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This is a transition paragraph that bridges the narrative from the giving of the Ten Commandments to the fuller revelation of the Book of the Covenant with its sampling of case law. It lays the foundation for the relationship of God’s covenant people to the one true God. That relationship requires approaching God and worshiping Him on His terms.

Rodney Zedicher: We are in Exodus 20:22-26. God has saved his people and brought them to himself. He has thundered from heaven and given them his expectations for life in relationship with him. The people responded with terror and begged Moses to intercede for them. The next section, roughly the next 3 chapters, is referred to as the Book of the Covenant, a name that comes from 24:7. This is a collection of case laws or examples of how to apply the ten commandments to specific circumstances in Israelite society. These examples are not exhaustive, covering every possible scenario, but instead give a broad sampling of issues so that anyone with a good portion of common sense could reason from the examples to the specific issue in question and apply the principles found here to render a judgment.

John MacKay: As in the Ten Commandments themselves, the Book of the Covenant begins with the relationship between the people and God. At all stages in the history of God’s people the altar and sacrifice were central to this relationship because it was only through the provision of atonement that sinners who had offended God could hope to enter his presence in an acceptable manner. The altar that is described here is still the place of worship for the wanderer who as yet has no settled abode. But though he may lack a permanent residence, he has an on-going relationship with God. Wherever an altar was erected, the Lord would come to them and bless them. Unlike pagan deities which were often thought of as gods and goddesses of particular lands or sites, the Lord knows no such geographical restriction. Consequently, his people can be sure of his help and presence wherever they are. Even when the Temple was built, Solomon emphasised in his inaugural prayer that the Lord was not a localised deity, but the transcendent God. “But will God really dwell on earth with men? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple that I have built!” (2 Chron. 6:18). Christians are still “strangers in the world” (1 Pet. 1:1), but because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, they are their own Temple, and have their own altar and sacrifice through the completed work of Jesus Christ (Heb. 13:10–16).

Motyer: Exodus 20:21 sets a scene which does not change until 24:3, that of Moses on the mountain in the Lord’s presence in order to hear his voice. In the light of this, verses 22–26 belong with 21:1–23:33 in the ‘Book of the Covenant’ (24:7) and can be seen as a transition. The presence and voice of the Lord gave rise to an overmastering fear (20:18–19). The people’s solution to this, to appoint a mediator, was a sensible one, and so they put Moses forward. The Lord, however, had another plan as well, the institution of an authorized altar, where he will come to you and bless you (24). When the trumpet called them to ascend the hill of the Lord, fear held them back (18; cf. 19:13), but

There is a way for man to rise to that sublime abode:

An offering and a sacrifice . . .

The people backed off from the promised meeting with God, but the Lord was not to be deflected from his purpose to meet with them, and the altar, the place of sacrifice, was his appointed trysting place (as they will soon more perfectly learn).

In this way Exodus 20:22–26 emerges naturally from the dramatic turn of events in 20:18–21, but it also has its proper place in what follows.


A. (:22) Based on the Authority of God Who Communicates with His People (Authority of the Law and of His Word) to Dictate His Terms

“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel,

You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven.’”

God loves to communicate via words with His people; this is the only way we would ever know the mind of God.

Douglas Stuart: In this reminder to the Israelites of what they had just seen and heard, four factors are prominent.

(1) Moses was now the intermediary, so God spoke through him instead of directly to the people (“the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites …”).

(2) The Israelites were witnesses to their own obligation (cf. Josh 24:22; Matt 23:31) because they had seen (or perceived, i.e., seen and heard) for themselves the whole process.

(3) God had “spoken … from heaven” to them; he was not merely some god who lived atop Mount Sinai, but his presence there was a localized manifestation of himself, whose real dwelling place is heaven.

(4) They had to keep the Ten Words/Commandments, of which the first two are summarized as an incipit reference to all ten.

B. (23) Based on the Uniqueness of the One True God

“You shall not make other gods besides Me;

gods of silver or gods of gold, you shall not make for yourselves.”


A. (:24) Worship Involving Appropriate Sacrifices In Dependence on God’s Sovereign Grace Meets with God’s Approval

1. Nature of Proper Altar

“You shall make an altar of earth for Me,”

2. Nature of Proper Sacrifices

“and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen;”

3. Nature of God’s Approval

“in every place where I cause My name to be remembered,

I will come to you and bless you.”

Douglas Stuart: Worship is the first and most basic response of any believer to his or her Savior and Lord. Altars were necessary for sacrifices, which were in turn necessary for worship. At this early point in the covenant, God gave the Israelites a brief overview of altar construction in anticipation of their need to worship him properly. Now that he was becoming their covenant God, it was important that they be able to respond fully to him in worship, not merely repeating the practices of the past or simply borrowing from pagans the concepts and procedures of worship and sacrifice. . .

The initial altar God wanted was very simple: made of dirt (“an altar of earth,” v. 24) or optionally of stone that was not cut, shaped stone but simply found stone crudely fitted together (“do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it”). The insistence on a simple—even primitive—altar relates to two factors: holiness and idolatry. Holiness is belonging to God; the altar must be his and his alone, a part of the means by which he accepts unholy people and makes them holy, through the transference of guilt from them to an animal. Therefore the altar could not be something of which humans could take ownership because they shaped it and finished it with the same sorts of tools they might use for any mundane masonry project. Likewise, it must not be fancy enough to become like or to function as an idol, a thing that human hands had made yet was revered as possessing divine qualities. This altar must be so simple, made of natural elements that were simply assembled, that no one would make the mistake of identifying it as having in itself, intrinsically, numinous or theophoric character. The altar must be of the minimal sort of construction that would make it functional without becoming an object of appreciation or veneration in itself, something that in the mind of a worshiper might somehow rival or substitute for God. Additionally, it must not become in itself a threat to or pollution of Yahweh’s own holiness, as things that are partial or dismembered or incomplete can sometimes do. In the same way that an animal that was sacrificed was to be full and complete (not maimed, sick, or already dismembered before being brought for sacrifice), so the stones of a stone altar must be whole and complete.

B. (:25-26) Worship Involving Man’s Prideful Work-Based Efforts Rejected

1. (:25) Rejection of Man’s Efforts (Contributing His Own Workmanship)

“And if you make an altar of stone for Me,

you shall not build it of cut stones,

for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it.”

Charlie Garrett: Rather, the use of a tool profaning the stone is because the stone is something that God created. If man were to shape the stone, then it would include man’s efforts in it. Thus it would lead to either idolatry of the altar which man had made in order to fellowship with God, or it would lead to idolatry of self because the man had erected the place where God and man fellowshipped.

Either way, it is a picture of works-based salvation. It is man reaching up to God by his efforts rather than man coming to God through what God has done. He made the rocks. For us to add our effort into what God had made would then be contrary to the premise of the Bible. We are saved by grace, not by works.

2. (:26) Rejection of Man’s Pride (Trying to Ascend to God)

“And you shall not go up by steps to My altar,

that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.”

John Hannah: Altars with elaborate craftsmanship and elevated platforms with staircases were common in the worship of false deities.

Charlie Garrett: There is a place where man may meet the Lord and that is through offering made at His altar. And that altar is not to be high, thus requiring steps. The word step, or maalah, is used for the first time here in the Bible.

It indicates a step, things that come up, high degree, go up, etc. It comes from the verb maaleh which means “to ascend.” It is noted that around the world, altars to a god are usually built high, some exceedingly high. The higher the altar, the closer one feels they have come to their god. Consider of the tower of Babel!

The common thinking then is the more imposing the altar, the more maalah you go up and thus the more you will maaleh. Said in normal English, one does not ascend to God in order to be saved. God descended to man in order for him to be saved.

The term “high places” concerning altars of sacrifice is used dozens of times in Kings and Chronicles. It is a note of rebuke to the people of Israel. Even when a good king is noted for his goodness, if he allowed the high places to continue, a note of censure is placed on his record –

“And he walked in all the ways of his father Asa. He did not turn aside from them, doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord. Nevertheless the high places were not taken away, for the people offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places. 44 Also Jehoshaphat made peace with the king of Israel.” 1 Kings 22:43, 44

When a king was specifically said to have “removed” the high places, it was with a note of commendation. If you ever wondered why these were considered wrong, now you know. It is because it was a part of man’s futile attempt to raise himself to God.

Instead, the altar being at a common level with man is a picture of Christ coming down to our common level. It is through His sacrifice, at our level, that the offerings rise to God. Our attempts at reconciling with God are insufficient and worse. They are sinful because they reject what God has first instructed and then what He did for us in what the instruction pictures – Christ.

Traditional View: related to modesty:

George Rawlinson: When the dress of the priest had been so arranged that no exposure of the person was possible (27:42-43), this precept became unnecessary. Thus it would seem that Solomon’s altar had steps (cf. II Chron. 4:1 with Ezek. 43:17).

John MacKay: Human nakedness is a sign of humiliation and degradation (Gen. 3:7; Isa. 20:3–4). Those who appear in the King’s presence are to be fitly dressed (Gen. 3:21), and worthy to appear in his court. In the ritual law undergarments were to be worn by the priests to avoid such exposure (28:40–42). The worship of God was not to be blemished by indecency and pagan debauchery—then or now (1 Cor. 14:40).

Alternative View: related to nakedness being emblematic of sinfulness

Charlie Garrett: “See, this is a matter of decency and not letting people see your private parts. See!”

This is the explanation that almost every scholar gives and it has nothing to do with that. This verse is reaching back to the first moments of man’s existence on earth and all the way to the last book of the Bible. The translation is correct, “…that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.”

It is speaking of the altar and it is referring to the nakedness of sin. In Genesis 3:7, just as soon as Adam and Eve ate of the fruit, we read this –

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.”

Shame of nakedness is how sin first manifested itself. And it was the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life by which that sin came about. Man wanted to

be like God, rising to His level. The altar was to be without steps because man cannot rise to the level of God.

The higher the altar, the greater the sin is revealed, and thus the more nakedness is exposed. God instead made it known that He would condescend to become a Man and meet us on our own level. In Revelation 3, as Jesus speaks to the churches, He says this –

“I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed.” Revelation 3:18

The nakedness of the body only pictures our revealed sin. Christ came to take that away and to cover us with His righteousness. It was He who hung naked on Calvary’s cross so that we could be covered by Him. What a marvelous story and what a beautiful verse to end our passage today.