Indicative-Imperative

What exactly are the Ten Commandments for? If you’re George Carlin, you believe that they are politically driven, and were essentially composed for the purpose of controlling people.

When you think of the Ten Commandments, what do you think of? Plaques erected near state courthouses? Rules to live by? An arbitrary list of basic morals? Ways to gain favor with God?

For a large portion of my life, I generally saw them as a list of moral precepts. They were rules to follow, guides to make me the right type of person. And in some way, whether conscious or sub-conscious, I figured that some sort of favor was gained by obeying them.

Here’s the problem with how I was reading them: I was beginning the Ten Commandments from verse 3 in Exodus 20: “You shall have no other Gods before me.” A great commandment, no doubt. But it’s the wrong starting point. If this is where we start, it makes sense to see this as a list of morals, and an arbitrary list at that.

But the Ten Commandments has a prelude, in verse 2, that frames the entire law of God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” You see, God didn’t give the commands in a vacuum, he didn’t just come down and order us to do as he says. No, he first established a relationship with us, saving us from our slavery. And it’s within the context of this relationship that he gives us the Ten Commandments.

This is a frequent model in the bible that some scholars call the indicative-imperative (think back to your verb moods in grammar). The indicative comes first, some truth about who God is, or what he has done. Just like in grammar, the indicative is a statement that “just is.” Then the imperative follows, there is a command to do something. But biblically, in the Ten Commandments and elsewhere, God’s model is to pronounce an imperative (a command) only after he has reminded us of an indicative.

I think this has several implications. First, we must fight against the idea that God is a taskmaster, or that his rules are arbitrary and mostly keep us from enjoying life. God’s commands are framed within who he is (a loving, just, and gracious God) and what he has done for us (saved us from our sins, doesn’t strike us dead at any given moment…which he has the right to do). Because of this, we must see that these commands are for our benefit. God promises blessing on those who obey him, not because he magically rewards us for every good act, but because he’s the designer of the universe, and thus knows how the world works. He understands the natural consequences for certain actions, and so out of love, sets up commands and boundaries so that we might not experience those consequences, and instead experience blessing.

Second, I think it should affect how we, ourselves, give orders and commands. We all do, whether we’re parents giving commands to our children, bosses giving orders to employees, etc. We need to mimic the biblical model. And plus, I think we must keep in mind that people of all ages will obey far more faithfully if they trust the intentions of the person giving the command.

As we seek to obey God’s commands, both in the Ten Commandments and in the New Testament, let us constantly remember that those commands flow out of, and are founded in, who God is and how much he loves us. If you’re like me, it will radically change how you obey.

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