The Ten Words (Decalogue) were spoken by Jehovah in a mighty display of majesty, authority and power. They were subsequently preserved on stone tablets, “written by the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18). “Both the choice of stone as the material for the tables, and the fact that the writing was engraved, were intended to indicate the imperishable duration of these words of God” (Keil and Delitzsch). However, when Jesus was asked about the greatest commandments, His answer was not in the wording of any of the Ten. Instead, the greatest commandments are the foundation for everything else. To love God and to love one’s neighbor are requisites for all obedience. “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). The Ten Commandments, therefore, were not to be understood, even by Israel, as the totality of religious responsibility. It is a grievous mistake to think, as some say, that all one needs is to keep the Ten Commandments. These tablets being kept in the Ark did not imply their superiority over the rest of the law, but were placed there to symbolize that they were a nation bound by a written and unalterable law (Ex. 19:5).
The spiritual and moral prohibitions in eight of the Ten would apply to all people in all ages. The Decalogue only codified moral imperatives which were in place from the beginning. Though not pronounced to the whole creation in the manner as at Sinai, it was nevertheless always prohibited to serve other gods, to murder, etc. There was never a time when God was not a “jealous God” (Ex. 20:5). There was never a time when any person had a right to commit adultery, steal, dishonor parents, et al. Taking the Lord’s name in vain (such as in the slang exclamation, “OMG,” i.e., “Oh My God”) would have been sinful in Eden, sinful for Israelites, and certainly is sinful today. What made the Law given at Sinai different is that it included certain provisions which were specific for the Israelite nation.
The Promised Land
It is important, therefore, to notice that two commandments had singular significance for the Israelites. The fifth involved a moral obligation and would apply to all mankind, but the promise connected to it only applied to Israel. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12, emp. added). The benefit named for Israel was that they might continue as a nation and would not be dispossessed of their inheritance in the promised land. This would, of course, be contingent on their obedience to all of God’s commands, but this underscores the covenant being only between Israel and Jehovah.
Failure to honor parents received Jesus’ specific censure of the Pharisees (Mark 9:7ff). Disobedience to parents is named by Paul as evidence of corrupt society (2 Tim. 3:2). Like the other eight which have universal application, Paul quoted it as “the first commandment with promise” (i.e., first with a stated promise), but he adjusted the wording to indicate a more general promise. It was no longer a promise to one nation to live in their land, but is for all Christians in every land: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth” (Eph. 6:1f).
The other nine commandments iterate obvious moral principles, but the Sabbath requirement was a positive divine command which was inaugurated for Israel after their deliverance from Egypt. Unlike the other nine, it was never a principle of morality. It was never immoral to work on Saturday. All people of all other nations should have lived by the principles enjoined by the other nine commandments. However, no other nation was given the law of the Sabbath. Only when living among the Israelites were Gentiles required to observe it (Deut. 5:14).
Because God had rested (ceased activity of creation) on the seventh day, he chose it as a hallowed day for Israel. It is sometimes assumed that reference to this in the creation history means that beginning with Adam and Eve all people were expected to keep the Sabbath. In fact, nothing is said about mankind and the Sabbath until Exodus 16. There is nothing in Scripture to show that Adam, Noah, or Abraham, or Joseph, or anybody else observed the Sabbath until Israel was in the wilderness. Gentile nations were never under the Sabbath covenant.
It was at Sinai, therefore, that it became a provision in God’s written covenant for the Israelite nation. “You [God] came down also on Mount Sinai, And spoke with them from heaven, . . . You made known to them Your holy Sabbath” (Neh. 9:13f, emp. added). The Lord explained: “It [the Sabbath] is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever” (Ex. 31:17, emp. added). The Lord did not say it was a “sign” between himself and all people, but a sign between himself and Israel. If it had been for all nations, there would have been nothing special about it for Israel. They had been slaves without rest in Egypt (Ex. 4ff). Now, having been set free, a day of rest was appointed as a reminder of that deliverance. “’Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, . . . And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:12-15, emp. added). No other people had a national experience like Israel and no other nation was ever charged with keeping the seventh day. For Israel, and for Israel only, it was a national law to be enforced by capital punishment (Ex. 31:14; Num. 15:32ff).
A New Covenant
It must be understood relative to the Ten Commandments for today that the ones which pertain to morality and reverence toward God stand universally in force. These are prohibitions which when violated are affronts to the nature and character of God. At the same time, however, we must understand that their being in force now is not by virtue of their having been inscribed on stone. God’s people now have a new and better covenant, which is “not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt” (Heb. 8:7ff). Things specifically pertaining to that old covenant — animal sacrifices, holy seasons, Sabbath, Levitical priesthood, etc. — have no part under the New Covenant. God’s holy nation under the New (i.e., Christians) are not bound by tablets of stone, but by the faith that comes by hearing the gospel (2 Cor. 3:3; Rom. 10:17; Col. 2:16).
David serves the Charlotte Avenue congregation in Rock Hill, SC. He is the former editor of the Carolina Messenger and serves on its board of directors.