Sometime around 1300 B.C., with the help of God, Moses led the Israelites out of enslavement in Egypt to begin a 40-year journey to their Promised Land. Three months after leaving Egypt, while they were camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, God delivered the Ten Commandments to the Israelites as guidelines for living as a free nation.
Virtually all the moral teachings and wisdom of the Bible have their roots in the Ten Commandments. Though these principles are more than 3000 years old, they still define the basis for a well-functioning society.
And God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. (NRSV, Exodus 20:1-3)
The First Commandment requires us to worship only God and no other deities. He demands total loyalty, total devotion.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (NRSV, Exodus 20:4)
The second Commandment follows from the first. The Israelites were fond of making and worshipping idols of various kinds that would detract from their worship of God. More generally, we must not let any of our pursuits take precedence over God and His Commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. (NRSV, Exodus 20:7)
Curses, false oaths, irreverent talk, etc., are forbidden. We must not use God's name in a way that demeans or trivializes Him.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. (NIV, Exodus 20:8-10)
We should reserve one day a week for rest and worship, and allow our children and employees the same privilege. Jesus modified the traditional view of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-27), saying "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath," and implying that it is acceptable to do work on the Sabbath, if necessary. Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath day, but early Christians began the tradition of worshipping on Sunday, and eventually abandoned the Saturday Sabbath.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (NRSV, Exodus 20:12)
Children should respect their parents and accept their instruction with grace, not rebellion. The protection, love, instruction and discipline of the family are essential parts of a healthy society, and the parents' authority to hold the family intact must be preserved. As our parents grow old, we must not abandon them physically or emotionally.
You shall not murder. (NRSV, Exodus 20:13)
Murder is the ultimate crime against another person and is forbidden.
You shall not commit adultery (NRSV , Exodus 20:14).
Adultery destroys marriages and injures innocent spouses and children. We must be faithful to our marriage vows.
You shall not steal. (NRSV, Exodus 20:15)
Theft violates the peace and security of another person. We must attain all our possessions through legal, ethical means.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (NRSV, Exodus 20:16)
False testimony, lies, false rumors, gossip and innuendo can ruin reputations. We must not use deception for revenge or selfish gain.
You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (NIV, Exodus 20:17)
We must not set our desires on anything or anyone that is not rightfully ours. Desire leads to temptation and the temptation may become too strong to resist.
The grouping of Exodus 20:1-17 into ten commandments is somewhat arbitrary. Some traditions group Exodus 20:1-6 into a single first commandment and divide Exodus 20:17 into a ninth and tenth commandment.
Related verses: Exodus 19:16-25, Exodus 34:28-29, Deuteronomy 5:6-21, Matthew 19:16-22