The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Exodus 20

Exo 20:1

Exo 20: "Exo 20 presents the law as the basis of harmony between Yahweh and Israel. (1) God sets out ten commandments as the basis of His covenant: vv 1-17. (2) Moses stands as the Redeemer: vv 18-21. (3) God is one and will be worshipped as one. (4) The basis of approach to Him is through the altar principle.

"The ten commandments were inscribed on both sides of two stones, representative of the two great commandments (Mat 22:40). The first five on one stone have each an explanatory addition; the last five are brief and emphatic: 'Thou shalt not.' An explanation of our duty toward Yahweh is necessary for personal experience, should teach us how to act toward others" (GEM).

Why should we keep the Ten Commandments? "Charles is a typical middle-aged Englishman. Most people like him, because he's a friendly sort of chap. Good hearted, good living and public spirited, too.

"He stood for the local council last year, but failed to get in. He never goes to church, but he would be hurt if you suggested he was not a Christian. He believes in keeping the Ten Commandments (or at least, as many as he can remember), and in being kind to other people.

Of course, he doesn't believe in the Bible, except for a few bits that he approves of. Like most people, he follows the fashion and assumes that the Bible has been shot full of holes by scientists and other experts. And anyway, he says he can live a perfectly good life without the Bible, thank you.

"Yet Charles has suddenly become a worried man. His tranquil life has recently taken a very nasty knock. He has two teenage sons who are worrying him stiff. They stoop to every kind of petty dishonesty they can get away with, and the way they behave with girls makes Charles' hair go grey.

"The worst of it is that Charles feels so powerless. Whenever he says anything, he comes up against a stone wall. 'But why not, Dad? We're not hurting anybody. Why shouldn't we do what we like?'

"Poor Charles has no answer for them. If he says, 'Because I say so!' they merely retort, 'And who do you think you are?'

"He knows how his father made him toe the line, forty years ago. The old man simply said, 'Charles, pack this up! It's wrong. The Bible says so.' In those days Charles knew that to his father the Bible was authoritative. So Charles did as he was told.

"But Charles cannot talk to his own sons like that. They know he doesn't accept the authority of the Bible. Charles believes in keeping the Commandments, and it upsets him to see his sons breaking them. But he doesn't know WHY he keeps them. So how can he hope to persuade his sons to keep them?

"Charles is not alone in this. There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of fathers in the same uncomfortable position.

"The fact is that there always was ONLY one good reason for keeping the Commandments. They are introduced by the statement: 'And God spake all these words, saying...' And they are immediately followed by a passage that says: 'And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking... And the Lord said unto Moses, Thus thou shalt say unto the children of Israel, Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven.'

"That is why a hundred generations of God-fearing Jews have respected the Ten Commandments. They believed that the whole book of Exodus was true. They believed that God really did appear on Mount Sinai and thunder out those commandments to their ancestors.

"Jesus Christ endorsed that belief. Several books of the NT refer directly to it as a historical fact. That is why many generations of Bible-believing Christians like Charles' father have had a profound respect for the Commandments" (GT ch 15).

Exo 20:2

God acted first: He made a covenant with Israel: man did not look for God; God looked for man!

Ten commandments: 4 about God, then one about family, and then 5 about others. The family is transitional: interpreting God to children, so that they will learn how to treat others.

See Lesson, Law and covenant.

Four handwritings: Upon the stone (Exo 20:2); upon the wall (Dan 5:24); upon the ground (John 8:6); upon the cross (John 19:19).

Exo 20:3

Vv 3-5: "The god of this world is what men of this world worship. It takes many forms: ambition, power, wealth, position, family, even treasured beliefs nurtured from childhood. These are the gods worshipped by men. Sometimes they create deep psychological barriers which cause men to harden their hearts against the sweet and gentle influence of the Word of God. These are the idols men venerate, that occupy their time and efforts; all in their way are manifestations of the god of this world which blinds the minds of men, preventing the glorious light of the gospel from shining unto them" (D Fifield).

"What other gods could we have besides the Lord? Plenty. For Israel there were the Canaanite Baals, those jolly nature gods whose worship was a rampage of gluttony, drunkenness, and ritual prostitution. For us there are still the great gods Sex, Shekels, and Stomach (an unholy trinity constituting one god: Self), and the other enslaving trio, Pleasure, Possessions, and Position, whose worship is described as 'the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life' (1Jo 2:16). Football, the Firm, and Family are also gods for some. Indeed the list of other gods is endless, for anything that anyone allows to run his life becomes his god and the claimants for this prerogative are legion. In the matter of life's basic loyalty, temptation is a many-headed monster" (James Packer, "Your Father Loves You").

An "idol" is something men "worship"... which "blinds" their minds, "preventing" the gospel and the love of God from entering, or controlling, their lives. If we get this point right, it seems to me, then we may recognize that anything and everything, essentially, MAY BE an idol... but that nothing, effectively, MUST BE an idol. Let me illustrate what I mean.

For example, it ought not to be considered "judgmental" or "critical" for someone to point out that most anything (or anyone) MAY BE an "idol" -- even the most innocuous of pastimes: gardening or long walks on the beach MAY BE "idols" if pursued and enjoyed to the exclusion of the worship and service of our Heavenly Father. But, of course, they are not necessarily "idols"!

For that matter, the very most legitimate time-consumers -- such as family and work -- MAY BE "idols" IF our interests and concerns in these directions, and our allotments of time and energy, threaten to crowd out God from our lives. After all, Jesus said, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters -- yes, even his own life -- he cannot be my disciple" (Luk 14:26). Harsh language indeed, since elsewhere we are plainly told to love our spouses and families, to provide for them, to honor our parents, etc, etc. Surely Jesus is saying, 'Don't let EVEN your family... those closest to you... who have the most legitimate claims upon you... don't even let them turn you aside from serving God!' Likewise, work -- earning one's daily bread, and providing for one's family -- is the most legitimate of pursuits (supported by various Bible passages), but if through greed (the love of money) or competitiveness (pride) our jobs become the be-all and end-all of our lives, and threaten to consume all our time and all our concern, and to squeeze God out of our lives, then the Bible tells us they are "idols"!

On the other hand, and looking at what might be called the other end of the continuum, we consider the graven images which depicted or represented false gods. Surely, we say, such images were and are ALWAYS "idols". No question there. Aren't they, invariably, "idols"?

I am not so sure. Remember the brazen serpent of Moses (Num 21), which Hezekiah later threw on the scrap heap, calling it -- contemptuously, I think -- "Nehushtan", a mere piece of brass! Was it an idol, or was it merely a piece of metal? I think the answer depended on how any individual viewed it. To Moses and those who were saved by looking to it, it was surely not an idol -- but a reminder of God's love and even a prophetic indicator of the Messiah who was to come -- who would be lifted up on behalf of all men (John 3:13-16). But to the superstitiously-inclined of generations after Moses, it began to be thought of in an idolatrous manner: its veneration threatened to crowd out God Himself, and for that reason it ought to be destroyed.

Similar points might be made about the symbol of the cross: an object whose meaning changed for people (at least, some people) over time.

Likewise, Paul in Rom and 1Co deals with the question of meat offered to idols, real idols of wood or stone or metal, by pointing out -- essentially -- that every person's conscience might be different in regard to the "realness" of such "idols". He says (paraphrasing) that we know (or should know) that such objects are not gods at all; in other words, such a "god" is, really, "no god" -- it's just a lifeless material thing, with no mystical powers, and no evil connotations... unless we endow it with such powers! But for those who cannot help themselves, but view such an image as truly an idol, or have felt or seen its "power" in their lives or the lives of others, then... yes, it's a "god" or an "idol"... and such scruples ought to be respected by other, "stronger" brethren.

So, it seems that even what we might at first glance agree is, very definitely, an "idol"... may NOT be an "idol" either -- unless we make it so!

I subscribe to BAR magazine (Biblical Archaeology Review). A few years ago, BAR ran advertisements for replicas of certain "gods" and "goddesses" -- little images of various statues and figures that had been unearthed by archaeologists in and around the Holy Land, accompanied by descriptions and explanations of their Biblical significance. It was quite interesting to see the sorts of reactions these ads produced: some folks were vehemently angry because BAR was promoting "idolatry"; there were cancellations of subscriptions, and charges of idolatry and blasphemy if even a picture of such images were printed in the magazine, whilst to many others it was plainly a matter of no consequence.

Were such little images truly "idols"? Or not?

Exo 20:5

"In Adam all die" (1Co 15:22); Rom 5:12). Some sins (alcoholism, promiscuity, drug addiction) have immediate and lasting effects on generations to follow. "Even so in Christ..." (v 6 here)!

Vv 5,6: Perhaps the deepest imprints of human faults are made by parents upon their children. When our sins and failures run their normal course, they harm future generations. Our hang-ups are passed to our children, who in turn pass them to their own. The NT says that parents' sins may cause specific problems like angry, resentful behavior or depression in their children (Eph 6:4, Col 3:21).

A comparison of the offspring of two marriages clearly illustrates this: (1) Jonathan Edwards, the famous preacher and theologian, was also president of Princeton University. Of the 1,344 descendants of Edwards and his wife traced so far, many were college presidents and professors. One hundred eighty-six became ministers of the gospel. Eighty-six were state senators, three were Congressmen, thirty were judges, and one became Vice President of the United States. (2) In 1677 an immoral man named Jukes married a licentious woman. Nineteen hundred descendants came from the generations begun by that union. Of these, 771 were criminals, 250 were arrested for various offenses, 60 were thieves, and 39 were convicted of murder. These people spent a combined total of 1,300 years behind bars and cost the state of New York nearly $3 million.

Exo 20:8

The Sabbath day: a law to nation of Israel: Exo 31:12-17; 16:29; Neh 9:13,14; Eze 20:12. Transgressors were punished with death: Exo 35:2. A man gathering sticks on the Sabbath: Num 15:32. Paul rules out Sabbath-keeping as a requirement for Christians: Rom 14:6,7; Col 2:16,17; Gal 4:9-11.

Exo 20:11

MADE: "Asah" may sig "appoint" or "establish" (cp Psa 104:19).

Exo 20:12

Advice also to parents: Teach your children to honor you, so that they will grow up learning to honor God.

Exo 20:13

AV has "Thou shalt not kill". But "kill" is used in old English sense of "to commit murder". Old English "slay" is equivalent to our modern "kill". This is not a command never to take a life.

Exo 20:17

See Lesson, Double negative, Hebrew.

Exo 20:19

"So they chose Moses instead of God, and they have been dying ever since" (HAW).

Exo 20:24

AN ALTAR OF EARTH: Clay, earth: ref mortal nature of Christ the altar of God (Heb 13:10), the "stone" cut out without hands (Dan 2), built into the temple (Psa 118:22; Eph 2:19,22; 1Ti 3:16). Ct brick altar (Isa 65:3).

Exo 20:25

YOU WILL DEFILE IT IF YOU USE A TOOL ON IT: "A standing rebuke to those who are not content to accept Christ as the word reveals him."

Exo 20:26

LEST YOUR NAKEDNESS BE EXPOSED ON IT: "Uncovering nakedness" is a euphemism here for sexual intercourse. No man was the father of the "altar" of Christ.

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