THE TEN COMMANDMENTS DISPLAY THE CHARACTER OF GOD AND REVEAL HIS MORAL WILL FOR HIS COVENANT PEOPLE
These are not moral suggestions. These are divine commandments. Christ was able to sum up these requirements under 2 main headings: Love for God and love for our fellow man. There is both a vertical and a horizontal component to the Mosaic Law. These are not given as the pathway to salvation but as the righteous expression of a heart that has been transformed by the grace of God.
There is much introductory material that could be studied regarding the purpose of the law and its place (or application) in the NT economy as opposed to being addressed to Israel within the context of the Old Covenant. In addition, weeks could be spent preaching on each of the individual commands. So the treatment here will be a very cursory overview.
Wiersbe: While all the Ten Commandments deal with our responsibilities toward God, the first four are particularly Godward while the last six are manward. How we relate to others depends on how we relate to God; for if we love God and obey Him, we’ll also love our neighbors and serve them (Matt. 22:34-40; Rom. 13).
John Hannah: The Ten Commandments are an excellent summary of 10 divine rules for human conduct. They might be called rules of
(9) tongue, and
John Davis: A careful study of both Old and New Testament will reveal the fact that the Law had a five-fold purpose in the plan of God.
(1) It was designed to reveal man’s sinfulness (Rom. 3:19-20).
(2) It uncovered or illustrated the hideous nature of sin (Rom. 7:8-13).
(3) It revealed the holiness of God.
(4) It restrained the sinner so as to help him to come to Christ (Gal. 3:24).
(5) It restrained wrong behavior so as to protect the integrity of the moral and social and religious institutions of Israel.
John Oswalt: Here then is the core of what God asks of people who are in covenant with himself. Here, in these 10 “words” is a revelation of his nature and, indeed, of reality as he made it to be. He asks his people to commit themselves and their needs to him and in so doing become free to value others for themselves just as he does. The person who will treat God and others in these ways will truly be part of a kingdom of priests, a holy nation (19:6).
(:1-2) PREAMBLE AND PROLOGUE – GOD’S UNIQUE ROLE AS REDEEMER
A. Preamble – Who God Is
“Then God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God,”
Philip Ryken: If the law comes from God, then it must reflect his divine character. This is true of rules and regulations in general: They reveal something about the rule-maker.
To summarize, the Ten Commandments display the character of God. They reveal his sovereignty, jealousy, justice, holiness, honor, faithfulness, providence, truthfulness, and love.
When we see how God has poured himself into his law, it becomes obvious that he could not have given us any other commandments than the ones he gave. The Ten Commandments express God’s will for our lives because they are based on his character. This helps answer an ancient dilemma, one that Plato posed in one of his famous dialogues: Does God command the law because the law is good, or is the law good because God commands it? The answer is, both! The law, with all its goodness, springs from the goodness of God’s character. The law is good because God is good, and his goodness penetrates every aspect of his law.
B. Prologue – What God Has Done for His Covenant People
“who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’”
Youngblood: On the basis of who I am, and on the basis of what I have done for you, here now is what you are to do for Me.
I. (:3) FIRST COMMANDMENT – NO OTHER GODS
“You shall have no other gods before Me.”
Wiersbe: The Jews lived in a world of blind and superstitious nations that worshiped many gods, something Israel beheld for centuries in Egypt. Israel was to bear witness of the true and living God (Ps. 115) and invite their neighbors to trust Him.
Gispen: Not having any other gods besides the Lord involves total surrender and consecration to the one and only God.
Douglas Stuart: This first commandment presents a translation challenge. Does the Hebrew ʿal-pānı̂m mean “before me” or “other than me?” The difference is not insignificant because the former translation might suggest that the commandment calls only for Yahweh to be Israel’s supreme God, and thus it is not a prohibition of polytheism but rather a hierarchicalizing of it, whereas the latter demands a monotheistic religion. Hebrew ʿal-pānı̂m (the form of the expression without the first-person singular pronoun) means lit., “at/to/before the face” and usually has the connotation of “against” or some derived sense therefrom. But does it have any special idiomatic meaning that can be discerned?
. . . a translation something like “You must have no other gods over against me” or “You must have no other gods in distinction to me” would capture the idiomatic sense in the context.
David Guzik: In the days of ancient Israel, there was great temptation to worship the gods of materialism (such as Baal, the god of weather and financial success) and sex (such as Ashtoreth, the goddess of sex, romance, and reproduction), or any number of other local deities. We are tempted to worship the same gods, but without the old-fashioned names and images. It has been said (perhaps first by John Calvin) that human nature is like an idol factory that operates constantly. We constantly deal with the temptation to set all kinds of things before or competing with God and His preeminent place in our life.
John MacKay: The great kings of the ancient empires demanded the exclusive loyalty of their subject peoples. It was high treason to enter into a relationship with another emperor. This was the focus of their treaty relationships with their vassals, and in a far higher sense it is such exclusive allegiance that is the emphasis of Yahweh’s kingship over his people. In his presence there can be no rival for their affection and service.
II. (:4-6) SECOND COMMANDMENT – DON’T WORSHIP IDOLS
A. (:4-5a) Prohibition
1. (:4) Against Making Idols
“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.”
Tim Chester: This is to reduce God to something of our own making – not to replace him, but to make him manageable, to understand him according to our notions rather than according to his revelation in his word.
Walter Kaiser Jr.: Thus all idolatry, which Scripture labels elsewhere as spiritual adultery, that raise up competitors or brooks any kind of rivalry to the honor, glory, and esteem due to the Lord will excite his zealousness for the consistency of his own character and being. Every form of substitution, neglect, or contempt, both public and private, for the worship of God is rejected in this commandment.
2. (:5a) Against Worshiping Idols
“You shall not worship them or serve them;”
Wiersbe: The idol worship of the pagan nations was not only illogical and unbiblical, but it was intensely immoral (temple prostitutes and fertility rites), inhuman (sacrificing children), and demonic (1 Cor. 10:10-22). No wonder the Lord commanded Israel to destroy the temples, altars, and idols of the pagans when they invaded the land of Canaan (Deut. 7:1-11).
John Davis: There is a place for religious, illustrative material. The condemnation of imagery comes when it is intended to be a representation of a god and becomes the subject of worship.
Philip Ryken: Are Reformed Protestants correct in recognizing Exodus 20:4 as the beginning of a new commandment? The answer is yes. Having other gods and not making idols are two different regulations. The first commandment has to do with worshiping the right God. We must reject every false god in order to worship the true God, who alone is our Lord and Savior. The second commandment has to do with worshiping the right God in the right way. We may not worship him in the form of any man-made idol. Whereas the first commandment forbids us to worship false gods, the second commandment forbids us to worship the true God falsely. How we worship matters nearly as much to God as whom we worship.
B. (:5b-6) Reason
1. (:5b) God Deserves Loyalty
“for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God,”
Wiersbe: In Scripture, idolatry is the equivalent of prostitution and adultery (Hosea 1-3; Jer. 2-3; Ezek. 16; 23; James 4:4-5). God desires and deserves the exclusive love of His people (Ex. 34:14; Deut. 4:24; 5:9; 6:15).
2. (:5c) God Punishes Spiritual Adultery Down Multiple Generations
“visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children,
on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,”
Philip Ryken: It says that God punishes children for the sin of their fathers. What a father passes on to his children is not simply a bad example but the guilt of his sin. The principle here is covenant solidarity: God holds families responsible for their conduct as families. The Israelites were in covenant with God, and when the covenant head of any family sinned against God, his whole family was judged. To give just one example, all seventy of Ahab’s sons were killed for their father’s idolatry (2 Kings 10:1–17).
This is not to deny individual responsibility. God holds each one of us accountable for our own sin. The Bible says, “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son” (Ezek. 18:20a). God never condemns the innocent but only the guilty. Here it is important to notice something in the second commandment that is often overlooked—namely, how the threat ends. God says that he will punish three or four generations “of those who hate me” (Exod. 20:5). It is not only the fathers who hate God but also their children. People who struggle with the fairness of this commandment usually assume that although the father is guilty, his children are innocent. But the children hate God as much as their father did (which, given the way they were raised, is not surprising). Therefore, it is fair and just for God to punish them for their sin and for their father’s sin.
God also promises to show mercy to those who love him and keep his commandment not to serve idols. The promise is more powerful than the warning because its blessing lasts not just for three or four generations but for a thousand; in other words, it will last forever. This was God’s promise going all the way back to Abraham: “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Gen. 17:7). All we have to do is respond to the God who loves us by loving him in return.
God’s threat in the second commandment may seem discouraging to someone who comes from a family that does not honor God, but God’s blessing triumphs over God’s curse, and God often intervenes in the history of a family to turn their hatred into love and worship. He does what he did for Abraham: He calls a family to leave its idols behind and follow him. And when God does this, he establishes a lasting legacy. His grace rests on a family from one generation to the next. This is not some kind of automatic guarantee, because children are free to turn away from the God of their fathers and mothers. But it is a promise to receive by faith.
3. (:6) God Blesses Loyalty
“but showing lovingkindness to thousands,
to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
III. (:7) THIRD COMMANDMENT – RESPECT THE NAME OF THE LORD
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain,”
Tim Chester: Do not carry God’s name in a way that damages his reputation.
Douglas Stuart: The primary meaning of “misuse the name of the Lord” (nāśāh šēm yahweh, lit., “raise up Yahweh’s name for no good”) would appear to be invoking his name as guarantor of one’s words.
Steven Cole: The Lord’s name refers to His person—all that He is. To use His name in vain includes using it in sorcery or divination, in false prophecy, and in taking false oaths (Ryken, p.580). It also means to use God’s name lightly, for no purpose, whether in exclamation, surprise, or anger. The current exclamation, “Oh my God!” uses His name in vain, unless the person is truly calling on the Lord in heartfelt prayer. Also, to exclaim, “Oh, Jeez!” is to use Jesus’ name in vain. This command does not prohibit taking legitimate oaths, since Deuteronomy 6:13 commands, “You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name.” (See, also, Ps. 63:11; Rom. 1:9; Rev. 10:5-6.)
David Guzik: There are at least three ways this command is commonly disobeyed.
(1) Profanity: Using the name of God in blasphemy and cursing.
(2) Frivolity: Using the name of God in a superficial, stupid way.
(3) Hypocrisy: Claiming the name of God but acting in a way that disgraces Him.
“for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.”
Youngblood: Profanation of God’s name has become frighteningly common in modern times, and yet it is among the most serious of all sins.
IV. (:8-11) FOURTH COMMANDMENT – SABBATH OBSERVANCE
A. (:8) Command
“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
B. (:9-10a) Explanation
1. (:9) Six Days to Work
“Six days you shall labor and do all your work,”
2. (:10a) Seventh Day to Dedicate to the Lord and Rest
“but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God;
in it you shall not do any work,”
Douglas Stuart: Throughout the expression of this commandment, a balance between “stopping” and “keeping holy” is struck: clearly the purpose of the Sabbath cannot be limited either to a break from work one day a week or to the setting aside of one day a week for special attention to godliness. Rather, both are to be done on every Sabbath.
C. (:10b) Scope
“you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant
or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.”
D. (:11) Reason
1. Patterned after God’s Work in Creation
a. Worked Six Days
“For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth,
the sea and all that is in them,”
b. Rested on Seventh Day
“and rested on the seventh day;”
2. Instituted for Man’s Blessing and for Dedication to God
a. Instituted for Man’s Blessing
“therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day”
b. Dedicated to God
“and made it holy.”
John Davis: The demand by some that the Christian is to observe the Sabbath is, in effect, to place him under the law of the Old Testament. Particular prohibition s associated with the Sabbath indicates that this was designed as part of God’s economy for the old dispensation to teach Israel specific lessons and to prepare her for the coming of the Messiah.
V. (:12) FIFTH COMMANDMENT – OBEDIENCE TO PARENTS (AUTHORITY)
“Honor your father and your mother,”
Walter Kaiser Jr.: involves (1) prizing them highly; (2) caring, showing affection for them; and (3) showing respect, fear, or revering them (Lev. 19:3).
Douglas Stuart: Now comes a commandment that follows logically because it is concerned with honoring parents, who have the awesome role in the family of representing God to their children.
“that your days may be prolonged in the land
which the LORD your God gives you.”
Gispen: With the fifth commandment the Law shifts to the relationship with the neighbor. But some feel that the fifth commandment still belongs to the first tablet, and believe that the difference between the first five and the last five commandments lies in the fact that the first five contain obligations toward God and toward those who occupy a higher position, while the second set of five commandments regulate the relationship with those who are equals.
VI. (:13) SIXTH COMMANDMENT – DON’T MURDER (SANCTITY OF LIFE)
“You shall not murder.”
John MacKay: Murder was one of the earliest indications of the evil that the Fall had introduced into human society when Cain slew his brother Abel (Gen. 4:8). The havoc wrought by murder and violence in the pre-flood society led to the imposition of the death penalty (Gen. 9:6). The sanctity of human life requires that those who unwarrantably take life should lose their own lives. Only in this way can society be kept from disintegrating under the pressure of lawlessness. The New Testament still recognises that the ruler is divinely authorised to bear the sword to bring punishment on wrong doers (Rom. 13:4).
Again, the command states a basic principle with far-reaching implications. If the act of murder is wrong, so too are the inner attitudes towards one’s neighbour that can manifest themselves in committing murder (Matt. 5:21–26). “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). Anger and a derogatory attitude towards others are equally condemned by this command. So too is envious desire for what we do not have (James 4:2).
VII. (:14) SEVENTH COMMANDMENT – DON’T COMMIT ADULTERY
“You shall not commit adultery.”
John MacKay: This commandment is the basis for the laws in Israel that required the people to avoid the practices of Egypt and Canaan by maintaining sexual purity. This is spelled out in great detail in Leviticus 18:6–30; 20:10–21. Because the bond between the Lord and his people could also be compared to the marriage bond between husband and wife, adultery was often used to depict the way in which Israel turned away from Yahweh to worship other gods (Lev. 20:6–8).
VIII. (:15) EIGHTH COMMANDMENT – DON’T STEAL
“You shall not steal.”
Wiersbe: Regarding personal property – God gave Israel an elaborate set of laws to govern their use of the land, because the land belonged to Him, and they were but stewards (Lev. 25:2, 23, 38).
Douglas Stuart: Stealing is taking something that does not belong to you without permission. Legal possession and personal ownership of things are permitted implicitly by this commandment, which assumes that stealing is possible, something that would technically not be possible in a completely communal society.
Youngblood: Holding back a worker’s wages (Lev. 19:13), engaging in dishonest business practices (19:35), charging exorbitant rates of interest (25:36) – all are subtle forms of theft that steal not only from man but also from God, the ultimate owner of everything (25:23).
IX. (:16) NINTH COMMANDMENT – DON’T BEAR FALSE WITNESS (VS. TRUTH)
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
Steven Cole: Love seeks the highest good of the other person. To bear false witness undermines your integrity, undermines relationships, and damages or destroys the other person.
John Oswalt: the person who is in covenant with God does not need to destroy another person’s reputation in order to make himself or herself look better or to gain some advantage over that other person. Knowing that God is the supplier of their needs, covenant people can afford to treat the reputation of the other with the same kindness with which they would like their own reputations to be treated. Fundamentally then, this principle is talking about the well-being of others. . .
X. (:17) TENTH COMMANDMENT – DON’T COVET (VS. CONTENTMENT)
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Wiersbe: The first and tenth commandments deal with what’s in the heart, while the other eight focus on outward actions that begin in the heart. . . To covet is to feed inward desires for anything that God says is sinful.
Douglas Stuart: The entire verse is a prohibition against any sort of coveting of what someone else already rightfully has, with enough examples given as to leave no doubt that nothing properly owned by someone else can be coveted.
Philip Ryken: There is something unusual about the tenth commandment that distinguishes it from the rest of the Decalogue: It goes straight to the heart. The other nine commandments explicitly condemn outward actions like making idols, working on the Sabbath, and killing innocent victims. As we have seen, these commandments also forbid sins of the heart like hatred and lust. According to our “inside/outside rule,” each commandment governs inward attitudes as well outward actions. But the first nine commandments generally start on the outside and then work their way in as we learn how to apply them.
What is different about the tenth commandment is that it starts on the inside. The commandment about coveting is not concerned with what we do, in the first instance, but with what we want to do. It governs our internal desires. This has led some commentators to wonder if perhaps the tenth commandment might be superfluous. Isn’t coveting really included in the eighth commandment? If God’s law against stealing condemns our greedy hearts as well as our thieving hands, then why do we need the tenth commandment?
The answer is that the tenth commandment makes explicit what the other commandments only imply—namely, that God requires inward as well as outward obedience. If God had not given us the tenth commandment, we might be tempted to think that outward obedience is all we need to offer. But the tenth commandment proves that God judges the heart. In case anyone misses the point, the command against coveting shows that God’s law is spiritual.
John MacKay: ‘Covet’ describes a consuming desire to possess in a wrong way something belonging to another, this desire being stimulated by perception of the beauty or desirability of what is coveted. It is a forbidden feeling rather than a forbidden act—at least initially. Originating within a person, covetousness covers all that comes from such a wrong desire right through to the possession of what is coveted. It is presented here as the last commandment because it points to the root of all breaches of the covenant as coming from wrong inner disposition. Rather there should be an attitude of contentment with what the Lord has placed at the disposal of his people.
Covetous desires corrupt the inner life of an individual, and because our inner disposition is so often translated into overt actions, covetousness motivates many other sins (Mark 7:20–23). Indeed Paul identifies covetousness with idolatry: the commandments come full circle back to where they started. “No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:5). When godliness is accompanied by contentment there is great gain (1 Tim. 6:6), but wrong desires enthrone in the heart what God has forbidden. They give what is desired greater priority in our living than God himself or what he wants us to do or have. That is the essence of idolatry. We have to decide where our treasure is, for then our heart will be focused on that (Matt. 6:19–21).
J. I. Packer: We are all, of course, creatures of desire; God made us so, and philosophies like Stoicism and religions like Buddhism which aim at the extinction of desire are really inhuman in their thrust. But desire that is sinfully disordered needs redirecting, so that we stop coveting others’ goods and long instead for their good, and God’s glory with and through it. When Thomas Chalmers spoke of “the expulsive power of a new affection,” he was thinking of the way in which knowledge of my Savior’s love diverts me from the barren ways of covetous self-service, to put God first, others second, and self-gratification last in my concerns. How much do we know in experience of this divine transforming power? It is here that the final antidote to covetousness is found.
(:18-21) EPILOGUE – RESPONSE OF THE PEOPLE AND OF MOSES
A. (:18) People Perceive God’s Majesty and Tremble
1. Awesome Display of God’s Majesty
“And all the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes
and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking;”
2. Awareness of God’s Transcendence
“and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance.”
Douglas Stuart: Hearing God speak audibly was frightening for the Israelites—so much so that they demanded that thereafter Moses should always relay God’s words to them. This makes considerable sense in light of the consistent biblical witness to the ear-shattering volume of the voice of God. In all other cases where God is recorded as speaking audibly, the sound is described as deafeningly loud. Moses was somehow able to endure God’s voice, presumably by special divine grace, but the average Israelite found it so terrifying that he wanted nothing more of it. It was not merely the sound of God’s words, of course, that had such an effect: “The people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke,” and that combination of sensory data along with the voice of God itself was too much for them, so “they trembled with fear” and “stayed at a distance.”
B. (:19) People Request that Moses Acts as Intermediary
“Then they said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’”
C. (:20) Moses Reassures the People
1. Don’t Be Afraid
“And Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid;’”
John MacKay: Moses recognised that fear had gripped the people, and spoke to relieve their tension by explaining what it was that God had done. He had ‘come’, entered into the perceptible world in the theophany, so that he might test them. The experience they had had of a direct encounter with God should have been one that would have led to ongoing faith and obedience on their part. It was such an overwhelming spiritual experience that thereafter they should always remember it and appreciate who their King was and what he required of them. In that way they would be inhibited from breaking his commands.
2. Don’t Miss the Point
a. Pass the Test
“for God has come in order to test you,”
b. Fear God
“and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you,”
c. Refrain from Sinning
“so that you may not sin.”
D. (:21) People and Moses Respond Very Differently
1. People Keep Their Distance
“So the people stood at a distance,”
2. Moses Approaches God
“while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.”