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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 20

Verse 1

1. God spake The Creator of man and the world, who has all authority in heaven and earth, is the fountain of law . Many Jewish and Christian expositors affirm that the Sinaitic proclamation of the decalogue was, literally, by the voice of God; that is, “that words were formed in the air by the power of God, and not by the intervention and ministry of angels.” (Keil.) This is thought to be the necessary meaning of Deuteronomy 5:4: “Jehovah talked with you face to face out of the midst of the fire.” On the other hand, in Deuteronomy 33:2, Moses speaks of Jehovah’s coming from Sinai, “with ten thousands of saints,” or out of myriads of his holiness. Comp. Psalms 68:17. In Acts 7:0, Stephen speaks of the law as received “by the disposition of angels,” and in Galatians 3:19, Paul employs nearly the same expression . In Hebrews 2:2, the law is called “the word spoken by angels . ” Hence, while it is matter of record that Jehovah spake and Israel heard “the voice out of the midst of the darkness,” (Deuteronomy 5:22-23,) it does not necessarily follow that “the voice of words” (Hebrews 12:19) was produced without the ministry of angels . The Israelites “saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake in Horeb out of the midst of the fire,” but the whole record shows that the Sinaitic proclamation of the decalogue was accompanied by miraculous and supernatural displays of the divine majesty . The ministry of angels is affirmed the word was “spoken by angels;” but the manner of producing the voice is an unrevealed secret .

Verses 1-17


The preceding chapter has furnished an awe-inspiring preparation for the announcement of the fundamental law which here follows. Nothing in all the myths, legends, or histories of law-giving among other peoples is comparable with this sublime issuing of Israel’s decalogue. And the marvelous perfection of this summary of law, the inner excellency, the universal applicability of the several precepts, and their abiding, unchangeable nature, elevate this entire narrative above the element of myth and fable.

The glory of this decalogue is, that its provisions are absolutely fundamental. They have to do with individual life, social relations, and national history. We are not to imagine that they were now issued for the first time, or had no existence and recognition before the time of Moses. Compare the note on Genesis 9:6. These laws are grounded in the very nature of man as a moral being, having essential relations to God on the one hand, and to his fellow-man on the other. They rest upon the idea that there is an infinite power above man to whom allegiance is due, and a community of coordinate fellow-beings about him with whom he is bound to act on principles of equity and love. These great truths were manifest from the beginning, but had become obscured and often ignored by the perversity of men. Jehovah, the God of Israel, gave them new and sublime expression at Sinai. They were there graven upon two tables of stone. Exodus 32:15-16; Exodus 34:28. “Hard, stiff, abrupt as the cliffs from which they were taken,” writes Stanley, “they remain as the firm, unyielding basis on which all true spiritual religion has been built up and sustained . Sinai is not Palestine the law is not the Gospel; but the ten commandments, in letter and in spirit, remain to us as the relic of that time. They represent to us, both in fact and in idea, the granite foundation, the immovable mountain, on which the world is built up without which all theories of religion are but as shifting and fleeting clouds. They give us the two homely fundamental laws which all subsequent revelation has but confirmed and sanctified the law of our duty to God, and the law of our duty to our neighbour. Side by side with the prayer of our Lord, and with the creed of his Church, they appear inscribed on our churches, read from our altars, taught to our children, as the foundation of all morality.” Jewish Church, First Series, pp. 195, 198.

The NAMES applied to this special Sinaitic law are various. The Greek word decalogue, and the common title the ten commandments, have arisen from the fact that the tables contain ten distinct mandates, and are called in Exodus 34:28, and Deuteronomy 4:13, the ten commandments, or ten words . In those same texts and elsewhere they are also called the words of the covenant and the covenant, because they are the truest expression of the covenant-relations of God and his people. In Exodus 31:18; Exodus 32:15; Exodus 34:29, they are called the two tables of the testimony, as containing God’s solemn declaration of his holy will concerning man. They may, of course, be included under the more common terms laws, commandments, statutes, precepts. Being the foundation and substance of all moral and religious precepts, they are emphatically THE LAW AND THE COMMANDMENT. Exodus 24:12.

Being ten in number, their proper DIVISION and arrangement are to be determined. They are most naturally arranged in two tables, each containing five precepts. According to this oldest and simplest division we have the two tables as follows:


1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

2. Thou shalt not make any graven image.

3. Thou shalt not take the name of God in vain.

4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

5. Honour thy father and thy mother.


6. Thou shalt not kill.

7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

8. Thou shalt not steal.

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness.

10. Thou shalt not covet.

Two other methods of dividing the decalogue have been proposed, one by uniting the first and second in the above arrangement, and dividing the tenth into two, the other by regarding the introductory words, “I am the Lord thy God,” as the first commandment, and combining, like the last-named method, the prohibition of other gods and graven images.

These two ways of arranging are exhibited in parallel columns, as follows:

1. (AUGUSTINIAN.) FIRST TABLE. 2. (JEWISH.) 1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me, nor make any graven images. 1. I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of Egypt. 2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. 2. Thou shalt have no other gods before me, nor make any graven images. 3. Remember the Sabbath day. 3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. SECOND TABLE. 4. Honour thy father and thy mother. 4. Remember the Sabbath day. 5. Thou shalt not kill. 5. Honour thy father and mother. 6. Thou shalt not commit adultery. 6. Thou shalt not kill. 7. Thou shalt not steal. 7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. 8. Thou shalt not bear false witness. 8. Thou shalt not steal. 9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house. 9. Thou shalt not bear false witness. 10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife. 10. Thou shalt not covet. Much has been written for and against each of these methods of arrangement. That which makes Exodus 20:2, the first word, or commandment, is quite generally rejected, for the introductory words, “I am Jehovah, thy God,” cannot reasonably be regarded as a commandment co-ordinate with the others . But that Masoretic division, shown in Hebrew Bibles, by which Exodus 20:1-6, is included in the first commandment, and the prohibition of blasphemy (Exodus 20:7) forms the second, agrees with the Augustinian theory, numbered 1 above, and makes up the ten by dividing Exodus 20:17 into two commandments. This view is ably advocated by Kurtz, ( Hist. of the Old Covenant, Eng. trans., vol. iii, pp. 123-137.) The strong point of his argument is, that there is no radical distinction between the worship of other gods and graven images, for image-worship and idolatry are essentially the same, or, at any rate, image-worship is a species of idolatry. “Idolatry is the abstract, image-worship the concrete, sin.” His argument, however, for dividing the law against coveting into two commandments is weak, and a notable specimen of special pleading. The same is true of all attempts to establish this most unnatural division. The fact that the Hebrew text in Deuteronomy 5:21, places wife before house in the list of objects not to be coveted, is at best but a slender argument in favour of such division, whilst on the other hand the easy transposition of these words, and their use by the apostle in Romans 7:7-8, where he quotes only, “Thou shalt not covet,” and then speaks immediately of “all manner of coveting,” are a far more weighty witness against it.

Whilst, therefore, it is conceded that the distinction between the worship of false gods and of images is not so marked as one might expect in objects prohibited by separate commandments, the distinction is nevertheless more easily made and more noticeable than that between a neighbour’s wife and his other possessions. “No essential difference,” says Keil, “can be pointed out in the two clauses which prohibit coveting; but there was a very essential difference between the commandment against other gods and that against making an image of God, so far as the Israelites were concerned, as we may see not only from the account of the golden calf at Sinai, but also from the image-worship of Gideon, (Judges 8:27,) Micah, (Judges 17:0,) and Jeroboam, (1 Kings 12:28.”) See further in textual notes on Exodus 20:4.

A further question concerns the arrangement in two tables. The first table is believed to set forth man’s duties toward God, the second, those toward his neighbours, or fellow-men; and hence the whole are summed up in the two positive commandments, (1) “Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart,” and (2) “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Comp. Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:34; Matthew 22:37; Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27. But where are we to make the division? Augustine’s arrangement, as shown in the column above, made the first table comprise three, and the second table seven, commandments . He thought that this arrangement favoured the doctrine of the Trinity . Others commence the second table with the commandment to honour parents, and thus divide the ten into two groups of four and six . But the oldest and simplest division is that which recognizes five in each table, like the fingers on the two hands . The first five then belong to the sphere of Piety, and the second five to that of Morality .

The decalogue appears also in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. The variations between the two texts are the following: Deuteronomy omits nothing contained in Exodus except the waw ( ו , and) before כל תמונה , any likeness, (comp . Exodus Exodus 20:4, and Deuteronomy Exodus 20:8,) and the words of Exodus 20:11, “therefore Jehovah blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it,” but substitutes שׁמור , observe, for זכור , remember, (Exodus 8:0, Deuteronomy 12:0;) שׁוא , emptiness, for שׁקר , a lie, (Exodus 16:0, Deuteronomy 17:0;) and תתאוה , long after, instead of the second תחמר , covet, (Exodus 17:0, and Deuteronomy 18:0,) and adds in Exodus 20:12; Exodus 20:16 the words, “as the Lord thy God commanded thee;” in Exodus 20:14, “nor thy ox, nor thy ass, nor any,” “that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou;” in Exodus 20:15, “and remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched-out arm; therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day.” Deuteronomy also connects with ו , and, all the commands after that pertaining to murder, and places wife before house in the last commandment, and also inserts שׂדהו , his field, among the objects not to be coveted . Deuteronomy Exodus 20:10, reads, his commandments, where Exodus Exodus 20:6, has my commandments. It is well for the reader to compare the New Testament citations of the decalogue in order to observe how freely they were quoted, and without reference to any particular order of precepts. See Matthew 5:21; Matthew 5:27; Matthew 19:18; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20; Romans 13:9; James 2:11. The Vatican Codex of the Septuagint places the sixth commandment after the eighth, and transposes house and wife in Exodus 20:17, like the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy. No great stress should be placed on the mere order of the precepts, as if any thing of importance depended upon their division and arrangement in the tables. The text in Deuteronomy is itself witness that no great importance was attached to verbal accuracy in citing the decalogue, but it is noticeable that explicit reference is there made to what Jehovah had commanded at Sinai. It is not improbable that the original form of the several mandates as given at Sinai was without the reasons which are attached to the first five, both in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

Verse 2

2. I am the Lord thy God Many of the Jews, as we have seen above, regard this verse as the first of the ten words, or commandments, but they are rather of the nature of an introduction, showing emphatically the origin and source of the commandments . As the Eternal God, the I AM of previous revelation, (Exodus 3:14-15,) he appropriately announces his NAME, and mentions the redemption from Egypt as a ground of obligation for Israel to hear and keep his commandments . The singular form of the address, thy God, not your God, gives a particular individuality of personal appeal to this announcement. The same is to be noted in each of the commandments which follow. The redemption out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, was the greatest fact in Israel’s history, and he who wrought that wonderful deliverance is the author of this holy law, and directs its words to every individual of the nation.

Verse 3


3. Thou shalt have no other gods before me The rendering before me follows the Vulgate. The Septuagint has πλην εμου , besides me . But the Hebrew words על פני mean rather over against me; in front of me; and the commandment prohibits all recognition and worship of any deity that could be conceived as a rival of Jehovah . A proper conception of the unity of God, and of his omnipresence and other attributes of infinity, necessarily excludes the existence of other gods . Hence, a correct knowledge of divine things shows, as the apostle says, 1 Corinthians 8:4, “that no idol is any thing in the world, and that there is no God but one.” A proper concept of God lies at the foundation of all pure worship. “Gods many and lords many” produce confusion of thought and consequent darkness of soul; for the acknowledging of such changes the truth of God into a lie, and leads logically to a worship of the creature rather than the Creator. Comp. Romans 1:21-25. Hence it is that the recognition and worship of the one true God is the basis of pure morality as well as of religion . Vainly will men seek to divorce these from one another . This commandment stands against all doctrines and forms of heathen idolatry and polytheism . It strikes at the root of all degrading superstitions . Atheism and infidelity, as well as polytheism, are herein condemned . Pantheism cannot stand the test of these words of a personal God . The commandment is holy and uplifting, and, applied to the inner life, condemns also every species of spiritual idolatry the setting of the affections on earthly rather than on heavenly things . So he who claimed to have observed all the commandments from his youth had in reality failed to know fully the import of the first one, and loved and clung to his “great possessions” when they stood between him and eternal life . Mark 10:17-22.

Verse 4


4. Graven image That this commandment was not designed to prohibit the productions of sculpture and painting is apparent from the fact that Moses was expressly ordered to construct cherubim for the most holy place of the tabernacle, and to make the brazen serpent in the wilderness . Only idolatrous images, representations of God and designed for worship, are contemplated . The golden calf, Exodus 32:1-4, is an illustration of the kind of graven images intended . Such images were graven or carved out of metal, wood, or stone. Comp. Jdg 17:3 ; 2 Kings 21:7. The word translated likeness ( תמונה ) is commonly used of attempted representations of God, or of the real form of God as seen or conceived by man . Comp . Numbers 12:8; Deuteronomy 4:12; Deuteronomy 4:15-16; Psalms 17:15. Accordingly a likeness of something in heaven above would be a portraiture of a god under the form of a star, or sun, or moon, or fowl; that of what is in the earth beneath would be the formation of a god in the similitude of a man or a woman, of a beast or any creeping thing that moves on land: that of things in the water under the earth would be, like the Philistine fish-god Dagon, the image of something that lives and moves in the water. All these are enumerated in Deuteronomy 4:15-19, which passage is an inspired commentary on this second commandment . The words under the earth show us the Hebrew conception of the water as lying lower than the land . When the land was elevated above the waters the latter fell back into the lower level of the seas. Genesis 1:9-10. We should here observe that the use of images in worship is not always idolatry. Hence this second commandment is not to be confounded with the first, for it was assumed in the worship of the golden calf that the true God, who brought Israel out of Egypt, was honoured by means of the image. It has been persistently claimed by many religious leaders that the use of images in worship may be very helpful; they serve to concentrate the mind, and so prevent distraction of thought in one’s devotions. They deepen impressions, and so intensify and enliven the forms of worship. But all history shows that such employment of images in worship begets superstition, and turns the thought of the average worshipper more upon the creature than the Creator. The narrative of chapter 32 sets forth the unquestionable fact that the image-worship there described brought down the penal wrath of God upon the people. Such a method of promoting religious devotions is therefore fraught with great danger, and a perfect law required this prohibition of the use of graven images in worship.

Verse 5

5. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them This confirms the view expressed in the last verse, that idolatrous images are contemplated, not any and all productions of art . Images of Deity, whether under the form of man, or beast, or bird, or the luminaries of the sky, have ever proven a temptation and snare; and for a people just delivered from Egypt, where almost every object in nature was thus deified, such a most emphatic and particular prohibition was demanded . Jehovah therefore proclaims himself a jealous God, and only the shallow sentimentalist will find fault with such a designation of the God of Israel. In the nature of things he cannot undeify himself by giving his glory to another, and his praise to graven images. Isaiah 42:8. This would be as impossible as it is for God to lie . Here are closely brought together three divine names, JEHOVAH, ELOHIM, and EL. The Almighty and Eternal Being who bears these titles cannot allow his place and name to be taken by another any more than the faithful husband can allow adultery in his wife. This imagery is frequent in the Old Testament, and all idolatry is regarded as spiritual adultery.

Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children Here is testimony to a law of heredity stamped upon the human race. Mankind are constituted a living, self-perpetuating organism, and one may, by hateful opposition to God, bequeath a curse upon his posterity which will extend unto the third and fourth generation. The word עון , iniquity, means the inherent badness of a perverted moral nature . This is the characterizing quality of them that hate the God of holy revelation . As an idol is a deceptive nothing, (1 Corinthians 8:4,) so all who make and worship idolatrous images are virtually the same as those who love and make a lie, (Revelation 22:15;) and history shows how the iniquity of idolatry has been wont to propagate itself through many generations. Nor is idolatry the only mortal curse that is wont to be thus entailed. But this Scripture is not to be construed, contrary to Ezekiel 18:20, to mean that children will be punished for their parents’ sins . Guilt cannot be entailed . The child may, physically and mentally, suffer evil consequences because of a parent’s sins, but no guilt of theirs is or can be justly imputed to him who had no part in the sin . The following table, by Lummis, of distinctions between natural consequences and punishment puts the subject in a clear light, and furnishes in itself a valuable study .

Distinctions to be made between Natural Consequences and Punishment.

1. All proper punishment must be deserved. Natural consequences may not be deserved. 2. Punishment follows intentional wrong doing only. Consequences follow both in tentional and un intentional wrong doing. 3. Punishment follows wrong doing after judgment pronounced. Consequences may follow immediately after the wrong act. 4. Punishment is suspended the moment pardon has been declared. Consequences may follow indefinitely after pardon has been granted 5. Punishment ceases when the penalty inflicted has been fully borne. Consequences follow as really after the penalty has been suffered as at any time after the wrong doing 6. Punishment is visited only on the guilty. Consequences extend equally to the Innocent. 7. Punishment is limited by justice. Justice is not applicable to consequences. 8. Punishment comes directly from the will of the ruler. Consequences result directly from the constitution of things. 9. Punishment is retributive. Consequences are admonitory 10. Punishment can only belong where guilt or remorse has been felt. Consequences may exist where remorse is impossible for example, upon dumb animals.

Verse 6

6. Showing mercy Or, doing kindness . His lovingkindness and favour are never withheld from the good and obedient .

Unto thousands Some would understand generations here, as after third and fourth in the previous verse . So superabundant is Jehovah’s kindness that he gladly will extend it to the thousandth generation of them that love him and keep his commandments. The expression, however, is best understood as general in its fulness of meaning . His kindness toward the loving and obedient is for all and for ever . Comp . Exodus 34:6-7.

Verse 7


7. Thou shalt not take the name If Jehovah is God alone, and if all artificial attempts to produce a likeness of him deserve such fearful visitations as the preceding verses show, it follows that his name should be held in highest honour . The Jews have a tradition that the whole world trembled when this commandment was proclaimed, and Eben Ezra, as quoted by Kalisch, enhances the seriousness of the prohibition by the consideration that, while other crimes, as murder and adultery, cannot be committed at any time, “he who has once accustomed himself to use superfluous oaths swears in one day to an infinite amount, and that habit at last becomes so familiar to him that he scarcely knows that he swears; and if you reproachfully ask him why he swore just now he will swear that he has not sworn, so great is the power of the habit; and, at last, almost his every assertion will be preceded by an oath.” The import of the commandment is seen in the three words, name, take, and vain. The word name in such texts comprehends all that is in the being and nature of God; not merely the title by which the Deity is designated, but all and every thing which is indicated by the various names, attributes, and perfections of the one true God. To take the name is to lift it up, put it into prominence. Compare the expression, “raise a false report,” in chap. xxiii, 1, where the Hebrew word is the same, ( נשׂא . ) To get the full meaning here intended we must at the same time consider the qualifying adverbial phrase in vain, ( לשׁוא . ) To lift a name in vain is to make a vain or false use of it; to employ it in a manner damaging to truth and piety . The Hebrew phrase is by many exegetes translated for falsehood, and so is nearly equivalent to לשׁקר , in Leviticus 19:12: “Thou shalt not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God . ” The prohibition contemplates, not only all vile blasphemy, but also, doubtless, all irreverent use of the divine name, and accordingly comprehends perjury also, as when “a man vows a vow unto the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond,” and then breaks his word, or profanes it by failing to observe his oath . Comp . Numbers 30:2. Hence the strictures of Jesuson this subject, Matthew 5:33-37, where see Whedon’s notes . The great remedy of all this is: “Swear not at all,” (Matthew 5:34; James 5:12,) but rather “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts . ” 1 Peter 3:15.

Will not hold him guiltless Will not treat him as innocent, and allow him to go unpunished.

Verse 8


8. Remember the sabbath day The word remember here cannot properly be pressed to mean the recalling it to mind, as if something old, and, for that reason, liable to be forgotten . It cannot be fairly adduced as a proof that the Sabbath was observed by the patriarchs . It means rather: Be ever mindful to observe the day . In the parallel in Deuteronomy (Exodus 20:12) we find the word keep employed instead of remember . So in Exodus 13:3, Moses says to the people: “Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt.” Nevertheless, the word may well have suggested that the Sabbath was an ancient institution and worthy to be remembered, and this is specifically brought forward in Exodus 20:11. See also note on Exodus 16:23. As the word sabbath means rest, so the main idea associated with it in the Scriptures is that of cessation from ordinary labour. See further on Exodus 20:10.

Keep it holy That is, treat it as sacred, hallow it. This is the positive side of the commandment, whereas the negative comes out more clearly in Exodus 20:10. The Israelites were wont to sanctify the Sabbath day by offering double offerings, (Numbers 28:9-10,) and by renewal of the twelve cakes of show-bread in the tabernacle . Leviticus 24:5-9. It would appear from 2 Kings 4:23, that at a later time the people were accustomed to resort to the prophets on the Sabbath to obtain instruction.

The adaptation of such a day of rest and devotion to cultivate the spiritual nature is evident.

Verse 9

9. Six days shalt thou labour Here is a positive commandment, as explicit as that which enjoins the sabbath rest . No man is at liberty, before God, to spend his days in idleness and inactivity, and the healthfulness and full vigour of the physical constitution depend as much upon bodily activity as does the soundness of the religious life demand a weekly day of rest .

Verse 10

10. Thou shalt not do any work The kinds of work incidentally noticed as coming under this prohibition were gathering manna, (Exodus 16:27-29,) plowing, and gathering of harvests, (Exodus 34:21,) kindling fires, (Exodus 35:3,) collecting wood, (Numbers 15:32-36,) selling articles of commerce, (Amos 8:5,) bearing burdens, (Jeremiah 17:21,) treading wine-presses, and carrying on traffic . Nehemiah 13:15-22. From this it is evident that the commandment was understood as forbidding all sorts of ordinary work, and was to be applied to all members of the house, and even to the cattle, that is, the beasts of burden . The stranger, that is, the foreigner who settled in any of the cities of Israel, must also observe the sabbath law . The holy day, however, was not to be a day of gloom and sadness, but one filled with all such delights as would bring the heart into closer fellowship with Jehovah . Isaiah 58:13-14.

Verse 11

11. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth Here is a direct reference to what is recorded in Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:3, where see notes, and also pages 63 and 64 of the Introduction . Those writers who maintain that the Sabbath was a purely Mosaic institution find no little embarrassment in explaining away the obvious import of this verse . Both here and in Genesis 2:1-3, God’s rest at the close of the creative week is made a reason for the sanctifying of the seventh day . Other reasons are also given, as in Deuteronomy 5:15, where the deliverance from Egyptian bondage is mentioned as an additional ground for its observance. That a seventh-day rest is necessary to the highest good of man may be argued from the following considerations: (1.) From this explicit commandment of the decalogue. Its position among other moral laws of universal obligation shows that it is something more than a mere temporary Mosaic institution. (2.) The typical example of God’s resting from his work, here given as a reason for this law, implies that the seventh-day rest is an ordinance old as the creation of man. (3.) This is confirmed by traces of it in the weekly divisions of time among several ancient nations, (see on Exodus 16:23,) and especially among the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, who had their “day of rest for the heart . ” (4 . ) Because of its association with Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage, (Deuteronomy 5:15,) and the severity with which its violation was punished . Numbers 15:35; 2 Chronicles 36:21. (5 . ) Christ’s words in Mark 2:27, confirm all the above, and show it to be a law of the highest good for man, grounded in the needs of his physical and moral nature . (6 . ) The remarkable fact has been often proven and illustrated by fair trial, that both man and beast will do more and better work by observing one rest day in seven than by continuous labour in violation of the sabbath law . (7 . ) The sabbath rest, properly utilized, is admirably adapted to promote the culture of all that is highest and best in the spiritual nature of man .

Verse 12


12. Honour thy father and thy mother This commandment belongs properly to the “first table,” as we have shown above, for it inculcates a form of piety as distinguished from morality . “For a considerable time,” observes Clarke, “parents stand, as it were, in the place of God to their children, and therefore rebellion against their lawful commands has been considered as rebellion against God . ” The death penalty was enjoined for him who smote or reviled his parents . Exodus 21:15; Exodus 21:17. The proverb (in Proverbs 30:17) shows how execrable the dishonouring of parents was considered: “The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it . ” See also the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus, Exodus 3:1-16. The filial relation best represents the true relationship of man to God as his author and preserver, and, accordingly, he who disrespects its sacredness exhibits one of the most notable marks of impiety. But loyalty and devotion to parents tend to cultivate reverence for God, and for rulers, ministers, and teachers, who hold positions of responsibility and are set to guard the public weal. It is worthy of note that in Leviticus 19:3, this law and that of the sabbath are united together thus: “Ye shall fear every man his mother and his father, and keep my Sabbaths . ” These two are the only commandments of the decalogue which are expressed in positive form.

That thy days may be long The apostle calls this “the first commandment with promise.” Ephesians 6:2. It is the only one in the decalogue which has a specific promise attached to it .

The land which the Lord thy God giveth thee is here to be understood first of the promised land of Israel, the land of Canaan . Comp . Deuteronomy 4:26; Deuteronomy 4:40; Deuteronomy 30:18; Deuteronomy 32:47. But in the wider scope which this commandment has, as being grounded in the nature of the family, and so alike binding upon all men, it is to be understood of the land or country of any and every individual. “Filial respect,” says Cook, in The Speaker’s Commentary, “is the ground of national permanence. When the Jews were about to be cast out of their land, the rebuke of the prophet was that they had not walked in the old paths, and had not respected the voice of their fathers as the sons of Jonadab had done. Jeremiah 6:16; Jeremiah 35:18-19. And when in later times the land had been restored to them, and they were about to be cast out of it a second time, the great sin of which they were convicted was that they had set aside this fifth commandment for the sake of their own traditions . Matthew 15:4-6; Mark 7:10-11. Every other nation that has a history bears witness to the same truth . Rome owed her strength, as well as the permanence of her influence after she had politically perished, to her steady maintenance of the patria potestas . (Maine, Ancient Law .) China has mainly owed her long duration to the simple way in which she has uniformly acknowledged the authority of her fathers . ”

Verse 13


13. Thou shalt not kill Better, thou shalt not commit murder . This first commandment of the second table corresponds noticeably with the first of the previous table, as a reference to Genesis 9:6, will serve to show: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made he man . ” The murderer, therefore, is regarded as one who wickedly destroys God’s image in man, and so most basely assaults God himself . Suicide is, accordingly, prohibited by this commandment . The Hebrew legislation everywhere enhances the sacredness of human life . All the precepts in Exodus 21:12-30, aim to guard life from violence . If any man by carelessness or neglect occasioned the death of another, he brought blood-guiltiness upon his house . Deuteronomy 22:8. A murder by an unknown hand would pollute the very land in which it was committed until suitable expiation were made. Deuteronomy 21:1-9. Our Lord took up this law for special treatment, and taught that he who cherished anger against his neighbour was guilty before God of the spirit of murder. Matthew 5:21-24. John also enlarges on this same profound idea . 1Jn 2:9-11 ; 1 John 3:12-15. As the not having any other God instead of Jehovah is at the basis of the laws of the first table, so the not hating one’s neighbour is at the basis of all those of the second. Hence the two great positive commands, inclusive of all others: first, thou shalt love God with all thy heart; and, second, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. According to Numbers 35:31, no satisfaction was allowable for the life of a murderer but the extreme penalty of the law. No commutation and no pardon could be granted to one clearly convicted of murder. The shallow sentimentalism of modern life has in numerous places cried out against this law, and sought to class it with barbarities which ought to be set aside. Also some learned and thoughtful men, holding the notion that civil government is merely a “social compact,” or that the object of penalty is solely to prevent crime, and is not based upon moral desert, have advocated the abolition of capital punishment. But it is shown that where another punishment has been substituted for the death penalty, capital crime has increased, and states which have tried the experiment have found it a failure, and have restored the severer law. Those who oppose the death penalty for murder often exhibit far more sympathy for the criminal than for his victims. The biblical doctrine is clear and decisive: (1.) He who takes a human life forfeits his own, and so deserves death. (2.) The common safety and public good demand that the just penalty be speedily executed. (3.) The New Testament, far from conflicting with the Old on this point, confirms it by representing the civil magistrate as God’s minister, bearing the sword to be a terror to evildoers, and to execute wrath upon them. Romans 13:1-6. The words of our Lord, often quoted as inconsistent with capital punishment, have no reference whatever to the execution of righteous laws upon the guilty, but to man’s personal and private relations . To explain such precepts as those of Matthew 5:38-45, as indicating the true methods of civil government is preposterous in the extreme, and, if thus practically applied, would overthrow all righteous government and law. Equally absurd is it to appeal to Romans 12:17-21; for if the officers of law and justice should proceed with murderers, thieves, and other criminals as there enjoined, it would be a direct encouragement for all sorts of evil doers to multiply their nefarious deeds. All these fallacies of exegesis arise from confounding private and personal relations with the administration of public justice. With one who is incapable of making and holding these distinctions in mind, it would be idle to argue the question of capital or any other punishment by the State.

Verse 14


14. Thou shalt not commit adultery Next to the criminal blood-guiltiness of him who assaults God’s image by destroying human life is that of him or her who violates the sacredness of the marriage bond. He who created man in his own image created them male and female, (Genesis 1:27,) and declared that a man and his wife should be regarded as one flesh . Genesis 2:24. Comp . Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12. Weighty and suggestive, also, are the apostle’s words upon this sacred relation, in Ephesians 5:23-33. A sound scriptural view of the sacredness of the marriage relation exhibits the essential criminality of bigamy and polygamy . Although these abominable evils forced themselves into the domestic life of patriarchs and other distinguished men of Old Testament times, the law of God and nature has ever frowned upon them, and pursued them with a curse . Our Lord showed clearly, in the passage above cited, that these sins had been tolerated because of the people’s perversity, and in spite of the original law and commandment. He not only re-announced the ancient law, but gave it a broader scope and deeper significance by declaring, “that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Matthew 5:28. He accordingly includes fornication and all sensual uncleanness under this prohibition, and also limits the right of divorce to the one cause of a breach of the marriage bond. Matthew 5:32. The Jewish commentator Kalisch observes: “It requires scarcely any proof to show the honourable position which the woman occupied in Hebrew society . From the very creation of the woman, who is a part of man himself, and for whose sake he shall leave his father and his mother so that both be one flesh, down to the glorious picture of the virtuous wife in the last chapter of Proverbs, the whole Bible breathes the highest regard for female excellence, and assigns to the weaker sex that sound and noble rank which forms the just medium between its Oriental degradation and the exaggerated gallantry of the romantic epochs.”

Verse 15


15. Thou shalt not steal Next to the rights of life and person stands the right of property . The crime of theft may include, besides the secret removal of another’s property, all acts which in any way impinge upon the property interests of one’s neighbour . Clarke specifies rapine, theft, petty larceny, highway robbery, and private stealing, and national and commercial wrongs, and adds that “the taking advantage of a seller’s or buyer’s ignorance, to give the one less and make the other pay more for a commodity than its worth, is a breach of this sacred law . ” Manifestly, all theories of “socialism” and “anarchy” which tend directly or indirectly to take from man the products of his own genius, enterprise, and toil, or to appropriate them to purposes other than those which he may rightfully desire, are fundamentally inconsistent with this law . In like manner are all monopolies and combinations which conflict with the liberty and rights of individuals, and so oppress the poor labourer, to be condemned under this prohibition of the decalogue . He who loves his neighbour as himself, and does unto others as he would have others do unto him, will not allow himself to be a partaker in such wrongs .

Verse 16


16. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour The law which guards the property of a man is appropriately followed by one which guards his good name . it concerns the words rather than deeds or acts of men . The most direct and flagrant example is that of one who swears to a known falsehood before a judicial tribunal . This is perjury, and is properly punishable as a great crime . Comp . Deuteronomy 19:16-19. But this law also comprehends such whispering, slandering, backbiting, lying, and evil speaking generally as is contemplated in Leviticus 19:16: “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people;” also Exodus 20:11 of the same chapter: “Ye shall not lie one to another . ” “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord . ” Proverbs 12:22. It is a high and holy law which requires us “to speak evil of no man,” (Titus 3:2,) and to put away from us “all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, with all malice . ” Ephesians 4:31. Comp . also James 4:11. Only when it is necessary to defend innocence and promote the public good should one bear true testimony against his fellow-man to blight his character and expose his wrong; but never should one, at any place or under any circumstances, utter a false word against him. Jehovah abhors the deceitful man as he does those who are guilty of capital crime. Psalms 5:6.

Verse 17


17. Thou shalt not covet The word חמד , here rendered covet, occurs some twenty times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and is commonly translated by desire . One may, of course, properly desire and long after every thing lawful and good, but no one can look with desire and longing upon any possession of his neighbour’s without violating this commandment . While the preceding commandments contemplate more directly the outward acts of men, this aims at the heart as the fountain of unlawful desires . The specification of house, wife, servant, ox, and ass simply indicates the general scope of the law, and shows, as the concluding words more explicitly teach, that human desire should be restrained so as not to settle upon any thing whatever which is the rightful property of one’s neighbour . This tenth commandment evidently passes beyond the province of human legislation, and reminds us that we are here in the presence of a divine law, and of a Lawgiver who can discern the secrets of the heart. It strikes at the source of all crimes and wickedness, “for from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.” Mark 7:21-22.

Verse 18

18. The people saw the thunderings Hebraic mode of expression . Comp . Revelation 1:12: “I turned to see the voice that spake with me . ” On the sublime scenes here described see notes on Exodus 19:16-20. Such an awful theophany could not fail to inspire all who witnessed it with a profound fear of Jehovah, and they naturally shrank away, and stood afar off . To effect this wholesome fear was one object of theophany and the commandments .

Verses 18-21

THE EFFECT ON THE PEOPLE, Exodus 20:18-21.

These words form a transition from the decalogue to the legislation which was given through Moses. The statements are considerably amplified in Deuteronomy 5:22-33.

Verse 19

19. Let not God speak with us, lest we die Comp . Deuteronomy 5:25-26. This sentiment accords with the prevalent belief of the ancient Hebrews, that the immediate vision of God must produce death. See notes on Genesis 16:13; Genesis 32:30, and Judges 6:22.

Verse 20

20. Fear not That is, as the context shows, be not terrified so as to think God is angry with you and is about to visit you with death . The purpose of this theophany, and of the words out of the fire, is to prove you, to test your loyalty and readiness to obey; and, furthermore, that his fear may be before your faces. A profound reverence for Jehovah, constantly maintained in the heart, is the mightiest safeguard against sinning . “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom . ” Psalms 111:10; Proverbs 1:7; Proverbs 9:10.

Verse 21

21. The people stood afar off As stated in Exodus 20:18. After Moses had gone up unto the thick darkness where God was, the people returned to their tents as they had been instructed . Comp . Deuteronomy 5:30. It would seem from Exodus 19:24, that when Moses at this time drew near unto the divine presence, Aaron accompanied him . In the profound and various symbolism by which God revealed himself through the Mosaic legislation, it was fitting that his own divine person should be hidden in thick darkness, ( ערפל ,) and no manner of likeness or similitude of Deity be exhibited to any eye. So, later, in the construction of the tabernacle, the most holy place, the immediate throne-chamber of Jehovah, was made in the form of a perfect cube, and veiled in darkness. Comp. Exodus 25:22; Leviticus 16:2; 1 Kings 8:12. Jehovah thus signifies that his power and wisdom and ways are wrapped in mystery, and cannot be searched by mortal eyes .

Verse 22

22. The Lord said unto Moses In what manner God communicated these statutes to Moses the reader is not informed . From Numbers 12:6-8, it appears that Moses was honoured with a distinctness of spiritual access to God as was no other prophet. It was not a seeing of God’s face, (Exodus 30:20,) but often came through visible symbols, like the burning bush, (Exodus 3:2,) and a passing form of glory, (Exodus 33:21-23; Exodus 34:6,) which made his face to shine with supernatural light, (Exodus 34:29-30. ) These special theophanies did not exclude the ministration of angels, and the excellency of the Mosaic legislation, when viewed as a whole, exhibits so many marks of divine origin that we hesitate not to accept the literal truth of the statements of this verse.

I have talked with you from heaven Reference to the supernatural promulgation of the ten commandments. That speaking from heaven shook the earth. Comp. Hebrews 12:26. It was the entering in of a higher Power into the history of men, marking a distinctive crisis in the progress of heavenly mediation, and utilizing the elements of nature to deepen the impressions of the words that were spoken.

Verses 22-26

THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT, Exodus 20:22 to Exodus 23:33.

Here follows a collection of sundry laws which were compiled by Moses, and doubtless represent the oldest written legislation of the Pentateuch. This compilation probably constituted “the book of the covenant” which is mentioned in Exodus 24:7. Kalisch classifies the laws under three heads: (1 . ) Those touching the rights of persons, Exodus 21:1-32; (2 . ) Those touching the rights of property, Exodus 21:33 to Exodus 23:14; and (3 . ) General moral laws . Exodus 22:15 to Exodus 23:19. These are followed by sundry exhortations. Exodus 23:20-33. The various precepts, however, are scarcely susceptible of such a classification, or of any systematic arrangement . They take a wide range, and deal with some twenty-eight distinct subjects . Beginning with a prohibition of idolatrous images, (23,) we have laws touching the construction of altars, (24-26,) the relations of servants and masters, (Exodus 21:1-11,) personal assaults and injuries, (12-27,) goring oxen, (28-32,) losses of cattle, (33-36,) cattle-stealing, (Exodus 22:1-4,) cattle feeding in others’ fields, (5,) kindling destructive fires, (6,) stolen or damaged trusts, (7-15,) seduction, (16-17,) witchcraft, (18,) lying with beasts, (19,) idolatrous sacrifices, (20,) treatment of foreigners, (21,) treatment of widows and the fatherless, (22-24,) loaning money, (25,) pledges, (26-27,) reviling God and rulers, (28,) devotion of firstlings, (29, 30,) abstinence from torn flesh, (31,) perversions of honour and justice, (Exodus 23:1-3,) favour toward enemies, (4-5,) judgment of the poor, (6,) maintaining justice, (7, 8,) oppression of strangers, (9,) sabbath laws, (10-12,) other gods, (13,) three annual feasts, (14-17,) sacrifice and offerings, (18, 19 . ) This body of legislation is followed in Exodus 23:20-33, by a number of prophetic promises, designed to encourage and strengthen the hearts of the people . Many of the laws and precepts here collected together were doubtless older than the time of Moses, but as Israel was now becoming a body politic, and about to occupy a prominent place among the nations, such a body of laws as was contained in this book of the covenant required formal codification .

Verse 23

23. Make with me As if to place by the side of me as images and representations of my nature .

Gods of silver This is, for substance, a repetition of the second commandment . See notes above, on Exodus 20:4. It receives a new emphasis from the fact that Jehovah himself had now spoken from heaven .

Verse 24

24. An altar of earth Having repeated the prohibition of gold and silver images of Deity, he most appropriately passes first to give some general directions for altar-building . These had probably been observed in the construction of altars by the patriarchs, as Noah, (Genesis 8:20,) Abraham, (Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:18,) Isaac, (Genesis 26:25,) and Jacob, (Genesis 35:7,) but, like other ancient usages set forth in this collection, they are now written down as a part of the book of the covenant. An altar of earth is one constructed of turfs or sod, and was most convenient and suitable for a wandering people. Jehovah would have his altars builded in the most simple form, and thus avoid any occasion of attempts at architectural display in them. Burnt offerings and peace offerings are here mentioned as representative of all sacrifices of sheep and oxen which would be offered on an altar. This is the first mention of peace offerings, but the language of Exodus 24:5, implies that they were not now for the first time offered; the distinction between them and burnt offerings was already known to the people . The burnt offering was wholly consumed upon the altar, but only a part of the flesh of the peace offering was thus consumed; the other portions were eaten by the worshippers, and the sacrifice was made the occasion of a joyful feast. The “burnt offering and sacrifices” which Jethro offered (Exodus 18:12) appear to have been of both these kinds; first, the burnt offering, which was offered whole, and then the peace offering, at which Aaron and all the elders of Israel feasted together.

In all places where I record my name There is nothing in these words which requires us to suppose a simultaneous plurality of altars in Israel, nor any thing to forbid our supposing that Jehovah might have recorded his name in several different places at the same time. But the most obvious meaning is, that successive altars are contemplated. During the journey to Canaan, and until some central seat of national worship should be ordained, there would be occasion for the erection of altars in divers places, just as the patriarchs had done in their wanderings to and fro. But this law expressly forbids their setting up altars anywhere they pleased by limiting them to such places as were consecrated by some memorable revelation or act of Jehovah. There is therefore no conflict between this law and that of Deuteronomy 12:4-14, which provided for one central sanctuary . After such a place should be chosen “to cause his name to dwell there,” no other spot would accord with the expressed limitations of this ancient law, for there only would he record his name .

Verse 25

25. If thou wilt make me an altar of stone Such an altar would be as simple and easy of construction as one of turf, and more so in places where stones abounded . But to preserve its simplicity, and to deter from attempts to imitate the sculptured embellishments of heathen altars, they were forbidden to make use of hewn stone, or to wield a graver’s tool upon it . The natural stone, untouched by art or man’s device, was most like the earth itself, and most appropriate for the sanctity and simplicity of the altar-service . Any attempt to cut or carve the stones would be a polluting of holy things . The framework of acacia wood, overlaid with brass, was a subsequent and special provision for the altar of the tabernacle . See Exodus 27:1-8.

Verse 26

26. Neither shalt thou go up by steps That is, by an elevated staircase or means of ascent which would indecently expose the person of the one who offered the sacrifice .

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Exodus 20". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.