By J.R. Miller
Mount Sinai became the meeting-place of God and the people of Israel. The Lord met Moses on the mountain and told him that He would reveal Himself in a thick cloud, and speak to him in a voice that the Israelites would hear. Solemn preparations were made for the great event. Bounds were set, inside of which no one should pass--on penalty of death. On the third day, the promised revelation came. There were thunders and lightnings, and a cloud enveloping the mountain. Then out of the midst of the magnificent scene, God spoke to the assembly of Israel, the Ten Commandments as the basis of His covenant with them.
The commandments are of Divine origin. The Lord based the obligation of the people to obey these commandments, on what he had done for them. "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."
Everywhere we find the footprints of God. Life is full of His goodness and mercy. When we think of what He has done for us--we cannot but recognize His right to command us. All the hopes of the Israelites had come from God's deliverance. Once they were slaves--and He had set them free. Had it not been for His love for them, and His power put forth in their behalf--they would still have been slaves in Egypt! He had redeemed them--and now they were a free people, on their way to a land in which they would grow into a great nation.
"You shall have no other gods before Me." The commandments are given in the second person singular, "You shall." God's law deals with individuals and comes to each one personally and separately.
The first commandment requires that God shall have the first place in our life. The opening words in the Bible are suggestive: "In the beginning God." We should put Him first and keep Him first in all our life.
Every person has some 'god'. Our god is that which rules us, that which we love, obey, live for, and reverence. We talk with pity of the idolatry of heathen nations. But there are idolaters nearer to us--than India or China. In whatever heart the true God is not worshiped, some false god is. Is the God of the Scriptures, indeed our God? Do we love Him above all persons and all things? Is He really first in all our thoughts, affections, plans and hopes?
It is not enough that we give Him the first place in our creed, saying: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: and in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord." If lip confession is all we have to give Him, He cares nothing for it. What is God to our hearts, to our consciences, to our wills? Do we trust Him? What is He to us? How much would we lose out of our life--if we were to cease to trust Him? Then it is not trust only that God asks--He claims also our worship and obedience. "If you love Me," said Jesus, "you will keep My commandments." This first commandment ought to start a great many searching questions in our hearts as we study it.
"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." Exodus 20:4-6
This commandment does not forbid the arts of painting and sculpture, for even in the tabernacle, carved figures were placed. What is forbidden is the worship of God under any form or image. When God says that He is jealous, and visits the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, He does not mean that He punishes the children for the evil that their fathers have done. Each one must bear his own burden of guilt. But sin casts long shadows. It does not stop with him who commits it. Parents who are tempted to do wrong, should think that besides bringing punishment upon themselves, they are also sowing seeds of hurt and curse for the children they love.
"You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless, who takes His name in vain." There are many ways of taking God's name in vain. One is to use it without reverence and love.
One tells of a miner, with grimy hand, plucking a pure, sweet flower. It seemed unfit, almost a desecration, for the lovely flower to be held in the soiled hand. How infinitely more of a desecration is it when in trivial speech we speak the name of God! The ancient Hebrews would, never utter the sacred name of Jehovah; they said it was too holy to be taken upon human lips. In some parts of the East, the Mohammedans will not tread upon the smallest piece of paper which they see lying on the ground. They say it may have on it the name of God. If we only thought more of the holiness and majesty of God--we would surely honor His name more thoughtfully. Even Christians are ofttimes careless in the use of God's name in their speech.
One common application of this commandment, is to profanity in speech. Even boys who are but learning to lisp their early words, are heard using the Divine name in awful oaths and cursing. Men who claim to be cultured and refined, speak the name of God profanely, using it to give emphasis to their speech.
All the universe honors God's name. The stars as they shine, flash His praise. The storm, the sunshine, the towering mountains, the sweet valley, the thunder peal, the whisper of evening, the sweet flowers--all honor God. Man alone profanes, dis-hallows and blasphemes the blessed name. Profanity is a sin which brings no pleasure, no gain; it does not adorn one's speech--but disfigures it. There seems to be no reason for it--but contempt of God in human hearts.
"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." Exodus 20:8-11
Many people seem to forget God's day. The day is like all other days to them. They do their work just as on week days. Or if they do not work, they take the time for worldly pleasure. It is time we should be reminded again, of what God has said about the Sabbath.
"Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you." There are many reasons why we should honor our parents. We owe a great deal to them. They watched over us through years of helpless infancy. They toiled, suffered and sacrificed for us. They bore patiently with all our faults. They took the storms of life themselves, that they might shelter us. Perhaps they appear a little faded and old-fashioned to our keen, critical eyes. But if so, we should not forget how it all came about. It was in caring for us--that they lost their freshness and vigor.
The Brittany peasants give this beautiful legend of the way the robin got its red breast: When Jesus was being led out to crucifixion, bearing His cross and wearing His crown of thorns--a bird, pitying Him, flew down and plucked a thorn from His brow. The blood from the wound gushed out and splashed the bird's breast. Ever since that day the robin has borne this mark of its pity for the suffering Christ. This is only a legend--but it teaches a beautiful lesson. We should ever be eager to pluck out the thorns which are piercing the brows of our mother and father. Some children, however, by their careless life or by their neglect, weave circlets of thorns for the brows of those whom they ought to love and bless!
Jesus gave us the highest example of honor to parents, in the way He showed His love to His mother. It was a sweet friendship that existed between this mother and her Holy Son. He opened His soul to her--and she gave not a mother's love only--but also a mother's counsel, and strong, inspiring help. Then His love overshadowed her to the last. One of the seven sayings spoken while He hung on the cross told of His faithful affection for her. The world would be desolate for her when her Son was gone. So He made provision for her in the shelter of a love in which He knew she would be safe. As He saw her led away by the beloved disciple to his own home--part of the pain of dying was gone from His own heart. His mother would have gentle care.
"You shall not murder. Exodus 20:13. So long as we interpret this commandment only with bare literalness, it does not give us much trouble. Not many of us have ever killed anybody. But when we read into it the meaning that our Lord gave it in His Sermon on the Mount we find that it is not so easy to keep it. God looks into the heart, and He may find the spirit of murder there--when no hand is raised to strike. All bitterness, malice, hatred, envy, jealousy, uncharitableness, and all angry thoughts, dispositions and feelings--are the beginnings of murder.
There are many ways in which we may indirectly injure the lives of others. The dealer adulterates the food he sells, and the preparations act as slow poisons, secretly destroying the lives of those who use the food. A mother allows her children to violate the laws of health, to eat unwholesome food, to be irregular in their rest and exercise. By-and-by, they sicken and perhaps die. She wonders then at the strange ways of Providence and asks why it is that God so afflicts her. The plumber does careless work, and diphtheria finds its way into a home. The builder is negligent, and a wooden beam lies too close to the flue, and one night catches fire, leaving death in the ruins of the home. We are our brothers' keepers, and any failure in our guardianship leaves guilt on our souls.
When the old Hebrews built a house, they were required by law to put a fence round the flat roof, lest someone might fall off and be injured or killed. So we should not only guard against harming others directly--but should also construct our whole life and influence so that no one may indirectly receive injury from us.
"You shall not commit adultery." Exodus 20:14. The seventh commandment also searches the heart, taking cognizance of the thoughts, feelings, desires, affections and imaginations. We must learn to guard our thoughts if we would please God. "Blessed are the pure in heart." One part of true religion, as James defines it, is to keep one's self "unspotted from the world." Lilies float in the black water of a bog--and yet remain pure and white, without spot or stain. So by the grace of Christ, every young person should try to live a pure and heavenly life in the world--but unspotted by the world's evil.
"You shall not steal." Exodus 20:15. There are many ways of stealing without deliberately putting one's hand into a neighbor's pocket and abstracting his gold or silver. The postmaster had failed to cancel the stamp on a letter, and the young girl who received it peeled off the stamp and used it again to send a reply to her friend. She thought she had done a smart thing--she did not see the eighth commandment broken under her feet. A boy went to the store for a pound of coffee. The shopkeeper was hurried, and in his haste gave him five cents too much change. The boy ran home chuckling over the mistake in great glee, because the grocer had cheated himself. He did not think that while the man had made an honest mistake--he himself was a thief. A man borrows money from a friend. He promises to return it next Tuesday. But he never returns it at all. He often thinks of it--but as his generous friend does not ask him for it--he never attempts to pay his debt. He supposes he is a debtor--he never thinks for a moment that he is a thief.
"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." Exodus 20:16. There is probably not a large amount of false witnessing in courts of justice. Even wicked men are afraid to lie under oath. But there is a vast amount of lying about other people, which is done in the ordinary conversation of the street, the office, the parlor. Anything is false witnessing, which misrepresents another or puts him in a wrong light. Taking up any evil report which we hear and repeating it again, is really bearing false witness. Our neighbor's good name is a jewel which we should sacredly guard. The best rule is never to say anything unkind of another, even if it be true. It might stop much of the fashionable talk of society--but that is of little matter; the world would not be greatly the loser.
"You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." Exodus 20:17. The tenth commandment forbids the sin of covetousness, and teaches the duty of contentment. A Roman Catholic priest said that among all the thousands of 'confessions' which had been made to him, no one had confessed the sin of covetousness. Yet probably no sin is so common, no one of the commandments is so often broken.
One of the best proofs of the Christian spirit, is the ability to rejoice in the success and prosperity of others. Does it make us glad to see our neighbor possessing good things--or does it make us envious? Do we rejoice in his prosperity, or do we begrudge his good things to him and wish they were ours instead? Does other people's happiness or success--make us happy or discontented? When we look down to the root of things, we discover that many crimes start just in the simple desire to have something that is not ours. "I saw, I coveted, I took!" told the whole story of Achan's sin.