The first man to see them threw them down in disgust. Then they were hidden away in an ornate box, the originals lost before Nebuchadnezzar’s army conquered the Fertile Crescent. In the several millennia that followed, they were ignored, reviled, broken, mocked, honored, revered, and, at times, all but forgotten.
They’ve even had a movie made about them—twice! In the centuries that passed since they first became known, empires and cultures rose and fell; armies marched, triumphed, and were defeated; philosophers and their teachings flourished and were abandoned; entire religions—and their deities— prospered and then vanished. Yet the Ten Commandments, or the Ten Words, as the ancient Hebrews called them, have endured.
Several years ago, an organization called “The Ten Commandments Commission” started a “Ten Commandments Day.” It was sponsored by a large coalition that included both Christians and Jews. Thus, the Ten Commandments got their day of national recognition. In a country that recognizes days for mothers, fathers, veterans, the earth, and even the groundhog, adding another day for something as culturally and historically significant as the Ten Commandments would seem like a noncontroversial idea. But in recent years, the Ten Commandments have become a hot item.
The controversial commandments
In one long-running example, Alabama’s Roy Moore gained notoriety for placing a hand-carved wooden plaque of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom when he became a state circuit court judge in 1992. A series of courtroom battles followed, which essentially ended in deadlock. But Moore transformed that notoriety into electoral gold when voters chose him to be the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
Upon his appointment to the highest court in the state, Moore had a two-ton monument featuring the Ten Commandments placed in the Alabama Supreme Court building. When a federal court demanded removal of the monument, Moore defied the order. This misconduct resulted in his eventual removal from office in 2003.
In the years since, suits have been brought against displays of the Ten Commandments on public property in various places, including Texas and Kentucky. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a six-foot-tall granite monument in Texas but against framed copies in two rural Kentucky courtrooms.
And on May 3, 2012, the Community Men’s Fellowship in Starke, Florida, set up a Ten Commandments monument on the town’s courthouse lawn. Atheists sued to have it removed, but the judge who heard the case ruled that it was legal. So, not to be outdone, the atheists put up their own monument on June 29, 2013!
I can’t help wondering what accounts for the Ten Commandments’ newfound popularity. Growing up, I remember ministers downplaying their importance. “We’re not under law, but under grace,” they said, or, “The law was nailed to the cross.” Many a sermon assured believers that “we’re no longer obligated to keep the law.” No one suggested a “Ten Commandments Day” back then. I think there were three main reasons why.
First reason: familiarity
Rather than not knowing them well enough, perhaps we knew them too well. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” the saying goes. In a time when the vast majority of people believed in God and attended church regularly, everyone was aware of the Ten Commandments. And this familiarity bred, if not contempt, at least complacency. Because everyone believed in the commandments, we took them for granted and lost sight of their moral grandeur and philosophical depth.
When I entered college, I encountered history teachers who liked to denigrate the Ten Commandments by declaring that the Code of Hammurabi and other ancient law codes anticipated many of the ideas embodied in the Decalogue. Probably these teachers intended to give students a useful perspective. And it’s true that no ancient society sanctioned murder or theft. But this approach lost sight of the reasons that the Ten Commandments have survived and even gained in influence and prestige over the centuries while these other systems fell into disuse and faded from memory.
Part of the moral grandeur of the Ten Commandments resides in their simplicity. Only ten statements, yet they enunciate principles that define humanity’s relationship to God and to other people. They provide the basis for a stable human society—a society that protects life, the family, property, and the integrity of each individual.
Not only that, but these ten precepts accomplish their wonder with breathtaking brevity. The English text of the Ten Commandments runs to fewer than 250 words. Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” which we usually apply to humor. But brevity makes almost any statement more memorable. Of the eight commandments that denote prohibited activities, several used only two words in the original Hebrew language. Where the King James uses the stately “Thou shalt not kill,” the Hebrew more closely resembles the curt English words, “No murder!”
The tenth commandment sets the Decalogue apart from all the other ancient codes, because it deals with not just actions but with motives, the invisible purposes of the mind. The words “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17) deal with more than what we call crimes. They deal with the attitudes and thoughts that erode trust and corrode society. Lying is more than making a false statement. It’s being dishonest, and that breaks down the social order.
Second reason: we disregarded them
Perhaps another reason why nobody thought of a Ten Commandments Day 30 or 40 years ago is that for many years, the majority of ministers downplayed the importance of the law. They were legitimately concerned that a focus on obedience easily leads to legalism and a dry, robotic faith. Thus, they made the valid point that real righteousness includes positive virtues such as kindness, empathy, and love. God calls Christians to be holier than “thou shalt not.”
However, C. S. Lewis reminds us that “God may be more than moral goodness: He is not less. The road to the promised land runs past Sinai. The moral law may exist to be transcended: but there is no transcending it for those who have not first admitted its claims upon them.”
The problem with ignoring the Ten Commandments out of a fear of legalism is that we too easily end up with immorality. And that’s precisely why the Ten Commandments have experienced a resurrection among Protestant Christians in recent years. It was easy enough to ignore the Ten Commandments when the society around us was basically well ordered, but now that our entire culture is exploding in immorality, we suddenly realize that the Ten Commandments really are important after all!
Third reason: the Sabbath
I will suggest a third reason for the lack of interest in the Ten Commandments in years past: admitting their claims upon us seemed rather inconvenient. Christians find it increasingly difficult to emphasize the Ten Commandments while essentially ignoring one of them.
And it is only one that we ignore.
After all, every Christian opposes murder, adultery, theft, and lying. No one in the Western world seriously advocates multiple gods, idolatry, or blasphemy. We all agree that parents deserve honor and that coveting is bad. The only obligation that today’s Christians seriously want to dispense with centers in the fourth commandment and the troublesome issue of the Sabbath.
It is difficult to ignore the fourth commandment. We noted that the total text of all ten runs to fewer than 250 words. Yet the fourth commandment, with its emphasis on the Sabbath, takes up nearly 100 of those words! Given the numbers alone, the Author of the commandments seems to have attached considerable importance to the Sabbath.
If only it weren’t so explicit. Many insist that obeying this commandment means resting “one day in seven.” But the commandment specifically designates “the seventh day” as the Sabbath, and directly links it to the seventh day of Creation—an event that preceded Moses’ ascent of Sinai by 2,500 years. Not only that, the fourth commandment, unlike eight of the others, begins not with the negative injunction “Thou shalt not” but with the positive command to “Remember.” This, too, indicates that the Sabbath predates the giving of the Ten Commandments.
But the vast majority of Christians ignore the Sabbath and worship on Sunday instead. Faced with the task of emphasizing the importance of the Ten Commandments while ignoring one of them, most Christians simply found it easier to de-emphasize the law.
It occurred to me that one reason why we used to set aside one day every year to honor the Ten Commandments is precisely because we no longer honor them throughout the year. That organizers should have selected a Sunday for recognizing the Ten Commandments seems especially ironic. Maybe they wouldn’t have needed to promote an annual day to recognize the Ten Commandments if they had “remembered” that the commandments already have their very own day—not once a year but once a week.