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The unity and sovereignty of God is the most fundamental of all truths, and the basis of all intelligent conception of the world in which we live. And the great law of duty is very properly prefaced with this declaration, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God.”
The second commandment is a statement of the truth next in importance. That is that God is a spiritual being: not to be thought of or represented as the likeness of anything in the material world. "God is a Spirit and they that worship Him must worship Him in Spirit." These two commandments define for all time the greatest of all truths,—the sovereignty and spirituality of God.
The third commandment defines the attitude of mind that we should have toward God. The “Name of God” means here, as in all Scripture, the Person, the very Godhead, and "to take in vain” means to treat lightly, irreverently, or profanely the supreme and awful fact that God is God, sovereign, holy, just, and good. It demands of us reverence and devotion, and whatever may be due to the majesty of "Him in whom we live and move and have our being.” This commandment may be regarded as a corollary to the first and second, for it follows as the logical consequence of the truths revealed in them. The fourth commandment also follows the same logical order, and provides the means for the exercise and development of that attribute of mind required in the third. It is the great conservator of the moral and religious instincts, and the defense against the sordid worldliness that is destructive of the higher interests of the soul.
It is, in one aspect, the most important of the commandments, because without such provision for our spiritual exercise, all reverence-indeed all thought of spiritual things dies out and leaves us capable of nothing but the "things of the earth, earthy."
The fifth commandment stands first of the six that have
to do with the relations of men to one another. It has to do with what is manifestly the most fundamental of all social obligations. The relation of child and parent is the closest of all natural ties. It binds the family together so that it is the real unit of the community and state. To preserve the honor and perform the duties of this relation is the obvious requisite of social order and individual excellence, and the promise of long life and prosperity to such as keep this commandment is sanctioned by the very constitution of mankind.
The sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth commandments deal with the purely human relations, and their demands are so evidently necessary to the peace and welfare of the race, that all nations have recognized them, and, more or less perfectly, defined them in their laws and customs and social institutions. Their place in the Decalogue gives them a peculiar force and sanctity by grounding them on our relation to God and duty to Him. They are thus lifted from the ordinary plane of mere convenience and utility to the dignity and obligation of religious duties. They are binding, not because of expediency, but because of the eternal constitution of the universe—an expression of the will of God.
This fundamental character of the commandments is most clearly shown in the tenth, which goes below all outward acts, and deals with the ultimate source and springs of conduct. "Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies." It is therefore the evil thought, the inordinate desires and affections that are to be guarded against, and cast out of our lives.
It may be said that most of these commandments may be found in other codes that make no claim to inspiration, and that this Decalogue is nothing more than the convenient summary of duties known and demanded by the common sense of mankind. To this it may be answered that it is only partly true. The more obvious relations of man to man suggest, and
indeed make necessary, some such laws as these against murder, theft, and adultery; and such laws are found in every code. But nowhere else do we find anything approaching the Decalogue in the purity and completeness of its definition of a righteous life.
Its superior excellence lies, not in the originality of the several laws, but in the work as a whole. Nowhere else do we find anything to compare with the Decalogue in the wisdom with which everything local or temporary or ceremonial is avoided, and everything essential, permanent, and fundamental included. Moreover it is unique in its conception of the ground and obligation on which the commandments rest. They are put forth as the duties which our nature and the eternal order of the universe demand. They do not create new obligations, but reveal and publish that which God made "in the beginning.” They rest not on any conception of "social contract” or "adaptation to environment” or “greatest good to the greatest number” but solely and absolutely on the immutable character of Him who made the heavens and the earth.
STATUTES, ORDINANCES, AND JUDGMENTS
The moral principles defined in the Ten Commandments are permanent and unchangeable. They are grounded in the order of the whole creation. They date from "the beginning" and are "perfect."
But the application of these eternal principles to all the varied activities and the changing circumstances of our life is a task of greatest magnitude. "To do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God" is the whole of moral obligation; but to define justice in terms of specific rules of conduct requires great wisdom and care. The purpose of the statutes and ordinances and judgments is to specify, so far as possible, the duties that these principles demand. To define the claims of justice, mercy, and reverence in all the varied cir
cumstances of our earthly life is the work of legislation, most essential office in any state of organized society.
In their very nature all such statutes and ordinances are subject to change; the deeds which may be just and merciful in certain circumstances may be quite unjust or harsh when the circumstances change. "New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth, They must upward still and onward Who would keep abreast of truth.” There is, moreover, a certain element of compromise necessitated by the fact that all men are sinners. The statutes are but the means and instruments by which the warped and crippled souls of men are brought to such conformity to health and soundness as they be able to attain.
We are not surprised to find that in the statutes many things are recognized and regulated which should have been abolished. But Moses was too wise a legislator to attempt impossible reforms—to make laws which could not be enforced. With him a half loaf was preferable to no bread.
So "for the hardness of their hearts" Moses regulated divorce, and slavery, and revenge, and other evils which he could not eradicate. The statutes of divorce were a great deal better than the prevalent customs of the times. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is far short of ideal morality, but a great improvement upon the unlimited revenge which anger
And the statute upon slavery did very much to ameliorate an evil condition which could not be wholly abolished.
It was necessary to demand by law somewhat less than perfection, in order to enforce any law at all. So we find that Moses aimed to improve what he could not perfect; to restrain what he could not abolish; and to approximate what he could not achieve.
It should also be noticed that the statutes and ordinances and judgments were not a code of laws in the strict modern sense of that word, They were more like precepts, or maxims
of law; they were general rather than universal; they are something between the eternal principles stated in the Decalogue, and the laws to be enforced by specific penalties. They are educational rather than prescriptive. For example, "Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man”; or, “If there be with thee a poor man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates, thou shalt not harden thy heart nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother.” Such directions abound all through the book, and form a most important part of this revelation, but they cannot be regarded as laws in our sense of the word. They are definitions of character rather than of conduct. They may be thought of as the negative form of the same principles that Jesus taught in the Beatitudes. For instance. “Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy. At his day shalt thou give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it: for he is poor and setteth his heart upon it: lest he cry against thee unto the Lord and it be sin upon thee.” Compare, "Blessed are the merciful; for they shall obtain mercy."
Rightly understood, these statutes are, on the whole, the finest code of conduct ever framed. The spirit of tender sympathy; the spirit of fair play, and courteous treatment, and the sweet reasonableness of it all is beyond all praise. Even in the execution of the law, in the extremity of corporal punishment, there is scrupulous regard for the inalienable rights of the offender's feelings—e. g. "If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, and the judges judge them: then they shall justify the righteous and condemn the wicked: and it shall be that if the wicked man be worthy to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down and to be beaten before his face. Forty stripes he may give him but he shall not exceed, lest if he should exceed and beat him above these, with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee,"