Laws, rules, and commands. Our current cultural mindset seems bent on rejecting such things. But life is full of rules. Why is it we don’t want to keep them? I could give several reasons, but one in particular that comes to mind is a lack of gratitude for the one or ones who put laws in place. What do I mean by this? Growing up my parents laid down rules for me to follow. If I didn’t follow them, I would be disciplined. So, what truly motivated me to obey their commands? Was it fear of retribution if I broke a rule? I suppose it was at times. But I believe, more often than not, it had to do with the fact that I loved my mom and dad, and I knew that they loved me too. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I understood that obedience was one tangible way to show them I loved them. I also knew they wanted only the best for me. So, if they had a rule it was for my good, because they loved me.
We’ve now made our way to the second book of the Bible called Exodus. Exodus is found in the first of three sections of the Hebrew Bible called the Torah. Torah roughly translated means “law” or “instruction.” And this is what we will focus on, the law, in particular the heart of this book of instruction, the Ten Commandments.
Background to Exodus 20
It might be helpful to bring you up to speed on what happened between Genesis 22 and Exodus 20. Abraham’s son Isaac, the son of promise, marries Rebekah, a non-Canaanite, from Mesopotamia (where Abraham is from) [Gen 24]. She and Isaac had twin sons, Jacob and Esau. The Lord disclosed to Rebekah that Jacob (the younger of the twins) would be the son through whom the promises to Abraham would come to fruition (Gen 25). Jacob (God later renames him Israel, Gen 32; 35) marries Leah and Rachel, who bear him sons and daughters. Israel has twelve sons from whom the entire Israelite nation will come (Gen 29–30, 35). Because of a famine in the land of Canaan, Israel’s family moves to Egypt where his son, Joseph is second in command to Pharaoh (Gen 41–50). In Egypt, the children of Israel prosper.
Eventually, a Pharaoh comes to power that did not know Joseph and show kindness to the children of Israel. He oppresses the Israelites, making them his slaves. Despite this hardship, the Israelite population continues to grow until the Egyptians are outnumbered. In order to curtail this growth, the Pharaoh decrees that every newborn male Israelite must be drowned in the Nile River (Exod 1). Through God’s providence, Moses, a newborn male Israelite, is hid away, and eventually Pharaoh’s daughter finds him. Moses is raised in the palace. As Moses becomes a young man, he is burdened by the injustices the Egyptians are perpetrating against his people. He actually ends up killing an Egyptian who was beating a fellow Israelite. He thought he had done this in secret, but when he realizes that others know about this, he flees Egypt for Midian. Once in Midian, Moses marries and begins his family (Exod 2). This is also the place where God shows up and reveals himself to Moses through the burning bush. God commissions Moses to be the one God will use to free the Israelites from the Egyptians and lead them into the Promised Land (Exod 3–4). Moses returns to Egypt (Exod 5), and after a series of increasingly miraculous displays of God’s power, Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt to serve him in the desert (Exod 7–14). Three months after their Exodus from Egypt, God leads the people to Mt. Sinai. Moses ascends the mountain to meet with the Lord. It is at Sinai that Moses receives the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments Are the Words of God (Exod 20:1, 18–19).[i]
As we saw in Genesis 1–2, this God is a talking God. Even after the fall he continues to speak to his image bearers. He spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He spoke to Moses. He will continue to speak through prophets and supremely through his beloved Son, Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1–2). He also, and chiefly today, speaks to us through his Spirit-inspired word, the Bible (2 Tim 3:16–17). This talking God is near, and yet he is to be revered (Exod 20:18–19).[ii] He is gracious and loving, but he is equally righteous and dispenses his justice upon the guilty. We would do well not to take his word lightly.
God Is a God of Grace (Exod 20:2).
I’ve heard on more than one occasion someone remark that they prefer the God of the New Testament to the God of the Old. They like Jesus and all of his talk about forgiveness and grace. They don’t really like the vengeful and wrathful God in the Old Testament. The person who espouses this perspective hasn’t read the Bible. The God of the entire Bible is a God of grace and justice.
We read in Exodus 20:2, “‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’”[iii] If you take any time to read through Genesis 1 to Exodus 19, you find that these people that God has rescued don’t deserve it. The track record of Israel, going back to their earliest descendants, is one of murderers, liars, adulterers, idolaters, and constant complainers. They deserve all that has happened to them in Egypt. And yet, God promised to do something through these people, in particular Abraham—to make him into a great nation, to give his descendants a good land, and to bless all the people of the earth through his offspring. And as we’ve already seen, the God of the Bible is a promise keeping God, in spite of the fact that Israel will continue to decline into sin. And we’re no better. None of us deserves the grace of God.
We see that the God of the Bible is a God of grace elsewhere in Exodus. Following the golden calf episode when the Israelites made the Creator into an image of one of his created things, thus breaking the second commandment (Exod 32; cf. 20:4–6), the Lord says to Moses that he will not go with the Israelites lest he destroy them (33:1–6). Moses intercedes for the nation asking God to go up with his people, that is, God’s people, into the land (33:12–16). God relents and says he will accompany his people (33:17). Moses then makes an interesting request. He asks the Lord, “Please show me your glory” (33:18).
This is not some selfish request on Moses’ part. Rather, Moses makes this request out of desperation. He wants to know with certainty that God will be with them. Further, Moses knows that if he is to lead these “stiff-necked people” he is going to need to know God in a way that he had not known him before. He needs to see God’s glory.
God grants his request. Moses is allowed to see something of the trailing edge of God’s glory; otherwise he would die (33:20–23). As the Lord passes by Moses he declares, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the father’s to the third and fourth generation” (34:6–7).
The God of the Hebrew Bible, and the Bible as a whole, is a God of love. He is merciful, slow to anger, faithful to his covenant obligations, and he forgives those who seek genuine forgiveness.
The God of the Bible is also a God of justice and wrath. He takes sin seriously. He cannot let sinners go unpunished. The breaking of his law, the breaking of his covenant will not and cannot be overlooked. He cannot simply declare the guilty are clean. He takes sin so seriously that he will send his Son, his one and only Son, to die on behalf of sinful humanity. Jesus bears God’s just punishment for our sin, so that we don’t have to. Not only that, but those who trust and believe the gospel are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. As the apostle Paul will later write, “God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
Therefore, We Should Desire to Relate to God as He Determines: Commandments 1–4 (Exod 20:3–11).[iv]
Since God is a God of grace, we should relate to him as he sees fit.[v] And we should do this, not so much out of obligation, but out of love and gratitude for him lavishing his love on us. This text helps to emphasize a truth found throughout Scripture. The Bible is full of texts that describe what God has done for us in Christ. These are the indicatives of the gospel, that is, the gracious actions of God on our behalf, particularly through Jesus Christ. We find this in Exodus 20:2. The Bible is also full of texts that describe what we must do in light of what God has done for us in Christ. These are the imperatives (or commands) of the gospel. We find this here in Exodus 20:3–17. What this emphasizes is that the Christian serves God because of God’s grace. We don’t necessarily do so because if we don’t, he’s going to get us. No—the grace of God melts our hearts and compels us to serve him with love and good deeds, because he has loved us and been good to us first. I want to encourage you to look for the indicatives and imperatives of the gospel as you read the scriptures, even in what we call the Old Testament. You’ll be amazed time and again at just how great and gracious the God we serve is.
So what exactly are we to do? How are we to relate to this great and gracious God? First, “You shall have no other gods before me” (20:3). During the time of Moses, the nations that surrounded the Israelites worshiped idols, gods they crafted with their own hands, gods of their own imaginations, which really weren’t any god at all.[vi] These rival deities (described as demons in the New Testament, e.g. 1 Cor 10:20) would vie for the affection of Israel. A brief reading of the Hebrew Scripture reveals that Israel would succumb to temptation time and time again and worship the foreign deities of their neighbors. However, the God of the Bible, “whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exod 34:14; cf. 20:5). He will not sit idly by and give his glory to another. He is the one who rescued Israel, not the false pagan gods of Canaan.[vii]
One interesting story related to the first commandment is found in 1 Samuel 5. The Philistines defeated the Israelites in battle and took the ark of the Lord as spoil (5:1). They placed it in their temple to Dagon, next to the idol of Dagon, the god of grain (5:2). On the following day, the people of Ashdod found Dagon fallen before the ark of the Lord. They picked him up and put him back in his place (5:3). The next day, they found Dagon fallen before the ark of the Lord once again, only this time his head and hands had been broken off, only his body remained (5:4). The people of Ashdod were then inflicted with tumors. They perceived this was due to the presence of the ark (5:6–7). So they sent it to Gath (5:8). The same thing happened in Gath; the people were afflicted with tumors (5:9). So the people of Gath sent the ark to Ekron (5:10a). The people of Ekron heard about what had happened in Ashdod and Gath. They refused to receive the ark (5:10b). So “they called together all the ruler of the Philistines and said, ‘Send the ark of the god of Israel away; let it go back to its own place, or it will kill us and our people.’ For death had filled the city with panic; God’s hand was very heavy upon it. Those who did not die were afflicted with tumors, and the outcry of the city went up to heaven” (5:11–12).
The God of the Bible takes the first commandment seriously. He will not share his glory with another (Isa 42:8). Neither must he be thought of as some small local deity. He is the God who created everything. He is the God who rescues sinners from death and destruction. We would do well to consider the serious consequences of breaking the first commandment.
Second, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them …” (Exod 20:4ff). So not only are the Israelites to worship only the God who delivered them out of Egypt; they are also not to make an image of him (or any other local deity), so that they can visualize and worship a tangible representation of the one true God.[viii] Elsewhere, we read that God is Spirit, and he must be worshiped in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). He is not a localized deity, but one who is omnipresent. Neither is he a God that can be domesticated, but he is one that is transcendent, high and lifted up. Nor is he a created being, but the one Creator God who created everything.
Whether we realize it or not, we are all susceptible to idol worship. This is not just an American thing. Every culture has its own set of idols. At the top of most lists would be money, sex, and work. These three appear to be especially difficult for Christians. Why is this? In an interview with Christianity Today, pastor Tim Keller suggests, “Sex, work, and money are great goods. They are intrinsic to our being made in God’s image … These things are candidates for first place because they are so great.”[ix] Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, echoing Keller’s analysis, has said that idols are often good things that we make god things, which is a bad thing. Thus, the essence of idolatry is taking any good thing created by God and elevating it to the place reserved for God alone.
While you may not be tempted to worship sex, money, or work, there is certainly some other created thing that you may desire above God. What about education or your intellect? Are they the most important things in your life? What about your family? If something were to happen to your spouse or children, would you be devastated and unable to go on living, trusting in God? What good thing in your life might become an idol if it is not surrendered under the Lordship of Jesus Christ?[x]
Third, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (Exod 20:7).[xi] The well-known shorthand for the third commandment is taking the Lord’s name in vain.[xii] Does this mean that it is a sin to say, “God” or “Jesus” after smashing your finger with a hammer? Yes, it does. But someone might add, “I didn’t mean anything by it.” Precisely. And that is the real issue. We use the Lord’s name flippantly, without ever giving much thought to the one whose name it is. It becomes old hat, common to use his name in such a way. By doing so, we profane (profane means to make something/someone common) the Lord and his name. He isn’t given the reverence he deserves.
Fourth, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God…” (20:8ff). Many who read this commandment want to nail down when is the Sabbath day (Saturday or Sunday) and what one can or can’t do on the Sabbath day. While this isn’t the place to get into the entirety of what the Bible has to say about the Sabbath day, a few things are clear.[xiii] First, God’s rest on the seventh day of creation week establishes an order for which human beings are to live in relationship with God (Gen 2:2–3). Second, it is “a Sabbath to the Lord” and a day he has made “holy” (Exod 20:10, 11). This is typically understood to mean that the Sabbath is a day reserved specifically to honor God. Third, it is a day to rest from one’s customary work, that is, how one generally makes a living (20:10; cf. Mark 2:27).[xiv] This encourages physical and mental recuperation. Fourth, there is a Sabbath rest that we must “make every effort to enter” (Heb 4:11). This rest is two-fold: (1) the rest offered by Jesus to all who repent of their sin and trust Christ for salvation; and (2) the eternal rest that awaits all who believe the gospel—the culmination of our salvation in Christ (Heb 4:1–13). Finally, the Sabbath day is a reminder to trust God. We rest knowing he is firmly in control. We need not worry about tomorrow.[xv]
We Should also Desire to Relate to Others as God Determines: Commandments 5–10 (Exod 20:12–17).
Having experienced the undeserved grace of God, we too should strive to apply the gospel to our entire lives. We too must be gracious to others regardless of whether or not they deserve it. So what are some of the things we should do?
First, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exod 20:12). Notice the purpose for this command, “so that you may live long in the land…” In Deuteronomy 5:16 an additional purpose is given, “that it may go well with you in the land.” This appears to indicate that living long in the land and having it go well with one in the land is tied to the presence of God.[xvi] He will be with them, if they honor their parents. It is no secret that societies that honor those in authority, including one’s parents, are more stable than those that do not.
Second, “You shall not murder” (Exod 20:13). Notice that the text doesn’t say you shall not kill. Killing, the ending of a life is allowed in a few circumstances (cf. 21:15–17; Josh 5:13–12:24). What is distinctly forbidden is premeditated killing, in other words, murder.[xvii]
Third and fourth, “You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal” (Exod 20:14–15). Adultery takes lightly the sanctity of marriage—it is a God-ordained institution (cf. Gen 2:24). Marriage is to consist of one man and one woman for life. “You shall not steal” relates to the previous commandment, that is, taking another person’s spouse for oneself.[xviii] It also includes taking anything that does not belong to oneself.
Fifth, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exod 20:16). This, like many of the commandments, involves one’s integrity. Will you tell the truth, be forthright, and take the moral high ground? It is tempting to spread gossip or give a false testimony in a legal proceeding against another if it is to one’s perceived benefit. But one must not.
Sixth, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (20:17). The tenth commandment directly relates to the first, “You shall have no other gods before me” (20:3). When we covet something someone else has, we do so because we think at that moment it is something we have to have, something we can’t live without. In that moment, it becomes our functional savior. I may reason: if I have my neighbor’s house, I will be truly happy. It will fulfill the void in my life. The truth is, we can fill our lives with thing after thing and person after person, but these things and persons will not fulfill us. They will let us down and leave us emptier than when we first had them. Remember the story in 1 Samuel 5. Do you recall what happened to Dagon? The second time he fell before the ark of the Lord his head and hands had been broken off only his body remained (1 Sam 5:4). This would have sent a message to the Philistines that their god was unable to do for them what they thought he could do. How could he do anything? He could no longer see their needs nor hear their prayers. Neither could he speak his will to them nor give them what they needed (his hands were gone). Neither do the idols we create for ourselves. They never come through on what we perceive they promise.
However, the God of the Bible is the only one in the entire universe capable of giving us full and immeasurable joy. In fact, he commands us to seek our joy, our delight in him and him alone. For instance Psalm 37:4 states, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” And we are promised in Psalm 16:11, “You [God] will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” So we can settle for the things and persons of this world. Or we can delight in God who will grant to us eternal pleasures and lasting joy for his own glory.
Theological Reflection & Application
I think it would be helpful at this point to highlight just a few ways in which the law is treated in the new covenant.
- We cannot fulfill the law; we’re lawbreakers by nature. This goes back to the sin nature we all inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve.
- Christ fulfills the law on our behalf. He lived a perfect life that no one else could live.
- Those united to Jesus through faith receive his righteousness. His righteousness, the good works he did, his perfect life is credited to the Christian’s account.
- Christians, those united with Christ, seek to fulfill the law daily by the power of the Spirit. The law is no longer external, condemning the believer, but internalized, written upon the heart. This is part of what it means for Christians to have a new nature.
[i] The term “commandment” or “law” does not appear in this passage. What we have here are “these words” that God spoke (Exod 20:1). Thus, some refer to this list as the “ten words” (Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, NAC [Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006], 440). Nevertheless, I have retained the phrase “Ten Commandments” because of popular parlance, and the fact that they are referred to as such in Exodus 34:28.
[ii] Stuart does not believe God’s words were mediated through Moses in this instance, but that he spoke directly to those gathered at Mt. Sinai (Exodus, 445–446).
[iii] Kaiser notes that this phrase is “used 125 times to describe the character and graciousness of [the Lord]” (Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Exodus,” EBC [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990], 422).
[iv] My division of the first four commandments focused more directly on God and the final six on other people is based on context. It is also in keeping with the greatest commandment and the second that is like it (Matt 22:37–40). The greatest commandment refers to God, while the second to people. See also Stuart, Exodus, 441–442, 461.
[v] R. Alan Cole notes, “Law is firmly set in the context of grace, from its very origins” (Exodus, TOTC [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973], 153). So also Peter Enns, “The law … is connected to grace. It is based on God’s gracious act of saving his people; it is not a condition of becoming God’s people, for that has already happened in the Exodus” (Exodus. NIVAC [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000], 412).
[vi] Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, 285.
[vii] Enns notes that the command assumes, at least in the mind of some (if not all) of the Israelites, the existence of other gods. What the first commandment expresses is that Israel should worship one God, the Lord, who alone delivered them from Egypt and the Egyptian’s gods. Later biblical revelation reveals there is only one God (Exodus, 413–414). Similarly see Cole, Exodus, 153 and Stuart, Exodus, 448–449.
[viii] Kaiser notes that the Israelites are not forbidden to craft images (see the tabernacle/Temple). However, they are forbidden to make images to worship (“Exodus,” 422–423). See also Cole, Exodus, 154–155.
[ix] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “American Idols,” Christianity Today, Vol. 53, No. 11 (November 2009): 71.
[x] For more on the ancient practice of idol worship and the attraction of it see Stuart, Exodus, 450-454.
[xi] Kaiser notes that God’s name “stands for … (1) his nature, being, and very person (Ps 20:1; Luke 24:47; John 1:12; cf. Rev 3:4 [Gk.]), (2) his teaching or doctrine (Ps 22:22; John 17:6, 26), and (3) his moral and ethical teaching (Mic 4:5)” (“Exodus,” 423).
[xii] This is but one way one might misuse God’s name. Others include: (1) using it in swearing an oath in order to guarantee that what one said is true when it is in fact false; (2) mocking God’s name; (3) to speak disrespectfully about the Lord; and (4) to use the Lord’s name “under social pressure to … ‘look orthodox’” when one is not (Stuart, Exodus, 455–456).
[xiii] For more on the Sabbath day as revealed in Scripture you may want to consider reading: D. A. Carson, Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011) and Chris Donato, Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2011).
[xiv] Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, 286.
[xv] Stuart includes a list of activities (“work”) that would have continued on the Sabbath. They were necessary and unavoidable (Exodus, 459).
[xvi] Cole, Exodus, 159.
[xvii] The taking of ones life (suicide) is included (Kaiser, “Exodus,” 425; Stuart, Exodus, 463). This also includes the aborting of an unwanted pregnancy.
[xviii] Cole, Exodus, 160.