Every few years, the Ten Commandments find themselves embroiled in controversy when some progressive pastor suggests that God doesn’t really like them all that much (a silly supposition, since God never changes and Jesus told us these laws would never fade away). And while I’d’ve hoped that Christians could agree on such basic universal truths as “We should only serve one God” and “Murder is bad,” it’s apparently not so obvious.
So here are ten facts about the Ten Commandments that you may or may not know:
ONE: They were literally written by God.
I know, I know. The whole bible was written by God. But technically, it was ghostwritten by God (or Holy Ghost-written by God, amirite?): God communicated His words through prophets and apostles, but God didn’t actually put pen to paper. David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote his psalms; Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote his gospel; Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote his epistles. That’s why the scriptures are called God-breathed, not God-written.
However, the Ten Commandments are different. We are told several times that God literally carved them into stone with His finger.
“…[God] gave Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” (Exodus 31:18)
“Then the Lord delivered to me two tablets of stone written with the finger of God…” (Deuteronomy 9:10)
In this way, the Ten Commandments stand apart from the rest of the scriptures, not being transcribed but literally carved by God.
TWO: God spoke them out loud to over two million people.
Many times throughout the Bible, you’ll read phrases like “Thus saith the Lord” or “Command these people, saying…” What that means is God spoke these words to some spiritual leader, who then repeated these words to God’s people.
But again, the Ten Commandments stand apart in that they were spoken directly by God to His people.
“These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly, in the mountain from the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice…” (Deuteronomy 5:22)
It is estimated that there were somewhere between two and seven million Israelites at the time. And Moses gathered those millions of desert wanderers around Mount Sinai, and God spoke these commandments out loud to them all. There was no denying that these divine laws came from God.
THREE: They are listed not once but twice in the Law.
The first five books of the Bible contain 613 laws (if you think that’s a lot, keep in mind that the United States has over 20,000 laws about guns alone). And in that limited space, God doesn’t repeat many of His commands. For instance, the “greatest commandment”—to love your neighbor as yourself—is only listed once. And yet God presents all Ten Commandments not once but twice (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5).
FOUR: When God created a nation, they were His Bill of Rights.
After over four hundred years in slavery, God fantastically delivered His people from the greatest superpower on earth and led them to form a nation of their own. And the central tenets of this new nation was these Ten Commandments. Of all 613 laws He had given them (or the millions of laws that have been written by countless nations since), God felt these ten were foundational to a successful and free society.
FIVE: They explain Jesus’ commandments to love God and love others.
In one famous exchange, a lawyer asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life. Jesus responded that the right answer was:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all you soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and [to love] your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)
However, it might not always be clear how to love God or love your neighbor. That’s where the Ten Commandments come in handy. The first four provide instruction related to loving God, while the latter six command us how to love others.
SIX: Jesus said the Ten Commandments were the key to eternal life.
In another famous exchange, a rich young ruler asked Jesus for the key to eternal life. Jesus responded,
“If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:17)
The ruler pressed further, asking which ones He should keep. Jesus answered by listing half of the commandments and the command to love your neighbor (Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 18).
According to Jesus, anyone who wants to enter into life should keep the Ten Commandments.
SEVEN: The Ten Commandments apparently gave the rich young ruler riches and influence.
As mentioned previously, a certain ruler (Luke 18:18) who was rich (Mark 10:22) asked Jesus for the secret to eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments (Matthew 19:17), specifically citing five of the Ten Commandments. The rich young ruler responded, “All these things I have kept from my youth” (Matthew 19:20).
Taking the whole Bible into consideration, it is likely that this young man found financial success and influence because of his obedience to God’s commandments. After all, God told Joshua that if he kept the Book of the Law,
“You will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” (Joshua 1:8)
Promises of economic success and influence are found throughout the Bible (Deuteronomy 28:1-14 and Proverbs 3:1-4, to name a few). It’s no wonder that this young man, who made keeping God’s laws a priority, found both success and influence.
It’s worth noting that, while this man kept many of the Ten Commandments, he doesn’t claim to have kept all of them. Loving God and not coveting are famously absent from the list, and Jesus asks the young man to give to the poor, trust God fully, and follow Him (Matthew 19:21). Jesus later tells His disciples that if the man had obeyed Him—and kept all Ten Commandments—he would have increased his possessions and influence and found eternal life (Mark 10:29-30).
EIGHT: Paul quotes them too.
In Romans 13, Paul writes to the Christians of Rome about how to live as members of society. He lays out the role of government and instructs these believers to pay their taxes. Then he tells the Christians to “love one another” (Romans 13:8). To make sure they understand what this looks like practically, He elaborates further, listing the latter six commandments (the love your neighbor commandments).
Paul’s letter reaffirms that the Ten Commandments are central to a biblical understanding of love and that they are integral to loving successfully in society.
NINE: They establish moral absolutes.
In today’s world, most people either have one God or no gods. But that’s not always how it was. For most of human history, people worshiped many gods. There was a god of agriculture, a god of money, a god of weather. These gods didn’t always get along, and usually had competing views of morality.
As a result, it was hard to know what was right and what was wrong. After all, the god of the river might command one thing, but the god of war would command another. And humans were free to pick whatever god or system of morality suited them at any particular moment.
But the Ten Commandments changed all that. God started off these commandments by declaring that He was the absolute and only God, and that these commandments were His perfect standard of living. There could be no debate whether murder was right or wrong, or whether it was sometimes okay to steal. God, the one and only God, the true God, had declared that these were wrong, whether you or the king or the entire nation agreed. Right and wrong existed because they were established by God, and no matter who you were or where you lived, these commandments applied to you.
TEN: There are only ten of them.
Let’s be real. The “Ten Commandments” has a nice ring to it, and they easily fit on two tablets of stone. It’d be much harder to memorize the “Six Hundred and Thirteen Commandments,” let alone to fit them on a poster.
The Ten Commandments are important. They are clearly important to God, they were important to Israel, and they should be important to us as well.
We’ll look more into lessons we can learn from God’s Ten Commandments in the coming months.