SPECIAL TOPIC: THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (cf. Exod. 20:1-17; Deut. 5:6-21)

I. Terms

A. Literally "The Ten Words" (cf. Exod. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:4).

B. Clement of Alexandria called it "The Decalogue" (Deka Logous) and this was followed by the early church fathers.

C. In the Bible it is also called:

1. "Covenant" (i.e., Hebrew berith, BDB 136, Exod. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 9:9)

 a. from Akkadian, barah—to eat (i.e., a common meal)

 b. from Akkadian, biritu—to bind or fetter (i.e., a bond between people)

 c. from Akkadian, birit—between (i.e., arrangement between two parties)

 d. baru—a taste (i.e., an obligation)

2. "Testimony"—Exod. 16:34; 25:16 (i.e., the two tablets)

II. Purpose

A. They reveal the character of God

1. unique and authoritative (i.e., monotheistic)

2. ethical, both towards society and the individual

B. They are for

1. all people because they reveal God's will for mankind and all humans were created in God's image.

2. covenant believers only because it is impossible to understand and obey without God's help

3. C. S. Lewis—inner moral sense even among primitive tribes (Rom. 1:19-20; 2:14-15) are reflected here.

C. As all ancient law codes they were

1. to regulate and control interpersonal relationships

2. maintain stability of the society

D. They bound the heterogeneous group of slave and Egyptian outcasts into a community of faith and law.  B. S. Childs, Old Testament Library, Exodus—"the eight negative aspects show the outer limits of the covenant boundary.  There are no misdemeanors but to break the very fibre of which the divine-human relation consists. The two positive aspects show definition to the life within the covenant. The Decalogue looks both outward and inward; it guards against the way of death and points to the way of life" (p. 398).

III. Parallels

A. Biblical

1. The Ten Words are recorded twice, in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.  The slight difference in the 4th, 5th, and 10th commandments shows the adaptability of these general principles to different situations.

2. However, their uniformity points toward the precision with which they were transmitted.

3. They were probably read and reaffirmed periodically, as Joshua 24 shows.

B. Cultural

1. Other law codes from the Ancient Near East

a. Ur-Nammu (Sumerian, 2050 b.c.) from the city of Ur

 b. Lipit-Ishtar (Sumerian, 1900 b.c.) from the city of Isin

 c. Eshnunna (Akkadian, 1875 b.c.) from the city of Eshunna

 d. Code of Hammurabi (Babylonian, 1690 b.c.) from Babylon but Stela were found in Susa

2. The form of the laws in Exodus 20:18-23:37 has much in common with other Ancient Near Eastern law codes. However, the Ten Words are in a unique form which implies their authority (2nd person commands—apodictic).

3. The most obvious cultural connection is with the Hittite Suzerainty Treaties of 1450-1200 b.c.  Some good examples of this similarity can be seen in

 a. The Ten Words

 b. The book of Deuteronomy

 c. Joshua 24

The elements of these treaties are

 a.  Identification of the King

 b. Narration of his great acts

 c. Covenant obligations

 d. Instruction for depositing the treaty in the sanctuary for public reading

 e. Deities of parties invoked as witnesses

 f. Blessing for fidelity and curses for violations

4. Some good sources on this subject 

 a. George Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East

 b. Dewey Beegle, Moses, The Servant of Yahweh

 c. W. Bezalin, Origin and History

 d. D. J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant

IV. Internal Structure

A.  Alt, in his book, The Origins of Israelite Law, was the first to make the distinction between apodictic and casuistic.

1. Casuistic being that common form of ANE Law that contained a condition—"if" = "then"

2. Apodictic being that rare form that expresses a direct command, "Thou shall. . ." or "Thou shall not. . ."

3. Roland de Vaux in Ancient Israel: Social Institutions, vol. 1, p. 146, says that the casuistic is primarily used in the secular area and the apodictic in the sacred.

B. The Ten Words are primarily negative in their expression—8 of 10.  The form is second person singular.  They are either meant to address the entire Covenant community, each individual member, or both!

C. The two tablets of stone (Exod. 24:12; 31:18) are often interpreted as relating to the vertical and horizontal aspects of the Ten Words. Man's relationship to YHWH is spelled out in four commands and man's relationship to other men in the other 6 commandments.  However, in light of Hittite Suzerain treaties, they may be two copies of the entire list of commands.

D. The historical numbering of the Ten Words

1. It is obvious that we have ten regulations.  However, the exact distinction is not given.

2. Modern Jews list Exod. 20:2 as the first commandment.  In order to keep the number at ten they make Exod. 24:3-6 the second commandment.

3. The Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches, following Augustine, make Exod. 20:3-6 the first commandment and in order to keep the number at ten, divide verse 17 into two separate commands.

4. Reform churches, following Origen and the early Eastern and Western churches, assert that Exod. 20:3 is the first commandment. This was the ancient Jewish view represented by Philo and Josephus.

V.  How are Christians to Relate to the Ten Words?

A. Jesus' high views of Scripture are recorded in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and especially 5:17-48, which shows us the seriousness of the question. His sermon almost seems to be based on the Ten Words and their proper application.

B. Theories of relationship

1. For believers

 a. Roy Honeycutt, These Ten Words

 (1) "We never outgrow the Ten Commandments because we never outgrow God" (p. 7).

 (2) "Because the Commandments are witnesses to God, however, there is a sense in which their relevance and the relevance of God are so intertwined as to be almost inseparable. Consequently, if God is so relevant for your life, the Commandments will also be deeply relevant for they are written of God's character and demands" (p. 8). 

 b. Personally, we must see these directives as issuing from a faith relation already established. To divorce them from faith and commitment to God is to destroy them. Therefore, for me, they are universal only in the sense that God wants all men to know Him. They are also related to the inner witness of God to His entire human creation.  Paul expresses this in Romans 1:19-20; 2:14-15.  In this sense the Commandments reflect a guiding light that has an indwelling relevance to all mankind.

2. For all men, in all societies, for all times

 a. Elton Trueblood, Foundations for Reconstruction. "The thesis of this small book is that the recovery of the moral law, as represented by the Hebrew Decalogue, is one of the ways in which an antidote to potential decline can be found" (p. 6).

 b. George Rawlinson, Pulpit Commentary, "Exodus"

"They constitute for all time a condensed summary of human duty which bears divinity upon its face, which is suited for every form of human society, and which, so long as the world endures, cannot become antiquated.  The retention of the Decalogue as the best summary of the moral law by Christian communities is justified on these grounds, and itself furnishes emphatic testimony to the excellency of the compendium" (p. 130).

3. As a means of salvation they are not, nor ever have been, God's means for the spiritual redemption of fallen man.  Paul clearly states this in Gal. 2:15-4:31 and Rom. 3:21-6:23.  They do serve as guidelines for man in society.  They point to God and then to our fellow man. To miss the first element is to miss all! Moral rules, without changed, indwelt hearts, are a picture of man's hopeless fallenness! The Ten Words are valid, but only as a preparation to meet God in the midst of our inability.  Divorced from redemption they are guidelines without a guide!




 A. It needs to be remembered that even the commands that seem to be of a social nature are really religious. God's sovereignty over creation and redemption are shadowed in these commands. The command not to murder is, in proper focus, a word about the image of God in every human being and God's care and concern for human life.

 B. It needs to be remembered that each command reflects the community of faith. The prohibition on taking a life in an illegal manner is primarily and originally focused with the believing community. Its implications are as wide as humanity!



 A.  "Murder"

1. This is a rare term (rasah, BDB 953) for taking a life, used only 46 times in the OT. There are several other overlapping Hebrew terms used hundreds of times.

2. The term (rasah) seems to have an original limited meaning and an expanded meaning.

a. Originally it related to taking the life of a covenant partner in a legal, premeditated way, often associated with "the kinsman redeemer" or "go'el." This usage involved premeditation but in a sense of legal revenge (cf. Num. 35:30-34; Lev. 24:13-23). In reality the Lex Talionis, "eye for eye," (cf. Gen. 9:5-6) was a way to limit revenge.  Later, the cities of refuge (Deut. 4:41; Josh. 20:3) were established so that a covenant member who accidently or passionately killed another member of the community could flee the wrath of the victim's family.

b. Later the term came to refer to the motive or attitude behind the taking of a life.  The concept of "intentionality" becomes uppermost! (cf. Exod. 21:12-14; Num. 35:11,22; Deut. 28:24).

c. This distinction becomes very significant in this command.  It seems in context to refer only to others within the covenant community.  It is related to the kinsman redeemer, or blood revenge.  However, the term is used in later passages which reflect the Decalogue, Hosea 4:2 and Jeremiah 7:9, to refer to a murderer.  This word relates not only to the law but to the motive.  It expands from neighbor to fellow human being.

3. This term certainly does not relate to our modern ethical issue of capital punishment or war.  The Jews never had a problem with community execution or holy war (or, for that matter, unholy war!).

4. The best translation for our modern culture would be "premeditated murder."



A. The sixth, seventh, and eighth commands are made up of only two Hebrew words. They are very short and to the point.

B. Life, like all of life, is related to God. How we treat others reflects our thoughts about God



A. Jesus

1. His expansion of this commandment (cf. Matt. 5:21-26) gives us the proper orientation for our modern discussion about how to apply this text to our day.

2. Jesus obviously moved the Decalogue from the realm of actions into the realm of motives. We are what we think!  "As a man thinks in his heart, so is he." The thought life is much more relevant and significant than we normally give it credit.

B. John

1. 1 John. 3:15, this same concept of hate being considered murder is stated.

2. The Greek terms used in Matthew 5:21ff and 1 John 3:15 are different but the meaning is essentially the same.

3. Note the positive aspect in 1 John 4:19-21.



A. Even though an unintentional murder can escape the blood avenger by fleeing to a city of refuge (cf. Numbers 35; Joshua 20), he has to pay the penalty of confinement in that city until the death of the High Priest.  The consequences of his act still remain!

B. Although this verse does not directly relate to suicide, as the ancients probably never thought of this event, the text still gives a spiritual principle concerning the sanctity of human life and God's sovereignty and purpose for human life made in His image.  This text speaks a strong word to our day in this area!

C. This text does not, however, speak a decisive word to the modern question of: (1) capital punishment or (2) war.  For Israel, these were not evil things in themselves.  The Israelites were involved in both of these acts.  Still, the principle of the significance of life made in God's image and under His control is an important truth in this area.

D. This text does speak a needed word about the dignity and sanctity of human life!  We in the believing community are stewards, not only of our own actions, but of our society.  The gift of life is both individual and corporate.  We are responsible for the physical, social, and psychological abuse of our own bodies as we are the physical, social, and psychological abuse of others in our community. This is especially true in a culture like ours where we are allowed to speak to and, thereby, change the system. We are our brothers' keeper!





A. It is obvious that the commandment is related to one's respect for God which is seen in respect for one's neighbor's life, wife, and property (cf. Jer. 5:8).  This is verified by the different order of these commands in the Septuagint.

B. The Deuteronomic parallel shows the appropriateness of adopting this ancient truth to our culture.

C. As respect for parents was seen as a key to a stable society, so too, is this command.

D. This command also implies God's ownership and control of our sexual and family lives.

E. This command seems to have been based on Genesis 2:24 as command number 4 was based on Genesis 2:1-3.



 A.The major term in this text is "adultery."  It is crucial that one understands this term in light of ancient Hebrew culture.

1. This term is distinct in an OT context from "fornication."  Adultery relates to at least one party in the sexual relationship being married.  The term "fornication" implies both parties are not married (cf. Pro. 29:3; 31:3).  The distinction is lost in the NT Greek terms.

2. This possibility explains the reason for the emphasis on marital status because it relates to the importance of inheritance rights which were involved in God's promise of "the land."  Every 50 years (Jubilee) all land was to revert to the original tribal owners.

3. Adultery was culturally condemned before the Mosaic legislation (cf. Gen. 12:10ff; 26:7ff; 39:9).

4. Adultery was seen as a sin against:

a. Neighbor – Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18

b. Marriage – Leviticus 18:20

c. God – Genesis 20:1-13; 26:7-11 

5. It was punishable by death for both parties:

a. Leviticus 20:10

b. Deuteronomy 22:22-24

c. Ezekiel 16:40 (metaphor)

d. Strict warnings are found in Proverbs 1-9



A. Jesus used Leviticus 19:18 as a summary of the Old Revelation (cf. Luke 10:27).  This confirms that the Ten Commandments are related to our treatment of others.

B. Jesus intensifies the commands in Matthew 5:28. He places the emphasis on motive rather than action.  The Jews saw the mind as the seed-bed of the soul. What one thought was what one really was (Pro. 23:7).  This makes the Ten Words almost impossible to keep—that is the purpose! (cf. Gal. 2:15-3:29).



A. Marriage is possibly the best modern analogy of a lifelong faith commitment in God's name.  It is our best chance to understand the realities of OT covenant concepts (Mal. 2:14).  Our respect for our mate in all aspects, including human sexuality, helps us comprehend the thrust of this verse.

B. Marriage stability and loyalty, like respect for parents, is a major pillar of societal strength and longevity.

C. It needs to be emphasized that human sexuality is a gift from God.  It was His idea and will for man.  The guidelines are not meant to thwart man's freedom or joy but to give some godly guidelines for fallen man.  The bounds are revealed for our long-term benefit and happiness.  Although man has abused sexuality, as he has all of God's gifts, it is still a powerful drive within humankind which must be under God's control and guidance.

D. Sex must be guarded so that the sacredness of the human person (female or male) is respected because they are made in God's image.  Our fallen focus on "me" is all too obvious in this area.



EXODUS 20:15, STEAL (BDB 170)


A. Like all other regulations in the Decalog, our faith, love, and respect for God must be seen in the sacred and secular aspects of our daily lives.  It is an abomination to God to claim to know Him and then exploit our covenant partner (cf. 1 John 4:20-21; 2:7-11).

B. This command is meant to help maintain the fellowship of the covenant community.  The quality of this spiritual fellowship will attract a confused and seeking world to our God which is the purpose of Scripture.

C. As other commandments have focused on God's ownership of all of life, so too, this one!  We are stewards, not owners.  Our fallen drive toward possessions, without cost, is behind this prohibition (cf. Ps. 50:10-12). 



A. This is the third command in the second half of the Decalog which is made up of only two words in Hebrew. 

B. The object of the prohibition is absent. This is usually supported by:

1. The context of the two previous commands relating to capital offenses.

2. The presence of applicable parallel passages both immediate (Exod. 21:16) and remote (Deut. 24:7). Also see Genesis 37.

C. However, the short form is also defensible

1. It is recorded for us by inspiration

2. It widens the scope of the injunction

3. There is also a parallel passage in the immediate context which relates to theft—Exodus 22:1ff.

4. Jesus apparently quotes this passage in reference to stealing (cf. Matt. 19:18).

D. Theft is also dealt with in the other ancient Law Codes, but usually the penalty is death, mutilation, or 30 times restitution.

E. There are some significant parallel passages which define and explain this truth:

1. Leviticus 19:1-18—"You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy"

a. Our lifestyle must reflect the family characteristics of our Father and our God (cf. Lev. 19:18).

b. Our faith must impact our lives daily, both in positive actions and negative prohibition, both informed by proper motives (cf. Lev. 19:17).

c. Compassion for the ostracized and needy, Lev. 19:9-10, 13, is as significant as refusal to rip off our neighbors, v. 11.

2. Amos 8:4-7 – God hates exploitations!

3. Micah 6:6-8 – God wants proper motives in all of our actions.  Why we don't steal is the issue!

4. Exodus 22:1ff – Often the missing truth in our modern discussion of robbery is restitution!  Sin always costs!



A. Joy Davidman, C. S. Lewis' wife, has written a delightful book on the Decalog.  She translates this command "Thou shalt not try to get something for nothing." This assuredly widens the scope beyond possessions.  She also says that "property is neither sin nor inalienable right, but a loan, a trust from God."

B. Theft, like all other sins of the fallen heart, are dealt with by a new heart, Eph. 4:28. It is amazing how the old nature of "take" turns into the new nature of "share"!

C. Our respect for God is clearly seen in our respect for other covenant partners!  This truth overshadows the Decalog.

D. Modern man steals in many ways!




1. How does modern man practice stealing?

2. How is restitution related to repentance?

3. How does this verse relate to capitalism's view of property?



EXODUS 20:17, COVET (BDB 326)


A. It is possible to see the relationship between the last five commandments as follows:

1. Number 6, 7, and 8 prohibit the injury of a covenant partner in an overt action.

2. Number 9 prohibits the injury of a covenant partner in speech. 

3. Number 10 prohibits the injury of a covenant partner in thought. 

B. It is true that the act of coveting disrupts the person who is coveting, not the object, the neighbor.  However, it is possible that this commandment expects that the thoughts will proceed to actions.

C. Many see this commandment as a unique concept found only in the ancient Law Code of Israel and which is absent in the other law codes of the Ancient Near East.  This new concept would be the prohibition of thought.  It is true that Israel perceived the thought life to be the origin of evil deeds (cf. Pro. 23:7; James 1:14-15).  Yet, this verse seems to relate to thoughts which issue in actions.

Several passages use the term "covet" in connection with a resulting action (cf. Deut. 7:25; Jos. 7:21; Micah 2:2).

D. If it is true that emphasis is placed on that which is listed first and last, the true significance of this command is seen.  Exclusive worship of God is first, but our attitudes and motives toward the things of this world affect our true devotion to God. This twin emphasis is also seen in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 6:33 —"But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things (cf. vv. 19-32) shall be added to you." 



A. Exodus 20:17 and Deuteronomy 5:21, although basically the same, have several significant differences:

1. The wife is included in the larger concept of "house" or a man's property in Exodus 20, while she is placed in a separate, seemingly priority, category in Deuteronomy 5.

2. The passage in Exodus 20 has the Hebrew term "covet" which means "desire to acquire," but Deuteronomy 5 has a second term, "desire" as well as "covet."  "Covet" speaks of desire which is connected to an action to acquire the object of the desire but "desire" seems to focus on the attitude alone.

3. Also, Exodus 20, written to the children of Israel during their wilderness wandering period, has no mention of "field" in the list of possessions, while Deuteronomy 5 is restating the same commands for a settled society in the Promised Land.

B. The term "covet" is a neutral term.  It can refer to desiring good things (cf. Ps. 19:10; 1 Cor. 12:31).

C. Improper desire is the root cause of the fall of Satan, Adam and Eve, and all of us.  Paul stressed his personal struggle with coveting in Romans 7:7-8. Coveting is basically a discontentment and lack of trust in God's care and provision.

D. Several NT passages relate to coveting:

1. Man's problem is discontentment and greed (cf. Luke 12:15; 1 Tim. 6:8-10).

2. Coveting is included in Jesus' list of defiling sins (cf. Mark 7:17-23; 1 Cor. 5:10; Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5).



A. The answer to lustful greed and discontentment is:

1. Love – Rom. 13:8-10

2. Contentment – Heb. 13:5; Phil. 4:11-13 (and sharing, Phil. 4:14)

B. The command says "stop" but only Christ gave us the means to stop!  In Him we can control our thought life to some degree.

C. God knows our hearts and minds 

1. 1 Chronicles 28:9

2. Proverbs 20:27

3. Psalm 139:1,23

4. Jeremiah 17:10

5. Romans 8:27

6. Revelation 2:23

D. Things are not evil, but when they become priority they become sin.  Things are not ultimate or eternal; people made in God's image are!  Coveting affects the Covenant Community in insidious and destructive ways!



Deuteronomy 5:21, "shall not covet. . .shall not desire," uses two verbs which are synonymous:

A. "covet" – BDB 326, KB 325, Qal imperfect, means "a strong desire" for material things, which can be positive or negative. In this context it is an uncontrollable, selfish desire for something which belongs to a covenant brother.

B. "desire" – BDB 16, KB 20, Hipthpael imperfect, means "desire" (cf. Deut. 14:26) or "lust" (often has a sexual context as in 5:21) for more and more for me at any cost (e.g., Num. 11:4; Ps. 106:14; Pro. 13:4; 21:26; 23:3,6; 24:1).

This relates to one's inner attitudes and motives. It is capstone to all the other commandments. This is the only commandment that deals with why, not how. This one says not only "don't do" but "don't think this." Jesus taught that we should not only not kill, we should not hate, or display an attitude that might result in murder. Jesus took this last commandment and raised the rest of the commandments to the level of inner motive and attitude as over against outer action (cf. Matt. 5:17-48). There is all the difference in the world in a man who does not steal because it is not pleasing to God and the man who does not steal because he is afraid of getting caught. One is acting on Christian principles and the other is acting on self-interest.



1. What is coveting?

2. How does modern man covet?

3. Are our thoughts sin?

4. Why are thoughts so significant in the Christian life?

5. Why is the commandment in Exodus 20:17 somewhat different from the one in Deuteronomy 5:21?


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