A Recent Book on the Ten Commandments - Review

The Ten Commandments, known among Bible scholars and theologians as the Decalogue (literally, ten words), are a significant focus of the Christian ethical tradition. In popular American culture, they are often seen as the epitome of biblical ethics. Some, misunderstanding the nature of the gospel, will state they are good with God because “they follow the Ten Commandments.” (If you haven’t encountered this, you haven’t shared the gospel in the so-called Bible Belt.) One cannot understand Christian ethics without delving into the text and interpretation of the Decalogue.

As a result of the importance of the Ten Commandments in the Judeo-Christian ethics, the study of the topic continues at a steady pace. David Baker’s recent book, The Decalogue: Living as the People of God, represents one of the more recent entries into the ongoing discussion.


The structure of The Decalogue is simple and straightforward. Part One has four chapters that survey the background of the Ten Commandments, including their shape, form, origin, and purpose. Part Two has a chapter on each of the first five commandments; this section focuses on loving God properly. Part Three discusses the last five commandments; these chapters emphasize loving neighbor. The fourth part consists of a single chapter that attempts to further develop the idea that the Ten Commandments are applicable to contemporary life.

It should be clear from the outset that this book is a scholarly volume representing a specific approach of the Decalogue. Baker is a good biblical scholar and interacts with key textual resources and commentaries in laying out his argument. He provides some of the background on the textual history of the Ten Commandments, including how different denominations number them and how they divide up the tablets, but it focuses mainly on the text itself and not the traditional ethical interpretations of the Decalogue.

By focusing on the text of the Decalogue, Baker provides a resource that opens up the topic and introduces the Ten Commandments for a contemporary audience. He divides each of his chapters on a commandment into three basic parts: (1) Explaining the Ancient Near Eastern context; (2) Exposition of the commandment in the context of the Bible; (3) Some application of the text.

Analysis and Conclusion

In explaining his structure, Baker notes, “There are a good number of books with valuable insights concerning the relevance of the commandments, but these often lack a firm basis in the study of the text.” (pg. x) His observation is correct and his emphasis on trying to explain the text makes this volume a good addition to ongoing study of the Decalogue.

At the same time, the contemporary ethical application of the Decalogue is often best informed by the historical uses of the text. Baker’s volume lacks this theological history. For example, there is little interaction with the way historic confessions of the Reformation dealt with the Ten Commandments, and very little reference to significant sermons preached by pastor-theologians on the commandments. Baker did not set out to accomplish this is his volume, so this is not a fault, but those considering purchasing it should be aware of the limit of the scope.

Also, the explanation of the purpose of the Decalogue in chapter four is thin in comparison to many texts dealing mainly with the moral theological significance. He summarizes three views on how broadly the commandments were intended to be applied and settles on his preferred interpretation, which is that they apply to all of God’s people. Neglected in this discussion is the nature of the Ten Commandments, which informs their applicability. If, as some argue, the Decalogue reflects the very character of God, then they reflect a moral standard for all people. Baker moves beyond those foundational arguments too quickly, which, again, is largely a result of the scope. However, some of those discussions would have made this volume a more complete treatment of the topic.

Baker accomplishes what he set out to do. He effectively explains the context and text of the Ten Commandments. He also brings these divine directives into our time through contemporary application. His exegesis and synthesis of biblical scholarship on the topic make this a touchstone volume for future Decalogue studies.

This is not a comprehensive treatment, but The Decalogue, will make an excellent addition to a pastor’s library as an aid to sermon preparation. It will also make a strong complimentary volume to a biblical ethics course at the undergraduate or graduate level. Baker has done good work for the Kingdom in researching and writing this book.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. Also, purchasing the book through the above link will direct a small portion of the proceeds to supporting this website.

Sabbath as Resistance - A Review

We live in world that never stops moving. There are more options than ever for activities to spend our time. We have access to seemingly unlimited activities, many of which are harmless or even in some way good. Our jobs seem to claim more and more of our lives each week. The special effort for a big project begins to be the every week demand because we, and our employer, has realized if we can make the sacrifice sometimes we can make it all the time. The endless stream of entertainments and opportunities has led many cultural critics to describe Westerners as exhausted, bored, and overworked.

With that motif in the background, Walter Brueggemann’s recent book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, has an interesting appeal. As an Old Testament scholar, an interpretation of the 4th Commandment would seem to be exactly in his realm of expertise. 

The book is a brief 90 pages or so, which makes reading it a sort of Sabbath in itself. This volume actually began its existence as a Bible study series that is available as a download from www.thoughtfulchristian.com for a higher price than this book. However, the original format of the volume explains the construction of the book and some of its characteristics.

Sabbath as Resistance has a brief preface followed by six studies on different aspects of the Sabbath. Brueggemann considers the Sabbath in relation to the first Commandment, and the Sabbath as resistance to a series of modern vices, namely anxiety, coercion, exclusivism, and multitasking. The book concludes with a discussion of Sabbath and the Tenth Commandment. Each of these topics is important and potentially helpful to Christians in a frantic world.

Brueggemann, interacting positively with Michael Fishbane’s work, argues the Sabbath “concerns the maintenance of a distinct faith identity in the midst of a culture that is inhospitable to all distinct identities in its impatient reduction of all human life to the requirements of the market.” He goes on to say that the celebration of Sabbath is “resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”

For Brueggemann, Sabbath is much less doxological and much more economic. He certainly has a point here. When the original practice of Sabbath is considered, it largely differentiated Israel from the surrounding nations on an economic basis. It is easy to find support in Scripture for the argument that resting from economic activity on the Sabbath reflects a trust in God which has a doxological element.

Unfortunately, this book never really makes such an argument. Sabbath as Resistance is much more a diatribe against market economics than it is a theological argument for worshipful rest. The rhetorical rejection of a market economy is an undercurrent that runs just beneath the surface of the entire volume, occasionally bubbling to the top. Through all this, Brueggemann does not appear to consider the possibility that consumerism is an abuse of market economics. 

I tend to agree with Brueggemann that Christians need to practice a form of Sabbath. The 10 Commandments are a part of the moral law, and as such, still in play since they reflect God’s very nature. The fact that God himself practiced Sabbath after creating the world demonstrates that resting and enjoying the fruit of one’s labor is a part of the proper cycle of the created order. The reality that a failure to constrain our desires often leads us to overwork and under-worship is another argument for restoring a healthy practice of the Sabbath that resonates with Brueggemann’s book.

However, Brueggemann’s simplistic view of a market economy––that it “mandates that one must sink or swim by one’s own effort, and it is never enough simply to tread water”––reflects a confusion of an unhealthy attitude that has cropped up in our current consumerist economy rather than a cry for a rejection of the system out of hand. The problem may not be the system as much as it is the sinful people living and working within the system. Therefore, I agree with much of Brueggeman’s application, but not with his motivation.

A weakness in this volume is that it never deals with some important questions: 1) How is Sabbath to be practiced? 2) How did the Sabbath transfer to the Lord’s Day in the NT fellowships? 3) What do we do with Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath? Brueggemann appears to be so interested in presenting opposition to a free market economy that he misses obvious biblical data and practical questions that would make this a more helpful volume.

In the end, I appreciate some of what Brueggemann is doing here, but he has an axe to grind and does not support some of his conclusions well enough in this context. This is worth reading as one perspective on the contemporary practice of Sabbath in Christianity, but it has too many flaws to be helpful as a Bible study resource.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. The opinions above are entirely my own.