After Ezra read God’s law to the Jews, everyone that had knowledge and understanding of what they had heard, made a commitment “to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD” (Nehemiah 10:29). The seriousness of their commitment was described as entering into a curse, and into an oath, meaning a curse would be on the head of anyone who broke the agreement (423). An oath was similar to what we think of today as giving sworn testimony in a court of law. To take an oath or swear was considered a promise. In the same way that God makes promises to us, an oath was treated like a legal agreement that could not be broken.
The most important thing to note about the commitment the Jews made was that it was a voluntary action. The people realized that God’s laws were mandatory, but they made a personal commitment to follow them because they were aware of what had happened to their ancestors as a result of not keeping God’s commandments. One of the key issues Jesus had to deal with during his ministry on earth was the keeping of God’s commandments. The Jews went beyond God’s law to establish traditions that were impossible to keep, such “as the washing of pots and cups” (Mark 7:8), and even plucking ears of corn to eat was considered a violation of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-24).
Jesus used the word hypocrite to describe the Jews’ overzealous behavior in keeping the commandments. He said, “Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6-7). In order to distinguish the true intent of God’s law, Jesus clarified the critical points that needed to be remembered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, There is none other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).
Perhaps the mistake the Jews made in making a commitment to keep God’s commandments was not that they didn’t understand the law, but that they didn’t interpret it correctly. The primary purpose of the Ten Commandments was to maintain healthy relationships so that there would be unity among God’s people. The night before his crucifixion, Jesus gave his disciples some final instructions. In order to clarify God’s expectations about keeping his commandments, Jesus said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35).