Thou shalt not commit adultery (Exodus 20:14).
The seventh commandment is one that has been universally upheld in societies throughout the world; nevertheless, it is continually violated. Statistics on rates of adultery are difficult to properly ascertain, but it is believed that somewhere between a third and two thirds of all married people will commit adultery at some point in their lifetimes. That is astoundingly depressing!
The emphasis placed on this commandment by its placement is notable. In terms of the commandments involving one’s relationships with fellow humans, it falls right in the middle, after commands to honor parents and to not murder, and before commands to not steal, bear false witness, or covet. One might think that the latter three commandments would have greater importance, considering that they involve a lot more than just one’s spouse. Thus, what makes adultery such a challenging problem, and why is emphasis placed upon it?
We should first note two things. First, the commandment is specifically against adultery, which demands that at least one, if not both, parties are already married or betrothed. This is probably because people got married rather young in ancient times, and fornication was not as much of a problem as it would become in later generations (nevertheless, see 1 Corinthians 7:1-9). Secondly, one of the significant impulses leading to adultery– coveting the wife (or, for women, the husband) of one’s neighbor– is condemned in the tenth commandment (Exodus 20:17). If the impulse that leads to adultery is already condemned, why does God feel compelled to come out and condemn the fruit of that impulse? And why would the command against adultery come before the command against coveting?
The big problem with adultery is the violation of covenant that it represents. The marriage commitment was always intended to be mutual and perpetual (Genesis 2:24). To this day people will vow to love and cherish only their spouse; to commit adultery is to demonstrate that one thinks nothing of that vow, and is unable to maintain a solemn commitment made before God.
Jesus demonstrates the seriousness of adultery in Matthew 19:3-9. He derives a principle from God’s originally stated purpose for marriage: what God has joined man is not to separate (Matthew 19:4-6). Those who would divorce and marry another are condemned as committing adultery, yet an exception is made for those who have divorced their spouse for the latter’s sexually deviant behavior (Matthew 19:9). It is evident that said sexually deviant behavior– adultery by any other name– is itself a way of separating what God has joined. Paul uses this same principle to condemn the use of prostitutes in 1 Corinthians 6:15-20.
In fact, sexual sin constantly makes the top of the list of sins in the New Testament– witness Galatians 5:17-19, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and Ephesians 5:3. There are good reasons for this: humans easily fall into sexual temptation and then sexual sin.
And let us be honest– sex is treated differently than most subjects. If we consider many of the consequences of violation of these commandments– adultery, stealing, false witness– people are made to feel violated when these acts are perpetrated. When possessions are stolen, it is easy to feel very violated– something we feel is secure is proven to be rather insecure. When people bear false witness against us, it is easy to feel betrayed.
Yet adultery always reaches very deeply since it represents violation and betrayal on the deepest level. Sexuality is the greatest form of physical intimacy that can be attained in this life, designed to reflect, in some small measure, the connection we are to have with God (cf. Ephesians 5:31-32). The two becoming one flesh is to lead to a very tight bond, one not freely shared with everyone. That is why, of all things, most people understand that sexuality is to remain private. Therefore, when a spouse betrays us by committing adultery, we are deeply betrayed and feel violated– that intimate connection has been made with another, and the severity of that indiscretion sinks deeply.
Such is why adultery ranks so highly in the Ten Commandments; stealing, false witness, and covetousness are sins people might commit against one another, but adultery tends to cause greater hurt and deeper mistrust. A cloud of suspicion hangs over any adulterous spouse, and reconciliation is quite the challenge if it can even be pulled off.
It is little wonder, then, when God wanted to express to Israel the severity of the latter’s idolatry, He used the imagery of adultery, as evidenced in Hosea 1-3 and very graphically in Ezekiel 16, for example. The comparison was apt– just as a man makes a covenant with a woman so as to become husband and wife, so God made a covenant with Israel (cf. Malachi 2:14, Exodus 19-20). Such covenants were designed to be mutual and perpetual– husband and wife for one another and no other, God and Israel for one another, and Israel certainly for no other (cf. Exodus 20:1-4)! But Israel went and served other gods, and in so doing committed spiritual adultery (Hosea 4:9-19).
Adultery is one of those sins that leads to profound regret for most of the people who commit it. Whatever pleasure the fling might provide cannot compare to the pain, guilt, and misery inflicted upon the existing marriage relationship. The same is true in our spiritual relationship with God: no matter how attractive it might be at times to forsake God’s way, such ultimately causes more grief than it is ever worth. Let us all strive to honor the covenants which we have made, both to our spouses and to God!
Ethan R. Longhenry