the need to come back to these first lessons? We are not saved by obedience, we are saved by grace. But we will only “know” what that means, and “know” the God who saved us by coming to him in a spirit of obedience.  There is a significant difference in the degree of freedom we have under the New Covenant. Under the Law covenant, God’s people were treated as little children–because that is what they were. We have “come of age” and have come in to our full rights as heirs (Galatians 4:4-7). But the fact that we have been given “freedom” in Christ (Galatians 5:1) doesn’t take away from the need to come to God with a childlike spirit of submission and genuine desire for obedience. “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:13-14).

Take some time in prayer to reaffirm that willingness to be obedient. The refrain of the familiar gospel song points the way to enjoying the salvation we have been given:

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.
                                    John H. Sammis, 1887