Duty and the Ten Commandments



On October 21st 1805, the most famous sea battle in English history was fought, the Battle of Trafalgar.  Just before it began, Lord Nelson in his flagship Victory made his memorable signal, “England expects every man will do his duty”.  The Victory is now on shore at Portsmouth, and every year on Trafalgar Day the signal flags flutter out from its rigging and send out once again that message of Nelson.  As you probably know, he was killed during the battle, and his last words, as he died at half past four in the afternoon, were “Thank God, I have done my duty”.

Duty to God and my neighbour

Today we’re going to talk about our duty.  Our duty means what we ought to do, so my duty to God and to my neighbour means the way I treat God and other people.  The first people to know what this was were the Jews, and they were told it after they had been brought safely out of the land of Egypt under the leadership of Moses.  You’ll remember that, when the Egyptian army which tried to follow them drowned in the Red Sea, the Jews – or the Israelites, as they were called then – turned south into the safety of the desert and kept on the move until after three months they reached Mount Sinai.

The Ten Commandments

Mount Sinai

Up to that time they had worshipped God, but they thought that was all he expected from them.  To put it in modern terms, they thought that as long as you went to church, you could do what you liked outside it.  They were now to learn very differently.  The Israelites camped for three days at the foot of Mount Sinai and then God gave them the Ten Commandments, the first four of which told them of their duty to God, and the last six of their duty to their neighbour.  Later Moses went up the mountain alone and remained there for 40 days, and when he came down again he brought with him two tablets or slabs of stone on which were written the Ten Commandments.  Later these stones got broken and were replaced with new ones exactly the same as the first (Exodus 32:19; 34:4).

The stone tablets and the ark

These stone tablets were placed in an ark or chest of acacia wood which was covered inside and out with gold, and had two golden angels on top of it.  Two rings were fastened on either side, and through them were put two poles by which the ark was carried.  The ark, containing the two tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments written on them, accompanied the Israelites all through their wanderings in the wilderness, and they took it with them when they entered the Holy Land when at last it was put in the Holy of Holies in King Solomon’s Temple.

Foundation of Old Testament teaching

No one knows what happened in the end to the two tablets of stone, but the Ten Commandments themselves remain to this day.  You will find them in the Old Testament in the Book of Exodus, and they are also printed in the Church Catechism in the Prayer Book.  They were the first real message to this planet from God, and as such are far more startling and far more important than any message from outer space could ever be.  They are the foundation of all the teaching in the Old Testament.  Jesus was once asked what was the greatest commandment of the Jewish Law, and he summed up the Ten Commandments by saying, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’.  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ “ (NRSV, Matthew 22:34-40) (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).

Jesus explained their full meaning

What Jesus did was to take the Ten Commandments and explain their full meaning.  For example, the Sixth Commandment is “You shall not murder”.  As we are not likely to commit a murder, we might think that the Sixth Commandment has nothing to do with us.  But Jesus showed how much more it means than seems at first sight.  “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times. ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement’.  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister (without cause), you will be liable to judgement …” (NRSV, Matthew 5:21-22).  So the Sixth Commandment also forbids us to hate or be angry with anyone, and the Catechism explains it is these words: “My duty towards my Neighbour is…To hurt nobody by word nor deed…To bear no malice nor hatred in my heart…”. (1)

Displayed in churches

Queen Elizabeth I ordered copies of the Ten Commandments, together with the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, to be painted on boards and set up in all the churches so that the people might have the opportunity of reading them.  This was because Prayer Books were expensive in those days and not many people could afford them.  Today there are plenty of Prayer Books and so you don’t see the Commandments up in many churches now.


1. My duty to God and my duty to my neighbour means the way I ought to treat God and other people.

2. The Jews were first taught what this was by the Ten Commandments which God gave them through Moses at Mount Sinai.  Jesus explained their full meaning.


1. Church of England (1662) The Book of Common Prayer.  A Catechism.  Available from: http://www.cofe.anglican.org/worship/liturgy/bcp/texts/catechism.html  (Accessed 19 August 2010) (Internet).