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Bible Commentaries

Sermon Bible Commentary

Exodus 20

Verses 1-2

Exodus 20:1-2

The Ten Commandments hold a conspicuous position in that prolonged revelation of Himself, of His character, His will, and His relations to mankind, which God made to the Jewish people. They can, therefore, never become obsolete. The changing circumstances of the human race cannot destroy the significance and worth of any institutions or facts which reveal the life of God.

I. The Ten Commandments rest on the principle that God claims authority over the moral life of man. He claimed that authority in the earliest times. He claims it still.

II. There can be no doubt that God intended that these commandments should be kept. This may seem an unnecessary observation; but there are many religious people who have quite a different theory than this about the intention of Divine laws. They suppose that the commandments of God are principally intended to bring us to a sense of our guilt, and to suggest to us the sins for which we have to ask God's forgiveness. The thought of actually obeying them, and obeying them perfectly, scarcely ever occurs to them.

III. These commandments deal chiefly with actions, not with mere thought or emotion. Man is not a pure intellect or a disembodied passion. God's laws, which deal with man as he is, take large account of his external conduct. His actions are as truly part of his life as his thoughts and passions, his faith or unbelief, his sorrow for sin and his joy in the infinite love of God.

IV. Before God gave these commandments to the Jewish people, He wrought a magnificent series of miracles to effect their emancipation from miserable slavery and to punish their oppressors. He first made them free, and then gave them the law.

R. W. Dale, The Ten Commandments, p. 1

References: Exodus 20:1-3 . J. Oswald Dykes, The Law of the Ten Words, p. 19; F. D. Maurice, The Commandments, p. 1.Exodus 20:1-17 . J. Hamilton, Works, vol. v., p. 199.

Verses 2-3

Exodus 20:2-3

I. This commandment does not tell the Jew that the gods worshipped by other nations have no existence; it tells him that he must offer them no homage, and that from him they must receive no recognition of their authority and power. The Jew must serve Jehovah, and Jehovah alone. This was the truest method of securing the ultimate triumph of monotheism. A religious dogma, true or false, perishes if it is not rooted in the religious affections and sustained by religious observances. But although the First Commandment does not declare that there is one God, the whole system of Judaism rests on that sublime truth, and what the Jews had witnessed in Egypt and since their escape from slavery must have done more to destroy their reverence for the gods of their old masters than could have been effected by any dogmatic declaration that the gods of the nations were idols.

II. The First Commandment may appear to have no direct practical value for ourselves. It would be a perversion of its obvious intention to denounce covetousness, social ambition, or excessive love of children. These are not the sins which this commandment was meant to forbid. It must be admitted that there is no reason why God should say to any of us, "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me." If He were to speak to many of us, it would be necessary to condemn us for having no god at all. The appalling truth is, that many of us have sunk into Atheism. We all shrink from contact with God. And yet He loves us. But even His love would be unavailing if He did not inspire those who are filled with shame and sorrow by the discovery of their estrangement from Him, with a new and supernatural life.

R. W. Dale, The Ten Commandments, p. 21.

References: Exodus 20:1-11 . Preacher's Monthly, vol. ii., p. 137. Exodus 20:1-17 . Ibid., p. 207. Exodus 20:2 . Ibid., p. 222; A. M. Fairbairn, The City of God, p. 128; S. Leathes, The Foundations of Morality, Philippians 1:14 .

Verse 3

Exodus 20:3

This was the commandment broken by Adam and Eve in Paradise; they obeyed the voice of the devil, and took him for their god instead of their heavenly Father. Since that time the devil has been called the god of this world and the prince of this world, because men have commonly obeyed him and hearkened to his voice. Even the one family and nation to whom God revealed Himself were quite as unwilling as the rest of the world to serve Him alone, and so they needed this commandment.

I. It may be asked why it is necessary to say, "Thou shalt have no other gods but Me," because we know that there is no other god at all. If we do not worship and serve God, yet we cannot give His honour to another, for there is no other to give it to. The reason is this, that all those false gods and false religions are ways in which the devil is worshipped and served, for whenever we fall away from the worship and service of God, we fall into his power; we take him for our god.

II. What Satan requires is only, as it were, that we should once serve him. Such was his temptation to our Lord, to Adam and Eve, to Daniel, to the first Christian martyrs. On the other hand, God requires our whole service. As long as there is any single point in which we are acting contrary to the law of God, no other service we can do will be acceptable to Him. Satan would have us but once worship and serve other gods, because we thus become so polluted in our heart and conscience as to be unfit to serve God at all.

Plain Sermons by Contributors to " Tracts for the Times," vol. i., p. 240.

References: Exodus 20:3 . S. Leathes, The Foundations of Morality, pp. 53, 66; J. Vaughan, Children's Sermons, 3rd series, p. 152; J. W. Burgon, Ninety-one Short Sermons, No. 22.

Verses 4-5

Exodus 20:4-5

The First Commandment condemns the worshipping of false gods; the Second condemns the making of any image or symbol even of the true God.

I. It would have been natural for the Jews to do this. They had many traditions of Divine revelations made to their ancestors. They might have attempted to perpetuate in a visible and permanent form the impressions which His supernatural acts had made upon their imagination and their hearts. They actually did it, for the golden calf was not intended to represent any false god, any deity worshipped by heathen races, but Jehovah Himself. It was the symbol of the God who had brought them out of Egypt.

II. The fundamental principle of this commandment has authority for us still. The whole history of Christendom is a demonstration of the peril and ruin which come from any attempt to supplement by art and by stately and impressive rites the revelation which God has made of Himself in Christ.

III. The justice of the penalty which is denounced against those who transgress this commandment it is very easy to dispute. The crime is to be punished not only in the men who are personally guilty, but in their descendants. The answer is: (1) The same unity of race by which the results of the virtue and genius of one age are transmitted to the ages which succeed it renders it inevitable that the results of the folly and vice of one age should be entailed on the ages which succeed it, and (2) the commandment shows that the righteousness of men endures longer than their sin. The evil which comes from man's wickedness endures for a time, but perishes at last; the good that comes from man's well-doing is all but indestructible.

R. W. Dale, The Ten Commandments, p. 40.

References: Exodus 20:4-6 . H. W. Beecher, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xiii., p. 188; J. Oswald Dykes, The Law of the 'Ten Words, p. 53; F. D. Maurice, The Commandments, p. 18; S. Leathes, The Foundations of Morality, pp. 79, 92.Exodus 20:5 . C. Kingsley, National Sermons, pp. 144, 153; J. B. Mozley, Ruling Ideas in Early Ages, p. 104.Exodus 20:5 , Exodus 20:6 . S. Cox, Expositions, 3rd series, p. 1.

Verse 7

Exodus 20:7

The name of God stands for Himself and for that which He has revealed of Himself, not for our thoughts about Him. It is not surprising that this great name was invested with a superstitious sanctity. Even the Jews used it rarely. There is a tradition that it was heard but once a year, when it was uttered by the high-priest on the great day of atonement. In reading the Scriptures it became customary never to pronounce it, but to replace it with another Divine name, which was regarded as less awful and august. The Third Commandment requires something very different from this ceremonial homage to His name. His name stands for Himself, and it is to Him that our reverence is due.

I. We may transgress the commandment in many ways: (1) by perjury; (2) by swearing; (3) by the practice of finding-material for jesting in Holy Scripture; (4) by the habit of scoffing at those who profess to live a religious life, and taking every opportunity of sneering at their imperfections.

II. It is not enough to avoid the sin of profanity; we are bound to cultivate and to manifest that reverence for God's majesty and holiness which lies at the root of all religion. We have to worship Him. It is the "pure in heart" who see God, and only when we see God face to face can we worship Him in spirit and in truth.

R. W. Dale, The Ten Commandments, p. 64.

References: Exodus 20:7 . J. Vaughan, Sermons to Children, 4th series, p. 163; J. Oswald Dykes, The Law of the Ten Words, p. 71; S. Leathes, The Foundations of Morality, p. 104; F. D. Maurice, The Commandments, p. 35; E. Blencowe, Plain Sermons to a Country Congregation, 1st series, p. 260. Exodus 20:7-11 . A. W. Hare, Sermons to a Country Congregation, vol. ii., p. 347. Exodus 20:8 . R. Newton, Bible Warnings; Addresses to Children, p. 214; Todd, Lectures to Children, p. 89; S. Leathes, The Foundations of Morality, p. 115; C. Wordsworth, Occasional Sermons, 6th series, p. 29; J. Percival, Some Helps for School Life, p. 186; C. Girdlestone, Twenty Parochial Sermons, p. 227.

Verses 8-11

Exodus 20:8-11

The early reference to the Sabbath in the Book of Genesis is no proof of its early institution, for there can be no doubt that in the Pentateuch Moses felt himself at perfect liberty, while using ancient traditions and documents, to introduce additions, explanations, and comments of his own. Although there are many references to weeks in the Book of Genesis, there is not a solitary passage which even suggests that the patriarchs kept the seventh day or any other day as a Sabbath. Even if such a commandment had been given to Adam and recorded in Holy Scripture, it could not have any greater authority for us than the commandment given to the Jews. The Jewish revelation has become obsolete, because a nobler revelation has been made in Christ; but the Jewish revelation itself was nobler than any previous revelation, and if Moses has vanished in the Diviner glory of Christ, all that preceded Moses must have vanished too. Dismissing, therefore, all arbitrary fancies as to a primitive Sabbath, consider the characteristics of the Sabbath as given to the Jews: (1) The Jewish Sabbath was founded on a definite Divine command. (2) The particular day which was to be kept as a Sabbath was authoritatively determined. (3) The purpose of the day was expressly defined. (4) The manner in which the Sabbath was to be kept was very distinctly stated. (5) The sanction which defended the law of the Sabbath was most severe.

The only similarity between the Lord's Day and the Jewish Sabbath is that both recur once a week, and that both are religious festivals. To the idea of the Jewish Sabbath rest was essential, worship was an accident; to the idea of the Christian Sunday worship is essential, rest an accident. The observance of Sunday as a religious institution is a question of privilege, not of duty.

R, W. Dale, The Ten Commandments, p. 87.

I. The first word of the Fourth Commandment reminds us that the Sabbath Day was already established among the Israelites when the law was delivered on Sinai. That law created nothing. It preserved and enforced what God had already taught His people to observe by another method than that of formal decrees.

II. In this commandment work is enjoined, just as much as rest is enjoined. Man's sin has turned work into a curse. God has redeemed and restored work into a blessing by uniting it again to the rest with which, in His Divine original order, it was associated.

III. God rests; therefore He would have man rest. God works; therefore He would have man work. Man cannot rest truly unless he remembers his relation to God, who rests.

IV. It is not wonderful that the Jews after the Captivity, as they had been schooled by a long discipline into an understanding of the meaning of the Second Commandment, so had learnt also to appreciate in some degree the worth of the Fourth. Nehemiah speaks frequently and with great emphasis of the Sabbath as a gift of God which their fathers had lightly esteemed, and which the new generation was bound most fondly to cherish. His words and acts were abused by the Jews who lived between his age and that of our Lord's nativity, and when Christ came, the Sabbath itself, all its human graciousness, all its Divine reasonableness, were becoming each day more obscured.

V. Jesus, as the Mediator, declared Himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath, and proved Himself to be so by turning what the Jews made a curse into a blessing. He asserted the true glory of the Sabbath Day in asserting the mystery of His own relation to God and to His creatures.

F. D. Maurice, Sermons on the Sabbath Day, p. 1.

References: Exodus 20:8-11 . J. Vaughan, Sermons to Children, 4th series, p. 177; H. F. Burder, Sermons, p. 386; R. Lee, Sermons, pp. 399, 411, 421; J. Oswald Dykes, The Law of the Ten Words, p. 87; F. D. Maurice, The Commandments, p. 50.

Verse 12

Exodus 20:12

I. The relationship in which we stand to our parents, a relationship based upon the fact that we owe our existence to them, that we are made in their image, that for so long a time we depend on them for the actual maintenance of life, and that, as the necessary result of all this, we are completely under their authority during childhood this relationship is naturally made the highest symbol of our relationship to God Himself.

II. Honouring our parents includes respect, love, and obedience as long as childhood and youth continue, and the gradual modification and transformation of these affections and duties into higher forms as manhood and womanhood draw on.

III. The promise attached to the commandment is a promise of prolonged national stability. St. Paul, slightly changing its form, makes it a promise of long life to individuals. Common experience justifies the change.

IV. There is one consideration that may induce us to obey this commandment which does not belong to the other nine: the time will come when it will be no longer possible for us to obey it.

R. W. Dale, The Ten Commandments, p. 120.

I. Consider various ways in which a man may honour his father and mother: (1) by doing his best in the way of self-improvement; (2) by habits of care and frugality; (3) by keeping himself in soberness, temperance, and chastity.

II. Honour to parents is only the principal and most important application of a general principle. The Apostle bids us honour all men, and again, "In lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves."

III. From the conception of love due to father and mother, we rise to the conception of the love due to God. When God calls Himself our Father, the clouds which conceal Him from our sight seem to break and vanish, and we feel that we can love and honour Him. Above all, we can recognise Him as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in Him, and through His incarnation, has adopted us into the highest condition of sonship, and made us heirs with Him of eternal life.

Bishop Harvey Goodwin, Oxford and Cambridge Undergraduates' Journal, Oct. 30th, 1884.

I. The Israelite, when he came into the land which the Lord God gave him, may have found many temptations not to honour his father and mother; and unless he believed that God knew what was good for him and for all men, and was commanding the thing that was right and true, and unless he believed that God would give him strength to obey that which He commanded, he would yield continually to his evil nature.

But the words would be fulfilled to him. His days would not be long in the land which the Lord his God gave him.

II. We too have the land for our inheritance. Our fathers and mothers belonged to it, as their fathers and mothers did, and while we reverence them, every one of us may feel that his days are indeed very long in this country. Yes, for they are not bounded by our birth, or by our death either. The country had people in it who belonged to us before we came into it; it will have those belonging to us when we have gone out of it. It is the Lord God who is, and was, and is to come, who has watched over our family, and will watch over those who shall come hereafter.

III. Count this commandment which God gives thee to be thy life. So out of the earthly honour there will spring one that is eternal. The vision of the perfect Father, the joy and blessedness of being His child, will dawn upon thee more and more, and with the higher blessing there will come a greater enjoyment and appreciation of the lower.

F. D. Maurice, Sermons Preached in Country Churches, p. 88.

References: Exodus 20:12 . J. Vaughan, Sermons to Children, 4th series, p. 194; E. Irving, Collected Writings , vol. iii., p. 244; R. Newton, Bible Warnings, p. 309; J. Oswald Dykes, The Law of the Ten Words, p. 105; S. Leathes, The Foundations of Morality, p. 141; F. D. Maurice, The Commandments, p. 76. Exodus 20:12-21 . Preacher's Monthly, vol. ii., pp. 210, 214.

Verse 13

Exodus 20:13

I. That this commandment was intended, as some suppose, to forbid the infliction of capital punishment, is inconceivable. The Mosaic law itself inflicted death for murder, Sabbath-breaking, and the selling of a Jew into slavery. The root of the commandment lies in the greatness of human nature; man is invested with a supernatural and Divine glory; to maintain the greatness of man it may be sometimes necessary that the murderer, who in his malice forgets the mystery and wonderfulness of his intended victim, should be put to death.

II. Does the commandment absolutely forbid war between nations? Certainly not. The nation to which it was given had a strict military organisation, organised by the very authority from which the commandment came. Moses himself prayed to God that the hosts of Israel might be victorious over their enemies. Wars of ambition, wars of revenge these are crimes. But the moral sense of the purest and noblest of mankind has sanctioned and honoured the courage and heroism which repel by force of arms an assault on a nation's integrity, and the great principle which underlies this commandment sanctions and honours them too.

R. W. Dale, The Ten Commandments, p. 146.

References: Exodus 20:13 . J. Oswald Dykes, The Law of the Ten Words, p. 123; S. Leathes, The Foundations of Morality, p. 154; F. D. Maurice, The Commandments, p. 87. Exodus 20:13-16 . Parker, The City Temple, vol. i., p. 320, also The Contemporary Pulpit, vol. iii., p. 122: Preacher's Monthly, vol. ii., p. 215.

Verses 13-14

Exodus 20:13-14

There are very sad and fearful thoughts connected with these commandments. But there are also very blessed thoughts connected with them.

I. Is it nothing to remember that the Lord God Himself watches over the life of every one of us, poor creatures as we are, that He has declared, and does declare, how precious it is in His eyes? Our life is subject to a thousand accidents. All things seem to conspire against it. Death seems to get the mastery over it at last. But no; He has said, "Death, I will be thy plague." As every plant and tree seems to die in winter and revive in spring, so He says to this more wonderful life in our bodies, "It shall go on, and this is the pledge and witness that it shall: the Head of you all, the Son of man, the only-begotten Son of God, died Himself and rose again. God's conflict with death is accomplished. The grave shall not kill."

II. And so, again, the Lord is the God over the household. He who says, "Thou shalt not kill," bids us understand that it is well to pour out blood as if it were water rather than to become base and foul creatures, beasts instead of His servants and children. That was the reason He sent the Israelites to drive out the Canaanites. They were corrupting and defiling the earth with their abominations. It was time that the earth should be cleared of them. The God who gave these commandments is King now, and there is no respect of persons with Him.

III. Christ died to take away the sins of men. He died to unite men to the righteous and sinless God. The Lord our God, who has redeemed us out of the house of bondage, will always deliver us from sin, will give us a new, right, and clean heart.

F. D. Maurice, Sermons Preached in Country Churches, p. 98.

Verse 14

Exodus 20:14

As there is a Divine idea to be fulfilled in the relations between parents and children which makes that relationship sacred, so there is a Divine idea to be fulfilled in marriage, in all the offices of mutual love and service which it creates, and in all the happiness which it renders possible; and therefore marriage is sacred too. In its form the commandment only forbids acts which violate the idea on which it rests, but it requires for its true and perfect fulfilment the realization of the idea itself. The institution rests on the possibility of the absolute mutual surrender to each other of man and woman, a surrender in which nothing is reserved but loyalty to God and to those supreme moral duties which no human relationship can modify or disturb. By such a life will the true idea of marriage which underlies this commandment be fulfilled, and all peril of violating this particular precept be kept far away.

R. W. Dale, The Ten Commandments, p. 170.

References: Exodus 20:14 . J. Oswald Dykes, The Law of the Ten Words, p. 139; S. Leathes, The Foundations of Morality, p. 167; Preacher's Monthly, vol. ii., p. 216; F. D. Maurice, The Commandments, p. 100.

Verse 15

Exodus 20:15

I. In this commandment the institution of property is recognised and sanctioned by the authority of God. The institution of property is necessary: (1) for increasing the produce of the earth; (2) for preserving the produce of the earth to maturity; (3) for the cultivation and development of the nature of man; (4) for the intellectual development of man.

II. The institution of property imposes upon all men the duty of industry in their callings; the duty of maintaining independence; the duty of avoiding any, even the least, invasion of the rights of others; the duty of self-restraint in expenditure, as well as of honesty in acquisition.

III. If property is a Divine institution, founded on a Divine idea, protected by Divine sanction, then in the use of it God should be remembered, and those whom God has entrusted to our pity and our care. There are a thousand good works which appeal to us for sympathy, and have a moral right to demand our aid. Definite provision should be made for discharging the duties of charity as well as for meeting the inexorable demands of justice.

R. W. Dale, The Ten Commandments, p. 196.

References: Exodus 20:15 . J. Oswald Dykes, The Law of the Ten Words, p. 156; J. Vaughan, Sermons to Children, 4th series, p. 224; S. Leathes, The Foundations of Morality, p. 179; Preacher's Monthly. vol. ii., pp. 216, 219; F. D. Maurice, The Commandments, p. 116.

Verse 16

Exodus 20:16

This commandment is not to be restricted to false testimony given in courts of justice. It prohibits slander, calumny, misrepresentation, at any time, in any circumstances. On the other hand, we shall miss the moral significance of the commandment if we regard it as a prohibition of lying in general. It is a specific kind of falsehood which is forbidden: "false witness against our neighbour."

On what grounds does the commandment fasten on this particular kind of falsehood, instead of condemning falsehood in general? It may be suggested that the bearing of false witness against our neighbour is the most frequent and most injurious kind of falsehood, that the sin of bearing false witness in favour of others is not so common or so mischievous, and that lying to our own advantage is a sin which soon ceases to have any effect.

I. This commandment is a recognition of those tribunals which are necessary to the peace and to the very existence of the State.

II. In this commandment there is a Divine recognition of the importance of the moral judgments which men pronounce on each other: the judgment which individual men form of other men as the result of the testimony to which they have listened, whether it was true or false; the judgments which large classes of men or whole communities form of individuals, and which constitute what we call the opinion of society concerning them.

III. Many ways might be mentioned in which we may avoid bearing false witness against our neighbour. (1) We should try to form a true and just judgment of other people before we say anything against them. (2) We have no right to give our mere inferences from what we know about the conduct and principles of others as though they were facts. (3) We have no right to spread an injurious report merely because somebody brought it to us.

R. W. Dale, The Ten Commandments, p. 218.

References: Exodus 20:16 . J. Oswald Dykes, The Law of the Ten Words, p. 171; J. Vaughan, Sermons to Children, 4th series, p. 239, S. Leathes, The Foundations of Morality, p. 191; F. D. Maurice, The Commandments, p. 127.

Verse 17

Exodus 20:17

I. The history of the world is stained and darkened by the crimes to which nations have been driven by the spirit of covetousness. Covetousness is forbidden not merely to prevent the miseries, and horrors, and crimes of aggressive war, but to train the spirit of nations to the recognition of God's own idea of their relations to each other. Nations should see underlying this commandment the Divine idea of the unity of the human race; they should learn to seek greatness by ministering to each other's peace, security, prosperity, and happiness. II. Individuals, as well as nations, may violate this law.

They may do it: (1) by ambition; (2) by discontent and envy; (3) by the desire to win from another man the love which is the pride and joy of his life. The very end for which Christ came was to redeem us from selfishness. The last of the Ten Commandments touches the characteristic precept of the new law, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself."

R. W. Dale, The Ten Commandments, p. 241.

References: Exodus 20:17 . J. Oswald Dykes, The Law of the Ten Words, p. 189; S. Leathes, Foundations of Morality, p. 205; F. D. Maurice, The Commandments, p. 137; Preacher's Monthly, vol. ii., p. 220; J. Vaughan, Sermons to Children, 4th series, p. 252.Exodus 20:18 (with Exodus 24:1-18 ). W. M. Taylor, Moses the Lawgiver, p. 198. Exodus 20:22 . Parker, vol. ii., p. 320. 20:22 24. J. Monro Gibson, 7he Mosaic Era, p. 9. Exodus 20:24 . Plain Sermons by Contributors to " Tracts for the Times, " vol. ii., p. 89. Exodus 20:25 . H. Melvill, Penny Pulpit, No. 2158; Spurgeon, Morning by Morning, p. 196. 20 G. Gilfillan, Alpha and Omega, vol. ii., p. 93.Exodus 21:5 , Exodus 21:6 . Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xx., No. 117. Exodus 21:17 . Parker, Fountain, Feb. 7th, 1878. 21-23. Parker, vol. ii., pp. 161, 168, 177.

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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Exodus 20". "Sermon Bible Commentary".