Exodus 20:14

what-are-ten-commandments_472_314_80Exodus 20

14 You shall not commit adultery.

Have you heard of “The Wicked Bible”?  Here’s a nice summary from Wikipedia:

The Wicked Bible, sometimes called Adulterous Bible or Sinners’ Bible, is the Bible published in 1631 by Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, the royal printers in London, which was meant to be a reprint of the King James Bible. The name is derived from a mistake made by the compositors: in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:14), the word not in the sentence “Thou shalt not commit adultery” was omitted, thus changing the sentence into “Thou shalt commit adultery.” This blunder was spread in a number of copies. About a year later, the publishers of the Wicked Bible were called to the Star Chamber and fined £300 (£44,614 as of 2015) and deprived of their printing license. The fact that this edition of the Bible contained such a flagrant mistake outraged Charles I and George Abbot, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said then:

I knew the time when great care was had about printing, the Bibles especially, good compositors and the best correctors were gotten being grave and learned men, the paper and the letter rare, and faire every way of the best, but now the paper is nought, the composers boys, and the correctors unlearned.[1]

Now that is a mistake! Never say that one word does not matter. One word can change everything! No, the commandment says, “You shall not commit adultery.” This commandment is vitally important, especially in our day. In our day, the violation of this commandment is outright encouraged in many quarters, or at least the violation of it is seen as possibly helpful for relationships.

On June 30, 2011, The New York Times Magazine ran a story by Mark Oppenheimer entitled, “Married, With Infidelities.”

…[Dan] Savage has for 20 years been saying monogamy is harder than we admit and articulating a sexual ethic that he thinks honors the reality, rather than the romantic ideal, of marriage. In Savage Love, his weekly column, he inveighs against the American obsession with strict fidelity. In its place he proposes a sensibility that we might call American Gay Male, after that community’s tolerance for pornography, fetishes and a variety of partnered arrangements, from strict monogamy to wide openness.

Savage believes monogamy is right for many couples. But he believes that our discourse about it, and about sexuality more generally, is dishonest. Some people need more than one partner, he writes, just as some people need flirting, others need to be whipped, others need lovers of both sexes. We can’t help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them. In some marriages, talking honestly about our needs will forestall or obviate affairs; in other marriages, the conversation may lead to an affair, but with permission. In both cases, honesty is the best policy.

“I acknowledge the advantages of monogamy,” Savage told me, “when it comes to sexual safety, infections, emotional safety, paternity assurances. But people in monogamous relationships have to be willing to meet me a quarter of the way and acknowledge the drawbacks of monogamy around boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.”[2]

That is a very interesting thing for Savage to say. To cure “boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death, and being taken for granted,” one should be allowed to indulge in violations of a marriage that are, ideally, blessed by the other member of the marriage.

It is a profoundly modern thing to say, which is to say, it is a profoundly selfish thing to say. Yet many people agree with Savage, amazingly, and would even call such council “wise.” The Lord would not, and that is why He has given us the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”

What does that mean, and why is it important?

Adultery is any act (primarily, but not exclusively, sexual in nature) that violates the marriage bond of either party involved.

It must be recognized that the earliest interpretations of this commandment likely saw the commandment as aimed at males, married or not, who were tempted to have a sexual relationship with the wife of another Israelite. Roy Honeycutt, Jr. explains.

Within the context of Old Testament cultural patterns, adultery involved extramarital sexual relations between a male Israelite, whether married or single, and the wife of a fellow Israelite…It is doubtful that the Old Testament would have viewed sexual intercourse between a married man and a woman as adultery, unless the woman was married.

            Adultery was primarily a crime against the husband of the woman involved, rather than the woman herself. Legal sections of the Old Testament concerning sexual violations were grounded in the protection of the man’s rights and gave little consideration to the wrong done the assaulted woman. For example, in the case of the assault of a betrothed virgin, the death penalty was passed (Deut. 22:22-25), but if the virgin was not betrothed, the death sentence was not passed. Thus, the severity of the penalty rested in the violation of the man to whom the virgin was betrothed, not the virgin herself. Should one violate a virgin not betrothed to a man, a fine (indemnification) was paid to the father. The father had been wronged, for the assault of his daughter jeopardized the possibility of her future marriage, to say nothing of the loss of dowry.[3]

Patrick Miller generally agrees with this, but he notes that there are two reasons to believe that the early Jews would have seen this as applying likewise to women.

Although the primary or starting point of reference seems to be the activity of a man in violating the marriage of another man by having intercourse with his wife, in the trajectory of the commandment through the law and elsewhere, it does not stay so strictly confined. As with the commandments having to do with killing and stealing, one can identify a specific and confined focus that opens up rather quickly to a wider frame of reference. In this instance, there are two indicators of the wider applicability of the commandment. One is the formulation of the commandment itself. As others have noted, the common expression for sexual intercourse is “lie with” (šākab) + preposition + object (“ her,” “a woman,” and the like; e.g., Gen. 19: 32– 34; 39: 7– 14; Exod. 22: 15). There are other expressions as well, such as “take” (her; e.g., Gen. 34: 2; 38: 2), and “come to/ cohabit with” (her; e.g., Gen. 38: 2, 15– 16). All of these, however, regularly take an object, and it is female. The commandment itself uses a verb that is less common in these situations, nāap, “commit adultery.” It is a more general term and can stand without an object, thus leaving the possible object of the act of adultery open, relative to whether it is with a wife or a husband…[T]he statute in Leviticus 20:10 [“If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”] prohibiting adultery says that the woman as well as the man shall be put to death. Both persons are seen as having violated the commandment/ statute and are subject to its sanctions. Furthermore, both the man and the woman are called “adulterers” (the man, nōēp; the woman, nōāpet).[4]

While the history of interpreting this commandment is indeed unique, it would appear that it is most wise to interpret adultery as any act (primarily, but not exclusively, sexual in nature) that violates the marriage bond of either party involved. J.I. Packer gives a nice summary of the implications of the commandment.

[W]hat the words “you shall not commit adultery” call us to face is, first, that sex is for marriage, and for marriage only; second, that marriage must be seen as a relation of lifelong fidelity; third, that other people’s marriages must not be interfered with by sexual intrusion. One mark of true maturity is to grasp these principles and live by them.[5]

This much is certainly true: adultery is a very serious sin against God and man. Indeed, it is a crime against society itself. For instance, the fact that it is placed immediately after the prohibition against murdering is itself significant, as Victor Hamilton explains.

The placement of this commandment after the one about murder may be intentional. Adultery can have the effect of murdering, and hence ending, the existence of the covenant relationships of two other people. It plunges a dagger deep into the sacred bonds of matrimony. Plus, Prov. 6: 33– 35 discourages adultery not primarily because the adulterer is sinful but because he is stupid. Should the husband ever get his hands on him, he will do everything physically violent to him short of killing him.[6]

That is a good way of looking at it. Adultery is a kind of murder. God says that when two are joined together in marriage they become “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Thus, adultery threatens to murder this new creation of one-from-two by dividing them and making them two-from-one. Adultery strikes at the primary institution of society, marriage. As such, it is clearly and unequivocally forbidden.

One of the things we must do as a culture, and even, regrettably, as a church culture is return to a biblical understanding of (a) the sacredness of marriage and (b) the violence of adultery. I say “regrettably,” because the Church should not have to return to these views. She never should have left them. Yet it seems that for some within the Church today adultery is a sin we can just wink and giggle at, just something that men and women sometimes do.

In the aftermath of the Ashley Madison scandal, in which the account information of millions of users of an affair-arranging website by that name was released, it became apparent just how widespread the problem really is. Far too many ministry leaders and church members were found to be on that site. At the time, Ed Stetzer predicted that around four hundred ministry leaders would be resigning their positions in their local churches as a result of their names being on the Ashley Madison site. He came to this approximate figure as a result of an informal poll he conducted by calling denominational leaders in the United States and Canada.

Whether it is four hundred or one, the Church must ever and always grieve when the people of God violate the seventh commandment, as indeed we should when anybody does. The commandments were given to us not as arbitrary edicts intended to rob us of joy, but rather as loving commandments designed to keep us from actions that will lead to agony of soul, despair, and ruin. Calvin Miller expressed it creatively in this way in The Divine Symphony:

The illicit

Does not exhilarate.

It but indicts:

The sweetness of all adultery

Leaves just before the splendor,

Destroying the ecstasy

We thought might linger

To eliminate the shame.[7]

No, adultery never delivers. Rather, it tempts then wounds deeply. God’s commandment against it was an act of divine mercy.

According to Jesus, adultery is also an interior act that violates the marriage bond of either party involved.

As with the sixth commandment, so with the seventh we find Jesus internalizing the commandment by saying that it is possible to violate it inwardly whether or not we violate it outwardly. That is, according to Jesus, adultery is also an interior act that violates the marriage bond of either party involved. We find this in Matthew 5.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

If anything lays low our arrogance and self-righteousness, these words from Jesus do so. These words leave none of us with any place to run, and they bring all of us under condemnation, for they define all lustful looking as adulterous: all pornography consumption, all lingering over salacious images, all sins of the hearts, all secret imaginings of adulterous behavior.

Is any temptation more powerful or more pervasive than lust? Likely not. Frederick Beuchner has poignantly articulated man’s struggle in this area of life.

Lust is the ape that gibbers in our loins. Tame him as we will by day, he rages all the wilder in our dreams by night. Just when we think we’re safe from him, he raises up his ugly head and smirks, and there’s no river in the world flows cold and strong enough to strike him down. Almighty God, why dost thou deck men out with such a loathsome toy?[8]

Calvin Miller defined lust as an act of self-cannibalism.

Unbridled lust:

A cannibal committing suicide

By nibbling on himself.[9]

In truth, that is not an exaggeration. Adultery of the heart is so very pernicious because it allows us to convince ourselves that we are not really adulterers while, all the while, working the same ruin inwardly as outward, physical adultery does. In this way, we receive the same spiritual corruption as we pile self-deceit, dishonesty, and, amazingly, self-righteous judgment of others on top of our own self-inflicted degradation.

I once pastored a church in which there was a man who, it seemed to me, took an especial delight in finding out that others had been caught in their sins. He seemed to simmer with a kind of Phariseeism that I found profoundly off-putting. We were once discussing a man who had been nominated for the position of deacon. He shared with me that the man had committed adultery some twenty-five years earlier. After discussing this and the question of whether or not this act should exclude him from consideration regarding the deacon body, I said to the gentlemen, “But of course, according to Jesus, we are all guilty of adultery.” After reminding him of what Jesus had said in the Sermon on the Mount, the man I was speaking to said, “Well, that’s different.”

I will never forget that.

We tell ourselves, “Well, that’s different,” because it is much harder to take Jesus at his word than we like to think. I sometimes like to imagine what Jesus would have said if, at this point in the sermon, somebody had said, “Well, Lord, that’s different.”

Brothers and sisters, it is the same. We may become adulterers inwardly whether or not we become adulterers outwardly. Consider the words of Pozdnyshev from Leo Tolstoy’s novel The Kreutzer Sonata.

Two years before I had been corrupted by coarse boys. Already woman, not any particular woman, but woman as a sweet something, woman, any woman – woman in her nakedness – had already begun to torment me. My solitudes were unchaste. I was tormented as ninety-nine per cent of our boys are tormented. I was afraid, I struggled, I prayed, and – I fell! My imagination was already corrupt. I myself was corrupt but the final step had not yet been taken. I was ruined by myself even before I had put my hands on another human being.[10]

“Thou shalt not commit adultery,” applies to your heart as well as to your body. There are many ways to sin against your marriage or the marriage of others. This means we must cry out to God for protection, for mercy, and for grace in this area every day.

And, thanks be to God, we can also call out to Him for forgiveness. Church, adultery is a tragic and devastating sin. It brings ruin and despair and misery and agony and shame and regret. But may we end with this reminder: Jesus brings mercy and forgiveness and cleansing and a new heart and a new creation and a new day.

We should tremble at the pain that adultery begins and at how easy it is to fall into adulterous behavior. But we should praise God that the nail-scarred hands of Christ can forgive even this.

If you have failed in this area, grieve deeply and repent sincerely and come to the Christ who saves.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_Bible

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/03/magazine/infidelity-will-keep-ustogether.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2& ref =magazine

[3] Roy L. Honeycutt, Jr. “Exodus.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol.1, Revised (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969), p.400.

[4] Miller, Patrick D. (2009-08-06). The Ten Commandments: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church (p. 273-274). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[5] Packer, J. I. (2008-01-07). Keeping the Ten Commandments (Kindle Locations 714-716). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[6] Hamilton, Victor P. (2011-11-01). Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Kindle Locations 11290-11293). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[7] Calvin Miller, The Divine Symphony ((Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2000)), p.122.

[8] Frederick Buechner, Godric

[9] Calvin Miller, p.84.

[10] Leo Tolstoy. The Kreutzer Sonata (New York: The Modern Library, 2003), p.14.


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