Jesse Tree 10. “Sinai: God’s Law for God’s People”

Scripture: Deut 5:1–22

Moses and the Law
Simon Julien, “Moses and the Law” (1773 etching)



After God delivered his people from slavery, he gave Moses what we call the Ten Commandments. Notice this was after deliverance, not something set out as a condition to be met before God would deliver his people. This was a post-deliverance “covenant” (Deut 5:2), made with the newly delivered people meeting around the base of Sinai (Deut 5:4).

The very basis upon which God asserted his right to make these demands of the people was this: “I am the LORD your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery” (Exod 5:6).


Then the Lord set out two kinds of commandments: First, he taught them the first four commandments, which can be summarized this way: “You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength” (Deut 6:5). Second, he taught them the last six commandments, which can be summarized this way: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18).

Love God

Israel’s relation with the Lord God was to be “monogamous,” and any violation of this first command was considered spiritual adultery.

1. No other gods (Deut 5:7; Exod 20:3)

This monotheistic command was unique in the ancient Near East, where people commonly divided up the gods’ job descriptions between various competing deities, ascribing this responsibility and power to one so-called god and that to another. But Israel’s relation with the Lord God was to be “monogamous,” and any violation of this first command was considered spiritual adultery. Sadly, Israel’s history on this command all too often makes for discouraging reading. And what can we say of today’s penchant for worshiping no one but man himself?

2. No idols (Deut 5:8–10; Exod 20:4–6)

We must not mentally create “God” in our own twenty-first-century image and likeness.

Old Testament Context

The Jewish tradition joins these verses with the preceding verse, including idolatry with the first commandment. But both syntax and logic imply that it’s a second commandment, as we generally read it. Indeed, it’s possible to use idols while claiming to worship only the Lord—or the Lord Jesus Christ in the church.

God allowed temple art, so this wasn’t against imagery per se. But no human work was ever to be considered the object of human worship. When this happened, a prophet like Isaiah could be absolutely caustic in his criticism of the lunacy of idolatry (Isa 44:8–20).

Our Context

Most people in the West are unlikely to be turning to physical idols; however, any physical image is first the product of human imagination and creativity and only then a physical image of stone, metal, or paint. Even at the stage of mental conception, our vain imaginations must never supply our object of worship. And that includes when we mentally create “God” in our own twenty-first-century image and likeness. So I wonder, when I hear someone say, “I could never worship and God who….” So often what follows is something in God’s own self-revelation that they’re rejecting. It’s often biblical statements and characteristics that call our own times to repentance.

3. No misusing the LORD‘s name (Deut 5:11; Exod 20:7)

The worse blasphemy is not profanity, but lip service.

Elton Trueblood

Jewish Tradition

Jewish tradition tried to assure that this law was never broken—by forbidding any use of the divine name. Instead of saying God’s name “Yahweh” when talking or even when reading the Old Testament, they would instead say, “Adonai,” which our English Bibles translate “LORD” with large and small caps. But perhaps as great as misusing God’s name is the sin of neglecting to name the Lord as one’s God and neglecting to call on his name in time of trouble1 or to praise his name in times of thankfulness2

Today’s Application

What it does not mean

The third command does not merely prohibit the incorporation of God’s name into vulgar conversation, although it would certainly include that. It doesn’t merely forbid the use of false oaths in God’s name, although swearing “by God…” then failing to perform what was vowed would violate the command. And it doesn’t merely forbid cursing someone in God’s name. Actually, the prophets did curse in God’s name; so just using “God” and “damn” in the same sentence is not the sin. No, it’s cursing someone and calling on God to backup a curse he has no intention of supporting by divine judgment—that’s using his name in vain. Indeed, God may have plans to bless the very one you want to curse. So that would be a misuse of God’s name.

What it does mean

This command warns that anytime you take empty recourse to the divine name, you are misusing it. Victor Hamilton says,

Any invocation of God’s presence, any calling on His name that is simply perfunctory is taking God’s name in vain, this is, using the divine name for or in something that lacks vitality, reality and substance. So Elton Trueblood can say, “The worse blasphemy is not profanity, but lip service.”3

So never curse someone without the sanction of the Spirit-led church;4 that is misusing the name of the Lord. And the all-too popular practice of saying “the Lord told me” this or that—when you are really talking about your own thoughts—is misusing the Lord’s name. Or the charismatic announcing in church, “Thus saith the Lord!”—when you are only sharing your own impressions—is misusing the Lord’s name.

4. No misusing the LORD‘s day (Deut 5:12–15; Exod 20:8–11)

This commandment reflects a pattern of recognizing God’s lordship over everything by acknowledging his absolute lordship over something in particular, whether one day in seven or one part in ten of your income.

I think there is still room to distinguish between the Lord’s day and the other six, acknowledging a difference between Sunday and Monday. The Sabbath was not rooted merely in the distinct concerns of Israel’s religious calendar; rather, it was rooted first of all in the order of creation (Exod 20:8–11), and then in Israel’s own redemptive history (Deut 5:12–15). In Exodus, the reason for this command was that God himself rested on day seven, so we who bear his image and likeness ought to do the same. And then Deuteronomy added a second rationale: You used to be slaves in Egypt, so keep the Sabbath and give your household a rest, from the master of the house, to the children, to the servants, and even the animals (Deut 5:13–14). This shouldn’t be burden but a blessing, a relief from labor.

This was probably what was behind Jesus’s note that “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Love Your Neighbor

5. Honor your parents (Deut 5:16; Exod 20:12)

There is a sense in which we could group this commandment with the first four, as one more command having to do with vertical relationships. But it’s probably best to understand the first four as those summarized by Deuteronomy 6:5 (love God) and this command as the first of the six that can be summarized by Leviticus 19:18 (love your neighbor).

Children are told to honor their parents. Of course that doesn’t mean the absolute obedience and honor that belongs only in the realm of divine worship (Matt 10:37; Luke 14:26). But children should acknowledge the inherent dignity and standing of those who are over them by God’s own design.

The New Testament endorses this command (Matt 15:4; Mark 7:10); and Paul called it “the first commandment with a promise” (Eph 6:2). Notice that this promise was not “long life”; rather, it was “Then you will live a long, full life in the land the LORD your God is giving you” (Exod 20:12; Deut 15:16)—it was a promise of long tenancy in the land, the way to avoid exile.

6. No murder (Deut 5:17; Exod 20:13)

Watch your heart, for out of it are all the issues of life and death.

Old Testament Context 

The older English translations translated this “Thou shalt not kill” (e.g., KJV); however, it clearly has to do not with killing per se but with murder. Of course you could kill animals for food and clothing, so it was about killing humans; and you could kill in war or for various capital crime sentences, so it was about murder not all taking of human life. The reference is to culpable homicide, or killing with malice aforethought, which American legal system calls murder in the first degree.

New Testament Application

In fact, the malice aforethought becomes the key element in the New Testament treatment of this, which gets to the heart of the deed: “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell” (Matt 5:21–22). Watch your heart, for out of it are all the issues of life and death.

7. No adultery (Deut 5:18; Exod 20:14)

Old Testament Context

This commandment demonstrates that marriage is not merely a private matter; it’s a covenant undertaken before God, who enforces its obligations. “‘For I hate divorce!’ says the LORD, the God of Israel. ‘To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,’ says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. ‘So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife’” (Mal 2:16).

New Testament Appication

The New Testament expands on the notion that one should “not be unfaithful to your wife” to include emotional infidelity as well as physical infidelity (Matt 5:27–30).

8. No stealing (Deut 5:19; Exod 20:15)

To the degree that your lifestyle or business ethic supports unjust economic situations, you should repent and seek God’s way to move from economic oppression to giving rather than taking.

Old Testament Context

Usurpation of another’s belongings is an invasion of their person, which God condemns. This can be done through banditry on the highways, breaking and entering in the neighborhood, or picking pockets in crowds. But it can also come by not paying your employees’ wages promptly and fairly, cheating on prices through false weights, or other mercantile deceits. It can come by moving the property boundaries of widows and orphans or by oppressing the debtor until they’re deprived of their home and land.

New Testament Application

Paul expands on this ethic, considering it something that comes with conversion. Not only must thievery stop, but giving must start; only then will you really be fulfilling the heartbeat of God on that law: “If you are a thief, quit stealing. Instead, use your hands for good hard work, and then give generously to others in need” (Eph 4:28). That deals with this matter at the individual level; however, the Bible is very concerned about corporate guilt and righteousness as well. So to the degree that your lifestyle or business ethic supports unjust economic situations, you should repent and seek God’s way to move from economic oppression to giving rather than taking.

9. No false testimony (Deut 5:20; Exod 20:16)

Old Testament Context 

As a believer, you should put away all malicious and harmful communication. You should never lend perjured testimony to the conviction of the innocent. You should never libel or defame someone. Character defamation began in the Garden, with Satan’s lies about God’s motives (Gen 3); and this kind of talk still bears the stamp of its original practitioner—the Serpent.

New Testament Application

The New Testament tells us what a destructive body part the tongue can be unless it’s tamed by the Holy Spirit (Jas 3:1–7). Let the Holy Spirit tame that tongue, and you’ll be set on keeping the ninth commandment. Try to rely only on your own self-control, and that most unruly member will eventually prove just about long and sharp enough to cut your own throat.

10. No coveting (Deut 5:21; Exod 20:17)

Old Testament Context

Dominico Bucafummi (1486–1551), “Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law”

The previous nine commandments have to do with overt and observable behavior. This last commandment focuses on an attitude of the heart. Of course, coveting can leading to breaking other commandments. It’s not immediately clear how coveting leads to violating the fifth, sixth, and ninth commandments, but it’s easy to see how coveting would undermine the other commandments. Coveting God’s glory leads to violating the first commandment, and coveting God’s sole prerogative of self-revelation leads to violating the second. Coveting the power of God’s name leads to violating the third commandment, and coveting the free use of God’s day leads to violating the fourth. Coveting your neighbor’s wife leads to breaking the seventh commandment, and coveting his belongings leads to violating the eighth.

New Testament Application

The New Testament moves from negative prohibition to a positive solution to coveting, which is contentment with whatever God provides.


Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • See how Hosea’s marriage and prophecy spoke to the first commandment.
  • Note the various phrases you occasionally hear that could be an indicator that someone is falling into the worship of their own mental image of God rather than the true God as he has revealed himself: “I like to think of God as…,” “I could never worship a God who…,” “The ‘Man Upstairs’ probably….”
  • Think of the ways your household might improve in how it relates to the structures of this world that are taking from the poor to support the lifestyle of the prosperous western society. If your children are old enough to understand this concept, consider discussing with them how the family might move ahead on this so they grow up with a less materialistic world view than the unbelievers around them.
  • In this Christmas season, think of how much television advertising can feed a covetous attitude if you don’t control it. Perhaps the advertisements are more of a spiritual danger to your household than the crude programming itself. Consider ways to reduce this stream of covet-provoking propaganda into the minds of your household.

Ornament for the day

  • Click here to download cross-stitch patterns for all the daily ornaments.
  • Click here to download a simple coloring book for all the daily ornaments.


  1. 1 Chr 16:8; Ps 105:1; 116:4, 13, 17; Lam 3:55; Joel 2:32; Zech 13:9; Acts 2:21; Rom 10:13; 1 Cor 1:2.
  2. 1 Chr 23:13; Neh 9:5; Ps 34:3; 68:4; 92:1; 96:2; 102:21; 103:1; 106:47; 113:1; 135:1, 3; 145:21; 148:5, 13; Isa 26:13; 42:8; Joel 2:26; Acts 19:17.
  3. Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook to the Pentateuch (Baker, 1992), 203; quoting Elton Trueblood, Foundations for Reconstruction (Harper, 1946), 31.
  4. Matt 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23.

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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