Enduring Word Bible Commentary Exodus Chapter 20 (2024)

A. Four commandments regarding our conduct before God.

1. (1) Preface to the Ten Commandments.

And God spoke all these words, saying:

a. And God spoke: It is proper to believe that God spoke these words to Israel as a whole, as they assembled together at the foot of Mount Sinai. There, God answered him [Moses] by voice (Exodus 19:19), as Moses stood among the people at the foot of Mount Sinai.

i. “These commandments were after all addressed to the ordinary Israelite, not to the religious elite of the day: they are expressed in strong simple terms, understandable to all, and deal with the temptations of the common man, not of the theologian.” (Cole)

ii. After this, the people asked that God not speak with them directly, and that Moses be the messenger (Exodus 20:18-19). After this, Moses went back up the mountain to receive more revelation from God for the people (Exodus 20:21).

iii. In reading and thinking through these commandments, it should be always remembered that Israel first heard these commands spoken by God from heaven in an audible voice. This made the strongest, most authoritative impression upon the people possible.

b. God spoke all these words: The following laws were not invented at Mount Sinai. A few aspects of the Mosaic Law show new revelation, but for the most part it simply clearly and definitely lays out God’s law as it was written in the heart of man since the time of Adam.

i. “It is wrong to steal, or murder, or covet, not primarily because these sins are forbidden by the Decalogue. They are forbidden by the Decalogue, because they were previously forbidden by conscience; and they are forbidden by conscience because they are forbidden by the nature of things; and the nature of things is God.” (Meyer)

ii. “It has been well said that the commandments are God’s nature expressed in terms of moral imperatives.” (Cole)

iii. In his book The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis explained how there certainly is a universal morality among men. He gave concrete examples of how all cultures in the past were able to agree on the basics of morality because these principles are implanted in the heart and mind of mankind.

iv. All cultures have said murder is wrong, and kindness is good. All agree that we have particular obligations to our family. All say that honesty is good and that a man cannot have any woman he wants. They agree that stealing is wrong, and that justice is good. There are no cultures where cowardice is good, and bravery is bad.

c. God spoke all these words: This God-based moral code set the God of Israel – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – apart from the commonly worshipped gods of the pagan world at that time. They were often just as immoral or more immoral than their human followers.

i. The God-based moral code also established that this people, this nation of Israel belonged to God and not to Moses. This wasn’t Moses’ law (though we often casually refer to it as such). Rather, God spoke all these words, and Moses nor any other man was never to think of himself or allow others to think of him as above the law. God was above all, and His law was and is the expression of His will.

ii. The Code of Hammurabi is another well-known set of laws and principles from this same approximate period. There are some similarities between the Ten Commandments/Mosaic Law and the Code of Hammurabi, but the differences are even more profound. While Hammurabi mentions the gods of Babylon, the emphasis is clearly on him as the king and lawgiver (with divine authority, of course). The Code of Hammurabi begins with page after page of how wonderful Hammurabi is and how much he has accomplished. Hammurabi is clearly above his own law since he was the embodiment of the law. Not so with Moses; the emphasis is clear: God spoke all these words, and no man is above the law.

d. God spoke all these words: We need God to morally instruct and guide us. Though these principles resonate with the human conscience (both individually and collectively), they are certainly not the only influence upon our thinking and behavior. We need to know that there is a God in heaven who expects certain moral behavior and that there are consequences from obeying or disobeying these commands.

i. The Ten Commandments (and all of the Law of Moses that follows) is a God-based moral code. It doesn’t just say that certain behavior is unwise or unhelpful; it says that God commands us to do or not do certain things, and it either says or implies that:

·God sees our obedience or disobedience.

·God measures our obedience or disobedience.

·God, in some way, rewards our obedience and punishes our disobedience.

ii. Without a God-based moral code, it is difficult or impossible to answer the questionWhy?” in response to any moral demand.

iii. The idea of a God-based moral code seems to become less and less popular. While the idea of a moral code remains strong, the tendency grows that the moral code should be based on an individual’s inner sense of right or wrong, good or bad – and not upon a standard set by God.

iv. There is a persistent impulse to make one’s own moral code, apart from God or His revelation. In the late 1980s, media mogul Ted Turner suggested replacing the Ten Commandments with his own “10 Voluntary Initiatives.” Mr. Turner’s list is conspicuous in its failure to mention God or religion in any way. These were Mr. Turner’s Voluntary Initiatives:

1. I promise to have love and respect for the planet earth and living things thereon, especially my fellow species–humankind.

2. I promise to treat all persons everywhere with dignity, respect, and friendliness.

3. I promise to have no more than two children, or no more than my nation suggests.

4. I promise to use my best efforts to save what is left of our natural world in its untouched state and to restore damaged or destroyed areas where practical.

5. I pledge to use as little nonrenewable resources as possible.

6. I pledge to use as little toxic chemicals, pesticides, and other poisons as possible and to work for their reduction by others.

7. I promise to contribute to those less fortunate than myself, to help them become self-sufficient and enjoy the benefits of a decent life, including clean air and water, adequate food and health care, housing, education, and individual rights.

8. I reject the use of force, in particular military force, and back United Nations arbitration of international disputes.

9. I support the total elimination of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction.

10. I support the United Nations and its efforts to collectively improve the conditions of the planet.

e. God spoke all these words: The Bible tells us that the law is holy, just, and good (Romans 7:12). It tells us that every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17). These commandments are good gifts that came to Israel and humanity at Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments are good because:

·They show the wise moral guidance and government of God.

·They answer the need of mankind for moral guidance and government.

·They give us a way to teach morality.

·They would make the world so much better if obeyed.

·They are good for all humanity; some of the Law of Moses is specific unto Israel, but the Ten Commandments are universal.

·They are good when they are promoted and held as ideals, even when they are not perfectly obeyed.

i. “The ‘ten words’ are at once the beginning and the heart of the Mosaic revelation.” (Cole)

f. God spoke all these words: It is important for us to know, understand, receive, and obey all of these commandments in a fully Biblical perspective, also taking into account what the rest of the Book of Exodus the New Testament also tells us about the law of God.

i. The Ten Commandments were never given with the thought that one might earn heaven by obeying them all perfectly or adequately. The covenant God made with Israel at Mount Sinai was much bigger than the law, though that was its first and perhaps most dramatic aspect. Another aspect of the covenant was sacrifice, which was given because both God and Israel knew that it was impossible for them to keep this law perfectly, and they must depend on the sacrifice of an innocent victim as a substitute for the guilty law-breaker. In this sense, the Ten Commandments were like a mirror that showed Israel their need for sacrifice.

ii. These Ten Commandments can also be summarized as Jesus did in Matthew 22:35-40: Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” This simplification doesn’t eliminate the Ten Commandments; it fulfills them, showing us the heart and desire of God for His people. The problem is that we haven’t kept the two commandments either, much less the ten.

iii. More importantly, we know that Jesus Himself was the only one to ever keep the law perfectly – either in the ten or the two. He never needed to sacrifice for His own sin, so could be the perfect sacrifice for our sin. Wonderfully, His obedience is credited to those who put their love and trust in Him. Romans 8:2-3 puts it this way: For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. This is God’s amazing promise to those who repent and believe on Jesus.

iv. The law is a schoolmaster to us (Galatians 3:22-25). Before God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ was fully evident, we were kept under guard by the law – both in the sense of being bound by the law, but also held in protective custody. The law, through its revelation of God’s character and its exposure of our sin, prepares us to come to Jesus – but after we have come, we no longer have to live under our tutor (though we remember the behavior he has taught us).

v. From the perspective of the entire Bible, we can say that the law of God has three great purposes and uses:

·It is a guardrail, keeping humanity on a moral path.

·It is a mirror, showing us our moral failure and need for a savior.

·It is a guide, showing us the heart and desire of God for His people.

vi. “The great message of the Christian faith is, therefore, that we are free from the Law’s condemnation in order that we may be able to fulfill its obligation by the power of [Jesus] within us.” (Redpath)

vii. “My obedience therefore is not legal, but inspired by love and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit. Does New Testament grace allow a lower standard than Old Testament law? The standard under grace is higher.” (Redpath)

viii. The Ten Commandments are often organized into two groups. The first four focus on our conduct toward God, and the next six on our conduct toward one another.

2. (2-3) The first commandment: no other gods before Me.

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.”

a. I am the LORD your God: In the ancient world (including Egypt), men worshipped many gods. Here Yahweh (the LORD), the covenant God of Israel, set Himself apart from any of the other supposed deities.

i. In these first few words, God both reminded and taught Israel essential facts or principles about who He is, about His nature.

·God is above nature; He is not merely the personification of fire, or the wind, or the sun, or the sky, or any other created thing.

·God is personal; He is not a depersonalized force; He relates with and communicates to man in an understandable way. God has a mind, a will, a voice, and so forth.

·God is good; He had done good for Israel and now does good for them in giving these commands, the keeping of which not only pleases Him, but is genuinely best for humanity.

·God is holy; He is different than the supposed gods of the pagans, and He therefore also expects His people to be different.

ii. It seems that the structure of these commands and covenant were familiar in the ancient world. “Most scholars point to the similarity between this historical prologue (followed by its stipulations, witnesses, and provisions for succession) and the great suzerain-vassal treaty forms of the ancient Near East.” (Kaiser)

b. Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage: Before God commanded anything of Israel He reminded them what He had done for them. This was a clear foundation: because of who God is, and what He has done for us, He has the right to tell us what to do – and we have the obligation to obey Him.

i. “God did not promulgate a code of laws for the children of Israel, while they were in bondage, telling them that if they would obey it, He would deliver them. He brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, and then gave them His law.” (Morgan)

ii. “God’s blessings are binders; every deliverance is a tie to obedience.” (Trapp)

c. You shall have no other gods before Me: The first commandment logically flowed from understanding who God was and what He had done for Israel. Because of that, nothing was to come before God and He was the only God we worship and serve.

i. In the days of ancient Israel, there was great temptation to worship the gods of materialism (such as Baal, the god of weather and financial success) and sex (such as Ashtoreth, the goddess of sex, romance, and reproduction), or any number of other local deities. We are tempted to worship the same gods, but without the old-fashioned names and images.

ii. It has been said (perhaps first by John Calvin) that human nature is like an idol factory that operates constantly. We constantly deal with the temptation to set all kinds of things before or competing with God and His preeminent place in our life.

d. No other gods before Me: This does not imply that it is permissible to have other gods, as long as they line up behind the true God. Instead the idea is that there are to be no other gods before the sight of the true God in our life. According to Cole, before Me is literally, To My face.

i. This means God demands to be more than added to our lives. We don’t just add Jesus to the life we already have. We must give Him all our life.

ii. Failure to obey this commandment is called idolatry. We are to flee idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:14). Those lives marked by habitual idolatry will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Ephesians 5:5, Revelation 21:8, 22:15). Idolatry is a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-20), which marks our old life instead of the new (1 Peter 4:3), and we are not to associate with those who call themselves Christians who are idolaters (1 Corinthians 5:11).

3. (4-6) The second commandment: You shall not make for yourself any carved image… you shall not bow down to them.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”

a. You shall not make for yourself a carved image: The second commandment prohibited not only idolatry regarding false gods (overlapping with the first commandment), it also forbids with making an image of any created thing that we might worship (you shall not bow down to them nor serve them).

i. Some take this command to prohibit any kind of representation of God, such as with a painting of Jesus or a picture of a dove to represent the Holy Spirit, or any other representation. However, others emphasize that the prohibition is actually in the making of an image that would be or would likely be worshipped (you shall not bow down to them nor serve them).

ii. Speaking later of Israel’s experience at Sinai, Moses wrote: And the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice (Deuteronomy 4:12). This established the principle that the worship of God was to be word-based and not image-based.

b. Or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath: In that day as well as in our own, worship was tied closely with images – idealized images, or even images in the mind of man. God will not allow us to depict Him with any such image, nor replace Him with another image.

i. The second commandment doesn’t forbid making an image of something for artistic purposes; God Himself commanded Israel make images of cherubim (Exodus 25:18, 26:31). It forbids the making of images as an aid or help to worship. “If the making of cherubim was permitted, then the prohibition of the ‘image’ will refer only to the making of direct objects of worship.” (Cole)

ii. “To countenance its image worship, the Roman Catholic Church has left the whole of this second commandment out of the decalogue, and thus lost one whole commandment out of the ten; but to keep up the number they have divided the tenth into two.” (Clarke)

iii. In John 4:24 Jesus explained the rationale behind the second commandment: God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. The use of images and other material things as a focus or help to worship denies who God is (Spirit) and how we must worship Him (in spirit and truth).

iv. Paul reminded us of the danger and futility of trying to make God into our own image: Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man; and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:22-23)

c. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God: God is jealous in the sense that He will not accept being merely added to the life; He insists on being supreme and does this out of love.

i. “God’s jealousy is love in action. He refuses to share the human heart with any rival, not because He is selfish and wants us all for Himself, but because He knows that upon that loyalty to Him depends our very moral life… God is not jealous of us: He is jealous for us.” (Redpath)

ii. “‘Zealous’ might be a better translation in modern English, since ‘jealousy’ has acquired an exclusively bad meaning.” (Cole)

d. Visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me: This does not mean God punishes people directly for the sins of their ancestors. The important words are of those who hate Me. If the descendants love God, they will not have the iniquity of the fathers visited on them.

i. “‘This necessarily implies – IF the children walk in the steps of their fathers; for no man can be condemned by Divine justice for a crime of which he was never guilty.” (Clarke)

ii. “Children who repeat the sins of their father evidence it in personally hating god; hence they too are punished like their fathers.” (Kaiser)

iii. Yet, the focus here is on idolatry, and this refers to judgment on a national scale – nations that forsake the LORD will be judged, and that judgment will have effects throughout generations.

e. But showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments: It’s possible for everyone to receive God’s mercy; if they will only turn to Him in love and obedience.

4. (7) The third commandment: You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.

“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.”

a. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain: There are at least three ways this command is commonly disobeyed.

·Profanity: Using the name of God in blasphemy and cursing.

·Frivolity: Using the name of God in a superficial, stupid way.

·Hypocrisy: Claiming the name of God but acting in a way that disgraces Him

i. Jesus communicated the idea of this command in the disciples’ prayer, when He taught us to have a regard for the holiness of God’s name (Hallowed be Your name, Matthew 6:9).

b. For the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain: The strength of this command has led to strange traditions among the Jewish people. Some go to extreme measures to avoid violating this command, refusing to even write out the word God, in the fear that the paper might be destroyed, and the name of God be written in vain.

5. (8-11) The fourth commandment: Remember the Sabbath day.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.”

a. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: The command is to respect the seventh day (Saturday) as a day of rest (you shall do no work). This rest was for all of Israel – for the son and the servant and the stranger – even including cattle.

i. This is an important principle that might be too easily passed over. Here God declared the essential humanity and dignity of women, slaves, and strangers, and said they had the same right to a day of rest as the free Israeli man. This was certainly a radical concept in the ancient world.

ii. “The baser sort of people in Sweden do always break the Sabbath, saying that it is for gentlemen to keep that day.” (Trapp)

b. To keep it holy: God commanded Israel – and all humanity – to make sure that there was sacred time in their life, separated time of rest.

i. In their traditions, the Jewish people came to carefully quantify what they thought could and could not be done on the Sabbath day, in order to keep it holy. For example, in Luke 6:1-2, in the mind of the Jewish leaders, the disciples were guilty of four violations of the Sabbath every time they took a bite of grain out in the field, because they reaped, threshed, winnowed, and prepared food.

ii. Ancient Rabbis taught that on the Sabbath, a man could not carry something in his right hand or in his left hand, across his chest or on his shoulder. But he could carry something with the back of his hand, his foot, his elbow, or in his ear, his hair, or in the hem of his shirt, or in his shoe or sandal. Or on the Sabbath Israelites were forbidden to tie a knot – except, a woman could tie a knot in her girdle. So, if a bucket of water had to be raised from a well, an Israelite could not tie a rope to the bucket, but a woman could tie her girdle to the bucket and pull it up from the well.

iii. In observant Jewish homes today, one cannot turn on a light, a stove, or a switch on the Sabbath. It is forbidden to drive a certain distance or to make a telephone call – all carefully regulated by traditions seeking to spell out the law exactly.

c. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth: God established the pattern for the Sabbath at the time of creation. When He rested from His works on the seventh day, God made the seventh day a day of rest from all our works (Genesis 2:3). It’s as if God said, having too much to do isn’t an excuse from taking the rest you need – I created the universe and found time to rest from My work.

i. When God told them to remember the Sabbath, He told them to remember the rest. “The term ‘Sabbath’ is derived from the Hebrew verb ‘to rest or cease from work.’” (Kaiser) The most important purpose of the Sabbath was to serve as a preview picture of the rest we have in Jesus.

ii. Like everything in the Bible, we understand this with the perspective of the whole Bible, not this single passage. With this understanding, we see that there is a real sense in which Jesus fulfilled the purpose and plan of the Sabbath for us and in us (Hebrews 4:9-11) – He is our rest, when we remember His finished work we remember the Sabbath, we remember the rest.

iii. Therefore, the whole of Scripture makes it clear that under the New Covenant, no one is under obligation to observe a Sabbath day (Colossians 2:16-17 and Galatians 4:9-11). Galatians 4:10 tells us that Christians are not bound to observe days and months and seasons and years. The rest we enter into as Christians is something to experience every day, not just one day a week – the rest of knowing we don’t have to work to save ourselves, but our salvation is accomplished in Jesus (Hebrews 4:9-10).

iv. The Sabbath commanded here and observed by Israel was a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ (Colossians 2:16-17). In the New Covenant the idea isn’t that there is no Sabbath, but that every day is a day of Sabbath rest in the finished work of God. Since the shadow of the Sabbath is fulfilled in Jesus, we are free to keep any particular day – or no day – as a Sabbath after the custom of ancient Israel.

v. Yet we dare not ignore the importance of a day of rest – God has built us so that we need one. Like a car that needs regular maintenance, we need regular rest – or we will not wear well. Some people are like high mileage cars that haven’t been maintained well, and it shows.

vi. Some Christians are also dogmatic about observing Saturday as the Sabbath as opposed to Sunday. But because we are free to regard all days as given by God, it makes no difference. But in some ways, Sunday is more appropriate; being the day Jesus rose from the dead (Mark 16:9), and first met with His disciples (John 20:19), and a day when Christians gathered for fellowship (Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:2). Under Law, men worked towards God’s rest; but after Jesus’ finished work on the cross, the believer enters into rest and goes from that rest out to work.

vii. But we are also commanded to work six days. “He who idles his time away in the six days is equally culpable in the sight of God as he who works on the seventh.” (Clarke) Many Christians should give more “leisure time” to the work of the LORD. Every Christian should have a deliberate way to serve God and advance the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

B. Six commandments regarding our conduct before God and man.

1. (12) The fifth commandment: Honor your father and your mother.

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.”

a. Honor your father and your mother: This command is wise and good, because honor for parents is an essential building block for the stability and health of all society. If the younger generations are constantly at war with older generations, the foundations of society will be destroyed.

i. To honor one’s parents includes to prize them, to care for them, and to show respect or reverence to them. The command is given to children, but not for only while they are children. “This is not a popular doctrine in our modern world, where youth is worshipped, and old age dreaded or despised. The result is the folly by which men or women strive to remain eternally youthful, only to find it an impossible task.” (Cole)

ii. Jesus used the way the Pharisees interpreted this commandment as an example of how one might keep the law with a limited interpretation yet violate the spirit of the commandment (Matthew 15:3-6).

b. That your days may be long: In Ephesians 6:2 Paul repeated this command, emphasizing the promise stated here, that your days may be long upon the land. Rebellion is costly, and many have paid a high price personally for their rebellion against their parents.

i. “A good child lengtheneth his father’s days; therefore God promiseth to lengthen his.” (Trapp)

2. (13) The sixth commandment: You shall not murder.

“You shall not murder.”

a. You shall not murder: In Hebrew as well as in English there is a distinction between to kill and to murder. As opposed to killing, murder is the taking of life without legal justification (execution after due process) or moral justification (killing in defense).

i. “Only two words are used in Hebrew, as blunt as the order ‘no killing’ would be in English.” (Cole)

ii. Kaiser on rasah: “Hebrew possesses seven words for killing… If any one of the seven words could signify ‘murder,’ where factors of premeditation and intentionality are present, this is the verb.” (Kaiser)

iii. This important distinction explains how someone can quite consistently argue for the principle of capital punishment and the prohibition of murder. When carried out properly, capital punishment is killing with legal justification.

b. You shall not murder: Jesus carefully explained the heart of this commandment. He showed that it also prohibits us from hating someone else (Matthew 5:21-26), because we can wish someone dead in our hearts, yet never have the nerve to commit the deed. Someone may not kill from a lack of courage or initiative, yet his or her heart is filled with hatred.

3. (14) The seventh commandment: You shall not commit adultery.

“You shall not commit adultery.”

a. You shall not commit adultery: Clearly, the act itself is condemned. God allows no justification for the ways that many often seek to justify extra-marital sex. It is not to be done, and when it is done it is sin and it damages.

i. “For a man to have intercourse with another man’s wife was considered as heinous sin against God as well as man, long before the law, in patriarchal times (Genesis 39:9).” (Cole)

ii. Because there are different punishments for adultery (Deuteronomy 22:22) and the seduction of a virgin woman (Exodus 22:16-17, Deuteronomy 22:23-29), adultery is distinguished from pre-marital sex in the Old Testament. Each is wrong, but wrong in sometimes-different ways.

iii. Some years ago there was a Christian music industry singer named Michael English. He lost his recording contract and marriage over adultery with another Christian singer. Afterward he said of his adultery and its aftermath: “Maybe God allowed this to happen to make me see I needed some freedom.” No!

b. You shall not commit adultery: The New Testament clearly condemns adultery: Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication uncleanness, licentiousness (Galatians 5:19). The act is condemned, but not only the act itself.

i. More than the act itself, Jesus carefully explained the heart of this commandment. It prohibits us from looking at a woman to lust for her, where we commit adultery in our heart or mind, yet may not have the courage or opportunity to do the act (Matthew 5:27-30). We aren’t innocent just because we didn’t have the opportunity to sin the way we really want to.

ii. “As to the word adultery, adulterium, it has probably been derived from the words ad alterius torum, to another’s bed; for it is going to the bed of another man that constitutes the act and the crime.” (Clarke)

4. (15) The eighth commandment: You shall not steal.

“You shall not steal.”

a. Not steal: This command is another important foundation for human society, establishing the right to personal property. God has clearly entrusted certain possessions to certain individuals, and other people or states are not permitted to take that property without due process of law.

b. Not steal: We can also steal from God. Of course, this demands we honor God with our financial resources, so we are not guilty of robbing Him (Malachi 3:8-10). But we can also rob God by refusing to give Him ourselves for obedience and His service, because He bought us and owns us: knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold… but with the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19)

i. 1 Corinthians 6:20 gives the same idea: For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.

c. Not steal: Ephesians 4:28 gives the solution to stealing. Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.

5. (16) The ninth commandment: You shall not bear false witness.

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

a. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor: The primary sense of this command has to do with the legal process. Yet it is common to speak in an informal court, where what we say is taken seriously and truth or error matters for us and for others.

i. In an extended sense, we can break the ninth commandment through slander, tale bearing, creating false impressions, by silence, by questioning the motives behind someone’s actions, or even by flattery.

ii. “Slander… is a lie invented and spread with intent to do harm. That is the worst form of injury a person can do to another. Compared to one who does this, a gangster is a gentleman, and a murderer is kind, because he ends life in a moment with a stroke and with little pain. But the man guilty of slander ruins a reputation which may never be regained, and causes lifelong suffering.” (Redpath)

iii. “Talebearing… is repeating a report about a person without careful investigation. Many, many times I have known what it is to suffer with that. To repeat a story which brings discredit and dishonor to another person without making sure of the facts, is breaking this commandment… How many people, especially Christian people, revel in this, and delight in working havoc by telling tales about others. To excuse the action by saying they believed the report to be true, or that there was no intention to malign, is no justification.” (Redpath)

iv. Inappropriate silence may also break this command. “When someone utters a falsity about another and a third person is present who knows that statement to be untrue but, for reasons of fear or being disliked, remains quiet, that third person is as guilty of breaking this law as if he had told a lie.” (Redpath)

v. “Neither bear it, nor hear it; raise, nor receive wrong reports of another; [do not] make a lie, nor love it when it is made.” (Trapp)

b. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor: The New Testament puts it simply. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds (Colossians 3:9). Lying and false representations belong to the old man, not to the new life we have in Jesus.

i. “How very strange that we have ever come to think that Christian maturity is shown by the ability to speak our minds, whereas it is really expressed in controlling our tongues.” (Redpath)

ii. “What a startling revelation it would be if a tape recording could be played of all that every church member has said about his fellow members in one week!” (Redpath)

iii. Satan is always there to encourage a lie (John 8:44; Acts 5:3); and Jesus Himself was the victim of false witness (Mark 14:57); in some ways, we might say this was the sin that sent Jesus to the cross.

6. (17) The tenth commandment: You shall not covet.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

a. You shall not covet: All the first nine commands focus more on things we do; the tenth deals straight with the heart and its desires.

i. Literally, the word for covet here means, to pant after. “Hebrew hamad, ‘desire’, is in itself a neutral word. It is only when misdirected to that which belongs to another that such ‘desire’ becomes wrong.” (Cole)

ii. Covetousness works like this: the eyes look upon an object, the mind admires it, the will goes over to it, and the body moves in to possess it. Just because you have not taken the final step does not mean you are not in the process of coveting right now.

b. Your neighbor’s house… wife… ox… donkey: Covetousness can be expressed towards all sorts of things; it is the itch to have and to possess what someone else has. It speaks of a dissatisfaction with what we have, and a jealously towards those who have something better.

i. Hebrews 13:5 puts it well: Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

ii. This last commandment is closely connected with the first commandment against idolatry: For this you know, that no… covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God (Ephesians 5:5).

iii. Jesus gave a special warning about covetousness, which explained the core philosophy of the covetous heart: And He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15)

C. The nation’s great fear of the presence of God.

1. (18) The people stand afar off.

Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off.

a. All the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning: Awesome sights and sounds came from Mount Sinai together with the speaking of the law. All of the phenomenon together made for an overwhelming scene.

i. Lightning flashes: “The word here is unusual and might be translated ‘torches’, meaning ‘flashes’ or ‘fireballs’. This is the same word used for the symbol of God’s presence that Abraham sees at the making of God’s covenant with him (Genesis 15).” (Cole)

ii. The mountain smoking: Deuteronomy 5:23 explains why the mountain smoked; it says the mountain was burning with fire.

b. They trembled and stood afar off: The awe of all the phenomenon did nothing to draw the people closer to God; it only made them stand afar off.

2. (19) The request of the people.

Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.”

a. Let not God speak with us: One might think that Israel loved the dramatic experience at Mount Sinai, and especially the honor of hearing God’s voice like a loudspeaker from heaven. Instead, because of the great awe and dread they felt, they wanted God to stop speaking to them directly.

i. Biblically speaking, an up-close encounter with God could just as often be troubling as it might be comforting. Israel could not see, feel, and hear this much from God and not at the same time be acutely aware that He is perfect and holy, and they were not.

ii. This is a typical reaction of those who came into the presence of God, such as Isaiah who felt undone before God (Isaiah 6:1-5) and John who fell as a dead man before the Lord (Revelation 1:17).

iii. “What Israel dreaded, Moses coveted (Exodus 33:18).” (Cole)

b. You speak with us, and we will hear: The people promised to hear and (by implication) obey the word of God that came to them by Moses. They failed in this promise, both soon after this and in the longer term.

i. In following generations, Israel interpreted the law downward, so it could be more easily obeyed, removing the heart and intent of the law. Jesus exposed this shallow understanding of the law in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-48). This progressed to the point where Saul of Tarsus could say and mean of himself, concerning the righteousness which is in the law, [I was counted] blameless (Philippians 3:6).

c. Let not God speak with us, lest we die: In drawing back from direct dealing with God, Israel wanted Moses to be their mediator, fearing death if they did not have a mediator.

i. Man’s desire for a mediator – someone to act as a go-between with us and God – is only good if it is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, for there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5).

3. (20) The purpose for this fear.

And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.”

a. Do not fear; for God has come to test you: The people of Israel wanted to separate themselves from the manifest presence of God, but God meant it for good to test them.

·The test revealed to them what kind of God they served: a God above nature, personal, good, and holy.

·The test revealed to them what God’s expectations were, that God is a moral God who expects moral behavior from His people.

·The test revealed to them their own weakness and need for God’s grace, help, and rescue.

b. That His fear may be before you: This distinguishes between two kinds of fear. Do not fear speaks of the tormenting fear that comes from both guilt and danger. That His fear may be before you speaks of the attitude of honor and reverence that leads to respect and obedience.

i. “Fear not. And yet fear.” (Trapp)

ii. Though it is better to obey God out of fear than to disobey Him, God’s ultimate motivation for obedience is love. This is clear from 1 John 4:18-19: There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us.

c. So that you may not sin: Israel did not learn this lesson well. In approximately 40 days they danced around a gold calf with both idolatry and immorality (Exodus 32).

4. (21) Moses draws near.

So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.

a. So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near: Israel dreaded the powerful presence of God, but Moses longed for it. Moses would later more directly and eloquently show this desire (Exodus 33).

i. Moses had a relationship with God the common man in Israel did not have. Through the circ*mstances of his life and the direct revelation of God, Moses was aware of both God’s holy power and also of God’s glorious grace.

b. Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was: It wasn’t that Moses was a flawless saint. Moses was a murderer who had been forgiven and restored by God. Moses knew what it meant to connect with God on the ground of grace, not what one deserved.

E. Laws concerning worship and altars.

1. (22-23) The purity of worship.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. You shall not make anything to be with Me—gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves.’”

a. You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven: This makes it perfectly clear that God spoke the Ten Commandments to Israel from heaven. This happened at Mount Sinai, but God spoke from heaven.

b. You shall not make anything to be with Me; gods of silver or gods of gold: Because God did not reveal Himself to Israel in any form or image, they were not to make any other god of silver or gold to set beside (be with Me) God.

2. (24-26) Instructions for altars and sacrifice.

“‘An altar of earth you shall make for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I record My name I will come to you, and I will bless you. And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it. Nor shall you go up by steps to My altar, that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.’”

a. An altar of earth you shall make for Me: As God began this expanded section of His law for Israel, the first law mentioned had to do with sacrifice and atonement. This was in expectation that Israel would break the laws God gave them, and need to atone for their sin by sacrifice, all with a view to the ultimate sacrifice God would ultimately provide.

i. Our word altar comes from the Latin altus, meaning high or elevated – because altars were raised to give them prominence and dignity. Yet the Hebrew word for altar (mizbach) has the sense of a place of sacrifice or killing, coming from the Hebrew word to kill.

ii. An altar of earth: “In opposition to the costly shrines and services of those dunghill deities.” (Trapp) God did not need an ornate or elaborate altar; an altar of earth was sufficient. With God’s ultimate altar, a few wooden beams were sufficient.

b. You shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings: The distinction between burnt offerings and peace offerings was given later in greater detail. Yet the mere mention of them at the outset of the giving of the law indicates that man cannot keep the law and must have sacrifice to deal with this inability.

c. I will come to you, and I will bless you: This wonderful promise was made in the context of sacrifice and atonement. Even in the Law of Moses, God often made the connection between trust in atoning sacrifice and the presence and blessing of God.

i. Though there was blessing in keeping the law, we ultimately are only blessed by the law if we keep the entire law – therefore we seek and find blessing from God on the basis of His atoning sacrifice.

d. You shall not build it of hewn stone: If an altar were made of stone, it was possible or even likely that attention would be drawn, and glory would be given to the stone carver. God, at His altar, wanted to share glory with no man – the beauty and attractiveness would be found only in the provision of God, not in any fleshly display.

i. If you use your tool on it, you have profaned it: “Not polished it. So in preaching (1 Corinthians 2:4-5). Some mar all by over-doing.” (Trapp)

e. Nor shall you go up by steps: God wanted no display of human flesh at His place of covering sacrifice. Steps might allow the leg of the priest to be seen. God doesn’t want to see our flesh in worship.

i. What God does want from us in worship is seen by Jesus’ statement in John 4:24: God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. God wants worship that is characterized by Spirit (as opposed to flesh) and truth (as opposed to deception or mere feeling).

ii. “Later on, when altars with steps were allowed to be built (Leviticus 9:22; Ezekiel 43:13-17), the priests were instructed to wear linen undershorts (Exodus 28:40-42; Ezekiel 44:18).” (Kaiser)

©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission


Enduring Word Bible Commentary Exodus Chapter 20 (2024)


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