Does God Have to Obey the Ten Commandments?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/22/2013

If you want to call moral rules absolutes in the sense that they can never be trumped, then that is probably too strong a definition and not a Biblical definition. And if you are not careful, it makes God subject to His own rules in a way that puts the rules above God instead of God above the rules.

If it is immoral for us to kill people, why is it okay for God to kill people? Doesn’t God keep His own commandments? And if He doesn’t keep His own commandments, then what does it mean to call such commandments an absolute when God Himself doesn’t have to keep them? And, if they are not absolutes, then why do we have to keep them? Then one begins to wonder, maybe God’s rules are not necessary, they are just things He cooks up for us that apply to us and mess up our fun. This is a tact that people take in raising this particular issue. So, how are we to take the commandments seriously?

The first thing in answering the objection is to make sure we understand exactly what the commandment says. “Thou shalt not kill” is actually a misquote. The commandment isn’t against killing; it’s against murder. Just as in English, the Hebrew language has two different words; and the word murder is what is described in the commandment, not killing. It should be fairly evident to people that God is not proscribing all killing because part of the very Mosaic law that God gave capital punishment as an appropriate punishment for quite a number of crimes. You can’t say, I forbid you to kill, and by the way, kill. That would be an obvious contradiction, and that is obviously not what God has in mind. No, the prohibition is against murder, which is an inappropriate kind of killing. And then God talks about certain circumstances when killing is legitimate and other circumstances when it is not legitimate. Taking a human life without proper justification is murder and is wrong. But if the circumstance changes and there is appropriate justification, then arguably this is a morally relevant factor that changes the moral nature of the act of taking a life. Therefore, you would be justified in taking his life in self-defense. When the circumstance changes in a morally relevant way, the application of the moral rule changes.

The question is, does the circumstance change in a morally relevant way when God is the subject in view? To kind of clarify that, I could ask a question: What is your most prized possession? Say it’s a mountain bike. Okay, if you owned your mountain bike is it okay if you disassemble it and spread it around? If it’s yours it would be okay. I can do what I want with my own things. But what if someone else did that to your bike? Well, that would be wrong because someone else doesn’t have the liberty to do that with something that is not their own. Yet, you being the owner of that thing do have the liberty to do whatever you want with what is yours.

I think that is the same principle that informs this question about God. God tells us that we should not kill other human beings. Why shouldn’t we? You see a clear picture of the rationale against murder in Genesis 9 right after the flood. We see God prohibiting the shedding of man’s blood. There is the metaphor for murder. The way God puts it is this: “When man sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed for [here is the rationale] in the image of God, God created man.” God is saying, You kill another human being and other human beings can kill you because when you kill another human being you are killing someone who is made in my image. There is a factor that is morally relevant to the circumstance: the factor of ownership. This factor is a morally relevant distinction that makes a different moral rule applies there.

Why is murder wrong? According to Genesis 9 the reason that murder is wrong is you are destroying something of God’s, something that bears His nameplate—His image. You destroy another human being and you will be punished for destroying God’s property.

Can God destroy God’s property? The answer seems to be yes. You see, God is the King of the universe. He is King of the universe not because He is the most powerful, and not by some arbitrary rule, but because He created it and it belongs to Him from the beginning. God can do what He wants with His universe. If He chooses to give life, He can give it. If He chooses to take life, He can take it. It’s not immoral for God to take the life of His own property.

While I was reading the Scriptures this morning, in the Gospels Jesus is giving the parable of the landowner who had hired different people at different times of the day, but paid them all the same thing. The landowner paid the guy who came in last at 4 o’clock the same as the guy who came in early in the morning. The guy who came in first was upset. Here is what Jesus said, speaking as the landowner, Can’t I do what I want with that which is mine? We had an agreement and I paid you what we agreed. Now, if I want to give my money away to somebody else for less work, it’s my money. Can’t I do what I want with my own money?

I think the principle applies here, too. The universe is God’s, and if He wants to take life, He can do so. I’m not saying He doesn’t have reasons, but I’m saying He doesn’t have to give reasons because it is fully within His purview to do as He wishes.

By the way, we have an intuition that informs us. I have been drawing on this intuition by giving parallels. There is an argument that people have offered against capital punishment that I actually don’t think works, but it turns out to draw on the same intuition. The part that draws on this intuition I think is accurate. One thing critics say about capital punishment is that we shouldn’t kill other human beings through capital punishment because “we shouldn’t play God.” That is, we ought not be doing the kind of thing that is God’s prerogative but not ours. I certainly agree with the principle that we ought not to do things that are only God’s prerogative, but not ours. I don’t think that principle applies in the circumstance of capital punishment because, as far as I can tell, God Himself is the one that gave the application for governments to use capital punishment to punish people under certain circumstances. So, there is a delegated authority there. But notice the intuition. It is appropriate for God to do what He wants with is His own. We shouldn’t play God, but is it appropriate for God to play God because He is God. That is, He can do the things that only God should be doing. And in this line of thinking, only God should be taking life. That implies that God has the legitimacy to take life when He wants. As I said, if He takes the life of one individual or millions of individuals through some large-scale judgment, that certainly is His prerogative.

The simple answer is, no, God does not have to keep all the Ten Commandments. In fact, it is hard to imagine how many of them even apply to Him. Does God have to keep the Sabbath? Does God have to dedicate a portion of His week to the Lord? No, that’s for His subjects, not for the King. Should God not have any other Gods before Him? That’s kind of ludicrous. It doesn’t apply. He doesn’t have to honor His parents. He doesn’t have parents. What about coveting? Thou shall not covet. What is coveting? Isn’t it desiring something that is not your own? Is it possible for God to covet? What is there that is not properly His? Nothing, therefore God can’t covet. The Ten Commandments are an expression of God’s desire and in many ways an expression of His character, but they are expressions of His character that have a certain application to human beings who are His subjects and the rules do not apply to Him in the same way.

The question that is raised here is the question of absolutes. Then those rules aren’t absolutes. If what you mean by the word absolute is that there is a rule that is somehow fixed in heaven and applies to everything under heaven by its own force and there are no exemptions or exceptions to the rule, and everything and everyone and everybody must bow to the rule, including God for it to be an absolute, well, then there aren’t any absolutes like that. I think that is an abuse of the word. No, I think an absolute isn’t the kind of thing that never is exempted, but is an objective moral rule that has to do with a circumstance and is always applicable in those circumstances applied in the same way. But when the morally relevant circumstance is changed, like you go from man to God as the players, then it may not be that that objective principle applies in these other circumstances.

That is why I avoid the word absolute in my discussion of these issues. An absolute is seen by many in an extreme way when, in fact, what we have in the Scripture are objective moral principles that are staggered in their significance, but some are more important that others. This is clear from things that Jesus said and from other teachings in the Scripture. There are greater goods and lesser goods. Sometimes you are stuck in what is called a moral dilemma and you have to do one thing or another, both of which are wrong. You must either protect human life and lie or hand over the innocent life to be killed. It happened to Corrie ten Boom and she chose to lie to protect Jews from the Nazis. In so doing, she did not do something wrong. She didn’t do the lesser of two evils in my view. She did the greater of two goods. Therefore, lying in that circumstance was even morally obligatory. There are two instances in the Bible where we see exactly the same thing, the Egyptian mid-wives protecting the Hebrew newborns and Rahab protecting the Jewish spies. These people are even praised for what they did.

If you want to call moral rules absolutes in the sense that they can never be trumped, then that is probably too strong a definition and not a Biblical definition. And if you are not careful, it makes God subject to His own rules in a way that puts the rules above God instead of God above the rules.