I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.–Exodus xx. 2.
THE ten commandments are the laws of Heaven brought down to earth. When they were delivered, the Israelites were all assembled on a remarkable plain at the foot of Mount Horeb–a plain which is said to be about twelve miles long, visible from the top of the mountain, and where we can conceive the whole two millions of the people gathered, and expectant, their tents arranged in divine order, and they themselves waiting and watching for the proclamation of the Divine Will. It must not be forgotten, that the famous mountain, the Mount of God, as it is called, was the spot whence Moses set out to accomplish the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. It was there, at that very mountain, where the Divine appearance, by means of an angel, was presented in the burning bush; there where Moses received his mission to go and face the despotic monarch of Egypt. All the circumstances of that wondrous history by which the pride of Pharaoh was humbled, and the powers of his kingdom broken, and by which his down-trodden slaves were brought out, all these had passed; and now the redeemed people, their 600,000 men or thereabouts, with their wives and children, were all present. We may conceive the thought of the leader of Israel, as he looked on the great host, to be, I have thus far accomplished my mission; Lord, now what is there to be said to these people? and we find that the answer to the expectation of the whole host and the leader, was the giving of the very befit and highest of all gifts, the counsel of the King of kings in His ten commandments. It was as though He had said, Now that the power of the tyrant is broken, now that the march of the desert has thus far been accomplished, now that you are prepared for a new national life, the very highest blessing of all that I can give you–the pledge, the soul, and the sum of all your after prosperity is contained in these divine commandments, written upon the two tables of stone.
If you will love them, and be governed by them, you will be happy through all your career, and you will learn how angels are happy in the kingdom of heaven.
Such are the meditations that offer themselves to contemplative minds, while thinking upon the wondrous event which is here recorded. God gave to the Israelites principles of action, which mere the highest gift. The more me ponder it, the more we shall find it true, that it is not in the accidents of outward birth, dignity, or fortune, not in outward blessings of any kind that people become happy, but in carrying out holy and virtuous principles. How often are men deceived, who imagine they are doing the best for their children, if they absorb themselves as much as possible in toiling and striving to heap up riches, so that they can accumulate vast sums of money them–thousands for each child, in order that it may never need to work, or obey the ordinary regulations of useful members of society–thinking that, thus, they will place their offspring in the way of being completely happy. No such thing. The gifts of good counsel, of true religion, of self-denial, of intellectual treasures, and a Christian example, exciting them to follow the Lord, and to take as a guide through life the divine rule, Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them,–these are better than thousands of gold and silver, better than the broadest lands, or the grandest possessions. These principles will procure enough of comfort, and of well-being in this life for our real requirements, and they will form an imperishable wealth in the soul, gold and silver, and precious stones which angels acknowledge, and which will brighten and bless, and pass current in the realms of eternal peace. And so, you see, the Lord, in the chapter before us, does not give to the people of Israel any of the extensions of wealth, but He gives them these divine laws, as the highest mark of His love–as though He hall said,–Take these, love them, and act upon them, and they will make you a prosperous nation, a wise and an understanding people; Israel on earth placed in the land that flows with milk and honey, and at length the Israel of heaven.
But, if we look a little more closely at the spiritual signification of this same fact, we shall see its important bearing in a still more interesting light than before. All nature is a sublime book of symbols, types, or correspondences. In this language of correspondence, a mountain is the symbol of highest goodness. It is thus that it suggests itself to us even in creation, and it is thus that you will find it constantly appearing in the Word. In nature, a mountain suggests this to the contemplative mind of one who advances up its sides, and observes its majestic grandeur as it rears itself up above the plains and valleys.
You enjoy the deep peace that is surrounding it, and, on its top, feel as though you were in the presence of God Himself. It rises up above the mists and fogs of the lower atmosphere, and introduces us, as it were, into the very presence of the sun. It seems to realize the words of Goldsmith–
Though round its breast the rolling clouds are spread Eternal sunshine settles on its head.
Why, it almost itself suggests what the Divine Word declares, Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep.–Psalm xxxvi. 6. And again, in Psalm lxxii. The mountains shall bring peace to the people. So they do, even to all who thoughtfully, and reverently regard the things of nature, and while they behold the beauties of the world say, My Father made them all. The mountains shall bring peace. Mountains are thus the symbols of the love of God, and, therefore, when God from His love to the people, and from His love to us, gave His commandments for regeneration and peace, He did so from a mountain. For the same reason our Lord, when He came upon earth, and commenced to give His divine maxims of peace, wisdom and love, in His first sermon, it was on a mountain. It is said in Matt. v., that Jesus seeing the multitudes, went up into a mountain, and when he was set, his disciples came unto him; and he opened his mouth and taught them. The mountain was a symbol of the infinite love from which He spoke; of His desire to make His people pure, and, therefore, happy; of His wisdom as the wisdom of infinite affection, which desires that men should live angelically on earth, and hereafter be angels in heaven.
It is precisely the same with respect to man. A mountain is the symbol of that holy feeling of reverence for the Lord, and for all that comes from Him, that supreme love to Him above all things, that towers up in the Christian soul above everything earthly, as the mountain stands above the plains around–that kisses the skies as it were–that penetrates the highest atmosphere, and there catches the heavenly influences, and brings them down to enrich and to bless. Mountains are in reality the sources of everything that is good upon the earth.
The earth would not in the slightest degree be fertile, if it wore not that first of all the mountain sides are lifted up and then being played upon by the wind, and the rain, and the other atmospheric changes, they thereby become disintegrated. The little mountain rills take clown the fertilizing soil, and form the fruitful stratum of our valleys.
All the blessings of an abundant harvest are the result, first, of these majestic preparations which the mountains make. Our rivers, too, rise in the mountains; so that mountains in their nature, and in their use in the Word of God, are the holy symbols of celestial love.
Moses, therefore, got his mission in the mountain; and, when it had been so far carried out, that the people were brought into full freedom, and enabled, as it were, to say,–Now we have been delivered, Lord, but tell us what is necessary to make us happy, then the Lord gave His commandments from the same mountain, as though He would say,This is my highest gift: this is what must be done for you to be happy: these are the indispensable things; walk according to them, and then you will have earths highest good, and heavens everlasting peace.
But there are various particulars connected with these divine commandments, which are exceedingly interesting and instructive. First, the commandments are ten. There has been some difficulty in arranging them so as to make out that they are ten, yet, with attention, we may see the divisions, and in Deuteronomy there is said to be ten. And He declared unto you His covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments, and he wrote them upon two tables of stone (Deut. iv. 13), thus, clearly teaching that they ought to be divided into ten, and that they were given upon two tables of stone. Before the Reformation the commandments were divided as we divide them, in the New Church Liturgy. Some of the Reformers, however, altered that arrangement. Their mode of division was adopted in the English Church–making of the first commandment, two; a very short one of the first part, Thou shalt have no other gods before me, and forming the remainder of the same commandment into a distinct one. In the New Church division we have restored the order of the commandments to what it was before. The two parts plainly relate to the same thing: namely, the worship of the one Lord, and not the worshipping of anything else. Making those which had been two, in the English Church, into one, necessitated the making of the last commandment, according to the English Church division, into two, in order to keep the number TEN. You will also find a much clearer distinction between the last two, than what there could possibly be in making the first into two. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors house, as given in verse 17, is a distinct commandment of itself, and refers to houses, and, of course, to property and things inanimate belonging thereto.
And again, Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbors, referring to persons and things animate belonging to our neighbor. And thus we form the ten commandments, just as we have them in our Liturgy.
The reason, then, why there is that difference in our arrangement of the commandments, from what is found in the English Common Prayer Book is, as we said before, because that was an alteration and innovation of itself. Always, before the time of the Reformation, the commandments were (as they are now in all other churches except the Church of England), divided as they are in our Liturgy.
But in this matter of division there is another point that is worthy of notice. In the text which we have quoted you will find it said that they were given on two tables of stone; and the question has been put how many were on one table, and how many on the other: for there is no distinction as far as the Scriptures themselves go. Each commandment went across the two. The arrangement consisted of three parts; that is to say, all the commandments relating to our duty to God being on one side of the tables–to love the Lord supremely, to reverence everything from Him, to keep His name holy, to remember the Sabbath day as a day of worship, and to keep it holy; and then on the other side were the laws of our duty to our neighbor, going through the particulars connected with them.
You will find that of the last seven commandments, the first five relate to nets, and the last two to motives. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Then come those relating to motives, Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors house, and Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbors. And yon will perceive in this division matters of interest tending to show how perfect the divine commandments are. The fourth commandment, Honor thy father and thy mother, is a joining commandment, relating both to the precepts disclosing our duties to God, and those unfolding our duties to our neighbor. For the Lord is our Father in the highest degree, His Church in heaven and on earth, is our spiritual mother. Our earthly parents are images of this our Divine Father and heavenly mother.
The obedience and honor due to our earthly father being representative to the child, of the honor and obedience to our Father who is in heaven. The obedience and honor due to a mother, is representative of the affectionate deference due to the true Church. A true mother is a nurse to the child, and its tenderest earthly parent; so in good time the Church nurses, and kindly feeds the soul, as it is beautifully said by the Apostle Peter, I have fed you so by the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby. So that this commandment looks both ways, both to heaven and earth, both to the Lord and to the neighbor.
Now, the real and perpetual gift which comes from all these considerations, is the one that the Lord sets forth in giving these commandments from the mountain–namely, that they should be to us our highest delight, as well as our highest duty. It was a sad error that crept in amongst men when they began to suppose that in keeping the Lords commandments there was something excessively difficult, terribly hard, a penalty that almost made life into an asceticism. Why, nothing could be more mistaken. The keeping of the divine commandments ought to be our highest delight; our greatest joy; the thing that we should regard not only as our duty, but as in itself a holy and heavenly thing, giving blessedness and pleasure and peace; In keeping of them there is great reward. Instead of its being a hard thing that God has set us, as is too often said at the present day–a test condition to be fulfilled, and yet which He knows cannot be done, and then He is to provide a substitute; so that by the Lord Jesus Christ keeping the commandments we may be relieved from doing them;–instead of this strange story having an atom of truth in it, or being founded on the Scriptures, or on sound sense, you will find that throughout the whole of the Bible, the commandments are pointed out as being the grand sources of happiness and peace of every kind,as Gods best gift to His creatures.
Let us take first, a cursory view of Gods declarations to that effect. You will find them in every part of the Word. In Deut. iv. 6, reference is made to the commandments in these words, Keep, therefore, and do them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and shall say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. Again, there is a most notable and beautiful instance of the same teaching, when the Lord says, And, now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, and to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul.
To keep the commandments of the Lord, end his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good,–not which I command thee as things which cannot be done, but which I command thee for thy good.–Deut. x. 12, 13. And again, O that there were such a heart in them, that they would fear me and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!–Deut. v. 29. Precisely thus in the prophetic parts of the Word, and in fact, throughout every portion of divine wisdom we find the same teaching. In Isaiah xlviii. 18, it is written, O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea. And so, when the Lord came into the world He said, Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets; I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments and teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but, whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. And summing up the whole in the last chapter of the Revelations, it is written, Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. Such, then, is the divine testimony respecting these sacred laws–that they are not either matters that are hard to do, or impossible to do, or terrible to do. In fact, it is the merest illusion for a person to suppose that it is hard to keep the divine commandments. Whenever a person is really earnest in loving God and his neighbor, he will find it ten times easier to keep the commandments than to break them. How easy is it for a man who is upright and earnest to be honest! If a person seeks to deal with another in order to obtain useful articles, and both parties intend to do each other good, how simple and easy the transaction is. The one desires to take no advantage of the other; but to give as good as he wishes to receive. How simple it is! But let a thief intend to break a commandment, and he ire once feels that he has got a very difficult matter to perform. He has to begin to scheme, and to plan how he shall accomplish his end, and not be discovered. He must get some cunning tools for his knavery; he must keep away from the sight of every honest man or woman. He must sneak about so that nobody can detect him; and if he succeed he must go away to deposit the things stolen, so that he shall run as little risk of discovery as may be. Why, look at the comparison between these two modes of life. How easy the one, and how difficult the other! Yes, and each crime will be an eternal difficulty to the man who succeeds in it.
If he succeed in his villainy, he has stolen a little property from someone and injured him slightly, but he has robbed himself of his salvation, and injured himself eternally. There is the everlasting difference between right and wrong. If ever that man attain salvation, he will have to undo, as far as possible, all he has done. He will have to hate himself, to fight against himself, to detest himself-to repent in dust end ashes. He has gone down the hill instead of going upwards. He has to retrace his steps and get up back again, and then when he begins to lead a life of goodness, he will only be where he started from. Why, there could not possibly be a greater delusion than to imagine that hells yoke is easy. The Israelites did not find the Egyptian yoke easy. The way to heaven is pleasantness itself compared with the yoke of sin which hell Imposes upon the soul when it turns away from God, from purity and heaven. The Lord Jesus Christ says, My yoke is easy and my burden is light. Let a person earnestly seek to love the Lord, and to keep His commands, and he will find those words are true; the very way of peace, purity, serenity and sufficiency, as well as of order and happiness. God will speak from the mountain again, and his speech will have this gracious lesson for us, Do what I command you; for heaven is formed on the blessed laws that are contained in those ten commandments. If you have difficulty, it is not in the laws themselves, but in your degenerate state. Come to me end I will heal you. Are you imprisoned in guile, in falsehood? I will break the bars of your prison house–I will bring you out of Egypt.
Author: Jonathan Bayley — From Egypt to Canaan (1869)