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The Ten Commandments as Expressions of Moral Value

Study notes ▪ 1996
Tags: Ten Commandments; Values; Exodus 20:2-17
Related Resources: Christ’s New Commandment Defending Heaven’s Values in a Fallen World Love Thy Neighbor: A Call to Extend Our Boundaries (Lk 10.25-37)



The Ten Commandments are far more than a list of rules. They are an expression of what is valuable to God. Each of the commandments declares a value that is inherent in a particular aspect of reality—the reality of the Creator and his creation. Thus, the commandments bring us into intimate contact with truth about the world in which we live and about the One who is responsible for bringing it into being. The more we understand and subscribe to the principles that underlie the commandments, the more we will be in harmony with reality as it is revealed by God in his word. Following we will briefly examine the values that are defended by each of the commandments.

The value of divine preeminence

The first commandment enforces the concepts that Jehovah is to have first place in our lives—that he is unlike any other. No one else can rightfully claim the status and position that he holds. God’s uniqueness is thus upheld.

2 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

The value of divine worship

The second commandment teaches that worship is valuable—that it is something to be protected. The second commandment proceeds logically from the first: The one who is incomparable to any other is the only one who should be worshiped. And worship is presented as a spiritual activity, for no physical representation of deity—false or true—is permitted. God’s glory allows no rival; this is the emphasis of the second commandment.

4 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:
5 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;
6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

The value of divine representation

The third commandment proceeds logically from the second. It has been stated that God tolerates no physical representation of himself; however, there is an acceptable verbal representation of him, and that is his name, Jehovah. The proper use of this name is governed by the third commandment. Essentially, the name is not to be taken or carried (nasa’ [5375], to lift, lift up; to bear, carry, support, sustain, endure; to take, take away, carry off, forgive) in vain (shav’ [7723], emptiness, nothingness, vanity, worthlessness of conduct). When a cause or person is identified with the LORD, such correlation should be significant. His name should not be used loosely; it is valuable, and ought to be treated as such.

7 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.

The value of creative activity

The fourth commandment is connected thematically to the previous three, although it deals primarily with the activity of God rather than his character. At first glance it appears that the value driving the fourth commandment is the holiness of God, or perhaps service to God. These are important, but are not the central focus of the commandment. Neither is the central focus the value of rest from work, though it is obviously necessary to refrain from activity on a frequent basis. The value that was to motivate the keeping of the sabbath under the law, was the creative activity of the LORD. The sabbath was thus designed to be a persistent reminder of the fact that everything that can be perceived (with the exception of God himself) is a product of the creative abilities of God. The literal creation story is at the heart of the law of God; it is therefore certainly worth defending. And in that God’s creativity is said to be worthy of remembrance, human creativity is affirmed.

8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
10 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:
11 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.

The value of the family

The fifth commandment, along with the remaining five, belongs to a category distinct from the first four: While the first group emphasizes an individual’s relationship with God, the second prescribes proper relationships with one’s fellow man. It is no coincidence that the first value to be mentioned in the matter of human relations is that of the family. Not everyone has the privilege of being married and bearing children; not everyone has siblings, or aunts, or uncles. But every human being has at least two immediate relatives—a father and a mother. The fifth commandment teaches that they are worthy of their children’s honor. Obedience to this command carries with it the promise of long life—presumably, for individuals and nations. Conversely, neglect of the ordinance is sure to hasten destruction.

12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

The value of life

The sixth commandment defends the value of human life. Life—especially human life—is a gift from God. Because all humans are made in the image of God, they are valuable and worthy of protection. This principle is foundational to social order. It precludes murder, abortion, and “assisted suicide.” We would do well to learn from the sixth commandment that life is to be defended staunchly.

13 Thou shalt not kill.


The value of marriage

The seventh commandment is likewise foundational to the orderly function of society. Committed, loving marriage is the fabric of which community and nation are composed. The institution of marriage was designed by God to help man and woman be happy. Faithful marriage is the channel through which many sorts of blessings are poured on spouses by God himself. But God’s benevolent purposes are short-circuited by behavior that sacrifices long-term commitment on the altar of temporary pleasure. Adultery is a death blow to a marriage. Because marriage is of such vital importance, protecting it against its deadliest enemy merits the inclusion of the seventh commandment among God’s most important instructions to mankind.

14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.

The value of ownership

The eighth commandment was given by God in the interest of protecting the ownership of property. It is impossible for sinful creatures to live together in harmony without understanding that they can manipulate only what belongs to them. Ownership per se is legitimized, but a controlling factor to it is found in the tenth commandment.

15 Thou shalt not steal.

The value of integrity

The ninth commandment defends integrity in two senses. First, integrity is to be exercised in one’s speech. It is unlawful to speak falsely concerning someone else. In this case, integrity is used in the sense of honesty. Second, every individual’s personal integrity needs to be upheld. Thus we ought not malign someone’s reputation by representing them in error. In this case, integrity is used in the sense of personal wellbeing, or wholeness. Therefore, the ninth commandment exalts honesty and the keeping of a good testimony. These are virtues that are worth fighting for.

16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

The value of contentment

The tenth commandment is probably the easiest to break of the last six, for it deals with one’s heart attitudes. Refraining from covetousness sets the tone for our entire personal conduct. The bottom line is that we ought to be content with such conditions as moral life affords us; we ought not to resort to immoral means to achieve what we desire. Thus it is not too hard to see how this and the previous five commandments are intertwined: It is good to pursue personal advancement, but not at the expense of jeopardizing family relations, life, marriage relations, ownership of property, or integrity.

17 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 any thing that is thy neighbour’s.


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Study notes (3 pages)  65k v. 1 Sep 3, 2011, 6:45 AM Greg Smith
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