An analysis of the Ten Commandments reveals an arrangement of them that in itself is eloquent of many things. The first four relate TO GOD: the fifth TO FAMILY: and the last five to a man’s relation to OTHER MEN. In this order we have an exhibition of the true relations of human life in their several degrees of importance, as divinely estimated—all depending one on the other, and each of them essential to a true economy of human life—yet some before others. There are relations of life that are first, and there are such as are last, while all having a needful place. The grouping of the Ten Commandments reveals them in their true order. Here they are: 1. God; 2. family; 3. society. This is a perfect order. It is not the order recognized in current civilization, yet it is the order that all experience shows to be essential to human well-being. If God, and family obligations are not paramount in a man’s view of life, the door is opened to every form of insidious lawlessness, which, however elegant in its methods, works blight and ruin to life in its practical evolutions. In this, the system of wisdom revealed in the Bible, of which the Ten Commandments are the foundation, differs from all humanly evolved systems. The civilizations of Greece and Rome were arid and ignoble by comparison. Religion was a degrading idolatry instead of an ennobling worship of the Supreme; a mere custom of superstition that could not lift the mind of man from its natural gravitation earthwards, but rather help to drag and to keep it there by a ritual in harmony with the basest instincts. And as for family life, there was no such thing in the most vigorous republics of Greece. In Rome, it was a more distinct institution, but lacked the sweetness and social cohesiveness that come with reverence for age and conscientious submission to father and mother. Modern society has much in it that would sink it to the same level. God and family obligations are made light of. Duty to neighbour is degenerating to mere gregariousness. The drift is towards selfishness with hideous results.

The Ten Commandments stand before us eclipsing beauty and light by the side of the most polished social economies of modern times: but how shall we appraise them when we contrast or compare them with the dark systems in vogue in the time of Moses? This is the true way of judging of the character of the Mosaic Law. The modern world has become so largely impregnated, though in a diluted form, with the principles of the Mosaic Law, that the Mosaic Law is liable to appear but a mere vision of the universal moralities, whereas when we compare it with the modes and principles of life current at the time the law was given, we see it in its unapproachable originality and grandeur. It is true we know but little of the social life lived by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, etc., but it is certain from what little we do know—(supplemented largely in recent years by the decipherment of the monumental hieroglyphics of the East)—that ancient life was little superior to the sterile and stunted and mummified order of things extant at the present day in China or Japan. The uprise of the Law of Moses in the midst of such a state of things was as extraordinary and unnatural as it would be for the cedars of Lebanon suddenly to show themselves in the sandy wastes of Sahara. It can only be accounted for by Divine interposition.

THE FIRST COMMANDMENT is remarkable in more ways than one. “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” In this official declaration of Himself to Israel, intended to loom up in history before the eyes of all generations, God connected Himself with an historical act, and not with universal creatorship. He might have said, “I am the Lord thy God which created heaven and earth”. He affirms this casually in the fourth, and often enough afterwards in His message by the prophets, but here, in what may be called the supreme assertion of His Godship, He draws attention to the limited and insignificant circumstances (as some imagine it) of His having delivered Israel from the oppression of the Egyptians.

What is the meaning of this? It bears in two directions, clearly and strongly. As affecting the living congregation of people to whom the Ten Commandments were actually delivered, it was much more effective to appeal to their experience (what they had seen and heard) than to an assertion to be taken on trust, whether by intellectual discernment or dogmatic revelation. That God made heaven and earth they might believe: but that God had brought them out of Egypt, they knew. This was the strong point of Moses’ appeal to them afterwards“… according to all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes … . The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day” (Deut. 4:34; 5:3). To connect Himself, then, with what they had experienced, was to go powerfully home to knowledge and conviction.

It was also to identify Himself with those transactions in a way that excluded all doubt as to their historic veracity for subsequent generations. Men must either disbelieve in the divine authorship of the Decalogue, or admit the divine nature of the events of the Exodus. The two things are bound together in the Ten Commandments. They cannot be separated. To believe that God gave the law to Moses, and yet attribute a mythical character to the Mosaic narrative of Israel’s deliverance, is an illogical and an absurd performance. This is one of the most astounding inconsistencies of the age. It is an inexcusable violation of reason; the facts in the hands of the community, in the shape of the Bible, and all the history connected with it, exclude any other conclusion than the one that God is the author of the Ten Commandments and that therefore their opening declaration is true that He brought Israel out of Egypt “by signs, and by wonders,… and by a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm” (Deut. 4:34).

There was a depth of philosophy (as men call it) in such a performance as the exodus, that readily commends itself to a mind in earnest search for God. It is defined in the simple declaration of Moses to Israel’ “Unto thee it was shewed, that thou mightest know that the Lord He is God; there is none else beside him” (Deut. 4:35). How else was God to reveal Himself than by openly and visibly taking part in human affairs? Man has no ability to discern the nature of the Universe of Power in which he is so insignificant an atom. So far as the exercise of his flickering reason is concerned, it may be one thing or another or a thousand things. The diversity of human speculations shows this. Though men have all the same facts to work on in the main, their thoughts range in every shape and colour, from the childish Hindoo notion of an elephant being at the bottom of things, to the refined Agnosticism of the present century which refuses to profess any knowledge, yet all the while nursing a belief in blind force as the inexplicable Father of all. Therefore, it is evident that if man was to have a real knowledge of God, God must show Himself. This is what He has done, and the ten Commandments are a monument of the fact, and the whole history of the Exodus, the most precious illustration of truth that exists under the sun, instead of being the childish mass of fable to which human learning (so-called) has reduced it.

Thus our knowledge of God rests—not upon feeling or theory or intellectual induction—which are all very untrustworthy, but rests as all human knowledge rests, upon the evidence of our senses. God interfered in the question of Israel versus Egypt, expressly that the great fact might be brought within the range of human senses that God exists as a conscious, personal, omnipotent Being, holding all creation in His hand. This was the constantly avowed object of the miraculous interpositions on Israel’s behalf. (See Deut. 4:32–40; Exodus 8:10–22; 9:14–16, 29; 10:2; Psa. 106:12). Consequently, we are placed in a position that compels and enables us to lay all our theories down in the presence of the Mosaic achievements in Egypt and the wilderness; and to connect all scientific facts and phenomena with the stupendous fact demonstrated by these achievements (and afterwards confirmed by the transactions of a thousand years, ending with the splendid appearance, death and resurrection of Christ), that the root of all power lies in the God of Israel—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The logic of the first commandment becomes irresistible: “I am the Lord thy God which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me”. Could conclusion spring more irresistibly from premises? If God did all the wonderful things their eyes had seen, finishing with the overthrow of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea (see The Visible Hand of God), was it not proof that He is God? and if He is God how was it possible that reason could leave a place for any other Deity? for it was a further declaration of truth by Moses, “The Lord our God is ONE LORD”, and by God, “I am God and there is none else”. Consequently, they were shut up to the power of the first commandment. God, in bringing them out of Egypt, had given them evidence that He was the only God: what else could follow than the command: “Thou shall have no other gods before me”? Other nations had other gods: but they were mere figments of the imagination.

THE SECOND COMMANDMENT naturally sprang out of this line of thought: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing … . Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God” This was an important prohibition in an age when the custom of idolatry was so rife: perhaps it is more important even now than people imagine. They were not only not to bow down to graven images, but they were not to make such things, because of God’s jealousy of the honour that belongs to Him only. What is this modern habit (borrowed from the ancient Greek habit) of putting up statues in honour of so-called heroes but an elevating of man to a position which no man can legitimately occupy in the actual relation of things? What is man but living dust—a flower—a life-blossom, who owes any gift he has to God who made him: why should he be exalted to the place of homage implied in the erection of a statue? An impotent, sinful condemned creature—“in his best estate altogether vanity”—why should he be placed on a pedestal of crystallized and worshipful importance? The Scriptures truly testify, “Great men are a lie, and poor men are vanity”. Its truth is apparent when seen with the calm eye of pure reason, with which so few people scan their surroundings. This age of statues and busts and portrait paintings must be as offensive to God as the sincere idolatries of the Moloch worshippers. The day of judgment will declare it. Its verdict has been written in advance. “The lofty looks of man (which the system of human monuments does so much to foster) will be brought down, and the Lord alone exalted in that day.” It is a remarkable fact that while the likenesses of Greek and Roman, and even Egyptian, celebrities have been preserved in stone, there is not a trace of the personal resemblance of Yahweh’s servant anywhere, not even of Moses or Christ, whose modern pictures are of course the merest figments of fancy. In this, we have a reflex effect of the commandment before us. The learned have their way of accounting for this, of course. They talk grandiloquently of Jewish lack in art and sculpture, and of the fine genius of the Greeks for these things—a style of talk which is all on the surface. The Jews have no lack of appreciation for the beautiful, and are certainly behind no nation in their relish for personal compliments, either in the giving or the taking. That these susceptibilities should not have developed a turn for the monumental art shown by other nations, is a natural wonder inexplicable apart from the restraint imposed by the covenant of Sinai.

The reason for the prohibition of graven images may strike the mind harshly at its first impact: but afterwards it will be found to have wisdom and even commonsense at the bottom of it: “For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments”. Jealousy is displeasure at preference shown for another. In man this may be, and usually is, a petty and unenlightened and unreasonable feeling. It usually results from a desire to be preferred without reference to the well-being of those who may be affected. It has no basis beyond the instinct that enables us to find pleasure in being approved and respected—a most useful instinct in its place, but ignoble and hurtful as a ruling motive. But, with God, the sentiment of jealousy stands upon a totally different footing. While it is the fact that preference for Himself affords Him satisfaction, He knows that in this preference alone lies man’s highest good, and that preference in another direction is preference for an emptiness and a nullity, and therefore a preference that will work nothing but harm and ruin in the end. In addition to this, preference for Him is reasonable and just, because He is the Author and Owner of all things. Preference for any other object of reverence is irrational and unjust. Consequently, that He should be “jealous” of His honour is a zeal wholly in the direction of that which is good and beautiful, and that He should punish those who hate Him, even to the third and fourth generation, while showing mercy to those who love Him and keep His commandments, is just and proper and beautiful also in working out the right relation of things.

THE THIRD COMMANDMENT comes in logical sequence to the first two. If God’s name, and therefore Being and Authority, were made light of or held in the light esteem implied in familiar and irreverent allusion, it would be of small moment to God or man that no other God was recognized and no graven images made or worshipped. It is an indispensable corollary of belief in God that His name should be had in reverence, and should never escape human lips in the spirit of flippancy—not to speak of profanity. There are those who think that the meaning was that men should not take a false oath; that if they swore by the name of God to do a thing, there was a sacred obligation of performance that God would never release; the God would hold the man guilty who invoked His name to a covenant he did not perform. The scope of the subject requires that something much higher than this should have been intended. God is certainly displeased with covenant-breakers and perjured persons: but His displeasure does not arise from the fact of His name having been used to pledge them to performance, but because the person promising or covenanting has failed to perform whether the promise or covenant were entered upon with the name of God on the person’s lips or not. It is the profane or flippant use of God’s name that is condemned at any time, for any use in any connection. We never read of the non-performance of a covenant being described as taking the name of the Lord in vain: but we read the illustrative case of “the son of an Israelitish woman, whose father was an Egyptian”, who blasphemed the name of the Lord and cursed, and who (being put in ward that the mind of the Lord might be shown), was condemned to death (Lev. 24:11–15). The spirit of unutterable reverence towards God is the spirit which every institution of the law was calculated and intended to generate. Sacrifice means nothing so much as this. The position of the tabernacle in the midst of the assembly, guarded on every side by the ranked tents of the Levites, taught no other lesson. The first petition of “the Lord’s Prayer” enforces it: “Hallowed be Thy name”. How often occurs the interjection throughout the law: “I the Lord your God am holy”. “Fear thy God”. “He is worthy to be had in reverence of all them that come near him” “He is a great God, and a great King above all gods … . O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker… He is greatly to be praised: he is to be feared above all gods: for all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Honour and majesty are before him: strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Give unto the Lord, O ye kindreds of the people, give unto the Lord glory and strength. Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name… O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; fear before him, all the earth” (Psa. 95–96 and other places).

The very pith of the third commandment is the spirit that moved the Psalmist to exclaim, “O that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men” This is the spirit of the truth, apart from which the system of the truth is but a skeleton of dry bones. It led him to desire the manifestation of the glory of God with an ardour that he could only compare with the fierce thirst of the hart kept a long time from water. There is a great distance between this state of mind and that which would take the name 0fthe Lord in vain. The latter is the more common state of mind: and, therefore, it is a matter of command that we avoid the foolish habit of taking the name of the Lord in vain; and a matter of intimation that God will hold guilty the man who indulges in it. The existence of a command with this terrible adjunct is a help against the folly when we remember it, as to which, it is never to be forgotten that the mercy of the Lord is in store for “those who remember his commandments, to do them”.

The fourth commandment pursues and strengthens the same great idea in setting apart one day in seven for the special contemplation of divine ideas: “honouring the Lord, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words” (Isa. 58:13). But this commandment involves a variety of considerations, which must be reserved for another chapter.