The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments: A law to be obeyed or promises to be celebrated?

This article provides several compelling scriptural evidences to show that the Ten Commandments are indeed ten promises.

Vara Prasad Deepati, PhD, is a professor of Old Testament at Spicer Memorial College, Pune, India.

In my 40-year Christian journey that includes 20 years of Bible teaching and pastoral ministry, the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:3–17) have always challenged me, despite being the only Scripture portion written by God Himself (Exod. 24:12; 31:18; 32:15, 16; 34:1, 4, 28; Deut. 5:22; 10:4). Raised in an Adventist home and educated in Adventist schools, I always believed the importance of obedience to God’s law. However, the question that haunted me was, “Do I really keep the commandments according to God’s will?” Further, the biblical assertion that God’s people delighted in His commandments deeply troubled me, for “If I don’t delight in God’s law, I am not worthy to be called a Christian?”As I cried to the Lord from such a state of restlessness, He opened my eyes to see a few won­drous things in His commandments that have brought healing to my soul.

My eyes were opened by a statement of Ellen White: “The Ten Commandments are ten promises.”1 This article provides several compel­ling scriptural evidences to show that the Ten Commandments are indeed ten promises.

Context of the Decalogue

Perhaps one of the major rea­sons for failing to understand the promise-base of the Decalogue is a failure to comprehend and study it within its larger and immediate context. Umberto Cassuto presents well the pre- and postcontext of the Decalogue: “Exodus 1-19 is but a preparation for the activity at Sinai and all that follows is either a result of or a supplement to it.”2 The immedi­ate context leaves us without any doubt as to God’s motive for giving the law. “And God spoke all these words [of the Decalogue], saying: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage’ ” (Exod. 20:1, 2, NKJV). The Ten Commandments did not arise out of any arbitrary notion of God, but rather as a personal, tender reminder of “the Lord your God” who has redeemed Israel from Egypt. A recovery from bondage, a symbol of redemption, lies at the foundation of the Ten Commandments. Therefore, the Decalogue is not a legalistic code given to Israel, but a redemp­tive tie that defines the relationship of love that should exist between Israel and their mighty God. This might and this love surround the Ten Commandments, as Cassuto points out.

Thus, the Ten Commandments were not given to Israel that they may obey them in order to be saved but rather they were given to those who have already been redeemed. In other words, they are not a means to salvation but promises of the covenant relationship God wants to have with His people.

A careful investigation of the chapters before and after the giving of the law reveals these covenant­redemption-promise characteristics of the law and the Law-Giver:

1. God fulfills His promises. Israel’s deliverance from slavery was a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (Gen. 15:13, 14; cf. Exod. 12:40, 41).

2. No power can prevent God from accomplishing His purposes. Despite Pharaoh’s oppression of Israel, ordering their newborn boys to be killed at birth, God raised His servant Moses right in Pharaoh’s palace (Exod. 1:9–2:9).

3. The God of Moses is more pow­erful than the gods of Egypt. The ten plagues (chaps. 7–11) “were directed against specific Egyptian deities to reveal their impotence”3 and “show that Jehovah is the true God.”4 Pharaoh himself, on several occa­sions, asked Moses and Aaron to pray for him (8:8, 28; 9:27, 28; 10:16, 17).

4.  The God of Moses is more power­ful than the forces of nature. God divided the sea for Israel to walk through (14:1–22).

5.  God heals His people. Bitter water at Marah became sweet as Moses threw a tree into it at God’s command (15:22–26).

6.  God provides for His people. Manna from the sky and water from the rocks for more than 600,000 people were God’s pro­visions (12:37; 16; 17:1–6).

7.  God fights the battles for His people. Mere raising of Moses’ hands brought victory for Israel over the Amalekites (17:8–14).

8.  The pillars of cloud and fire (13:21, 22), in which Israel’s invisible Leader5 was present, reveals God in two ways. While the pillar of cloud protected Israel from the day’s desert heat, the pillar of fire provided light in the darkness and protected them from the chilling cold.

9. God’s presence abides with His people always. That their God was in the pillars of fire and cloud (Exod. 13:21, 22) and leading them gently must have amazed Israel who might not have heard such a thing in Egypt.

10. God delivers His people and invites them into a relationship with Him. God gave His commandments to Israel after delivering them from slavery and bringing them to Himself (19:4). The preamble of the Decalogue, “ ’I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage’ ” (20:2, NKJV), provides a reason for Israel’s obedience—God delivered them from slavery; in order to enter the Promised Land, they must show their allegiance to God.

Certainly, the purpose of all that God did for Israel (Deut. 26:8) was to inspire them to enter into a covenant relationship with Him (Exod. 14:31; cf. Num. 20:12; Deut. 9:23) in which, by listening to His voice they will be His peculiar treasure—a holy nation and a royal priesthood (Exod. 19:5). In this relationship, for example, they will never steal (eighth command­ment) because He, as their Husband (Jer. 31:32), provides for them (cf. Matt. 7:7; James 4:2); they will honor their parents (fifth commandment) because placing them in His stead6 God accomplishes His purposes through them. In this sense, the Ten Commandments, though, seem to be negative prohibitions, “you shall not,” . . . may be statements of assurance, “you will never . . .”

Terminology: “The Ten Commandments”

The expression “the Ten Commandments” is unknown to the original Hebrew Bible, though it appears three times in the English Bible (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:4). Deliberately, in these three occur­rences, Moses employed a derivative of dabar, “word,” rather than mits­vah, “commandment,” which, and its derivatives, he used extensively in the Pentateuch. In fact, the Ten Commandments are introduced as words—“And God spoke all these words” (Exod. 20:1; cf. Deut. 5:22; 10:2). This shows that God did not give Ten Commandments; He gave “ten words,” that is, the decalogue.

The word dabar is rendered “prom­ise” in many places in the English Bible.7 Moreover, its verbal form, “he spoke,” is rendered “he promised.”8 This suggests that God’s words may be understood as promises, hence, “ten words” as “ten promises.”

The grammatical structure

The grammatical structure of the Ten Commandments, “you shall not” (a negative particle + second person of imperfect form of the verb), communicates not only an “emphatic form of prohibition”9 or “the strongest expectation of obedience”10 but also a “definite expectation that something will not happen.”11 Statements that have the same grammatical structure such as, “You shall not die”12 (Judg. 6:23; cf. 2 Sam. 12:13; 19:23; Jer. 34:4; 38:24), “You shall not lack [anything]” (Deut. 8:9),13 “You shall not be afraid” (7:18; cf. 20:1; 31:18; Ps. 91:5; Ezek. 3:9) are undoubtedly promises.14 Richard Davidson observes that the concept that the Ten Commandments may be understood as ten promises “is embedded in the very grammatical structure of the Decalogue.”15 This shows that the Ten Words of God contain two intricately intertwined facets, namely, a prohibition and an assurance or promise.16

The Bible records numerous commands and instructions of God. To suggest all of them, particularly those that are given to His people, are promises or statements of assur­ance may seem to be overstating. However, an overall picture of the Scriptures reveals it is indeed so.

The big picture

A simple idea of a promise con­veys the notion of “I do,” while a command/ instruction conveys “you do.” If the doer of the action is the determining factor to know whether a statement contains a promise or a command, the Bible shows little distinction between them. In both cases, first, God is the doer of the action; second, the obedient are the recipients of the action. The difference is a promise is God’s action for the obedient while a com­mand is God’s action through the obedient. This phenomenon remains consistent in the Bible. For example, God instructed/commanded Moses to bring Israel out of Egypt (Exod. 3:10; cf. 7:6, 10). Yet, it is God who did it—“ ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt’ ” (20:1, NKJV).17 Jesus promised His disciples, “ ‘I am with you always’ ” (Matt. 28:20, NKJV). However, the promise was given anticipating their obedience to His command/instruction—“Go . . . teach ... baptize . . . make disciples” (v. 19). Human obedience is crucial for the reception of either a com­mand or a promise of God. In fact, to the willing, the divine promises and commands are not different—for in both of them God is.

Further, the English word com­mand, generally meaning “order, demand, decree, control,” often connoting a restriction of free will, does not represent the Hebrew “com­mand” (Heb. tsavah) that has a wide range of meanings including, “direct, appoint, give charge, ordain,”18 indi­cating no compulsion or force. On the other hand, the Bible shows that God operates with humans in the context of their free will: “choose you this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15); “ ‘whoever believes in Him will . . . have everlasting life’ ” (John 3:16, NKJV). Relating to this, White notes, “Let it be made plain that the way of God’s commandments is the way of life. God has established the laws of nature, but His laws are not arbitrary exactions. Every ‘Thou shalt not,’ whether in physical or in moral law, implies a promise. If we obey it, bless­ing will attend our steps. God never forces us to do right, but He seeks to save us from the evil and lead us to the good.”19 She also says, “In every command or injunction that God gives there is a promise, the most positive, underlying the command.”20

Hence, the phrase God “com­manded” Noah (Gen. 6:22) and Joshua (Josh. 1:9, 16) may be understood as “gave direction/ commission/charge.”

Thus, it may be stated that either the promise or the command of God is His invitation to His people to cooperate with Him. The result remains beyond human understand­ing. White comments, “As the will of man co-operates with the will of God, it becomes omnipotent. Whatever is to be done at His command may be accomplished in His strength. All His biddings are enablings.”21 She further states, “His command is a promise; and behind it is the same power that fed the multitude beside the sea.”22


In view of our nature, abilities, experiences, for example, keeping the Ten Commandments may appear impossible. However, we must remem­ber “it is His grace that gives man power to obey the laws of God. It is this that enables him to break the bondage of evil habit. This is the only power that can make him and keep him steadfast in the right path.”23 Consequently, every instruction/command of God is a statement of assurance or promise, as White notes, “The creative energy that called the worlds into existence is in the word of God. This word imparts power; it begets life. Every command is a promise; accepted by the will, received into the soul, it brings with it the life of the Infinite One. It transforms the nature and re-creates the soul in the image of God.”24

Jesus clarified that no one can obey God unless they remain in Him or connected to Him—“Without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5b). To summarize:

1. The purpose of the Decalogue assures Israel of God’s ever-abiding presence and inspires faith in Him both of which are crucial to obey Him.

2. The description of the Ten Commandments—“the Ten Words”—indicates that they may be understood as ten statements of assurance or ten promises.

3. The grammatical structure of the Ten Commandments reveals that they may be understood as prom­ises, not prohibitions necessarily.

4. The overall understanding of the Bible reveals that all God’s commands or instructions to His people may be viewed as His promises.

For those who do not know God as the Lord of love and promises, the Ten Commandments may be burdensome—arbitrary exactions, impossibilities. But for those who know God, they are promises and statements of assurance. Therefore, His people rejoice in them more than one rejoices in gold (Ps. 119:127).


1 Ellen G. White, MS 41, 1896; White, Sons and Daughters of God (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1955), 56.

2 Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book ofExodus, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magness,1967, 1974), 256.

3 Herbert Wolf, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1991),132. See also Norman L. Geisler, A Popular Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977, reprint 1985), 56, for the corresponding gods of the ten plagues.

4 Ibid.

5 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1913), 282. Further, White says, “The Son of God, enshrouded in the pillar of cloud, was the leader of the children of Israel, overseeing every phase of their experience.” The Upward Look (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1982), 341.

6 White, Patriarchs and Prophets, 308.

7 For example, Solomon praises God that none of His promises (Heb. dabar) has failed (1 Kings 8:56); Solomon prays to God that His promise to David may be established (2 Chron. 1:9). This phenomenon, dabar understood as promise, may also be seen in Neh. 5:12, 13; Ps. 102:42. See also Francis Brown, Samuel R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament With an Appendix Containing the BiblicalAramaic, based on the Lexicon of William Gesenius (1979).

8 For example, in his instruction to the elders regarding the celebration of Passover, Moses assures the elders that God will give the land to live and the privilege to serve as “He promised” (Heb. dabar). This phenomenon appears through out the Hebrew Bible, Deut. 1:11; 6:3; 9:28; Josh. 9:21; 22:4; 23:5; 2 Sam. 7:28; 1 Kings 2:24; 1 Chron. 17:26; Jer. 32:42.

9 E. Kautzsch, ed., Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, rev. A. E. Cowley (Oxford: Clarendon, 1910, 1990), 317.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid. See also Vara Prasad Deepati, “Šem YHWH and Its Being Taken in Vain in Exodus 20:7” (PhD diss., Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite, Philippines, 2009), 123–125.

12 Herbert Wolf, “Judges,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI:Zondervan, 1992), 420. The NIV renders it as “You are not going to die.” See also, Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scriptures, vol. 6, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 264; Leon Wood, The Distressing Days of the Judges (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), 235.

13 Wright, 126, 119; See also Anderson, 657.

14 Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy, New International Biblical Commentary, ed. Robert L.Hubbard Jr. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 126. See also Arnold A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, part 2, New Century Bible Commentary, vol. 19 (Greenwood, SC: Attic, 1952), 657.

15 Richard M. Davidson, A Love Song for the Sabbath (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1988), 36.

16 Ibid., 124.

17 Cf. Exod. 3:11; Deut. 8:14–20; Ps. 81:10; Dan. 9:15; Amos 2:10; Mic. 6:4, etc.

18 Francis Brown, Samuel R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon.

19 White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1942), 114.

20 White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1955), 76.

21 White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 333.

22 White, The Desire ofAges (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 362.

23 White, The Ministry of Healing, 115.

24 White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952), 126.

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Vara Prasad Deepati, PhD, is a professor of Old Testament at Spicer Memorial College, Pune, India.

June 2012

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