Revisiting the Ten Commandments: 2. Seeking Context
Ex 20:1,2 And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt , out of the land of slavery.
Our Source: As I wrote in the previous series, the Ten Commandments appear in Ex 20 and Deut 5. In Exodus it was the first time they were conveyed by God to Moses and in Deuteronomy it is Moses reminding the people of what had happened, just before he left them and they entered the Promised Land.
Our Beginning: Again may I start us off as I did previously: “And God spoke all these words.” If you are an unbelieving skeptic then of course you will struggle with this but then you will struggle with all of the Bible. All I can do is ask you to open your mind to the possibility and see if you can catch the reality as we go through these studies. Yes, these words came to be written down on stone or slate slabs but initially they are spoken out loud (Ex 20:1-17) so that Moses hears them as he stands in God’s presence on Mount Sinai (otherwise known as Horeb). They are followed by the Lord giving a lot more ‘laws’ (Ex 21:1) that we find in chapters 21,22 and halfway through chapter 23 which Moses then conveys to the people who affirm their acceptance of them (Ex 24:3) and he then writes them down (Ex 24:4) and that becomes the ‘Book of the Covenant’ or the basis of their agreement with God.
Tablets of Stone: Now there is also reference to God writing down on two stone tablets these laws: “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.” (Ex 24:12) and, “When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.” (Ex 31:18) After the debacle of the Golden Calf when Moses smashed these two tablets of stone in anger, the Lord called him to create two new tablets (Ex 34:1a) and although the Lord said He would rewrite the commands (v.1b) it was in fact Moses who chiselled the words: “Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.” (Ex 34:28) Now although your Bible may have a title in chapter 20 with the number, this is in fact the first reference to the ‘Ten Commandments’ and we thus understand that that was all that was on these two tablets of stone, written originally by God but imparted by God and written by Moses the second time.
The Grace of God: Now in the next study we will consider in more detail something of the nature or character of God as revealed in the text in chapter 20, but for the moment I want us to look outside those specific words and consider the whole context of these laws being given to Moses. Consider what we know of Israel up to this point in chapter 34 of Exodus where we have just been:
– God called a reticent Moses (Ex 3 & 4) to go back to Egypt to deliver the people of Israel out of Egypt.
– when he meets the elders they initially believe him (Ex 4:29-31)
– when Pharaoh turns nasty, the people turn on Moses (Ex 5:6-21)
– when Moses passes on God’s encouragement they refuse to listen (Ex 6:9)
– as the ten plagues develop Pharaoh sends them out of the land but then pursues them and the people have a crisis of confidence at the Red Sea and blame Moses (Ex 14:10-12)
– their journey across the desert from Egypt to the south of Canaan is a story of complaint and grumbling by the people again and again.
The point I would make here is that the God who describes Himself as the one who “brought you out of Egypt , out of the land of slavery,” is a God of immense graciousness. He is the One – and it is only Him – who brings Israel out of Egypt, He is the One – and it is only Him – who provides for them miraculously in their desert travels. Now this needs saying because so often whenever they – and we – hear words of ‘command’, that thing called Sin (that propensity towards self-centred godlessness) rises up in objection because we do not realize the shear love and goodness of God whose intentions towards Israel and towards us are always good. He always purposes good for us. What we have here is a God who made this world for our provision and pleasure and who interacts with this world and speaks to individuals in this world and it is all to bless us and get us back on the right track after the Fall.
The Design of God: He can now be identified as the one who delivered Israel miraculously out of the hands of the most powerful despot in the world. There are those who would wish to acclaim the Ten Commandments as the most sublime and perfect set of laws the world has seen (but we will see that in reality they don’t mean that), and they would like to leave it at that, but that ignores the context. These are laws that God gives to His chosen people, a people who have come to know Him through His dealings with them both through the patriarchs and now through the release from slavery.
This is not to say that these laws cannot be adhered to by those who have not become believers but, as we shall see, when the first four are all about attitudes towards God Himself, it is difficult to see how they can be adopted in total by those who would reject Him. When we come to see each individual law, we will see that outside of God there is no foundation and reason for them to be followed. God Himself puts meaning into each law and without him they are mere tokens of civilization!
So the first thing about these ten commandments, is not how wonderful they are as simple laws, but the fact that they are laws given by the gracious God, the Maker of the Universe, the One who has designed this world to work in a particular way and who now reveals something of that way to us. This gracious God seeks to convey to this nation that His design for the people of the world – starting with them – is a way of life that is first founded on their knowledge of Him and only then in respect of one another. These laws are how to build a good society, a good community, but if it is to be meaningful and lasting, that people must first and foremost realize the wonder and the grace and the goodness of this God. The temptation – and it was seen in the subsequent history of Israel – is to separate the nation and their laws from the God who created both. It never works; if you separate God from His ‘design laws’, if you forget Him, you very soon start deviating from the laws and they lose their ability to guide the people.
And Us: This same principle of ‘separation of rules from God’ leading to failure, applies to us just as much as to Israel. It applies in raising families, it applies at work, it applies in Government, it applies in church. If we try to do these things by rules alone – ignoring or excluding God – we will soon find that the rules become a point of dispute, a cause of failure and a source of blame. Without consciously seeking the presence of God continually in my life and seeking Him for guidance, wisdom and power to comply with laws I may find in His word, I will soon find I am running on autopilot, probably using the Internet for helpful guidance, and losing touch with Him. The Ten Commandments without God may be ‘good rules’ but they will not bring life. Forgive me that I have taken up two studies before we actually get to the first of the commands, but these are essential matters if they are to release faith, life and love within us.
Application: Again, may we pray something like, “Lord God, thank you that you are a communicating God. Please open the eyes of my heart (Eph 1:18) to understand you. Thank you for the wonder of your grace that is revealed in your word. Please help me appreciate it more and more as every day goes by. Please help me see and be motivated by your love and grace that those may also become the key characteristics of my life as I seek to put you first in all things. Amen.”