The Basics of the Law
Exodus 20. In this chapter God begins to give to Moses the terms of the Old Covenant, starting with the decalogue, or ‘ten commandments’. In the three chapters that follow he gives the judgments that accompany the ten commandments. In chapter 24, after hearing all the words of the covenant, Israel formally puts themselves under it.
The Ten Commandments (20:1-17)
The Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) were given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The ten commandments are central tenets of God's law, and they were later expanded on to fill in the details. The ten commandments give God's bare minimum standard for man. The do not give us the full revelation of God's character and will for man. That is only seen in the Person of Jesus Christ. The law was mostly written in the negative form, as prohibitions. This shows the true state of man. His fallen nature is inclined to sin, and God must say, "Thou shalt not".1 The commandments were written "by the finger of God" and delivered to Moses (Deut. 9:10). They were written on "two tables of stone". We do not know whether the commandments were divided across the two tables (five and five; or four and six) or if each table contained all ten. We do know from other scriptures that the number two is the minimum requirement to establish testimony. Three is abundant testimony, but two is adequate. These tables are called the "two tables of testimony" (Exodus 31:18). It is possible that, as with other legal contracts, the two tables were identical, though independently written by God to give assurance of their accuracy and permanency. Another reason why there were two tables is because the ten commandments described Israel's twofold responsibility; (1) God-ward, and (2) man-ward. The law could be fulfilled by "love" to God and man (Gal. 5:14; Matt. 22:35-40). We also know that they were "written on both sides" (Exodus 32:15), so the common artistic depictions of them are not accurate. One reason why God chose to cover the entire surface area of each tablet might be that it left no room for man to add to His word!
Four God-ward Commands - Fulfilled by Love Toward God
- "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20:3; Deut. 5:7)
- "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" (Ex. 20:4-6; Deut. 5:8-10)
- "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" (Ex. 20:7; Deut. 5:11)
- "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Ex. 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12-15)
Six Man-ward Commands - Fulfilled by Love Toward Man
- "Honor thy father and thy mother" (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16)
- "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17)
- "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Ex. 20:14; Deut. 5:18)
- "Thou shalt not steal" (Ex. 20:15; Deut. 5:19)
- "Thou shalt not bear false witness" (Ex. 20:16; Deut. 5:20)
- "Thou shalt not covet" (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21)
"These least commandments". The first four commandments had to do with fidelity toward God, summarized by the Lord as "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy understanding" (Deut. 6:5). The last six have to do with conduct toward our fellow man, and the Lord summarized them as "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Lev. 19:18). Read Matt. 22:36-40; Rom. 13:8-10. Both these "summaries" are a form of love, so Paul says "therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom. 13:10). Man’s responsibility toward God is greater than his responsibility toward his fellow man (a principle much violated today), and therefore the second group of commands was called "these least commandments" (Matt. 5:19).
Ten commandments in the New Testament. Nine out of the ten commandments are brought into the New Testament and used in connection with Christian living. Each time a commandment is brought in, it is used for the moral import of the command, but the Christian is never put under the commandments as a law. Instead "the righteous requirement of the law" is "fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to flesh but according to Spirit" (Rom. 8:4). The one commandment that is NOT brought into the New Testament for Christian living is the one ceremonial commandment (the Sabbath), because it does not have a moral application in Christianity.
¶ 1 And God spoke all these words, saying, 2 I am Jehovah thy God, who have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. v.1 Jehovah. Before giving the ten commandments, the Lord reminded Israel of who He was, “I am Jehovah thy God”, and what He had done for Israel, “who have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”. He was especially their God because He had redeemed them from bondage! What follows is the bare minimum standard of Jehovah for His people.
3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me. v.1 No Other Gods (#1). We notice that the group of four God-ward commands comes first. How backwards our society is today, where what concerns man is elevated, and what concerns God is neglected. The first commandment is connected with that one great truth Israel was to bear witness to before the nations; that there is one true God, and that Israel belonged to Him. “Hear, Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Because of this, any kind of idolatry was prohibited. Sadly, the sin of idolatry is what plagued Israel down through the history of the kings, beginning with Solomon, and was the cause of their being expelled from their inheritance.
Idolatry. There are a few things that spiritually answer to idolatry. First, anything other than God that becomes an object of worship or occupation for us is an idol. It could be something from the religious world, the political world, the academic world, or the entertainment world. This might be idolatry in the sense of the first commandment; “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”. Second, an idol can be a god of our own creation. Often people project their own ideas on God or Jesus, such as emphasizing one aspect of His Person and denying another. Some claim Jesus is only a good man, others say is God but not really a man “come in flesh” (1 John 4:3). Some deny the holiness of God, asserting that “the God I know would never send people to hell”. The sad fact is that they worship a different god; one of their own creation These are like the false apostles in Paul’s day who “preached another Jesus, whom we have not preached” (2 Cor. 11:4). This second form of idolatry answers to the second commandment; “Thou shalt not make thyself any graven image”. Perhaps this second form of idolatry is what John wrote of in His first epistle – anything that falls short of the revelation of the Father and the Son; “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
4 Thou shalt not make thyself any graven image, or any form of what is in the heavens above, or what is in the earth beneath, or what is in the waters under the earth: 5 thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them; for I, Jehovah thy God, am a jealous GOD, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and to the fourth generation of them that hate me, 6 and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments. vv.4-6 No Graven Image (#2). This second command was no mere redundant repetition of the first command. A false god can be worshipped in some ways without a graven image, but to make a graven image – even if intended to worship the true God – is an abomination to God. Man needs an object to worship, and the true Object is apprehended by faith. Without faith, man grasps after material objects to worship; “any graven image, or any form of what is in the heavens above, or what is in the earth beneath, or what is in the waters under the earth”. The tendency with idolatry is to worship gods shaped like lower and lower forms of creation; the heathen, says Paul, “changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). Particularly for Israel, to bow down or serve any object other than the one true God, Jehovah, who had especially claimed them as His people, would bring down severe judgment. Thus, He warns them “I, Jehovah thy God, am a jealous GOD”. In Exodus 34:14 the Lord declares that His very name is “Jealous”!
Visiting the Iniquity. The expression here is a common phrase regarding the government of God, occuring four times in the Pentateuch; “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and to the fourth generation of them that hate me”. The three times the expression is spoken by the Lord (Ex. 20:5; Ex. 34:7; Deut. 5:9) He adds to it some assurance of His mercy; e.g. “and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments”. The other time it is spoken by Moses when interceding for the people, and he also appeals Jehovah’s mercy (Num. 14:18-19). The people were under God’s law, but it was mingled with mercy. Without that mercy they would be entirely consumed. Therefore, God brings in His mercy. The expression about visiting the iniquity of the fathers has been a challenge for many to grasp, especially in the light of God’s justice, by which He holds a person accountable for their own sins; “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son” (Ezek. 18:20). Two observations will suffice to resolve the difficulty.
- First, the children of three and four generations are “of them that hate me”. The iniquity of the fathers becomes the iniquity of the children, and so on, to the third and fourth generation. Those in Ezek. 18 were complaining that God was unfair, but the fact was that they were individually guilty. He takes them up the ground of individual responsibility, just as at the giving of the law. From this we can see that there is no conflict with the principle of personal accountability (Ezek. 18).
- Second, the word used is ‘iniquity’, which means ‘willfully violating God’s order in creation’. This more specific than the broader category of ‘sins’, and it has to do with perverting or violating God’s order in creation (Gen. 15:16; 19:15; 44:16), and examples might be idol worship,2 incest, child abuse, and homosexuality. Those are types of sins that tend to become ingrained in families and passed down; i.e. “the iniquity of the Amorites”. Read more…
The great point of the passage is to show that God’s judgment is inflexible and He will persevere in it, just as He will persevere in His mercy.
7 Thou shalt not idly utter the name of Jehovah thy God; for Jehovah will not hold him guiltless that idly uttereth his name. v.7 The Lord’s Name in Vain (#3). The third commandment highlights the respect and reality that Jehovah demanded from His people. To utter the name of Jehovah their God “in vain” or “idly” means to use it carelessly or flippantly; to invoke His name without consideration for who He is. In the Western world, an extremely common parallel to this today is the exclamation, “Oh my God!” Here is was specifically the name of Jehovah, that Name by which God entered into a covenant relationship with His people. He would hold the person responsible who took that name in vain. God wants us to take His name seriously as it stands for His Person and character.
8 Remember the sabbath day to hallow it. 9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work; 10 but the seventh day is the sabbath of Jehovah thy God: thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy bondman, nor thy handmaid, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates. 11 For in six days Jehovah made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore Jehovah blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. vv.8-11 The Sabbath Day (#4). The fourth command is that of the weekly Sabbath. On the last day of the week, Israel was to rest and do no work. The cessation from work would be universal in the land; family, servants, animals, etc. all would observe the Sabbath. The reason is given; “For in six days Jehovah made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day”. In Gen. 2:1-3, when the reconstruction of the heavens and earth for man was complete, God rested. Now the children of Israel are commanded to observe the Sabbath day as a holy day, and honor it by doing no work on that day. Note that Christians are not connected with the seventh day of the week, but with the first (although we are not told to rest on that day). The first day of the week speaks of a new beginning, of resurrection. Typically, the seventh day speaks of the Millennium, which is the “rest” that “remaineth to the people of God” (Heb. 4:9). After six-thousand years of sin, strife, and sickness, the Lord will give the earth rest; “the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Read more…
¶ 12 “Honour thy father and thy mother”, [Matt. 15:4; 19:19; Mark 7:10; 10:19; Luke 18:20; Eph. 6:2] that thy days may be prolonged in the land that Jehovah thy God giveth thee. v.12 Honor Father and Mother (#5). This fifth commandment is the first an only commandment to come with a promise attached to it, hence it is called the “first commandment with promise” (Eph. 6:2). This shows its importance to God. If obedience was important to God under the Law, how much more now under grace? This commandment is put in a positive sense, in contrast with the remaining five, “thou shalt not”. God intended this commandment for the blessing of mankind, which is divided up into families, with both a father and a mother. When father and mother are honored and respected, the children are happy, and grow up to be productive members of society. When respect and honor are not taught in the home, children grow up to disregard any authority, and later become a menace to society. Hence, rebelliousness in children was not to be tolerated by Israelite parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). The promise attached to this commandment is longevity in the land.
13 Thou shalt not kill. v.13 Murder (#6). God alone can give life, and God alone has the prerogative to take life. For man to take another man’s life without a command from God is killing, or murder. Murder is strictly prohibited as the sixth commandment, and it is one of the things God hates; ” hands that shed innocent blood” (Proverbs 6:17). Cain was the first murderer, and Lamech (the first polygamist) was the second. Cain killed, and Lamech not only killed but celebrated his murder with a song (Gen. 4). After the flood God instituted government to punish murder in order that this most serious evil be restrained (Gen. 9:6). If more children would learn in the home to honor their father and mother, there would be less murderers in society. The Lord expanded this in Matt. 5:21-26 to bring hatred under the same category with murder. In the sight of God, every kind of violence, contempt, hatred, or any putting down of another it is all from the same source.
14 Thou shalt not commit adultery. v.14 Adultery (#7). The second most serious class of evil against humanity is sexual sin, of which the worst form is adultery. God intended that Israel safeguard the purity of human life by maintaining purity in marriage. Adultery is any sexual intercourse outside the marriage. A married man and woman are “one flesh” before God (Gen. 2:24), and to adulterate that union is a serious sin. Jesus expanded this commandment in His sermon on the mount (Matt. 5:27-30) to deal more generally with the corruption of man’s heart; i.e. lust. The law forbade the physical act of adultery. However, under the law a person could outwardly appear acceptable (not even touch a woman), but inwardly be full of corrupt thoughts. The law did not address the desires of the heart. Where we “look” is what our heart is occupied with. To look upon someone with desire (i.e. sexual fantasy, see Job 31:1) is morally of the same cloth as doing it in practice.
15 Thou shalt not steal. v.15 Theft (#8). The eighth commandment forbade theft or stealing, which is taking what belongs to another without permission. God recognizes the principle of personal property. There is abundant evidence of the devastation on societies and economies where theft is rampant. In the New Testament, addressing believers who were saved from a society where stealing was commonplace, scripture turns this commandment into a positive direction; “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Eph. 4:28).
16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. v.16 False Witness (#9). The ninth commandment concerns dishonesty. One of the things God hates is “a lying tongue” (Proverbs 6:17). Here the command is specifically against lying at the expense of a neighbor; one that we ought to love. Lying is especially serious because it is a perversion of the truth. Without honesty, intelligent beings have no foundation for a relationship. Dishonesty is therefore destructive to the fabric of society. Jesus accused the Devil of being “a liar, and the father of it” (John 8:44).
17 Thou shalt not desire thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not desire thy neighbour’s wife, nor his bondman, nor his handmaid, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbour’s. v.17 Covetousness (#10). Paul points out the uniqueness of the tenth commandment in Romans 7. “But I had not known sin, unless by law: for I had not had conscience also of lust unless the law had said, Thou shalt not lust” (Rom. 7:7). The tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet”, is an inward desire, not an outward action. Lust or covetousness is the desire for something that God has not given us, and it is the root of many other forms of evil. It is the most basic commandment, and everyone has broken it. The young man who came to the Lord in Matt. 19:16-26 had kept all the commandments pertaining to treatment of others. But when the Lord touched on covetousness, it says “he was grieved, for he had large possessions”. Many could keep the other nine out of ten commandments, but lust is one thing that convicts all of us in different ways.
The Reaction of the People to God’s Fiery Presence (20:18-21)
¶ 18 And all the people saw the thunderings, and the flames, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off, 19 and said to Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die. 20 And Moses said to the people, Fear not; for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before you, that ye sin not. 21 And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near to the obscurity where God was. vv.18-21 The Immediate Reaction. Having seen and heard this unnatural display of the holiness of God, immediately the people were afraid and “stood afar off”. God had said they couldn’t draw near to Him earlier (ch.19), and now the people don’t want to draw near. They were afraid of dying! The ten commandments were spoken aloud by God in His thunderous voice, but Israel declined to hear any more, although God was not done speaking. They wanted God to speak to Moses only, and then Moses could relay the message. “They that heard, excusing themselves, declined the word being addressed to them any more” (Heb. 12:19). Hence God “added no more” (Deut. 5:22), and would afterward not speak directly to them, but through a mediator. Moses tried to reassure them of that God was not come to destroy them but “to prove you, and that his fear may be before you, that ye sin not”. This ought to have been the effect of the law on Israel. The law proves man, shows him what is in his heart, in order that man might fear God. But the people still stood at a distance. This is what the law does. It brings a distance between the soul and God, it brings a curse (Gal. 3:10), and it results in death (2 Cor. 3:7).
The Way Jehovah Was to Be Worshipped (20:22-26)
¶ 22 And Jehovah said to Moses, Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: Ye have seen that I have spoken with you from the heavens. 23 Ye shall not make beside me gods of silver, and ye shall not make to you gods of gold. vv.22-23 One God, No Idols. Right at the beginning of Israel’s history, God loudly spoke from the heavens in the hearing of Israel so they would know that He was not like the dumb idols of the nations around. Jehovah’s dwelling was in heaven. An infinite being is a total contrast to gods of gold and silver. It was extremely important that Israel never make gods of silver and gold, even the most precious metal. Israel was called to be a witness to the one true God.
24 An altar of earth shalt thou make unto me, and shalt sacrifice on it thy burnt-offerings, and thy peace-offerings, thy sheep and thine oxen: in all places where I shall make my name to be remembered, I will come unto thee, and bless thee. 25 And if thou make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone; for if thou lift up thy sharp tool upon it, thou hast profaned it. 26 Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon. vv.24-26 Instructions for Israel’s Altars. When Israel would worship Jehovah, they would build a plain altar of earth to sacrifice their offerings. If they made an altar of stone, it was to be with rough, unhewn stone. It was important that Israel not craft the altar with tools. Any artistic modification of the stone would profane the altar. An altar is an approach to God, and in the sense of sacrifice, it is the approach to God through the death of Christ. A life offered up to God for that satisfaction of His holy nature is something for God alone to see and judge. The mind of man, his wisdom, his creativity, his craftsmanship, etc. have no place in that which can satisfy God’s nature! Later on craftsmen will be used in the construction of the tabernacle, but there it is according to the pattern that God gave Moses. A second warning is given: there was to be no steps up to Jehovah’s altars. A gradual ramp was allowed, for loading of wood, animals, ashes, etc. but not steps. The reason is given: “that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon”. God gave Adam and Eve clothing firstly to cover their nakedness, which is a shame to be seen publicly. Going up steps could cause garments to lift up and nakedness to be exposed, and thus Jehovah would be dishonored. Both types of human exhibition, the artistic flare and the shameful nakedness, had no place at Jehovah’s altar. We can take a practical lesson from this: nature in all its forms – thoughts that comes from human imagination (art) as well as the sin and ruin of man (nakedness) – have no place in our worship.
- But it was presented here for the most part in a way that betrayed the condition of man — not in positive precepts but in negative ones — a most humbling proof of man's estate. He loved sin so well that God had to interdict it. In the greater part of the ten commandments, in short, it was not "Thou shalt," but "Thou shalt not." That is, it was a prohibition of man's will. He was a sinner, and nothing else. - Kelly, W. Exposition of Exodus.
- God knew how terribly infectious such idolatrous practices are; and, that if the fathers start them the epidemic rages with tenfold virulence in the children, and brings down the judgment upon their heads. – Hole, F.B. Notes on Exodus.