Exodus 20. The Law. The Torah of Mankind.
Key Notes: Ten Commandments for them and us. Aids to memorizing.
20:1 “God spoke all these words, saying….”
The philosophers may say that the Law is logical and all the commandments can be deduced by reason, but they were nevertheless spoken by God and are therefore validated. Laws are found in various forms in all cultures; as Paul said, “they show that what the law requires is written on their hearts….” (Rom.2:15). Not killing, not stealing, not committing adultery, etc. are common morals, acknowledged even if they are not obeyed. But a moral code that begins with “You shall have no other gods before me” sets Israel--and Christianity--apart from other religions.
20: 2 “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
God’s right to tell them what to do is based on His salvation of their lives, their families and fortunes. They were alive and free because of Him. They were not their own; they had been bought with the price of God’ssaving work. ICor.6:19–20
20:3 Commandment I. “You shall have no other gods before me.”
The temptation to break this commandment is universal. But me-ism is a-theism . It is our greatest temptation.
“You shall become as gods….” Satan said, seducing Eve.
“Let us build a tower to heaven” said the men of the ancient Middle East. Gen.11:4
“… your heart is proud, and you have said ‘I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods’…. “ (Ezek.28:2). “...You consider yourself as wise as a god….” (Ezek.28:6)
“You said in your heart, I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high…. I will make myself like the Most High.” (Isa.14:13–14)
You will wisely say that that is the talk of fools and the self-deluded: we know better than that. We all want to be First, to be the Best, to be Right. We all fantasize standing on the Olympic pedestal. We want to be “in need of nothing.” It is an almost uncontrollable temptation. “I am the greatest”, Ali cried and we all applauded. Self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-reliance, self-actualization, self-will, the list is endless.
I recently heard two senior Christian leaders in their sixties confess that they had come to understand and obey the First Commandment. They had finally taken themselves off the pedestal.
Let God be God. Confess pride and false ambition and seek His forgiveness.
20:4 Commandment II “You shall not make for yourself a graven image”, no idol of man or beast. “Idols for destruction” are everywhere, from the naked human figure to the political image of Mao Tse Tung, and the power behind them.
The Christian artist lives in perpetual tension between his artistic impulse and what the viewer gets from it. He believes his art will be acceptable because it is Christian. Some say the Eastern Orthodox adore their icons. We have instinctive desire for crosses and crucifixes, candles and altars to focus our minds for worship. And we are tempted. Michelangelo’s David and the Venus de Milo beg to be worshiped. The Washington shrine to Abraham Lincoln is the temple of a god to visitors from other countries like Japan.
“For I the Lord your God am a jealous God…. "
Jealousy is the desire for the exclusive affection of another person. God is jealous. He wants to be first in our lives. He wants our love not be shared by anyone or anything else. “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. “ (Mk.12:29)
Jealousy is a good emotion in marriage unless spoiled by unfounded suspicion and paranoia. My wife wants no rivals for my affection. In contrast to healthy jealousy, envy is sin (Rom.1:29) and so is covetousness. Ex.20:17.
Paul was jealous for the devotion of the Corinthian church to Christ.
“I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I have betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” (IICor.11:2–3)
20:5 ...visiting the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation…”
We stop at once. God is talking about family and it sounds grim, but it is “to those who hate Me. “ Visiting the sins on” means God does not stop the sinning that goes from one generation of unbelievers to another. A relative of mine was beaten by his father and he beat his son and his son beat his son. That is the third generation and the beatings should stop.
But God will not punish the children for the sins of the fathers.
"The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son." (Ezek.18:20)
“The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” (Deut.24:16)
We are inclined to see this in the light of the generations of remembered sin, weakness and illness. And we groan. If we think carefully, there is both good and bad in our families. Music, athletic prowess, intellectuality, spirituality, practical hands, and wonderful dispositions run in families as well as mental illness, addictive behavior, violent tempers and alcoholism.
There is surely a spiritual remedy. Witch-craft, alcoholism, criminal behavior, and sexual perversion can be broken at the Cross. Paul lists deliverance of the Corinthians from all kinds of wickedness. (ICor.6:9–11). It is our only hope to break the cascade of lost generations.
20:6 "...but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
The good new is that God has kept faith with His Church for two millennia, fifty generations.
20:7 Commandment III. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”. In OT theology, the Name represents the Person. To abuse the name is to abuse the person. To use the name lightly is to use the person lightly. Sadly, we use names for God in an altered form so as to minimize law-breaking. Making “minced oaths” for God (“Jeez!”, “Gosh!”) is offensive on the face of it. We are insulted if others make jokes with our names. “The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His Name in vain.” [This commandment is expanded in notes on Matthew 5.]
29:8 Commandment IV. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. “ ” In it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.” That is a rest for everyone.
When it says that God rested, He stopped working. It does not mean that He slept. Sabbath is about stopping, not necessarily sleeping. One day a week is reserved for not doing our daily work. This 3500-year-old piece of labor legislation has been adopted around the world by pagan and religious peoples alike. Sunday (the first day of the week; ICor.16:2) was chosen by the Christians in celebration of the resurrection of Christ. John called it “The Lord’s Day”. (Rev.1:10). It was first made an official rest day, a national holiday, by Constantine in 321AD. Prior to that, the Christians worked without an official day of rest.
At various times, Christians have said that Sunday /Sabbath should not be observed because Paul chided the Colossians: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” (Col.2:16). Origen, an early church theologian said Sabbath observance was for the “weak brother”, still bound by regulations.
What Jesus said about the Sabbath is instructive.
“The Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matt.12:8)
It is "lawful to do good on Sabbath.” (Matt.12:12)
"The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. ” (Mk.2:27)
In a word, He validates the Sabbath and tells us what to do: worship, do good and rest. It is most important for students to take Sunday off. They go back to Monday classes refreshed and ahead of the rest, less subject to "burn-out". For older adults doing good might entail visiting the sick or elderly or teaching children in Sunday School.
20:12 Commandment V. “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.”
It is the first commandment with a promise attached. Long life is a blessing from God.
How might the promise “work”? It is a commandment given to children. If you care for your parents and look after their health, they will live longer and happier. Then the next generation will likely see and do the same for you and your days will also be prolonged and happier.
The command is intensified further on in Exodus.
“Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death.” (Ex.21:15)
“Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.” (Ex.21:17)
The commandment must be taken seriously. Striking may be slapping; or a blow intended to do bodily harm. Cursing is praying for their eternal damnation.
The New Testament helps us understand the word “honor”. Paul lists "disobedient to parents" as a serious sin. (Rom.1:30; IITim.3:2). “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” (Eph.6:1)
20:13 Commandment VI.“You shall not kill.” This means that the individual may not take another person’s life into his own hands. Capital punishment was commanded then and is the subject of much argument in our time, partly because we cannot make good use of a face-to-face witness system. (Num.35:30). Theirs was a simple agrarian society where there are few secrets or places to hide. Use of the death penalty for capital crimes is often unfair. Circumstantial evidence is a weak basis for the death sentence in the modern world.
Warfare was not forbidden, but often encouraged in the OT. These were group actions taken with care. But personal vengeance was prohibited and if an accidental homicide occurred, God would provide a refuge for the murderer to prevent a blood-feud. Ex.21:13
20:14 Commandment VII.“You shall not commit adultery.” You must not have sexual intercourse with another person’s spouse. It breaks a sacred bond and a physical relationship. The punishment for adultery was death; the penalty for intercourse with a virgin was marriage or a fine. (Ex.22:16). So the Law distinguishes adultery from fornication (intercourse between unmarried people) but Scripture excludes them both. (Eph.5:3). When the average person in our country has six or more sexual partners, this law is broken as casually as the speed limit. It is hard to watch a society commit moral suicide. The celebration of what appears to be personal “healing” by romantic adultery in the movies is deplorable. In reality the consequences are serious--to God and to us.
20:15. Commandment VIII. “You shall not steal.” This law is intended to protect property. Private property is an essential ingredient of freedom and was written into OT Law. (Lev.25:8–55; Deut.24:5- 22.) A list of ways people scam and steal would fill pages.
20:16 Commandment IX.“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The reference is to testifying in court. The more general command stated later is not to lie; a demand for honesty in speech is expanded.
"These things does the Lord hate, “…a lying tongue…. “ (Prov.6:17)
“Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak truth with his neighbor…. (Eph.4:25)
The various ways that people lie would also fill pages. Sisela Bok’s book, “Lying.” (Vintage Books,’78) argues that all lying is wrong, without using Scripture to support her position.
20:17 Commandment X. “You shall not covet anything…that is your neighbor’s”.
Notice that He goes into detail, listing six parts of the neighbor’s estate, and ending with “or anything that is your neighbor’s”. Coveting is not a trivial matter. It is also a most difficult sin to eradicate because it is all in the mind, likely seen by no one.
Are we allowed to covet things that are not our neighbor’s? We easily develop obsessions with things we do not need and cannot afford and we are bombarded by the media. Buy! Buy! Buy! Paul says “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you, fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and covetousness which is idolatry.” (Col.3:5) That is to say that the love of “stuff” displaces the love of God, and must to be put to death.
20:18–20 Israel was afraid to get near Mt. Sinai. They backed away and asked Moses to take the messages. Moses said they should not be afraid. Then he said at once that they should fear sinning against God.
20:21–26 Moses went back into the thick darkness where God was. God reminded him not to make idols. If an altar was made, it should be made of earth or uncut stones. A chisel would profane the altar, perhaps because of the tendency to shape the stones into an image. Finally, the altar should not be set up on high, with steps leading to it, as attractive as that might seem.
The Ten Commandments should be memorized. They are more important to have in our minds than on court-house walls. They are easy to memorize if we see them as the Two Tables (Ex.31:18). The first five come under the heading of our relationship to authority: God and parents. They are vertical. The second five describe our relationship to our neighbors; they are horizontal. They are also in order of intensity although of similar importance: worshiping another god is more serious than work on Sabbath. Killing is more grievous than lying or coveting. The graded intensity is an aid to memorizing.
The first and tenth commandments are carried out in the mind. The middle laws are about actions. Commandments 1–3 pertain to God; 4–5 focus on the family; 7–10 relate us to society.
“Therefore we must pay the closer attention to what we have heard (the Gospel), lest we drift away from it, For if the message declared by angels (the Law of Moses) was valid and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord and it was attested to us by those who heard Him….” (Heb.2:1–3)
I had just finished a lesson like this on the Ten Commandments for an older singles’ group, and an intelligent man, one of the more senior Christians, was heading for the refreshments.
He turned and said “I wish I knew what God wanted me to do with my life.”
I said “I just told you.”
He looked blank and then said “I thought that was for them.”
“The Law is the will of God for your life!”
“I guess I didn’t get that. “
“Trust and obey
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus
Than to trust and obey.”