Written in Stone or on the Heart? The Controversy Over the Ten Commandments

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Written in Stone or on the Heart? The Controversy Over the Ten Commandments

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The controversy that erupted last month in Alabama sparked a nationwide debate about the public display of the Ten Commandments. A federal court ruled that a 5,280-pound monument had to be removed from the lobby of the Alabama Judicial Building. Alabama's attorney general, Bill Pryor, ordered it removed on Aug. 28, saying that the rule of law must be upheld.

About 100 protestors, who had been keeping vigil outside the building, watched as the granite shrine was removed. Some yelled, "Put it back!" One red-faced and obviously angry man yelled, "Get your hands off our God, God haters!" Others watched quietly with tears streaming down their faces, silently praying.

The issue raises once again the deep cultural battle raging within America. Those holding deep religious convictions feel that a mixture of liberal media, educators, entertainment moguls and courts is eroding the moral underpinnings of the nation. The courts are at the heart of this current battle.

Why would a federal court order the removal of the monument? It is ironic that on the facade of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington is a representation of Moses holding the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. On the currency of the country is the saying, "In God We Trust." Yet a court has issued a ruling to remove this Alabama monument.

In the Alabama case, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the monument's removal on the grounds that it is an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." For years, the argument in legal circles has been whether the framers of the Constitution intended freedom of religion or freedom from religion.

One need only look at the circumstances of the time to understand what was on their minds. America was founded on the principle that there would be no established state religion like that found in the Old World. Those who came to America's shores were escaping religious persecution imposed by the state and wanted freedom to worship God in the way that they chose.

Late 18th-century America was already a religiously pluralistic society. Protestants, Catholics and Jews coexisted with an assortment of deists, agnostics and atheists in the newly formed republic. The framers of the Constitution clearly intended to guarantee that religious freedom in the First Amendment. Rather than seek to distance themselves from God, they understood the role of His law, as codified in the Ten Commandments, as a foundation of the nation's laws.

Let's look at the words of these men and see how they felt about the legal system they were creating. There can be no question they were relying heavily on a biblical heritage to chart their course.

In 1778 James Madison, a primary architect of the Constitution and a future president, remarked: "We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions...upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves...according to the Ten Commandments of God."

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin admonished the assembled delegates with these famous words: "If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His [God's] notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that 'except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.'"

Franklin urged that each session begin with prayer, beseeching God for guidance and wisdom in their work. Today both the Senate and House of Representatives maintain a full-time chaplain and open each session with prayer. You have to wonder when this practice will be called into question in our current climate.

What is happening in America?

Former federal judge Robert H. Bork wrote of his concern about the judicial system in his 1996 book Slouching Towards Gomorrah: "Contrary to the plan of the American government, the Supreme Court has usurped the powers of the people and their elected representatives. We are no longer free to make our own fundamental moral and cultural decisions because the Court oversees all such matters, when and as it chooses. The founders had no idea that [a] Court armed with a written Constitution and the power of judicial review could become not only the supreme legislature of the land but a legislature beyond the reach of the ballot box" (1996, p. 109).

A judicial system with judges who make decisions based on politics and the prevailing culture is altering the social landscape of the United States. It is also significantly changing the meaning and application of its Constitution. Whether or not Americans like it, this is now how their federal courts function. A single judge or a panel of judges can make a ruling and that becomes the final decision in a case, whether it is right or wrong. And all others are bound by law and the structure of American government to implement the decision. If a judge, such as Roy Moore in Alabama, decides not to obey the decision, the system begins to break down, creating another problem. Carried to the extreme, it's called a revolution.

The religious fervor that Judge Moore and his supporters demonstrate is a two-edged sword. On one hand, men and women like the judge are outraged and indignant at the judicial drift in America. They rightly see the moral decay in society and worry for its future.

On the other hand, when any group takes the law into its own hands, another form of anarchy can arise. Religiously motivated domination has historical precedents that cast a frightening pall over this issue. Would we want to see any religion in the hands of man begin to drive the engine of any modern state? The Bible shows such a system will arise, not within the United States, but within a worldwide government before the return of Jesus Christ. That system, called Babylon the Great, will bring the world to the brink of annihilation. As we study the current issue, it is good to keep in mind God's warning about human government and the future role of religion.

A breakdown in society

This is more than just an argument over the placement of a stone monument containing the Ten Commandments. At the core of this issue is a breakdown in our society. The court rulings in this case reflect deep currents of change that have been moving for more than 40 years.

The courts are making judgments based on the current moment and that is undermining the Constitution. The framers of that document said it was meant only for a moral people. When the laws of man or God are interpreted according to the prevailing winds of popular culture, they have no real meaning. John Adams, America's second president, said, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and a religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

When television competes with itself to cross the lines of decency and morals by depicting homosexual relationships as normal, you are seeing society lose its moral bearings. When entertainers engage in lesbian kisses before a nationally televised awards show, and America merely sits back, watches and talks about it, you are seeing the lines of decency moved beyond the pale. That is where we are today. We are no longer "slouching towards Gomorrah." We are in a free fall toward the fate of that doomed city.

A talisman of protection?

How does God view the placement of His commandments in the Alabama Judicial Building—or any other public display for that matter? Let's see what He had to say to ancient Judah through the prophet Jeremiah.

As Judah spiraled down to its collapse, Jeremiah was told to stand in front of the temple and deliver the following sermon. "'Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!" If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

"'Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, "We are safe"—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD'" (Jeremiah 7:2-11, NIV).

The people, and some of their leaders, felt that as long as they had the temple and at least a semblance of the form of worship that accompanied it, they were safe and secure; no harm would come. The reference to the temple was a warning that the Jews' actions were not sanctified merely because they cloaked themselves with the ultimate symbol of religion at the time, the temple.

The warning speaks to us yet today, lest we make the mistake of thinking that a physical representation of the divine will is enough to preserve, protect and defend a people. Throughout Scripture, God points to substance over style. It is obedience to the spiritual law and faith in the God behind that law that ensure His presence among the people, not the mere displaying of a copy of His law.

That temple in Jeremiah's time contained the Ark of the Covenant that held the tablets of stone on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments.

God desired a righteous people who lived by the word of the law, not merely giving lip service to it. It did not matter that they passed by the temple, which contained tablets of stone. That alone did not make a changed life. There had to be a commitment to obey and live by the laws written on stone in the temple. In the end, God was not interested in a building or its contents. He pointed the people to Shiloh, where the tabernacle of the wilderness had stood for years. Shiloh was a pile of stones, uninhabited. Such would be the fate of Jerusalem if they did not repent (verses 12-15), which is to say if their individual lives did not "display" those commandments.

Judah was guilty of flagrantly breaking the Ten Commandments. Their idolatry was provoking God to anger (verses 18-20). God wanted a people who would obey His voice and live by the words of the law; this was the heart of the relationship He desired (verse 23).

Written on the heart

Today there is no public display of the commandments that by itself can guarantee a righteous and moral society. Each of us must look inside ourselves and ask whether or not we truly love God's law. "Oh, how I love Your law," wrote the psalmist (Psalm 119:97). Read the next seven verses of this Psalm to see how one should approach God's law. They are a source of wisdom, understanding, morality and sound judgment. They are at the heart of any true relationship with the Creator.

God reveals to us His ultimate intent—an eternal relationship with His laws at the core of our heart and mind. Notice: "Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.

"But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

It is sad indeed to see the once morally strong United States shy away from publicly acknowledging God and His beautiful law. But it is infinitely sadder to realize that its people are not living by it or enjoying the benefit God intends through it.

Regardless of what others do, you can begin to experience this kind of relationship with God now. Request and read a copy of our booklet The Ten Commandments to learn how this law applies in the everyday life of a Christian. Don't put it off any longer. Your life today will be greatly enriched. WNP

Recommended Reading

Millions want the Ten Commandments to be kept on display, but how many really know all of them or how and why God wants us to keep them? Request The Ten Commandments booklet to explore the Bible teaching on this vital subject. It is provided free of charge. Contact any of our offices listed, or request or download it from our Web site at www.ucg.org