Promises, promises

Whenever I think of the Ten Commandments, one of the first images that comes to mind is… Charlton Heston. Some of you reading this may be thinking, Who? I don’t blame you; the classic Cecil B. DeMille film was probably before your time. Heck, it’s before my time; it was released the year before I was born (look it up, if you must know). Throughout my childhood, though, before the advent of cable TV and streaming services, the film was broadcast on network television every Easter.

But right now, if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I want you to play a quick game with me. I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to say the first thing that comes to mind. Nobody else is going to hear you, so don’t overthink it; don’t try to come up with the “right answer.”

Ready? Okay, here goes:

Name one of the Ten Commandments.

I’d be willing to wager a plague of frogs that you chose something starting with “Thou shalt not” or words to that effect, that is, one of the last five commandments: don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, give false testimony, or covet.

All of these have to do with relationships between people, and indeed, the ninth and tenth commandments specifically mention our neighbor: don’t give false testimony against your neighbor; don’t covet anything that belongs to your neighbor (Exod 20:16-17). Murder, adultery, and theft, of course, are also sins against our neighbor, even if the word isn’t used. And if you think about it, the fifth commandment about honoring our parents is also about human relationships, though it’s stated positively instead of negatively (“Do this,” not “Don’t do this”).

Now let’s back up to the beginning of the commandments. The first four all have to do with our relationship to God. Three of these are stated negatively: don’t have other gods; don’t make graven images or idols to worship; don’t misuse God’s name. The fourth commandment is stated positively: remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. This, too, is about our relationship to God, because “the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God” (Exod 20:10, NRSV).

Thus, all the commandments address relationships, either to God or to other people. Later, Jesus would boil these ten commandments down to their essence:

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.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matt 22:37-40)

The importance of restating the commandments in terms of loving God and loving our neighbor can’t be underestimated. If all we see is a set of behavioral rules, we can easily fall into a superficial legalism: Let’s see. I’ve never murdered anyone (though I’ve labeled people as idiots for any number of reasons). I’ve never committed adultery (though I’ve fantasized about the people I see on the screen). And, oh, there was that time I told someone a secret that I wasn’t supposed to tell them. But that’s not really on the list, right? That kind of legalistic righteousness misses the forest for the trees.

And the “forest,” again, is love in relationship to God and neighbor.

. . .

Now let’s go back even further, before the statement of the Ten Commandments. God didn’t just show up one day and hand out a list of rules. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the one who had demonstrated faithfulness and love to his people from the very beginning. This is the God who freed his people from Egyptian bondage. This is the God who led his people in the wilderness by pillars of cloud and fire. This is the God who fed the people when they complained of hunger, and gave them water when they complained of thirst.

That’s why just before giving the commandments to the people, God said, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exod 20:2). God needn’t have said more. It was a reminder that he had already been faithful to them, because of the promise he had made to Abraham, and was therefore asking for their faithfulness in return.

God, in other words, had made a covenant promise to Abraham, and the people standing at the foot of Mount Sinai were the heirs of that promise. Their obedience was to grow from the relationship God had already initiated, the soil he had already cultivated.

. . .

Finally, then, let me bring all of this back to the Psalms. I’ve said in previous posts that the life of faith, as seen by the psalmist, exists in the tension between lament and praise. Both can be seen as faithful moments in our covenant relationship with God. And as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann might say, what holds these moments together is a story, the defining story of God’s people: the exodus from Egypt. The bare bones of that story’s plot could be summarized as follows:

  • God’s covenant people suffered;
  • They groaned to God;
  • God heard their groaning;
  • God delivered them;
  • The people rejoiced.

Other stories of the Old Testament follow the same pattern — and so do the Psalms. The point is, as we go forward in our study of praise in the Psalms, that we recognize that the psalmists don’t just rejoice because their situation has improved (though of course, that doesn’t hurt). They rejoice because God has once again demonstrated covenant faithfulness.

We are heirs to the promises of a God who keeps promises.

And surely, that has to count for something, even on our worst days.