In Exodus 34:27 Scripture says that Yahweh spoke directly to Moses to say, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (ESV). Thus, whatever follows was an essential part of the national covenant with Israel. In v. 28 we read that Moses “wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten words” (עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִֽים). Of course “ten words” does not mean that there were literally only ten words on the tablet. Here “word” means “revelations” or “disclosures” or “sayings” or perhaps best of all, “commandments.” From this we should infer that the moral law is God’s Word. We are also reminded God’s law was a re-statement to Israel, in typological (illustrative, forward-looking) clothing. Remember, the moral law did not appear de novo, out of the blue, as it were, at Sinai.
As we have seen before the moral law has existed, in God, from all eternity. It is a reflection and revelation of his nature and character. Second, the law was revealed in creation. We confess this in Westminster Larger Catechism 92:
What did God at first reveal unto man as the rule of his obedience?
The rule of obedience revealed to Adam in the estate of innocence, and to all mankind in him, besides a special command not to eat of the fruit of the tree knowledge of good and evil, was the moral law.
The moral law was woven into the fabric of things. The fourth commandment, which is expressed in Israelite terms in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 was built into creation. In Genesis 2:2–3 Yahweh Elohim is said to have rested after creation.
And on the seventh day Elohim finished his work that he had done, and he rested (יִּשְׁבֹּת֙) on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So Elohim blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it Elohim rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
This revelation was given under Moses but it refers to a time before the Mosaic covenant was instituted (c. 16th century BC). That the sovereign Lord, by whose powerful word all things had been brought into being, should have been revealed as resting on the seventh day must have been an arresting thing to hear. It was meant to be startling. It was meant to say that the pattern of working and resting in built into the nature of things. It is the way things are and the way they are meant to be. Further, that a day was set aside as holy (קדשׁ) even before the fall is most significant. There was, as yet, no corruption in the garden. Everything was ritually and morally clean and yet one day out of 7 was consecrated, set aside for rest and worship means that there have always been norms built into the nature of things. We know this is the correct interpretation because the Lord himself revealed it in Exodus 20:11: “Because (כִּ֣י) in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” At Sinai God explained that the Saturday Sabbath pattern being instituted, under Moses, in Israel was grounded in the creational pattern. The Israelite law was a temporary, typological re-statement of the prior, more foundational, permanent creational law.
The Decalogue as we have it in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 is the Israelite expression of the abiding moral law. The Israelite national covenant expired with the death of Christ. Its purpose was to point to Christ as the righteous covenant keeper (Gal 3–4). If we remember those two truths we may understand the order inherent in the commandments.
93. How are these Commandments divided?
Into two tables: the first of which teaches in four commandments, what duties we owe to God; the second, in six, what duties we owe to our neighbor (Heidelberg Catechism).
Historically, the commandments have been ordered differently.1
Philo, Josephus, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Reformed have numbered the commandments as we have them in Heidelberg Catechism 92.2 The Syrian tradition, Augustine, Rome, and the Lutherans combine what we regard as the 1st and 2nd commandments. In their numbering, what we regard as the 3rd commandment becomes the 2nd. They divide what we regard as the 10th commandment into two commandments. In the orthodox Jewish tradition the prologue is regarded as part of the 1st commandment. Note that, in the Reformed numbering, the preface is absent. There is a reason for this. It is an implicit recognition of the distinction between law and gospel. “I am Yahweh Elohim, who brought you out….” is a declaration of the good news of free salvation. “You shall have no other gods” is a different sort of word. It is law. This is not a fanciful reading of the decalogue. It is the We confess this distinction in Westminster Larger Catechism 101.
What is the preface to the Ten Commandments?
The preface to the Ten Commandments is contained in these words, I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Wherein God manifesteth his sovereignty, as being JEHOVAH, the eternal, immutable, and almighty God; having his being in and of himself, and giving being to all his words and works: and that he is a God in covenant, as with Israel of old, so with all his people; who, as he brought them out of their bondage in Egypt, so he delivereth us from our spiritual thraldom; and that therefore we are bound to take him for our God alone, and to keep all his commandments.
The preface to the commandments is one thing, the commandments are another. The gospel has consequences but those consequences do not turn the gospel into law nor do they turn the law into good news for sinners with respect to our standing with God.
Otherwise the order followed by the Eastern Orthodox and the Reformed churches agrees with the orthodox Jewish order.
There is an inherent order in the commandments or the Ten Words. The first four commandments speak directly to our relationship with God, our duty to love the Triune God with all our faculties and the second six speak to our duty to love our neighbor as ourself. It is to this that the church has traditionally referred when speaking of the “two tables” of the law. This order is reflected in Heidelberg 93 and in WLC 102. Our Lord Jesus gave us this outline in Matthew 22:37-40:
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (ESV).
The first three commandments are explicitly, undoubtedly focused upon our duty to the Lord. The 4th commandment, as we shall see, functions as a sort of logical turning point in the decalogue since its first aspect is toward God but its second aspect certainly has one’s neighbor in view. Like the rest of the commandments, the 5th commandment is focused on neighbor.
There is some benefit in getting the order of the commandments right. Sometimes, because in some numberings, e.g., the 2nd commandment becomes truncated. Further, it makes little sense of the commandments to divide the 10th commandment.
The Ten Words certainly come to us clothed like Moses but they did not first appear under Moses. They were given to Adam in creation. Inasmuch as they are God’s natural law, they could not have expired with Moses. Indeed, as we have seen previously, Paul appeals freely to the Ten Words and to nature as if they were interchangeable. However we number the commandments we should understand their force. Again, WLC 93 is most helpful:
The moral law is the declaration of the will of God to mankind, direction and binding every one to personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto, in the frame and disposition of the whole man, soul and body, and in performance of all those duties of holiness and righteousness which he oweth to God and man: promising life upon the fulfilling, and threatening death upon the breach of it.
The law demands “personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience….” The law is not advice. The law is not a suggestion. The law does not allow for “do overs.” The law is useful to the unregenerate (WLC 96) “to awaken their consciences to flee from wrath to come” and “to drive them to Christ” and, should they persist in impenitence, to leave them without excuse. That was Paul’s argument in Romans 1–2. To the believer, the law is no longer a “covenant of works” (WLC 97) but it shows us “how much” we are “bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof” as our substitute and thus it provokes us “to more thankfulness and greater care to conform” ourselves “thereunto as the rule of” our obedience.
1 See the chart in. David L. Baker, “Ten Commandments, Two Tablets: The Shape of the Decalogue,” Themelios: 30 (2005): 7.
2. Baker, ibid.