Deuteronomy 5:1-10 (The First and Second Commandments)

Moses begins his second address to the nation.  Now that he has established God’s faithfulness to Israel and how He has brought the nation to this place, Moses turns to the Law.  For Israel to be successful and live long in the Promised Land the people must know and keep the Law.  Moses has established for them why God is worthy of their obedience.  They must now remember what it is they must obey.  Chapter 5 rehearses the Ten Commandments as they were given to the people at Sinai.  This is the Law in its most basic form.  This is the covenant between Israel and God.  As long as the people of Israel keep the Law they will have security and prosperity in the Land.

Moses summons the people for a second time.  He tells them he wants them to HEAR, LEARN, and OBSERVE the statutes and ordinances he will speak to them.  God’s people cannot simply hear the commands or learn the commands.  They must hear, learn and observe them carefully.  [Just like Israel, the Christian cannot obey what he does not know – it is incumbent on the believer to know the Ten Commandments if he wants to observe them carefully.]

Moses says God made a covenant with the people at Sinai.  It is important to understand that the Ten Commandments are more than Law – they are the terms of God’s covenant with Israel.  As long as the people live by the terms of the covenant they will be safe and prosperous in the land.  If they do not live by its terms they will forsake the privileges of longevity and peace.  The covenant does not establish them as God’s people – God chose them and nothing can change that – but it sets the terms of the security and prosperity that God provides.

In verse 3 Moses says God did not make this covenant with the people’s fathers but with them.  What he means is that God did not make this covenant with their forefathers like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He DID make the covenant with the fathers of the people Moses now addresses, but the current generation is the first one to live under it and in some cases the people listening to Moses were there at Sinai when God spoke it.  This is not a covenant handed down to them from their ancestors – it was given to them directly from the mouth of God (He spoke to them face to face and they actually heard His voice – 4).  Moses’ point is that the current generation is privileged; in some ways even more than the patriarchs (Ex. 6:2-8).  [This is similar to what Peter tells believers living after Christ – we have privileges those who came before us only imagined – I Pet 1:10-12.]

The basis for the covenant is Israel’s redemption and its Redeemer.  This is not a covenant with just anyone.  This is with Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  The one true God is their God who delivered them from slavery and wants to enter into a covenant relationship with them.

Their understanding of who God is governs their response to the covenant.  When they appreciate that He alone is worthy of their obedience and worship they will adhere to His Law.  He introduces the covenant with a reminder of their redemption to make them understand why He is worthy of their obedience.  For God’s people, nothing is more important than their view of God in determining their success under the covenant.

Consider: Our understanding of who God is infuses our worship and faithfulness.  God tells the Israelites that He is the God who brought them out of Egypt.  He is worthy of obedience to the covenant He is about to give to them.  In the same way God tells us, “I am the God who redeemed you.”  We obey God in light of our redemption and we worship Him in light of who He is as our Creator and Redeemer.  He alone is worthy of priority and glory.  No one and nothing warrants our worship outside of the One who created and redeems and sustains us.  What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.  – AW Tozer

Note that Israel does not obey to earn salvation.  The people were redeemed before the Law.  God delivered them from the house of slavery before Sinai.  They obey in response to redemption.  Their obedience does not affect their status as God’s people and does not earn their deliverance.  They obey because He is worthy of obedience as shown by the redemption He provided.

Thought: Obedience is always a response to salvation instead of the means of it.  Just like with Israel at Sinai we obey out of love for the One who saves us.

This brings up the role of the Ten Commandments in the life of the believer.  If we do not earn our salvation, then what is their purpose in our lives?  The answer is that they still show the standard of perfection required for entrance into the presence of God.  This is the standard we cannot measure up to – it’s the righteousness Jesus provides – but general obedience to this standard is the mark of the Spirit-led believer.  God does not leave us wondering what His standards are.  The Ten Commandments show us what should characterize our behavior as His children.

The first two commandments are likely the most important.  Nothing is more vital for the people of God than to worship and glorify only Him.  God created the universe and man for His glory.  It goes against the created order to give that glory to something else or try to capture it in an image.

Israel’s history is almost always seen through the lens of these two commandments.  Reading through I and II Kings and I and II Chronicles shows that each king’s reign is summarized by how he obeyed these commands and led the people to obey them.  If he led the people to God he was a success, and if he did not he was not.  Virtually nothing else matters.  His victories, his edicts, his actions are all seen in light of these commandments. 

It is important to remember where the people are and where they have been.  Their heritage is four centuries in a polytheistic culture.  They are about to enter a land completely given over to idolatry.  It is vital that they remember first and foremost that they worship one God and one only. 

Moses ended his last address pointing out to them that no other god redeemed his people from a foreign land, no other god spoke to his people directly and no other god will drive out great nations from a land so his people can have it as an inheritance (4:32-40).  They serve the only true God and must remember to only serve the only true God.

The second commandment covers both images of false gods and images of Yahweh.  When the people sinned at Sinai and worshiped the golden calf they likely saw it as an image of God.  God is too great to be captured in an image – Moses pointed this out in his first address (4:15-24).  To make an image of God is to limit His glory and is as wrong as worshiping a false god.

God describes Himself as a jealous God.  God often describes His relationship to His people in terms of marriage.  As such, worshiping another god is a form of spiritual adultery.  God will not share His glory with another (Is. 42:8) and will not share the affection of His bride with another.  God did not redeem His people to give them to someone else – He redeemed them for Himself.

These commands are the only ones to carry with them a specific curse.  God will visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.  Disobedience to these commands affects not just the transgressor but his family and generations after him.  Notice that God says it will be generations of those who hate Me.  The curse is that the succeeding generations will hate God because they have not been brought up to love only Him.  The transgressor puts in motion generational apostasy.  What one child learns from a straying parent he passes along to his own children and assures that generations of descendants hate God and suffer the consequences.  [No one is punished for another’s sin – Deut 24:16.]

The curse is illustrated in the corporate ramifications suffered by Israel throughout its history when it violated these directives.  The repeated invasions by foreign powers during the time of the judges, the dispersion of the northern kingdom by Assyria and the ultimate destruction of Judah by Babylon were all brought on by disobedience to these commands.  Generations were affected because their fathers worshiped false gods.  Individual choices affected the entire nation.

Thought: The curse points to a universal truth we often forget when faced with temptation.  We NEVER sin in a vacuum.  Sin’s ramifications are NEVER felt by the sinner alone.  The one who chooses other gods sentences his descendants to the hopelessness of unbelief.  The adulterer sentences his kids to a confused understanding of fidelity to God and a distorted perspective of commitment overall (not to mention a hesitancy to trust).  The one given over to lust develops a perverted and selfish view of others that affects everyone around him and teaches his children that nothing matters beyond self-gratification.  We may sin alone but we NEVER suffer its consequences alone.

In so many ways can there be a scarier curse than this one?  Substituting something or someone for God carries with it the risk that GENERATIONS of our descendants will be lost.  Choosing to glorify an image instead of God can affect our children, our grandchildren, our grandchildren’s children, and our grandchildren’s grandchildren.  Is there anything more important than making sure our view of God is correct and passing along that view to our kids?  Is anything more important than making sure our worship and commitment are to God alone?

Worshiping God alone is what brings the first two commandments into the present day.  It is tempting to dismiss these commands as being for an ancient culture given to idolatry and not all that applicable to modern society.  But it pays to remember what ancient idols and false gods were.  Baal – the most common of the Canaanite gods – was a fertility god focused on sex and prosperity and military victory.  Like him, all false gods promised success as humans define success; peace, prosperity, and fruitfulness.  The worship of false gods was really the worship of success and hedonism – they were a means to the selfish ends of godless men.

In that way they are no different from what man worships today.  We are not tempted – in most cases – to erect images of deities and bow down to them or offer sacrifices to them.  But we are just as prone to worship our own measures of success and prosperity.  A false god is anything that substitutes for God in our life.  When we focus more on money, sex, power, or any of the rewards of this world than we do on our Creator and Savior we engage in idolatry – we violate the first two commandments (Eph 5:5, Col 3:5).  There are millions of false gods available to us and millions of messages urging us to come and worship.  How much time do we spend worrying about and working for and contemplating our measures of success instead of contemplating, worshiping and praying to our Father in heaven?  It is frighteningly easy to violate these commands in our modern culture.  The first two commandments are not obsolete – they were the most important of the commands for Israel and they remain the most important of the commands for us.

Thankfully these commandments do not only carry with them a curse.  They also carry an even greater blessing.  God says that for the one who worships Him alone and does not substitute anything for Him He will show lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep my commandments.  In 7:9 He states this in a slightly different way and says He will keep His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments.  Unlike the three or four generations who will suffer for the transgression of the father, the one who serves only God will provide for blessings to a thousand generations.  God uses hyperbole to show that His love is greater than His wrath.  His lovingkindness – his covenantal, steadfast love – will be on thousands of generations of those who love Him. 

The blessing and the curse use the same logic.  Whereas the curse is that three or four generations will hate God, the blessing is that thousands of generations will love Him.  In neither case do the children enjoy blessing or suffer punishment for the actions of their fathers.  They instead continue the behavior of their fathers and experience the associated ramifications.

The introduction to the Decalogue and its opening commandments deal with the relationship of men and women to their Creator.  Nobody can possibly live the kind of satisfying and fulfilled life for which they were made unless they are rightly related to their Maker.  The commandments are, as one writer has described them, ‘the Maker’s instructions’.  People have seriously damaged valuable and delicate equipment because they have used it for some purpose other than that for which it was made.  Our lives can be seriously, even eternally, ruined if we totally neglect the Creator’s purposes for them.  The Decalogue’s initial instructions concern our relationship to the Maker; once they are honored there is every likelihood that the rest will be obeyed.  They tell us that men and women must acknowledge, exalt, reverence and remember their Creator.
– Raymond Brown, The Message of Deuteronomy.

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