What Are the Ten Commandments?

The Catholic Version, With Explanations

The Ten Commandments are the summation of the moral law, given by God Himself to Moses on Mount Sinai. (See Exodus 20: 1-17.) Fifty days after the Israelites departed from their slavery in Egypt and began their exodus to the Promised Land, God called Moses to the top of Mount Sinai, where the Israelites were camped. There, in the midst of a cloud from which came forth thunder and lightning, which the Israelites at the base of the mountain could see, God instructed Moses on the moral law and revealed the Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue.

The Universal Moral Lessons of the Ten Commandments 

While the text of the Ten Commandments is part of Judeo-Christian revelation, the moral lessons contained within the Ten Commandments are universal and discoverable by reason. For that reason, the Ten Commandments have been recognized by non-Jewish and non-Christian cultures as representing the basic principles of moral life—for instance, the recognition that such things as murder, theft, and adultery are wrong, and that respect for one's parents and others in authority is necessary. When a person violates the Ten Commandments, society as a whole suffers.

Catholic Versus Non-Catholic Versions of the Ten Commandments

There are two versions of the Ten Commandments. While both follow the text found in Exodus 20: 1-17, they divide the text differently for numbering purposes. The version below is the one used by Catholics, Orthodox, and Lutherans; the other version is used by Christians in the Calvinist and Anabaptist denominations. In the non-Catholic version, the text of the First Commandment given here is divided into two; the first two sentences are called the First Commandment, and the second two sentences are called the Second Commandment. The rest of the commandments are renumbered accordingly, and the Ninth and Tenth Commandments given here are combined to form the non-Catholic version's Tenth Commandment.

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The First Commandment

Ten Commandments Sculpture Lawsuit
The Ten Commandments. Michael Smith / Getty Images

The Text of the First Commandment

I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them.

Shorter Version of the First Commandment

I am the Lord thy God: thou shalt not have strange gods before me.

An Explanation of the First Commandment

The First Commandment reminds us that there is only one God, and that worship and honor belongs to Him alone. "Strange gods" refers, first, to idols, which are false gods; for instance, the Israelites created an idol of a golden calf (a "graven thing"), which they worshiped as a god, while waiting for Moses to return from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. (See Exodus 32.)

But "strange gods" also has a broader meaning. We worship strange gods when we place anything in our lives before God, whether that thing is a person, or money, or entertainment, or personal honor and glory. All good things come from God; if we come to love or desire those things in themselves, however, and not because they are gifts from God that can help lead us to God, we place them above God.

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The Second Commandment

The Text of the Second Commandment

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

An Explanation of the Second Commandment

There are two main ways in which we can take the name of the Lord in vain: first, by using it in a curse or in an irreverent manner, as in a joke; and second, by using it in an oath or promise that we do not intend to keep. In both cases, we do not show God the reverence and honor that He deserves.

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The Third Commandment

The Text of the Third Commandment

Remember thou keep holy the Sabbath day.

An Explanation of the Third Commandment

In the Old Law, the Sabbath day was the seventh day of the week, the day on which God rested after creating the world and everything therein. For Christians under the New Law, Sunday—the day on which Jesus Christ rose from the dead and the Holy Spirit descended on the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Apostles at Pentecost—is the new day of rest.

We keep Sunday holy by setting it aside to worship God and avoiding all unnecessary work. We do the same on Holy Days of Obligation, which have the same status in the Catholic Church as Sundays do.

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The Fourth Commandment

The Text of the Fourth Commandment

Honor thy father and thy mother.

An Explanation of the Fourth Commandment

We honor our father and our mother by treating them with the respect and love that they are due. We should obey them in all things, as long as what they tell us to do is moral. We have a duty to care for them in their later years as they cared for us when we were younger.

The Fourth Commandment extends beyond our parents to all those who are in lawful authority over us—for instance, teachers, pastors, government officials, and employers. While we may not love them in the same way that we love our parents, we are still required to honor and respect them.

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The Fifth Commandment

The Text of the Fifth Commandment

Thou shalt not kill.

An Explanation of the Fifth Commandment

The Fifth Commandment forbids all unlawful killing of human beings. Killing is lawful under certain circumstances, such as self-defense, the prosecution of a just war, and the application of the death penalty by a lawful authority in response to a very grave crime. Murder—the taking of innocent human life—is never lawful, and neither is suicide, the taking of one's own life.

Like the Fourth Commandment, the reach of the Fifth Commandment is broader than it might appear at first. Causing deliberate harm to others, either in body or in soul, is forbidden, even if such harm does not result in physical death or the destruction of the life of the soul by leading it into mortal sin. Harboring anger or hatred against others is likewise a violation of the Fifth Commandment.

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The Sixth Commandment

The Text of the Sixth Commandment

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

An Explanation of the Sixth Commandment

As with the Fourth and Fifth Commandments, the Sixth Commandment extends beyond the strict meaning of the word adultery. While this commandment forbids sexual relations with another's wife or husband (or with another woman or man, if you're married), it also requires us to avoid all impurity and immodesty, both physical and spiritual.

Or, to look at it from the opposite direction, this commandment requires us to be chaste—that is, to restrain all sexual or immodest desires that fall outside of their proper place within marriage. This includes reading or looking at immodest material, such as pornography, or engaging in solitary sexual activity such as masturbation.

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The Seventh Commandment

The Text of the Seventh Commandment

Thou shalt not steal.

An Explanation of the Seventh Commandment

Stealing takes many forms, including many things that we don't normally think of as theft. The Seventh Commandment, broadly speaking, requires us to act justly with respect to others. And justice means giving each person what he or she is due.

So, for instance, if we borrow something, we need to return it, and if we hire someone to do a job and he does it, we need to pay him what we told him we would. If someone offers to sell us a valuable item for a very low price, we need to make sure that she knows that the item is valuable; and if she does, we need to consider whether the item might not really be hers to sell. Even such seemingly harmless actions as cheating at games are a form of theft, because we take something—the victory, no matter how silly or insignificant it may seem—from someone else.

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The Eighth Commandment

The Text of the Eighth Commandment

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

An Explanation of the Eighth Commandment

The Eighth Commandment follows the Seventh not only in number but logically. To "bear false witness" is to lie, and when we lie about someone, we damage his or her honor and reputation. That is, in a sense, a form of theft, taking something from the person we're lying about—his good name. Such a lie is known as calumny.

But the implications of the Eighth Commandment go even further. When we think badly of someone without having a certain reason for doing so, we engage in rash judgment. We're not giving that person what he or she is due—namely, the benefit of the doubt. When we engage in gossiping or backbiting, we don't give the person we're talking about a chance to defend herself. Even if what we say about her is true, we may be engaging in detraction—that is, telling the sins of another to someone who has no right to know those sins.

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The Ninth Commandment

The Text of the Ninth Commandment

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife

An Explanation of the Ninth Commandment

Former President Jimmy Carter once famously said that he had "lusted in [his] heart," recalling the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:28: "everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." To covet another person's husband or wife means to entertain impure thoughts about that man or woman. Even if one does not act on such thoughts but simply considers them for one's private pleasure, that is a violation of the Ninth Commandment. If such thoughts come to you involuntarily and you try to put them out of your mind, however, that is not a sin.

The Ninth Commandment can be seen as an extension of the Sixth. Where the emphasis in the Sixth Commandment is on physical action, the emphasis in the Ninth Commandment is on spiritual desire.

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The Tenth Commandment

The Text of the Tenth Commandment

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods.

An Explanation of the Tenth Commandment

Just as the Ninth Commandment expands upon the Sixth, the Tenth Commandment is an extension of the Seventh Commandment's prohibition on stealing. To covet someone else's property is to desire to take that property without just cause. This can also take the form of envy, of convincing yourself that another person doesn't deserve what he or she has, especially if you don't have the desirable item in question.

More broadly speaking, the Tenth Commandment means that we should be happy with what we have, and happy for others who have goods of their own.