The Ten Commandments are called a covenant (Deut. 4:13). Let us see if the structure is the same as Deuteronomy.
First Five Commandments
Then God spoke all these words saying,
(1) I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me.
(2) You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and Keep My commandments.
(3) You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.
(4) Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you nor your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.
(5) Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.
Second Five Commandments
(6) You shall not murder.
(7) You shall not commit adultery.
(8) You shall not steal.
(9) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
(10) You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your
neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor (Ex. 20:1-17).
How to structure the Ten Commandments has always been a problem. Luther’s Catechism, following Augustine, breaks some of the commandments up and re-groups them. The Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith (Presbyterian) splits the commandments between the fourth and fifth. This structuring has the most appeal because the first four pertain to God, and the last six refer to man in a general sort of way. But the first four commandments apply to man as well as to God. To keep the Sabbath Day is a “manward” activity. Christ said, “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
How about the next six commandments? Even though they seem to be oriented to man, they are still primary obligations to God. The prophets refer to adultery as a “spiritual” problem. Israel’s adultery with other gods resulted in “domestic” unfaithfulness (Mal. 2). The 4:6 structure does not hold up well either.
Besides, the fifth commandment has always been the real problem. All the others are expressed in the negative, “Thou shall not.” The fifth is stated in the positive “Honor your father and your mother.” The question is: “Why?” It could be because it heads up the beginning of the “manward” commandments. The commandment heading up the “Godward” commandments is in the negative. Problem: the “manward” commandments also begin with a negative.
Why try to break the decalogue into two groups at all? God communicates with a double witness. It takes two witnesses to convict someone (Nu. 35:30; Deut. 17:6). This “two-fold witness” concept is everywhere. For example, there are two copies of the Ten Commandments placed in the ark (Deut. 10:5), two cities (city of God and city of man). Even the language of the Bible is written in parallelism (i.e. The Psalms and Proverbs). This is so much a part of God’s manner of communication that the interpreter should instinctively look for it.
In and of itself, however, the fact that the commandments can be divided into two even groups of five is not enough to persuade us. It would not be absolutely necessary to have two groups with the “same” number. Here is the value of knowing the covenant structure, for the commandments follow the pattern twice.
First Five Commandments
- First Commandment: True Transcendence
One of the three ways God makes His transcendence known is by redemption. The other two are by creation and revelation. Here, the first commandment has to do with redemption. God delivered Israel from Egypt. Israel always looked back on this incident as their definitive salvation. How did God save them? He defeated the false gods of Egypt. The conflict was one of true transcendence, which means that it involved immanence.
Israel had had an important relationship to Egypt. Joseph was the son of revelation (Gen. 39:1ff.). He received dreams, and lived by God’s Word. Israel’s other sons resented this. They sold Joseph into slavery, and he ended up trapped in a pit. Symbolically, he died. But God resurrected him in Egypt. Through God’s revelation, Joseph rose to the second in command of the greatest nation in the world.
The Egyptians soon turned against God and His people. Israel found itself in slavery. All of this came to a “showdown” between God and the gods of Egypt. The transcendent/immanent themes emerge. God met Moses on Sinai in the burning bush. He was present with Moses. Through this presence, He triumphed over the false gods of Egypt, and demonstrated His transcendence. The God of the Israelites was unlike any of the Egyptian gods. He was truly God, distinct in His Being.
But the basic transcendence theme attached to the redemption concept is resurrection. Israel was raised up, after being dead in Egypt. Israel was raised up before the other nations. Being brought out of Egypt was a form of “new life,” another resurrection idea. In all of this, we discover God’s transcendent character manifested through the great Old Covenant work of redemption. We will see this again in the great New Covenant work of redemption, Christ’s salvation of the world through His own Death and Resurrection.
- Second Commandment: Hierarchy
The second commandment moves to the next principle of the covenant, a hierarchy of obedience (“worship and serve”). In the Deuteronomic covenant, the hierarchical section closes by associating rebellion to the sin of idolatry. Moses says, “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a graven image” (Deut. 4:15-16). Thus, the second commandment follows the same pattern, connecting worship and submission, “service” (Exod. 20:5).
The history of Israel’s redemption is also the backdrop. God forbids worship of any sort of idol. The specific outline is “from heaven above to the earth, to anything under the sea or earth.” It is possible that the commandment is written this way to counter a “hierarchy” among the Egyptian false gods. They worshipped life above, below, and especially the Nile itself. Birds and animals of the Nile were worshipped because it was believed that the “Great River” was a serpent providing life to the world above, below, and all around. Clearly this refers to the imagery of the serpent in the garden, a pagan hierarchy. Even the way God condemns idolatry develops a certain “false” hierarchy.
God’s hierarchy places all authority in Him. Anyone else only has delegated responsibility. Transcendence is not shifted from God to man, or to creation for that matter. Egyptian religion had a hierarchy of authority that placed the Pharaoh in the center of the world. He was half god and half man, a perfect “false” incarnation. He mediated life to the world. The animals were simply “emanations” from him, possessing a little “less” deity.
This created a pyramidal hierarchy with man at the top of the pyramid. The pyramid structure is not itself inherently bad, since it is the “mountain model” found throughout the Bible. The pyramid was simply a cheap (or shall I say, rather expensive) copy of God’s mountain dwelling. But God’s mountain-pyramid always has God on top of the mountain. His hierarchy begins with God, not man. To worship a “created” thing is to place creation at the top of the mountain. The result: tyranny like that of Egypt.
- Third Commandment: Ethics
The -third section of the Deuteronomic covenant stipulates what is involved in obeying God. The pagan system, growing out of a “chain of being” approach, is inherently manipulative. This commandment has to do with not manipulating the “name of God.” When would the name of God be taken in vain? In false oath-taking. To “swear” in the Bible is to take an oath. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for swearing by all sorts of things and taking so many false oaths (Matt. 5:33-37). They tried to manipulate God’s name.
What is a name? A name in the Bible represents the person. The power to name is the power to control. God named Adam. Adam named the animals and Eve. This made man God’s vice-regent in dominion. But the power to name is the power to have authority over the thing that is named. Therefore, any time the name of God was tampered with, it indicated an attempt to manipulate Him. Actually, to worship a false god re-names and re-constitutes the true God. God does not want to be re-named, and He certainly cannot be manipulated.
The Pharaoh renamed joseph (Gen. 41:45). Nebuchadnezzar’s official over the eunuchs renamed Daniel and the three Hebrew youths (Dan. 1:7). When a man came under a pagan king’s authority in the Old Testament, at least to serve in a position of leadership under him, he was renamed by that king. God renamed Abram to Abraham and Jacob to Israel, a sign of His authority over them.
The commandment here forbids a manipulative approach to God. It does not forbid oath-taking per se (i.e. in the courtroom). It condemns swearing to “emptiness” or “vanity.” When someone makes a false oath, he is attempting to manipulate God’s name for his own end. Even though man tries, he cannot control God. It is the other way around. Nevertheless, false oath-taking is ultimately a reflection on Him, making Him seem to be empty. How? When someone who is actually lying says, “May God strike me dead, if I am telling a lie,” and, if he does not fall down dead, but is later found out to be a liar, God does not “seem” to have stood behind His name. If man obeys God’s stipulations, however, he will not need to try to manipulate God’s name. Blessing and whatever man needs will come through a proper ethical relationship to Him.
- Fourth Commandment: Sanctions
The fourth commandment regulates the Sabbath. What was the Sabbath? Originally, it was the day when God “blessed” the world in a special way (Gen. 2:1ff.). The word “blessing” ties the day to one of the two judicial sanctions of the covenant (Deuteronomy 28). This makes the original Sabbath a day when man was to receive God’s benediction. Instead, man disobeyed and the Sabbath Day became a day of judgment. The curses of Genesis three were issued. So, throughout history, the Lord’s Day (Sabbath Day) is a time of judgment. It is like that final day, “the Day of the Lord.”
This commandment has to do with honoring a time of special judgment. One day in seven should be devoted to it. Double sacrifices were offered because Israel made special reflection on her sins (Num. 28:1-8). The comments about working on the other days orient even man’s work toward a time of judgment. Indeed, this is the direction of history.
- Fifth Commandment: Continuity
As already noted, the fifth commandment is positive. The emphasis is on tangible continuity, inheritance, since to “live long on the earth” was the legacy given to Israel. Why longevity? The curse of death broke down generational continuity, requiring that covenantal faithfulness be sustained over many generations.
Historical extension of the faith was broken down. Think how easy it would be to sustain a system of belief if the founders lived for 500 years. This would be like still having Martin Luther alive. All those years that liberal German, Lutheran theologians were corrupting orthodoxy, Luther could and would have confronted them and probably turned them over his knee. (They would have needed a lot more than that.) But the point is that longevity was critical to sustaining the family inheritance. Because death entered the world, a system was needed to transfer the inheritance. It is in the transferal that the many problems of inheritance can be seen.
Although, it seems that death is also pro-covenantal. After the Flood, lifespans shortened. The common grace to pagans lasts three to four generations, then they fall or revolt. The blessings to the faithful go on for a thousand generations. Thus, covenant-keeping compounds far longer than covenant-breaking. If the evil ones lived five hundred years per generation, their hand would be strengthened: two thousand years of compounding. So this commandment has to do with inheritance, an issue of legitimacy. Obedient sons and daughters receive the inheritance, the blessing of the previous commandment.
The first series of commandments follows the structure of the covenant. Without having to force the commandments, I believe the reader can easily see how God ordered them around the five parts of the covenant. The second half of the commandments does the same.
The Second Five Commandments
- The Sixth Commandment: True Transcendence
God returns to the transcendence theme. How? Unlawful killing of another human being was expressly forbidden because “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man” (Gen. 9:6). In fact, the “ethical” section of the Noahic covenant is summarized under this one commandment, summing up all of God’s demands.
The key is in the word image. Man is the image of God. Unique to God’s creation and unlike any other aspect of His handiwork, man is a picture of God. Man shows God’s transcendence and immanence. To kill man is analogous to killing God. All rebellion is an attempt to kill God. Satan tempted man to become like “God.” Between the lines of Satan’s offer was the idea that the true God would be displaced (Gen. 3:1ff.). So the second set of commandments begins with a commandment against eradicating God’s transcendent/ immanent representation in man.
- Seventh Commandment: Hierarchy
The Deuteronomic covenant made a specific connection between idolatry and adultery. The end of the second section calls attention to the second commandment, reminding Israel of the prohibition against “idolatry” (Deut. 4:15-19). Moses gives as a reason, “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deut. 4:24). “Jealousy” is a response to any kind of marital unfaithfulness. Indeed, there was a special “ordeal of jealousy” (Nu. 5). Since the people of God are His “bride,” worshipping other gods would be analogous to sexual unfaithfulness in marriage. God’s proper response would be ‘jealousy.”
The ideas of worship and marriage are expressed in the old Anglican form of the marriage ceremony where the bride pledges, “I worship thee with my body.” Sexual faithfulness is a form of service, like the faithfulness of service in worship.
Adultery is a violation of God’s hierarchy. Marital faithfulness is a mutual submission (familial hierarchy) to one another. Paul says,
But because of immoralities [adultery], let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does (I Cor. 7:2-4).
Adultery is due to rebellion against the authoritative hierarchy within marriage. A man and woman are to submit their bodies to one another, the best defense against adultery and “immoralities.” To “cut off” one’s spouse is nothing more than an attempt to be autonomous.
- Eighth Commandment: Ethics
The third section of the Deuteronomic covenant “stipulated” how to be consecrated through “ethics.” In other words, God’s boundaries are ethical, separating the clean from the unclean. As long as God’s people lived by these ethical boundary lines, they would be victorious.
Ethics is contrary to a “manipulative” world-and-life view. In the third commandment we saw that man is forbidden to “manipulate” the Name of God. The eighth commandment, which parallels both the third section of the covenant and the third commandment, speaks to another form of “boundary violation.” Stealing is manipulative. Taking something that is not yours is a failure to relate to people on ethical terms, and a failure to honor property of others.
Paul says, “Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need” (Eph. 5:28). There are two problems with a thief. He will not work and will not give. Both require ethical dealings with people. To work means one submits himself to the laws of work: perseverance, showing up on time, willingness to learn, diligence, etc. To give means taking what has been earned and helping someone in need.
A thief, on the other hand, takes a manipulative approach. Instead of working, he seeks to manipulate through conning, deception, and various other forms of theft. He certainly doesn’t give to others, and if he happens to, he does so to further his need, not the other person’s. Ultimately, a thief believes money is magical: not the means to an end, but the end in itself. This is why all tyrannies are based on theft. The “Robin Hood” approach is a form of manipulating what belongs to one group to re-distribute it to another.
- Ninth Commandment: Sanctions
The Deuteronomic covenant is ratified by sanctions in the fourth section, to be received in an “official” context, probably a “courtroom.” Furthermore, this judgment was received at a Sabbath time, Pentecost. Thus, in this commandment, “bearing false witness” also conjures up the picture of a courtroom scene. Where would one be likely to bear false witness? It would probably be brought in the same legal environment of passing judgment, a formal trial or hearing. This could also be done informally, telling lies about someone in the congregation or who lives down the street. But even this setting is judicial because a judgment is passed. “Bearing false witness” interferes with and perverts judgment. How? False witness causes blessings to fall on those who deserve a curse, and vice versa.
- Tenth Commandment: Continuity
Notice all the items that are forbidden to covet. They all have to do with a man’s inheritance. In Old Testament times, the wife was made an heir of the covenant through an adoption procedure. She actually became the “sister” of her husband. Abraham was not lying to Pharaoh after all (Gen. 20:2) when he called Sarah his “sister.” This practice was done to assure the woman’s receiving part of the inheritance, contrary to the pagan practices of considering a woman’s value as being less than a man’s. So, when an Old Testament man coveted the wife of another, he was cutting into his neighbor’s inheritance. In Israel, this disrupted everything because each family received a particular piece of land and inheritance when Canaan was conquered under Joshua. To covet one’s covenant brother’s family and possessions was to rob the inheritance granted by the covenant itself. Here the last commandment ends on a note of finality.
The second five commandments follow, without much explanation, the basic pattern of the covenant, completing a perfect double witness.
One final observation about the commandments should be made. The fundamental difference between the two halves is that the first has a priestly emphasis, while the second is kingly. A priest was fundamentally a guardian of the presence of the Lord. Adam was told to “till and guard” the garden (Gen. 2:15). We know that “guarding” is a priestly. function because the same Hebrew word refers to the Levite’s responsibility (Lev. 5).
The first five commandments have to do with things which priests were specifically to guard: the Lord’s transcendent/immanent character, the worship of God, God’s name, the Sabbath, and family inheritance. What does the last point have to do with guarding? The priesthood was the guardian of the family. Inheritance left without an heir went to the Levites. In the New Covenant, the care of widows and orphans belonged to the Church, not the State. Both Israel and the Church are called priesthoods (Ex. 19:6; I Pet. 2:5). Protecting the family inheritance is a priestly function. This is why Jesus so severely chastised the Pharisees for allowing the abuse of parents’ inheritance (Mark 7:1ff.).
The second five commandments have to do with the oversight of the king. He was the one, for example, to implement the discipline for breaking these commandments. He would have also been involved with “first table” offenses, but they would have come through the priesthood, the special guardian of God’s House.
This structure, priest to king, is the way man dominates. As a general principle, he must be a servant to be a leader. One should not think of this process as anything other than the way of the covenant. Man covenants his way to dominion. When man keeps God’s commandments, he is living by the covenant. When he lives by the covenant, he has dominion.
The Ten Commandments express God’s law in a covenantal way. There are five parts to the covenant, and so God’s ten laws follow the covenant twice, each re-enforcing the other.
Can we find this five-fold pattern anywhere else? The next appendix jumps to the Psalms. It, too, has a Deuteronomic structure as we shall see.
 Notice that I have not referred to the divisions as “tables” of the law. Kline has conclusively demonstrated that the “tables” were actually two copies of the same law. See Structure of Biblical Authority, pp. 117-120.
 U. Cassuto, A Commentary On The Book Of Exodus (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1951), p. 249. Cassuto basically goes with a God/man division of the commandments. He notes that the first and the tenth commandments have to do with loving “God” and loving “man” (your neighbor) respectively.
 Richard J. Clifford, The Cosmic Mountain In Canaan and The Old Testament (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1972), pp. 25-28.
 R. J. Rushdoony, The One and the Many, pp. 36-37.
 The Book of Common Prayer.
 James Jordan, Law of the Covenant (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), pp. 18-19.
 Ibid., pp. 132-33.
 Ibid., pp. 204-5.
 Ibid., p. 58. Also, See Jordan’s, Sabbath Breaking and the Death Penalty (Tyler: Geneva Ministries, 1986). He connects the fourth and ninth commandments in terms of the “sanctions” idea.
 10. R. J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, pp. 598-600. Rushdoony has an interesting section on the relation between “slander” and the 9th commandment.