Study

a Bible passage

Click a verse to see commentary
Select a resource above

20. The Ten Commandments

And God spake all these words, saying, 2I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 4Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. 7Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. 8Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

12Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. 13Thou shalt not kill. 14Thou shalt not commit adultery. 15Thou shalt not steal. 16Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. 17Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

18And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. 19And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die. 20And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not. 21And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.

22And the Lord said unto Moses, Thus thou shalt say unto the children of Israel, Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. 23Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold.

24An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee. 25And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. 26Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.

The sum of this Commandment is, that we should not unjustly do violence to any one. In order, however, that God may the better restrain us from all injury of others, He propounds one particular form of it, from which men’s natural sense is abhorrent; for we all detest murder, so as to recoil from those whose hands are polluted with blood, as if they carried contagion with them. Undoubtedly God would have the remains of His image, which still shine forth in men, to continue in some estimation, so that all might feel that every homicide is an offense against Him, (sacrilegium.) He does not, indeed, here express the reason, whereby He elsewhere deters men from murder, i e., by asserting that thus His image is violated, (Genesis 9:6;) yet, however precisely and authoritatively He may speak as a Legislator, He would still have us consider, what might naturally occur to everybody’s mind, such as the statement of Isaiah 58:7, that man is our “own flesh.” In order, then, that believers may more diligently beware of inflicting injuries, He condemns a crime, which all spontaneously confess to be insufferable. It will, however, more clearly appear hereafter, that under the word kill is included by synecdoche all violence, smiting, and aggression. Besides, another principle is also to be remembered, that in negative precepts, as they are called, the opposite affirmation is also to be understood; else it would not be by any means consistent, that a person would satisfy God’s Law by merely abstaining from doing injury to others. Suppose, for example, that one of a cowardly disposition, and not daring to assail even a child, should not move a finger to injure his neighbors, would he therefore have discharged the duties of humanity as regards the Sixth Commandment? Nay, natural common sense demands more than that we should abstain from wrongdoing. And, not to say more on this point, it will plainly appear from the summary of the Second Table, that God not only forbids us to be murderers, but also prescribes that every one should study faithfully to defend the life of his neighbor, and practically to declare that it is dear to him; for in that summary no mere negative phrase is used, but the words expressly set forth that our neighbors are to be loved. It is unquestionable, then, that of those whom God there commands to be loved, He here commends the lives to our care. There are, consequently, two parts in the Commandment, — first, that we should not vex, or oppress, or be at enmity with any; and, secondly, that we should not only live at peace with men, without exciting quarrels, but also should aid, as far as we can, the miserable who are unjustly oppressed, and should endeavor to resist the wicked, lest they should injure men as they list. Christ, therefore, in expounding the genuine sense of the Law, not only pronounces those transgressors who have committed murder, but also that

“he shall be in danger of the judgment who is angry with his brother without a cause; and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell-fire.” (Matthew 5:22.)

For He does not there, as some have ignorantly supposed, frame t~ new law, as if to east blame upon His Father; but shows the folly and perversity of those interpreters of the Law who only insist on the external appearance, and husk of things, as is vulgarly said; since the doctrine of God must rather be estimated from a due consideration of. His nature. Before earthly judges, if a man have carried a weapon for the purpose of killing a man, he is found guilty of violence; and God, who is a spiritual Lawgiver, goes even further. With Him, therefore, anger is accounted murder; yea, inasmuch as He pierces even to the most secret feelings, He holds even concealed hatred to be murder; for so we must understand John’s words, “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer,” (1 John 3:15;) i.e., hatred conceived in the heart is sufficient for his condemnation, although it may not openly appear.

Although one kind of impurity is alone referred to, it is sufficiently plain, from the principle laid down, that believers are generally exhorted to chastity; for, if the Law be a perfect rule of holy living, it would be more than absurd to give a license for fornication, adultery alone being excepted. Furthermore, it is incontrovertible that God will by no means approve or excuse before this tribunal, what the common sense of mankind declares to be obscene; for, although lewdness has everywhere been rampant in every age, still the opinion could never be utterly extinguished, that fornication is a scandal and a sin. Unquestionably what Paul teaches has been prevalently received from the beginning, that a good life consists of three parts, soberness, righteousness, and godliness, (Titus 2:12;) and the soberness which he commands differs not from chastity. Besides, when Christ or the Apostles are treating of a perfect life, they always refer believers to the Law; for, as it had been said of old by Moses, “This is the way, walk ye in it;” 5959     The quotation is not from the writings of Moses, but an accommodation from Isaiah 30:21. Christ confirms this,

“If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments,” (Matthew 19:17;)

and Paul corroborates it, “He that loveth another hath fulfilled the Law,” (Romans 13:8,) whilst they constantly pronounce a curse against all fornicators. It is not worth while to quote the particular passages in which they do so. Now, if Christ and the Apostles, who are the best interpreters of the Law, declare that God’s Law is violated no less by fornication than by theft, we assuredly infer, that in this Commandment the whole genus is comprehended under a single species. Wherefore, those have done nothing but betray their disgraceful ignorance, who have sought to be praised for their acuteness on the score of their ridiculous subtlety, when they admitted that fornication is indeed condemned with sufficient clearness and frequency in the New Testament, but not in the Law. For, if they had reasoned justly, inasmuch as God is declared to have blessed marriage, it must at once be concluded, on the contrary, that the connection of male and female, except in marriage, is accursed. This is the argument of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, where he contrasts two opposite things;

“Marriage (he says) is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled; but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.”
(Hebrews 13:4.)

So also, when God forbids the priest to marry a harlot, (Leviticus 21:14,) the manifest impropriety of fornication is declared; and, if it was unlawful for the daughters of Israel to be harlots, (Deuteronomy 23:17,) the same reasoning applies necessarily to males. Nor has Hosea taken that reproof from anywhere else but the Law? “Whoredom and wine take away the heart.” (Hosea 4:11.) Thus, when the Prophets metaphorically condemn the corruptions of their nation, they do not always use the same; word as Moses here does, נפ, naaph, but compare them to fornications, whereas, if fornication were lawful in itself, this metaphor would be altogether inappropriate. Hosea was commanded to take a harlot for a wife, (Hosea 1:2;) no mention is made of adultery, and still the shame and baseness of the people is thus condemned. Who, then, would say that fornication is free from sin, since God brands it with no ordinary mark of ignominy? But if any should pertinaciously contest this, let him accuse Paul of error, who bears witness that an example is set before us in the Law, that we should. not “commit fornication as some of them committed, and fell in one day three-and-twenty thousand.” (Numbers 25:9; 1 Corinthians 10:8.) Surely, if they had not transgressed the Law, so horrible a vengeance would not have overwhelmed them. If any should object that the crime of idolatry was mixed up with it., still the declaration of Paul remains untouched, that God was the avenger of fornication in this infliction of punishment, which would not accord, unless it were a transgression of the Law. And in truth, where, as recorded by Luke, (Acts 15:20,) the Apostles in their decree prohibit fornication amongst the Gentiles, the reason is at the same time added, that “Moses is read in the synagogues.” Now, if it were not a vice opposed to the Law, no offense would have hence arisen.

We have already explained why, under this word adultery, every impure lust was condemned. We know how unbridled was the licentiousness of the Gentiles; for, although God never suffered all shame to be extinguished together with their purity, still respect for what was right was in a manner stifled, so that they evaded the grossness of the sin by ribaldry and scurrilous jests. At any rate, the doctrine of Paul was by no means understood, that those who indulge in whoredom “sin against their own body.” (1 Corinthians 6:18.)

Since, then, the minds of all men were stupified by indulgence, it was needful to arouse them by declaring the atrocity of the sin, that they might learn to beware of all pollution. Nor are unbridled lusts only here condemned, but God instructs His people to cherish modesty and chastity. The sum is, that those who desire to approve themselves to God, should be pure “from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit,” (2 Corinthians 7:1;) nor can we doubt but that Paul in these words would interpret the law, as he elsewhere exhorts,

“that everyone should possess his vessel in sanctification and honor; not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God.” (1 Thessalonians 4:4, 5.)

Since charity is the end of the Law, we must seek the definition of theft from thence. This, then, is the rule of charity, that every one’s rights should be safely preserved, and that none should do to another what he would not have done to himself. It follows, therefore, that not only are those thieves who secretly steal the property of others, but those also who seek for gain from the loss of others, accumulate wealth by unlawful practices, and are more devoted to their private advantage than to equity. Thus, rapine is comprehended under the head of theft, since there is no difference between a man’s robbing his neighbor by fraud or force. But, in order that God may the better withhold His people from all fraudulent injustice, He uses the word theft, which all naturally abhor as disgraceful. For we know under how many coverings men bury their misdeeds; and not only so, but also how they convert them into praise by false pretexts. Craft and low cunning is called prudence; and he is spoken of as provident and circumspect who cleverly overreaches others, who takes in the simple, and insidiously oppresses the poor. Since, therefore, the world boasts of vices as if they were virtues, and thus all freely excuse themselves in sin, God wipes away all this gloss, when tie pronounces all unjust means of gain to be so many thefts. Nor let us be surprised that this decision should be given by the divine tribunal, when the philosophers deliver nearly the same doctrine.

We must bear in mind also, that an affirmative precept, as it is called, is connected with the prohibition; because, even if we abstain from all wrong-doing, we do not therefore satisfy God, who has laid mankind under mutual obligation to each other, that they may seek to benefit, care for, and succor their neighbors. Wherefore He undoubtedly inculcates liberality and kindness, and the other duties, whereby human society is maintained; and hence, in order that we may not be condemned as thieves by God, we must endeavor, as far as possible, that every one should safely keep what he possesses, and that our neighbor’s advantage should be promoted no less than our own.

God here makes a provision for every man’s character and good name, lest any should be undeservedly weighed down by calumnies and false accusations. The same synecdoche exists here, which I have pointed out in the previous Commandments, for God comprises many things under a single head. With reference to the words, inasmuch as עד, gned, properly means a witness, it may be literally translated, “Thou shalt not answer a false witness against thy neighbor,” but then the particle as must be supplied. The Hebrews poorly translate it in the vocative case, Thou shalt not speak, O false witness, etc.

165165     Addition in Fr., “Or revenons a la substance.” Although God seems only to prescribe that no one, for the purpose of injuring the innocent, should go into court, and publicly testify against him, yet it is plain that the faithful are prohibited from all false accusations, and not only such as are circulated in the streets, but those which are stirred in private houses and secret corners. For it would be absurd, when God has already shewn that men’s fortunes are cared for by Him, that He should neglect their reputation, which is much more precious. In whatever way, therefore, we injure our neighbors by unjustly defaming them, we are accounted false witnesses before God. We must now pass on from the prohibitive to the affirmative precept: for it will not be enough for us to restrain our tongues from speaking evil, unless we are also kind and equitable towards our neighbors, and candid interpreters of their acts and words, and do not suffer them, as far as in us lies, to be burdened with false reproaches. Besides, God does not only forbid us to invent accusations against the innocent, but also to give currency to reproaches and sinister reports in malevolence or hatred. Such a person may perhaps deserve his ill-name, and we may truly lay such or such an accusation to his charge; but if the reproach be the ebullition of our anger, or the accusation proceed from ill-will, it will be vain for us to allege in excuse that we have advanced nothing but, what is true. For when Solomon says that “love covereth many sins;” whereas “hatred brings reproaches to light,” 166166     “Hatred stirreth up strifes; but love covereth all sins.” — A.V. The latter clause, in C.’s quotation, is probably rather intended to be the necessary converse of the latter part of the proverb than a paraphrastic rendering of the first, which it does not appear that the words will bear. (Proverbs 10:12;) he signifies, as a faithful expositor of this precept, that we are only free from falsehood when the reputation of our neighbors suffers no damage from us; for, if the indulgence of evil-speaking violates charity, it is opposed to the Law of God. In short, we must conclude that by these words a restraint is laid on all virulence of language which tends to bring disgrace on our brethren; and on all petulance also, whereby their good name suffers injury; and on all detractions, which flow from malice, or envy, and rivalry, or any other improper feeling. We must also go further, and not be suspicious or too curious in observing the defects of others; for such eager inquisitiveness betrays malevolence, or at any rate an evil disposition. For, if love is not suspicious, he who condemns his neighbor either falsely, or upon trifling surmises, or who holds him in light esteem, is undoubtedly a transgressor of this Commandment. Consequently, we must close our ears against false and evil speaking; since he is just as injurious to his brother who eagerly listens to sinister reports respecting him, as he who exercises his tongue in maligning him. The necessity of this instruction let each man estimate by his own disposition; for scarcely one in a hundred will be found who will be as kind in sparing the character of others, as he himself desires to be pardoned for manifest vices; nay, slander is often praised under the pretext of zeal and conscientiousness. Hence it happens that this vice insinuates itself even among the saints, creeping in under the name of virtue. Moreover, the volubility of the tongue causes us to think it a light transgression to inflict a deadly and disgraceful wound on our brother, to whom, nevertheless, his good name is of more importance than his life. The sum is, that we should manifest our charity no less by candor, and by abstaining from slander, than by the performance of other duties.

Exodus 20:17. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife. There is no question but that this Commandment extends also to those that have preceded it. God had already sufficiently forbidden us to set our hearts on the property of others, to attempt the seduction of their wives, or to seek for gain at another’s loss and inconvenience. Now whilst He enumerates oxen and asses, and all other things as well as their wives and servants, it is very clear that His precept is directed to the same things, but in a different way, viz., in order to restrain all ungodly desires either of fornication or theft. The question, however, occurs, — since it has been said before that, agreeably to the nature of the Lawgiver, the inward purity of the heart is everywhere required, and therefore, that under the head of adultery, not only are all filthy acts prohibited, but secret unchastity also; and under the head of theft, all unlawful appetite for gain, — why does God now forbid in His people the lust for theft and fornication? For it seems to be a superfluous repetition which would be very absurd in ten short precepts, wherein God has embraced the whole rule of life, so that their very brevity might render it, easy, and the better attract their readers to learn them. Still, on the other hand, it must be remembered that, although it was God’s design, by the whole Law, to arouse men’s feelings to sincere obedience of it, yet such is their hypocrisy and indifference, that it was necessary to stimulate them more sharply, and to press them more closely, lest they should seek for subterfuges under pretense of the obscurity of the doctrine. For if they had only heard, Thou shalt not kill, nor commit fornication, nor steal, they might have supposed that their duty would have been fully performed by mere outward observance. It was not then in vain that God, after having treated of piety and justice, should give a separate admonition, that they were not only to abstain from evil doing, but also, that what He had previously commanded should be performed with the sincere affection of the heart. Hence Paul gathers from this Commandment, that the whole “Law is spiritual,” (Romans 7:7 and 14,) because God, by His condemnation of lust, sufficiently shewed that He not only imposed obedience on our hands and feet, but also put restraint upon our minds, lest they should desire to do what is unlawful. Paul confesses, too, that whereas he before slept in easy self-deceit, he was awakened by this single word; for since he was blameless in the eyes of men, he was persuaded that he was righteous before God: He says that he was once alive, as if the Law were absent or dead, because, being puffed up with confidence in his righteousness, he expected salvation by his works; but, when he perceived what the Commandment, Thou shalt not covet, meant, the dead Law was raised as it were to life, and he died, i e., he was convinced he was a transgressor, and saw the sure curse overhanging him. Nor did he perceive himself to be guilty of one or two sins, but then, at length, he was shaken out of his torpor, when he recognized that all the evil desires, of which he was conscious, must be accounted for before God, whereas he had before been satisfied with the mere outward appearance of virtue. We now perceive, therefore, that there is nothing inappropriate in the general condemnation of concupiscence by a distinct commandment; for after God has broadly and popularly laid down rules for moral integrity, at length He ascends to the fountain itself, and at the same time points out with His finger, as it were, the root from which all evil and corrupt fruits spring forth. It must here be added that something more is expressed by the words coveting and wishing for, or desiring, than a desiderium formatum, as it is commonly called; for the flesh often tempts us to wish for this or that, so that the evil concupiscence betrays itself, although consent may not yet be added. Since, therefore, the sin 171171     “Mala voluntas.” — Lat. “Toutes mauvaises affections.” — Fr. of the will had been already condemned, God now proceeds further, and puts a restraint upon evil desires before they prevail. 172172     “Derant qu’ils ayent gagne pour venir en propos delibere;” before they have gone so far as to arrive at a deliberate purpose. — Fr. James points out these progressive steps, where he says that lust conceives before it begets sin; and then “sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death,” (James 1:15,) for the begetting of which he speaks, is not only in the external act but in the will itself, before it has assented to the temptation. I admit, indeed, that the corrupt thoughts which arise spontaneously, and so also vanish before they affect the mind, do not come into account before God; yet, although we do not actually acquiesce in the evil desire, still, if it affects us pleasantly, it is sufficient to render us guilty. In order that this may be understood better, all temptations are, as it were, so many fans; if they hurry us on into consent, the fire is lighted; but, if they only awaken the heart to corrupt desires, concupiscence betrays itself in these sparks, although it neither acquires its full warmth nor breaks forth into a flame. Concupiscence, therefore, is never without desire (affectu,) although the will may not altogether yield. Hence it appears what entire perfection of righteousness we must bring in order to satisfy the Law, since not only are we commanded not to will anything, except what is right and pleasing to God, but also that no impure desire should affect our hearts. Nor would Paul have laid such great stress upon this precept if the Law condemned no concupiscence except that which takes such hold on the mind of man as to exercise dominion over it; for the sin of the will must ever be condemned even by heathen philosophers, nay, and by earthly legislators also; but he says that the Law, by resisting concupiscence, makes sin to “become exceeding sinful.” (Romans 7:13.) Now, it is not credible that, at the time in which he confesses that he knew not what concupiscence was, he was so senseless and stupid as to think no harm of wishing to kill a man, or of being inclined through lust to commit adultery with his brother’s wife; but, if he was not unaware that the will to sin was vicious, it follows that the concupiscence in which he saw no harm was some more hidden disease. Hence, too, it is manifest under what delusion Satan must have held all the Popish schools 173173     See the first decree of the Fifth Session of the Council of Trent, together with C.’s remarks amongst his Tracts. — Calvin Society edition, vol. 3, pp. 78-88. through which echoes this axiom, that concupiscence is no sin in the baptized, because it is a stimulus to the exercise of virtue; as if Paul did not openly condemn concupiscence, which entraps us in its snares, although we do not altogether assent to it.


VIEWNAME is study