If you ask someone to list the 10 Commandments (you may like to try this yourself before reading any further), more often than not, they remember the ‘Do Nots’ first. It seems that we think of God’s commands as if they were a map laying out ‘No Entry’ zones. The underlying feeling is that if you stray into these forbidden areas you are in trouble.
The 10 Commandments, however, are much too brief to serve as any kind of map. The ancient Israelites had grown up under Egyptian rule which had a sophisticated legal system, some of which we still follow today. By giving just ten commands, God was offering something very much simpler. This is not so much a map as a compass.
A compass cannot tell you where you are, but it can help you to work out which way to go. Like the 10 Commandments, a compass needle points in two directions: one end points in the direction you do want to be going, while the other end points to where you do not want to be going. In the same way, the 10 commandments indicate both positive and negative directions.
When following a compass bearing, there are always obstacles that cause you to change direction. The vital part that the compass plays is to inform you when you are going the wrong way and to help you to select a suitable path forwards. If the landscape didn’t have such obstacles, you wouldn’t need a compass. Similarly, God gave us the 10 Commandments because he knows we need them.
The 10 Commandments were the first part of the Bible to be written down. They are there to inform us when we are heading in an unhelpful direction, and to guide us back to a better path. They do not lay out God’s punishment programme; there are no punishments mentioned. They are a simple to use compass to help us navigate the inevitable distractions and difficulties of life - a life compass.