On Liberty and Law: Re-reading The Ten Commandments {Guest Post}

[About me: I’m Haoran, and I’m a friend of Laura. Surprisingly, I’m neither Catholic, nor a Monarchist. But I am a Christian, and I love God, follow Jesus, am led by the Spirit, and listen to his word.]

[About Haoran: This is Haoran! (says Laura) He is a thoughtful, intelligent and sincere Christian with whom I love to argue (though sadly we don’t get the same opportunities these days.) You should definitely check out his blog Suburban Missionary! And thank you so much to Haoran for allowing me to share this excellent post with you all. It has really got me thinking about what it means to fulfill the royal law of liberty (cf. James 2:8, 12) Enjoy!]

Truth be told, the Ten Commandments,¹ or the Decalogue (Greek: the ten words; see also Ex 34:28; Dt 10;4), scare me. I think it encapsulates the fierce Old Testament bogeyman god with a fetish for pronouncing ensnaring restrictions, no tolerance for peccadillos, and a penchant for roaring, “Thou shalt not!”

It makes me want to run to the New Testament into the arms of Jesus, the God of Love, whose greatest commandments seem a world away: love your God,² and love your neighbour (Mt 22:37-40).

My theology, though, reminds me that the Lord Yahweh is that same yesterday, today, and forever (Malachi 3:6; c.f. Heb 13:8). The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the same God who rescued his beloved child, Israel, from slavery in Egypt. The zero-th commandment, then, reminds us that salvation occurs before stipulations, and grace comes before law. The choice is: slavery to Egypt, or slavery to Yahweh (c.f. Romans 6, esp v17-18).

So, how then to read the Ten Commandments?

I’ve been reading the helpful NIVAC commentary by Daniel I Block, and he suggests that for the nation of Israel, the Ten Commandments are her Bill of Rights, akin to that of the United States. Which is an odd comparison. Even if you’re not American, you probably have an awareness of its contents: human beings have the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom of religion, the right to pursue “happyness”, and the right to bear arms.

Philippe de Champaigne, Moses Presenting the Tablets of the Law, c. 1648 (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)

Philippe de Champaigne, Moses Presenting the Tablets of the Law, c. 1648 (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)

At first glance, this is a very strange comparison. The American Bill of Rights declares freedoms for the individual, but the Israelite “Bill of Rights” imposes restrictions on the individual.

However God’s ideal society is nothing like our ideal society. God’s ideal society is not founded on my individual, personal liberties, but the rights of every other person who has dealings with me. Consider the following way of reading Deuteronomy 5:6-22:³

The Divine Rights

  1. The Supreme Command: Yahweh has the right to exclusive allegiance (vv7-10)
  2. Yahweh has the right to proper representation (v. 11)

The Human Rights

  1. Everyone in the household has the right to humane treatment (vv. 12-15)
  2. One’s parents have the right to respect (v. 16)
  3. One’s neighbour has the right to life (v. 17)
  4. One’s neighbour has the right to purity and fidelity in marriage (v. 18)
  5. One’s neighbour had the right to honest and truth testimony in court (v. 20)
  6. One’s neighbour has the right to security in marriage (v. 21a)
  7. One’s neighbour has the right to his own household property (v. 21b)

For me, at least, this is quite a remarkable—and dare I say it, liberating!—way of casting the Decalogue. God has in view, of course, not just the individual, but an entire society of God-followers. Like life in Jesus’ Kingdom of God, Israel (God’s kingdom on earth) is focused on the other, not on self. It is focused on relationships, not individuality. It is focused on a society of grace, where I focus on what I owe to others, rather than a society of privilege where I focus on the rights I deserve.

The Ten Commandments, then, are the gracious instructions of our heavenly Father.

Set out like this, you can see how this centrepiece of The Law can be reduced to the two greatest commandments: love God, and love your neighbour. Set out like this, the remarkable unity of the Old Testament and New are in plain view. Although the nation of Israel demonstrates the political impossibility of such a nation, the Kingdom of God demonstrates the spiritual possibility of a kingdom, and the necessary future of transformed subjects who love God and love their neighbour.

If your initial reaction to the Ten Commandments were like mine, then perhaps the problem is not with the Ten Commandments but with us. The Law of God is perfect: it brings light and life. In keeping them, there is great reward (Psalm 19:7-1). In humility, it might just be that Old Testament believers have something to teach 21st century believers. Certainly, believers in every era—the people of God—need to listen to God’s word and love God’s people. Love is more important than liberty.

References:

Daniel I Block, NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy (Zondervan)2012.

¹ I’m currently reading through Deuteronomy, so I’m going to refer to the version therein (Deut 5:6-22), and leave aside questions, critical or otherwise, involving Exodus 20.

² The astute reader will realise that the greatest commandment is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:5. Could it just be that Jesus has also read Deuteronomy?!?

³ Mostly taken from Block. For a discussion on why there’s only 9 instead of 10, I refer you to the chapter on Deuteronomy 5:6-22 in Block.

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3 responses to “On Liberty and Law: Re-reading The Ten Commandments {Guest Post}

  1. Wow! I will never read the ten commandments the same again. This is very good, thank you!

    This is a great illustration of how all the law and the prophets are summed up in two commandments: love the Lord your God and love your neighbor…

    Lyn

  2. As a Christian, and as an American, I have never seen any distance at all between the Ten Commandments and our Bill of Rights. Both are there to insure your free will. It is very easy to put a classical liberal (or libertarian) construction on the Commandments.

    The Ten Commandments are the “Thou Shalt Not’s” for the individual in a free society, and the Ten Amendments are the “Thou Shalt Not’s” for the government of a free people.
    They’re more complementary than anything, and work very well together.

    Of course, as I’m sure Laura knows, there is a monarchist cast to the Bill of Rights, it was taken (sometimes almost verbatim) from the English Bill of Rights passed when William and Mary ascended the Throne

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