The Differences Between the Two Versions of the Decalogue
This month’s question is: “How do you explain the differences between the two versions of the Ten Commandments recorded in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21?”
The main differences are five, here presented in order:
(1) The Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5 do not begin with the words, “And God spake all these words saying ...”
(2) The fourth commandment in Exodus starts with the words, “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy,” but in Deuteronomy it begins, “Keep the sabbath day, to sanctify it”—not a major difference of wording.
(3) In Deuteronomy 5, there is a long addition to the fourth commandment: “And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.”
(4) In Deuteronomy, the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth commandments begin with the words “Neither shalt thou ...” instead of “Thou shalt not ...” as in Exodus.
(5) In the version of the Ten Commandments recorded in Deuteronomy, the words, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife ...” are switched around, so that the neighbour’s wife is mentioned first and his house second.
Besides these, there are only some very minor variations in wording. Difference (4), regarding the opening words of commandments 6-10, is relatively insignificant.
Difference (5) is of some importance in our polemic against Roman Catholicism. In defence of its practice of image worship, Rome combines the first two commandments (it sees no difference between idolatry and image worship). In order still to have ten commandments it takes “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house” as the ninth commandment and “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife” as the beginning of the tenth commandment. The fact that these phrases are switched around in Deuteronomy shows that they belong to the same commandment and are not two separate commandments as Rome teaches. Nor are idolatry and image worship the same thing. In spite of what Rome says and does, image worship is wicked and forbidden by God.
Difference (1) is the result of the fact that in Exodus God Himself is reciting the Ten Commandments from the top of Sinai out of the smoke and fire upon the mount, one of the very few times that Jehovah spoke directly to His people. In Deuteronomy, God is not speaking directly but Moses is retelling the story of the giving of the law. The emphasis in Exodus is significant, though. That God spoke the words of the Ten Commandments and spoke them in the hearing of the people underlines their importance, and the fact that they are the unchangeable Word of God. Usually God spoke to Israel through Moses or others but in this case He Himself spoke. No wonder, then, that Jesus said of the law, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matt. 5:18).
Differences (2) and (3) concern the fourth commandment regarding the sabbath. They are the most important of all. The additions and changes in Deuteronomy’s version of the Ten Commandments reflect the fact that the nation of Israel was then at the borders of the land of Canaan and ready to enter the land in fulfilment of God’s promise. That land was for them the sabbath land, the land of rest (sabbath means “rest”), a picture of the rest which still remains for the people of God (Heb. 4:9), a land in which their whole life would be controlled and ordered by the weekly and yearly sabbaths.
In preparation for their entry into that land, God speaks through Moses more fully of the sabbath in Deuteronomy than He does in Exodus, a reminder to them of the important place that the sabbath would have in Israel’s life and, therefore, of the important place that He would have in their lives. It is no different for us. The sabbath, now celebrated on the “Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10), reminds us both of the rest that still remains for us in heaven and of the place that God has in our lives as the One in whom we find rest for our souls. Israel heard the fourth commandment repeated by Moses, and we too are on the borders of the land that God has promised us and will soon be entering it.
The difference in the opening words of the fourth commandment is not especially important. Sanctifying the sabbath and keeping it holy are the same thing, and we remember the sabbath by keeping it holy. If anything at all stands out in the different versions of this commandment, it is the word “keep” in Deuteronomy. That word means both that the Sabbath must be guarded and that it must be observed. Few, then or now, are interested in keeping the day as a special day or in behaving differently on the day. Of all the commandments, it is the least valued and many, sadly, do not even believe it is in force for New Testament Christians.
The addition to the fourth commandment in Deuteronomy is important. One might think that the words, “And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day,” consign the commandment and its observance to the Old Testament, but the opposite is true.
The deliverance of Israel from Egypt was a foreshadowing of our deliverance from the bondage of sin and Satan, and God is speaking to us as well as to them when He says, “therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.” This is taught in Belgic Confession 34, which speaks of the saving power of baptism (not the sign but the reality): “Not that this is effected by the external water, but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God, who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, that is, the devil, and to enter into the spiritual land of Canaan.”
In Jesus Christ and by His atoning sacrifice, God has brought us out of the bondage of sin and we are on our way to the heavenly Sabbath land, the rest that still remains for the people of God. Both in thankfulness for what God has done in delivering us and in hope of that better rest, we keep the New Testament sabbath, the sabbath of the first day of the week on which our Saviour rose from the dead. Rev. Ron Hanko