Patrick Miller’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (Review)

Confession: I have not read this massive book (400+ pp.) cover-to-cover.  However, I have read several chapters and the book is so patterened that you get a sense of its quality right away.  I must conclude, at this point, that this book is a real treasure-chest of insight and plumbs the depths of the theology of the Decalogue while also offering plenty of examples and reflections perfect for sermon-preparation.  This is the first book in a new series of the Interpretation from WJK and it has certainly whet my appetite for the further books on The Lord’s Prayer (C. Clifton Black), Prophecy (Ellen Davis), Eschatology (Bruce Fisk), Sermon on the Mount (A.K. Grieb), The Apostle’s Creed (R.W. Jenson), Miracles (Luke T. Johnson), and an Introduction to Christian Scripture (R.W.L. Moberly).  Wow!

OK, back to Miller (WJK, 2009).  The book works, basically, through each commandment chapter-by-chapter, but the first chapter considers commandments 1-2 (following the protestant tradition) together.  In each chapter, Miller explores the Pentateuchal context of the commandment and offers a basic meaning.  He is quick to point out, though, that it is rarely clear exactly how to understand the commandment in and of itself.  There is a constant filling out of their meanings and intentions as one progresses through Scripture and sees how God’s people deal with such matters alongside God’s verbal and physical responses.

Thus, after the initial defining, he traces the themes of that commandment through the rest of the OT and then also into the NT.  One thing I appreciated about what Miller emphasized was that the Decalogue is not just a bunch of commands that precede the rest of the law.  They present the ideals of what God wants for his covenantal people.  They are not meant to be taken in a legal sense, but more of as a vision (here he would find much agreement with John Goldingay).  The rest of Scripture is a working out of what it means to obey and live according to these “WORDS.”  When it comes to murder, for instance, the ideal is not “Don’t murder.”  Rather, God is showing the kind of person that his people are NOT.  It is as much about identity than it is about actions.  That is why it should not be so confusing that “the ten commandments” are not all commands, but a variety of prohibitions and commands with various forms of expression and not attempting to be universal, but exemplary.  They are comprehensive in the sense that they cover all the major aspects of life (and covetousness is the catch-all, isn’t it!).  I think it is appropriate to compare this approach to the Decalogue to Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 1.6-11 where he lists a series of evil-types (thieves, greedy, revilers, etc…) and claims that they will not inherit the kingdom: ‘And that is what some of you used to be.  But you were…made holy…’ (1 Cor. 6.11).  Similarly, the God of Israel shows his people who they are not, and who they are.

But this kind of insight led Miller to point out something important.  We think of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount often as an intensification of the morality of Torah – don’t even lust, don’t even become angry.  I can see now, through Miller’s well-articulated NT sections, that Jesus was not pushing Torah beyond its own vision of identity and morality.  He was simply helping his audience to see what Torah envisioned all along.  Just focusing on not murdering or not stealing was never what the Decalogue was about.  But it is human nature to create a line and toe it.  Jesus, like any good prophet, was shocking his audience out of their apathy and legalism, helping them to recognize that they should (and eventually though the Spirit could) obey the fullness of the commandments.  The Jewish people were not special because of their morality.  Their morality flowed from their proximity to a holy God who was one.

Well, I could go on about Miller’s fine work, but I think I will leave it to a few insights I picked up.

-When it comes to the commandment about having no other gods (Exod 20:3), Miller considers that this is not just about monotheism as a doctrine, but about allegiance and loyalty.  For the positive side of commitment and what it means, he points to Ps. 46:1-2: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.’  This is a helpful reminder, because I think we often tick this box and say, “OK, I don’t worship other gods of Hinduism or Islam, so I am covered.”  But, this is about all of life and how we make our choices about who to trust.

– no images.  This could be no images of foreign gods or no images of Israel’s God.  If it is the latter, it is about several issues.  One is that it could be seen as an attempt to control and domesticate God: ‘The Lord chooses the manner of divine revelation and appearance’ (p. 50).  Israel’s God, rather, is less of an ‘image’ God than a WORD God (p. 52) -‘the word of God is how the Lord is revealed and present’.  Miller also points out an important economic dimension – often gods are made of gold and silver.  This can be seen as a waste or a flaunting of riches, ‘icons of excessive wealth’ (p. 56).  I had never thought of this, but it is reasonable and also applies to us today and how we spend our money (even on expensive church equipment and buildings, sometimes for the sake of showing off).

If I don’t end up doing another post on this, let me conclude with this: Miller is a highly respected OT scholar, but he has done something very significant here for the church and it should be read and digested by ministers, leaders of all kinds, teachers, and anyone wanting to understand better the God of the Bible and what he wants for our lives.  Order it for your library!


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