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Commandments, Statutes, Ordinances, and Judgments...What's the Difference?

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Deuteronomy 6:1-2
“Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which Yahweh your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it, so that you and your son and your grandson might fear Yahweh your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged.

“What is the difference between a commandment, statute, and judgment?  What about ordinances, are they something different still?  I thought there were only commandments!  What’s the difference?” 

These are questions many students of the Torah end up asking at some point, just what are the differences here?  In order to answer these questions, we must first go back to the original Hebrew, and in some cases all of the way back to their root word to really understand what is meant.  We have discovered that statutes and ordinances are essentially the same thing; they are decrees, requirements, or boundaries set by the Creator.  Judgments instruct us in what to do in a situation, and commandments are orders, or charges, given to be followed.  How did we come to this conclusion?  Just your average, every day word study.

Hebrew word: Mitsvah
Strong’s: H4687 (from H6680)

Using the King James Version, we found the word commandment to be mitsvah in the Hebrew.  According to Strong’s, mitsvah means: a commandment of men or God, or a commandment out of a code of wisdom.  This definition wasn’t much help so we took it back to the root word, tsavah (H6680).  Tsavah means “to lay a charge upon”, “to command”, “to charge”, “to give orders”, or “to appoint”.  This brings more clarity to what a commandment would be.  It’s an order to do something, or a “charge” given to us to watch over and keep. 

It turns out, this definition makes a lot of sense because in Genesis 26:5 and Deuteronomy 11:1 we are told about Yahweh’s “charges”.  Digging deeper to test our new understanding of what a commandment is, we then studied the term “charge” found in the referenced verses.  The Hebrew word for “charge” is mishmereth (H4931 - to guard, a charge, an obligation, service, to watch, keeping or preserving); it is derived from mishmar (H4929 - a place of confinement, a guard post, the act of guarding, or observances) and stems from the base root of shamar (H8104 - to keep, guard, observe, give heed to, to keep within bounds, to observe, celebrate, or keep, to abstain). 

In order to gain a more full understanding of what is meant by a charge, mishmereth, it’s important to understand where the word comes from at its root because both Scriptures referenced above contain the phrase “shamar mishmereth”, or to keep a charge.  This makes sense in keeping with our definition of a commandment being “a charge” or an obligation, something to be watched over, preserved, or observed.  The relationship between the words in the phrase shamar mishmereth makes it clear that a charge is something we should be paying attention to.  When taken back to the root, shamar, we found the word means to keep, guard, observe, give heed to, to keep within bounds, to observe, celebrate, or keep.  The phrase shamar mishmereth is telling us to keep a charge.  We are to keep, preserve, and observe instructions of our Creator; we are to keep the charges, or commandments, He lays upon us.  We believe the “charges/commandments” refer to His covenants, orders, or guidelines; His law or instruction.  We are given guidelines to live by and we are to observe, keep, and guard them for our own protection and life!  An example of commandments would be to observe the Sabbath and His appointed times.  Now, having a better understanding of what a commandment is, let’s move on to “judgments”.

Hebrew Word:  Mishpat
Strong’s: H4941 (from H8199)

Mishpat is the Hebrew word meaning the process of deciding, a decision in law, justice, ordinance, the legal right or privilege due.  In modern terms, our understanding would be that the judgments being referred to tell us how to handle a situation according to Yahweh.  For example, when adultery was committed, we were given a process to follow in order to handle things God’s way.  When an animal was injured while under the care of another, we were given instructions on what type of retribution was owed, etc.  When we take mishpat back to its root, shaphat (H8199), we are able to confirm this understanding.  Shaphat means to judge, to govern, vindicate, punish, to rule, or decide controversy.  Yahweh provided us the method by which just and right rulings could be made to best govern His people.  The same understanding is applied when Yahweh brought judgments upon His people and other nations.  He had set up a process to follow and appropriate consequences for each situation, just as we do today.  By following His judgments, the innocent are vindicated and the guilty are responsible for the appropriate restitution afforded to the wronged party.  There is a clear difference between a commandment (an order or charge to be followed and observed) and a judgment (the way to handle situations between His people).  This brings us to statutes and ordinances.

Hebrew Word: Choq
Strong’s:  H2706

The word often translated as “statute” is choq in Hebrew.  Choq is a statute (a condition or civil enactment from God), an ordinance (enactment or decree), a limit, or something prescribed (a task, portion, limit/boundary).  Another word that could be used to define choq is a requirement.  Note that the word “ordinance” is used in the definition of choq, so let’s go ahead and define ordinance before we continue.

Hebrew Word:  Choq or Chuqqah
Strong’s:  H2706 or H2708 (from H2706)

As you may be able to tell, the same root word, choq or a derivative of choq, chuqqah, is used whenever we see the English word, ordinance, in the Word.  Examples of this are in Exodus 18:20 and Leviticus 18:3-4.  Strong’s defines chuqqah (H2708) as a statute, ordinance, limit, enactment, or something prescribed.  In this, we see the words statute and ordinance really are interchangeable.  Now, some may say what about Exodus 15:25?  In some translations, the phrase used is. “He made for them a statute and ordinance”.  When you go back to the Hebrew, you find the second word “ordinance” there is actually better translated as judgments since the word used is mishpat (H4941). 

Continuing on, a statute is a civil decree or enactment from our Creator, something prescribed for us to do, or a boundary set.  As an example of what this means, we are instructed not to kindle a fire on the Sabbath.  This is a boundary, or limit set on what we cannot do.  Other examples would include what we cannot do while unclean or what a woman can or cannot do during her menstrual cycle.  These are specific decrees.  They sound like commands, orders being given right?  We would agree, they are!  It is our understanding that all statutes are a type of command, but not all commands are statutes.   For example, the 10 Commandments are like the chapters in a book, a high level view of what we cannot do pertaining to different areas.  Within each chapter (command) we find further instruction on what obeying that commandment looks like.  We hope this is making some sense.

As a review, a commandment is an order or charge given us to keep or observe (the 10 commandments, observing His Feast Days and the Sabbath, etc), judgments tell us how to handle situations that arise between His own people, and statutes are the decrees or requirements describing how to live in obedience to Him.  Finally, we did a brief word study of the English word “law” as found in His Word.

Hebrew Word: Towrah or Torah
Strong’s:  H8451 (from H3384)

In the Hebrew, towrah means a special law or codes of law, directions/instruction both human and divine (body of prophetic teaching, body of legal directives, body of priestly direction/instruction), custom or manner, and even the Deuteronomic or Mosaic law.  The word for law can, and contextually should be, understood as being inclusive of commandments, judgments, and statutes given to us by the Creator through Moses.  However, the context will also dictate when the word for “law” is referring to commands or direction from men and not God.  Both uses of the word are correct in different areas of the Bible.  For more on this understanding, we recommend you watch our Pauline Paradox series.

Now some may contend that “charges” are something separate from commandments, statutes, and judgments when they read Deuteronomy 11:1.  So let’s examine that verse briefly and test it.

Deuteronomy 11:1
“You shall therefore love the Lord your God, and always keep His charge, His statutes, His ordinances, and His commandments.

As worded and punctuated in the English, it certainly appears that “His charge” may be something completely separate from His statutes, ordinances, and commandments.  However, if we look back on what discovered earlier, “His charge” in Hebrew was shamar mishereth meaning to keep charge.  We defined a charge as something to be looked over, kept, or observed.  We believe a better translation of this section would be something like “You shall therefore love Yahweh your God, and always keeping His charge which are His statutes, His judgments, and His commandments.”  The statutes, judgments, and commandments are describing what the charge is.  The charge is not something separate from them.  We are to watch over, keep, guard, and observe the statutes, judgments, and commandments.

We hope it is now clear what the differences are between commandments, judgments, statutes, and ordinances are.  We hope that this has blessed you, and remember, continue to test everything, even us!  If you have some additional insight on this topic, please comment and share below!