THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (Ex. 20) were once learned by every child at school in the Western world. They established deeply ingrained principles of right and wrong that contributed to the shaping of Western civilization. They were not viewed as ten recommendations, optional niceties for polite people. Even many of those who did not believe that they were given by God himself (“God spoke all these words,” 20:1) nevertheless viewed them as the highest brief summary of the kind of private and public morality needed for the good ordering of society.
Their importance is now fast dissipating in the West. Even many church members cannot recite more than three or four of them. It is unthinkable that a thoughtful Christian would not memorize them.
Yet it is the setting in which they were first given that calls forth this meditation. The Ten Commandments were given by God through Moses to the Israelites in the third month after their rescue from Egypt. Four observations:
(1) The Ten Commandments are, in the first place, the high point of the covenant mediated by Moses (cf. 19:5), delivered by God at Sinai (Horeb). The rest of the covenant makes little sense without them; the Ten Commandments themselves are buttressed by the rest of the covenantal stipulations. However enduring, they are not merely abstract principles, but are cast in the concrete terms of that culture: e.g., the prohibition to covet your neighbor’ s ox or donkey.
(2) The Ten Commandments are introduced by a reminder that God redeemed this community from slavery: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (20:2). They are his people not only because of Creation, not only because of the covenant with Abraham, but because God rescued them from Egypt.
(3) God delivered the Ten Commandments in a terrifying display of power. In an age before nuclear holocaust, the most frightening experience of power was nature unleashed. Here, the violence of the storm, the shaking of the earth, the lightning, the noise, the smoke (19:16-19; 20:18) not only solemnized the event, but taught the people reverent fear (20:19-29). The fear of the Lord is not only the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7), but also keeps people from sinning (Ex. 20:20). God wants them to know he had rescued them; he also wants them to know he is not a domesticated deity happily dispensing tribal blessings. He is not only a good God, but a terrifying, awesome God.
(4) Since God is so terrifying, the people themselves insist that Moses should mediate between him and them (20:18-19). And this prepares the way for another, final, Mediator (Deut. 18:15-18).