We’ve talked a lot in recent weeks during our class in Galatians about the imperfection of the Law of Moses as a means of ultimate salvation, and about the futility of basing one’s righteousness on perfect lawkeeping. While those things are true, we do well to note how God used the law He gave in order to establish for Himself a holy nation. In Exodus 19.5–6, when God invited the children of Israel into a covenant relationship, He said, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
While we can go to places like Leviticus and see all the practices the Lord condemned that were done by the Canaanites, we need look no further than the Ten Commandments to see how from the very outset, God gave laws designed to keep the people from the things that would be displeasing to Him.
He required exclusivity. The very first command, “You shall have no other gods before me,” draws a line in the sand. No other gods. While we can talk about “before me” in the sense of priority (no other gods we serve ahead of serving God), the command is more extensive than that. It’s more of the sense of no other gods in the Lord’s presence. God wanted the people to remove all other gods from His sight entirely. Now, given that God sees everything, what does that leave? This is really the “out of sight, out of mind” principle at work. If all other gods are removed from the conversation, it is much less likely that the people will turn to them.
He removed temptation. The second command went even further. No carved images. There may be a little discussion to be had about whether this is an outright prohibition on any carved/graven image or just ones created for worship. We should note here that even things created by God’s command were corrupted for idolatrous purpose (such as the bronze serpent). The people were being asked to worship a God who didn’t have an explicit physical representation. That was going to be hard for them. They didn’t need the temptation created by an image like the ones associated with idolatry.
He rebuked carelessness. The prohibition against taking the name of the Lord in vain was about more than expressions like “O my God.” It was about a casual approach to His authority. It was about presumption on His will and asserting God’s approval when He didn’t give it. It was about not worrying whether something was permissible under the Law. It was about associating something with God that maybe God didn’t want associated with Him.
He reclaimed time. The sabbath day and the associated observances of the sabbath year and jubilee year were an explicit reservation of time so that people could be reminded of their relationship with the Lord. They were to set it aside in imitation of the Lord resting on the seventh day. They were to set it aside as a memorial of God’s deliverance (see Deut 5.15). They were to set it aside to be reminded of their dependence on God.
He refuted ignorance. He commanded Israel to honor father and mother “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” How did honoring father and mother lead to long days? Under ideal circumstances, the parents would teach their children (see Deut 6). The commandments given through Moses were given with the promise that if the people would keep them, God would bless them and cause them to prosper in the land. One of the things that would come about as a result of honoring father and mother was knowledge of those commandments (and by keeping them, long days in the land).
He reinforced eternal principles. The remainder of the commands (regarding murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, and covetousness) reinforced principles that had existed all the way back to the beginning. Prohibiting murder reinforced the sanctity of life that was violated by Cain and stated explicitly after the flood. Prohibiting adultery reinforced the “one flesh” nature of marriage as given in the garden of Eden. Prohibiting stealing (claiming another’s possessions as one’s own) and false witness reinforced the principle of truth, a fundamental aspect of God’s nature. Prohibiting covetousness reinforced the pattern of relying on God’s provision and contentment with what one has.
Of course, we see as we continue through the book of Exodus that it took them less than two months to break at least the first three commandments by way of the golden calf. Aaron created a calf in violation of the second commandment, then set it before the people as representative of their “gods” who brought them out of the land of Egypt in violation of the first and third commandments. Generation after generation, the people struggled in their faithfulness to God, largely because they ignored the provision God had made to keep them from the idolatrous practices of their neighbors.
God has made similar provision today, even if not in the form of the Ten Commandments. He calls for us to serve Him only (Matt 7.24). He calls for us to remove temptation from our lives (Heb 12.1–2). He calls for us to be careful in our walk (Eph 5.15). He calls for us to give regular attention to what He has done for us (Acts 20.7). He calls for us not to be ignorant (Eph 5.17). He calls for us to uphold His standards (Rom 12.2). God’s commands are not arbitrary requirements to satisfy some whim of His, but things given for our good, to point us in the direction that we should go as His chosen people. God is holy, and He helps us to be holy as well.