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Bible Commentaries

Gray's Concise Bible Commentary

Exodus 20

Verses 1-11


We have reached the most remarkable event in the history of Israel until this time, and one of the most remarkable in the history of the world. While it primarily refers to Israel, still it affects the whole race for time and eternity, since the moral law is the expression of God’s will, the reflection of His nature, and the immutable standard of right for His accountable creatures everywhere, always. (These remarks apply to the ten commandments. The special enactments which follow them pertain for the most part only to Israel.)


The commandments have generally been divided into two tables: the first including the first four commandments embracing our duty to God, and the second the last six embracing our duty to man (Matthew 22:37-40 ). The Roman Catholic Church has a different arrangement from the Protestant, making but one commandment of the first two, and in order to maintain the number ten dividing the last into two. The result is that some of their devotional books omit altogether the last half of the first commandment, or what we call the second, which forbids idolatry. Their motive for doing this, to any who are familiar with the worship of that Church, is easily discerned.

THE PREFACE (Exodus 20:1-2 )

What is meant by “God spake”? Compare Deuteronomy 5:12-13 ; Deuteronomy 5:32-33 , and the conclusion seems irresistible that, as was stated in a preceding lesson, they refer to an articulate voice.

Notice the authority by which He speaks: “I am the Lord” (Jehovah), the self-existent, independent, eternal fountain of all being, who has the right to give law to all the creatures He has made. Notice the restriction to the Israelites: “thy God,” not only by creation but by covenant relationship and by the great redemption He has wrought in their behalf: “Which have brought thee out,” etc.

How inexcusable their disobedience under these new circumstances! And ours also, who as Christians have been redeemed by Christ from a bondage infinitely worse, and at a cost unspeakable!


“None other gods before Me” means as adversaries in My eyes, as casting a shade over My eternal being and incommunicable glory in the eye of the worshipper. The primary reference is to the idols the heathen worshipped, not that they really worshipped the idols, but the gods supposedly represented by them. Nor yet are we to imagine these were real gods, for there is none other God save One, but rather demons (Leviticus 17:7 ; Deuteronomy 32:17 ; Psalms 106:37 ; 1 Corinthians 10:19-20 ).

How awful to think that even now, professing Christians worship demons through Spiritism, clairvoyance, palmistry and related occultisms (Deuteronomy 18:9-22 )! Moreover, in the application of this and all the commandments, we should remember that they lay their prohibitions not on the outer conduct merely but the inner actings of the spirit. See Christ’s

Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:20-48 ) and Paul (Romans 7:7-11 ). Hence there may be idolatry without idols in the vulgar sense and also without worshipping demons in any form: “Whosoever seeks happiness in the creature instead of the Creator, violates this commandment.”


A “graven image” is made of wood, stone or metal; a “likeness” is a picture of any kind as distinguished therefrom. The “water under the earth” means lower in level than the earth.

Was any manifestation of God seen at Sinai (Deuteronomy 4:12 ; Deuteronomy 4:15 )? The Israelites were not to make these things. What command was laid upon them when others made them?

What warning is contained in this commandment? Is God jealous in the sense of passion, or in the feeling of a holy Being against evil (Deuteronomy 32:21 )?

How does this commandment show the responsibility of parents? Do you suppose this responsibility is limited to this sin? Did not Israel at this time have a striking illustration of it in Egypt? Had not their persecution by that people begun just four generations before, and was not the nation now reaping what had been then sown?

“Unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate Me.” Here two thoughts suggest themselves: there is no difference between forsaking God and hating Him, and it is only them that hate Him, i.e., follow in the footsteps of their fathers, who will be visited with the punishment (Ezekiel 18:20 ). Perhaps also a third thought is pertinent, viz: that this warning only applies to the temporal effects of sin and not its eternal consequences, hence a son who turns to God, although he may through the working of divinely ordained laws of nature suffer physical consequences here, will be spared eternal consequences hereafter.

“Mercy unto thousands of generations,” the Revised Version reads. See also Deuteronomy 7:9 . Of this also Israel had an illustration before their eyes, as they were now gathering the mercy destined for them in the faithfulness of their father Abraham who lived a thousand years before.

“Of them that love Me and keep My commandments.” Behold what is meant by loving God, viz: keeping His commandments; a declaration which gives a new character to the whole decalogue, which thus becomes not a mere negative law of righteousness, but a positive law of love!

Let us not conclude these reflections without remarking how far the Greek, Roman, and even some Protestant churches have fallen in this regard.

From the use of crosses and relics as aiding their bodily senses and quickening devotion, it has been easy to advance to altars, images and pictures not only of the Holy Ghost and Christ but of the Virgin, and the saints and martyrs without number, until at last these objects have themselves become, at least to the ignorant, actual objects of worship. And what superstition, profanation and mockery have grown out of it all! And shall not a jealous God visit for these things?


The “name” of God is that by which He makes Himself known, the expression of His Godhead; hence to take that name “in vain” is to violate His essence.

The word for vain signifies what is false as well as vain, so that all false swearing or perjury which would make God a witness to a lie, as well as all light or frivolous uses of His name or attributes in conversation, are prohibited. This does not mean judicial oaths, however, which, as we see by Christ and His apostles, may be acts of worship in which we solemnly call God to witness to the truth (Jeremiah 4:2 ).

But what of blasphemy and profanity by which some interlard their speech, using such expressions as “God,” “Lord,” Christ,” “the Lord knows,” “O heavens! .... My goodness!” and the like (Matthew 5:33-37 )?

God “will not hold him guiltless” who does these things. Look at Psalms 139:20 , and see who they are that take His name in vain. Then read Malachi 3:5 .

The third commandment is of the same gravity as the two preceding, guarding the deity of God as those do His unity and spirituality.

FOURTH COMMANDMENT (Exodus 20:8-11 )

How does the first word here indicate an earlier origin than Sinai for the institution of the Sabbath? How early was that origin? How does this show that the Sabbath is an obligation for all men, Christians as well as Jews?

But “remember” points not simply to an act of memory by a commemoration of the event. Leviticus 23:3 and Numbers 28:9-10 confirm this.

But it is the “Sabbath” day and not necessarily the seventh day that is to be remembered. This means one day of rest after every six, but not according to any particular method of computing the septenary cycle. The Jewish Sabbath was kept on Saturday, but Christians are in accord with the spirit of the commandment in keeping Sunday enriching the original idea of the day of rest by including that of the new creation when our Redeemer rose from the dead.

How does God provide for our hallowing of this day, and what is His definition of such hallowing? When He says, “Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work,” is it an injunction, or may it be considered as a permission? Some think there is a difference between “labor” and “work,’ the latter term being the more inclusive as involving the management of affairs and correspondence to the word “business.”

How is the equality of husband and wife recognized in the wording of this commandment (Exodus 20:10 )? The responsibility of parents and employers? The rights and privileges of employees? The proper treatment of the lower animals? To what further extent did the obligation of the Israelite extend? Has this any bearing on the present obligation of our nation to compel an observance of the Sabbath on the part of our alien population?

Is anything more than secular or servile work intended in this prohibition? Did not Jesus both by precept and example give liberty for works of love, piety and necessity? (Mark 2:23-28 ; John 5:16-17 ).

What historical reason is assigned for this commandment (Exodus 20:11 )? And what additional in Deuteronomy 5:15 ? We thus see that God’s authority over and His loving care for us combine to press upon us the obligation of the Sabbath day to say nothing of its advantage to us along physical and other material lines. And thus its observance becomes the characteristic of those who believe in a historical revelation, and worship God as Creator and Redeemer.


1. Can you recite Matthew 22:37-40 ?

2. To what demonolatry are some professing Christians addicted?

3. Can you recite Ezekiel 18:20 ?

4. How do we show love to God?

5. Are you breaking the third commandment in ordinary conversation?

6. What two meanings should be attached to “Remember” in the fourth commandment?

7. Are the Sabbath and the seventh days necessarily identical?

8. To what do we bear testimony in observing the Sabbath?

Verses 12-26



To “honor” means to regard with respect and loving fear. What reasons there are for it on the part of children toward their parents, who are under God the author of their existence, and their teachers, benefactors and rulers!

What promise is attached to this commandment? For a comment see Deuteronomy 5:16 . Although this promise applies primarily to Israel in Canaan, as we see from Ezekiel 22:7-15 , yet its principle is true in God’s moral government everywhere.

The child who honors its parents of course wise and true parents are assumed gains the experience of the latter which makes for a good, and with necessary exceptions, a long life.


The reference here is to the unlawful taking of life by suicide or homicide, but not to capital punishment for capital crimes (see Genesis 9:6 ), nor

the taking of life in self-defense or lawful war. It forbids all violence, passion, lust, intemperance in eating or drinking, and any other habit which tends to shorten life. So far as the more spiritual import is concerned it interdicts envy, revenge, hatred, malice, or sinful anger, all that provokes to wrath or murder. See Matthew 5:21-26 ; Matthew 5:38-48 and 1 John 3:15-17 .


The Hebrew word for “adultery” refers to the unlawful act taking place between man and woman where either or both are married, thus differing from another word commonly translated fornication and where the same act is referred to between unmarried persons.

Because the sanctity of the marriage relation is the object aimed at it prohibits everything contrary to the spirit of that in thought, word or deed. (See Matthew 5:27-32 .) We may therefore include not only lustful looks, motions and verbal insinuations, but modes of dress, pictures, books, theatrical displays, etc., which provoke the passions and incite to the unlawful act.

Sins of this character are more frequently forbidden in Scripture and more fearfully threatened than any other, and they are the cause of more shame, crime, misery and death. Moreover, they have one striking characteristic, viz: that you cannot think or talk about them without being more or less excited and led into temptation. How continually need we be praying the prayer of Psalms 19:12 .


As the sixth commandment secures the right of our neighbor’s life, and the seventh the right of his family, so this secures the right of his property. The essence of dishonesty is the possessing ourselves of that which rightfully belongs to another, for which there is a variety of ways besides putting our hands into his money-drawer fraudulent bargain, contraction of debts which we know we shall be unable to pay, cornering the market, graft, usury, evading taxes, false weights and measures, etc.

And as in the previous cases, so here also, the command reaches beyond outward acts to the spirit of them, and includes inordinate love for the world and the things that are in the world, living beyond our means, idleness, and everything that leads up to theft. This commandment may be regarded as the most comprehensive of all.


This refers primarily to testimony in courts of law (Deuteronomy 19:16-19 ), and differs from the three preceding in that it deals with words rather than deeds.

But, as in those cases, it has a larger import and prohibits everything in our dealings with one another not according to truth. Compare to Leviticus 19:16 ; Proverbs 19:9 ; Psalms 15:2 ; Colossians 3:9 .

Among some of these things might be named exaggeration in speech, polite equivocations, flattering compliments, and of course all classes of slander, backbiting, and imputations of evil where no evil is.

It is usually felt, however, that there is a distinction between telling a lie and concealing the truth or a part of the truth from those who have no right to demand it. The one is always wrong, the other sometimes may be right.


“Covet” means to earnestly desire or long after, a feeling not sinful in itself, but which becomes so under particular circumstances. Its sinfulness appears in longing for anything unlawful, or longing for that which is lawful to an inordinate degree. A passing wish to have anything our neighbor possesses may be innocent, but to long for it excessively is prohibited.

The reason for the prohibition is that such longing begets a grudging, discontented and envious spirit, which leads often to injustice and violence.

The case of David who coveted Uriah’s wife and finally caused him to be slain is in point.

From deeds and words the decalogue has thus come to deal with the thoughts and intents of the heart, the fountainhead of sin; and that it reaches deep into the interior of human life, read Paul’s words in Romans 7:7-14 .

These words deserve careful consideration. He once said that “touching the righteousness which is in the law” he was blameless (Philippians 3:6 ) a wonderful thing for a man of his honesty and introspection to say! How then may we explain him saying near the end of his life that he is the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15 )? The explanation is found in Romans 7:0 . Meditating upon the tenth commandment he observed that it had to do not with the body but the mind. From this he argued that the other commandments reigned in the same mental area. Taught by the Spirit, he perceived that far from being blameless, he had daily transgressed the principles of the decalogue even though he had never broken them outwardly. The law did for him what God intends it to do for all of us. It killed him, slaying his self-righteousness and taking the life out of his self- confidence. As he thus lay hopeless in the dust of his earthliness it led him to the Savior of the lost (Galatians 3:24 ).


1. What does “honor” mean in the fifth commandment?

2. What sins are most frequently forbidden and threatened in Scripture?

3. How may “covet” be qualified?

4. Which commandment has most to do with the mind?

5. Can you quote Galatians 3:24 ?

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Bibliographical Information
Gray, James. "Commentary on Exodus 20". Gray's Concise Bible Commentary. 1897-1910.