The Ten Commandments are no longer fashionable. It is doubtful whether there has ever been a time when obeying them was fashionable; but today the vast majority of people, including church-goers, not only do not obey them, they do not know what they are. They know a few of them. ‘Thou shalt do no murder,’ for instance, and ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ with ‘Thou shalt not steal’ thrown in for good measure; but that is about the limit of most people’s knowledge.
Not so long ago, things were very different. Everyone had them drummed into them from an early age both at home and at school, and church-goers heard them rehearsed every time they attended a service of Holy Communion. For in the old Book of Common Prayer, the Priest was obliged to recite them to the congregation after the opening prayer. ‘Then shall the Priest, turning to the people, rehearse distinctly all the TEN COMMANDMENTS; and the people, still kneeling, shall after every commandment ask God mercy for transgression thereof for time past, and grace to keep the same for time to come.’ That was an order. ‘Then shall the Priest…’ not ‘Then may the Priest, if he feels like it….’
However, when the Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1928, that rubric was replaced by another one, which said, ‘The Ten Commandments may be omitted, provided that they be rehearsed at least once on a Sunday in each month; and when they are so omitted, then shall be said in place thereof the Lord’s summary of the Law.’ Most clergy soon forgot or ignored the injunction to recite the Commandments in public at least once a month; so that, when the new Alternative Service Book appeared in all its prosaic glory in 1980, the Commandments had not only been banished to an Appendix to the service of Holy Communion, but, since the reformers considered that God had been rather long-winded when dictating them to Moses on Mount Sinai, they had been shortened and tidied up a bit. Whether this improved them or not, it is difficult to say, for nowadays no-one ever hears them, since they are never recited in Church. Instead, they are left to moulder, unseen and unlamented, in obscurity on page 201 of the A.S.B. But even that is not quite the end of their story; for in 1994 the Mother of Parliaments, sitting at Westminster, virtually abolished the Fourth Commandment, which forbids us to work on the Sabbath day, members of that august body in their wisdom deciding that they knew better than either God or Moses what was good for us all on Sundays.
However, before we say goodbye to the Fourth Commandment, it might be a good idea to look at it once again, and to ask ourselves why God put it so high on his list of ten commandments - or, perhaps better, ask ourselves why a small tribe of nomadic Hebrews leading a precarious life in the Sinai desert some three thousand years ago rated it so highly, and whether their rating has anything relevant to say to us today in spite of the enormous difference between the conditions in which they lived their lives and those in which we live ours. here it is, the Fourth Commandment, unabridged and in the old familiar language, to which many of us have been accustomed since childhood.
‘Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day. Six days shalt thou labour and do all that thou hast to do; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. In it thou shalt do no manner of work, thou, thy son, and thy daughter, thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, thy cattle and the stronger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that therein is, and rested the seventh day; wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it.’
The only commandments, which take precedence of that divine command to do no work on the Sabbath day are ‘Thou shalt have no other Gods but me….Thou shalt make no graven images…. (and) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.’ All these are religious commandments concerned with our relationship with God rather than commandments regulating our behaviour to our fellow men. Only then come the moral commandments governing social behaviour; do no murder, do not steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie, don’t covet, and so on; and to most people today that is astonishing. We would place the commandment to do no murder, for instance, far higher in the list than that forbidding work on the Sabbath. What on earth does doing nothing on Sunday matter compared with refraining from murdering your neighbour? Our predecessors were not fools, and they must have been perfectly well aware that homicide was an infinitely more serious offence than, say, milking a goat on Sunday. So there must have been some deeper reason for banning all work n the Sabbath day - which we are failing to see. What reason? Why did they regard it as being so important?
The clue to the answer to that question is to be found in the reference to the story of Creation at the end of the Commandment, where we are reminded that ‘God….rested the seventh day’ after finishing his work of creation. He had finished his work on the previous day by creating man in his own image and giving him dominion over the whole earth, and to understand what keeping the Sabbath day meant to biblical man, one must first understand what being created in the image of God and having dominion over the earth meant to him. In what way was he an image of God? What sort of creature did he believe himself to be?
First and foremost, he knew himself to be just that - a creature - like any other animal; dust he was, and unto dust he knew that one day he would have to return. But he also knew that, unlike all other animals, he too was a creator. As in the story of Creation, God had created light out of darkness and order out of primeval chaos, so he could create a new order out of the raw material of nature, culture and civilization out of the natural order of desert and flood-plain and forest. Whether he fashioned a flint tool or the first wheel or built a great city, within his human limitations he was a creator like God; thus and only thus could he fulfil his uniquely human destiny; thus and only thus could be fulfil the purpose for which he had been created in the image of God. In fact, it was almost as if he was a god, and the temptation to believe that of himself was both enormous and enormously dangerous; but he knew that too. Indeed, that was why he told the story of the Fall, in which the Serpent had tempted both Adam and Eve to believe that, as long as they acquired enough knowledge by eating sufficiently deeply of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they would not die; they would be like gods in their own right.
The danger besetting man, as he fulfils his human destiny as an image of God by becoming a creator in imitatione Dei is to forget his human limitations. He is not God. Once he forgets his creatureliness, and becomes swollen with pride - the Greeks called it hubris, and feared it above all else - instead of creating order out of the disorder of the natural world, only too easily can he use his powers to turn the tools, with which he has managed over the centuries to create an ordered and civilized world, into weapons of destruction - flints into spear-heads, ploughshares into swords, the wheels of his plough into wheels for his chariot, and eventually the life-giving power of the sun into nuclear missiles - with which to create desolation and chaos, where he had created order; and biblical man was well aware that this would be so, for he had been warned in story after story - the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah - of the consequences of behaving as if God did not exist, while he, biblical man, tried to take charge of his own dusty destiny, creating his own significance, purpose in life, and set of values, and to hell with God. What had God got to do with the way in which men should behave?
It was in order to guard against such forgetfulness of God that biblical man was commanded to keep holy the Sabbath day. For on the Sabbath he did not just rest; he abstained from everything which made him creative. The natural world as raw material for his creativity was taboo, and like God on the seventh day he did no work. Human power to create was ritually suspended, and man remembered his ambiguous nature. By ceasing to be fully human, paradoxically he became again what he had been created to be, an image of God, for God too had rested on the Sabbath day; and man remembered his creatureliness.
At least, that was the object of the exercise, the importance of which we today would be extremely foolish to ignore or deny. I do not mean that we should banish Sunday shopping again. If we did that, most people would simply play golf or go to the pub instead of the Sainsbury’s or Tesco’s or wherever. But what I do mean is that unless twentieth century western man makes space in his life to remember his creatureliness and to recall his human limitations - unless, in fact, he keeps holy a time to rest with God and remember that, even though he is made in the image of God, he is not God - he will almost certainly destroy himself in the shorter or the longer run; and his civilization - our civilization and culture - will go the way of other great civilizations in the past - Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Whether he destroys himself with the aid of nuclear weapons or succumbs to the inexorable spread of AIDS or merely over-populates the world over which he has been given dominion, until it can no longer support him or feed him, I don’t know; but unless he recovers a way in which to keep at least a part of his life holy to the Lord his God, I would not like to bet much money on his prolonged survival.