“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3)
Before we move into the details of the Ten Commandments themselves, let us observe a distinction between the first Commandments and the last. The image of Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai, two stone tablets in his hands, is indelibly etched into our minds by both Scripture (Ex. 32:15) and from the movies which so vividly capture this dramatic moment. But why two tablets? Why not a single stone, or perhaps even ten separate tables; one for each Commandment?
We should note that the first Commandments listed deal with man’s relationship to God, while the latter Commandments concern man’s relationship to his fellow man. The heart of the Law can be summed up in two single Commandments, one for each tablet:
“And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O 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. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
To love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves fulfills all the requirements of both tablets and the one who obeys these two statutes will automatically fulfill the specifics of the Ten Commandments. He who truly loves God will serve no other god, will reverence His holy name, and will enter into the rest that God has graciously provided. Likewise, the man who loves his neighbor will not murder him, steal from him, or commit adultery with his wife.
Additionally, it is significant that each table of the Law begins with the most severe transgressions and moves down, it seems, into the less overt manifestations of sin. Each tablet begins with obvious, grievous sins commited in the flesh: the worship of idols or the unjustified killing of another human being. They conclude with the sins of the heart, the crimes against God and man committed inwardly, less obvious to the outside observer, but known to God nonetheless. Perhaps it seems less offensive to merely covet our neighbor’s possessions than to actually steal them or, worse yet, kill him so that we might take them by force; but the lack of love toward our neighbor is present in all of these scenarios and, as such, we become guilty of violating God’s Law. To carelessly and profanely utter our Lord’s name might seem preferable to denying Him as God altogether, yet in doing so we still betray the fact that He does not reign in His rightful place in our lives.
Which Commandments Comprise The Ten?
Finally, before we look at each Commandment individually, it is worthwhile to consider what each of the Ten Commandments actually are. Which specific Commandment is number 1, 2, 3, etc. varies between different theologians, Bible commentators, and even different denominations. The most common distinction seems to be between those who divide Exodus 20:3 and 4 into two separate Commandments, and those who draw a line between the list of things not to “covet” in Verse 17.
To me, it would make the most sense to separate the Commandment to “have no other gods” from “thou shalt not make any graven image.” I would like to look more closely at the difference between these two specific acts next time but, for now, let me give a couple of other reasons why I believe this division is more appropriate:
1.) First of all, considering the two “tablets” we already talked about, we get a more symmetrical division between the two by separating Verses 3 and 4 into two Commandments. If we leave them as a single Commandments, we get 3 Commandments related to God, 1 to our mother and father, and 6 to our fellow man. Admittedly, this would not be a very convincing reason in and of itself but, added to everything else, it would seem strange that the tablets would be so imbalanced!
2.) It draws a distinction between the “value” of what a person covets. Is a house more important than a wife? Or a donkey? Or a servant and an ox? To divide Verse 17 seems to needlessly differentiate between various items which a person might covet. To make Commandment 9 about a house and Commandment 10 about a wife definitely puts the emphasis on the object craved rather than the sin of the one doing the craving. Coveting is wrong regardless of what it is we covet. No need to divide the Commandment up.
By dividing up Verses 3 and 4 into separate Commandments, we are left with 4 Commandments related specifically to God, 5 related specifically to our fellow man, and 1 “hinge” Commandment related to honoring our mother and father. This hinge Commandment really belongs on the first tablet, as we will see when we get there, which neatly places 5 on each one.
Until next time. To God goes all glory. In service to Him,