For any group of people, a sense of common identity comes with time, common interests and many shared experiences. National or ethnic identity does not spring instantly into existence without prior causative bases. Nations that are brought into existence as a result of war or politics, arbitrarily combining people of different ethnic and historical background are seldom long-lived due to the lack of common identity and cohesiveness. It is out of a common identity that a shared sense of national purpose and direction derives. The same is true of God’s people – His “holy nation.” God used many different means to instil in the Israelites a sense of identity and purpose, mainly by revealing Himself in power and love for them.
In giving the law to the nation of Israel, God was seeking to give them an understanding of who they were. The law was not an arbitrary imposition on them merely to control their behavior – it was intended to reveal Him in His love for them. It was in a way a manifestation of His grace, though not the final nor full manifestation of it. When He told them, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2), He wasn’t just identifying Himself to them, but connecting Himself to the law that was about to be spoken. God didn’t just reveal a law to them – in a way He revealed Himself through the law.
It is as though God was saying, “In this law I want you to see Me. When you live by the law you will be living like Me. You will be reflecting something of the image of Myself in you when you keep My law.” It was all about that original intent of God for mankind to be His image-bearers. In the first three of the commandments, God was not exhibiting tyrannical, egotistical self-centeredness when he demanded of them exclusive loyalty to Himself. He knew that any other way would lead them into harm and He was only interested in providing what was best for them.
The fourth of the commandments, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” (Exodus 20:8), related to their partaking of the blessing of rest from their labor. As God had labored in creation for six days and had rested on the seventh day, so they were to labor in partnership with God and then enjoy a day of rest, refreshment and remembrance of Him on the seventh. Man needs rest. We need time to recoup our strength and time to meditate and contemplate realities that are greater than ourselves. We need time away from the busyness of life to reflect in quietness on God and His good gifts to us.
Similarly, each of the other commands were intended for the good of not only the individual, but for the good of the whole nation. The strength of a nation is directly related to the strength of the families that make it up. Thus the fifth command, “Honor your father and your mother,” while including obedience to parents when young and providing for parents when they became aged, also was intended to build familial/community cohesiveness, cooperation and strength.
The sixth through the ninth commands have to do with the attitude of the individual toward their fellow man. God’s will has always been that man love his neighbor as he loves himself.
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:18).
Thus the commands forbidding murder, adultery, stealing and lying are connected to the being and person of God as manifestations of the kind of love He has for mankind. When God said, “I am the LORD,” He was telling them that He – His character – His nature – was the standard by which they were to be measured as they sought to obey these commands. In other words, the standard of moral conduct was absolute. Any flaw of character evidenced by hatred, lust, harm or thought of deception was tantamount to disobedience because it was a deviation from the standard of God’s own character. (Matthew 5)
The tenth of the commandments concerning coveting has to do with the heart of the individual. When one desires something another person has even to being willing to defraud the other out of what properly belongs to him really hates his brother instead of loving him. To not covet, then, would be to be like God who desires only what is best for men.
The only problem with this was the inability of human beings to keep the law and thus be like God. God was not at fault in giving them the law – it was with man who could not keep the law perfectly. No matter that one might strongly desire be entirely obedient to God, he always failed. The Bible is filled with the accounts of people who loved God and wanted to do his will who still sinned. Abraham lied, David committed adultery, Peter denied the Lord and the nation of Israel had a long illicit “love affair” with idols.
Israel was to find out that being the people of God and staying the people of God was not easy. There were many pitfalls along the way. They would become discontented with God, grumbling and complaining in spite of all His good provisions for them. Because of self-interest they could not see that God was working out a larger purpose for them than their momentary concerns. They would see the sensual worship of idols around themselves and be enticed into joining in with their pagan neighbors. Through their failure to understand God’s real purpose for them, some would begin to treat their brethren unfairly, taking advantage of them. Time after time God would punish them by allowing them to be defeated by some surrounding nation and made to pay tribute. When the burden of this oppressive taxation became so heavy they could not bear it they would cry out to God and He would deliver them.
In all this, God was seeking for His people to be not just separate from the nations of idol-worshipers, but distinctive because of being His own special people. Neither did He call them to be a religious people with their own distinctive brand. He was expecting something higher and nobler from them. This was the objective of the command: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5).