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Bible Commentaries

Grant's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 20

Verses 1-26



Before God gives the ten commandments, He makes is abundantly clear that Israel's obedience to law had nothing to do with God's previous grace toward them in delivering them from the bondage of Egypt, just as today obedience to law has no part in the salvation of souls out from the bondage of sin. Yet Israel must not regard these laws as merely abstract principles, but laws of "the Lord thy God," indicating another relationship to God on the basis of their obedience. Solemn consideration!

The language of these laws is absolute and peremptory. "You shall" or "you shall not." No allowance is made for any deviation. First, no other god could be allowed to take God's place. Nothing must in any way be used even to represent God, no image, no likeness of anything in creation must have any place of spiritual honor in people's minds. This is idolatry. Even pictures of this kind were forbidden (Numbers 33:52).

Secondly, such things, wherever they existed, were not to be bowed down to or served, for the Lord God is rightly a jealous God (the only One who has a right to be jealous). this is so serious that people's iniquity would inflict suffering on their children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate God, those who despise His commandments. On the other hand, His character is such as to show mercy to those who love Him and keep His commandments. Thus, though God is perfectly holy and righteous, yet He is not harsh and cruel, but compassionate.

The third commandment forbids the taking of God's name in vain. An oath invoking God's name is a most serious matter. Elijah made such an oath to Obadiah, "As the Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand" (1 Kings 18:15), and that oath was kept. But men would dare to use God's name often when not even intending to keep their word, thus totally in vain, which is gross evil. We know that people today swear by God with no concern about what they are doing. In fact, the Lord Jesus goes further than the law, by telling us "do not swear at all" (Matthew 5:33-37). For man had been proven by the time the Lord Jesus came, to be so untrustworthy that his promises concerning what he would do in the future were of no value. It would be different to swear to the truth of something that has already taken place, when one knows the facts.

The fourth commandment was to remember the sabbath day (v.8), the last day of the week (Saturday) to keep it holy, that is, sanctified from all other days for the purpose of being devoted to God. Israel had six days to labor, but the seventh was a day of rest.

The sabbath was a day of rest: work was strictly forbidden on that day, that is, work of any servile character (Leviticus 23:7-8). The Pharisees extended this sternly to include the grace of the Lord Jesus in healing, but He showed up their folly by reminding them that they themselves watered their livestock on the sabbath day (Luke 13:14-15). God certainly did not forbid this care for the need of His creatures. But when the nobles of Judah were allowing the sale of all kinds of merchandise on the Sabbath day, when people were treading winepresses, bringing in sheaves, loading donkeys with merchandise to sell. Nehemiah rightly took stern action against this (Nehemiah 13:15-19).

Any head of a household was responsible to see that none of his household, including servants, would work on the Sabbath (v.10). This was based on the Lord's working for six days to make the heavens and the earth (from what He had first created), and His resting the seventh day (v.11).

In Exodus 31:13-17 God emphasizes that the Sabbath was a sign between Him and Israel, and that the children of Israel were to keep the Sabbath. This was not given to Gentiles, and it is not given to the church in the present age (Compare Colossians 2:16-17). The Lord Jesus was in the grave on the Sabbath day, and was raised "the first day of the week." From that time scripture emphasizes the first day of the week, mentioning for instance that on that day the disciples came together to break bread (Acts 20:1-38; Acts 7:1-60). Yet no law is made at all of this matter, for we are not under law, but under grace. We should regard the first day of the week as "the Lord's Day," and therefore be glad for the privilege of using it solely for the Lord's pleasure, without attaching any legal bondage to it.

The first four commandments clearly refer to Israel's responsibility toward God. The following six (vs.12-17) are toward people. The fifth, therefore (v.12), requires honor toward parents. This respect for proper authority would result in (normally speaking) prolonging one's life on earth, for it would involve respect for God's authority too. One of the sad marks of the last days, even in professing Christendom, is "disobedience to parents" (2 Timothy 3:1-2). Actually, no-one should need a law to lead them to respect their parents, and certainly Christians need no such law, for such things are written in their hearts. On the other hand, unbelievers in Israel constantly disregarded such laws (Matthew 15:3-6).

The sixth law, "You shall not kill" finds an echo in everyone's conscience, for he knows this is wrong without being told. Cain, though he had no law, knew he was doing evil in killing his brother, for he lied about it afterward (Genesis 4:8-9).

The same is true of the seventh, eighth and ninth laws. For in spite of men's knowing these things (adultery, stealing and lying) to be evil, God knew that Israel needed specific prohibitions in order to face them with the fact of their wrong-doing when they disobeyed. Of course the law did not keep them from doing wrong, but it made them, not only sinners, but transgressors. At least, now they could not say, "there is no law against it." When they disobeyed, they were breaking over a plainly declared prohibition.

The tenth law strikes, not only at outward actions, but at the motives of the heart. Who can stand before a prohibition like this, "You shall not covet"? One who honestly tries to keep this law will find himself in a conflict such as Romans 7:1-25 describes, beginning with verse 7 of that chapter, -- a struggle with his own determined sinful nature. Just the very desire to have what someone else has is here shown to be sin. How clearly therefore does the law teach people that they are desperately in need of One who can deliver them from this bondage of sin! But Israel has been slow to learn such a lesson.



No wonder that the giving of such a law was accompanied by "the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of a trumpet, and the mountain smoking" (v.18). The trembling fear of the people moved them to keep some distance away. They agree to listen to Moses, but ask that God Himself may not speak to them for fear they may die. It is true that if God speaks in absolute law, no one can live. However, Moses was a mediator, therefore typical of Christ as the one Mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5).

Moses quiets the people's fears, telling them that God has come in order to test them and to impress on them a true fear of His great glory (v.20), so that the fear of God might keep them from sinning. If any outward thing could do this, surely this great manifestation of God's holiness was that thing. But we know that the effects of this in Israel wore off very soon, and they fell into sin quickly. From the very time it was evident that Israel was in dire need of a Savior to deliver them, not merely from Egypt, but from the bondage of their sins.



While the people stood afar off, Moses was privileged to draw near to God (v.21). This is because he was the mediator, typical of the Lord Jesus, who alone, on the basis of law, can stand before God. However, God desires others also to draw near to Him. He tells Moses that He has spoken to him from heaven, a place of great distance, and reminds him of the commandment that forbids the making of any image, yet now He tells Moses they are to make an altar of earth on which to sacrifice burnt offerings and peace offerings (v.24).

Little is said of this altar afterwards, though no doubt this is what is involved in Naaman's asking Elisha that he might take two mule's loads of earth from Israel because he wanted to sacrifice to the Lord in the land of Syria (2 Kings 5:17). The altar speaks of the person of Christ, asHebrews 13:10; Hebrews 13:10 implies, and He Himself shows in Matthew 23:19-20 that the altar is greater than the gift placed on it. In other words, the person of Christ is greater than His wonderful work of redemption. But this altar of earth reminds us of the lowliness of the Manhood of the Lord Jesus in His earthly path of sorrow. It was imperative that Israel should have this altar of earth. For to be acceptable to God, the sacrifice must be that of a sinless, perfect Man. The perfection of His person gives its influence of perfection to His work.

On the other hand, Israel could voluntarily build an altar of stone. This speaks of Christ as the eternal Son of God, as stone is solid and unyielding in contrast to the crumbling, yielding character of earth. This stone indicated a stronger, more mature faith on the part of the offerer. But it must be built with whole stones, not hewn, for this would be man's work, which would pollute the altar. Whole stones indicate God's work, therefore a true perception of the eternal Godhead of the Lord Jesus.

In going up to the altar, no steps were to be allowed. Two principles are involved in this. First, there was to be no gradual ascent into God's presence by human effort. Secondly, we cannot ascend to a higher level of worship than the level on which we live daily. This would be hypocrisy, and God would expose the nakedness of our deceit.

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Bibliographical Information
Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Exodus 20". Grant's Commentary on the Bible. 1897-1910.