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Question 93. How are these ten commandments divided? 

Answer. Into two tables; the first of which teaches us how we must behave towards God; the second, what duties we owe to our neighbor. 



This question concerning the division of the Decalogue is necessary ant profitable; 1. Because God himself expressed a certain number of tables and commandments in the Decalogue. 2. Because Christ divided the sum of the whole law into two commandments, or into two kinds of commandments. 3. Because a correct division of the Decalogue contributes much to a proper understanding of the commandments. It teaches and admonishes us in reference to the degrees of obedience required by each table, and shows that the worship of the first table is the most important.

There is a three-fold division of the Decalogue.

I. It is divided into two tables by Moses and Christ. The first table comprehends the duties which we owe to God immediately; the second the duties which we owe to him mediately; or it may be said that the first table teaches us how we ought to behave towards God, whilst the second teaches what duties we owe towards our neighbor. This division is based upon the word of God clearly expressed, “Hew thee two tables of stone.” (Ex. 34:1, 4, 29. Deut. 4:13.) So Christ and Paul refer the whole law to the love of God and our neighbor. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind: This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matt. 22:37, 38, 39.) This division is profitable; 1. That we may the better understand the true sense and design of the whole law, and the perfect obedience which it required of us. 2. That we may observe the common rule, to yield the precepts of the second table to those of the first in the same kind of worship, or that we should prefer the love and glory of God to the love and salvation of all creatures, according as it is written, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29.)

II. The Decalogue is divided into ten commandments, of which the first four belong to the first table; the rest belong to the second table. God enumerated or included ten commandments in the Decalogue, not because he was delighted more with this number than any other, but because the substance and reasons of these things were comprehended in this number; for all that we owe to God and our neighbor is contained in these ten precepts or laws, so that nothing is omitted, nor is there any thing superfluous.  The four commandments of the first table comprise every thing which we owe to God immediately; whilst the remaining six, which make up the second table, contain every thing which has respect to the manner in which this life should be spent so as to result in happiness and peace.

There is, however, much diversity of sentiment and disagreement in relation to the enumeration of the commandments. Some enumerate only three, others five, and others four commandments in the first table. But that that division which attributes four commandments to the first table, in such a way that the first includes what is said in reference to having no other gods beside Jehovah; the second, what is said of not making graven images; the third, of not taking the name of God in vain; the fourth, of hal lowing the Sabbath; thus referring the other six to the second table; that this division is the best and most correct, we prove by the following considerations.

1. According to this division, each commandment expresses something distinct and separate from the rest, so that it may easily be distinguished from all the others, according to its true sense and meaning. When God himself divided the Decalogue into ten commandments, he doubtless designed that these precepts should differ from each other, so that each one should contain and express something peculiar to itself. Hence, if these commandments have not a different signification, they are not different, but one and the same. The commandments, now, which forbid our having strange gods, and making graven images, are different in their meaning and signification.  The former forbids any other god to be worshipped, besides him who alone is the true God; the other forbids that this true God should be worshipped in any other way, than that which he has prescribed. So, on the other hand, the commandment concerning concupiscence, or lust, out of which some make the ninth and tenth commandments, is but one as to its meaning, as the very persons themselves who make this division, testify, when ever they, in their expositions, join together this, their ninth and tenth commandments. The apostle Paul also teaches the same thing when he speaks of lust as though it were but one commandment, saying, “I had not known lust (to be sin) except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” (Rom. 7:7.) Hence, the first and second commandments of which we have spoken, are two different commandments; whilst this last, which some divide into two, is but one commandment. Moreover, if the tenth commandment concerning lust is to be divided into two, because it distinctly forbids coveting, or lusting after our neighbor s house and wife, then it would also follow, according to this reasoning, that it would have to be divided into more; yea, into as many commandments as there are things specified, which we are not to covet.

2. Those commandments are, without doubt, different and not the same which Moses has separated by different periods and verses; whilst those which he has expressed in one sentence, or verse, are not different, but constitute only one commandment. The Commandment, now, which for bids our having strange gods, and that which forbids our making graven images, are distinguished and separated by Moses into different verses, or sentences. They are, therefore, not the same, but different commandments It is different, however, as it respects the commandment which forbids the coveting of our neighbor s house, and wife; for this is not separated into distinct verses by Moses, as in the former case, but is comprehended in one sentence. Hence, it constitutes only one commandment, and not two, as some will have it.

3. Moses, without doubt, observed and retained the same order in rehearsing the commandments, both in Exodus and Deuteronomy. But the words of the tenth commandment, respecting the coveting of our neighbor’s house and wife, are not in these places rehearsed in the same, but in a different order. In Exodus the words, Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, precede those which declare, Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife. But in Deuteronomy the order is different; for here the words, Thou shalt not desire thy neighbor’s wife, precede those which declare, Thou shalt not desire thy neighbor s house. Therefore, these sentences are parts of one and the same commandment, or else there will be no ninth commandment, and we will be driven to the necessity of maintaining that Moses in one place confounded the ninth commandment with the tenth, and substituted a part of the tenth in the place of the ninth, which absurdity we dare not charge upon him. This transposition of the words in the instances to which reference is here had, clearly proves that God designed that that portion of the Decalogue which is comprehended in one period, should constitute but one commandment, and that the tenth.

4. This division of the commandments of the Decalogue is supported and sustained by the best and most weighty authority. The ancient Jewish writers distinguish the first and second commandments and include in the tenth the same portion of the Decalogue, which we have, as may be seen by a reference to the Antiquities of Josephus, the third book, and to the exposition of the Decalogue by Philo. It is in the same way that the Grecian Fathers and writers divide the Decalogue; as Athanasius, Origen, Gregory Narzianzen, Chysostom, Zonaras and Nicephorus. The same thing may be said of the Latin Fathers, Jerome, Ambrose, Severus and Augustin.  This distinction of the Decalogue was, therefore, at a very early period regarded as the most correct, and was received in the Greek and Latin Churches.

That Josephus, Philo and some of the Grecian Writers make each table of the Decalogue consist of five commandments, does not prove any thing against what we have here said; for although they do this, they, nevertheless, all agree that the words respecting the worship of the one true God, and those which prohibit the making of graven images, constitute two distinct commandments, whilst that portion of the Decalogue which has respect to lust, or coveting, constitutes only one commandment, and not two.  There is also another division of the Decalogue in the writings of Augustin, (Epist. 119, ad Januar. cap. 11, & quest, super Exod. cap. 7,) according to which the first table consists of only three commandments, and the second of seven; but the allegory of the Trinity upon which Augustin bases this division is too weak to give any countenance to it.  We may remark, however, in this connection, that if only the doctrine and true sense of the Decalogue concerning the true God, and his worship be retained, there ought to be no bitter, or angry contention about the division of the words, and sentences.

III. The Decalogue is divided according to its matter, or according to the things which are commanded or forbidden therein, into the worship of God as immediate, and mediate. The worship of God is commanded in the Decalogue generally; whilst that is forbidden which is contrary thereto.  The worship of God, now, is either immediate , when moral works are per formed to him immediately; or it is mediate, when moral works are per formed towards our neighbor on God s account. The immediate worship of God is contained in the first table, and is either internal, or external.

The internal consists in this, partly that we worship the true God, and that we render unto him that which is required in the first commandment, and, partly, that we worship him in the manner prescribed in the second commandment, whether it be in respect to the worship which is internal, or external. The immediate external worship of God is either private, or public. That which is private, includes the private moral works of every one the works which every man ought at all times to perform, as it respects acknowledging and confessing God, both in word and deed, which worship is taught in the third commandment. The public worship of God consists in the sanctification of the Sabbath, which is contained in the fourth commandment. The worship of God, which is mediate, and which consists in the duties we owe towards men, or our neighbor, is contained in the second table, and is likewise external and internal. That which is external consists, partly, in the duties of governors, parents, &c., to those under them, and contrariwise, which duties are comprehended in the fifth commandment; and, partly, in the duties which one man owes to another, which are taught and enforced in the other commandments. These are either the preservation of life and safety, whether of ourselves or of others, which is enjoined in the sixth commandment; or the preservation of chastity and marriage, which is taught in the seventh commandment; or the preservation of goods and possessions, which is comprised in the eighth commandment; or the preservation of truth, which is enforced in the ninth commandment. The mediate worship of God, which is internal, or the internal duties of that worship which is mediate, consist in the proper moderation and regulation of all the affections which we are to cherish towards our neighbor, which worship must be included in all the preceding commandments, and is prescribed in the tenth.

We may now easily return an answer to the following objection: The duties which we owe towards our neighbor are not the worship of God.  The second table prescribes the duties which we owe towards our neighbor.  Therefore, the obedience of the second table does not constitute the worship of God. Ans. The major proposition is true only of the immediate worship of God, in reference to which we admit the conclusion: for the obedience of the second table is not the immediate worship of God, as is the obedience of the first table; but it is that which is mediate, or which we perform towards God in our neighbor, or by our neighbor coming between God and us. For the duties of love to our neighbor ought to proceed from the love of God; and when they are performed in this way they please God, and have respect to him, no less than the obedience which is required by the first table of the Decalogue. These duties are, therefore, in respect to God, on account of whom they are performed, called and are in fact the worship of God; but in respect to our neighbor, towards whom they are directly performed, they are called duties. Hence, the worship which each table enjoins, differs as to the object towards whom it is per formed. The first table has only an immediate object, which is God: the second has an immediate object, which is our neighbor, and at the same time a mediate object, which is God.


A table of the third division of the Decalogue.




Before we proceed to the exposition of each commandment singly, it is proper that we should lay down certain general rules necessary to the understanding of the Decalogue as a whole, and of each commandment in particular.

1. The Decalogue must be understood according to the interpretation of Scripture, or according to the explanation which the Prophets, Christ, and his Apostles have incidentally given; and not merely according to human judgment or philosophy. We must unite, or bring together the explanations found in different portions of Scripture, and not adhere slavishly to the simple letter of the commandments expressed in such a brief form.  Nor is moral philosophy sufficient for a full interpretation of the Decalogue, inasmuch as it contains only a small portion of the law. This too is one great difference between philosophy and the doctrine delivered and taught in the church.

2. The Decalogue demands in every commandment internal and external obedience in the understanding, will, heart and actions of the life, perfect not only as to the parts, but also as to the degrees of this obedience; or what is the same thing, it requires that we obey God perfectly, not only in the duties enjoined, but also in the degrees of these duties; for “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” “The law is spiritual.” “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment,” &c- (Gal. 3:10. Rom. 7:14. Matt. 5:22.)

3. The first commandment must be included in all the rest, or what is the same thing, the obedience which it requires, must be the constraining and final cause of obedience to all the other precepts of the Decalogue, or else that which we do, is not the worship of God, but hypocrisy; yea, all the duties which are enjoined in the other commandments must be per formed from and on account of the love of God, or because we love him above every thing else, and desire to glorify and praise him.

4. That we may form a correct judgment, or come to a proper under standing of every commandment, it is above all things necessary that we consider the design, or end of each precept of the Decalogue; for the end of the law shows its meaning, and from the object which God intends, and wills to accomplish by each commandment, we may easily and correctly judge concerning the means which lead to the attainment of this end.  This rule is also of great importance in the interpretation of human laws.

5. The same virtue, or the same work may, for different ends and in different respects, be enjoined in more than one commandment; because the end for which any thing is done gives character to the action, and the same virtue may contribute to different objects; as fortitude is a virtue of the sixth commandment and of the fifth at the same time, because it is also required of the magistrate who is to undertake the defense of others. The observance of this rule is important, therefore, that we may not give our selves unnecessary trouble in distinguishing and comparing the different virtues.

6. Negative precepts are contained in those which are positive, or affirmative, and contrariwise: for when the law enjoins any thing, it at the same time forbids that which is contrary thereto; and when it prohibits any thing, it at the same time enjoins the opposite. In this way the law enjoins the practice of virtue, in forbidding vice, and contrariwise: for where any good is enjoined, there the evil which is particularly opposed to this good, is prohibited; for the reason that the good cannot be put into practice, without an omission of the evil at the same time. And by evil we do not mean, the doing of that which is evil, but also the omission of that which is good.

7. Care must be taken that we do not understand the commandments in too restricted a sense. Commandments which are particular must always be comprehended in the general; the general must be under stood, in the particular; the cause, in the effect; arid the correlative, in the relative. Thus when murder or adultery is prohibited, every injury, and every lust which men may wickedly cherish is at the same time condemned: so when the law enjoins chastity, it at the same time enforces temperance, without which there can be no chastity; and when it requires subjection, it at the same time recognises its correlative, viz: the magistracy.

8. The commandments of the second table yield to those of the first; so the commandments respecting ceremonial worship give place to those respecting moral worship. Obj. But the second commandment is like unto the first. Ans. There is here in this argument a fallacy in understanding that simply and absolutely, which is declared to be similar only in certain respects. The second is like unto the first, not in every point of view, but as we have explained in the former part of this work, 1. In the kind of worship which it requires, which is moral, and always to be preferred to that which is ceremonial. Ceremonies should always give place to the duties of charity prescribed in the second table. 2. It is like unto the first in the kind of punishment, which is eternal, and which is inflicted upon all those who violate either table. 3. It is like unto the first in respect to the connection which exists between the love of God and our neighbor, as between cause and effect, by which it comes to pass that obedience cannot be rendered to one table of the Decalogue, whilst the other is disregarded. God is not loved, except our neighbor be loved; neither is our neighbor truly loved, when God is not loved. “If a man say I love God, and hateth his neighbor, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother, whom he hath seen, how can he love God, whom he hath not seen.” (1 John 4:20.) This was also the design of Christ’s discourse in Matt. 22:38, 39; for the Pharisees placed divine ceremonies and their own superstitions upon an equality with the obedience of the second table. It was now for the correction of this error that Christ declared, that the second table is like unto the first; that is, as the obedience of the first is moral, spiritual, and most important, so also is the obedience of the second; and as the ceremonial enactments give place to the duties of the first table, so do they in like manner unto the second. 

There is, however, notwithstanding these points of similarity, a very great difference between the precepts of the first and second table. They differ, 1. In their objects. The object of the first table is God himself; the object of the second is our neighbor. By as much, therefore, as God is greater than our neighbor, by so much the greater and more important is the obedience of the first table, than the second; and by as much as our neighbor is inferior to God, by so much does the obedience of the second table fall under that of the first. 2. They differ in respect to order, or consequence. The obedience of the first table is chief, and supreme: the obedience of the second falls beneath that of the first, and is depending upon it. Nay it is only because we love God, that we love our neighbor. Obedience to the first table is the cause of obedience to the second. Love to our neighbor grounds itself in love to God; but not contrariwise. So Christ says, “If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26.) It is now on account of these two chief points of difference that the precepts of the second table may correctly be said to give place to those of the first.

But some one may still further object, and say, the duties which love to our neighbor requires, do not yield to the ceremonies commanded by the first table, according as it is said, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.” (Hos. 6:6, Matt. 12:7.) The duties of love to our neighbor constitute the obedience of the second table. Therefore this obedience does not yield to the obedience of the first table. We may reply to this objection by denying the conclusion, inasmuch as it contains more than follows legitimately from the premises. All that follows legitimately is: Therefore the duties of the second table do not yield to the ceremonies commanded by the first; which is true, and does not contradict the rule here laid down, which is to be understood of moral and ceremonial duties. If, therefore, the necessity and safety of our neighbor require the omission of any ceremony, this should rather be omitted, than that the safety of our neighbor should be disregarded. It is in this way that we are to understand the declaration, 1 will have mercy, and not sacrifice.


Theses concerning the Decalogue.

1. The first table enjoins the duties which we owe to God; the second, the duties which we owe to our neighbor; jet in such a way that the former are referred immediately, the latter mediately, to God.

2. The first commandment, seeing that it commands us to have no other God beside the true God the God revealed to us in the church, comprehends chiefly the internal worship of God, which has its seat in the mind, will and heart.

3. The principal parts of this worship are the true knowledge of God, faith, hope, the love of God, the fear of God, humility and patience.

4. God may be known by rational creatures in as far as he has been pleased to reveal himself to every one.

5. There is a knowledge of God which is simply and absolutely perfect, which is the knowledge that God has of himself. The eternal Father, Son and Holy Ghost, know themselves and each other, and understand wholly and perfectly their infinite essence, as well as the mode of existence peculiar to each person: for no one but a being of an infinite understanding can have a perfect knowledge of that which is infinite. There is also a knowledge of God which belongs to creatures, according to which angels and men have a knowledge of the w T hole and perfect nature and majesty of God, as being most simple; but they do not know it wholly, but merely in as far as God has revealed it unto them.

6. The knowledge of God which creatures possess, if it be compared with that which God has of himself, may be said to be imperfect. But if we consider the degrees of this knowledge, we may view it as perfect or imperfect, yet not absolutely, but comparatively: that is, in respect to the higher and lower degrees of this knowledge. That knowledge of God is perfect which the blessed angels and saints have in the heavenly world, by which they have a most clear perception of God, or at least as much as is necessary for the conformity of rational creatures with God. That know ledge of God is imperfect which men possess in this life.

7. The knowledge of God which is imperfect, or which we have in this life, is of two kinds: Christian or theological, and philosophical. The former is obtained from the writings of the Prophets and Apostles; the latter is known from the principles and general truths known by men naturally, and from a contemplation of the works of God.

8. The knowledge of God which is theological or Christian, consists of two kinds: the one spiritual or true, living, effectual and saving; the other is according to the letter. The former is that knowledge of God and of his will which the Holy Ghost kindles in our minds, according to and by the word, producing in the will and heart an inclination and desire more and more to know and do those things which God commands to be done.  That knowledge of God which is according to the letter, is that which has been in the mind of man either from the creation, or has been kindled subsequently in the mind by the Holy Ghost, through the word, which is, however, accompanied with no desire of conformity with the requirements of the divine law.

9. The knowledge of God, which is spiritual and literal, is in one respect immediate, being produced by the influence of the Holy Ghost, with out ordinary means; in another respect it is mediate, being produced by the Holy Ghost, through the doctrine which has been divinely revealed, as heard, read, or meditated upon.

10. The way by which we ordinarily obtain a knowledge of God is that which God himself has prescribed unto us, which is by study and meditation upon his word. We should, therefore, in this way strive to obtain a knowledge of God, and not require or look for any extraordinary and immediate revelation, unless God of his own accord offer it unto us, and confirm it with certain and satisfactory evidences.

11. But although God has sufficiently declared unto us, in his word, as much as he would have us know concerning himself, yet the demonstrations which nature furnishes respecting God are not superfluous, seeing that they reprove the wickedness of ungodly men, whilst they establish the faithful in piety and godliness, and are, therefore, commended by God himself in various places in the Scriptures, and are to be considered by us.

12. Yet we must hold, respecting these demonstrations which nature furnishes of God, that they are indeed true and in harmony with his word; but that they are, nevertheless, not sufficient to a true knowledge of God.

13. Furthermore, although natural demonstrations teach nothing concerning God that is false, yet men, without the knowledge of God s word, obtain nothing from them except false notions and conceptions of God;.  both because these demonstrations do not contain as much as is delivered in his word, and also because even those things which may be understood, naturally, men, nevertheless, on account of innate corruption and blindness, receive and interpret falsely, and so corrupt it in various ways.

14. Ignorance of those things which God will have known by us concerning himself, revealed to the church in his word and works both of” creation arid redemption, is, therefore, here condemned in the first commandment of the Decalogue. So, likewise, there is here a condemnation, of the errors of those who imagine that there is no God, as the Epicureans,, or that there are many gods, as do the heathen, the Manichseans, and those who offer prayers to the angels, the spirits of the departed, or other creatures. The same thing may be said of the vain confidence of superstitious men, who put their trust in creatures and in things different from God, who has revealed himself in the church, as do the Jews, Mahometans, Sabellians, Samosatenians, Arians, and such like, who do not acknowledge God to be the eternal Father, with the Son and Holy Ghost co-eternal.  Having now laid down certain general rules necessary for a proper understanding of the Decalogue, we shall now proceed to give the true sense of each commandment in particular

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