Ten Commands or Ten Promises?

Are what we call the Ten Commandments really that – commandments? Or can they be understood as the Ten Promises? Is it “Thou shalt not” or “Thou will not”? Prohibitions or promises? It makes a big difference in how one sees God.

While they are commonly called the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20 calls them the “ten words.”

“And God spake all these words, saying,” (Exo 20:1)

“Words” is from the Hebrew “dabar” (Strong’s H1697) and is translated as:

AV-word 807, thing 231, matter 63, acts 51, chronicles 38, saying 25, commandment 20, misc 204; 1439

It is defined as:

1) speech, word, speaking, thing
1a) speech
1b) saying, utterance
1c) word, words
1d) business, occupation, acts, matter, case, something, manner (by extension)

Where the Ten Commandments are repeated in Deuteronomy (which means “second law”) they are referred to in the same way:

“These words (dabar) the LORD spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: and he added no more. And he wrote them in two tables of stone, and delivered them unto me.” (Deut 5:22)

“And I will write on the tables the words (dabar) that were in the first tables which thou brakest, and thou shalt put them in the ark.” (Deut 10:2)

The verse below is interesting in that it describes what God wrote upon the tables as both “the words” and “the ten commandments” yet each is from the original word “dabar:”

“And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words (dabar) of the covenant, the ten commandments (dabar).” (Exo 34:28)

“Words” is never translated from “mitzvah” (Strong’s H4687), the common word for commandment. Here are two verses that translate “dabar” (H1697), obviously referring to the Decalogue, into “commandments:”

“And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments (H1697); and he wrote them upon two tables of stone.” (Deut 4:13)

“And he wrote on the tables, according to the first writing, the ten commandments (H1697), which the LORD spake unto you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly: and the LORD gave them unto me.” (Deut 10:4)

However, those translations are not following the normal translation (“word” 807 times versus “commandment” 20 times) or the definition for the word “dabar.”


All the verbs for the ten “do’s” and “don’ts” in the Decalogue are in the second person, singular imperfect. The imperfect verb form is defined as:

  1. Grammar. noting action or state still in process at some temporal point of reference, particularly in the past. (www.dictionary.com)

The sixth commandment (one of God’s “words”) could thus be translated as “you will not kill” which could be understood as a promise. It is interesting that the Hebrew “dabar” is frequently used in the sense of a promise.

Here are other examples of the same grammatical construction which are clearly promises and not commands:

“And the LORD said unto him, Peace be unto thee; fear not: thou shalt not die.” (Jud 6:23)

“And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.” (2 Sam 12:13) (See also 2 Sam 19:23, Jer 34:4, Jer 38:24)

Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;” (Psa 91:5)

“And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.” (Eze 36:27)

That last verse is the promise of God putting His Spirit within us which will bring with it the promise of His law within our hearts enabling us to keep all of His commandments.

“But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer 31:33)

The keeping of God’s law will then be not a matter of compulsion to be obedient (for fear of punishment) but it will be what we naturally want to do (for love of Him). The natural result of being filled with the Spirit of God is to keep His commandments.

More and more, I am seeing that:

“For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Heb 4:12)

If you want to do the actions, they are restrictions.
If you don’t want to do the actions, they are promises.

God does not need His word so that He can read our hearts. The Bible is written in such a way that (rightly understood) it helps us to see our own hearts. This is sometimes referred to as the mirror principle.