New European Commentary

 

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Deeper Commentary

 

Exo 20:1 God spoke all these words, saying,-
The ten commandments are unique amongst the legal codes of ancient peoples, in that they speak of Divine commands given to individuals- AV "thou", you singular, shall do this, or not do that. God shows in this crucial covenant statement that He wished for personal obedience from every one of His people, not just certain sacrifices offered by representatives of the tribe.


Exo 20:2 I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage-
The language echoes that of God to Abraham: "I am Yahweh who brought you out of Ur" (Gen. 15:7). They were being asked to act as Abraham's seed, and respond as He did to the Divine initiative in separating them from the world- by following His commandments.

Whenever God speaks about His Name, it is in the context of His emphasizing His huge commitment to Israel as His people, often in the face of their weakness (Ex. 12:12; 15:26; 20:2; Ez. 20:5,6). The very meaning of God's Name is of itself encouraging- although it is somewhat masked in English translations. God 'is' not just in the sense that He exists, but in that He 'is' there with and for us. The verb behind 'YHWH' was "originally causative", i.e. God not only 'is' but He causes things to happen. We aren't to understand Him as passive, just a stone cold Name... but rather passionately active and causative in our sometimes apparently static and repetitive lives.


Exo 20:3 You shall have no other gods before Me-
"Before Me" can mean that Yahweh is to be the most honoured of all gods. This could suggest a tolerance of having other gods, but in the hope that Yahweh's supremacy would become so obvious that faith in the other gods would fade away. This was the attitude taken by the Lord Jesus in His tolerance of belief in demons, which were also false gods and connected with idols. But "before Me" can also mean 'in My presence'. To come into Yahweh's presence with any idol... would be unthinkable. See on Ex. 18:11.


Exo 20:4 You shall not make for yourselves an idol, nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:-
“Likeness” is used in the LXX in the frequent warnings not to make an image or likeness of any god, let alone Yahweh (Ex. 20:4; Dt. 4:16-25; Ps. 106:20; Is. 40:18,19). The reason for this prohibition becomes clearer in the New Testament; the ultimate likeness of God is in His Son, and we are to create the likeness of His Son not as a mere physical icon, but within the very structure of our human personality and character.


Exo 20:5 you shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them, for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and on the fourth generation of those who hate Me,-
The prophets were up against the same passionless spirit that pervades our societies today. “The Lord thy God [is] a jealous God” (Ex. 20:5) was changed in the Targums to “I am a God above jealousy” (Mechilta). The prophets speak so often of God’s wrath, love, hurt, pain, passion, anger, pathos… And they speak too of the terrible “repentings”, the kindling of contradictory impulses, which there apparently is in the mind of God. But jealousy is a lead feature within Yahweh's personality (Ex. 20:5; 34:14). It speaks specifically of the jealousy of a man concerning the faithfulness of his wife (Num. 5:14). God was the passionate lover and husband of His people, and it is inevitable therefore that the extent of that love would produce jealousy when they spurned Him and went after other men, the idols.


Exo 20:6 and showing loving kindness to thousands of those who love Me and keep my commandments-
God is His word (Jn. 1:1); to love God is to love His word. If we love Christ, we will keep His words (Jn. 14:15,21; 15:10). This is evidently alluding to the many Old Testament passages which say that Israel's love for God would be shown through their keeping of His commands (Ex. 20:6; Dt. 5:10; 7:9; 11:1,13,22; 30:16; Josh. 22:5). Israel were also told that God's commands were all related to showing love (Dt. 11:13; 19:9). So there is a logical circuit here: We love God by keeping His commands, the essence of which is love of people, therefore His commands are fundamentally about love. Thus love is the fulfilling of the law of God; both under the Old and New covenants (Rom. 13:10).


Exo 20:7 You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain-
One reference of this is to the idea of a wife taking her husband's name; just as we do when we call the Name upon ourselves in baptism (Acts 15:17; 22:16). The Hebrew for "take" is also translated "marry" or "accept". Perhaps 2 Cor. 6:1 alludes to the idea in urging us not to "accept" or 'take' God's grace [the essence of His Name] "in vain". The vulnerability and sensitivity of God is reflected in the way that He is concerned that His covenant people, His wife, who bears His Name, might profane His Name (Lev. 19:12; Ex. 20:7; Dt. 5:11). His repeated concern that His Name be taken in vain doesn't simply refer to the casual use of the word "God" as an expression of exasperation. God is concerned about His people taking His Name upon themselves (Num. 6:27) in vain- i.e., marrying Him, entering covenant relationship with Him, taking on His Name- but not being serious about that relationship, taking it on as a vain thing, like a woman who casually marries a man who loves her at the very core of his being, when for her, it's just a casual thing and she lives a profligate and adulterous life as his wife. When God revealed His Name to His people, opening up the very essence of His character to them, He was making Himself vulnerable. We reveal ourselves intimately to another because we wish for them to make a response to us, to love us for what we revealed to them. God revealed Himself to Israel, He sought for intimacy in the covenant relationship, and therefore was and is all the more hurt when His people turn away from Him, after having revealed to them all the wonders of His word (Hos. 8:12).

But the idea of not taking Yahweh's Name "in vain", 'vanity', is often associated with idolatry. Israel never formerly rejected Yahweh, and never became atheists. They mixed Yahweh worship with idolatry on the basis that they claimed that they worshipped Yahweh through worshipping the idols. This is what emboldened them to later place idols in Yahweh's temple. They were taking Yahweh's Name as a form of vanity, "in vain", a kind of idol. Thus their relationship with Yahweh was not to be a "vain thing" (Dt. 32:47). 

"Guiltless" is a term which can mean "clear of responsibility to covenant relationship' (Gen. 24:8,41). God would not overlook the fact they were in covenant with Him and had taken His Name upon them, just as we take His Name upon us in baptism. And we are therefore not guiltless or clear of responsibility to Him.


Exo 20:8 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy-
"Remember" could mean 'celebrate', but that seems axiomatic. More likely the idea is that the Sabbath was established from creation onwards, and Israel were being bidden "remember" that. We note that the Sabbath was one of the ten commandments. But the Sabbath was specifically "a sign between them (Israel) and Me (God), that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them" (Ez. 20:12). As such, it has never been intended to be binding on Gentiles (non-Jews). “... the Lord has given you [not all mankind] the Sabbath (Ex. 16:29); “... You [God] made known to them [Israel] Your holy Sabbath” (Neh. 9:14). The Old Covenant refers to the Law of Moses, which was replaced on the cross by the New Covenant. The ten commandments, including that concerning the Sabbath, were part of the Old Covenant which was done away by Christ. God "declared to you (Israel) His covenant which he commanded you (Israel) to perform, that is the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone" (Dt. 4:13). God "wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments" (Ex. 34:28). If we argue that keeping the covenant made in the ten commandments is necessary, we must also observe every detail of the entire Law, seeing that this is all part of the same covenant. It is evidently impossible to do this. “There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone which Moses put there at Horeb ... the ark, in which is the covenant of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:9,21). Those tablets, on which were the ten commandments, were the covenant. Heb. 9:4 speaks of "the tablets of the covenant". The ten commandments were written on the tablets of stone, which comprised "the (old) covenant". Paul refers to this covenant as "written and engraved on stones", i.e. on the tablets of stone. He calls it "the ministry of death... the ministry of condemnation...” that which is “... passing away" (2 Cor. 3:7-11). 

However, nine of the ten commandments have been reaffirmed, in spirit at least, in the New Testament: 1st. - Eph. 4:6; 1 Jn. 5:21; Mt. 4:10; 2nd. - 1 Cor. 10:14; Rom. 1:25; 3rd. - James 5:12; Mt. 5:34,35; 5th. - Eph. 6:1,2; Col. 3:20; 6th. - 1 Jn. 3:15; Mt. 5:21; 7th. - Heb. 13:4; Mt. 5:27,28; 8th. - Rom. 2:21; Eph. 4:28; 9th. - Col. 3:9; Eph. 4:25; 2 Tim. 3:3; 10th. - Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5. Numbers 3,5,6,7,8 and 9 can be found in 1 Tim. 1 alone, and numbers 1,2 and 10 in 1 Cor. 5. But never is the fourth commandment concerning the Sabbath repeated in the New Testament as obligatory for us.


Exo 20:9 You shall labour six days, and do all your work-
The idea is that man's week of labour is to reflect God's six days of labour during the creation week (:11). This parallel empowers us to see the grind of daily work as ultimately creative, and not mere vanity. The daily work which was part of the curse in Eden now becomes creative- if done "as unto the Lord". But we could also consider "you shall labour" to be a command to work, rather than laze around and by all means seek to avoid the results of the curse. Rather we are to see in the six days of labour an opportunity to reflect God's creative work; to use our labour to create, rather than to merely exist. This lifts the curse of labour so far above what it otherwise is.


Exo 20:10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. You shall not do any work in it, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your livestock, nor your stranger who is within your gates-
The Lord Jesus invites those who follow Him to accept the “rest” which He gives (Mt. 11:28), using the word which is used in the Septuagint for the Sabbath rest. Jesus was offering a life of Sabbath, of rest from trust in our own works (cp. Heb. 4:3,10). We shouldn’t, therefore, keep a Sabbath one day per week, but rather live our whole lives in the spirit of the Sabbath. Just as we are to live the "eternal life" now, the type of life we will eternally live in the Kingdom is to be lived and experienced now. In this sense, as Hebrews makes clear, we "have entered into rest", and yet in another sense we labour now to enter into that rest at the Lord's return. This is a classic case of the "now but not yet" theme of the Bible.


Exo 20:11 for in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy-
Yahweh blessed the Sabbath (Ex. 20:11). Work was not to be done so as to rest and remember God's creative grace, His salvation of man without works; whereas in pagan thought, work wasn't done because 'Sabbath' was an unlucky day on which it was best to do as little as possible in case some 'Satan' figure struck. Such belief was being deconstructed in the Sabbath law. The Mosaic 10 Commandments included the unique commandment not to covet / lust. This was unknown in any Mesopotamian legal code- because obviously it's impossible to know what a person is thinking within themselves, and so impossible to judge or punish it. But God's law introduced the whole idea that sin / transgression of law is ultimately internal, and this will be judged by the one true God. See on Ex. 35:3.

The Israelite Sabbath was instituted, it seems, in antithesis to the Mesopotamian system. Thus most pagan festivals of the time were begun by the lighting of a candle in the home; but a candle was not to be kindled on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:3). Yahweh blessed the Sabbath (Ex. 20:11). Work was not to be done so as to rest and remember God's creative grace; whereas in pagan thought, work wasn't done because 'Sabbath' was an unlucky day on which it was best to do as little as possible in case some 'Satan' figure struck. Such belief was being deconstructed in the Sabbath law.

God spoke the words He did on six literal, consecutive days, and the orders ('fiats' is the word Alan Hayward uses) were therefore, in this sense, as good as done. But the actual time taken to carry them out by the Angels may have been very long. The Genesis record can then be understood as stating these commands on six literal days, and then recording their fulfilment- although the fulfilment wasn't necessarily on that same day.  


Exo 20:12 Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which Yahweh your God gives you-
Paul quotes this in Eph. 6:2, with the comment that this is "the first commandment with promise". Paul clearly saw "the promise" of the old covenant as being the hope of the new covenant; the hope of the promises made to the Jewish fathers was the Christian hope, as Paul so clearly stated at his trials. This involves eternal possession of a glorified earth- and not going to Heaven on death as an immortal soul.

The contemporary Near Eastern legal codes prescribed the most severe penalties for crimes against the wealthy and their property. Rich people were given lesser punishments than poor people for the same crime. The value of persons reflected in Yahweh's law meant that all people were judged equally before the law, and truly there was no respect of persons with the true God. Both father and mother are placed together as worthy of equal honour (Lev. 19:3; Ex. 20:12)- whereas the contemporary laws were oriented towards respect of the male rather than females.

The Lord Jesus saw as parallel the commands to honour parents and also not to curse them. These two separate commands (from Ex. 20:12 and 21:17) He spoke of as only one: "the commandment" (Mk. 7:9). He therefore saw that not to honour parents was effectively to curse them (Mk. 7:10). Omitting to honour parents, even if it involved appearing to give one's labour to God's temple, was therefore the same as committing the sin of cursing them. Sins of omission are perhaps our greatest weakness.


Exo 20:13 You shall not murder-
The command not to murder has as its basis the fact that human life is not for us to use as we will (Ex. 20:13; Lev. 17:11; Gen. 9:6). It is God's life and is His- and this applies to our view of others lives as well as our own. Others, therefore, are not for us to use as we will. Gentleness and sensitivity to the life of others, in family life, the workplace, on the road... is therefore an outcome of our belief that the 'other' person likewise has been created by God and has life from Him. To drive in an unkind way, to act in a thoughtless way to others detriment, is therefore the same basic error as taking human life in murder.

The command "You shall not murder" must be understood in the context of a situation where the same Law also commanded certain sinners to be put to death within the community, and at times Israel were Divinely commanded and enabled to kill others outside of the community. We have to look, therefore, for a more specific meaning for this commandment- and it seems it is speaking specifically of blood revenge, killing the person who murdered one of your relatives. According to Num. 35:25-28, if the murder was unintentional, i.e. manslaughter rather than murder, then the person could flee to a city of refuge lest he be slain by the avenger of blood. There is no guidance for the avenger of blood in these 'cities of refuge' passages; rather is there the assumption that he might well attempt to take revenge even for manslaughter, and in this case the unintentional murderer should flee from him into a city of refuge. But clearly enough, this was not God's will- for "You shall not kill". But such is God's grace that He built into His law a recognition that His people would fail. This isn't what we would expect of a 2+2=4 God, where broken commandments are to be punished and period. In this case, we see here a tacit recognition even within the Mosaic Law that the commandments- in this case "You shall not kill"- wouldn't always be obeyed, and therefore extra legislating was added to enable this situation to be coped with. This isn't only an example of God's sensitivity to human sin and weakness of hot blood [although it is that]. It's an insight into how the very structure of His law is such that He understands human weakness, and is eager to ensure that it hurts others as little as possible. No more human 'god' would have dreamed this up. This grace has the stamp of the ultimately Divine, and any attempt to understand it within the frames of literalistic, legalistic analysis are doomed to failure.


Exo 20:14 You shall not commit adultery-
This is as is, but we note the majority of references to "adultery" in the Hebrew Bible refer to unfaithfulness to God. And we cannot rule out the possibility that God also had that in view; for these commandments were the basis of His relationship with His people.


Exo 20:15 You shall not steal-
The Hebrew indeed means to steal, but also carries the idea of deceit. For to deceive another is to effectively steal from them, to take away and misuse their belief and trust in you and your integrity. And all deceit is ultimately in order to gain something wrongly, even the thing gained isn't anything material.  

Exo 20:16 You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour-
AV "bear false witness". But the Hebrew for "bear" means not only "to give" in a legal sense. Otherwise this commandment would only apply to the need to be truthful in a court case. The Hebrew anah is literally "to eye", 'to give heed to'. Don't pay attention to lies, don't listen to gossip- understood like that, this commandment becomes relevant to daily life, and not just to the occasional times when a person might have to bear legal witness against someone. 


Exo 20:17 You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbour’s-
The command not to covet what looks good is very much rooted in a warning not to commit Eve’s sin of seeing the fruit and yielding to temptation (Ex. 20:17 = Gen. 3:6). The sin in Eden was every sin; we see elements of every one of our own sins in that sin. The frequent command "You shall not covet" (Ex. 20:17 etc.) uses the same Hebrew word translated "desire" when we read of how Eve "desired" the fruit (Gen. 3:6); yet Israel "desired" the wrong fruit (Is. 1:29). As Eve saw the fruit and fell for it, so the people of Reuben and Gad saw the land East of Jordan and imagined how good it would be to have it, despite having been given 'all the land' West of Jordan to enjoy [cp. Adam and Eve's dominion in Eden] (Num. 32:1,2,7). In all these allusions [and they exist in almost every chapter of the Bible] we are being shown how human sin is a repetition in essence of that of our first parents. The insistent emphasis is that we should rise above and not be like them. And yet this call for personal effort and struggle with ourselves in order to overcome sin is muted and misplaced by all the stress upon a supposed Devil tempting Eve, pushing the blame onto him, and thereby de-emphasizing our role in overcoming sin within ourselves. And so we see so many loud-mouthed condemners of the Devil totally not 'getting it' about the need for personal self-control and spiritual mindedness in daily life and private character.

God’s law differs from human laws in that it criminalizes internal attitudes. It was impossible to prove the sin of covetousness, nor enforce the law against it- because it’s invisible to others. Yet the God who sees all stands in judgment upon our innermost thoughts and desires.

Exo 20:18 All the people perceived the thunderings, the lightnings, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking. When the people saw it, they trembled, and stayed at a distance-
The Angel told Moses that the people would probably want to come up the mountain, closer to God, when in fact in reality they ran away when they saw the holiness of God; almost suggesting that the Angel over-estimated their spiritual enthusiasm (Ex. 19:21-24 cp. 20:18). Likewise the Angel told Moses that the people would hear him, "and believe you for ever" (Ex. 19:9). Things turned out the opposite. At this time, God saw no iniquity in Israel (Num. 23:21). His enthusiasm and positive hope for them was the outflow of an amazing love and grace toward them, and it is reflected all throughout the record.

The original plan had been as in Ex. 19:13 LXX: "When the voices and trumpets and cloud depart from off the mountain, they shall come up on the mountain". But this didn't happen- see on Ex. 19:14. They were not sufficiently sanctified; see on Ex. 19:10. The people "perceived" Yahweh's holiness and their sinfulness and continued idolatry. And they shied away from Him, whereas His intention was that they came close. These words are so sad. It was a rejection of intimacy with God. 


Exo 20:19 They said to Moses, Speak with us yourself, and we will listen; but don’t let God speak with us, lest we die-
People prefer not to have a direct relationship with God, hence the hierarchies and pyramid structure of many churches. But God wants to have a direct personal relationship with us as individuals. They failed to see that Divine words given through another person really are the voice of God to us personally. Perhaps our difficulty with appreciating an inspired Bible is similar; we know the theory, but do we really see the wonder of the fact that what we read is the awesome voice of God Himself to us?

Moses is one of greatest types of the Lord Jesus, in whom the Father was supremely manifested. Because of this, it is fitting that we should see a very high level of God manifestation in Moses. Indeed it seems that God was manifest in Moses to a greater degree than in any other Old Testament character. Thus the law was “a law... which I (Yahweh) have written” (Ex. 24:12). Yet the Lord Jesus speaks of Moses writing the precepts of the Law (Mk. 10:5). “The book of the law of Moses” is parallel with “the book of the law of Yahweh” (Neh. 8:1; 2 Chron. 17:9); it was “the book of the law of Yahweh given by Moses” (2 Chron. 34:14). His personal blessing of the people was that of God (Dt. 33); and when he looked with pleasure upon the completed tabernacle and blessed Israel, he was imitating God’s inspection and blessing of the completed natural creation (Ex. 39:43). Yet Israel tragically failed to appreciate the degree to which God was manifest in the words of Moses, as they did with Christ. This is shown by them asking for Moses to speak with them, not God; they failed to realize that actually his voice was God’s voice. They failed to see that commandments given ‘second hand’ really are the voice of God (Ex. 20:19). Perhaps our appreciation of inspiration is similar; we know the theory, but do we really see the wonder of the fact that what we read is the awesome voice of God Himself?


Exo 20:20 Moses said to the people, Don’t be afraid-
As discussed on :18, God's initial plan had been for the people to come close to Him. But they had shied away. Moses urges them to come close to him and to Yahweh, as Joseph did with his doubting brothers.

For God has come to test you-
God wanted the people to come close to Him, as explained on :18. So why then did He give them such a fearful display of His might and holiness, replete with thunder and some kind of volcano (:18)? To test them- whether they would really believe that despite His holiness and great power, He passionately loved them and was eager to overlook their sin and idolatry. But they failed the test- they didn't believe in His love and grace. And that finally is what faith is about- believing in the extent of His love, grace and salvation, to little me.   

And that His fear may be before you, that you won’t sin-
The commentary of Heb. 12:20 is that Israel could not endure what God had spoken at this time. As explained above, the display of physical power and glory was in order to help them realize that despite all that, God was so eager to forgive and accept them. Believing that of itself would inspire them not to sin; a far stronger motivation than a bald statement of law and consequence for disobedience. But they couldn't believe it. And so they fled from Him both physically (see on :18) and finally, morally. 

Because God saved them from Egypt by grace [cp. baptism- 1 Cor. 10:1,2], with they themselves so spiritually weak at the time, still taking idols of Egypt through the Red Sea with them- therefore they were to keep the law (Dt. 11:7,8). Because God gave them the land of Canaan, a land for which they did not labour, didn't do any 'work' to receive, but were given because "You did a favour unto them" (Ps. 44:3)- therefore they were to keep the law (Dt. 26:15,16; 29:8,9; Josh. 23:5,6). David said that he loved keeping the law because God's testimony to him was so miraculous (Ps. 119:129 Heb.). There is an awesomeness to God's grace in all this. Hence the paradox of Ex. 20:20: "Fear not... that the fear of God may be before your faces". We are not to fear Him, for such perfect love casts out fear... yet it is exactly because of the wonder of all this that we live life in some fear / awe of misusing and abusing that grace.

The fear of judgment is used by Paul as a motivation for obedience in Heb. 2:1-4; 4:1. An element of fear is not wrong in itself. Israel in the wilderness had the pillar of fire to remind them of God's close presence, and to thereby motivate them not to sin: "His fear (will) be before your faces, that ye sin not" (Ex. 20:20).

God wanted to speak directly with Israel at Sinai; and yet they urged Moses personally to go and hear what God wished to say, and tell them about it: "Go thou [you singular] near and hear" (Dt. 5:23,27 AV). Moses urged them not to fear, and told them that this was all a test from God for them (Ex. 20:20). But they didn't rise to it. Yet God accepted this lower level, so did He wish to communicate with them. And He used Moses as a mediator through whom He spoke His word to His people.


Exo 20:21 The people stayed at a distance-
In Ex. 24:1, Yahweh tells the people to "worship from a distance" (s.w.). They shied away from Him (Ex. 20:18), whereas His intention was that they came close. But they retreated to "a distance" (s.w. Ex. 20:18,21). And yet God wanted at least some level of relationship with them, and so He still allows and encourages them to worship Him "from a distance", even although that was not His ideal initial intention. He had hoped for more intimacy with them. 

And Moses drew near-
Although it had been God's intention that the priests should "draw near" to Him (Ex. 19:22 s.w.) and that the people "shall come up on the mountain" (Ex. 19:13 LXX). Moses alone did this. Whilst he did so as their representative, it is all a tragic reflection of their rejection of intimacy with God.

To the thick darkness where God was-
The personal relationship which we have had with Christ will be very evident at the judgment. What we say to the Lord Jesus in His ear in the bedroom in the darkness, will be openly spoken by Christ at the judgment (Lk. 12:2,3). God dwells in darkness (Ex. 20:21; 1 Kings 8:12). Speaking in the bedroom in secret with the knowledge we will be openly rewarded is the language of prayer (Mt. 6:6). Our private relationship with the Lord now, praying to Him in our bedroom, meditating about Him there, will then be spoken out loud. But there is a related statement from the Lord: What we hear from Him in the ear, we must speak openly (Mt. 10:26,27; after the pattern of Isaiah in Is. 22:14). Putting these passages together, we get the picture of us speaking to God through Christ, talking in His ear, as one might whisper something very personal into a friend's ear, in the darkness of our bedroom. And then the Lord whispers back in our ear, i.e. His revelation to us (through the word) is very personal and not perceived by others; but we must openly, publicly act upon it.

Exo 20:22 Yahweh said to Moses, This is what you shall tell the children of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen that I have talked with you from heaven-
A true understanding of the word of God for what it is will be related to realistic response to it. Insofar as we believe that the Bible is inspired, we will feel the passion and power of it the more, and thereby its impact upon us will be the greater. Because of the wonder of having heard God's voice, therefore idolatry of any form will be meaningless for us. They 'saw' that God "talked with you"; they didn't "hear", but they had seen the visible evidence of His voice. No nation had a God like this. We see that it was through the testimony of His word that Yahweh revealed Himself as uniquely real, and no other god was therefore possibly real (see on :23). The inspired Bible which we have today is similar witness to us.


Exo 20:23 You shall most certainly not make alongside Me gods of silver, or gods of gold for yourselves-
Having seen the awesome theophany of Yahweh, it was utterly inappropriate and even laughable to consider that He cold somehow be placed alongside a piece of gold and worshipped as one of a line of deities upon a shelf. There was no comparison. And yet men worship gold and silver not only as Yahweh's equal, but even more than Him. In this lies the deep blasphemy of all materialism and worship of wealth. And yet this is the spirit of our age. For the Hebrew word for "silver" is that also translated "money".


Exo 20:24 You shall make an altar of earth for Me, and shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your cattle-
God told Israel that He wanted altars made of earth; but He knew they would want to make altars of stone like the other nations, and He made allowance for this (Ex. 20:24,25). The Law has several examples of this living on different levels. "You shall let nothing of (the Passover) remain until the morning; and that which remain of it until the morning you shall burn with fire" (Ex. 12:10) is an evident example. God foresaw their disobedience to His stated principle, and made a concession and provision. Or take the Law’s ruling about tithes: “...neither shall he change it: and if he change it...” (Lev. 27:33).

We are made from the dust of the earth, which Genesis says was cursed. God doesn’t want beautiful externalities, He wants us to worship Him from the heart, accepting us as we are. The Law of Moses recognizes so often that Israel wouldn’t be fully obedient, hence the next verse goes on to speak of how if they still insisted on building not an earth altar but a stone one, then even if they make use of God’s concession to human weakness, they must still abide by His principles.

However it could be argued that later Israel did make more permanent altars, and God went along with this and allowed acceptable sacrifice to be offered upon them. The commandment to make altars of earth could therefore be one of the many parts of the law of Moses which only applied to Israel in the wilderness. For they were constantly on the move.

Ex. 27:8 commands the building of the bronze covered altar, with hollow boards. It could be that the hollow nature of the altar meant that a pile of earth was made, and the altar structure placed on top of it. But this would make it hard to understand how the ashes of the sacrifices could be collected. Surely the idea of a "grate" as commanded would have been meaningless if effectively the altar was solid earth inside it. So we are left with the conclusion that the 'altar of earth' instruction was not to apply to the tabernacle, but to altars for sacrifice which were used more local to the tents of the people. Or perhaps it was intended to only apply in the wilderness until the tabernacle was built. For clearly later altars were accepted by God, when they were not made of earth. We see in these considerations that the law of Moses was not inflexible, and God is not a literalist. Changed circumstances for His people changed His operational style with them, and His expectations of them.

In every place where I record My name-
It is man who is to record or remember / memorialize the things of Yahweh's Name (s.w. Ps. 20:7; 45:17; Is. 12:4; 26:13), making no mention / record of the name of other gods apart from Yahweh (s.w. Ex. 23:13; Zech. 13:2). But in Ex. 20:24 it is God who records or remembers His Name when He is worshipped acceptably. We see here the mutuality between God and man which is achieved in worship when it is done His way.


I will come down to you and I will bless you-
They had just witnessed Yahweh coming down in awesome majesty. Now they were told that He would in essence do this every time His people offered to Him on a humble earthen altar. There is a conscious juxtaposition between His coming down, and the idea of coming down upon an earthen altar.

“You” is you singular in the Hebrew here. Wherever an ordinary Israelite offered sacrifice, God would come to them personally. Yet this is the very language of God coming unto Moses on the top of Sinai (Ex. 19:20 “came down”)- as if to imply that the very pinnacle of Moses’ relationship with God, meeting Him on the top of the mount, is just as attainable for each of God’s people who truly sacrifices to Him. Wherever an ordinary Israelite offered sacrifice, “I will come unto thee [‘you’ singular] and bless thee” (Ex. 20:23 AV). This is the very language of God coming unto Moses on the top of Sinai (Ex. 19:20 RV)- as if to imply that the very pinnacle of Moses’ relationship with God, meeting Him on the top of the mount, is just as attainable for each of God’s people who truly sacrifices to Him. It is the equivalent of the promised presence of the Lord Jesus wherever two or three gather in His Name (Mt. 18:20).


Exo 20:25 If you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of cut stones; for if you lift up your tool on it, you have polluted it-
Ex. 20:25 says that the use of any tool upon an altar would defile it (also see Dt. 27:5). This is how strongly God despises chic externality, and wants us to offer to Him as we are, uncut stones. He wants us, as we are, and not covered by cosmetics. In this we see the deep unspirituality of the altars in the temple, as designed by David and Solomon. I have suggested that although Solomon claims all this was commanded by God, in fact that was merely His assumption. Solomon attempted to get around this law by ensuring that the stones were cut away from the temple construction site (1 Kings 6:7). But this surely was breaking the spirit of the law.

Israel had lived generations in Egypt, and had taken the idols of Egypt with them through the Red Sea (Ez. 20:7,8). The Egyptian altars were all of hewed stones, with images of their gods engraved upon them. Perhaps the insistence that "cut stones" must not be used was in order to strengthen them against the temptation to engrave images upon the sides of the altar, as they had seen in Egypt. We see how God's laws are designed not as a burden, but to ease our overall obedience to His ways.


Exo 20:26 Neither shall you go up by steps to My altar, that your nakedness may not be exposed to it’-
We note that the altar of Ezekiel's temple plan had steps leading up to it (Ez. 43:17), whereas this was forbidden in Ex. 20:26. The system described there was not a revival of the Mosaic system. The picture of fallen man in Genesis is never far away from God's commandments. He had asked them to make Him an altar from the dust of the earth (:24), alluding to how man was made from dust and that dust was now cursed. They were to be aware of Adam's fall, of his nakedness, and God's covering of it. And when they worshipped, they were to be particularly aware of their fallen state; and remind themselves of their need for a covering of nakedness.