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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

Counting and Keeping the Ten Commandments

If you love Me, keep My commandments.

John 14:15

Question 107 of the Larger Catechism asks, “Which is the Second Commandment?” It gives the answer, “The Second Commandment is, Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, not serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.” Last week we considered the powerful incentive God gives us to keep the First Commandment. This week, as we begin to look at the Second Commandment, we examine how believers have differed in their numbering of the commandments.

When I was a new Christian I had trouble remembering the Ten Commandments. You see I grew up in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which follows the Roman Catholic Church in how the commandments are counted. Not knowing that there were two different ways Christians have numbered the commandments, I thought at first that I was repeatedly remembering them incorrectly and it caused me no small amount of frustration until I learned the truth. The reason for the difference is that while the Bible explicitly teaches that there are Ten Commandments, it does not number each individual one for us. So strictly speaking we are not told when one commandment ends and when another begins. Furthermore, since Scripture was not inspired with chapters and verses we cannot use modern versification to differentiate between each specific commandment. Also, since several of the commandments contain more than one imperative verb, it is not a simple matter of counting the “commands” or we would find at least fourteen commandments!

So what are the two ways of counting, and does it really matter? First, Roman Catholic and (at least some) Lutheran Churches differ from Protestant, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox Churches in combining the first two commandments together. Thus, for Catholics and Lutherans, the two prohibitions against having other gods and making idols are counted as one command. Then, they separate the Tenth Commandment into two, so that they count the Ninth Commandment as “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” and the Tenth Commandment as “Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s house.” So Catholics and Protestants have all of the same Scripture included in their versions of the Ten Commandments, they just number them differently; and just in case you are wondering: we cannot receive help in deciding the issue with an appeal to modern Judaism, which counts what we call the preface to the Ten Commandments as number one, then sides with Rome for the first two commandments and with Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy for the last two! At this point you may be asking can I even know the correct way of counting the commandments and does it really matter?

Scripture seems to argue on the side of the Protestant, Orthodox, and Jewish numbering with respect to the Tenth Commandment. The complete list of the Ten Commandments is found in two places in Scripture: Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. In the Exodus 20 list, coveting your neighbor’s house comes before coveting your neighbor’s wife, while in Deuteronomy 5 the order is reversed. Thus, these two laws addressing wives and houses appear to be interchangeable details of the single broader commandment to not covet. Furthermore, in Romans 7:8 and 13:9, Scripture refers to the one commandment “You shall not covet.” Also, history seems to be on the side of the Protestant numbering. Both Josephus and Philo—Jewish contemporaries of the apostles—number the commandments the way Protestants do and they do not even acknowledge another possibility. Modern Judaism’s list is from the Talmud; no earlier than the third century AD. Thus, the evidence we have argues that the early church, including Jesus, would have only known the Protestant numbering system. As far as does it really matter, I have often wondered if Rome’s proclivity to idols and statues was to some degree facilitated by the fact that the specific prohibition against graven images was not given prominence as its own commandment. Most likely we will never know. However, regardless of how we count them, the important thing is that we accept and seek to obey all of the Ten Commandments, for this how we love Jesus!


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