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MELBOURNE, Australia (LifeSiteNews) — I must admit that I’ve always struggled with the Ten Commandments.  

Not just in living them, but even getting them in the right order in my head.  

I don’t offer the latter failing as an excuse for the former. But even if it were, I don’t have it to fall back on anymore: recently, I have come to a new appreciation of the traditional ordering of the commandments which means I have no good reason for forgetting it again. 

That ordering is as follows: 

  1. Honor God.
  2. Honor His Name.
  3. Keep Holy the Lord’s Day.
  4. Honor thy father and mother.
  5. Do not kill.
  6. Do not commit adultery.
  7. Do not steal.
  8. Do not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
  9. Do not covet thy neighbor’s wife.
  10. Do not covet thy neighbor’s goods.

What initially occurred to me concerns the division between the first three commandments and the last seven. The first three, as is obvious, have to do with God Himself and our relation to Him, while the next seven deal with relations between us and other members of God’s creation.  

Seven is the number of Creation 

It struck me that having seven commandments dealing with creation is appropriate. Seven is the number frequently used in the Bible to signify the creation, and God’s covenant with it. Thus, in the book of Genesis, the creation of the world takes seven days. Indeed, in the Hebrew, the opening sentence of Genesis – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”—is seven words long. 

The Hebrew word for “seven” (sheva) is very close, both in spelling and meaning, to the word for “oath” (shava). Thus, when a man took an oath, he was said to “seven” himself. If we recall that the word “sacrament” is derived from the Latin sacramentum, which means “oath”, then this covenant/creation/oath significance of the number seven is raised to a new level in the New Covenant with the institution of the seven sacraments. Now in every sacrament, material things of the created world are used to convey grace. So again, it is fitting that, in the number seven, the commandments pertaining to man in this created world, which God inaugurated in the Old Covenant, are linked to the use of the created world by God in the New Covenant to fill our souls with sanctifying grace. 

An intimation of the Holy Trinity in the order of the first three Commandments 

What about the first three commandments – the “God” commandments: is there anything to be gleaned from their order? Again, it seems to me that the numbering is appropriate, as there is here an intimation of the Holy Trinity, if we consider each commandment in comparison to the other, and their wording. While the first commandment refers simply to God Himself, the second refers to His Name. This makes the relation of the second commandment to the first analogous to the relation between the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Son, and the First Person, the Father. For in Philippians, St Paul is inspired to write that God (the Father) has given Him (Jesus Christ, the Son of God) the “Name which is above every other Name”. And St John in his Gospel speaks of the Son as the “Word” of God. 

Finally, I saw it as no mere coincidence that the third commandment refers to Holiness – which creates an association between this commandment and the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit. 

So, even as we make the most fundamental division among the Ten Commandments, we become aware of resonances and links with other salvific truths of our Faith.  

I was prompted by these initial musings to consult St. Thomas Aquinas for his thoughts on the matter. There were rich rewards indeed. 

St. Thomas Aquinas considers the question 

St. Thomas considers the question of the numbering and ordering of the commandments in his Summa Theologia I-II, Question 100, Articles 5 & 6. The two articles are worth pondering in their entirety. I offer here but a small selection of his insights by way of encouragement to readers to delve deeper themselves. 

As we have noted above, the first three commandments which refer directly to God are placed before those concerning relations between men. St. Thomas considers the objection that perhaps the order should be reversed since, in our earthly life, “love of one’s neighbor is seemingly previous to love of God, since our neighbor is better known to us than God is” (Art. 6, Obj. 1). 

This might seem a rather pedantic point. But the Angelic Doctor often uses objections which strike us moderns as trivial as vehicles for profound observations in reply. In his response to this particular objection, St. Thomas notes that it is easier to grasp the truth of things the more their contrary is repugnant to reason. Now, when we reason about things, we think first of all about their end. But the end of man and society is God. So, our reason will grasp more clearly the wrongfulness of rebelling against its final end – God Himself – than the wrongfulness of acting against what might be called ‘lesser ends’, such as each other. By way of analogy: our reason readily grasps that, in an army, it is a more grievous deed for a soldier to refuse to be subject to his commander than to fail to coordinate with his fellow soldiers. The Angelic Doctor concludes that the traditional ordering of the commandments regarding God ahead of those concerning relations with our neighbor is more in accord with the way our reasoning works.  

We will see that this rule about our reason’s ability to grasp things, raised in response to that seemingly trivial objection, permeates St. Thomas’s discussion of the order of the Ten Commandments. 

St. Thomas pursues the analogy with an army 

St. Thomas pursues the analogy with an army, and the gravity of offences a soldier may commit, enabling us to grasp the ordering of the first three commandments within themselves. It is more grievous for a soldier to have dealings with the enemy than it is for him to be insolent to his commander. And the latter offence is greater in turn than that of merely refusing service to his commander. In like manner, serving other gods is a more serious offence than failing to show reverence to the One God, which in turn is more offensive than being found wanting in some point of service to Him.  

This notion of ordering according to the grievous nature of offences is then used to rank the seven commandments dealing with man and society.  

The fourth commandment is “Honor thy father and mother”.  

If I had been listing the commandments, I might well have placed the prohibition against murder as the fourth, since murder involves the most drastic attack on the good of my neighbor: the deprivation of his or her life. But St. Thomas argues for the traditional structure in the following way: The greatest offence in dealings with our neighbor is not to observe the due order as to those to whom we are most indebted. Hence, we must first of all pay heed to our obligations with regard to our parents, to whom, out of all the members of human society, we are most indebted. The reason is clear. We are most indebted to our parents since it was through these particular human beings that we have the gift of our very life itself. So, the next most appropriate commandment after the first three – the fourth – gives priority to the obligations we have to our life itself.  

“But,” one may object, “surely murdering my neighbor Jack is a more serious sin than, say disobeying my parents, or insulting them?” St. Thomas doesn’t address this point directly, but I think what he might say is this: a failure to respect adequately the source of one’s own existence, by neglecting to pay due honor to one’s parents, is closely linked to a failure to value the gift of life itself. Someone who has no respect for their parents, and no true appreciation for what they have done in giving them life, is for that reason predisposed not to respect the prohibition against murder. Conversely, what might stop someone from committing murder is a realization that their own life is a wonderful gift from their parents, and not something to be treated with disdain in their own case, or indeed in that of any human being.  

Our human parents are not, of course, the sufficient explanation for our existence: God Himself, the Creator of all things, is the Ultimate Reason. And this fact is reflected in the traditional structure of the commandments. The obligation to honor our parents has priority among the last seven. But our indebtedness to God Himself for our existence on the most radical level justifies once again the priority of the first three commandments within the Decalogue. 

Sinning by thought, word & deed 

To explain the ordering of the final six commandments, St. Thomas reflects further on the gravity of sin. “It is more grave and more repugnant to reason,” he says, “to sin by deed than by word; and by word than by thought.” (We are reminded of this three-fold structure in the traditional Confiteor: cogitatione, verbo et opera – thought, word and deed, in increasing order of importance.)  

And so we have the structure: sins by deed (murder, adultery, and theft) are more serious than sins by word (lies), which in turn are more serious than sins of mere thought (coveting one’s neighbor’s wife, coveting one’s neighbor’s goods).  

Within the sins of deed themselves, St. Thomas justifies the ranking thus: “And among sins of deed, murder which destroys life in one already living is more grievous than adultery, which imperils the life of the unborn child; and adultery is more grave than theft, which regards external goods”. 

Much of that accords with our normal intuitions. But notice St. Thomas’ curious remark, asserted without qualification, about adultery: it “imperils the life of the unborn child”. What could he mean? Surely adulterous couples (and the like) come together for (wrong) reasons other than the destruction of an unborn baby’s life?  

I think we are back to the rationale referred to above, which justified the ranking of the duty to honor one’s parents above the prohibition of murder. St. Thomas is not seeking to define the essence of adultery here; he assumes that his readers are well aware as to what it is. He is pointing rather to the kind of evil which the act of adultery can easily lead to. In his own day, the commission of adultery – a crime – would be liable to be discovered by means of a consequent pregnancy. The only way to keep the act of adultery covert in the event of pregnancy was by induced miscarriage (abortion) or infanticide.  

St. Thomas reminds us here that our actions shape our character for good or ill in a way that manifests itself in thoughts and decisions further on in life. Just as the failure to honor one’s parents properly may lead to disrespect for life itself, failure to resist temptations to commit adultery will mean that we are then that much weaker in the face of subsequent temptations to conceal that misdeed by any means whatsoever – even the killing a child. 

Whatever his reasons, we certainly know that the link between sins against the sixth commandment and threats to the life of the child identified by St. Thomas is for various reasons just as strong, if not much stronger, in our own time. The stigma and shame that once surrounded adultery and related sins have all but disappeared, especially in recent decades in the post-Christian West, and such deeds are far more commonplace. Yet, although contraception is today more “efficient”, available, and unfortunately morally acceptable to many, equally acceptable is the incidence of abortion.  

The ordering of the 10 Commandments is more than a list 

In contemplating the order of the Ten Commandments, as traditionally numbered, we discover something far more profound than a mere shopping list of “dos” and “don’ts” arbitrarily thrown together. The traditional order is helpful to man in that it accords with the order in which our human reason grasps things. It reminds us of the logical and moral priority of revering the human and divine sources of our very existence before anything else – “putting first things first”, as it were. It instructs us as to the levels of seriousness among vices, and bids us consider the way a deed we perform now – good or bad – shapes our character and influences our dispositions to right and wrong in future situations. The numbering and division of the commandments draws our attention to the covenant God made with us His creatures, to the sacraments of the new Covenant, and even, ultimately to the most sublime truth of our faith: the inner life of the Trinity.  

There are many other aspects of the Ten Commandments that could be raised in this discussion. I hope these few thoughts will stimulate readers who have not yet done so to make their own reflection. 


Hugh Henry is the former editor of the Australian magazine Fidelity