Exodus 20
Pulpit Commentary
And God spake all these words, saying,
Verses 1-17. - THE DELIVERY OF THE MORAL LAW. Every necessary preparation had now been made. The priests, as well as the people, had "sanctified themselves." A wholesome dread of "breaking" through the fence, and "touching" the mount, had spread itself among the people Moses had returned from the camp to the summit of the mount; and both he and the people were attent to hear the words of the "covenant," which had been announced to them (Exodus 19:5). Then, amid the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the smoke, and the earthquake throbs which shook the ground, a voice like that of a man, distinctly articulate, pronounced the words of that "moral law," which has been from that day to this the guide of life to thousands upon thousands, the only guide to some, a very valuable and helpful guide to all who have known of it. It is well said by Kalisch, that the delivery of the Decalogue on Sinai "formed a decisive epoch in the history of the human race," and was even perhaps "the greatest and most important event in haman history," up to the time of its occurrence. Considering the weakness, imperfection, and moral obliquity of man, it was to the last degree important that an authoritative code should be put forth, laying down with unmistakable clearness the chief heads of duty, and denouncing the chief classes of sins. It may be true that the educated moral sense of mankind in civilised communities is sufficient to teach them all, or nearly all, of what the Decalogue forbids and enjoins; but this is the effect produced upon the internal constitution of our nature by long centuries of moral training; and nothing like it existed in primitive times. Then the moral sense was much duller; men's perceptions of right and wrong were confused, uncertain, and not unfrequently perverted and depraved. Even in Egypt, where a priest class, established as the spiritual guides of the nation for a thousand years or more, had elaborated a moral system of considerable merit, such a code as that of the Decalogue would have been a marked improvement upon anything that they had worked out for themselves. And the authoritative sanction by the "voice" and the "finger of God" was an enormous advantage, being imperatively needed to satisfy doubt, and silence that perverse casuistry which is always ready to question the off-hand decisions of the moral consciousness, and to invent a more refined system, wherein "bitter is put for sweet, and sweet for bitter." Altogether the Decalogue stands on a moral eminence, elevated above and beyond all other moral systems - Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, or Greek, unequalled for simplicity, for comprehensiveness, for solemnity. Its precepts were, according to the Jewish tradition, "the pillars of the law and its roots." They formed to the nation to which they were given "tons omnis, publici privatique juris." They constitute for all time a condensed summary of human duty which bears divinity upon its face, which is suited for every form of human society, and which, so long as the world endures, cannot become antiquated. The retention of the Decalogue as the best summary of the moral law by Christian communities is justified on these grounds, and itself furnishes emphatic testimony to the excellency of the compendium. Verse 1. - God spake all these words. It has been suggested that Moses derived the Decalogue from Egypt, by summarising the chief points of the Egyptian teaching as to the duty of man. But neither the second, nor the fourth, nor the tenth commandment came within the Egyptian ideas of moral duty; nor was any such compendious form as the Decalogue known in Egypt. Moreover, Egyptian morality was minute and complex, rather than grand and simple. Forty-two kinds of sin were denied by the departed soul before Osiris and his assessors. The noble utterances of Sinai are wholly unlike anything to be found in the entire range of Egyptian literature.
I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Verse 2. - I am the Lord thy God. The ten precepts were prefaced by this distinct announcement of who it was that uttered them. God would have the Israelites clearly understand, that he himself gave them the commandments. It is only possible to reconcile the declarations of the New Testament, that the law was given by the ministration of angels (Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2) with this and other plain statements, by regarding God the Son as the actual speaker. As sent by his father, he too was, in a certain sense, an angel (i.e., a messenger). Which brought thee out of the land of Egypt. God does not appeal to his authority as creator, but to his mercy and kindness as protector and deliverer. He would be obeyed by his people from a sentiment of love, not by fear. Out of the house of bondage. Compare Exodus 13:3, 14; and for the ground of the expression, see Exodus 1:14; Exodus 6:9.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Verse 3. - Thou shalt have. The use of the second person singular is remarkable when a covenant was being made with the people (Exodus 19:5). The form indicated that each individual of the nation was addressed severally, and was required himself to obey the law, a mere general national obedience being insufficient. No one can fail to see how much the commands gain in force, through all time, by being thus addressed to the individual conscience. No other gods before me. "Before me" literally, "before my face," is a Hebrew idiom, and equivalent to "beside me," "in addition to me." The commandment requires the worship of one God alone, Jehovah - the God who had in so ninny ways manifested himself to the Israelites, and implies that there is, in point of fact, no other God. A belief in the unity of God is said to lie at the root of the esoteric Egyptian religion; but Moses can scarcely have derived his belief from this source, since the Egyptian notions on the subject were tinged with pantheism and materialism, from which the religion of Moses is entirely free. Outwardly the Egyptian religion, like that of the nations of Western Asia generally, was a gross polytheism; and it is against polytheistic notions that the first commandment raises a protest.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:
Verse 4. As the first commandment asserts the unity of God, and is a protest against polytheism, so the second asserts his spirituality, and is a protest against idolatry and materialism. Verses 4 and 5 are to be taken together, the prohibition being intended, not to forbid the arts of sculpture and painting, or even to condemn the religious use of them, but to disallow the worship of God under material forms. When the later Jews condemned all representations of natural objects (Philo, De Orac. 29; Joseph. Ant. Jud. 8:7, § 5), they not only enslaved themselves to a literalism, which is alien from the spirit of both covenants, but departed from the practice of more primitive times - representations of such objects having had their place both in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-34; Exodus 28:33, 34) and in the first temple (1 Kings 6:18, 29, 32, etc.). Indeed, Moses himself, when he erected the "brazen serpent" (Numbers 21:9) made it clear that representations of natural objects were not disallowed by the law. To moderns in civilized countries it seems almost incredible that there should ever have been anywhere a real worship of images. But acquaintance with ancient history or even with the present condition of man in savage or backward countries, renders it apparent that there is a subtle fascination in such material forms, and that imperfectly developed minds will rest in them not as mere emblems of divinity, but as actually possessed of Divine powers The protest raised by the second commandment is still as necessary as ever, not only in the world, but in the very Christian Church itself, where there exists even at the present day a superstitious regard for images and pictures, which is not only irrational, but which absorbs the religious feelings that should have been directed to higher objects. Any graven image. Perhaps it would be better to translate "any image," for the term used (pesel) is applied, not only to "graven" but also to "molten images" (Isaiah 40:19; Isaiah 44:10; Jeremiah 10:14; etc.), since these last were in almost every instance finished by the graving tool. Or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above - i.e., "any likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air." Compare Deuteronomy 4:17. The water under the earth. See Genesis 1:6, 7. The triple division here and elsewhere made, is intended to embrace the whole material universe. Much of the Egyptian religion consisted in the worship of animals and their images.
Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
Verse 5. - Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them. Every outward sign of honour was shown to images in the ancient world. They were not regarded as emblems, but as actual embodiments of deity. There was a special rite in Greece (Theopoea) by means of which the gods were inducted into their statues, and made to take up their abodes in them. Seneca says of the Romans of his own day - "They pray to these images of the gods, implore them on bended knee, sit or stand long days before them, throw them money, and sacrifice beasts to them, so treating them with deep respect, though they despise the man who made them" (Ap. Lact. 2:2). I, the Lord thy God am a jealous God. God "will not give his glory to another" (Isaiah 42:8; Isaiah 48:11), will not suffer a rival near his throne. He is not "jealous." as the Greeks thought (Herod. 7:10, § 5), of mere success, or greatness; but he is very jealous of his own honour, and will not have the respect and reverence, which is his due, bestowed on other beings or on inanimate objects. Compare with the present passage Exodus 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24; Deuteronomy 5:9; Deuteronomy 6:15; Joshua 24:19; etc. Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children. Exception has been taken to the plain meaning of this passage by a multitude of writers, who dread the reproach of the sceptic, that the God of the Old Testament is a God careless of justice and bent upon revenge. But neither does society, nor does civil justice itself, regard the visiting of parents' sins upon their children as in all cases unjust. Society by its scorn punishes for their parents' transgressions the illegitimate, the children of criminals, the children - especially the daughters - of adulteresses. Civil justice condemns to forfeiture of their titles and their estates, the innocent children of those executed for treason. God again manifestly does by the laws which obtain in his moral universe, entail on children many consequences of their parents' ill-doing - as the diseases which arise from profligacy or intemperance, the poverty which is the result of idleness or extravagance, the ignorance and evil habits which are the fruit of a neglected education. It is this sort of visitation which is intended here. The children and grandchildren of idolaters would start in life under disadvantages. The vicious lives of their parents would have sown in them the seeds both of physical and moral evil. They would commonly be brought up in wrong courses, have their moral sense early perverted, and so suffer for their parents' faults. It would be difficult for them to rise out of their unhappy condition. Still, "each would bear his own iniquity." Each would "be judged by that he had, not by that he bad not." An all-wise God would, in the final award, make allowance for the disadvantages of birth and inherited disposition, and would assign to each that position to which his own conduct - his struggles, efforts, endeavours after right - entitled him. To say that the threat "applies only to such children as follow the sins of their fathers" Kalisch) is to empty the passage of all force. It applies to all; but the visitation intended consists in temporal disadvantages, not in the final award of happiness or misery.
And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
Verse 6. - Shewing mercy unto thousands. Or, "to the thousandth generation." (Compare Deuteronomy 7:9.) In neither case are the numbers to be taken as exact and definite. The object of them is to contrast the long duration of the Divine love and favour towards the descendants of those who love him, with the comparatively short duration of his chastening wrath in the case of those who are his adversaries. And keep my commandments. Thus only is love shown. Compare John 14:15-21; 1 John 2:5; 2 John 1:6.
Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
Verse 7. - Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. It is disputed whether this is a right rendering. Shav in Hebrew means both "vanity" and ,'falsehood;" so that the Third Commandment may forbid either "vain-swearing" or simply "false-swearing. It is in favor of the latter interpretation, that our Lord seems to contrast his own prohibition of unnecessary oaths with the ancient prohibition of false oaths in the words - "Ye have heard that it hath been said by" (or "to") "them of old time - Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shelf perform unto the Lord thine oaths. But I say unto you - Swear not at all" (Matthew 5:33-34). It is also in favour of the command being levelled against false-swearing, that perjury should naturally, as a great sin, have a special prohibition directed against it in the Decalogue, while vain-swearing, as a little sin, would scarcely seem entitled to such notice. Perjury has always been felt to be one of the greatest both of moral and of social offences. It implies an absolute want of any reverence at all for God; and it destroys civil society by rendering the administration of justice impossible. There has been a general horror of it among all civilised nations. The Egyptians punished perjury with death. The Greeks thought that a divine Nemesis pursued the perjured man, and brought destruction both upon himself and upon his offspring .(Herod. 6:86). The Romans regarded the perjurer as infamous, and the object of Divine vengeance in the other world (Cic. De Leg. 2:9). The threat contained in the words - "The Lord will not hold him guiltless" - may be taken as an argument on either side. If viewed as equivalent to "the Lord will punish severely" (Kalisch), it accords best with the view that perjury was intended; if taken literally, it would suit best a lesser sin, of which men ordinarily think little.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Verse 8. - Remember the sabbath day. The institution of the sabbath dates, at any rate, from the giving of the manna (Exodus 16:23). Its primeval institution, which has been thought to be implied in Genesis 2:3, is uncertain. The word "remember" here may be simply a reference to what passed in the "wilderness of Sin" as related in Exodus 16:22-30. On the sabbath itself, both Jewish and Christian, see the comment upon that chapter.
Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
Verse 9. - Six days shalt thou labour. This is not so much a command as a prohibition" Thou shaft not labor more than six (consecutive) clays." In them thou shelf do all thy necessary work, so as to have the Sabbath free for the worship and service of God.
But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:
Verse 10. - The seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God. Rather - "The seventh day shall be a sabbath to the Lord thy God;" i.e., the seventh day shall be a day of holy rest dedicated to religion. All unnecessary labour shall be suspended and put aside - the law of rest and ease, so far as bodily toil is concerned, which was the law of man's existence before the fall, shall supersede for the time that law of heavy toil and continual unrest, which was laid on man as the penalty of his transgression (Genesis 3:17-19). Eden shall be, as it were, restored - man shall not "go out to his toil and his labour" - even the very beasts, pressed into man's service since the fall, shall rest. In it thou shalt not do any work. On the exceptions to this rule, which even Judaism, with its extreme formality and literalism, saw to be necessary, see Matthew 12:5, 11. Still in many respects, a superstitious adherence to the precept was maintained by religious Jews, who would not even defend themselves on the sabbath, if attacked by an enemy (1 Mac. 2:32-38; 2 Mac. 5:25, 26 2Mac. 6:11 2Mac. 15:1). Experience, however, taught them that the law had not been intended to extend so far, and after a time they determined, not to seek battle, but to accept if, and do their best, on the sabbath day (1 Mac. 2:41). Thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter. The rest is to extend to the whole family. Work is not to be merely devolved by the parents upon the children. Thy manservant, nor thy maid servant. It is to extend beyond the family proper, to the domestics of the household, who are to enjoy the respite from toil and to have the advantage of the religious refreshment, no less than their masters. Nor thy cattle. God's care for cattle is a remarkable feature of the Old Testament dispensation. God, at the time of the flood, "remembered Noah and the cattle which were with him in the ark" (Genesis 8:1). Soon after, his covenant, not to drown the earth any more, was established "with the fowl, and with the cattle, and with every beast of the earth," no less than with man (Genesis 9:9-11). In the Psalms he de clares that "the cattle upon a thousand hills" are his (Psalm 50:10). In Jonah, we find that Nineveh was spared, in part because there was in it "much cattle" (Jonah 4:11). The precept, "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn" is characteristic of the Mosaic dispensation, and had no parallel in the written codes or in the actual customs of other ancient nations. Animal suffering was generally regarded as of small account in the ancient world; and the idea of protecting animals from ill usage was wholly unknown. On the contrary, as Dr. Dollinger well observes (Jew and Gentile, vol. 2. pp. 346-7): "The law was specially careful about the welfare of animals; they were to be treated with compassion and kindness. Domestic animals were to be well fed, and to enjoy the rest of the sabbath. The Israelites were to help to lift up the ass which had fallen beneath its burden, and to bring back the beast that had gone astray (Exodus 23:5, 12; Deuteronomy 25:4)... The young was not to be taken from its mother before the seventh day... From these and similar ordinances - such, for instance, as about the least painful method of killing animals - it is plain that the law tried to subdue that coarse turn of mind and unfeeling cruelty, which are engendered by the maltreatment of animals." Nor the stranger that is within thy gates. The "strangers within the gates" of Israel are those foreigners who voluntarily sojourned with them in their camps or (afterwards) in their towns. A "mixed multitude" had gone up out of Egypt with them (Exodus 12:38), and accompanied them in their wilderness wanderings. The command that these too should rest, was at once a restriction upon their liberty, requiring them to conform to the habits of those among whom they dwelt, and an admission of them into participation in some portion of the privileges of Israel. The sacred rest of the sabbath prefigured the final peace and happiness of the blest in heaven; and they who were commanded to share in the first, were encouraged to hope that they might also participate in the second.
For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
Verse 11. - For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth. Two reasons are assigned for the sanctification of the seventh day in the Pentateuch: -

1. The fact that the work of creation took six days, and that on the seventh God rested; and

2. The further fact, that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, and gave them a time of rest after a time of labour and toil (Deuteronomy 5:15). It is not expressly said that the deliverance took place on the Sabbath, but such is the Jewish tradition on the subject. The reason here assigned must be regarded as the main reason, man's rest being purposely assimilated to God's rest, in order to show the resemblance between man's nature and God's (Genesis 1:27), and to point towards that eternal rest wherein man, united with God, will find his highest bliss and the true end of his being. "There remaineth a rest for the people of God."
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
Verse 12. - Honor thy father and thy mother. The obligation of filial respect, love, and reverence is so instinctively' felt by all, that the duty has naturally found a place in every moral code. In the maxims of Ptah-hotep, an Egyptian author who lived probably before Abraham, "the duty of filial piety is strictly inculcated" (Birch, Egypt from the Earliest Times, p. 49). Confucius, in China, based his moral system wholly upon the principle of parental authority; and in Rome it may be regarded as the main foundation of the political edifice. In the Decalogue, the position of this duty, at the head of our duties towards our neighbour, marks its importance; which is further shown by this being "the first commandment with promise" (Ephesians 6:2). It is curious that the long life here specially attached to the observance of this obligation, was also believed to accompany it by the Egyptians. "The son," says Ptah-hotep, "who accepts the words of his father, will grow old in consequence of so doing;" and again - "The obedient son will be happy by reason of his obedience; he will grow old; he will come to favour." Modern commentators generally assume that the promise was not personal, but national - the nation's days were to be "long upon the land," if the citizens generally were obedient children. But this explanation cannot apply to Ephesians 6:1-3. And if obedience to parents is to be rewarded with long life under the new covenant, there can be no reason why it should not have been so rewarded under the old. The objection that good sons are not always long-lived is futile. God governs the universe by general, not by universal laws.
Thou shalt not kill.
Verse 13. - Thou shalt not kill. Here again is a moral precept included in all codes, and placed by all in a prominent position. Our first duty towards our neighbour is to respect his life. When Cain slew Abel, he could scarcely have known what he was doing; yet a terrible punishment was awarded him for his transgression (Genesis 4:11-14). After the flood, the solemn declaration was made, which thenceforward became a universal law among mankind - "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man" (Genesis 9:6). In the world that followed the flood, all races of men had the tradition that only blood could expiate blood. In the few places where there was an organised government, and a systematic administration of justice, the State acted on the principle, and punished the murderer capitally. Elsewhere, among tribes and races which had not vet coalesced into states, the law of blood-revenge obtained, and the inquisition for blood became a private affair. The next of kin was the recognised" avenger," upon whom it devolved to hunt out the murderer and punish him. Here the sin is simply and emphatically denounced, the brevity of the precept increasing its force. The Israelites are told that to take life is a crime. God forbids it. As usual, no exceptions are made. Exceptions appear later on (Numbers 35:22-25; Deuteronomy 4:42; etc.); but the first thing is to establish the principle. Human life is sacred. Man is not to shed the blood of his fellow-man. If he does, of his hand will the life taken surely be required. The casuistic question whether suicide is forbidden under this precept, probably did not occur to the legislator or to the Hebrews of his time. Neither the Hebrews, nor the Egyptians, among whom they had so long lived, were addicted to suicide; and it is a general rule that laws are not made excepting against tolerably well-known crimes. It has been argued that angry thoughts and insulting words were forbidden by it on the strength of our Lord's comment in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21, 22). But it seems to the present writer that in Matthew 5:21-47 our Lord is not so much explaining the Jewish law as amplifying it on his own authority - note the repetition of the phrase, "But I say unto you" - and making it mean to Christians what it had not meant to Jews.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Verse 14. - Thou shalt not commit adultery. Our second duty towards our neighbour is to respect the bond on which the family is based, and that conjugal honour which to the true man is dearer than life. Marriage, according to the original institution, made the husband and wife "one flesh" (Genesis 2:24); and to break in upon this sacramental union was at once a crime and a profanity. Adulteresses and their paramours were in most ancient nations liable to be punished with death by the injured party; but the adultery of a married man with an unmarried woman was thought lightly cf. The precept of the Decalogue binds both man and woman equally. Our Lord's expansion of this commandment (Matthew 5:27-32) is parallel to his expansion of the preceding one (ib, 21-26). He shows that there are adulterous marriages in countries where the law gives a facility of divorce, and that without any overt act adultery may be committed in the heart.
Thou shalt not steal.
Verse 15. - Thou shalt not steal. By these words the right of property received formal acknowledgment, and a protest was made by anticipation against the maxim of modern socialists - "La propriete, c'est le vol." Instinctively man feels that some things become his, especially by toil expended on them, and that, by parity of reasoning, some things become his neighbour's. Our third duty towards our neighbour is to respect his rights in these. Society, in every community that has hitherto existed, has recognised private pro-petty; and social order may be said to be built upon it. Government exists mainly for the security of men's lives and properties; and anarchy would supervene if either could be with impunity attacked. Theft has always been punished in every state; and even the Spartan youth was not acquitted of blame unless he could plead that the State had stopped his supplies of food, and bid him forage for himself.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
Verse 16. - Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. False witness is of two kinds, public and private. We may either seek to damage our neighbour by giving false evidence against him in a court of justice, or simply calumniate him to others in our social intercourse with them. The form of the expression here used points especially to false witness of the former kind, but does not exclude the latter, which is expressly forbidden in Exodus 23:1. The wrong done to a man by false evidence in a court may be a wrong of the very extremest kind - may be actual murder (1 Kings 21:13) More often, however, it results in an injury to his property or his character. As fatal to the administration of justice, false witness in courts has been severely visited by penalties in all well-regulated states. At Athens the false witness was liable to a heavy fine, and if thrice convicted lost all his civil rights. At Rome, by a law of the Twelve Tables, he was hurled headlong from the Tarpeian rock. In Egypt, false witness was punished by amputation of the nose and ears (Records of the Past, vol. 8. p. 65). Private calumny may sometimes involve as serious consequences to individuals as false witness in a court. It may ruin a man; it may madden him; it may drive him to suicide. But it does not disorganise the whole framework of society, like perjured evidence before a tribunal; and states generally are content to leave the injured party to the remedy of an action-at-law. The Mosaic legislation was probably the first wherein it was positively forbidden to circulate reports to the prejudice of another, and where consequently this was a criminal offence.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.
Verse 17. - Thou shalt not covet. Here the Mosaic law takes a step enormously in advance of any other ancient code. Most codes stopped short at the deed; a few went on to words; not one attempted to control thoughts. "Thou shalt not covet" teaches men that there is One who sees the heart; to whose eyes "all things are naked and open;" and who cares far less for the outward act than the inward thought or motive from which the act proceeds. "Thou shalt not covet: lays it down again that we are not mere slaves of our natural desires and passions, but have a controlling power implanted within us, by means of which we can keep down passion, check desire, resist impulse. Man is lord of himself, capable, by the exercise of his free-will, of moulding his feelings, weakening or intensifying his passions, shaping his character. God, who "requires truth in the inward parts," looks that we should in all cases go to the root of the matter, and not be content with restraining ourselves from evil acts and evil words, but eradicate the evil feeling from which the acts and words proceed. Thy neighbours house, etc. The "house" is mentioned first as being of primary necessity, and as in some sort containing all the rest. A man does not take a wife until he has a home to bring her to, or engage domestic servants, or buy slaves, except to form part of a household. The other objects mentioned are placed in the order in which they are usually valued. The multiplication of objects is by way of emphasis.

CHAPTER 20:18-21
And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.
Verses 18-21. - WITHDRAWAL OF THE PEOPLE, AND NEARER APPROACH OF MOSES TO GOD. The effect produced upon the people by the accumulated terrors of Sinai - "the thunderings and the lightnings, the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking" - the cloud, and the voice out of the cloud - was an awful and terrible fear. They could not bear the manifestation of the near presence of God; and therefore "they removed and stood afar off." It seemed to them as if, on hearing the voice of God, speaking out of the thick darkness, they must die (ver. 19). Moses, upon their expressing these feelings, comforted them with an assurance that God had shown his terrors, not for their injury, but to put his fear in their hearts (ver. 20), and allowed them to retire to a distance from the mount, while he himself "drew near unto the thick darkness where God was" (ver. 21). Verse 18. - The people saw the thunderings. The use of a specific verb for a generic one, with terms to all of which it is not, strictly speaking, applicable, is common to many writers, and is known to grammarians as zengma. "Saw" here means "perceived, witnessed." The mountain smoking. Compare Exodus 19:18. In Deuteronomy 5:23 it is said that "the mountain did burn with fire." When the people saw it, they removed. It appears, from Deuteronomy 5:23, that. before retiring, the people sent a deputation of heads of tribes and elders up to Moses in the mount, to convey to him their wishes, and suggest that he should be their intermediary with God. Moses laid their wishes before God, and was directed to give them his sanction, whereupon they withdrew to their tents (ib, 30).
And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.
Verse 19. - And they said unto Moses. Their whole speech, as delivered in Deuteronomy, was as follows: - "Behold, the Lord our God hath shewed us his glory and his greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire: we have seen this day, that God doth talk with man, and he liveth. Now, therefore, why should we die? for this great fire will consume us: if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, then we shall die. For who is there of all flesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God, speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? Go then near, and hear all that the Lord our God shall say; and speak thou unto us all that the Lord our God shall speak unto thee; and. we will hear it, and do it" (Deuteronomy 5:24-27). The speech is here abbreviated greatly; but its essential points are preserved - "Speak thou with us" - be thou our intermediary - "Let not God speak with us, lest we die.'"
And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.
Verse 20. - And Moses said unto the people. Not immediately - Moses first held colloquy with God. God declared that the people had "spoken well" (Deuteronomy 5:28); and authorised Moses to allow of their withdrawal (ib, 30). Fear not. Here Exodus is more full in its details than Deuteronomy. Moses, finding the people in a state of extreme alarm, pacified them - assured them that there was no cause for immediate fear - God had not now come in vengeance - the object of the terrors of Sinai was to "prove" them - i.e., to test them, whether they were inclined to submit themselves to God, or not - and to impress upon their minds permanently an awful fear of God, that they might he kept back from sin by dread of his almighty power. The motive of fear is, no doubt, a low one; but where we can appeal to nothing else, we must appeal to it. Israel was still a child, only fit for childish discipline; and had to be directed by the harsh voice of fear, until it had learnt to he guided by the tender accents of love.
And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.
Verse 21. - The people stood afar off. They retired from the base of Sinai to their tents, where they "stood," probably in their tent doors. And Moses drew near unto the thick darkness. As the people drew back, Moses drew near. The display which drove them off, attracted him. He did not even fear the "thick darkness" - a thing front which human nature commonly shrinks. Where God was, he would be.

CHAPTER 20:22-26
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.
Verses 22-26. - THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT, (chap. 20. ver. 22, to chap. 22. ver. 23). The Decalogue is followed by a series of laws, civil, social, and religious, which occupy the remainder of ch. 20. and the whole of the three following chapters (ch. 21, 22. and 23.). It appears from ch. 24. that these laws, received by Moses on Sinai, immediately after the delivery of the ten commandments, were at once committed to writing and collected into a book, which was known as "the Book of the Covenant" (Exodus 24:7), and was regarded as a specially sacred volume. The document, as it has come down to us, "cannot be regarded as a strictly systematic whole" (Canon Cook): yet still, it is not wholly unsystematic,but aims in some degree at an orderly arrangement. First and foremost are placed the laws which concern the worship of God, which are two in number: -

1. Against idols;

2. Concerning altars (Exodus 20:23-26).

Then follow the laws respecting what our legal writers call "the rights of persons" - which occupy thirty-two verses of ch. 21. and fall under some twenty different heads, beginning with the rights of slaves, and terminating with the compensation to be made for injuries to the person caused by cattle. The third section is upon "the rights of property," and extends from Exodus 21:33, to Exodus 22:15, including some ten or twelve enactments. After this we can only say that the laws are mixed, some being concerned with Divine things (as ch. 22:20, 29, 30; and ch. 23. 10-19): others with human, and these last being of various kinds, all, however, more or less "connected with the civil organization of the state" (Kalisch). In the fourth section the enactments seem to fall under about twenty-five heads. The result is that the "Book of the Covenant" contains, in little more than three chapters, about seventy distinct laws. Verse 22. - Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. The book opened with this reminder, which at once recalled its author and declared its authority. "I, who give these laws, am the same who spake the ten commandments amid the thunders of Sinai. Reverence the laws accordingly."
Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold.
Verse 23. - Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, etc. This is a repetition, in part, of the second commandment, and can only be accounted for by the prohibition being specially needed. The first idea of the Israelites, when they considered that Moses had deserted them, was to make a golden calf for a god.
An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee.
Verse 24. - An altar of earth. Among the nations of antiquity altars were indispensable to Divine worship, which everywhere included sacrifice. They were often provided on the spur of the occasion, and were then "constructed of earth, sods, or stones, collected upon the spot." The patriarchal altars bad probably been of this character, and it was now provided that the same usage should continue: at any rate, elaborate structures of hewn and highly ornamented stone should not be allowed, lest thus idolatry should creep in, the images engraved upon the altars becoming the objects of worship. Thy burnt offerings and thy peace offerings. The mode in which these are introduced implies that sacrifice was already a long-standing practice. The patriarchal sacrifices are well known (Genesis 8:20; Genesis 12:7; Genesis 22:9; Genesis 35:1). Jethro had recently offered sacrifice in the camp of Israel (Exodus 18:12). If the Israelites had not sacrificed to God during the sojourn in Egypt, at any rate they had kept up the idea of sacrifice; and it was for the purpose of offering sacrifices that Moses had demanded permission to go with all his nation into the wilderness. I will come unto thee and I will bless thee. The promise is conditional on the observance of the command. If the altars are rightly constructed, and proper victims offered, then, in all places where he allows the erection of an altar, God will accept the sacrifices offered upon it and bless the worshippers.
And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.
Verse 25. - And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone - i.e., if, notwithstanding my preference expressed for an altar of earth, thou wilt insist on making me one of stone, as more permanent, and so more honourable, then I require that the stones shall be rough stones shaped by nature, not stones chiselled into shape by the art of man. For if thou lift up thy tool upon it thou hast polluted it. It is conjectured with reason that we have here an old traditional idea, which God thought fit under the existing circumstances to sanction. The real object was that altars should not be elaborately carved with objects that might superinduce idolatry. The widely prevalent notion, that nature is sacred, and that all man's interference with nature is a defilement, was made use of economically, to produce the desired result. No tool being allowed to be used, no forms of living creatures could be engraved, and so no idolatry of them could grow up.
Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.
Verse 26. - Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar. Here the reason of decency, added in the text, is obvious; and the law would necessarily continue until sacerdotal vestments of a very different character from the clothes commonly worn by Orientals were introduced (38:3-43). After their introduction, the reason for the law, and with it the law itself, would drop The supposed "slope of earth" by which the priests are thought to have ascended to the "ledge" on the altar of burnt offerings, and the "inclined plane," said by Josephus to have given access to the great altar of Solomon, rest on no sufficient authority, and are probably pure fictions. As soon as an ascent was needed, owing to the height of the altar, it was probably an ascent by steps (See Ezekiel 43:17.)

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