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HYMN 186 These are the Holy Ten Commands

German: Dies Sind die Heil'gen zehn Gebot'

Exodus 20:1-17

Teaching the catechism

1. These are the Holy Ten Commands

Sent down to those of every land

Through faithful Moses standing high

Up on the Mount of Sinai,

Have mercy, Lord!

2. I, I alone am God your Lord;

All idols are to be abhorred.

Trust me, step boldly to my throne

Sincerely love me alone.

Have mercy, Lord!

Placard offered by Decorah Posten. The Commandments illustrated by Bible stories, The Lord's Prayer in the middle.

3. And do not speak in idle words,

Misuse the name of God your Lord

But only use your lips to praise

The good our Father does and says.

Have mercy, Lord.!

4. And celebrate the Holy day

That peace may fill your home, and pray

Then put aside that work you do

So that God may work in you.

Have mercy, Lord!

5. You are to honor and obey

Your mothers, fathers, every day.

Serve them in every way you can

And you’ll live long in your land.

Have mercy, Lord!

6. Keep all your thoughts and actions pure,

Your marriage promise true and sure.

Give honor to all marriage vows

For when you do, true love grows.

Have mercy, Lord!

7. Curb anger, do not harm or kill,

Hate not, repay not ill with ill,

Be patient and of gentle mind

Convince your foe you are kind.

Have mercy, Lord!

8. You shall not steal or cheat away

What others worked for, night and day.

But open up a gen’rous hand

To feed the poor in the land.

Have mercy, Lord!

9. A lying witness never be,

Nor foul your tongue with calumny,

The cause of innocence embrace,

The fallen shield from disgrace.

Have mercy, Lord!

10. No portion of your neighbors’ lot.

Their goods, home, spouse, desire not.

Pray that your neighbor will be blessed

As you yourself find success.

Have mercy, Lord!

11. You have this law to see therein

That you have not been free from sin,

But also that you clearly see

How pure toward God you should be.

Have mercy, Lord!

12. Lord Jesus, help us in our need;

And be our go between indeed,

Our works, how sinful, marred, unjust!

In you, O Christ, will we trust!

Have mercy, Lord!

Tr. Composite


Luther’s Small Catechism was, after the Bible and the hymnal, the textbook for Lutheran families down through the centuries. Luther wrote it so children could memorize it fairly easily. Katie, his wife, thought it was among the best things he ever wrote. Its tone, direct and clear, without his usual polemic.

It was frequently printed in hymnals—it is now in the most recent Lutheran hymnal in the ELCA and in the current Norwegian hymnal—but for some time it was not.

I remember learning it on Saturday night as mother prepared us for Sunday school the next day. After our instruction she would wash my hair in the hard, almost orange, Rugby water, in the kitchen sink, rinsing it out with vinegar to remove the minerals from my hair. The squeaky sound of her hands and the fragrant vinegar in my hair are always part of this memory.

A Catechization painting by Adolph Tidemand

Everybody knew that the lessons would not be learned if they were not taught both at home and church—and not just in confirmation class, but through one’s childhood. They had to be memorized. You started with the commandments, and then moved to the explanations, then the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, as you got older. This made confirmation classes mostly review. You knew even as a Sunday school student that one day you would stand before the entire congregation and be catechized. The pastor would ask you a question and you had to be able to answer it. For Norwegians and Norwegian Americans that meant not just what Luther wrote, but what Erick Pontoppidan wrote in his Explanation to the Catechism (Forklaring). Some seven hundred extra questions and answers. It was a moment of terror for kids, as Tidemand shows in this work, but it was their rite of passage to adulthood. If you could not pass the test, you could not enter into normal civic life, in some cases, not even marry.

Because the rebellions of the 1960s opposed memorization and thought the catechism was indoctrination rather than education, the Catechism began to lose its place among Lutherans. This has not been good.

Martin Luther knew that kids could memorize most anything, but he also understood that if you could sing something, you would remember it even better so he produced a Singing Catechism, hymns with texts that were nearly the same as his Catechism. Over the next few weeks I will introduce you to those hymns. They are in Luther’s style and time so some tunes don't work in modern times, especially this one. But it is still part of the canon of hymns among a good number of Lutherans. Sing along if you can, or find your Small Catechism and relearn these clear sentences that teach us how we should live.

HYMN INFO This hymn was published in 1524, in one of the earliest Lutheran hymnals. The tune is from a well-known medieval song "In Gottes Names fahren wir.” The hymn was to be sung at the weekday services in Lent when the sermons featured the Catechism. After 1533, this hymn preceded the sermon with another one on the Ten Commands following the sermon. Bach used it several times, and in his collection of organ pieces on the Commandment hymn he uses a canon, a pun for law, which the Ten Commands are, for this tune.


Concordia Publishing House

English text sung by small group

MusicArt61/Bach Chorale

Bach BVW 678/the canon on the hymn/you can see the music

Netherlands Bach Society/Organ/Fughetta on the chorale/ Bach BVW 679

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1 Comment

Donohue Sarff
Donohue Sarff
Sep 22, 2020

Hi Gracia ... Thank you SO much for the Hymnblog daily devotions. I know that you must spend a lot of time researching and writing these. But they are so meaningful. My day would not be complete without them. If possible, please continue sending them. Donohue Sarff

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