The Seventh Commandment: ‘You shall not commit adultery’

(Exodus 20:14)

The infamous 1631 edition of the King James Bible misprinted the seventh commandment as “Thou shalt commit adultery”! Many in the world today agree. Behavioural psychologists argue we’re ‘hardwired’ to be promiscuous. Self-help books call faithful marriage the ‘myth of monogamy’.

Every year, around 17,000 couples in England and Wales divorce because of adultery. Other couples are haunted by secret unfaithfulness, their trust and union destroyed. Classic novels like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary dissect the disillusionment, jealousy and destruction that accompany adultery. The current television series Poldark, set in nineteenth century Cornwall, returns again and again to sexual infidelity and the disastrous consequences. The poet Sylvia Plath once wrote of her desire for ‘the things which will destroy me in the end.’ Adultery and unfaithfulness are a big part of our fallen culture and experience, both inside and outside the church.

The Ten Commandments shows that God’s perspective is different. God commands against adultery, together with stealing, murder, coveting and lying. Adultery and the attitudes that lie at its heart, are not an expression of freedom but are destructive and life-denying. God hates adultery because it is a prideful rejection of the kind of relationships that He created us to enjoy. Jesus’ faithful love shows us the only way in which such love can truly be known – constant, durable, patient, kind, self-giving. Vices like adultery instead bring chaos, break intimacy and destroy lives. The Ten Commandments, given within the framework of God’s own loving faithfulness, provide the boundaries so that our own relationships reflect the God who is love.

This is the reason why God often links adultery with idolatry (for example Isaiah 57; Jeremiah 2; Ezekiel 16). Adultery is an expression of the attitude that I will make a god for myself. Adultery shows that our hearts are factories of self-deceit, meaning that we can look at whoever we want, imagine whatever we want, with complete freedom.

We greedily think that the possession of another will bring us satisfaction, fulfilment and love. So Jesus expands our understanding of adultery when he says:   ‘I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matthew 5:27-28). Our unclean hearts desperately need a wash and the Commandments help us see the dirt.

Jesus also points us to the better way. His costly death provides the way for those of us who have committed adultery in our hearts or through our actions to know God’s forgiveness. His sending of the Holy Spirit means that we can give ourselves to loving one another faithfully, with patience, kindness, goodness and self-control. Marriage can become a witness to the wonderful way in which Jesus loves His church.

We can direct our imagination, our fascination, our worship toward God. While adultery is a way in which our souls nibble around for pleasure and self-fulfilment, Jesus shows us how they might be stuffed full with the glory and love of God.

Lawrence Braschi