Deep Commandments

Most Christians grow up learning, or at least becoming somewhat familiar with, the Ten Commandments. However, often they seem too simple to be a real moral guide as we grow up. I mean, just look at the list:

  1. Don't worship other gods.
  2. Don't worship images.
  3. Don't take God's name in vain.
  4. Honor the Sabbath.
  5. Honor your parents.
  6. Don't murder.
  7. Don't commit adultery.
  8. Don't steal.
  9. Don't lie.
  10. Don't covet.

Of course, the actual commandments as given in Scripture say a _little _more than this, but there's not all that much more content. Almost all of these seem like common sense. Even an atheist would recognize that, if God existed, it would be necessary to worship Him alone, right? And who needs to be told not to murder, adulterate, or steal? Most of the people who do these things still could tell you they're wrong.

Now, many Christians understand that the exact wording of the commandments isn't actually all there is to them. For example, most know from Jesus' words in Matthew that "don't murder" also means "don't hate," or that "don't commit adultery" also means "don't lust." But even these things we often only seem to recognize in the commandments because Jesus specifically told us. Can we really learn how to live from these basic 10 rules? Do they help us make the less clear-cut decisions we make every day?

Throughout the Church's history, pastors and scholars have tried to sort out what all these commandments really teach us, and they've actually done a pretty good job of it. It's unfortunate that so little of this teaching makes it to modern pews. For these commandments are actually deep and full of meaning. Like a keychain globe, each actually represents an entire world of moral truth. In his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus explains the principle like this when discussing the meaning of the sixth commandment:

It is called murder in this prohibition, or commandment, not because God prohibits this alone, but that in removing the effect He may at the same time remove all the causes which contribute to it, and that embracing under the term murder, all the sins which are connected with it, he may, by showing its aggravated character, the more effectually restrain us from these sins, according to the rule, that when any particular virtue is commanded or vice forbidden, the general virtues and vices, or whatever is connected with it, is at the same time commanded or forbidden. Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, emphasis added

To put his point another way, if a commandment forbids or commands something, then every aspect of human character that leads to or flows from it is also forbidden or commanded. Murder is forbidden, hatred leads in to murder, therefore hatred is forbidden. Ursinus later mentions as well that whenever something is forbidden or commanded, its opposite is conversely commanded or forbidden. Hatred is forbidden, the opposite of hatred is love, therefore love is commanded. To take another commandment, theft is forbidden, an imbalanced distribution of the goods needed for survival leads to theft, therefore an imbalanced distribution of necessary goods is forbidden, and a balanced distribution of necessary goods is commanded.

From this approach it should be clear just how much moral depth can be found in the Ten Commandments. Almost the entire moral life can be derived from any one of them. This, of course, is to be expected since morality ultimately is rooted in God's own character and His design for us, and God is one.

But you may be wondering if this depth principle is really biblical. Sure it sounds nifty, but is this really something God intended us to take from the Ten Commandments as such? I think so, for two reasons. First, as many commentators have noticed, it is easy to see the remaining laws of the Torah as not simply additional laws, but as detailed applications of the Ten Commandments. Not everyone agrees on the precise breakdown, but it is not at all hard to trace back ways in which blocks of law in the rest of the Torah do in fact seem toe point back to the subject matter of specific commandments. If, then, in the Torah itself the commandments can be unpacked this way, we should expect this to mean that each of the commandments really does mean that much more than the mere surface requirement.

Second, we should think the commandments work this way because Jesus seems to treat them this way. As mentioned above, Jesus clarifies that at least the sixth and seventh commandments cover not only the literal acts but also the inner causes which lead to them. Moreover, He (and Paul) claim that all of the law hangs upon the two commandments to love God and the love neighbor. If this is what all of the commandments are really about, just in different ways, we should expect that each of them is categorical summary of how to love (or how not to love) in different parts of life. So we should also be able to use these commands as starting points to think through what love looks like in all the areas connected to them.

This, then, makes the Ten Commandments much more potent than they may appear at first glance. From this approach, Ursinus can find in the seemingly simple command not to murder that we must develop the virtues of justice, gentleness, equity, peacefulness, fortitude, righteous indignation, humanity, mercy, and friendship. In a single command God summons us to a whole life committed to the well-being of our neighbors. Much more could be said besides, but why should I take all of the pleasure of discovery out of it? Read the commandments again yourself with fresh eyes, seeing how God claims our whole selves in 10 "simple" rules.