Have you ever wondered why the list of laws we know as the Ten Commandments is made up of those specific commandments? I recently found this very interesting explanation in Duane Garrett’s commentary on the Book of Exodus. They’re not random at all, he says, and in fact, their significance goes beyond even the ten areas they address. For instance, Exodus 20:12, commonly called the fifth commandment, reads: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” Are we just being told that there’s a connection between being a good kid and living a long time? Well, maybe that’s part of it, Garrett observes,

But even as a proverbial truth, how is it that respect for parents contributes to a long life? The answer, I believe, is that parents are the first and foremost representatives of the authority structures of life. That is, those who respect their parents will not have trouble dealing with another authority in life, be it in government, business, the military, or society in general. From a habit of respecting parental authority, one learns that there are rules that govern life and that there are people who rightly are in a position to enforce the rules. Such a person will respect laws, school rules, and company policies as well as the police, teachers, and employers. He will not have in his company file the notation “has trouble with authority,” and is therefore less likely to be fired. He will not be expelled from a university for disorderly behavior or cheating. More generally, such a person will understand that rules govern all of life, and will not do such things as truing to drive a car while intoxicated. In short, those who, out of their relationship to their parents, learn to respect for authority avoid the calamities that befall people who do not, and so are far more likely to be healthy, at peace, and to live long. [pg. 479]

Wow. From a simple command to honor your parents, to success in school, business, the military, and life in general. In other words, God knows how to do a lot with a few simple words. Learn well how to honor your father and mother, and you’ll experience blessings that stretch across your entire life.

Or consider Exodus 20:14, commonly known as the seventh commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” Again, is this saying that other sins of this nature ore OK, as long as you’re not married? Not at all:

We must…ask why the Decalogue explicitly forbids adultery as opposed to more generically forbidding sexual immortality. The reason, I believe, is that marriage is foundational for the survival of the family and of society. It is not that other forms of sexual immortality are less evil. Rather, it is that the focus of the text is not on describing generically every kind of sin; the focus is on sins that destroy the fabric of society among the covenant people. There are other sexual sins, but the pastor who expounds on this verse should give special attention to the special place of marriage in human society and to how adultery destroys that institution. [pg. 481]

So the simple command to not commit adultery is for nothing short of…the survival of society. God does not care only for individuals, but also the kinds of structures and networks and connections that individual men and women actually need in order live and flourish. So God warns us specifically against the kinds of sins, and even, the specific sins, which will destroy the fabric of society. 

This, says, Garrett, is the purpose of the Ten Commandments as a whole:

It is not simply a list of ten broad and generic types of evildoing.

It is ten specific sins that will destroy the covenant community.

And this is why we would do well to study it, to meditate on it, and in fact, to seek a deep understanding of all of God’s commands. God knows much better than we do the effects of misusing the world he made. He knew the thousands of years of pain wrapped up in the statement, “You shall surely die,” more than Adam ever could have. And when we find words as clear and simple as the Ten Commandments, we would do well to trust God, and hear. And then, with the Psalmist, we’ll find ourselves saying:

Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.

You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies;
For they are ever with me.

I have more understanding than all my teachers,
For Your testimonies are my meditation.

I understand more than the ancients, Because I keep Your precepts.