Deuteronomy 5:1-21 – Ten Basic Rules for Life

Invitation to the Decalogue by Romanian sculptor Liviu Mocan

Moses called out to all Israel, saying to them: “Israel! Listen to the regulations and the case laws that I’m recounting in your hearing right now. Learn them and carefully do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Mount Horeb. The Lord didn’t make this covenant with our ancestors but with us—all of us who are here and alive right now. The Lord spoke with you face-to-face on the mountain from the very fire itself. At that time, I was standing between the Lord and you, declaring to you the Lord’s word, because you were terrified of the fire and didn’t go up on the mountain.”

The Lord said:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You must have no other gods before me. Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins—even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the Lord won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way.

Keep the Sabbath day and treat it as holy, exactly as the Lord your God commanded: Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Don’t do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant who is living among you—so that your male and female servants can rest just like you. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day.

Honor your father and your mother, exactly as the Lord your God requires, so that your life will be long and so that things will go well for you on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Do not kill.

Do not commit adultery.

Do not steal.

Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.

Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife.

Do not crave your neighbor’s house, field, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor. (CEB)

Whenever I take my wife’s pooch to our local spacious dog park, he knows he will need to stick to just a few of my basic rules. Although he doesn’t need the leash and is free to roam, he understands not to bark at people or approach them and other dogs without my permission. Those few simple rules are for both his well-being, and others.

We as people are free to live our lives as creatures in God’s image. The Lord has just a few basic rules for us to live by to honor both divinity and humanity, as well as to protect others and ourselves. Most folks know them as “The Ten Commandments.”

The Ten Commandments (The Decalogue or The Ten Words) were given to the ancient Israelites nearly 3,500 years ago. These words have stood the test of time and continue to be understood as a universal standard of morality and relational interactions.

There are hundreds of commands in Holy Scripture – approximately 613 in the Old Testament, and 437 in the New Testament – a whopping 1,050 total commands throughout the entirety of the Bible. So, what, then, makes these Ten so special?  Why do we stick to The Ten Words?

Moses and the Ten Commandments by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Macri (1913-1991)

The reason The Ten Commandments have endured and continue to be learned, spoken, and adhered is that they are foundational commands. Following the Ten Words in the Old Testament are a string of specific commands from God to Moses and then to the people (Exodus 21-23 and Deuteronomy 6-26). Those commands are all a fleshing-out of how to live the basic Decalogue in the Israelites’ context of entering and being in the Promised Land.

In short, every single command of Holy Scripture can be ethically and morally tied back to The Ten Commandments in some way. Whereas many Old Testament laws were given to the Israelites in their ancient Middle Eastern socio-economic culture, The Decalogue was designed to be universal and flexible for every culture and society everywhere, for any time, and every generation.

Therefore, we need to distinguish between The Law (capital “L”) and the law (little “l”). God’s fundamental and foundational ethical Law has always existed and continues to exist – and it is encapsulated in ten short and simple commands which everyone everywhere can obey, whether they are at their jobs, at home, church, or out having fun.

In fact, these ten basic commands are so important that Jesus restated them for us in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Christ got down to the heart of the commands and let everyone know what it truly means to hold, keep, and obey The Ten Words. For example, Jesus said concerning the seventh command:

“You have heard that it was said to our people long ago, ‘You must not murder anyone. Anyone who murders another will be judged.’ But I tell you, if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be judged. If you say bad things to a brother or sister, you will be judged by the council. And if you call someone a fool, you will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22, NCV).

It had become easy over the centuries for people to think everything was jim-dandy if they didn’t physically kill anyone. Yet, Jesus knew that well before any person is murdered by another that anger has been nursed through bitter grudges toward another. 

The Ten Words are the very heart of God’s desire for all humanity, and this is precisely why it is important to know and obey them in their full intent. They contain how to relate to God (Commands 1-4); and, how to relate to one another (Commands 5-10).  Jesus would later say, in response to what is the greatest command of all:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and most important command. And the second command is like the first: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  All the law and the writings of the prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matthew 22:36-40, NCV)

Question and answer 115 of the Heidelberg Catechism, a Confession of Faith crafted by Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century, addresses a significant issue:

Question: Since no one in this life can obey the Ten Commandments perfectly, why does God want them preached so pointedly? 
Answer: First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.

Second, so that we may never stop striving, and never stop praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection.

When all is said and done, grace will have the last word. Yes, none of us will ever perfectly live-out and embody The Ten Words in their entirety all the time. Yet, the grace of God in Jesus Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves: deliver us from the realm of sin, death, and hell.

Stuff happens. We often fail to live-into the ways of God for our lives through The Decalogue. However, God, always the hound of heaven, will track us down and mercifully redeem us.

So, embrace The Ten Words. Know them, memorize them, and understand them. Post them on the wall of your office or in your house. Most of all, seek to practice them, obey them, and embody them so that you can enjoy all the freedom of God’s big world.

And you just gotta love it that Johnny Cash once sang about them…

Exodus 23:10-13 – The Primacy of Rest

“Sow your land for six years and gather in its crops, but in the seventh year leave it alone and give it a rest so that your poor may eat from it. What they leave, let the wildlife have. Do the same with your vineyards and olive groves.

“Work for six days and rest the seventh so your ox and donkey may rest, and your servant and migrant workers may have time to get their needed rest.

“Listen carefully to everything I tell you. Don’t pay attention to other gods—don’t so much as mention their names. (MSG)

One reason poverty exists and seems to continue unabated, is that it is inextricably tied to rest. Perhaps that seems counter-intuitive. However, it is not. Where work is exalted to such a degree that rest creates feelings of guilt, there you will find an entire class of poor folk who labor tirelessly without making ends meet. Those with power and wealth who eschew and denigrate rest are typically the ones who take advantage of the less fortunate and stereotype them as lazy.

Scriptural rest is not a luxury. An honest biblical sabbath rest is a vital necessity. It is important enough that God lovingly encouraged it and divinely commanded a day of rest to happen for everyone each week and a year of rest every seven, including both creature and creation. There were to be no exceptions.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate what God was thinking when he ordained his people for intentional times of rest comes from my time in a prayer chapel.  One morning I set aside a four-hour block to “rest,” get away, and pray.  I will be honest that I marched into it with a personal agenda of what I wanted God to do.  I had my list of prayer items and my thoughts of how I believed God should work. I was ready for anything but rest. I came to wrestle. Silly me.

It did not take long into my forceful striving at God to see I was on a misguided adventure in missing the point. In my desire to see prayer requests answered, I lost sight of why I was there: To simply be in presence of God and enjoy Jesus – without all the laborious work, as if simple rest and enjoyment were not enough. 

In our daily work-a-day world we poke and prod, push, cajole, and finagle to move forward and get our way on all kinds of things. To separate ourselves from our typical routine takes something of a withdrawal, and it is downright hard. Maybe that’s why many individuals are so tired, cranky, and negative all the time – we find all kinds of reasons not to rest, and even when we do, we’re still trying to impose our will on God. Silly us.

We simply need Jesus – to know Christ, be with him, and experience the depths of our wondrous and gracious union with him. And that will be difficult, unless we obey the command given by God to rest.  To rest means to relinquish our plans and agendas, just for a time, and come into God’s presence and enjoy each other’s company.

Our compulsions for performance and perfection are culprits to rest. We want to do everything right. We long to pray right, talk right, be right and live right – instead of simply coming to Jesus like a little child. Perhaps we are so profoundly dissatisfied with so many things because we are discontent with Christ. Just maybe the best or right prayer to pray is that we all may be content together no matter the circumstances. Only then might we find that our burdens are light and our life easy.

Jesus modeled the life of rest for us. If there was anyone who did not need to pull away and rest it was Jesus, and yet he continually did so. If Jesus needed a sacred space and place to commune and enjoy the Father, then how much more do we need a solid sabbath rest and a place to do it? Jesus rested and prayed to connect with his heavenly Father. There was no multi-tasking, keeping abreast of social media, or juggling other responsibilities.  There was merely the pursuit of intimate rest.

If we fail to rest and avoid sabbath, then we are expressing our confidence that money, hard work, and individual talent are really all we need rather than God. Rest is only secondarily about refueling our depleted resources; it is primarily about connecting intimately with the divine and becoming aware of our true thoughts and feelings. 

Just as we need a special room and a certain bed for sleep, so we need a consistent place and time to enjoy God.  Proper spiritual hygiene, just like proper sleep and health hygiene, includes setting aside a place to daily rest, pray, and be with God.

Real spiritual and biblical rest only “works” when we realize we are imperfect – that we are helpless and need Jesus. Apart from the rise Christ, the blind cannot see, Lazarus remains dead, and I am lost in my sin. I cannot “do” life without Christ in me and with me.

Maybe this old world is not experiencing grace and peace because God’s people have not yet learned the necessity of rest. If we try and manufacture results instead of relying on the Lord for refreshment and renewal, the good things of life will be elusive. 

Enjoy Jesus today, my friends, tap into the Holy Spirit, and allow your rest to spur you to love and good deeds for the poor and underprivileged of this world.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of goodwill. Amen.

Psalm 19 – God Revealed

Yangshuo, China

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
    The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak;
    night after night they make him known.
They speak without a sound or word;
    their voice is never heard.
Yet their message has gone throughout the earth,
    and their words to all the world.

God has made a home in the heavens for the sun.
It bursts forth like a radiant bridegroom after his wedding.
    It rejoices like a great athlete eager to run the race.
The sun rises at one end of the heavens
    and follows its course to the other end.
    Nothing can hide from its heat.

The instructions of the Lord are perfect,
    reviving the soul.
The decrees of the Lord are trustworthy,
    making wise the simple.
The commandments of the Lord are right,
    bringing joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are clear,
    giving insight for living.
Reverence for the Lord is pure,
    lasting forever.
The laws of the Lord are true;
    each one is fair.
They are more desirable than gold,
    even the finest gold.
They are sweeter than honey,
    even honey dripping from the comb.
They are a warning to your servant,
    a great reward for those who obey them.

How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart?
    Cleanse me from these hidden faults.
Keep your servant from deliberate sins!
    Don’t let them control me.
Then I will be free of guilt
    and innocent of great sin.

May the words of my mouth
    and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing to you,
    O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (NLT)

I believe, along with the psalmist, that the bedrock reality of the world is God created the heavens and the earth.  Furthermore, God has given us very great and precious promises through a gracious law. All creation reflects the Lord’s wondrous character. The sun is a constant presence bringing light, warmth, and life to the earth – just like God. 

Everything in creation bears the mark of its Creator to such a degree that it is almost as if the creation itself speaks. Even at night, it’s as if our God keeps constant vigil over us, gently enveloping us in divine presence and protection.

If this were not enough, God has given people a perfect law with all its right precepts, clarity of commands, and truthful statutes. God’s law, like the Lord’s creation, reflects a gracious divine character. We were not left alone to fend for ourselves – to try and figure out everything about how-to live-in God’s big world. Like a caring and conscientious mother, the Lord has provided the Law, to provide us with sure footing and solid direction. The law of the Lord is so good that it is more valuable than gold, and more desirable than any food.

Since all this creation and law is freely available to us, it is a good thing to memorize and meditate on this very psalm. Perhaps take a few verses with you out for a leisurely walk in God’s good creation. Carefully reflect on them as you notice the grand scope of God’s vast sky, and the intricacies of God’s small details.  Let it all rise to a paean of praise and appreciation to the God who notices, has acted, and will intervene.

The laws of the Lord are true.

Different cultures have multiple words for things which are important to them. For example, in most Asian countries there are various words for “rice” depending upon which strain it is and in what manner it is cooked.  Rice is important to them. In America, we only have one word for “rice” no matter where it comes from or how it is prepared. Whereas the country of Indonesia might only have one generic word for “money,” we in the West have a plethora of terms for it: coins; bills; dollars; checks; debit accounts; stock; bonds; annuities, etc.  Americans have dozens of words for “money” because it is weaved into the fabric of our capitalistic way of life.

In today’s wonderful psalm, we encounter several words for “law:” testimony; precept; commandment; instruction; decree; and rule. So, a healthy way to approach God’s Holy Word is to pay careful attention to the various instructions and commands because they are important.

The law of God is to be as familiar to the Christian as Jesus and the Spirit. We need God’s guidance and direction to live rightly and with pleasure. When we look at the law with gratitude and seek to obey God through it, we will learn to avoid sin and lead a blameless life. Thus, to commit God’s Word to heart and to memory would be sage for every believer.

Most of life, as you well know, is lived in the mundane.  We drive and walk the same well-worn roads and paths; spend much time each day doing routine ordinary things; repeatedly say the same things to our kids, day after day; engage in ordinary chores; and, worship in predictable ways.  Excitement is certainly to be had, but it is more the exception than the rule, even in these days of pandemic and change. Patience, perseverance, and plodding comes with living wisely. It is the norm for realizing a thriving and flourishing spiritual life.

Psalm 19 is a celebration of God’s self-revelation.  Through both nature and law, God is made known to humanity. What is more, God’s moral and ethical teachings provide insight for living a good life for all persons everywhere.

Wisdom in the Old Testament is the combination of knowledge and practice. It is the application of God’s self-revelation to concrete situations in life.  We live wisely when we get to know the sovereign God of creation and use revealed mores and ethos as our guide in daily experiences.

We need God’s gracious revealed law. It is not just for theology nerds or spiritual eggheads; God’s law is for everyone – the learned and the unlearned.  Every one of us needs the guidance and direction of God’s Holy Word, and the careful application of it to all our circumstances.

You and I are shaped and formed as godly people as we allow God’s natural and written revelation to awash us and seep into our souls.  Reading this psalm out loud, slowly, and contemplatively, more than once, is an opportunity to let our common ordinary experiences transform us.

Psalm 19

Romans 7:7-20 – Facing Our Bundle of Contradictions

contradiction
“Humanity is an embodied paradox, a bundle of contradictions.”-Charles Caleb Colton, 1780-1832

What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (NIV)

The Apostle Paul’s vulnerable expression of his dilemma resonates deeply with many people. There are times when we say things to ourselves such as, “I told myself I wasn’t going to be like my mother, and here I am responding just like she would;” “I know better than to drive by the liquor store on my way home and pick up a pint of vodka, yet, I still did it;” or, “I don’t want to die, but my thoughts keep racing about a plan for suicide.” And, there are many more situations in which we are both frustrated and befuddled by our doing the things we do not want to do, and not doing the things we want to do.

Yes, indeed, Paul’s existential angst is a timeless description of our common human condition. We all can relate to the seeming inability to do what is right in so many situations. It can really drive us nuts, even to a constant and never-ending low-level discouragement that underlies almost everything we do.

Paul’s prescription for dealing with this does not rely on law. He understood that putting our willpower and effort into obeying commands gets us nowhere because we will eventually fail. Neither our brains nor our spirits work that way. Our willpower was never designed to be the driver of what we do and do not do. If anything, willpower, and the lack thereof demonstrate just how much we are climbing the ladder on the wrong wall. People are a bundle of contradictions, doing good, then bad, and flip-flopping back and forth with great frustration.

God’s law was not crafted to transform us from the inside-out. The law has three solid purposes, none of which are meant to bring deep personal transformation: attention to the law works to restrain sin in the world; use of the law provides us with a helpful guide for grateful living in response to divine grace; and, it’s use here by Paul is to show us how bad off we really are in this world and in need of forgiveness.

We need a change of habits, and this is different than adopting a list of laws. Habits are developed from our desires, our affections. In other words, we do what we love – more specifically, our ultimate love(s) drive us to do what we want. To put it in a straightforward way: We sin because we like it. And the path to overcoming any besetting sin is to have an ultimate love trump the lesser sin which we like.

St Augustine quote 2

For example, I have developed daily habits or rituals of faith which enable me to commune with God. I love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and this ultimate love enables me to push out all competing gods who want my devotion. I also love my wife with all my heart. We work on developing habits of a marital relationship which reinforce our love for each other. Love is what drives me to do right and good by her.

So, what do we do when we mess up? For the Christian, no matter what the question is, the answer is always grace. God’s grace in the finished work of Jesus Christ applied to us by the Holy Spirit is the operative power that changes lives. The law has no power to do that kind of work. Freedom from the tyranny of our misplaced desires and disordered loves comes from Christ’s forgiveness through the cross. Like a lover enamored with his beloved, our desires become oriented toward Jesus for his indescribable gift to us. That is the strength of grace.

Saving God, I thank you for delivering me from sin, death, and hell through your Son, the Lord Jesus.  May your Holy Spirit apply the work of grace to my life every day so that I can realize spiritual healing and practical freedom from all that is damaging and destructive in my soul.  Amen.