It was fitting that there should be due preparation for the stupendous event of an audible address from the mouth of Almighty God (personated by an angel—Acts 7:53; Heb. 2:2) to a mustered nation at the foot of Mount Sinai. There had been a measure of preparation in all that filled up the interval since the selection of Abraham and the appointment of circumcision as the token of the covenant and the condition of their choice. Their deep affliction in Egypt, following the pure prosperity of Joseph’s time (like the seven years of famine after a similar period of great plenty), prepared them to give themselves up willingly into the hands of the deliverer when he appeared. And the observance of the Passover in anticipation of the last and most crushing plague on the eve of their departure from “the iron furnace, even Egypt” (Deut. 4:20), enabled them to feel they were under the protection of the God of their fathers. (Circumcision and the Passover, preceding the law, were afterwards incorporated in the law, and will most naturally engage our attention when we meet them there.) But now they were actually to “meet with God” (Exod. 19:17). So they were commanded to “be ready against the third day; for on the third day the Lord will (not only speak but) come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai”. They were to “wash their clothes “, and abstain from the common defilements of domestic life, and to keep at a respectful distance from the mount at whose base they were encamped. The terrible penalty of death was attached to non-compliance.
The people were entirely compliant; and on the morning of the third day, there were awful tokens of the promised interview between God and a nation. The top of the mountain was concealed in dense cloud, intermittently illuminated by the play of lightning. From the cloud ascended thick volumes of smoke as from a furnance. Roars of thunder pealed forth at intervals, the earth trembled under their feet. In the midst of all these terror-inspiring manifestations, the steady strident sound of a loud trumpet note was heard from the summit, “sounding long and waxing louder and louder”. On a sudden the tumult ceased, and in the silence, “the Lord spake unto all the assembly out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, WITH A GREAT VOICE” (Deut. 5:22). The whole assembly heard the pealing words which filled the air to the following effect:
“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.
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: 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 showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
“Thou shalt not kill.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery.
“Thou shalt not steal.
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbour’s.”
Moses, in rehearsing these impressive circumstances forty years afterwards, says the Lord spoke these words “with a great voice, and he added no more” (Deut. 5:22). This cannot mean that He added no commandments after the ten commandments, for he immediately proceeds to narrate that the ten commandments having been delivered, the Lord ordered Israel to their tents, and said to Moses, “But as for thee, stand thou here by me, and I will speak unto thee all the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments, which thou shalt teach them” (Deut. 5:30–31). It means, then, that the voice that proclaimed the ten commandments stopped abruptly at the prohibition of covetousness. Nothing was added to the oral delivery from the mount—no tapering off—no peroration—no gradual and ornamental finish, as there had been no exordium or oppropriate introduction—no rounded periods—none of the mere arts of rhetoric: nothing beyond solemn substance and meaning. There must have been something very impressive in this sudden cessation of “the great voice “, as there was in its sudden commencement in the pause after the terrific overture. The whole method of their communication seems to mark off the ten” words “or commandments with a special emphasis, as possessing a peculiar and leading importance: for not only were they rehearsed in the hearing of the whole assembly, but immediately afterwards, as Moses records, “the Lord wrote them in two tables of stone, and delivered them unto him” for special preservation.
It is customary to speak of these ten commandments as “the moral law”. This is an objectionable description on two grounds: it takes for granted a false theory of “morality “, and it ignores the divine estimate and description of the ten commandments. The false assumption of human philosophy is that” the moral law” is as natural and spontaneous a thing as the physical laws of the universe. It is assumed that the ten commandments are as natural as the law that you must have air to breathe and food to eat before you can live, and that their obligation arises from the constitution of things, and not from their having been enjoined by divine authority. The “moral law” is thus thought of as a part of nature, and not as the appointment of God. This view will upon study be found a fallacy, and like all fallacies, it works confusion in the applications of knowledge. If the so-called moral law were an element in the nature of things, it would be found asserting itself like the law of gravitation or the law of eating and drinking. Instead of that, man left to himself is an ignorant savage, who kills and steals with as little scruple as a lion or a tiger. He has no idea of wrong in these acts. He never exhibits the conception of moral restraint till the idea has been introduced to him by some process of instruction. Even Paul (in Rom. 2:12–15), where he is supposed to sanction the idea of an instinctive sense of right and wrong among “the Gentiles which have not the law”, recognizes that men are only “alaw unto themselves”, and “do by nature the things contained in the law”, when “the work of the law” has been “written in their hearts” (see verse 15). It is very few Gentiles who have been the subject of this operation. His testimony of the world in general harmonizes with experience to this day, that “the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God” (Rom. 8:7), and that the Gentiles unilluminated “walk in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened,” and are without God and have no hope (Eph. 4:18; 2:12). Those who had had “the work of the law written in their hearts” had had it so written by the pen ministration of the Spirit of God by the instrumentality of the apostles, as Paul says: “Written not with ink, but with the spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart” (2 Cor. 3:3). These were “the Gentiles” of whom Paul writes in Rom. 2. The rest he speaks of as “other Gentiles who walk in the vanity of their mind” (Eph. 4:17).
If the ten commandments were the moral law, and the moral law were “a law of nature”, killing could never be right, whereas the killing of the Canaanites became Israel’s duty (Deut. 20:15–17), and the killing of the Amalekites, Saul’s duty, for failure in which Saul was ejected from the kingship (1 Sam. 15:3, 23). It is the wrong view of the subject that creates what are called “the moral difficulties of the Old Testament”. People holding it read of the slaughter of the Canaanites and many other things with a shock for which there is no ground at all. Duty is obedience to the commandments of God, and not the following of a supposed natural bias. Natural bias may be whim and darkness. The keeping of the commandments of God is the following of the light, whatever the commandments are. He makes alive, and has a right to kill, and when he says “Kill”, it is wickedness to refrain. The slaughter of the wicked Canaanites was by the order of God, and became an act of righteousness. So with all the other so-called “difficulties” They are difficulties that vanish with a right understanding.
The ten commandments are only to be rightly estimated by God’s own description of them. He calls them (Exod. 19:5) “My covenant”. Moses says: “He wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments” (Exod. 34:28). Also in his rehearsal to Israel on the plains of Moab, at the end of the forty years, he said: “The Lord spake unto you out of the midst of the fire And he declared unto you his covenant… even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone”. The rest of the law is treated as an appendix to these: “And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that ye might do them in the land whither ye go over to possess it” (Deut. 4:12–14). The “sanctuary” and “ordinances of divine service”, prescribed in what is called the ritual and ceremonial law, in its detail, are scripturally treated as mere appurtenances and amplifications of “the first covenant” promulgated from Sinai in the ten commandments (Heb. 9:1). Of the allegorical significances contained in these, it will be our duty to enquire by and by.
The Mosaic view of the ten commandments as God’s covenant with Israel, agrees with the historical allusions they contain, and with the fact that they were addressed exclusively to Israel. A “moral law”, in the sense of modern parlance, would be as much the concern of the Chinese and the Babylonians as of the Jews: it would be of universal application—and it would not start off with a circumstance so local and historical as the Exodus, which is the substance of the first commandment and the basis of the other nine: “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt”. It is in fact, unsuitable and unjust to the subject to regard the ten commandments in any other light than that in which the Mosaic record exhibits them: namely, as a speech from God to Israel, defining the leading maxims on the basis of their consent to which He would choose them as His people: “Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven”. “Now therefore if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth in mine” (Exod. 19:5–6).
This view is also in accord with the undoubted and otherwise extraordinary declaration of the New Testament that this covenant, “written and engraved on stones”, has been done away. Paul calls it “the ministration of death, written and engraven on stones”, because a curse was pronounced on everyone that should infringe any of its enactments (Deut. 27:26). James’s application of this curse is so stringent as to make a man who transgressed one of the commandments an offender against all. His argument is : “Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all: for he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:10). Because, therefore, the Mosaic law condemned to death those who should disobey any of the ten commandments, or their engrafted corollaries, and because no man was capable of a spotless obedience (save Christ), they were in their totality a “ministration of death, written and engraven in stones”; and had they continued in force against men, their condemnation would have been inevitable and their salvation impossible. Consequently, it was necessary that they should be “done away”, as Paul three times expresses it in 2 Cor. 3:7–14; or “taken out of the way”, as he has it in Col. 2:14—not taken out of the way, in the sense of being abandoned as a rule of acceptable behaviour before God, but taken out of the way in the sense of Christ discharging their whole claims in every sense and then dying under the curse of the law of which they formed the kernel or foundation—a law which in another clause enacted “Cursed is he that hangeth on a tree”, and therefore cursed Jesus who so hung as Paul declares, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree” (Gal. 3:13). When Christ rose after thus bearing the curse of the law, the law had expended its cursing power on him, and was therefore “taken out of the way” in him, so that all who put on his name and came under his authority in faith and baptism were “free from that law” This is Paul’s argument in Rom. 7:1–4, to which the reader is referred. The pith of it is in the assertion of verse 4,” Ye are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead”; and in the further statement in verse 6, “We are delivered from the law, that (law) being dead wherein we were held”. Therefore, as he says in Rom. 6:14, and substantially in Gal. 4 (the whole chapter), “Ye are not under the law, but under grace” (or favour), being recipients of the kindness of God in the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake, and participating jointly with Christ in the heirship of the good things wrought out by the righteousness of Christ.
But though the covenant of Sinai is thus “done away in Christ”, it is not done away in the sense of abolishing the excellent rules of action which that covenant enjoined. The new law in Christ, which believers come under, revives those rules in a stronger and more efficient form. Paul is very clear on this point, in which he is supported by the highest demands of reason. He enquires, “Shall we sin (that is, shall we do the things that the law forbids), because we are not under the law, but under grace ?” (Rom. 6:15). He meets the suggestion with an emphatic “God forbid”. “Being made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness” (verse 18). The new form of God’s wisdom in Christ is that “the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit” (Rom. 8:4). The meaning of this is practical, and not mystical and ceremonial as some people make it. Paul interprets for us thus:”.. Love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this (the ten commandments), Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8–10).
The position of the matter is therefore perfectly clear. The law, so excellent in itself, would have given life, if men had been able to keep it, as Christ and Paul unitedly declare (Luke 10:25–28; Rom. 7:10), but because they were unable to keep it in the absolute perfection required, it condemned them, and stopped every boasting mouth, and made all the world guilt3; before God (Rom. 3:19), establishing such a situation that if salvation was to come, it could only come by the kindness of God, in the particular form He might appoint, which indeed was the result aimed at, as Paul declares in Rom. 5:20–21. The law was unable to confer life because men were unable through weakness to keep it; it became instead a cause of death (Rom. 7:10; 8:3; Gal. 3:21). Salvation, therefore, could not come by the works of the law, but had to come in another way, namely, by forgiveness through grace (or favour); but not unconditional forgiveness. Through Christ forgiveness was preached and offered: that is, “By him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39).
When we say “through Christ”, we bring into view the fact that the law has been made operative in him. He was “made under the law” (Gal. 4:4), to which he was obedient in all things; and for his obedience “even unto death” he became “the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom. 10:4). Thus the law was made effectual through Christ. The law was not a failure; God’s word never “returns to him void”
It accomplished its mission in two directions. It condemned Israel, who were disobedient—every man of them, more or less—“stopping every mouth”, and it bestowed its blessing on Christ, who “magnified the law and made it honourable” (Isa. 42:21). The mode of his death brought him under its curse, but without the surrender of his righteousness, since his submission to that mode of death was in itself an act if obedience. It was necessary that he should bear its curse away “to redeem them that were under the law” It was therefore necessary it should come upon him, yet that it should come righteously, that all the ways of God might be consistent one with another.
The law was a rule of procedure towards mortal men. It ceased to be a rule of procedure towards Christ when he died and rose again. As a rule of procedure towards all others, it could only condemn them, because they are all transgressors. Therefore righteousness for transgressors in the sense of forgiveness unto life eternal cannot come by the law. This was Paul’s great contention against the Judaism of his day. His argument is drawn to a focus in the statement of Gal. 2:21, “If righteousness come by the law, then is Christ dead in vain”. But he has not died in vain. He died to declare the righteousness of God as the ground of invitation for sinners to receive forgiveness. He died to remove the old covenant as a rule of procedure towards men.
The “learned” of this world misconceive the subject altogether. While they truly recognize the limited or tribal character of the Sinaitic enunciation, they draw wrong conclusions from it through the effects of a wrong theory in another direction. They assume that all men are immortal, and on a footing of equal acceptability to God, and that therefore a system like the Mosaic system, which limited its proposals to a particular nation, and ignored the rest of mankind, must have had a human origin. The argument really turns the other way; that the Mosaic limitations being divine are a confutation of popular views as to the nature and position of the human race.
The ten commandments as the authentic formulation of divine will concerning the deportment of individual man are of unspeakable moment. They embody the fundamental principles that regulate human life.