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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 20

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary


THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT (Exodus 20:1 to Exodus 23:33 ).

In Exodus 24:7 we read of a ‘book of the covenant’ written by Moses (see Exodus 24:4). Logically this must include the Sinai covenant and what follows, for the Sinai covenant was not made known to the people (they heard it as though it were thunder and the sound of a trumpet) until revealed to them by Moses. Some, however, see the book of the covenant as starting at Exodus 20:22 commencing with the words, ‘and Yahweh said to Moses’, but as these are provisions extending the Sinai covenant and gain their validity through it we would argue that The Book of the Covenant commences here, although not denying that it is in two sections. This is confirmed by Exodus 24:3 where Moses speaks to the people ‘all the words of Yahweh and all the judgments’. The ‘judgments’ are in Exodus 20:21 onwards (see Exodus 21:1), ‘all the words’ must surely refer to the ten words and Exodus 20:22-26.

Note to Christians.

As we look at this chapter, we as the true Israel, the Israel of God, made up of the descendants of those Jews who first came to Jesus Christ in such abundance to form the new Israel (‘My congregations’ - Matthew 16:18), and of all who through their testimony and its after effects have come to Him and been incorporated into the new Israel, can take to ourselves the words of His covenant. We can recognise in it our calling to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 20:6 above; 1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9) and a holy nation (Exodus 20:6 above; 1 Peter 2:9), and rejoice in the fact that we are a people for His special possession (Exodus 20:5 above; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9). And hearing of the splendour of the revelation of God at Sinai, we can recognise afresh that we deal with a holy and powerful God, Who has not changed. What has changed is that Jesus Christ having been offered for the sins of the world, we can approach Him without fear if our hearts are right towards Him.

End of note.

The Declaration of the Covenant (Exodus 20:1-21 ).

Before looking at the words that follow we must consider a phenomenon that was prevalent in the Near East around the time of Moses, and that is a particular form of Suzerainty covenant which was made by overlords with their subjects at that time, once they had been conquered. These were written in such a way as to suggest that the overlord was doing the subjugated a favour. And in return for that favour he expected them to fulfil the conditions of the treaty. He would begin by declaring his name and titles and would then follow that up with a historical outline of the benefits he had brought on his vassals. This would then be followed by a statement of their obligations and warnings of what would happen to those who breached them.

There are seven respects in which these treaties, made by overlords with their subjects in the Near East during the last part of the second millennium BC (the time of Moses), parallel certain major Biblical covenants, including this covenant in Exodus Exodus 20:0.

1). They begin with mention by name of the superior lord who enters into the treaty with his vassal (compareExodus 20:1-2; Exodus 20:1-2; Deuteronomy 5:6; Joshua 24:2).

2). The great king outlines his benevolent deeds towards his vassal (Exodus 20:2; Exodus 23:22; Deuteronomy 5:6; Deuteronomy 8:1-10; Deuteronomy 10:22 to Deuteronomy 11:15; Joshua 24:2-13).

3). The various obligations of the vassal towards his lord are outlined (Exodus 20:3-17; Deuteronomy 5:7-21; Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Deuteronomy 10:12-21; Deuteronomy 13-26).

4). In the vassal’s obligations there is a specific prohibition against entering into relations with other powers. In the case of the Sinai covenant this is stated in terms of a prohibition against having other gods (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7; Deuteronomy 6:10-15; Deuteronomy 7:1-6; Deuteronomy 8:11-20; Joshua 24:14-15).

5) The treaty was deposited in a sanctuary and publicly read out from time to time (Exodus 25:16; Exodus 25:21 on; Deuteronomy 6:20-25; Deuteronomy 11:18-20; Deuteronomy 12:5-18; Deuteronomy 14:23; Deuteronomy 31:9-13; Joshua 24:6).

6) Witnesses were often invoked (Joshua 24:22).

7). Blessing and curses or warnings were invoked on those who break the treaty (Exodus 20:5 b, Exodus 20:6, Exodus 20:7 b, Exodus 20:12 b; Exodus 23:20-22; Leviticus 26:0; Deuteronomy 11:26-28; Deuteronomy 27:0 on; Deuteronomy 27:11-26; Deuteronomy 28:0; Joshua 8:34).

So it is evident that what we call the Ten Commandments is in fact a suzerainty treaty in this form. As their great sovereign Lord and Deliverer, Yahweh makes a treaty with His people. It takes the form of a preliminary statement about Himself and then ten ‘words’, possibly, but not necessarily, later refined and expanded by Moses, which bring out man’s right attitude towards God both in their behaviour towards Him and in their behaviour towards their fellowmen. For to misuse His people is to misuse Him. They are called ‘the words of the covenant, the ten words’ (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:12-13; Deuteronomy 10:4).

This recognition of their covenant status is important (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; Deuteronomy 9:9; Deuteronomy 9:11; Deuteronomy 9:15; Deuteronomy 29:1). Their love for, and responsibility towards, God comes before love for neighbour for the one stems from the other. Elsewhere this covenant is called ‘The Testimony’ (Exodus 25:16; Exodus 25:21; Exodus 40:20). It testifies to Yahweh’s love for His people and the covenant relationship they have with Him. But it also testifies to a man’s responsibility to his fellowman over a wide range of attitudes and behaviour, although the detail is left to be worked out later.

In the Book of the Covenant this Treaty is then expanded and it finishes with a specific application in treaty terms to what lies before them in the conquest of the promised land (Exodus 23:20-33).

Excursus: The Giving of the Ten Words.

The first question that arises to many is how this compares with the ten words outlined in Deuteronomy 5:0. The first three commands there are almost word for word as in Exodus 20:3-7, with minimal differences such as we might expect in a speechified form.

The fourth commandment is the first in which, in Deuteronomy, we find Moses making clear and deliberate alterations. There are a number of them. ‘Observe’ is used in Deuteronomy instead of ‘remember’; ‘as Yahweh your God commanded you’ is added; special mention is made of the ox and the ass, instead of just the general ‘cattle’; and ‘that your man-servant and your maid-servant may rest as well as you’ is tacked on. The first in some ways makes little difference, for to ‘remember’ means to ‘observe’, and arises because it is a speech and he wants to make it more direct. But perhaps there had been a laxity in keeping the sabbath so that Moses wished to stress that it must not only be perfunctorily remembered but fully observed. All present would notice the change from the usual pattern of words. ‘Observing’ (regarding and carrying out fully) what Yahweh commands is a theme of Moses in Deuteronomy. (Six times in Exodus 4:0, five times in Exodus 5:0, five times in Exodus 6:0, four times in Exodus 7:0 and so on).

“As Yahweh your God commanded you” refers back to Exodus 20:8 where the command was originally given, and also to Exodus 16:23; Exodus 16:25-26 where it was first instituted. See also Exodus 31:13-16; Exodus 35:2-3; Leviticus 19:3; Leviticus 19:30; Leviticus 23:3; Leviticus 26:2. This added comment demonstrates that this repetition of the covenant in Deuteronomy is very much in speech form rather than being a solemn declaration of the covenant. It is given with the purpose of pressing home its requirements. It is the covenant with comments added.

“Your ox nor your ass.” With regard to the special mention of the ass it may be that some had argued that the ass was not included in ‘cattle’ and was thus not to share the sabbath rest. If that was so then that false idea was being put right. But whether that was so or not, the ox and ass were the hardest workers of the domestic animals, so that he may have selected them for that reason. They were the workers. Like the servants they most deserved rest, which was something all must have, and Moses is stressing the need for the workers to be given rest. (The idea of the ox and the ass in Deuteronomy might have been incorporated from Exodus 20:17, or especially Exodus 23:12).

“That your man-servant and your maid-servant may rest as well as you.” This final item tacked on in Deuteronomy may also suggest that some had been lax in allowing full rest to men-servants and maid-servants, possibly lightening but not totally suspending their duties. Moses thus stresses that they must have the same rest as everyone else, so that they too may be able to fully rest and focus their minds on God as everyone else did. They especially should enjoy this symbol of the liberty which God gave to man.

The purpose then of these changes in Deuteronomy was to counter attempts to evade the full impact of the requirements. Additional sub-clauses were added there on the basis of his experience of their behaviour.

The most substantial alteration in Deuteronomy was the removal of the clause referring to creation and replacement of it by Deuteronomy 5:15 “And you shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and Yahweh your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore Yahweh your God commands you to keep the sabbath day.”

In Deuteronomy the reference to the men-servants and maid-servants leads him on to add this stress as to why this is so. It is because they should remember that they too had been ‘servants’ in the land of Egypt until Yahweh delivered them with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (compare Deuteronomy 4:34). They had known what it was to slave without respite. They had known what it was to have no rest. But they had been delivered from this servitude by the hand of Yahweh. And He had exerted Himself that they might have rest. They should therefore have greater respect for their servants and ensure that both they and their servants fully ‘observed’ the sabbath day, and that the servants had full rest on that day.

Thus the reference to creation found here in Exodus 20:11 is omitted in Deuteronomy. This was presumably because Moses did not see it as necessary in that context when he was placing his emphasis on giving servants full rest. He was there concentrating on the purpose in hand. All knew that it was a God-revealed pattern concerning a day blessed by God. But in mind was the idea that Israel were now entering into their rest, and it was right therefore that all should enjoy the sabbath rest. His concern there was that they should learn their lesson from their deliverance. That is why it is their own deliverance that he stresses as the factor to be taken into account and not creation. He is stressing experience over against theory because he feels it would have more impact.

This may suggest that he saw the reference to creation here in Exodus as a secondary, explanatory subsection and not as the main clause in the covenant. As not being a requirement but an explanation. But against that is the fact that we would expect that in such an important foundational covenant we would expect some mention of Yahweh as creator of heaven and earth. Nevertheless he must have considered that to omit it was permissible on the grounds that it did not lessen the covenant requirement. To have included it in his speech in Deuteronomy would in fact have lessened the strength of his argument and blurred his point, while his silence about it drew clear attention both to it and to the alternative, for all would be waiting for the reference to creation and would be the more struck by its absence and by what he did say.

It should, however, be noted that the ‘addition’ made in Deuteronomy is not strictly ‘new’ external material but is simply incorporating the idea contained in the initial verse of the covenant, that Yahweh had delivered them from bondage. He is not ‘adding’ to the covenant, He is repeating the very basis on which it was founded.

So to ‘observe the sabbath’ would in future be not only to remember creation but also to remember the deliverance. From now on the two went together. The Sabbath had originally commemorated the giving of the manna (Exodus 16:0). It had then reminded men of the completeness of creation (Exodus 20:11). Now it included the deliverance rest. It celebrated God’s provision of both food, and life, and rest. For Christians the seventh day (which it is, whatever day it is celebrated on) commemorates the giving of the Bread of Life (John 6:35) Who feeds our hearts, and it commemorates our Great Deliverer Who through the cross and resurrection has brought about the greater salvation.

This suggests that it is possible to claim that the reference to creation is not in fact a part of what Yahweh originally said on the mount, but an explanatory comment added by Moses when he wrote it down, the kind of comment which in modern days we would include in brackets. Note with regard to this that it is in the third person and refers simply to Yahweh whereas everywhere else in these verses, apart from in Exodus 20:7 which may also be an added comment, reference is to ‘Yahweh your God’ which appears to be the covenant name, ‘I am Yahweh your God’ (Yahweh Eloheyca). Against this suggestion, however, is the fact that in such an important covenant we would expect some reference to Yahweh as Creator of Heaven and Earth.

In the case of the fifth commandment he adds in Deuteronomy ‘as Yahweh your God commanded you’ and ‘that it may go well with you’. These are the kind of typical asides that might be made in a speech in order to emphasise the point and in order to wish them well, for he knew that he would not be with them much longer. With the possession of the land now almost upon them these promises gained greater meaning. And they were a warning hint that if they were to enjoy the land permanently it could only be by a permanent keeping of the covenant, and that this would partly result from honouring father and mother as they learned from them the instruction of Yahweh. Long life and spiritual and material prosperity in the land would depend on it.

The sixth to ninth commandments are unchanged in Deuteronomy apart from the adding of a waw representing ‘and’ or ‘neither’. This is understandable in a speech where he is trying to run the clauses together, in contrast with the original desire here in Exodus for them to be stark commands.

Finally we note that as compared with Exodus 20:17 Moses in Deuteronomy alters the order and puts ‘wife’ before ‘house’, and separates her from the remainder, putting emphasis on her. This fits better with the forbidding of adultery coming before the stealing of property in the previous ‘words’. Moses may have seen the change as allowable so as to bring out the connection. At this stage in Deuteronomy perhaps, in the close proximity of the camp, there may have been too much adultery so that Moses was concerned to emphasise the necessity not to covet other men’s wives. Or it may indicate Moses’ deep awareness of the value and importance of his wife.

In Deuteronomy he also included ‘field’. Those in the two and a half tribes who were already settling in would by then have had fields that could be coveted. So all these changes express Moses’ current concerns at that time. But he would not have made the changes if he had been baldly ‘declaring the covenant’. He felt able to do so because they were part of his speech, so that he could put in the emphases that he wanted and add comments, just as a modern preacher might do. He was wanting to directly sway the people. We might consider that it was only Moses who could have dared to make such alterations. Later the text would have been seen as sacrosanct.

It is clear then that Exodus 20:2-17 is primary and represents the declared covenant, with there being a possibility that there are either one or two interjected comments made by Moses, while Deuteronomy 5:0 is very much speechified.

(End of Excursus).

Expansion of the Ten Words of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22 to Exodus 23:33 ).

In this section, which is composed of elements put together mainly in chiastic form (see later), Yahweh expands on the Ten Words of the covenant. Notice that it begins with ‘and Yahweh said to Moses’. This proceeds as follows:

a Instructions concerning future worship in obedience to the commandments in Exodus 20:3-5, for He will be with them and record His name in places where they go (Exodus 20:22-26).

b Instructions concerning bondservants remembering the manservants and maidservants in mentioned in Exodus 20:10 (Exodus 21:1-11).

c Instructions concerning those who cause death or injury and those who dishonour their parents in obedience to Exodus 20:12-13 (Exodus 21:12-36).

d Instructions concerning a neighbour’s goods in obedience to Exodus 20:15; Exodus 20:17 (Exodus 22:1-15).

d Instruction concerning the forcing of virgins, who belong to their families, which connects with Exodus 20:14; Exodus 20:17 (Exodus 22:16-17).

c Instructions concerning wrong attitudes which connect with wider implications from the words of the covenant, which include some for which the penalty is death, and the need for avoidance of dishonourable conduct (Exodus 22:18 to Exodus 23:11).

b Instructions concerning the Sabbath (compareExodus 20:8-9; Exodus 20:8-9) and the regular feasts (Exodus 23:12-19).

a Yahweh’s resulting promise that His Angel will go with them until the land is theirs, finishing with a warning against idolatry (Exodus 23:20-23).

We should note here that in ‘a’ the approach to and worship of Yahweh is in mind, and His recording of His name in places as they go on their way, and they are warned against idolatry, and in the parallel the Angel of Yahweh is to go with them and they are warned against idolatry. In ‘b’ we are instructed concerning bondmen and bondwomen and in the parallel the Sabbath is dealt with which, in the announcing of the covenant, contained reference to the rights of menservants and maidservant (Exodus 20:9). The bondmen also had a right to enjoy a seven year sabbath. It may be this connection which decided the positioning of this law prior to those concerning murder and theft. In ‘c’ we have reference to death and violence, while in the parallel death is the sentence for some of the crimes mentioned. In ‘d’ we have reference to misappropriation of people’s goods, and in the parallel misappropriation of their daughters.

Verse 1

(See the Chapter Comments for more information on the Covenant.)

The Proclamation of the Covenant (Exodus 20:1-17 ).

Here we have Yahweh’s proclamation of His covenant directly to the people, and not through Moses, something which the people, having experienced it, pleaded that it might not happen again (Exodus 20:19). The fuller explanation then comes through Moses (Exodus 20:22). It will be noted that without being forced these verses cannot be put into chiastic form, stressing how they stand out from the remainder of the narrative.

Exodus 20:1

‘And God spoke all these words, saying.’

As promised in Exodus 19:9 Yahweh speaks to Moses from the cloud which is on the mountain (Exodus 20:16) in full hearing of the people, while Moses stands among them. With these words Israel becomes a nation in its own right, a nation with Yahweh as overlord. They become ‘a kingdom’, a theocracy where God is king, and they are designated to become a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). The scope of the covenant is huge and its moral content unique.

The people gathered there would include the mixed multitude who had left Egypt with the children of Israel. They too, if it was their desire, would be incorporated within the covenant (Exodus 12:48). Thus they would all stand as one to receive His words.

Verses 13-17

The Second Five Words - Man’s Responsibility Towards God For His Neighbour (Exodus 20:13-17 ).

These commands are absolute. They reveal the sanctity in God’s eyes of a man’s right to fair treatment by his neighbour in all spheres of his life. They are apodictic in form, that is in the form of a direct command that must be obeyed. Later on penalties for breach of these commands will be outlined, but here the concentration is on what God requires and expects of His people. There is no lessening of that demand. It is sinful man who says, ‘what will happen to me if I do this?’ and God was requiring them not to be sinful.

Some commentators lay stress on the fact that these are negative commandments. But while that is true we must recognise what negative commandments are. What they are really saying is that Israel may live their lives freely and positively, although with the few exceptions then given. On the whole then the thought is positive. It is the exceptions that determine the wideness or otherwise of the rule, and these leave wide scope for positive living. The exceptions simply put certain limitations on excessive behaviour.

Exodus 20:13

“You shall not murder.”

This commandment upholds the sanctity of human life. But as given it has nothing to do with killing in war (a different Hebrew word is always used for that) or the death penalty. Both were sanctioned in the detailed enactments of the Law (see for example Deuteronomy 20:1 on; Exodus 21:12-17). The principle of a life for a life held firm (Exodus 21:23), although in the end it was deliberate premeditated murder that demanded the full consequences so that there was no sanctuary for such a murderer (Exodus 21:14). The commandment meant no killing apart from judicial killing and the right to defend one’s own life and the lives of one’s family and people. But defence of one’s person or family or land from those who would themselves kill or capture was considered good reason within the law for killing. So was protection of property where the killing occurred during the process of the theft, especially at night (Exodus 22:2).

It was therefore recognised that a family had a responsibility to avenge the death of a another member of the family. It was a life for a life. That is why ‘cities of refuge’ were arranged where those who had killed, but not deliberately, could flee for protection. No one could be slain in a city of refuge, but the ‘avengers of blood’ had the right to ask for their expulsion if they could prove that they were guilty of deliberate murder.

The forbidding of killing necessarily included the forbidding of the intent to kill, as the principle behind the tenth commandment brings out, and Jesus expanded this to include destructive anger and contempt against another (Matthew 5:21-22)

Exodus 20:14

“You shall not commit adultery.”

This commandment upholds the sanctity of the marriage relationship. To make love to another man’s wife or betrothed was absolutely forbidden. Later this would be expanded to allow the death penalty for the offence (Leviticus 20:10), but we need not doubt that it was already so. It was seen as expunging evil (Deuteronomy 22:22). The wife too was to be put to death, and a betrothed woman if she was a willing participant (Deuteronomy 22:22-24). This was on the basis that while a wife would not be away from the protection of her husband, a betrothed may be. There were lesser penalties where the woman was not married or betrothed because then the sealed marriage bond was not broken. Marriage and betrothal were seen as resulting in a sacred bond.

Exodus 20:15

“You shall not steal.” This commandment upholds the sanctity of a man’s property. To obtain a man’s property by false means was forbidden. Penalties were, however, less than for murder and adultery (see Exodus 22:1-4) unless the theft was of a human person, a kidnap (Exodus 21:16). This, of course, applied to property within the community.

It must be remembered in all these cases that there were no reliable prisons. It was death or fine, and in the case of murder or adultery a fine was not seen as sufficient. These cases struck at the very heart of God.

Exodus 20:16

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.”

This commandment especially upholds the sanctity of the courts of justice. It refers to giving false testimony in a court of law, or in any situation where a man’s life or reputation could be at stake. If proved the punishment was that which the innocent man would have suffered had he been found guilty, which could include death (Deuteronomy 19:16-21). But it also includes the attacking of another by lies (Proverbs 6:19). The thought is that dishonesty that harms another, whether by libel or slander or whispering, is abhorrent to God.

Exodus 20:17

“You shall not covet your neighbour’s house, you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is your neighbour’s.”

This reaffirms the sanctity of a man’s wife and possessions. It is in fact the corollary of all that has been said. All the previous commandments have dealt with men’s actions. Here God probes to the heart, the spring from which the actions come. A man is not even to consider attempting to take such things away from his neighbour. Such an attitude of heart and mind is against the covenant. This remarkable law applies personally and inwardly. It could often not be judged by outsiders. But each person was to recognise that it would be judged by God. God would know. It reveals that every man is responsible for his thoughts as well as his actions. The positive side will later be ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). God is inculcating an open and honest attitude towards one’s neighbour without deceit or guile or envy, because in the end all belongs to God and He gives as He will.

For it is not only the object of coveting who can be hurt by coveting. Coveting hurts the coveter. It is destructive of all that is good. It proceeds from and distorts the heart, causes unrest and trouble within, and produces sin, which comes to completion in the act (James 1:14-15). Achan was the perfect example of how coveting takes possession of a man by stages. ‘I saw -- I coveted -- I took’, and it finally destroyed him (Joshua 7:21). Proverbs 21:26 contrasts the greedy coveter with the generous giver, the one totally inward looking and turned in on himself, the other outward going and generous and open. The coveter ignores God’s requirements and God’s word, ‘incline my heart to Your testimonies, and not to covetousness’ (Psalms 119:36). Hebrews summed it up in another way, ‘Be content with such things as you have’ (Hebrews 13:5, compare Luke 3:14; Philippians 4:11; 1 Timothy 6:6). The one who is content is at peace, but the coveter finds no rest. Indeed covetousness is described as a form of idolatry (Ephesians 5:5), and keeps a man from God (1 Timothy 6:10).

“You shall not covet your neighbour's house, you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife --.’ A man’s house and wife were of equal importance as against the rest, as is proved by the fact that they were the only two governed directly by a verb. His house was his possession in the land and included his land. It was the mainstay of his family life. It was his inheritance. His wife was a part of himself. But in the end all that truly belonged to him was sacrosanct.

Note that this is the only commandment where the verb is repeated. In a sense it parallels the verbs in ‘you shall not bow down to them nor serve them’ (Exodus 20:3). It has double intensity. Such was God’s warning against covetousness.

Then the voice ceased.

Verses 18-21

The Aftermath (Exodus 20:18-21 ).

This passage immediately follows the glorious and awesome experience that has been theirs in the proclamation of Yahweh’s covenant. The people are trembling in fear, and are not sure that they can bear any more such experiences of Yahweh. So in it Yahweh gently brings them down to earth and assures them that that they need not be afraid.

We can analyse it as follows:

a The people are awed by the splendour and glory and move and stand far off (Exodus 20:18).

b The people promise that they will obey God but plead that they may no longer be required to experience the awful voice of God (Exodus 20:19).

b Moses assures them that they need not fear. The reason that Yahweh has given them this experience is so that they recognise the awfulness of sinning against Him (Exodus 20:20).

a The people stand far off and Moses draws near into the thick darkness. Their request is answered (Exodus 20:21).

Note the reversal in ‘a’ of the people awed by God’s glory and moving to stand far off with, in the parallel, the people standing far off and Moses entering to meet with God in thick darkness so that the people are shielded from His glory. In ‘b’ the promise to obey is paralleled with the awfulness of not obeying but of sinning against God, while their plea is responded to by Moses’ assurance.

Exodus 20:18

‘And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, and when the people saw it they stood afar off.’

It would appear that the people heard the thunder but did not understand what God had been saying. We can compare with this John 12:28-29 where again the voice was heard but the people did not understand. But they were very much aware of the external signs. They heard the thunder and the trumpet sound, they saw the lightning and the smoke (compare Exodus 19:16). And they were afraid. Those who had been growing bolder now cowered back trembling, and drew away. They no longer wanted to climb the mount.

We note that at this stage no response is required to the covenant. They have already made their choice in response to a shortened form of the covenant (Exodus 19:8). Now the more detail has been laid out with no choice available, although final response will come later once they know the full terms (Exodus 24:1-11).

Exodus 20:19

‘And they said to Moses, “You speak with us and we will listen. But do not let God speak with us or we die.” ’

So great was the effect that they no longer wanted even to hear the voice of God. They were terrified and pleaded to be spared such an ordeal. Rather let Moses be God’s mouthpiece. They did not want to go through another experience like the one they had just been through. For their fuller speech see Deuteronomy 5:24-27.

The use of the term God is significant. It is the awesomeness and the otherness that has impacted on them. They recognise that they are dealing with the God of all things.

Exodus 20:20

‘And Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, for God has come to test your obedience and so that his fear may be before you so that you do not sin.” And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.’

Moses tried to calm their fears. He pointed out that the purpose of God in what they had experienced was to test their obedience, whether they would respond to His covenant or not, and to make them aware of His awesome presence so that they would not fall short of His requirements. If they obeyed Him they would have nothing to fear. This was Yahweh’s third ‘proving’ of their obedience. Compare Exodus 15:25; Exodus 16:4, each connected with the proving of obedience.

“That His fear may be before you.” God wanted them ever to remember what they had seen of His awesome presence so that fear and awe of Him might be constantly before them lest they treat His words lightly. He was giving them every chance.

“The people stood afar off.” They no longer wanted even to approach the mount, and retired to the entrance to their tents (Deuteronomy 5:30). This was in stark contrast to Moses who advanced into the thick darkness to meet with God.

“Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” For Moses was unafraid. He responded to God’s command and entered God’s temporary abode. For thick darkness compare Deuteronomy 4:11; Deuteronomy 5:22 where the cloud is mentioned separately. Thus it would appear that He was enveloped in the ‘smoke’, possibly misty vapour.

Verses 22-26

Yahweh’s Instruction Concerning Future Worship (Exodus 20:22-26 ).

In view of their fears, and the commands that He has given in Exodus 20:3-5, Yahweh now makes provision for their worship. They are to recognise what they have seen of His heavenly nature (Exodus 20:23) and, avoiding earthly non-gods, realise that they must not try to climb to heaven by having steps to their altars and thus expose themselves for what they are (Exodus 20:26). Rather they are to use basic natural materials through which to worship Him, whether of earth or unhewn stone. But they are only to do this in the places where He records His name, and there He will come and bless them.

These promises are basic to their future welfare and their special distinction comes out in that Exodus 21:1 makes a slight separation of this ‘law’ from the ones that follow. The others deal with behaviour towards men until we come to the Sabbath and the feasts. This deals with behaviour towards God and covers the first two commandments.

We may analyse this as follows:

a Yahweh declares His heavenly nature. They are therefore not to make ‘with Him’ (that is in comparison to Him) gods of silver and gods of gold. Such might seem impressive but they would in fact be degrading. They are not compatible with what He is (Exodus 20:23).

b Rather they are to make an altar of earth on which to offer their offerings and sacrifices (Exodus 20:24 a).

c And that only in all the places where He records His name. Then He will come and bless them (Exodus 20:24 b).

b While if they build their altar of stone it must be of unhewn stone, for any tool of theirs could only pollute it (Exodus 20:25).

a They are not to go up steps to His altar lest their nakedness be discovered on them (Exodus 20:26).

Note that in ‘a’ it is the false gods who are laid bare for what they are, they are simply an attempt to bring God down from heaven, in the parallel it is the false worshippers who are laid bare and a ban is put on their attempt to go up to the gods. In ‘b’ we have the requirement that the true altar be of earth, or in the parallel of unhewn stone, in other words of natural material not shaped by man. Central in ‘c’ is that all worship is only to be in the place where He records His name, for it is there that God will bless them. God chooses where men will worship Him, not man. This anticipates the requirements of Deuteronomy 12:0.

Exodus 20:22-23

‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “This is what you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘You yourselves have seen that I talked with you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, or nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.’ ” ’

Yahweh wants to remind the people through Moses that, although they had not understood His words, He had spoken to them from heaven. Whether Moses has yet told them of the content of His words we do not know. But Yahweh now gives further instruction to back up the covenant and warns them to take heed to the lesson of Who and What He is. He has spoken to them from heaven. Gods of silver and gods of gold might seem impressive but they must recognise them for what they are, earthly and ineffective. They are made to put on a show but are worthless underneath. Thus they are incompatible with Him. It is quite possible that He knows that what they have seen at the mount has interrupted ideas for false future worship which have been lingering in their minds. So He confirms the position immediately. He is dealing with one of the major problems that would continually face them, and that was rooted in many of their hearts. Many would never feel quite at home without idols to lean on. Idols required no effort, were morally undemanding and helped to satisfy their need to worship without interfering in their lives.

“You shall not make gods of silver to be with me.” Consonant with the words of the covenant about graven images in Exodus 20:4 He commands them not to make gods of silver nor gods of gold to stand alongside Him in the cult (‘to be with me’). Perhaps He saw festering in their mind thoughts which showed they were already planning to do so. They certainly will do so soon (Exodus 32:1-4). But He wants them to be reminded that He brooks no rivals and will not stand for graven images. This repetition was the double confirmation that revealed the seriousness of the ban.

Some think that many Canaanite images at this time were coated with silver or gold, and such images would have been known to them in Egypt for Canaanite worship was conducted there. Thus the special warning against gold and silver idols.

Exodus 20:24-25

“You will make for me an altar of earth, and will sacrifice on it your whole burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and I will bless you. And if you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you lift your tool on it you have polluted it.”

If they have in mind to worship Him, rather than making silver and gold images they must build an altar made of either earth or unhewn stones, natural materials just as they are, without embellishment or pretence. What they worship through is not to be something made by man’s artifice or which man’s tools have touched. Nothing that they make can be worthy of Him or rightly depict Him. It must be made of materials in their raw state as God made them. And there they may offer their whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.

We must take our warning from this that the more ornate the means by which we approach God, the less likely they are to result in genuine worship. We begin to be more aware of our surroundings than we are of God, and to limit God to physical things.

But this making of an altar must only be done under His instruction at each place (maqom, compare its use in Deuteronomy 12:0) where He causes His name to be remembered. Then He will come to them and bless them. This follows the principle established by the patriarchs and followed by Moses (Genesis 12:7-8; Genesis 13:18; Genesis 22:9; Genesis 26:25; Genesis 33:20; Genesis 35:1-7; Exodus 17:15). At this stage they are on the move. There is no central sanctuary apart from the camp sanctuary. But note that they may not publicly worship just anywhere, only in ‘the places’ that He chooses.

“Whole burnt offerings and peace offerings.” The former were wholly burnt up as a sacrifice to Yahweh (the word means ‘that which goes up’), the latter could be partaken of at a feast after they have offered the blood.

“If you lift your tool on it you have polluted it.” Anything man made or fashioned cannot reflect the ‘wholly other’. He is not of this world and therefore anything used in His worship must be in its raw state as God made it. Compare Joshua 8:31-32 where this is strictly applied.

Thus does He bring home the lesson against idolatry and any man made aid to worship.

Exodus 20:26

“Neither shall you go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not discovered on it.”

Canaanite and other altars were often built on raised platforms (‘high places’) and had to be approached via steps. They may well have seen these as representing the mountains of the gods and seen themselves as entering there. But this is not to be so with them. A simple earthen or stone altar on the level ground is all that is required. For they cannot enter into heaven itself to worship God, and therefore such an attempt would be futile. Thus they must not build altars with steps, and ‘go up by steps to My altar’.

“That your nakedness be not discovered on it.” Any such attempt would be the utmost foolishness. It would result in their total nakedness being uncovered. This probably refers back to Adam and Eve who ‘knew that they were naked’ before God. In other words in their rebellion their whole lives were revealed to God. The same may happen to the children of Israel if they seek to climb into heaven or enter into the world of man-made images, of false religion and of idolatry. They will become naked before Him.

But the thought includes the fact that climbing the steps to the high place will literally reveal their nakedness before God. It would not be showing respect to God. Thus in Exodus 28:42 the priests are to wear linen breeches to hide their nakedness. But even in this the idea of nakedness before God would include the thought of man’s sinfulness being uncovered. That was why man’s nakedness was now a shameful thing. The two ideas went together.

Note for Christians.

It is often asked in what relationship the Christian stands to the covenant made at Sinai. The answer lies in considering what kind of covenant this was. For the covenant at Sinai was not a covenant of Law, it was one of grace. God did not approach His people on condition that they would agree to follow Him. He carried out His saving act through love and mercy, and then called them into His covenant as an act of love (Deuteronomy 7:6-8), in the same way as today, having carried out His saving work in Jesus Christ, He calls us into the new covenant through His blood (Mark 14:24). And just as they responded, so must we respond, and will respond if we have been chosen by Him.

The ten words revealed what God was like and what God required. They are just as binding today as they ever were, and Jesus made clear in Matthew 5:0 that His disciples were expected to fulfil them. But the point that God stresses, and that was equally true for Israel then, is that neither they nor we can be saved by obeying them. Rather we receive them, just as they did, because we have been saved. In their case their salvation was expressed through offerings and sacrifices, and the ministry of their priests, and by a mighty physical deliverance. In ours because we have a better sacrifice and a better High Priest Who has made for us a way back to God, our salvation is revealed by that. But once we are His we are as much bound to do His will as Israel was. What Paul was arguing against in Galatians 3:0 was not the covenants as God had given them, but the covenants as they had come to be seen by men. So from a heavenly point of view we are bound by all God’s covenants, made with man because of His love for His own, but from an earthly point of view we are not bound by man’s interpretation of them. Indeed Paul countered them by quoting the words of the covenant (Galatians 3:13).

So yes, we are responsible to keep all God’s covenant, except in so far as any of it has been superseded, and then it is not that we do not keep it, but that we keep it in its better fulfilment. We do not see ourselves as requiring to be circumcised, because we have been circumcised in Christ. We do not see ourselves as bound to offer the sacrifices because our great High Priest has offered the greater sacrifice on our behalf. We do not look to earthly priests because we have one great High Priest Who fulfils all necessary priestly functions on our behalf, apart from the functions of prayer and praise which He calls on all who are His to perform (Romans 12:1-2; Hebrews 13:15; 1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9). We do not carry out the harshest prescriptions of the Law because they have been tempered with mercy and we have new ways of punishment which were not available then. But we still recognise the guilt of them and that they must be punished at the last.

We do not intend therefore to comment separately on the regulations that follow for the principles that lie behind them, and their applicability to all men, is clear.

End of note.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Exodus 20". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/exodus-20.html. 2013.
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