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THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.
(1) God spake.—It is distinctly stated in Deuteronomy that the Ten Commandments were spoken to “all the assembly of Israel,” by God, “out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice” (Deuteronomy 5:22). It was not till after their delivery that the people entreated to be spared further communications of so awful a character. How the sounds were produced is a mystery unrevealed, and on which it is idle to speculate. Jehovah alone appears as the speaker in the Old Testament; in the New, we hear of the instrumentality of angels (Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2).
All these words.—In Scripture the phrase used to designate the Ten Commandments is “the Ten Words” (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; Deuteronomy 10:4). It has been universally recognised, both by the Jewish and Christian Churches, that they occupy an unique position among the utterances which constitute God’s revelation to man. Alone uttered publicly by God in the ears of the people, alone inscribed on stone by the finger of God Himself, alone, of all commands, deposited in the penetrale of worship—the Ark—they formed the germ and basis, the very pith and kernel of the covenant which God, through Moses, made with man, and which was to continue for above thirteen hundred years the exposition of His will to the human race. They enunciate a morality infinitely above that of all the then existing nations of the earth—nay, above that of the wisest of mankind to whom revelation was unknown. There is no compendium of morality in Confucianism, in Buddhism, in the religion of Zoroaster, or of Egypt, or of Greece or Rome, which can be put in competition with the Decalogue. Broad exceedingly (Psalms 119:96), yet searching and minute in its requirements; embracing the whole range of human duty, yet never vague or indeterminate; systematic, yet free from the hardness and narrowness commonly attaching to systems: the Decalogue has maintained and will always maintain itself, if not as an absolutely complete summary of human duty, yet as a summary which has never been superseded. When our Lord was asked what a man must do to inherit eternal life, He replied by a reference to the Decalogue: “Thou knowest the commandments” (Mark 10:19). When the Church would impress on her children their complete duty both to God and man, she requires them to be taught the “Ten Words.” When adult Christians are to be reminded, before coming to Holy Communion, of the necessity of self-examination and repentance, the same summary is read to them. It is an extraordinary testimony to the excellence of the compendium that, originating in Judaism, it has been maintained unchanged in a religious system so different from Judaism as Christianity.
(2) I am the Lord thy God.—The binding nature of commands upon the conscience depends upon the authority of the person who issues them. That there might be no dispute as to what the authority was in the case of the Decalogue, God prefaced the commands themselves by this distinct statement. By whomsoever they were communicated (see the first Note on Exodus 20:1), they were the commands of Jehovah Himself.
Which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt.—Thus exhibiting at once Almighty power and the tenderest compassion and care. God desires the obedience which springs from love, not fear.
(3) Thou shalt have no other gods before me.—Heb., There shalt be to thee no other god before me. The result is the same, whether we translate Elohim by “god” or “gods;” but the singular verb shows that the plural form of the name is a mere plural of dignity.
Before me—literally, before my face—means strictly, “side by side with me”—i.e., “in addition to me.” God does not suppose that the Israelites, after all that He had done for them, would discard Him, and substitute other gods in His place, but fears the syncretism which would unite His worship with that of other deities. All polytheisms were syncretic, and readily enlarged their pantheons, since, when once the principle of unity is departed from, whether the plurality be a little greater or a little less cannot much signify. The Egyptian religion seems to have adopted Ammon at a comparatively late period from Arabia; it took Bar, or Baal, Anta, or Anaïtis, Astaret, or Astarte, Reshpu, or Reseph, &c., from Syria, and it admitted Totuu from Ethiopia. Israel, in after-times, fell into the same error, and, without intending to apostatise from Jehovah, added on the worship of Baal, Ashtoreth, Moloch, Chemosh, Remphan, &c. It is this form of polytheism against which the first commandment is directed. It asserts the sole claim of Jehovah to our religious regards.
(4) Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.—The two main clauses of the second commandment are to be read together, so as to form one sentence: “Thou shalt not make to thee any graven image, &c., so as to worship it.” (See the explanation of Josephus, Ant. Jud., iii. 5, § 5: ‘Ο δεύτερος λóγος κελεύει μηδένος εἰκόνα ζώον ποιήσαντας προσκυνεῖν.) It was not until the days of Hebrew decline and degeneracy that a narrow literalism pressed the words into an absolute prohibition of the arts of painting and sculpture (Philo, De Oraculis, § 29). Moses himself sanctioned the cherubic forms above the mercy-seat, the brazen serpent, and the lilies and pomegranates of the golden candlestick. Solomon had lions on the steps of his throne, oxen under his “molten sea,” and palm-trees, flowers, and cherubim on the walls of the Temple, “within and without” (1 Kings 6:29). What the second commandment forbade was the worship of God under a material form. It asserted the spirituality of Jehovah. While in the rest of the ancient world there was scarcely a single nation or tribe which did not “make to itself” images of the gods, and regard the images themselves with superstitious veneration, in Judaism alone was this seductive practice disallowed. God would have no likeness made of Him, no representation that might cloud the conception of His entire separation from matter, His purely spiritual essence.
In heaven above . . . in the earth beneath . . . in the water under the earth.—Comp. Genesis 1:1-7. The triple division is regarded as embracing the whole material universe. In the Egyptian idolatry images of all three kinds were included.
(5) Nor serve them.—The idolatry of the ancient world was, practically, not a mere worship of celestial beings through material representations of them, but an actual culture of the images themselves, which were regarded as possessed of miraculous powers. “I myself,” says Arnobius, “not so very long ago, worshipped gods just taken out of the furnace, fresh from the anvil of the smith, ivory, paintings, stumps of trees swathed in bandages; and if I happened to cast my eyes on a polished stone smeared with olive oil, I made reverence to it, as if a power were present therein, and addressed myself in supplication for blessings to the senseless block” (Advers. Gentes, i. 29). “People pray,” says Seneca, “to the images of the gods, implore them on bended knees, sit or stand long days before them, throw them money, and sacrifice beasts to them, so treating them with deep respect” (Ap. Lactant., ii. 2).
A jealous God.—Not in the sense in which He was regarded as “jealous” by some of the Greeks, who supposed that success or eminence of any kind provoked Him (Herod. iii. 40, 125), but jealous of His own honour, one who will not see “His glory given to another” (Isaiah 42:8; Isaiah 48:11), or allow rivals to dispute His sole and absolute sovereignty. (Comp. Exodus 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24; Deuteronomy 5:9; Deuteronomy 6:15; Joshua 24:19.)
Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.—It is a fact that, under God’s natural government of the world, the iniquity of fathers is visited upon their children. Diseases caused by vicious courses are transmitted. The parents’ extravagance leaves their children beggars. To be the son of a felon is to be heavily handicapped in the race of life. That this should be so is perhaps involved in “the nature of things”—at any rate, it is part of the scheme of Divine government by which the world is ordered. We all inherit countless disadvantages on account of our first parents’ sin. We each individually inherit special tendencies to this or that form of evil from the misconduct of our several progenitors. The knowledge that their sins will put their children at a disadvantage is calculated to check men in their evil courses more than almost anything else; and this check could not be removed without a sensible diminution of the restraints which withhold men from vice. Still, the penalty upon the children is not final or irreversible. Under whatever disadvantages they are born, they may struggle against them, and lead good lives, and place themselves, even in this world, on a level with those who were born under every favourable circumstance. It is needless to say that, as respects another world, their parents’ iniquities will not be visited on them. “Each man will bear his own burthen.” The soul that sinneth, it shall die. “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him” (Ezekiel 18:20).
(6) Shewing mercy unto thousands.—Rather, to the thousandth generation, as is distinctly expressed in Deuteronomy 7:9. God’s mercy infinitely transcends His righteous anger. Sin is visited on three, or at most four, generations. Righteousness is remembered, and advantages descendants, for ever.
(7) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.—The Hebrew is ambiguous, as is to some extent the English translation. Most modern critics regard the phrase used as forbidding false swearing only; but some think that it forbids also “profane” or “vain swearing.” Our Lord’s comment in the Sermon on the Mount favours the view that false swearing alone was actually forbidden by the Law, since He proceeds to condemn profane swearing on His own authority: “But I say unto you” (Matthew 5:34). False swearing is among the greatest insults that man can offer to God, and, as being such, is naturally forbidden in the first table, which teaches us our duty to God. It is also destructive of civil society; and hence it is again forbidden in the second table (Exodus 20:16), which defines our duties to our neighbour. The laws of all organised States necessarily forbid it, and generally under a very severe penalty. The Jewish Law condemned the false witness to suffer the punishment which his evidence was calculated to inflict (Deuteronomy 19:19). The Egyptians visited perjury with death or mutilation. The Greeks were content to punish it with a heavy fine, and ultimately with the loss of civil rights. The Romans, in the more ancient times, inflicted the death penalty. It was generally believed, alike in Egypt, in Greece, and in Rome, that the anger of the gods was especially provoked by this crime, and that a Divine Nemesis pursued those who committed it, and made them suffer for their sin, either in their own person or in that of their posterity.
The Lord will not hold him guiltless.—Punishment will assuredly overtake the perjured man, if not in this life, then in another. Jehovah will vindicate His own honour.
(8) Remember the sabbath day.—It is pertinent to remark that this command is introduced differently from any other by the word “remember.” But we cannot, therefore, conclude that the Sabbath was a primitive institution, which the Israelites were bound to have held in perpetual remembrance, since the reference may be merely to the injunction recently given in connection with the gathering of the manna. (Exodus 16:23). The Sabbath had certainly been at that time solemnly instituted, if no earlier. (See Note on. Exodus 16:25.)
To keep it holy.—It had been already noted that the rest of the Sabbath was to be a “holy rest” (Exodus 16:23); but it is not quite clear what was intended by this. For the most part, the Law insists on abstinence from labour as the main element of Sabbath observance (Exodus 16:23-30; Exodus 20:9-11; Exodus 23:12; Exodus 34:21; Exodus 35:2-3; Deuteronomy 5:12-15, &c.); and it can scarcely be said to prescribe anything positive with respect to the religious employment of the day. That the morning and evening sacrifice were to be doubled might indeed suggest to a religiously-minded Israelite that his·own religious exercises and devotions should also be augmented; but the Law made no such requirement. His attendance at the morning and evening sacrifice was not required nor expected. No provision was made for his receiving religious teaching on the day; no special offerings were required from him upon it. The day became one of “languid bodily ease, relaxation, and luxury” to the bulk of the later Jews (Augustin. Enarr. in Psalms 91:0); but probably there were always some whom natural piety taught that, in the absence of their ordinary employments, it was intended they should devote themselves to prayer and communion with God—to meditation on “high and holy themes,” such as His mercies in past time, His character, attributes, revelations of Himself, government of the world, dealings with men and nations. Thus only could the day be really “kept holy,” with a positive, and not a mere negative, holiness.
(9) Six days shalt thou labour.—The form is certainly imperative; and it has been held that the fourth commandment is “not limited to a mere enactment respecting one day, but prescribes the due distribution of a week, and enforces the six days’ work as much as the seventh day’s rest” (Garden in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. iii., p. 1068). But the work on the six days is really rather assumed as what will be than required as what must be; and the intention of the clause is prohibitory rather than mandatory—“thou shalt not work more than six days out of the seven.”
(10) But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God.—Heb., But the seventh day (shall be) a sabbath to the Lord thy God—i.e., it shall be a day of holy rest from things worldly, and of devotion to things heavenly. (See Note 2 on Exodus 20:8.)
In it thou shalt not do any work.—This negative aspect of the Sabbath is further emphasised by particular prohibitions :—(1) The prohibition against gathering the manna on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:26); (2) the prohibition against lighting a fire (Exodus 35:3); (3) against gathering sticks (Numbers 15:35). Some exceptions were allowed, as the work of the Priests and Levites in the Temple on the Sabbath, attendance on and care of the sick, rescue of a beast that was in peril of its life, &c. (See Matthew 12:5; Matthew 12:11.) But the tendency was to press the negative aspect to an extreme, and to ignore the positive one. By the time of the Maccabees it had come to be considered unlawful to defend oneself against the attack of an enemy on the Sabbath (1Ma. 2:32-38 :2Ma. 5:25-26; 2Ma. 6:11; 2Ma. 15:1); and, though this extravagant view did not maintain its ground, yet at the time of our Lord’s ministry a rigour of observance was in vogue upon other points which exceeded the limits of reasonable exegesis. Our Lord’s practice was pointedly directed against the overstrained theory of Sabbath observance which was current in His day, and was clearly intended to vindicate for His disciples a liberty which ecclesiastical authority was disposed to deny them. There are parts of Christendom in which, even at the present day, a similar spirit prevails, and a similar vindication is needed.
Nor thy son, nor thy daughter.—The whole family was to partake in the Sabbatical rest. Labour was to cease, not to be devolved by the stronger on weaker members.
Thy manservant, nor thy maidservant.—The rest was to extend also to the domestics, who specially required it, since the heavier labours of the household had to be performed by them.
Thy cattle.—Labour can scarcely be exacted from cattle without man being also called upon to work. God, however, “careth for cattle,” even for their own sakes, and wills that the Sabbath rest be extended to them. “His mercy is over all His works,” and embraces the dumb unreasoning animals no less than His human creatures. (Comp. Genesis 8:1; Genesis 9:9-11; Exodus 9:19; Deuteronomy 25:4; Jonah 4:11.)
(11) For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth.—Comp. Genesis 2:2-3, and Exodus 31:17. It is not improbable that the work of creation was made to occupy six days because one day in seven is the appropriate proportion of rest to labour for such a being as man. God might have created all things on one day had He so pleased; but, having the institution of the Sabbath in view, He prefigured it by spreading His work over six days, and then resting on the seventh. His law of the Sabbath established a conformity between the method of His own working and that of His reasonable creatures, and taught men to look on work, not as an aimless, indefinite, incessant, weary round, but as leading on to an end, a rest, a fruition, a time for looking back, and seeing the result and rejoicing in it. Each Sabbath is such a time, and is a type and foretaste of that eternal “sabbatising” in another world which “remaineth for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). The secondary object of the institution of the Sabbath, assigned in Deuteronomy 5:15, is in no way incompatible with this primary one. The thought of God’s works in creation might well be associated in the mind of an. Israelite with the thought of His “wondrous works” in Egypt, and the recollection of the blessed peace and rest in which creation resulted, with the memory of the glad time of repose and refreshment which supervened upon the weary task work of the Egyptian bondage.
(12) Honour thy father and thy mother.—It is not a matter of much importance how we divide the commandments; nor is it historically certain how they were originally distributed between the two tables. But, practically, the view that the fifth commandment begins the second table, which lays down our duty towards our neighbours, is to be preferred for its convenience, though it trenches upon symmetrical arrangement. Of all our duties to our fellow-men, the first and most fundamental is our duty towards our parents, which lies at the root of all our social relations, and is the first of which we naturally become conscious. Honour, reverence, and obedience are due to parents from the position in which they stand to their children :—(1) As, in a certain sense, the authors of their being; (2) as their shelterers and nourishers; (3) as their protectors and educators, from whom they derive the foundation of their moral training and the first elements of their knowledge. Even among savages the obligations of children towards their parents are felt and acknowledged to a greater or a less extent; and there has never been a civilised community of whose moral code they have not formed an important part. In Egypt the duty of filial piety was strictly inculcated from a very early date (Lenormant, Histoire Ancienne, vol. i., pp. 342, 343), and a bad son forfeited the prospect of happiness in another life (ibid., pp. 513, 514). Confucianism bases all morality upon the parental and filial relation, and requires the most complete subjection, even of the grown-up son, to his father and mother. Greek ethics taught that the relation of children to their parents was parallel to that of men to God (Aristot. Eth. Nic. 8:12, § 5); and Rome made the absolute authority of the father the basis of its entire State system. The Divine legislation of Sinai is in full accord, here as elsewhere, with the voice of reason and conscience, affirming broadly the principles of parental authority and filial submission, but leaving the mode in which the principles should be carried out to the discretion of individuals or communities.
That thy days may be long upon the land.—The fifth commandment (as all allow) is “the first commandment with promise” (Ephesians 6:2); but the promise may be understood in two quite different senses. (1) It may be taken as guaranteeing national permanence to the people among whom filial respect and obedience is generally practised; or (2) it may be understood in the simpler and more literal sense of a pledge that obedient children shall, as a general rule, receive for their reward the blessing of long life. In favour of the former view have been urged the facts of Roman and Chinese permanence, together with the probability that Israel forfeited its possession of Canaan in consequence of persisting in the breach of this commandment. In favour of the latter may be adduced the application of the text by St. Paul (Ephesians 6:3), which is purely personal and not ethnic; and the exegesis of the Son of Sirach (Wis. 3:6), which is similar. It is also worthy of note that an Egyptian sage, who wrote long before Moses, declared it as the result of his experience that obedient sons did attain to a good old age in Egypt, and laid down the principle broadly, that “the son who attends to the words of his father will grow old in consequence” (Lenormant, Histoire Ancienne, vol. i., p. 342).
(13) Thou shalt not kill.—From the peculiar duties owed by children to their parents, the Divine legislator went on to lay down those general duties which men owe to their fellow-men. And of these the first is that of respecting their life. The security of life is the primary object of government; and it has been well said that men originally coalesced into States with a view to self-preservation (Arist., Pol. i. 1). All written codes forbid murder; and in communities which are without written codes an unwritten law condemns it. When God “set a mark upon Cain” (Genesis 4:15), He marked thereby His abhorrence of the murderer. The “seven precepts of Noah” included one which distinctly forbade the taking of human life (Genesis 9:6). In all countries and among all peoples, a natural instinct or an unwritten tradition placed murder among the worst of crimes, and made its penalty death. The Mosaic legislation on the point was differenced from others principally by the care it took to distinguish between actual murder, manslaughter (Exodus 21:13), death by misadventure (Numbers 35:23), and justifiable homicide (Exodus 22:2). Before, however, it made these distinctions, the great principle of the sanctity of human life required to be broadly laid down; and so the law was given in the widest possible terms—“Thou shalt not kill.” Exceptions were reserved till later.
(14) Thou shalt not commit adultery.—Next to the duty of respecting a man’s life is placed that of respecting his domestic peace and honour. Adultery is an invasion of the household, a destruction of the bond which unites the family, a dissolution of that contract which is the main basis of social order. It was forbidden by all civilised communities, and in uncivilised ones frequently punished with death. The Mosaic enactments on the subject are peculiar chiefly in the absolute equality on which they place the man and the woman. Adulterers are as hateful as adulteresses, and are as surely to be put to death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22-24, &c.). The man who acts treacherously against “the wife of his covenant” is as great a sinner as the woman who breaks the marriage bond (Malachi 2:14-16). There is “no respect of persons” and no respect of sexes with God.
(15) Thou shalt not steal.—Our third duty towards our neighbour is to respect his right to his property. The framers of Utopias, both ancient and modern, have imagined communities in which private property should not exist. But such a condition of things has never yet been realised in practice. In the laws of all known States private property has been recognised, and social order has been, in a great measure, based upon it. Here, again, law has but embodied natural instinct. The savage who hammers out a flint knife by repeated blows with a pebble, labouring long, and undergoing pain in the process, feels that the implement which he has made is his own, and that his right to it is indisputable. If he is deprived of it by force or fraud, he is wronged. The eighth commandment forbids this wrong, and requires us to respect the property of others no less than their person and their domestic peace and honour.
(16) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.—Our fourth duty to our neighbour is not to injure his character. Our great poet has said—
“Who steals my purse, steals trash,
But he who filches from me my good name,
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
Yet leaves me poor indeed,”—
Thus indicating the fact that calumny may injure a man more than robbery. False witness is, of course, worst when given in a court of justice; and this offence has generally been made punishable by law. It was peculiar to the Hebrew legislation that it not only forbade and punished (Deuteronomy 19:16-20) false testimony of this extreme kind, but denounced also the far commoner, yet scarcely less injurious, practice of spreading untrue reports about others, thus injuring them in men’s esteem. The ninth commandment is broad enough in its terms to cover both forms of the sin, though pointing especially to the form which is of the more heinous character. Lest its wider bearing should be overlooked, the Divine legislator added later a distinct prohibition of calumny in the words. “Thou shalt not raise a false report” (Exodus 23:1).
(17) Thou shalt not covet.—This command seems to have been added in order to teach the general principle that the Law of God is concerned, not with acts and words only, but with the thoughts of the heart. Rightly understood, the seventh and eighth commandments contain the tenth, which strikes at covetousness and lustful desire. (Comp. Matthew 5:27-28.) But ancient moralists did not usually recognise this; thought, unless carried out into acts, was regarded as “free;” no responsibility was considered to attach to it, and consequently no one felt it needful to control his thoughts or regulate them. It was therefore of importance that the Divine Law should distinctly assert a control over men’s thoughts and feelings, since they are the source of all that is evil in word and act; and true godliness consists in bringing “every thought into captivity to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
(18) And all the people saw the thunderings
—i.e., Perceived them. On the true character of the Sinaitic manifestation, see Note on Exodus 19:16-20.
They removed.—Moses had brought the representatives of the people as near to Sinai as possible—close to the foot of the great precipice of Ras Sufsâfeh (Exodus 19:17). The wide plain of Er-Rahah allowed of a removal to a considerable distance.
AT THE PEOPLE’S REQUEST, MOSES BECOMES THEIR INTERMEDIARY.
(18-21) The delivery of the Ten Commandments by a voice manifestly superhuman impressed the people with an awful fear. They felt the near contact with God to be more than they could bear. Even Moses was so deeply moved that he exclaimed, “I exceedingly fear and quake” (Hebrews 12:21). The people were still more afraid, and felt compelled to withdraw to a distance, beyond the sound of the terrible voice. From Deuteronomy we learn that they retired within their tents (Deuteronomy 5:30), having first sent a deputation to Moses, with a request that he would thenceforth act as their intermediary. It pleased God to assent to this proposal; and the remainder of the Law was communicated by God to Moses, and by Moses to the Israelites.
(19) Speak thou with us.—Comp. Deuteronomy 5:24-27, where the words of the people are reported at greater length :—“Behold, the Lord our God hath shewed us his glory and his greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire: we have seen this day that God doth talk with man, and he liveth. Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us: if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, then we shall die. For who is there of all flesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? Go thou near, and hear all that the Lord our God shall say: and speak thou unto us all that the Lord our God shall speak unto thee; and we will hear it, and do it.”
(20) Moses said unto the people, Fear not.—God approved the people’s proposal, and directed that they should withdraw to their tents (Deuteronomy 5:28-30). Moses then “drew near” to Him, and entered into “the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21). It is worthy of notice that the same manifestation which repelled the people attracted Moses.
LAWS CONCERNING RELIGION.
(22) Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven.—It was important to identify the giver of the Book of the Covenant with the deliverer of the Ten Commandments, and accordingly this was done in the opening words of the Book.
THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT.
(22-26) In the remainder of Exodus 20:0, and in the three chapters which follow, we have a series of laws delivered by God to Moses, immediately after the delivery of the Decalogue, which constituted the second stage of the revelation, and stood midway between the first great enunciation of abstract principles in the Ten Commandments and the ultimate minute and complicated elaboration of rules to meet all cases which fills the three Books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This intermediate revelation appears to have been at once committed to writing, and in its written shape was known as “the Book of the Covenant “ (Exodus 24:7), and regarded with special veneration.
“The Book of the Covenant” is wanting in system and arrangement, but is not wholly unsystematic. It commences with some laws concerning the worship of God (Exodus 20:22-26), proceeds from the Divine to the human, and treats in its second section (Exodus 21:1-32) of “the rights of persons,” then concerns itself with “the rights of property” (Exodus 21:33 to Exodus 22:15), and, finally, winds up with “miscellaneous laws” (Exodus 22:16 to Exodus 23:19), partly on things Divine, partly on things human—the things Divine being reserved to the last, so that the end of the legislation is in close harmony with the beginning. Altogether, the enactments contained in the short space of three chapters are some seventy; and the “Book of the Covenant” is thus no mere tentative sketch; but a very wonderful condensation of the essence of all the more important matters which Moses afterwards put forth by Divine inspiration in the long space of nearly forty years.
(23) Ye shall not make with me gods of silver.—The expression “make with me” is unusual, but does not seem to have any peculiar force. Gods of silver and gods of gold are specially forbidden, because it was to idolatry of this kind that the Israelites were specially inclined. The golden calf is no isolated phenomenon. Molten images of gods, generally of silver, sometimes of gold, were objects of worship to Israel throughout the ages which preceded the Captivity. Jeroboam set up molten images at Dan and Bethel (Kings 14:9; 2 Kings 17:16). Baal was worshipped under the semblance of a molten image (2 Chronicles 28:2) as were probably Ashtaroth, Chemosh, and Moloch. The animal worship of the Egyptians had no attractions for the Hebrews; they did not offer to images of stone or marble, like the Assyrians or the Greeks; much less was it their habit to “bow down to stocks,” like so many of the heathen nations around them. The “molten image,” generally completed by a certain amount of graving, was the form of idol which had most charms for them, and the more precious the material the more satisfied were they to worship it. (Comp. Isaiah 30:22; Isaiah 42:17; Jeremiah 10:14; Hosea 13:2, &c.). Occasionally indeed they overlaid wood or stone with plates of gold or silver, to produce an idol (Habakkuk 2:19); but such images were at once less common and held in less account.
(24) An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me.—The earliest altars were, naturally, either of earth, or of unhewn stones, gathered into a heap, since these could be constructed with little labour, and without tools. But, as civilisation advanced, more elaborate structures took the place of the primitive ones. It became usual to erect altars of hewn stone, adorned with carvings more or less rich, among which might often be introduced human and animal forms. We must understand the command here given, and that of Exodus 20:25, as intended to forbid structures of this latter kind, which, if allowed, might have led on to idolatry.
Thy burnt offerings and thy peace offerings.—Sacrifice began soon after Paradise was quitted (Genesis 4:3-4), and shortly became a universal practice. Noah offered sacrifice on leaving the ark (Genesis 8:20); and in the family of Abraham the rite was an established one (Genesis 12:7; Genesis 15:9; Genesis 22:7; Genesis 26:25; Genesis 31:54, &c.). Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Phœnicians, Greeks, Romans, Scythians, Celts, Germans, all equally regarded sacrifice as a main element of their religion; and if the Hebrews had not offered actual sacrifices during their oppression in Egypt, they had, at any rate, maintained the wish to offer them, and it was (primarily) for the purpose of sacrificing that they had quitted Egypt. The legislation assumes that they are acquainted with the difference between “burnt offerings and “peace offerings,” and desirous of offering both kinds.
(25) If thou wilt make me an altar of stone.—Among civilised nations altars were almost always of stone, which superseded earth, as more durable. God does not absolutely prohibit the employment of stone altars by the Israelites, who are found to use them upon certain occasions (Joshua 8:31; 1 Kings 18:32). He is content to forbid the shaping of the stones by an implement, that so they may not give rise to idolatry. (See Note on Exodus 20:24.)
Thou hast polluted it.—Nature is God’s handiwork, and, therefore, pure and holy. Man, by contact with it, imparts to it of his impurity. The altar, whereby sin was to be expiated, required to be free from all taint of human corruption. For the construction of the altar afterwards sanctioned, see the comment on Exodus 27:1.
(26) Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar.—When the dress of the priests had been so arranged that no exposure of the person was possible (verses 42, 43), this precept became unnecessary. Thus it would seem that Solomon’s altar had steps. (Compare 2 Chronicles 4:1 with Ezekiel 43:17.)
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Exodus 20". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26