The Ten Words: God’s Universal Roadmap for Success

One of the most profound dialogues in history occurs when God speaks to humanity. This interaction between the divine and the mortal is not an accusation or a warning. Instead, it is the outpouring of divine affectionate words, a pure act of love, and a precise sense of direction. Exodus 20 takes us to a pivotal moment where the almighty shares with us words that shape our very existence. These words, known as the Ten Commandments to many, are far more than a list of “do’s” and “don’ts”. They are at least ten roadmaps that lead to profound relationships—with God and our fellow human beings. The words pave our way toward a successful existence.

The Decalogue as Divine Dialogue

Many commonly call The Decalogue the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments is a term which, while not incorrect, especially in everyday language, is not the most precise translation. Sarna (1991) affirms that the Hebrew phrase “aseret ha-devarim” is more accurately translated into Greek as the Decalogue, which means “the ten words” (1991, p. 107, Logos Edition).

The widespread use of “The Ten Commandments” has become dominant. Nevertheless, its tone suggests a command rather than God’s invitation and Word for people to achieve their ultimate purpose. When considering these words, our understanding must transcend mere instructions or edicts. In its purest form, The Decalogue expresses God’s faithful Word to us creatures.

From the beginning, God desires to communicate with us. However, it is not a cautionary, threatening word but one that perfects us, uniting us to the mission of becoming the best we can be.

In Scripture, God speaks to us. We learn of Exodus 20 communication, where God utters the word. God does not simply dole out commandments. Instead, he shares his Word, which is light and life. 

The prophecy of Hosea 14:2 affirms: “Take with you word and return to me.” God speaks, and his word shapes our life. A similar idea is alluded to in Psalm 119:15: “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

God’s conversation begins with acknowledging his presence, assuring us that he is the one who creates, our anchor, and who liberates us when we fall short. This divine discourse establishes the ground rules for our encounter with God. When God says, “I am the Lord your God,” the dialogue begins with an identity check, ensuring we orient our lives to God’s supreme and compassionate authority.

The Ultimate Call to Relationship

The Ten Words, or The Decalogue, illustrate God’s intent to establish two fundamental relationships in our lives: our relationship with him and with one another. The opening phrase begins with God as the subject (Exodus 20:1). The last phrase ends with the neighbor (Exodus 20:17). Notably, the first word (verses 3-5) is spoken in the first person, with God addressing us directly, not through an interpreter such as Moses. Rabbinic tradition suggests that the people heard the divine voice utter only the first two pronouncements; Moses mediated the rest of the Decalogue. This interpretation is supported by God’s use of the first person through verse 6, followed by the third person in reference to God in subsequent verses (Sarna, 1991).

There are debates among Scripture scholars (from Jewish to Christian) regarding which verses of the 17 verses (especially verses 3-6 and 14 and 17) account for The Decalogue numbering. However, the agreement is on the number ten. The initial three words, the so-called first three commandments in our Catholic classification, and Lutheran (and in many Protestant views, the first four) thrust us into recognizing divine centrality, speaking of worship, exclusivity, and honor to be directed solely toward God. The remaining seven words guide our societal behavior. They advocate respect, obedience, purity of heart, just dealings, and mutual respect among humankind.

Understanding the context of these Words reveals their universal articulation. They transcend the scope of the Israelites present at that moment as the immediate hearers of the Word. The words speak to humanity at large. They offer a life framework that ensures personal fulfillment and harmonious communal living – a universal recipe for success.

While many of these words advise what not to do, they are designed as guardrails to keep us on the right path to success. In a complex world, they simplify things for us, providing us with what is necessary to understand success.

Personal Fulfillment Through Relationships

To walk by these Ten Words is to live a life deeply rooted in the fabric of God’s design. When we honor our parents, respect one another, and avoid murder, theft, adultery, false witness, and covetousness, we are not merely refraining from wrongdoings but upholding the sacredness of life, property, trust, and contentment. This truth is universal. It is not bound to one religion. The value of this word is foundational to establishing a society that works. Such establishes the grounds for the success of members.

The foundational theme within The Decalogue (commandments) is relationship. For me, it is the most crucial feature of the communication. It elucidates God’s desire for kinship between his creatures, showcasing a model for societal order that cherishes each individual within the collective. In this context, personal fulfillment is intrinsically interwoven with our ability to uphold the standards of The Decalogue.

Relationship is a key word here, for God’s desire is for us to have a strong relationship with him and be in a vital, refreshing relationship with one another.

Unifying God and Neighbor in the Incarnate Word

The pinnacle of God’s interaction with humanity is realized in the Incarnation. The Word becomes flesh, dwelling among us (John 1:14) and unifying the divine and human. The Ten Words that begin with a phraseology about God and end with “neighbor” present a complete picture. How could God and humanity form a deeper union, a relationship?

In our Christian response, we see it in the Incarnation. God taking on the human flesh is bringing the continuum of the first and the last words of The Decalogue into completeness in Godself, for our response is complete when humans realize that their life is complete in God. This life isn’t solely mine (an individual’s) but with all the tentacles of relationships with others.

Christ, in his example and teaching, shows us that the quintessence of The Decalogue is love. Love for God and love for our neighbor—the law that encompasses all laws (Matthew 22:40). Here, one must sign-post how this relates to the two of the most essential texts in the Jewish liturgy—the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-21) and The Decalogue. Both are united in one—love for God and neighbor. A relationship weaved through the affectionate thread of love fulfills the condition of The Ten Words.

Linguistic Allusion to The Word

In linguistic terms, the very nature of a word is generative—once spoken, written, or thought, it generates. The generative aspect of the word alludes to what love is about, for it is by nature self-emptying and generative. For example, in today’s world of the AI buzz, without words in forms of textual data, Generative AI ceases to be.

In other words, the word is the seed that is sown, grows, and produces (Matthew 13). Simon Peter’s confession acknowledges of the Christ, “You have the word of eternal life” (John 6:68). In the person of Jesus Christ, we witness the perfect embodiment of God’s intention for humanity. Christ lived the Ten Words not as a restraint. Instead, the Words are a revelation of a life in communion with the Father and service to humanity.

The Savior’s entire ministry was a testament to the principles and values enshrined in those Ten Words. Namely, it is about upholding the law, teaching the multitudes, and displaying the ultimate act of love on the cross. The sacrifice of the cross is an audacious testimony as to what extent one should go for the love of neighbor. Instead of the covetousness of the neighbor and the things they desire as priceless, including the will to choose, one who heeds The Word, finds in it the impetus to make sacrifices for others. Love outpours, just like the Word outpours.

Standing By The Word

Far from being just commandments, the Ten Words offer a life to live, a successful life in God’s eyes. They are fundamental truths communicated directly from the Divine. They serve as a roadmap to guide us to a life of purpose, harmony, and eternal peace.

In actively pursuing and implementing these words, we find the blessed assurance of success in our relationship with God and our neighbor. We live these words because, in Christ, the Word is grace, the power to act, too. Grace is the divine seed for us to be successful in this plan, which is set for the individual within the community.

Therefore, success is not measured merely in achievements or accolades. It is in the quality of our relationships and the fulfillment that comes from aligning our lives with the Word of God. This aligning is our flourishing, for the Word is generative, love-outpouring. A concrete example is apt to wrap this reflection. Those who succeed in the world are those who give to the world what benefits others, their neighbor. God gave the plan to the community as he did to the individual who is in the community.

The so-called commandments, The Decalogue, is a timeless testament to God’s love and intention for us as a community. It calls, beckons, and ultimately empowers us to live a life truly worth living—one that resonates with the divine call to relationship and responsibility. With this understanding, we are not merely observers of the Word. We are bearers of the Word in a world that, now more than ever, hungers for true success, relationships, and divine connection.

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Fr. Maurice Emelu

The Reverend Dr. Maurice Emelu is the Chair of a number of non-profit boards and a professor of digital media and communication at John Carroll University, United States. His research and practices focus on digital storytelling and design, media aesthetics and theological aesthetics, and church communication. Dr. Emelu lives where digital media technology meets culture, communication, philosophy, theology, religion, and society. He is the founder of Gratia Vobis Ministries, Inc. To know more about his professional background, visit

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