These days the Ten Commandments may seem a bit . . . old. After all, they were delivered over three thousand years ago. Could a set of laws given in such archaic, semi-barbaric times still be relevant today?
The Ten Commandments are not unique. Variations of them have existed from ancient times in almost every culture on earth. These laws are the ancient Israelite version of a common thread that runs through all of the world’s religions.
If these laws are so obvious that everyone around the world knows them, why did God make such a big fuss about giving them from Mount Sinai with great miracles, lighting and thunder, and a huge, booming voice?
Here is the answer: God did it that way not only to get us to pay attention, but also to show that these are not merely human laws, but divine ones.
And since they are divine laws, there is more to them than meets the eye. According to Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), within their plain meaning they have deeper meanings that touch on our inner, spiritual life.
- As a code of behavior, the laws contained in the Ten Commandments are essential for the stability of any society.
- At a deeper level, they cover every aspect of our ethical, moral, and spiritual life.
We can think of them as our spiritual inventory list.
From time to time it is good to take an inventory of ourselves to see if anything is missing or misplaced in our spiritual life.
When store managers take inventory, they have an inventory list showing what they should have in stock.
Where can we find a spiritual inventory list?
Different kinds of stores have different inventory lists. Hardware stores have one list, office supply stores have another, grocery stores another, and so on. In the same way, there are many different religions, each with a different list of laws for its adherents to live by. Each of these spiritual inventory lists is especially suited to the people for whom God gave that particular religion. (See: “If there’s One God, Why All the Different Religions?”)
However, there are some basic laws that are common to all of the religions.
The international community has adopted various universal standards, such as the twenty-four hour clock and the global system of time zones. Gold has value everywhere, in a de facto gold standard. Some behaviors, such as theft and murder, are illegal everywhere. These cultural universals reflect the fact that behind all of the religious diversity around the world there are some spiritual universals as well.
In Christianity, those universal standards are expressed in its sacred book: the Bible. In one sense the entire Bible is our spiritual inventory list. But that would take much too long to cover! On the other end of the scale, the two Great Commandments given by Jesus offer a very compact list:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37–40)
This two-item list gives us the general categories. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a spiritual inventory list that’s a little longer and more specific?
The Ten Commandments
Fortunately, we do have a very nice, specific ten-item list. That list is the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments are the divine standard for our lives—a standard that we can always look to when we want to take our own spiritual inventory.
The Bible gives two versions of the Ten Commandments, one in Exodus 20:1–20 and the other in Deuteronomy 5:1–22. Though they both contain the same commandments overall, the wording is different in some places—especially in the commandment to keep the Sabbath and the commandment not to covet.
As mentioned earlier, the laws in the Ten Commandments exist in various forms all around the world. Emanuel Swedenborg explains, though, that they were given by God in a miraculous way in order to show that they are not merely human laws, but divine ones:
Every nation on the face of the earth knows that it is evil to murder, to commit adultery, to steal, and to bear false witness, and knows that any country, state, or civilized society that did not forbid these evil actions would be doomed. No one thinks the Israelite nation was stupider than other nations and did not know these things were evil. Anyone might be amazed, then, that these laws, universally recognized on earth as they are, were delivered on Mount Sinai in such a miraculous way by Jehovah himself.
I have been told, though, that they were delivered in this miraculous way so that people would know that these laws are not only civil and moral laws but divine laws as well. Therefore to act against them would be not only doing something evil to our neighbor (meaning our fellow citizen and our community) but also sinning against God. When they were delivered by Jehovah on Mount Sinai, therefore, these laws became laws of religion as well. It should be obvious that whatever Jehovah commands, he commands as an aspect of religion; therefore his commands are something we need to follow for the sake of our salvation. (True Christianity #282)
In short, following the Ten Commandments is not only a matter of getting along with one another here on earth, but also a matter of our relationship with God and our eternal salvation.
Many people have a general idea of what’s in the Ten Commandments. And many people do live more or less by its standard, whether or not they believe these are divine laws. In Christianity and Judaism, the Ten Commandments are the key statement of the universal laws of behavior that run like a golden thread through all religions and cultures. Because they are so pervasive in human society, we can hardly help internalizing them and measuring our lives against them.
What most people don’t know is that these commandments also have deeper meanings beyond their literal and behavioral surface. To fill out our spiritual inventory list, let’s take a quick survey of the Ten Commandments, including some of the spiritual meanings in them, so that we can follow the divine standard more fully not only with our hands, but in our minds and hearts as well.
These meanings are drawn from several explanations of the Ten Commandments provided by Emanuel Swedenborg in his theological writings (Secrets of Heaven #8858–8912; True Christianity #282–331; Revelation Explained #932–1028, in the last part of each section; and Doctrine of Life #53–91, which covers four of the ten commandments). Here we can give only a very brief sampling of Swedenborg’s extensive commentary on the Ten Commandments.
What’s in a number?
But first, a nitpicky point to avoid unnecessary confusion.
The Bible does not number the Ten Commandments. And just to confuse things, different theologians and churches have adopted different numbering systems. That’s why, for example, the commandment against adultery is sometimes called the seventh commandment, and sometimes the sixth commandment.
Swedenborg followed the numbering system devised by Augustine (354–430), which is used in the Catholic and Lutheran churches (Swedenborg grew up Lutheran), but not in the other (non-Lutheran) Protestant churches or in Eastern Orthodox churches. In the Augustinian system:
- Having no other gods and not making idols together are the first commandment.
- Not coveting your neighbor’s wife (which comes first in the Deuteronomy version, but not in the Exodus version) is the ninth commandment.
- Not coveting your neighbor’s house and possessions is the tenth commandment.
This causes the rest of the commandments to be one number lower than what most Protestants are used to. However, Swedenborg explains the ninth and tenth commandments (in this numbering system) together.
Of course, the important thing is not how we number them, but the substance of the commandments.
Here, then, is a spiritual inventory list for our own regular self-assessment.
1: You shall have no other gods before me; you shall not make an idol
On the literal level, this commandment means that we are not to worship other gods besides the one God of heaven and earth. Much of the world has left polytheism and idol worship far behind, so most people in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures don’t have much trouble with this.
However, on a deeper level this commandment is about what we consider to be most important in life. In order to follow this commandment spiritually, we must put God at the center of our lives—above money and possessions; above personal desires and ambitions; above popularity and social status; above even the love of family and friends. All of these can become false gods and idols if we value them more than we value our relationship with God.
At the deepest, heavenly level of meaning, this all-important first commandment urges Christians to see the Lord God Jesus Christ as the infinite and eternal source of everything. Until we accept and experience the living reality of this universal, all-powerful, divinely human love and wisdom flowing into us and through us day by day, we still have work to do on this commandment.
2: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God
On the literal level, this means respecting God by not using any of God’s names in a disrespectful way. Simple version: if you’re going to swear, don’t do it using any name of God. But also, if you seal a promise using the Lord’s name, don’t break your promise! Of course, breaking promises isn’t a good idea in any case. Further, Jesus advises us not to swear at all, but simply to do what we say we’re going to do (see Matthew 5:33–37).
Looking deeper, this commandment refers to respecting everything that God’s name stands for, which includes everything God teaches us in the Bible, or in the other sacred literature of humanity. Keeping this commandment spiritually means respecting God by following all of God’s commandments, both in our hearts and minds and in our outward actions.
That should keep us busy for a while!
3: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy
To follow this commandment on a literal level, we must set aside regular time in our life to focus our thoughts on God and on living in a spiritual way. The easiest way to do this is to attend weekly worship services. But even people who don’t attend services can set aside a certain time each week, or even each day, to think and learn about God, and to pray for God’s help and guidance in becoming a better person.
Spiritually, this commandment is about going through six days of inner labor as we struggle to reform ourselves according to our spiritual beliefs and ideas. Through this spiritual labor, we can arrive at the Sabbath day of inner rest that we experience when we get our life into the flow of God’s love and wisdom, and live at peace within ourselves and with the people around us.
4: Honor your father and your mother
According to this commandment, as children and teenagers we must respect our parents or guardians by listening to what they tell us. This will help us avoid a lot of needless trouble and pain, and form good habits for our adult life. As adults, we must respect our leaders. And if we can’t respect the people who are in leadership roles, we must at least respect the role or position itself, and abide by the laws that our leaders are supposed to represent.
Looking deeper, our true father is God, who created us all and watches over us like a parent. Our true mother is our church or spiritual community, which raises us spiritually and tends to our deeper needs.
And at the highest level, God is both our father and our mother. This commandment tells us that we are to listen to God’s love and God’s wisdom, which are our divine Father and Mother, and to consider these aspects of God the highest standard that we are to live by. For more on this, see: “The Mother of All the Living.”
The two tables of the Ten Commandments
The first three or four commandments focus mostly on the Jesus’ first Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). We can think of them as being written on the first table of the Ten Commandments. This table is about our relationship with God.
The rest of the commandments, which we can think of as being written on second table, focus on the other Great Commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). This table of the Ten Commandments is about our relationship with our fellow human beings.
The commandment to honor our father and mother covers both our relationship with our human fathers and mothers and our relationship with our divine Father and Mother. So it bridges the first and second tables, and links them together.
With one table for God and one table for human beings, the two tables of the Ten Commandments embody in their very structure a relationship between God and humanity.
For most of the commandments in the second table, the literal meaning is clear enough that we will let it speak for itself, and move right into the deeper meanings.
5: You shall not commit murder
Jesus points us to the spiritual meaning of this commandment when he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder,’ but I say to you that if you are angry with your brother, you will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21–22).
Literal, physical murder comes from anger and hatred in our hearts, or from greed and a desire for power. To obey this commandment spiritually, we must not only avoid hurting and killing others physically, but also reject the self-centered thoughts and desires that prompt us to do such things. In religious terms, we must avoid attacking and destroying other people’s faith, which is a form of spiritual murder. By the same token, we should not attack and destroy other people’s faith in themselves by insulting them and tearing down their self-esteem.
At the deepest level, this commandment tells us that we must not murder God within our own soul by rejecting God from our heart, mind, and life.
6: You shall not commit adultery
As Jesus points out in Matthew 5:27–28, this commandment speaks not only of literal adultery and promiscuity, but also of having obscene and lustful desires. There are many people who have kept this commandment literally; yet there are probably very few adults who have never indulged in inner adultery. On a deeper level, this commandment is about working to purify our thoughts and desires, and to focus our mind and heart on loving one person in a faithful, committed marriage relationship.
At an even deeper level, we commit adultery when we abuse God’s teachings and God’s love, and use them for our own selfish purposes. For example, if we act all pious in order to gain people’s trust, and then abuse their trust for our own personal pleasure or financial gain, we have corrupted and adulterated our religion. The Bible commonly calls the people “adulterous” when they have collectively violated their relationship with God. See, for example, Ezekiel 16; Matthew 12:38–42; Mark 8:34–38.
7: You shall not steal
Spiritual stealing is similar to spiritual murder. It involves stealing other people’s faith and beliefs from them—especially if we don’t offer them something more. If we are sure we are right and they are wrong, and we set about to show people just how wrong and stupid they are, we are probably being spiritual thieves.
But the deepest level of stealing happens entirely within ourselves: if we claim for ourselves what is really God’s—qualities such as love, understanding, truth, and justice—then we are stealing from God. To avoid breaking this commandment, we must recognize that everything good and true in us comes from God. None of it comes from us. None of it is ours. It all belongs to God and is a continual gift to us from God.
8: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
We bear false witness spiritually when we intentionally persuade other people of things that we know are wrong in order to serve our own purposes. For example, if we have some personal vice that we like to indulge in, we may encourage others to adopt the same bad habit so that we will have company and support. This is bearing false witness to what we know is the truth: that instead of roping others into our own vice, to their detriment, we should break the bad habit ourselves and set a good example for others.
At a deeper level, if we cling to false teachings that are not in the Bible because they make life easier for us, absolve us of responsibility for our own spiritual life, and allow us to continue sinning and behaving badly, and if we teach these false doctrines to other people as well, then we are bearing false witness against our neighbor. See: “‘Christian Beliefs’ that the Bible Doesn’t Teach.”
9 and 10: You shall not covet
This commandment puts its spiritual meaning right on the literal level—and it applies to all the rest of the commandments. It teaches us that we are not even to desire any of the things that God tells us are wrong. Some of us may take pride in scrupulously keeping the commandments in our outward behavior. This commandment keeps us mindful of the reality that it is only when we have learned to keep all of the commandments in our hearts and minds that we have obeyed God’s commandments fully.
Accomplishing this will take us a lifetime—at least!
The Divine Standard
None of us will ever reach the complete perfection of full obedience to the Ten Commandments on all levels. There will always more items on the spiritual inventory list for us to work on. God doesn’t let us rest on our laurels, but continually calls us forward in our quest for greater spiritual growth and development.
The divine standard that God puts in front of us is simple: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This standard is enough to keep us busy taking our spiritual inventory for a very long time!
This article is © 2016 by Lee Woofenden
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