The Ten Commandments in the modern world (1)

Before I start, I must apologise for the almost two-month hiatus in the blog. It’s been a busy summer, and I’m afraid the blog-drafting fell down the list of priorities. I’ll try to improve. In the meantime, I hope all my readers had a refreshing break from whatever they needed a break from; and thank you to Stephen Sheridan for his quip on my July snippet about the names of Olympic gold medallists!

Back to business. I rather like this sarcastic poem:

The Latest Decalogue by Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-61)

Thou shalt have one God only; who

Would be at the expense of two?

No graven images may be

Worshipped, except the currency:

Swear not at all, for, for thy curse

Thine enemy is none the worse:

At church on Sunday to attend

Will serve to keep the world thy friend:

Honour thy parents; that is, all

From whom advancement may befall:

Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive

Officiously to keep alive:

Do not adultery commit;

Advantage rarely comes of it:

Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,

When it’s so lucrative to cheat:

Bear not false witness; let the lie

Have time on its own wings to fly:

Thou shalt not covet; but tradition

Approves all forms of competition.


The sum of all is, thou shalt love,

If anybody, God above:

At any rate shall never labour

More than thyself to love thy neighbour.


Some of it is out of date (especially about Sunday!) but it still makes good points. (And some people genuinely agree with his version of number six.)

But what about the Ten Commandments? Are they still binding (with certain alterations, hem hem) on Christians? How do we read them?

Traditionally of course they were prominently displayed in churches: surely a bad thing for a religion of grace. Traditionally, the Commandments are divided into the first four, relating to attitudes to God; and the latter six, which relate to attitudes to other people.

I think it’s fair to say that until recently, and perhaps even now, many people worldwide, and most people in Britain, would have taken Commandments 5-10 as a theoretical basis for morality. Murder and theft (and to some extent false witness) are criminal, and are likely to remain so, but the others?

Adultery (“cheating”) is still disapproved of in most quarters; as are, to a lesser extent, swearing and unkindness to parents.

Of course we shouldn’t murder… but the Commandments have long been subject to extrapolation. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to say “Don’t murder in your heart by insulting or belittling someone,” and “Don’t commit adultery in your thoughts and fantasies.”  But the extrapolation goes back earlier still: what is the commandment not to covet but an extrapolation of numbers 6 and 7?

So I like to wonder how and whether we extrapolate, interpret and obey the Commandments today.

Re numbers 1 and 2, I still find the distinction between “having gods before Me” and “worshipping images” difficult to define, and will leave it to the better-read.

As for 3, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain,” which Davies surely misinterprets in his poem, I have commented elsewhere on this. In my blog on Christian taboos ( ) I said:

Thou shalt not swear.   This is seriously counter-cultural.  In fact it manages to be counter-cultural without being seen as obnoxiously holier-than-thou; therefore it is an excellent witness.  I don’t have a problem with this taboo/rule at all, when it comes to blasphemy, which is forbidden in the Ten Commandments, and does seem (to me) to show a grotesque lack of respect for God. I can’t be the only person who is offended by casual blasphemy in PG films, on T shirts, and uttered by very young children.

(We might want to remember however, that some Christian cultures are more casual with the name of the Lord – and this also changes over time.  Highly virtuous young women in Jane Austen novels (Emma Woodhouse and Eleanor Tilney) say “Good God!” at moments of stress.)  

The original Sabbath which the Fourth Commandment tells us to keep holy was of course Saturday. At some point the early church must have decided to change it to Sunday, possibly encouraged by St Paul: (“One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind,” Romans 14:5-6.). Because it did this, it is impossible unless you’re a Seventh Day Adventist, to say “the Ten Commandments are absolute.” This hasn’t stopped a lot of very strict rules about Sunday observance through the history of Western Christianity, the result of which often seemed to be the torment of children down the ages, not allowing lively fun on the one day no one was going to make them work.

These days most Christians I know seem to follow St Paul and allow people to develop their own conscience on the matter, and let’s not get into the point that for professional clergy and many church volunteers Sunday can be a very busy and unrelaxing day.

I still find it surprising how easily we seem to have got accustomed to Sunday shopping etc, even those of us who love the film “Chariots of Fire.” One day when non-essential shops are shut: is this too unreasonable, especially now that so much can be bought online anyway? There are very few things that you can’t do without or borrow from a neighbour at a pinch. (Baby food and sanitary towels?) On the other hand… I’m not very fond of shopping as an activity anyway, and if I allow cinemas and sports centres to open…

It really does have to be one’s own conscience, but my conscience and that of many of my friends seem to be remarkably elastic on this matter.

It has been argued that “Thou shalt not steal” (Sixth Commandment) presumes private property and is thus a defence of capitalism. Let’s just agree that it isn’t a defence of capitalism as it now is, a no-holds-barred worship of greed that would surely horrify any Biblical writer. (“If I have withheld anything that the poor desired… if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing… I could not have faced His majesty,” abridged from Job 31: 16-23.) “Thou shalt not steal” can surely also be extrapolated to “thou shalt not avoid tax,” “thou shalt not fiddle expenses,” “thou shalt not exploit thine employees” and so on.

Jesus taught that adultery extends to adultery in the heart, and so presumably does fornication. In my follow-up on the taboo against pornography ( ) I said

I am still reluctant to vilify a lonely man who gets pleasure out of looking at a picture and imagining himself in bed with the complete stranger he sees; or a lonely woman who reads one of the extremely explicit novels you can buy in WH Smith, and spends half an hour picturing herself as the heroine.

Of course I may be wrong.

An RE teacher suggested to our class that “bearing false witness” could include gossip, and is extremely relevant in these days of the casual sharing of emotive tales of unchecked truth on social media.

And of course one can covet non-physical things. Other people’s friendships, other people’s fame, other people’s sporting talent…

So far you may note I have omitted the Fifth Commandment. That’s for next time.

Love from the PPI Blogger


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