A Covenant of Love
Legalists misunderstand and misrepresent the Ten Commandments. They perceive the Ten Commandments as a funnel, squeezing us onto a narrow ledge where we walk in continual fear that we might step the wrong way and plummet into a chasm of sin and guilt, abandoned by God.
The Pharisees, the masters of legalism, compiled God’s Law into 613 rules (divided into 248 commands and 365 prohibitions—one thing you cannot do for every day of the year!). To make the rules as clear as possible, they added 1,521 sub-rules, detailing more precisely how people were to obey the major rules. For example, to protect people from defiling the Sabbath, they outlawed thirty-nine activities that might be construed as “work.” (Jesus came up against one of these banned activities one Sabbath as He crushed a grain of wheat in His fingers as He walked through the fields with His disciples.) The most scrupulous of the legalists became known as the “bleeding Pharisees” because they would walk through the streets of town with their heads down to avoid any chance that they might look at a woman and lust after her, but as they walked along with their heads down they would run into things and become, indeed, the bleeding Pharisees.
To view the Ten Commandments as a funnel, squeezing us onto a narrow ledge upon which we must walk through life, is to miss the greater intent of the Ten Commandments.
Yes, the Ten Commandments are a wise guide to our lives, making clear to us how we ought to live and how we ought not to live our lives. But the best way to understand the Ten Commandments is to see them as God’s covenant of love with us, beginning with God’s declaration of love for us and going on to detail how we are to return that love.
If the aim of the Ten Commandments was to funnel us onto that narrow ledge upon which we must walk carefully so as to earn God’s acceptance, they would begin with demands of what we must do before God will be nice to us. But that’s not how the Ten Commandments begin. They begin with the pronouncement of what God has already done out of love for His people. They begin with this sentence: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.”
It is not that we must do good in order for God to love us; it is that God has shown His love to us, therefore let us do good in reply.
One of the tragic potholes for a marriage is when a husband or wife does not communicate openly and honestly what he or she wants from their partner. God does not leave such a pothole in our way. God communicates clearly His love for us and how we can return love to Him. He makes it clear that we are to keep no lovers (no idols or false gods), and we are not to abuse or misuse His name, and we are to set aside a day to rest and to build our relationship with Him, and we are to honor our parents, and we are not to do anything that harms or mistreats other people whom God cares about. To put it another way, we are to love the Lord with our whole being, and we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
After declaring His love for us, then informing us how to return love to Him, God wraps it up with an assurance of His ongoing love for us and presence with us. The last verse of Exodus 31 says, “When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, He gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.”
God did not send Moses down with two tablets because it took two tablets to fit all the commands. Rather, God sent Moses down with two tablets because, as was customary with a covenant, two copies of the stipulations were needed: one copy for the Israelites, and one copy for God. Moses carried both copies to the people as an assurance to the people that God would continue to be with them. Since God’s copy of the covenant was there in their midst, they would know that God Himself was there in their midst. God was not waiting for them to get it right before He would join them; God was committing Himself to be with them no matter what!