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Bible Commentaries

Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 20

Verses 1-26

The Ten Commandments (vv. 1-21)

Exodus 20-23, containing (1) the Decalogue (Gk. = ’Ten Words’ or ’Commandments’) and (2) a code of laws regulating the religious and social life of the people, and called the Book of the Covenant (see Exodus 24:7), form perhaps the most important part of the Pentateuch. It is the nucleus of the entire Mosaic legislation, and in all probability existed for long as a separate document.

1-17. The Decalogue. In chapter Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13 this is called the ’Ten Words’ or ’Commandments.’ It is also called the ’Testimony’ in Exodus 25:16 (see on Exodus 16:34) and the ’Covenant’ in Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9. These words were uttered in the hearing of the awe-struck people (Exodus 19:9; Exodus 20:19; Deuteronomy 4:12), and afterwards graven by the finger of God on two tables of stone (Exodus 31:18; Deuteronomy 4:13). On witnessing the apostasy of the people Moses broke these tables (Exodus 32:19), but they were afterwards replaced by another pair on which the same words were written (Exodus 34:1; Deuteronomy 10:1, Deuteronomy 10:4). When the ark was made the two tables of the testimony were deposited in it (Deuteronomy 10:5; Hebrews 9:4). As the ark itself stood in the innermost sanctuary of the tabernacle, this position of the Tables of the Law bore emphatic witness to the great truth that the beginning and end of all religious observances is the keeping of the commandments of God: cp. Matthew 19:17; Romans 2:25; 1 Corinthians 7:19.

Two versions of the Ten Commandments are preserved in the Pentateuch, the second, exhibiting a few variations, being given in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Most scholars agree that the version given in Exodus is the older and purer of the two, the variations in Deuteronomy being due to the characteristic ideas and style of the writer of that book. The main divergences occur in the fourth and fifth commandments. There is a good deal to be said for the view that the commandments as originally promulgated were shorter than either form, that they consisted merely of the precepts without the reasons annexed, the second e.g. reading simply, ’Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,’ and the fourth, ’Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy’: see on Deuteronomy 5:11. That the commandments, at least in this terser form, are really Mosaic, there is no reasonable ground to doubt.

The Ten Commandments were inscribed on two tables and divided into two parts, but opinions differ as to their enumeration and arrangement. The Jews themselves regard Exodus 20:2, usually called the Preface, as the First Word, and maintain the number ten by uniting Exodus 20:2-6 (the first and second) and calling these the Second Word. The Roman Catholies and Lutherans combine the first two, and split up the tenth. Our common enumeration is that of Philo and Josephus, who are followed by the Greek and Reformed Churches. As to their arrangement, some have assigned five commandments to each table; while others have divided them in the proportion of four to six. According to the latter division the first four are religious, defining the duties man owes to God (’Thou shalt love the Lord thy God’); the last six are moral, defining the duties men owe to each other (’Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’). On the other hand, seeing that in ancient times filial duty was regarded more as a religious than a moral obligation, there is something to be said for placing the fifth commandment on the first table: see on Exodus 21:15.

Christians, while freed from the obligations of the Mosaic law of ceremonies, are still bound, bound more than ever (see Romans 6), to ’the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.’ What our Lord did with regard to the Ten Commandments was (1) to sum them up under the two obligations of love to God and love to our neighbour, which, again, are the two sides of the one law of universal Love (’love is the fulfilling of the law’); (2) to widen and deepen their scope, making them apply not only to the outward act, but to the inner spirit and motive, and (3) to change them from mere negative commands to abstain from certain sins to positive obligations, which are never exhausted and involve a perpetual advance in holiness where mere abstention from evil acts implies moral stagnation: see Matthew 22:37-40; Matthew 5:17-48.

2. Redemption is the ground of obedience which springs, not from fear, but from gratitude and love: see Romans 12:1; 2 Corinthians 5:14; 1 John 4:19. This evangelical truth of obedience springing from gratitude is the great theme of the book of Deuteronomy, where it is reiterated over and over again: see e.g. Deuteronomy 4:32-40 and Intro. to that book, § 3.

3. Before me] RM ’beside me.’ Monotheism is implied rather than expressly enunciated here. It was only gradually that Israel rose to the truth that there is but one God. Israel was led to this truth along the way of practice. By ceasing to worship other gods they would cease to believe in their existence. It is true still that the sure result of discontinuing the worship of God is the denial of His existence: see on Exodus 15:11; Exodus 32:1.

4. If the first commandment implies the truth of God’s unity, the second implies that of His spirituality. Israel is forbidden to worship even the true God under any external form. God is not like anything that human hands can make. In Egypt the Israelites had been familiar with the worship of images.

The water under the earth] This refers to the belief of the time that the earth was a flat disk (Isaiah 40:22) resting on an abyss of waters: see Genesis 1:6; Genesis 7:11; Psalms 24:2.

5. A jealous God] Human jealousy is usually of an ignoble kind, the fruit of suspicion. But there is a holy jealousy, the pain of wounded love. The heart of God is grieved when His love is rewarded with indifference and unfaithfulness. He will brook no rival in the affections of His people: see Deuteronomy 32:16-21; Psalms 78:58; Isaiah 42:8, and on chapter Exodus 34:15.

Unto the third and fourth generation] RV ’upon..’ It is a law of the divine government that the penalty of one man’s sins is shared by those connected with him: cp. Joshua 22:20. If this seem hard it must be remembered that the law cuts both ways. The benefits of a man’s good deeds are likewise distributed over a large area. We cannot enjoy the one result without taking the risk of the other. The law relates, however, only to the consequences of sin, not its guilt. The latter adheres to the sinner personally: cp. Ezekiel 18:2-4.

6. Unto thousands] i.e. unto a thousand generations, as in Deuteronomy 7:9. it is implied here that God’s mercy in rewarding righteousness infinitely transcends His anger in punishing the sinful. The consequences of righteousness are more enduring and farreaching than those of iniquity.

7. This prohibition applies strictly to perjury or false swearing, the breaking of a promise or contract that has been sealed with an oath in the name of God. He will not allow His name to be associated with any act of falsehood or treachery. His name must not be taken in vain, i.e. lightly or heedlessly. This forbids also the careless or profane use of the divine name and titles. Jesus extended the scope of this commandment so as to prohibit the use of oaths entirely. A man’s mere word should be his bond: see Matthew 5:33-37.

8. What is laid down here is not the institution of the sabbath rest, but its strict observance. The sabbath rest was known to the Babylonians before this time, and there are indications of its being previously known to the Israelites: see on Exodus 16:5. Hence, probably, the use of the word remember. To keep it holy] The seventh day is to be distinguished from other days (the root meaning of the word rendered ’hallow’ is to separate: ’see on Leviticus 20:24), by abstinence from labour. Nothing is said here as to the religious observance of the day. But after the institution of the Levitical priesthood, the morning and evening sacrifices were doubled on the sabbath (see Numbers 28:9-10), and in later times the day was naturally that on which a ’holy convocation’ was held: see Leviticus 23:3; Isaiah 66:23. After the exile, when synagogues were established, divine service was always celebrated on the sabbath.

9. It is sometimes forgotten that the fourth commandment ’enforces the six days’ work as well as the seventh day’s rest.’

10. Shalt not do any work] such as gathering manna (see on Exodus 16:22), lighting a fire (Exodus 35:3), gathering sticks (Numbers 15:32-36), agricultural labour (cp. Exodus 34:21), carrying burdens (Nehemiah 13:15-19), buying and selling (Nehemiah 10:31). The Jewish legalists developed the negative side of this precept to such an extravagant and absurd extent that the sabbath, instead of being a day of rest, became the most laborious day of the seven. The philanthropic motive for its observance (cp. Exodus 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14) was almost entirely lost sight of till our Lord said, ’The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath’ (Mark 2:27. Thy manservant] The command is specially addressed to heads of families and employers of labour, and requires (1) that they must themselves rest from labour, and (2) allow those in their employment to rest also.

11. In Deuteronomy 5:14-15 another reason is given for the observance of the sabbath rest, in accordance with the philanthropic spirit which pervades the whole of that book: cp. Exodus 23:12. Both reasons are probably later amplifications of the original commandment. Blessed.. and hallowed it] consecrated it to Himself with a special blessing upon it. The unusually frequent mention in OT. of the duty of observing the sabbath is an indication of its importance. It is often referred to as constituting along with circumcision the sign of the covenant between God and Israel: see on Exodus 31:13.

12. This is the ’first commandment with promise’ (Ephesians 6:2). The promise has been understood by some as applying to the nation as a whole. Undoubtedly the nation takes its character from the home, and well-ordered family life is the prime condition of national welfare and stability: see on Deuteronomy 21:18. But the promise is also to the individual. ’Righteousness tendeth to life’ (Proverbs 11:19). A promise of long life and material prosperity is frequently attached in OT. to moral precepts: see e.g. Deuteronomy 23:25; Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 7:12; Psalms 1; Psalms 34:12; Psalms 37. The doctrine of present rewards and punishments had an important educative value at a time when the truth of a future life was not yet clearly revealed. But the manifest exceptions which experience of human life afforded to this simple view of the divine government proved a great trial to faith, as the book of Job in particular shows, and such passages as Psalms 73 Jeremiah 12:1-2, etc. That faith was able even in these circumstances to triumph over doubt is shown e.g. in Habakkuk 3:17-18; Psalms 73:23-26, in which it may be said that the high-water mark is reached of a trust in God that is superior to and independent of all outward circumstances. In later times, when the belief in a future life was more consistently held, it was only natural that the rewards and penalties should be regarded as in many cases postponed to find their full completion in the next world: see on Deuteronomy 2:7.

13-16. These commandments are given to safeguard a man’s life, domestic peace, property, and reputation. For the way in which our Lord extended the scope of the sixth and seventh commandments so as to apply not merely to the outward act but to the inner thought and motive lying at its root, see Matthew 5:21-30

16. It is noteworthy that of the ten commandments, two (the third and the ninth) refer to sins of speech. For the penalty prescribed in cases of false witness, see Deuteronomy 19:15-21. The spirit of the ninth commandment forbids all lying and slander.

17. Of all the commandments, the tenth is the one that goes deepest. What is condemned is not an action, but a thought or desire: cp. Proverbs 4:23; Matthew 15:18-20. This commandment shows that the Decalogue is more than a mere code of civil law. Human laws cannot take cognizance of the thoughts of the heart.

19. The Decalogue was given in the hearing of the people. The following commandments were given to them through their mediator Moses: see Exodus 20:21-22, chapter Exodus 21:1.

Verses 22-33

The Book of the Covenant

This section comprises a number of laws designed to regulate the life of an agricultural community living under comparatively simple conditions. The laws are mainly of a civil order with a small admixture of rudimentary religious enactment (see e.g. Exodus 20:23-26; Exodus 23:10-19;). The principle of their arrangement is not clear, but the three sections Exodus 21:23-36; Exodus 22:1-27; Exodus 23:1-8 seem to be amplifications of the sixth, eighth, and ninth commandments of the Decalogue respectively. The Book of the Covenant occupies an intermediate position between the brief and general principles enunciated in the Decalogue and the minute and detailed legislation set forth elsewhere in the Pentateuch. For the relationship between the legislation of Moses and that of earlier civilisations, see Intro. § 2, and art. ’Laws of Hammurabi.’

23. RV is preferable, ’Ye shall not make other gods with me; gods of silver, or gods of gold, ye shall not make unto you.’ This is a repetition of the first and second commandments.

24. An altar of earth] i.e. of the simplest form and material, as a precaution against idolatrous representations: cp. Exodus 20:25 Deuteronomy 27:5, Deuteronomy 27:6. On the different kinds of sacrifice see Leviticus 1-7, and on Leviticus 18:12. Record my name] lit. ’cause my name to be remembered,’ by some special manifestation of power or grace. A plurality of sacrificial places is here expressly sanctioned, and the historical books of OT. record numerous instances of altars being erected and sacrifice offered in many different places down to the reformation of king Josiah, which took place in the year 621 b.c. In the book of Deuteronomy a plurality of sacrificial places is condemned, and worship restricted to a central sanctuary: see on Deuteronomy 12:4, Deuteronomy 12:13.;

25. See on Exodus 20:24.

26. With the same object, to prevent exposure of the person, it is afterwards prescribed that the priests be provided with linen drawers while officiating at the altar: see Exodus 28:42, Exodus 28:43. The top of the altar of burnt offering, which was four and a half ft. high, was reached, according to tradition, by means of a sloping ramp of earth: cp. Exodus 27:5, and see on Leviticus 9:22.

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Bibliographical Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Exodus 20". "Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". 1909.