Dennis Prager on the Ten Commandments: A Few Reflections

About four years ago, politically conservative news commentator Dennis Prager (Jewish in his faith) posted 11 short videos about the Ten Commandments.[1]  Since then Prager has received an astonishing 2-4 million views on each video.  A friend at my church recently asked what I thought of these videos.  So, for his sake I listened to them and wrote him some responses to each video.  Here is the letter I sent to my friend, posted with his approval.  Perhaps these notes will be of help to any of you who have already viewed or plan to view these videos in the future.

Hi [Friend],

Thanks for asking me to watch these videos.  Following are some of the notes I took along the way.

Overall, quite a few of the things Prager said were good and helpful.  I agreed with many of his comments, and even thought that he was insightful in the way he applied the commandments at various points.  There was one glaring issue that was missing—I’ll save that for the end of this letter—and a number of minor issues with which I would want to quibble.  Here are my comments, video by video.

Video 1:  Introduction

Prager’s basic assertion is that God is indispensable to the Ten Commandments.  In other words, how can you know if something is wrong unless God tells you it’s wrong?  Prager says that without God, right or wrong are merely personal beliefs.  I couldn’t agree more.

But he ends his talk by claiming that the entire recipe for a good world is contained in the Ten Commandments.  He also seems to assume that we have the innate capacity to keep these commandments, and thus entirely misses our utter and absolute need for Jesus.  I will say a bit more about this at the end of the letter.

Video 2:  On God being the one who brought them out of Egypt

Prager focuses on ethical monotheism, which, by definition, is ethics based upon what God commands.  Yes, ethical monotheism is the basis for all ethics/morality!

But then, Prager claims that what God most wants from us is that we treat other human beings morally.  Indeed, God wants us to treat other people morally, but it is incorrect to say that this is what God wants most from us.  What God wants most from us—why he created us in the first place—is to glorify him by coming into relationship with him—and this can only happen through Jesus Christ.  Prager’s approach is what Christian writers often refer to as moralism.  Please note that moralism in and of itself simply is a dead end; it is simply not viable apart from Christ.  Again, see my comments at the end of the letter.

Prager also claims that none of the Ten Commandments are about what humans must do re: God.  If I understood him correctly, he means that God created these commandments entirely for our good.  I don’t see how this can be correct.  The first four commands (and perhaps the fifth), focus primarily on our relationship to God; whereas the final five are focused on how we are to treat others.  The glory of God is our highest good.  The highest good is not simply how we interact with each other.

Prager also focuses upon how the initial statement in the commandments has implications for how much God hates slavery in general, and then applies this to the workings of a free society such as the United States.  This seems to me to be an applicational jump.  I do agree with his insight that people are freer when they exercise self-control; otherwise they are slaves to themselves.  I also appreciate his acknowledgment that God cares deeply about human beings.

Video 3:  No other gods and no idolatry

Prager correctly says that the no-idolatry command is relevant to modern life.  He even labels it the mother of all other commandments.  He says that if we were to identify the gods of the modern world and stop worshiping them, we could create a foundation for a good world.  He points out that even good things like education and love can be idolatrous.

I agree that the no-idolatry command is relevant to modern life and that the modern world is full of idolatries.  (The Apostle Paul includes greed, covetousness, “appetites,” and sexual immorality under the rubric of idolatry.)  I liked his illustration (who would you save if someone were drowning, a pet or a human stranger?) to show that love cannot and should not be viewed as the ultimate ethic.

Video 4:  Misusing God’s name

Prager claims that misusing God’s name is the worst sin.  This may or may not be correct (depending on how you understand the command).  Since Prager understands the taking of God’s name in vain—or the misuse of God’s name—to be equivalent to committing evil in God’s name, this helps to explain why he might view it as such a terrible sin to break this commandment.  Now, he bases his understanding primarily upon a literal Hebrew meaning of the word for “carry.”  His lexical acuity is weak here, but his interpretation might be correct—I don’t know; I’ll have to look into it more carefully when I have more time.  Certainly, when religious people do evil, it is despicable, as Jesus makes clear in his woes to the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23).

Video 5:  Sabbath

All the insights Prager offers about the Sabbath are helpful.  The Sabbath elevates human beings so they don’t go through life working like machines.  Sabbath rest reminds people that they are meant to be free.  People who work seven days a week are essentially slaves.  The Sabbath displays the truth that even a slave has fundamental human rights—consequently a slave is as much a human as a non-slave.  The Sabbath strengthens family ties and friendships, including marriages.  The Sabbath commandment even grants animals dignity, since animals are mentioned in the command.  Furthermore, the Sabbath brings people together.

This is all good, but Prager does not address the thorniest issue:  do we literally have to keep all the requirements connected to the Sabbath as found in the Torah?  I would say that since the command to rest is rooted in creation, we as Christians are still commanded to rest.  But I would still want to ask:  must it be on Saturday—or on any particular day of the week for that matter?  I think not (Romans 14:5-6; Colossians 2:16).  But people who are workaholics disobey God’s expectation that they rest, and thus the “rest” component of the Sabbath commandment must be obeyed.

Video 6:  Honor father and mother

Prager correctly says that if you build a society where children honor their parents, you will build a society that lasts a long time.  He also claims that authority is implied in the command for children to honor their parents and that it is important for children to come under the authority of their parents.  Such comments are important in a day when some parents act like equal friends and partners in decision-making with their children.  Prager also points out that nowhere in the Bible are children explicitly told to love their parents (perhaps, he says, because it may be psychologically impossible for some children who have been hurt by their parents to do so), but that all children must in some way honor their parents.

Prager also says that children need to honor parents for the sake of the children themselves.  Furthermore, honoring parents is the way that most of us recognize that there is something greater than us in the world, and that the greater “thing” (God) holds moral sway over us.  He says that it is hard to learn to honor God without having parents—especially a father.

Prager furthermore says that a parent/child relationship is the best antidote to totalitarianism.  Totalitarian regimes always attempt to break the parent/child bond.

This is all pretty good stuff.  But Prager doesn’t seem aware that honoring parents seems to be a command directed especially toward adults, rather than toward young children, as our mutual friend, Charlie Trimm, has well argued.[2]  In the Bible, children are taught to obey their parents; adults to honor their parents.

Video 7:  Do not murder

Prager says that “do not murder,” rather than the more general “do not kill,” is the proper translation here.  He must be correct about this.  The command doesn’t prohibit all killing (otherwise, it would exclude capital punishment or protection in war), but rather prohibits the illegitimate taking of another’s life.  His comment that “do not kill” meant more-or-less the same thing as “do not murder” during the time when the King James Version was translated (assuming that his comment is correct—I haven’t checked it) was potentially helpful in explaining why there is present-day confusion over the commandment.

Video 8:  Do not commit adultery

Prager says that the adultery commandment is the hardest to live out for most people because of people’s sex drives, the general draw to love others—and is particularly difficult for those who live in loveless marriages.  He also suggests that adultery threatens the building block of society (the family), and that social stability is impossible without the family.  Adultery also leads to deception.  Yes, these are all good and solid insights.

Video 9:  Do not steal

Prager says that this command may encompass the other commandments, though I’m not convinced of this.  He makes a good observation that this command is unique (when compared to the other commandments) in that it is completely open-ended—there are no qualifications attached to it.  Stealing is always wrong.

Prager thinks that the command to not steal also includes prohibitions against kidnapping (correct).  He uses the word “sanctity” to describe people’s personal property.  I don’t know if sanctity is the right word, but his insight is still basically correct that we have no right to take for ourselves what belongs to someone else.  Prager observes that every totalitarian society confiscates people’s private property.

But Prager also applies this commandment to not stealing people’s 1) reputations, or 2) dignity (i.e., public humiliation), or 3) intellectual property.  I see the connection clearly with the last of the three, but I’ll have to think more deeply about whether it is appropriate to apply this commandment to the first two.

Prager’s conclusion was probably overstated; that is, if all people would only follow this one commandment—do not steal—they could make a beautiful world.  A “beautiful world” might be a bit of an exaggeration….but I agree that if only people wouldn’t steal the property of others, it would improve things considerably.

Video 10:  Do not bear false witness

Prager says this command means:  Do not lie when testifying in court—and do not lie….period!  I think this is probably right, but the language of witness does make you think especially of a court setting.  (Note that he allows for lying for protecting a human’s life.)  Prager rightly says that the worst societal ills in history have been propagated through lies, including forcible slavery, the holocaust, and communist totalitarianism.  He says that even a lie for a good cause must be rejected because it distorts society’s priorities.  I think that he is right in this.

Video 11:  Do not covet

Prager rightly points out that this is the only of the commandments that explicitly legislates thought.  He adds that to covet is much more than simply to want.  Coveting is wanting to the point of seeking to own and to take away something belonging to another person.  Yes, all good…

My only concern was when he commented, “Neither envy nor lust is prohibited in the Ten Commandments.”  Actually, Do Not Covet does include prohibitions against envy and lust (i.e., “do not covet your neighbor’s wife…”)

Overall:

I think this is a pretty good video series and wouldn’t object to people watching it—for the most part.  But there is a glaring issue missing from this series:  the gospel.  The New Testament clearly teaches that the Law was given to show us our sin (Galatians 3; Romans 7, etc.) and to demonstrate how much we need Christ’s death on our behalf.  Prager assumes that people have the ability simply to do the commands of God.  He is wrong in this assumption.  The New Testament teaches that we cannot successfully carry out the commands of God by simply trying hard to do them.  We need to be united with Christ by faith and indwelt by the Holy Spirit—who gives us power to do what we could never do on our own.  The New Testament teaches that we are slaves of sin and cannot find release from the law’s condemnatory function—with one exception.  We need to accept the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection and sending of his Spirit.  Please note that Prager’s assumption in this matter is not a minor mistake.  When people assume that they can simply do what cannot simply be done, they set themselves up simply to fail.  How we understand this point has monumental implications for how we approach the Ten Commandments—and, indeed, all the commands of God.  Jesus’s death, resurrection, and the sending of the Holy Spirit provides the means by which we can do what we otherwise could never accomplish on our own.

Thanks for sharing these videos with me.  I hope my brief comments were helpful in some way.

Blessings my friend,

Ken

 

[1] https://www.prageru.com/playlists/ten-commandments#.W_sucurtU_g.email

[2] Charlie Trimm, “Honor Your Parents: A Command for Adults, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 60/2 (2017): 247-263.  http://www.academia.edu/37323635/Honor_Your_Parents_A_Command_for_Adults

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