The Second Table of the Law

celtic cross
What are the principles in the Bible which are not reflections of their historical settings? This is still an open question and may never be answered satisfactorily, but the Ten Commandments are a good start. In Presbyterian Churches the two tablets of the Ten Commandments are often divided into: 1-4 which deal with our relationship with God and 5-10 which deal with our relationship with others. (Different traditions divide the commandments in different ways. For a discussion of those differences look here.)

The commandments of the second table of the law are: (Exodus 20:12-17; Deuteronomy 5:16-21)

  • Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
  • You shall not murder.
  • You shall not commit adultery.
  • You shall not steal.
  • You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  • You shall not desire, crave or covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.

The Nash Papyrus containing the Ten Commandments and the start of the Shema prayer, ca. 150-100 BC, probably from Fayyum, Egypt, Cambridge University Library, U.K.
The Nash Papyrus containing the Ten Commandments and the start of the Shema prayer, ca. 150-100 BC, probably from Fayyum, Egypt, Cambridge University Library, U.K.
One useful way to begin to understand the second table of the law is to look at the last commandment first. Improper desire is the root of many of the offenses that we associate with these commandments. People lie, steal, violate commitments of faithfulness in intimacy and eventually even kill others all because they want things that aren't properly theirs.

The Golden Rule

A useful summation of the second table of the law is the principle of using our own desires to understand how to treat others. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught,

"In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:1)

This passage, also called the Golden Rule, does not teach us specific laws or what we should do in specific instances. It gives us an important tool to test whether something is fair and right. It allows us to look at our human relationships and see if they are consistent. Are we treating others in ways that are ultimately for our own selfish ends or are we treating them in ways that respect their differences as we would like our differences respected.

For Further Study

Catholic Encyclopedia Article
Religious Tolerance dot org
Presbyterian 101 Articles on Social Issues