How does obedience to the commandments protect us from sin?
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“How does obedience to the commandments protect us from sin?” Ensign, July 1996, 61

How does obedience to the commandments protect us from sin?

Thomas Tyler, zone administrator for the Church Educational System.

To modern readers the Old Testament phrase “keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:6; Lev. 26:3; Deut. 5:10) denotes obedience to rules of righteous living revealed in scripture. However, an early Hebrew meaning of this phrase is infused with imagery that offers significant insight.

“Keep” is translated from the Hebrew word shamar. In Old Testament times, the meaning of shamar was broader—and thus carried richer associations—than today’s tighter, more limited sense indicated in the phrase “keep the commandments.” For example, shamar also meant “to hedge about (as with thorns)” and to guard, protect, watch, and attend to (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, 1986 ed., s.v. “shâmar”).

In addition, shamar referred to briers or thorns “used for fences to preserve the grain” and to keep, watch, or guard a garden, flock, or house (William Wilson, Old Testament Word Studies, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1978, p. 53; Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, trans., Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1949, p. 837).

Likewise, meanings associated with the word commandments in Hebrew are broader than they are in English. One of the Hebrew words from which “command” and “commandment” is translated is tsavah, which means “to set up, give precepts,” or to “constitute or establish an appointed pattern” (Robert Young, Analytical Concordance to the Bible, New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co., n.d., pp. 190–91). In the Doctrine and Covenants, which is replete with the words appoint and establish, the Savior refers to patterns several times. He says, for example, “I will give unto you a pattern in all things, that ye may not be deceived” (D&C 52:14).

In Old Testament times, when landowners wished to prepare fields for cultivation, they would clear the land of stones and then use them to build protective fences or walls around their fields. Thorny hedges could then be grown along and over the stone walls as additional protection. As the land became productive, the landowners then needed to be vigilant if they were to protect it from enemies who would steal and destroy (compare Mosiah 10:2, 7).

Thus, keeping the commandments may be likened to building a protective hedge or wall around appointed patterns of righteous living. The pattern of life the Lord offers through obedience to his commandments protects us from sin and leads us to happiness.

Like uncultivated land, our lives may be filled with the rocks and weeds of sin and weakness. But we can remove those rocks by repenting of our sins, and we can ward off weeds of weakness or enemies of righteousness (see D&C 101:43–62) by building protective walls around our lives with prayer, scripture study, love, service, and Sabbath worship. As we keep the commandments by following patterns of righteous living and seeking the Lord’s help, our weaknesses can become strengths (see Ether 12:27) and our lives can become spiritually fruitful.

Photo by Wayne Doman