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Exodus 3: The Ten Commandments

Exodus 20

“We cannot break the Ten Commandments. We can only break ourselves against them—or else, by keeping them, rise through them to the fulness of freedom under God. God means us to be free. With divine daring, He gave us the power of choice.” ( Cecil B. DeMille, Commencement Address, Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year, Provo, 31 May 1957.)

Ten Commandments Mormon MosesRemember that Mormons have an entirely different view of the religious history of the world than other religions.  Whereas most of the world believes that the Mosaic version of the gospel was the beginning of the philosophies and ideals underpinning Judeo-Christian ethics, Mormons believe that Adam was given a fullness of the gospel, including a thorough understanding of the Plan of Salvation and the role of Jesus Christ.  Mormons believe that all prophets who have lived since, even those that pre-dated Christ’s ministry, knew of and taught of Jesus Christ and the atonement.  Thus, Abraham did not invent the one-God religion, and Moses did not get his ideas from surrounding societies; he got them directly from God.  Moses was not an originator, he was a restorer, restoring lost truths among the Israelites who had been under the influence of Egyptian culture for many hundreds of years.

Had the Israelites qualified through repentance and communion with God to receive the fullness of the gospel, Moses would have relayed it to them.  But they were not.  Therefore, the measure of priesthood and law they were willing to receive was meant to prepare them for a greater measure of law and spirit.  Everything about the Law of Moses (which was a law of restitution and not a law of retribution) testified of Christ to come, that the Israelites might embrace Him when He would come among them.

The pattern of blood sacrifice commanded under the Law of Moses was fulfilled by Christ; the shedding of His blood fulfilled the practice.  But the entire Law of Moses was not done away with, but fulfilled.  The Law of Moses was meant to be a foundation, like the foundation of a temple.  When it was fulfilled, the edifice was built (by Christ and His law).  Thus, the foundation is still in place, but its purpose has been fulfilled by the completion of the building.  Those who claim that the Law of Moses was a cruel law replaced by Christ’s law of Love, are mistaken.  (See The Law of Moses.)  The Ten Commandments and laws of ethics are as much in force as they ever were, and they are repeated in all the books of scripture canonized by the Church.

In addition to the first time they were given (see Exodus 20 ), Moses repeated them when he summarized the experiences of Israel in the wilderness (see Deuteronomy 5:6–21 ). The Book of Mormonprophet Abinadi quoted them to the wicked priests of King Noah (see Mosiah 13:12–24 ), so they are also found in the Book of Mormon. And, although not given in the exact form that they appear in these scriptures, the same principles are also found in the New Testament (see Matthew 5:17–37 ) and in the Doctrine and Covenants (see Doctrine and Covenants 42:18–29 ; 59:5–9 ). When the Lord emphasizes something with that much repetition, it must be important. Elder Mark E. Petersen said:

“By his own finger the Lord wrote the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone. They represent the basic law of the Almighty and have formed the underlying elements of civil and religious law ever since.

“They are fundamental to our relationships with God. They are an integral part of the restored gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and are essential to our becoming perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. ( Doctrine and Covenants 42 ; Doctrine and Covenants 59 .)

The first four commandments show us our proper relationship to God. The fifth commandment establishes the importance of the family and proper family relationships. The last five commandments regulate our relationships with others. If we are committed to the perfecting of our relationships with God, family, and others, we are well on our way to being perfected in all things.

Exodus 20:2–3  —  “Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods before Me”

The greatest commandment, according to Christ, is to worship the Lord our God with all our might, mind, and strength.  The Lord should be first in our minds and hearts.  Although most of us would not consider ourselves idolaters, most of us are.  We worship the creations of our own hands, and that is the definition of an idolater.  Perhaps these creations are not “idols,” but cars, houses, beauty, fame, honors, style, and wealth become idols, if we serve them more than we serve God.  It is like the man who stays home from church to polish his truck.  We love whom we serve.  How much of our time is spent in the service of God?

“The command of the Savior was: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.’ ( Matthew 6:33 .) In revelations to the Prophet Joseph Smith the Lord taught that we must have an eye single to the glory of God. ( Doctrine and Covenants 27:2 ; 55:1 ; 59:1 ; 88:67 .)” (Petersen, Moses, p. 111.)

The Lord taught Moses that God’s work is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” ( Moses 1:39 ). Anytime His children set anything before God in importance, they begin to thwart His work for them. He is the only source of power and knowledge sufficient to save. To set anything above Him lessens their ability to draw on that power and knowledge for their salvation. That is why He says to His children, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” ( Exodus 20:3 ).

One Bible scholar put it this way: “This commandment prohibits every species of mental idolatry, and all inordinate attachment to earthly and sensible things [things which appeal to the senses]. . . . God is the fountain of happiness, and no intelligent creature can be happy but through him. . . . The very first commandment of the whole series is divinely calculated to prevent man’s misery and promote his happiness, by taking him off from all false dependence, and leading him to God himself, the fountain of all good. ” (Clarke, Bible Commentary, 1:402–3.)

Exodus 20:4–6  —  “Thou Shalt Not Make unto Thee Any Graven Image”

In the preface to the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord said that one of the characteristics of the modern world was that “every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own God, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol” ( Doctrine and Covenants 1:16 ). Commenting on modern idolatry, Elder Spencer W. Kimball said:

“The idolatry we are most concerned with here is the conscious worshipping of still other gods. Some are of metal and plush and chrome, of wood and stone and fabrics. They are not in the image of God or of man, but are developed to give man comfort and enjoyment, to satisfy his wants, ambitions, passions and desires. Some are in no physical form at all, but are intangible…”

Note that when the Lord says He is “a jealous God,” the Hebrew really means that His feelings are deep and intense.

Exodus 20:7  “Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of the Lord Thy God in Vain”

People usually associate “taking the name of God in vain” with cussing or cursing, and this is logical.  But what does that mean?  When we invoke the name of God in our speech, we are invoking His power to help us fulfill His will on earth.  However, using His name in a curse invokes His power, then turns it into a useless, debased epithet.  Thus, we have called upon Him uselessly, or in vain.

“This precept not only forbids all false oaths, but all common swearing where the name of God is used, or where he is appealed to as a witness of the truth. It also necessarily forbids all light and irreverent mention of God, or any of his attributes.” (Clarke, Bible Commentary, 1:404.)

Someone who invokes the power of God without authority is also using His name in vain.  The Lord graciously invites all of His children to come unto Him in reverent prayer, and is personally involved in our lives.  But when we enact some sort of covenant without authority directly from Him, we are pretenders to that authority.  The Lord has restored the same authority held by the apostles of old, and that authority resides in the priesthood power of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  (To learn more about the restoration of the priesthood authority, click here.)

There is an additional implication in the commandment to avoid taking the name of God in vain. An integral part of living the gospel is the making of oaths and covenants with God. When a person is baptized he covenants to take the name of Christ upon himself (see Doctrine and Covenants 20:37 ). If he forgets that solemn oath made at baptism, he has taken the name of the Lord in vain. At temple altars men and women covenant to abide by sacred commitments. If they leave those temples and live as though the promises have no meaning, they violate the third commandment even though they may not speak actual profanity. Those who take the sacrament each week with little or no thought for the covenant to take His name upon them, keep His commandments, and always remember Him, take His name in vain. Such light treatment of sacred things constitutes vainness in the sight of God. The Lord Himself said in modern revelation, “Wherefore, let all men beware how they take my name in their lips—for behold, verily I say, that many there be who are under this condemnation, who use the name of the Lord, and use it in vain, having not authority” ( Doctrine and Covenants 63:61–62 ).

In addition to religious oaths and covenants, many formal acts in modern society are accompanied by solemn oaths and vows. And yet frequently these oaths are dismissed or set aside. Clearly the violation of such oaths is a violation of the third commandment also.

Exodus 20:8–11  “Remember the Sabbath Day, to Keep It Holy”

In ancient times, abusing the sabbath day was punishable by death.  Such punishment seems harsh, but the Lord knows that breaking the sabbath can ruin an entire society and render the whole group unworthy to receive Him.

“The death penalties attached to the violation of the sabbath in the Old Testament era convey two very obvious assumptions. First, the sabbath law involves a principle so important and basic that violation thereof is a capital offense. Second, the law conveys also the fact that violation of the sabbath laws involves a kind of death in and of itself, i.e., that violation brings on death. The prophets clearly made this assumption. Obedience, by implication, means life.” (Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, p. 137.)

The keeping of the sabbath day used to be a feature of the entire Jewish and Christian world, but has been almost completely set aside.  Even those who attend sabbath services are usually willing to engage in recreational or commercial activities as soon as the service ends.

The commandment to observe the Sabbath was not just for an individual himself but included servants (employees), family members, and animals. Under the Mosaic law even the land itself was to have its rest once each seven years (see Exodus 20:10 ; Leviticus 25:1–7 ). Imagine the faith required to trust wholly in the providence of God rather than in the labors of one’s own hands every seventh year. (That challenge was given in Leviticus 25:20–22 .)

Direct promises of temporal plenty, divine protection, and spiritual power are promised in connection with keeping the Sabbath. For example, after giving the commandment for the observance of the Sabbatical year, the Lord promises, “ye shall dwell in the land in safety. And the land shall yield her fruit, and ye shall eat your fill, and dwell therein in safety.” ( Leviticus 25:18–19 .) Isaiah promised to those who do not do their own pleasures on the Sabbath, “then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord” (a concept perhaps related to having one’s confidence wax strong in the presence of God [see Doctrine and Covenants 121:45 ]), and the Lord “will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob” ( Isaiah 58:14 ). The heritage of Jacob was exaltation.

Exodus 20:12 . “Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother”

Dishonoring one’s parents was also a capital offense according to Mosaic Law.  However, the parents had to cast the first stone at the offending youth, and there is no record of the punishment ever being carried out.  Perhaps it was enough of a deterrent just knowing how serious disobedience was.  Prophecies concerning our day predicted that this would be an age to be an age when people are “disobedient to parents” and “without natural affection” ( 2 Timothy 3:2–3 ), one needs to contemplate seriously the implications of the commandment to honor father and mother and the promise included with it.

The promise is “that thy days may be long upon the earth.”  Youth who obey their parents in righteousness have a promise of protection from the Lord.

To honor means to “bring honor to or to have an attitude of honoring.” Obedience means “to follow direction or example.” Paul said, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right” ( Ephesians 6:1 ; emphasis added), and then immediately thereafter adds, “Honour thy father and mother” ( v. 2 ). This time, however, he added no qualifying statement, describing it only as the “first commandment with promise” ( Ephesians 6:2 ). To obey one’s parents in the Lord means to obey them in righteousness (see McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 2:521). Anytime a child lives righteously he brings honor to his parents, whether those parents are themselves righteous or wicked. The opposite is also true. Anytime a child lives wickedly he brings shame to his parents, whether or not the parents are righteous. So, honoring parents may not always imply obeying them.

But there is no qualification added to the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. To understand why, the ultimate model of the parent-child relationship must be examined. Only in the relationship of [God to his children] is the perfect model of parenting. …mortal parents stand as [His] representatives in the bringing forth and rearing of children. In other words, parents stand as direct representatives of God in mortality, and therefore, like priesthood offices, the office of parent requires honor. Obviously, an attendant responsibility and obligation goes along with that calling as God’s representative. Parents are obligated to strive to be as much like God as possible. The Lord has made it clear that should parents fail in their responsibility, which includes teaching children what He would teach them if He were here, serious consequences will follow (see Doctrine and Covenants 68:25–31 ; 93:39–44 ).

 Exodus 20:13 . “Thou Shalt Not Kill”

One of the most serious of all sins and crimes against the Lord’s plan of salvation is the sin of murder or the destruction of human life. It seems clear that to be guilty of destroying life is the act of ‘rebellion’ against the plan of the Almighty by denying an individual . . . the privilege of a full experience in this earth-school of opportunity.

Some have enquired as to how this commandment pertains to war:

“‘. . . the Church is and must be against war. The Church itself cannot wage war, unless and until the Lord shall issue new commands. It cannot regard war as a righteous means of settling international disputes; these should and could be settled—the nations agreeing—by peaceful negotiation and adjustment.

“‘But the Church membership are citizens or subjects of sovereignties over which the Church has no control. The Lord himself has told us [ D&C 98:4–7 ].

“‘While by its terms this revealed word related more especially to this land of America, nevertheless the principles announced are world-wide in their application, and they are specifically addressed to “you” (Joseph Smith), “and your brethren of my church.” When, therefore, constitutional law, obedient to these principles, calls the manhood of the Church into the armed service of any country to which they owe allegiance, their highest civic duty requires that they meet that call. If, harkening to that call and obeying those in command over them, they shall take the lives of those who fight against them, that will not make of them murderers, nor subject them to the penalty that God has prescribed for those who kill. . . . For it would be a cruel God that would punish his children as moral sinners for acts done by them as the innocent instrumentalities of a sovereign whom he had told them to obey and whose will they were powerless to resist….

“There is, then, a vast difference in destroying life while acting under the mandate of a sovereign nation whom we are in duty bound to obey and wantonly killing on our own responsibility. It would be well for every young man called to military service to study carefully the above quoted statement of the First Presidency.” (Lee, in “The Sixth Commandment,” Part 2, The Ten Commandments Today, pp. 93–94.)

A law of war is presented in the Doctrine and Covenants that is similar to the law of Moses.  That is, that aggression should be forgiven over and over until all supplications for peace have been rebuffed.  Then it is proper to defend home, family, land, and freedom in battle.  This pattern was established in the Book of Mormon.

Exodus 20:14 . “Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery”

The covenant of marriage, this sacred thing which was to go on eternally, was the heavenly institution which God provided under which his mortal children on earth were to reproduce themselves. There should be no human sex relationship outside of marriage. Children born to man and woman under divinely appointed marriage were to remain as their children forever. Families would continue as a unit even into eternity. The ties of home established in earth life would last forever. It was part of the system of heaven transferred to earth. It must be kept sacred.” (Mark E. Petersen, in “The Seventh Commandment,” Part 1, The Ten Commandments Today, pp. 104–5.)

 Exodus 20:15 . “Thou Shalt Not Steal”

“In public office and private lives, the word of the Lord thunders: ‘Thou shalt not steal: . . . nor do anything like unto it.’ ( Doctrine and Covenants 59:6 .)

“Dishonesty comes in many other forms: in hijacking, in playing upon private love and emotions for filthy lucre; in robbing money tills or stealing commodities of employers; in falsifying accounts; in taking advantage of other taxpaying people by misuse of food stamps and false claims; in taking unreal exemptions; in government or private loans without intent to repay; in unjust, improper bankruptcies to avoid repayment of loans; in robbing on the street or in the home money and other precious possessions; in stealing time, giving less than a full day of honest labor for a full day’s compensation; in riding without paying the fare; and in all forms of dishonesty in all places and in all conditions.

Exodus 20:16 . “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness”

“Murder, adultery, and stealing, dealing respectively with life, virtue, and property, are generally considered more serious offenses before the law than the bearing of false witness.

“To bear false witness is to testify to or to pass along reports, insinuations, speculations, or rumors as if they were true, to the hurt of a fellow human being. Sometimes the practice stems from a lack of correct information—sometimes from lack of understanding—sometimes from misunderstandings—sometimes from a vicious disposition to distort and misrepresent.

“Whereas murder involves the taking of human life, bearing false witness centers in the destruction of character or its defamation. It reaches to the ruin of reputation.” (Adam S. Bennion, in “The Ninth Commandment,” Part 1, The Ten Commandments Today, pp. 134–36.)

 Exodus 20:17 . “Thou Shalt Not Covet”

Covetousness is probably the root of all evil.  It has led to most of history’s wars, most adulterous relationships, most theft and robbery, and most minor arguments and rifts in personal relationships.  “And so again: The tenth commandment is inseparably integrated with all the others, and coveting could lead to infraction of all the others—for there is a wholeness in life in which each part complements the other. And there is a wholeness and harmony in the word of God, and it all comes from the same source. And whenever we ignore any divine counsel or commandment, we can be sure that we weaken ourselves and increase our susceptibility to other sins. . . .(Richard L. Evans, in “The Tenth Commandment,” Part 1, The Ten Commandments Today, p. 142–44.)

Paul, on two occasions, equated coveting with idolatry (see Ephesians 5:5 ; Colossians 3:5 ). The implication is that when one sets his heart on things of the world to the point that allegiance to God and His principles no longer matters, then material things become as a god to that person; he follows after them or worships them, and this practice is the same as idolatry. The Lord said that idolatry was a major characteristic of this generation (see D&C 1:16 ). Samuel told Saul that sin and iniquity were also idolatry (see 1 Samuel 15:23 ).

*Adapted from the LDS Institute Old Testament Manual.

Go to The Law of Moses.

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