Exodus 20:1–2 introduces one of the most famous sections in the Bible—indeed, one of the most important pieces of religious literature in the whole world—the Ten Commandments. Oddly enough, they are never actually called the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew expression, which occurs three times in the Old Testament (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:4), literally means “ten words.” This is why Exodus 20 is often referred to as the Decalogue, deka being the Greek word for “ten” and logos meaning “word.” These are the Ten Words that God gave the Israelites at Mount Sinai—and, I’ll argue, the Ten Words that God wants all of us to follow.
Whatever we call them, the Ten Commandments are certainly commands—more than that for sure, but not less. The problem people have is not with what they’re called but with what they contain. Studying the Ten Commandments reveals the very heart of human rebellion: we don’t like God telling us what we can and cannot do.
The Noncommandment Commandments
A few years ago there was an article on the CNN website entitled, “Behold, Atheists’ New Ten Commandments.”1 The story explains how Lex Bayer, an executive at AirBnB, and John Figdor, a humanist chaplain at Stanford University, tried to crowdsource ten “non-commandments.” They solicited input from around the world and offered ten thousand dollars to the winning would-be Moseses. After receiving more than 2,800 submissions, they appointed a panel of thirteen judges to select the ten winners. Here’s what they came up with, the ten noncommandments of our age:
1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.
3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.
4. Every person has the right to control of [sic] their body.
5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.
6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.
7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.
8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.
9. There is no one right way to live.
10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.
That sounds about right—not with respect to God’s law, but in terms of how many people think of their moral obligations. These ten noncommandments perfectly capture the default moral code at the front end of the twenty-first century.
Nevertheless, I would hope, perhaps naively, that after a few moments of reflection, we would see that these new commandments are filled with some stunning contradictions. They say you don’t need God to be a good person or to know how to live (#5), and yet the seventh noncommandment is a summary of the Golden Rule, which came from Jesus (Matt. 7:12). They talk about the scientific method (#3), without an awareness that Francis Bacon’s method of inductive observation gained popularity in North America in large measure because of Presbyterian and Reformed theologians who saw Bacon’s approach as a good way to make observations about God’s created world.
More to the point, these noncommandments are logically indefensible. They’re presumably called “noncommandments” so as not to sound so commandment-ish. Yet they’re all commands! They all carry the force of a moral ought. We live in a paradoxical age where many will say, “Right and wrong is what you decide for yourself,” and yet these same people will rebuke others for violating any number of assumed commands. As a culture, we may be quite free and liberal when it comes to sex, but we can be absolutely fundamentalist when it comes to the moral claims of the sexual revolution. The old swear words may not scandalize us any longer, but now there are other words—offensive slurs and insults—that will quickly put someone out of polite company. We are still a society with a moral code.
And then there’s the second to last of these noncommandments. How does this ought square with the other nine in the list? How can we be told to leave the planet a better place and think of others and exercise control over our bodies if there really is “no one right way to live”? Which is it: do as we say or do as you please? It can’t be both.
I know the contest was a publicity stunt for a book Bayer and Figdor wrote on being atheistic humanists, but the authors seem to genuinely believe it’s a fine idea to develop your moral code by taking the temperature of those around you. Elsewhere in the CNN article we read:
Bayer said humans are hardwired for compassion, and the scientific method and wisdom of crowds—or the tribes that gather online each day—will weed out bad ideas. In other words, this is an open-ended, and hopefully progressive, process, he said.2
I don’t know what Internet they’re looking at, but I have not found “online” to be a place that’s entirely trustworthy for weeding out bad ideas. Remember, Bayer and Figdor had to appoint a committee of thirteen judges to pick out the best noncommandments. They realized instinctively that we might not come up with a great moral code just by asking people what they think.
In fact, going to the Internet to find your way in the world is often one of the worst ideas. Not too long ago I came across a story about the British government’s attempt to name a $287 million polar research vessel. In an effort to generate publicity for the new vessel, the government decided to name the royal research ship by way of an Internet vote. The agency in charge of the contest suggested to British citizens that they look at names such as Ernest Shackleton (the famous explorer), Endeavor, or Falcon. But the people’s overwhelming, runaway choice for this state-of-the-art research vessel—the clear winner of the Internet vote—was (are you ready for it?): “Boaty McBoatface.” You’ve got to love the British sense of humor, but that wasn’t exactly the name officials were hoping for. In the end, the agency decided not to go with the clear winner of the contest and instead picked the fourth-place entry, naming the boat after Sir David Attenborough.3 The wisdom of crowds isn’t always wise.
And that goes for commandments as well as for boats. The Bible says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). The way to find moral instruction is not by listening to your gut but by listening to God. If we want to know right from wrong, if we want to know how to live the good life, if we want to know how to live in a way that blesses our friends and neighbors, we’d be wise to do things God’s way, which means paying careful attention to the Ten Commandments.
Kevin DeYoung, The 10 Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 11–15.