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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

Exodus 20

Verses 1-26

Exodus 20:1

'We have had thirty years of unexampled clerical activity among us,' said Froude to the St. Andrews' students in 1869. 'Churches have been doubled; theological books, magazines, reviews, newspapers have been passed out by the hundreds of thousands; while by the side of it there has sprung up an equally astonishing development of moral dishonesty.... We have false weights, false measures, cheating and shoddy everywhere. Yet the clergy have seen all this grow up in absolute indifference; and the great question which at this moment is agitating the Church of England is the colour of the ecclesiastical petticoats. Many a hundred sermons have I heard in England, many a dissertation on the mysteries of the faith, on the divine mission of the clergy, on apostolical succession, on bishops, and justification, and the theory of good works, and verbal inspiration, and the efficacy of the sacrament; but never, during these thirty wonderful years, never one that I can recollect on common honesty, or these primitive commandments, Thou shalt not lie, and Thou shalt not steal.' The teaching of art is the suggestion far more convincing than assertion of an ethical science, the germs of which are to the mass of mankind incommunicable; and the broad daylight of this teaching can be diffused only by those who live in and absorb the direct splendour of an unknown, and, to the generality, an unknowable sun. The mere ignoring of morality, which is what the more respectable of modern artists profess, will not lift them into the region of such teachers; much less will the denial of morality do so, as some modern artists seem to think. The Decalogue is not art, but it is the guide-post which points direct to where the source of art springs; and it is now, as in the days when Numa and Moses made their laws: he is profane who presents to the gods the fruit of an unpruned vine; that is, sensitive worship before the sensitive soul has been sanctified by habitual confession of and obedience to the rational; and still worse than he who offers the Muses the 'false fire' of his gross senses, is he who heats the flesh-pots of Egypt with flames from the altar, and renders emotions, which were intended to make the mortal immortal, themselves the means and the subjects of corruption. Of all kinds of corruption, says St. Francis of Sales, the most malodorous is rotten lilies.

Coventry Patmore, Religio Poetæ, pp. 88, 89.

There is no strange self-deceit more deeply and obstinately fixed in men's hearts than this: that those whom God favours may take liberties that others may not; that religious men may venture more safely to transgress than others; that good men may allow themselves to do wrong things. There is no more certain fact in the range of human experience than that with strong and earnest religious feeling there may be a feeble and imperfect hold on the moral law, often a very loose sense of justice, truth, purity.... All history is full of warnings: of great religious characters spoiled or distorted, of great religious efforts hopelessly marred and degenerate, because in the eagerness and confidence of a good intention the Ten Commandments were left on one side, or kept out of view, or it was taken for granted that of course they were obeyed, because people meant to do God service.

R. W. Church, Discipline of Christian Character, pp. 41, 48.

References. XX. 1. T. F. Lockyer, The Inspirations of the Christian Life, p. 19. F. W. Farrar, The Voice from Sinai, p. 37. H. Scott Holland, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxix. 1906, p. 264. XX. 1, 2. G. S. Barrett, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxi. 1902, p. 214. XX. 1-11. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Exodus, etc., p. 97. XX. 1-17. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. li. No. 2928.

Exodus 20:2

'I have many times essayed,' said Luther in his Table-Talk, 'thoroughly to investigate the Ten Commandments; but at the very outset, "I am the Lord thy God," I stuck fast; that very one word, I, put me to a non-plus. He that has but one word of God before him, and out of that word cannot make a sermon, can never be a preacher.'

From Egypt to Canaan

Exodus 20:2

Life is a journey, on which we did not start for ourselves to travel to God; but He started us. He brought us out of the dark night of nothingness, and made us living creatures; He gave us man's powers of thinking and working and loving. It was not, we may be sure, for nothing. This is true of the life of each one of us; it is true of that larger life of which we are each one little part, the life of mankind on earth. What God begins, He means to carry on, and to bring to a good end. And so the very root truth of religion is this: God is, and there is a purpose in life.

I. Redemption has been wrought for us; and we walk in the light of it. Egypt and the Red Sea lie behind. Consider what this means. What is the bondage under which the world groans? (1) There is the bondage of sin: the evil which holds us, and we cannot do right. But Jesus Christ broke that bondage once for all by being entirely and perfectly good; by making a good human life a living reality, and not merely a dream; so that now even our imperfect goodnesses, joining on to Him, have got a sure promise of victory. (2) There is the bondage of guilt. But Jesus Christ broke that bondage too, He 'made peace through the blood of His Cross'. (3) There is once more the bondage of pain and grief and death: but Christ suffered every pain of that iron slavery; He died the death of the slave, and through death, like a new Red Sea, passed to victory.

II. How true it is that the Christian Church is the body which bears the stamp of that deliverance. You see it in her faith; in her sure and certain hope; in her patience and her joy. She knows whence she started: the start has made her sure of the finish.

III. And that is what in the Church each of us must learn. The true Christian is a man upon whose life, mind, and character a great deliverance from God has set its stamp. The power of it was given to each of us in our baptism. That is our beginning; from it we are to go, sure that God is with us, sure that He will be with us to bring us through; sure that He Who brought us out of Egypt has strength to bring us to Canaan, and means to do it; sure that He will perform the cause which we have in hand.

This is what gives its strength and firmness to the Christian character, and lights it with hope and joy and peace which are not of the world. But this also is what makes us penitent. What will stir us really to repent is not to be told that if we do perhaps God will redeem us, but to know of a surety that He has redeemed us; that we have been forgetfully, ungratefully, rebelliously sinning against our redemption; but that the Redeemer, with His longsuffering patience, waits for us to turn to Him, and when we do so, will accomplish for us His Redemption.

Bishop Talbot, Sermons Preached in the Leeds Parish Church, 1889-95, p. 117.

Reference. XX. 2, 3. Bishop Gore, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvii. 1900, p. 155.

Exodus 20:3

'What is the whole Psalter,' said Luther, 'but merely thought and exercises on the First Commandment?'

'It is evident to my reason that the existence of God,' says Coleridge in his Omeriana, 'is absolutely and necessarily insusceptible of a scientific demonstration, and that Scripture has so represented it. For it commands us to believe in one God. I am the Lord thy God: thou shalt have none other gods but Me. Now all commandment necessarily relates to the will; whereas all scientific demonstration is independent of the will.'

All self-sacrifice, made solely for the love of man, or for the gratification of some merely human ambition, is not a righteous but a sinful thing and, as sin, will assuredly find its punishment. This furnishes, apparently, a solution to the great mystery, why so many noble self-sacrifices are so futile, so aimless, so positively injurious. 'I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have none other gods but Me.' If we make to ourselves idols of any sort that is, if we allow love to conquer right, and set aside what we ought to do in favour of what we like to do, we suffer accordingly and God Himself, who is justice as well as mercy, cannot save us from suffering.

Mrs. Craik, Sermons Out of Church, pp. 39-40.

References. XX. 3. 'Plain Sermons' by contributors to the Tracts for the Times, vol. ix. p. 240. F. W. Farrar, The Voice from Sinai, p. 105; see also Christian World Pulpit, vol. xl. 1891, p. 129. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, The School of Christ, p. 73. W. C. E. Newbolt, Church Times, vol. xxix. 1891, p. 1059. G. Campbell Morgan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvii. 1900, p. 61. G. S. Barrett, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxi. 1902, p. 264.

Exodus 20:4

'In regard to idolatry,' says Melanchthon to Calvin in Landor's Imaginary Conversations, 'I see more criminals who are guilty of it than you do. I go beyond the stone quarry and the pasture, beyond the graven image and the ox-stall. If we bow before the distant image of God, while there exists within our reach one solitary object of substantial sorrow, which sorrow our efforts can remove, we are guilty (I pronounce it) of idolatry; we prefer the intangible effigy to the living form. Surely we neglect the service of our Maker if we neglect His children.'

Exodus 20:4

There is a whole life reluctant as well as a life consenting. The involuntary words, the thoughts we would not think, the things we would not do, and those that we do not love, are among the strongest influences of our lives.

Miss Thackeray in Old Kensington.

References. XX. 4. F. W. Farrar, The Voice from Sinai, pp. 123, 321; see also Christian World Pulpit, vol. xl. 1891, p. 145. XX. 4, 5. J. Hamilton, Faith in God, p. 61. XX. 4, 5, 6. Bishop Gore, Church Times, vol. xliii. 1900, p. 315; see also Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvii. 1900, p. 161. G. S. Barrett, ibid. vol. lxi. 1902, p. 358.

An Inheritance of Blessing

Exodus 20:5-6

I. Visiting the Sins of the Fathers upon the Children. The Jews spoke of that visitation as a Divine punishment for a particular sin. Here we have a law of nature, a law which is continually fulfilling itself in that district of nature which we call human society. The moral struggle of each man that is born into the world is made harder for him by each failure to resist sin on the part of those who went before him. When we hear men speak of the law of heredity, it is this that they generally have in their minds, the transmitted tendency to evil.

II. Visiting the Sins of the Fathers upon the Children . Is that all? Nay; for He shows mercy unto thousands of them, that love Him and keep His commandments.

The inheritance of evil is not the sole inheritance which we receive from our forefathers. The scathing satire which Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Antony:

The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones,

was certainly not intended to teach that the influence of evil is more potent than the influence of good. There is no law of life which tells that evil tendencies are handed down from father to son which does not tell us more plainly that good tendencies are. That, indeed, is the very law by which the world grows. The survival of the fittest what does it mean but that good is more enduring than evil? That evil propagates itself is true; but in each succeeding generation its influence becomes less and less baneful. The curse is to the third and fourth generation. Good, on the other hand, increases in power and in fertility as it is handed on from one to another in the march of the race.

III. The true inheritance of the Christian soul is the grace of Jesus Christ, Incarnate, tempted, suffering, but victorious over sin as over death. Here again is a heritage which comes to you through no conscious act of your own. Just as surely as the disciplined lives of your fathers make it easier for you to lead disciplined lives, far more surely than the sins of your fathers beset you in your conflict with sin is the grace of Christ yours for battle, for endurance, for achievement. Here at least is an inheritance with no taint of evil, which may be used for yourselves and for those who shall come after you in untold blessing. Ye see your calling. And the Voice which calls you is the Voice of Jesus Christ Himself, in whose Body ye are very members incorporate.

J. H. Bernard, Via Domini, p. 92.

References. XX. 5. G. Tyrrell, Oil and Wine, p. 230. C. Kingsley, Sermons on National Subjects, pp. 144, 153. XX. 5, 6. A. H. Moncure Sime, Christian World Pulpit, vol. li. 1897, p. 74. W. G. Elmslie, Expository Lectures and Sermons, p. 150.

Exodus 20:7

'Many persons,' says Julius Hare in Guesses at Truth, 'are so afraid of breaking the third commandment that they never speak of God at all; and to make assurance doubly sure, never think of Him. Others seem to interpret it by the law of contraries: for they never take God's name except in vain.

The Sacred Banner

Exodus 20:7

The Hebrew word translated 'take' has sometimes been connected by commentators with the solemn phrase which refers to Jehovah's name as the banner or standard under which we advance to work or to fight. It was under that standard that Moses and Joshua secured the first victory of the Lord's people in the earliest beginning of their national life and recorded it in the name of Jehovah Nissi the Lord my banner.

I. New Tests of Loyalty. 'Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.' The temptation comes in two different ways. Have we a right to claim the title and privileges of Christian believers in the Lord God if we are ceasing firmly and courageously and openly to defend His banner the banner under which we were enlisted in Baptism from those who do it wrong? If we think that nothing in the realm of belief matters very much, it is not likely that we shall be particularly brave or outspoken in its defence. To claim as a Christian, the 'holy sanction' of our Redeemer's Name means, or ought to mean, a quite deliberate admission of the demands, sometimes the exacting demands, to which membership in His society makes us liable.

The Church has been put in trust with a sacred deposit of essential truth which God has in Jesus Christ revealed to man, and no respect for other people's opinions, much less any mere good-natured and almost careless kindliness, will justify us in tampering with that deposit or belittling its unique authority.

II. The Spirit of Persecution. We must be not less sternly on our guard against too ready an appropriation of that sacred banner and its sanctions, on behalf of every honest opinion which we may any of us form in matters of Christian faith or Christian usage. There is more than one way in which genuinely religious people can take the Name of the Lord their God in vain.

III. Conscience and the Law. The danger is, I suppose, greatest when we reach the border, or cross the border of what is commonly called the realm of conscience. Is it possible that the old-fashioned reverence for law and order shown forth in things Divine and human, in Nature and in national life, has somewhat waned amongst us, and not least amongst earnestly religious men?

IV. 'Verities' and 'Opinions'. There are great things and small, great issues and small, in our religious life. There are mighty and unchallengeable verities, the things which cannot be shaken, and there are pious and reasonable opinions, and devout and wholesome usages which stand upon a humbler level, and are neither unchallengeable nor unchallenged. Do not confuse the two kinds of verities, or mistake the one for the other.

Archbishop Davidson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. LXXII. 1907, p. 218.

References. XX. 7. Bishop Gore, Church Times, vol. xlii. 1899, p. 174. F. W. Farrar, The Voice from Sinai, p. 143; see also Christian World Pulpit, vol. xl. 1891, p. 321. G. Campbell Morgan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvii. 1900, p. 301. G. S. Barrett, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxii. 1902, p. 27.

Exodus 20:8

What is meant by to 'keep holy'? Nothing but to devote ourselves to holy words, works, and life. For the day requires no special hallowing: it is holy in itself; but God wills that it be holy to thee.


There was a time when it delighted me to flash my satire on the English Sunday; I could see nothing but antiquated foolishness and modern hypocrisy in this weekly pause from labour and from bustle. Now I prize it as an inestimable boon, and dread every encroachment upon its restful stillness.... The idea is surely as good a one as ever came to heavy-laden mortals; let one whole day in every week be removed from the common life of the world, lifted above common pleasures as above common cares. With all the abuses of fanaticism, this thought remained rich in blessings; ...if its ancient use perish from among us, so much the worse for our country.

George Gissing, Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, pp. 86-87.

References. XX. 8. J. Percival, Some Helps for School Life, p. 186. C. Holland, Gleanings from a Ministry of Fifty Years, p. 233. F. W. Farrar, The Voice from Sinai, p. 163; see also Christian World Pulpit, vol. xl. 1891, p. 337. R. W. Church, Village Sermons (2nd Series), p. 337. XX. 8, 9. E. Fowle, Plain Preaching to Poor People (3rd Series), p. 25. XX. 8, 11. Lyman Abbott, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xl. 1891, p. 412. G. Campbell Morgan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. 1900, p. 13. G. S. Barrett, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxii. 1902, p. 84. XX. 9. W. J. Hocking, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xli. 1892, p. 284. J. H. Shakespeare, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. 1900, p. 248. XX. 10. A. Murray, The Children for Christ, p. 100.

Exodus 20:12

In the first of his lectures on Alexandria and Her Schools Kingsley applies this commandment to the true relation of one generation to another. 'On reverence for the authority of bygone generations, depends the permanence of every form of thought or belief, as much as of all social, national, and family life: but on reverence of the spirit, not of the letter; of the methods of our ancestors, not of their conclusions.'

And this is maternity to give the best years and best love to ensure the fate of being despised.

Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native.

'I don't know who would be a mother,' says Mrs. Transome to her son in Felix Holt (chap. 11.), 'if she could foresee what a slight thing she will be to her son when she is old.' And in her essay on Riehl, George Eliot observes how 'among rustic moral tales and parables' of the German peasantry, 'not one is more universal than the story of the ungrateful children, who made their grey-headed father, dependent on them for a maintenance, eat at a wooden trough, because he shook the food out of his trembling hands. Then these same ungrateful children observed one day that their own little boy was making a tiny wooden trough; and when they asked him what it was for, he answered that his father and mother might eat out of it, when he was a man and had to keep them.'

Of all forms of self-elevation, the one which, even when it amounts to absolute self-sacrifice, we cannot but regard with very tender and lenient eyes, is the devotion of the young to the old, of children to parents. No doubt, there is a boundary beyond which even this ought not to be permitted; but the remedy lies on the elder side. There are such things as unworthy, selfish, exacting parents, to whom duty must be done, simply for the sake of parenthood, without regarding their personality. 'Honour thy father and thy mother' is the absolute command, bounded by no proviso as to whether the parents are good or bad. Of course no one can literally 'honour' that which is bad still one can respect the abstract bond, in having patience with the individual. But I think every high or honourable instinct in human nature will feel that there is hardly a limit to be set to the devotion of a child to a good parent righteous devotion, repaying to a failing life all that its own young life once received, of care and comfort and blessing.

Mrs. Craik, Sermons Out of Church, pp. 37-38.

References. XX. 12. F. W. Farrar, The Voice from Sinai, p. 187; see also Christian World Pulpit, vol. xl. 1891, p. 353. A. Murray, The Children for Christ, p. 108. G. Campbell Morgan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. 1900, p. 93. G. S. Barrett, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxii. 1902, p. 139. XX. 12-21. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Exodus, etc., p. 107.

Exodus 20:13

Catholics still revere the memory of Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, who gave his blessing to Campion and Parson, on their way to stir up rebellion in England, as well as in Ireland, and to assassinate Elizabeth if opportunity should serve. God said, 'Thou shalt do no murder'. The Pope, however, thought that God had spoken too broadly, and that some qualification was required. The sixth commandment could not have been intended for the protection of heretics; and the Jesuits, if they did not inspire, at least believed him.

Herbert Paul, Life of Froude, p. 140.

References. XX. 13. F. W. Farrar, The Voice from Sinai, p. 209; see also Christian World Pulpit, vol. xli. 1892, p. 1. G. Campbell Morgan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. 1900, p. 156.

Exodus 20:14

The Bible is God's great Police Court, as well as His Temple, and till life ceases to be coarse, lessons on coarseness will be needed.

Edward Thring.

Those who penetrate below the surface of society cannot bring themselves to speak lightly of these sins. They are destructive alike to the family and to the State. For the State is based on justice, and voluptuousness is a cruel injustice, for it engages in a combat which is both unequal and cowardly; the aggressor risks comparatively nothing, and the victim risks all.


References. XX. 14. F. W. Farrar, The Voice from Sinai, p. 233. G. Campbell Morgan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. 1900, p. 294.

Exodus 20:15

Under 'stealing, generically taken,' says Carlyle, 'you may include the whole art of scoundrelism; for what is lying itself but a theft of my belief?'

So far as a nation is to be considered a natural being, 'thou shalt not steal' is as much a natural law as 'thou shalt not breathe without oxygen'. National life is as impossible without honesty as natural life without oxygen.

Miss Wedgwood, Message of Israel, p. 280.

What is there in the world worth lying, or robbing, or ferociously striving for? If one could cheat death by cheating one's neighbour, there might be some sense in it. If one could steal genius or knowledge could filch away 'this man's art and that man's scope' in that, too, there would be some show of reason. But nothing worth having is capable of being stolen, either by force or fraud. What can be stolen, or otherwise basely acquired, is the means of enjoying the pleasures of ostentation, sensuality, or sport the very things which a religion of the intellect would most decisively discount.'

Let Youth But Know, p. 198.

References. XX. 15. S. Pearson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lii. 1897, p. 99. G. Campbell Morgan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. 1900, p. 326. G. S. Barrett, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxii. 1902, p. 416. F. W. Farrar, The Voice from Sinai, p. 257.

Exodus 20:16

Dr. Johnson, once arguing with Garrick and Gifford on the lack of accent and emphasis in actors' reading, declared, 'Well now, I'll give you something to speak, with which you are little acquainted, and then we shall see how just my observation is. That shall be the criterion. Let me hear you repeat the ninth commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour".' 'Both tried at it,' says Boswell, reporting a friend's account of the incident, 'and both mistook the emphasis, which should be upon not and false witness. Johnson put them right, and enjoyed his victory with great glee.'

References. XX. 16. F. W. Farrar, The Voice from Sinai, p. 281. G. Campbell Morgan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lix. 1901, p. 13. G. S. Barrett, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxiii. 1903, p. 35. XX. 17. F. W. Farrar, The Voice from Sinai, p. 302; see also Christian World Pulpit, vol. xli. 1892, p. 177. G. Campbell Morgan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lix. 1901, p. 116. G. S. Barrett, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxiii. 1903, p. 123. XX. 18-20. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxv. No. 2097.

Exodus 20:19

As men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect. They say with those foolish Israelites, 'Let not God speak to us lest we die. Speak thou, speak any man with us, and we will obey.' Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his own temple doors and recites fables merely of his brother's or his brothers' brother's God.

Emerson on Self-Reliance.

Let nothing come between you and the light. Respect men as brothers only. When you travel to the Celestial City, carry no letter of introduction. When you knock, ask to see God none of the servants. Thoreau.

The Children of Israel in times past said unto Moses, 'Speak thou unto us, and we will hear: let not the Lord God speak to us, lest we die'. Not so, Lord, not so do I beseech Thee. Let not Moses nor any of the prophets speak to me, but rather Thou Thyself, who inspirest and enlightenest all prophets. For Thou, apart from them, canst instruct me perfectly, whereas without Thee they can avail nothing. Let not Moses therefore speak unto me, but Thou, O Lord my God, the Truth Eternal, lest I die and prove unfruitful, being only warmed outwardly and not kindled inwardly.

The Imitatio Christi (vol. IV. chap. II.).

References. XX. 21. 'Sermons' by contributors to the Tracts for the Times, vol. ii. p. 89. XX. 23. H. Scott Holland, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxix. 1906, p. 280. XX. 24. (R.V.) F. S. Webster, In Remembrance of Me, p. 11.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Exodus 20". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. 1910.