Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
And Moses called all Israel, and said unto them, Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them.Deuteronomy 5
Luther wrote from Coburg on 30 June, 1530, to Justus Jonas: 'I have gone to school again here to the Decalogue. As if I were a boy once more, I learn it word for word, and I see how true it is that "His understanding is infinite" (Psalm 147:5). [et video verum esse, quod sapientiae ejus non est numerus.]' Enders, Luther's Briefwechsel, vol. VIII. p. 48.
The People of the Covenant
The idea of covenant runs through the Bible. It was a very natural figure to use to express the relationship between God and His people. Men, even in the most primitive conditions, understood a covenant to be a mutual compact of some kind. The compact need not be between equals, but applied often to the mercy extended by a conqueror to a vanquished foe, as when Ahab, after his great victory over the Syrians, made a covenant with the King Ben-hadad to let him live. With a word of such wide and elastic meaning, we can see how appropriate it was to represent the relationship in which Israel believed herself to stand towards God. Indeed all religions are more or less in the form of a covenant. The most typical of all the covenants, the one which became the very centre of the religious life of Israel, was this one at Sinai, when God entered into relationship with the whole people as a people.
I. The essential features of the thought are—(a) That God of His grace condescends to enter into this relationship. Every Divine covenant is of grace, the lovingkindness of a Father.
(b) The two parties to a covenant are free moral agents. If it is of the free grace of God, it is also of the free will of man.
(c) Since a covenant need not be between equals, and may be (as it must be when God is one of the parties to it) all giving on the one side, and all taking on the other, and yet nevertheless implies mutual freedom, it therefore implies obligation on both sides. Each party to the bargain has rights.
II. On the other side of the bargain were the conditions on which they received the Divine favours. These conditions are stated in the Ten Commandments, the words of the covenant. The people are to be separated, dedicated, consecrated. Their lives are to belong to God. It is this ethical aspect of the covenant relationship which saved it from the arrogance and national pride, and empty presuming on favour, which otherwise would soon have killed religion. Israel's privilege (the spiritual teachers never ceased to remind them) was Israel's penalty. Every right, every favour, meant a duty.
III. The fact of covenant is the very heart of religion. The Bible is the record of Divine covenant. This great figure has been too often stated merely forensically, as a legal contract. Because of this it has repelled men. But it is an eternal truth nevertheless; and you must in some way restate it spiritually to yourself before religion has its birth in you.
IV. What did this covenant relationship do for Israel? Without it there would have been no Israel. The assurance of a covenant with God brought strength to the national life. This assurance made them a nation, welded them into one, and carried them victoriously over difficulties.
V. The very real temptation which this sense of Divine favour engendered was the temptation to presumption. It overtook the Jews more than once in their later history. But that was the defect of the quality, or rather the natural temptation of the privilege. This state of presumption was common at the time of our Lord. Against this much of our Lord's teaching was directed. But He did not deny the fact upon which the presumption fed itself. He attacked the vain deduction which was drawn from the fact.
VI. Of the reality of fellowship with God every religious man is assured. Religion implies such a relationship of love and grace on the part of God. How such a consciousness brings strength and comfort to a human heart let every one who knows the power of salvation attest. Even in debased and vicious forms it can be seen to be powerful, making a man strong in a blatant land. It is seen in its debased form in such a man as Napoleon, with bis faith in his own star, feeling himself to be the man of destiny. The faith, such as it was, carried him far.
—Hugh Black, Christ's Service of Love, p. 292
The Terms of the Covenant
In the figure of covenant, which colours the whole Bible language of the relationship between God and man, there are three elements common to the idea. The first essential feature of the thought is that God of His free grace enters into this covenant relationship; and the second is that the two parties to the compact are free moral agents, that it is of the free will of man as well as of the free grace of God. The third feature which follows from that is that there is implied obligation on both sides. It is the last of these that specially concerns us in our text. In this covenant at Horeb, which is the typical covenant of the Old Testament, the covenant to which all the prophets appealed in the warnings and pleadings and threatenings, we have the two sides, the two contracting parties, the obligations which rest upon both God and His people—the terms of the covenant.
I. The Divine Side of the Covenant.—The terms of the compact are these: On God's side He promises to be to them the same gracious loving Providence which they and their fathers have known, 'I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage'. This is more than the statement of a fact, more than a succinct resume of history. It is a statement of what God engages Himself to be and to do. It is a promise based first of all on His very nature, on what He has revealed Himself to be. The other side of the covenant, the Ten Commandments, takes its force from this, making an exclusive and almost stern appeal to fulfil the conditions implied in the covenant. Religion is absolutely determined by the character of the God worshipped.
II. The Human Side of the Covenant.—We see at once how the first commandment exactly balances that, 'Thou shalt have no other gods before Me'. That is the terms of the covenant on the human side. From that all the other commandments flow, of worship of God and of duty to men. The Divine promise is balanced by human obligation. This obligation is set forth in the Ten Commandments. But they are not arbitrary conditions imposed as tests of faith; they follow essentially from the revelation of the character of God made to them. Thus the Decalogue, which expresses the fundamental relationship between God and man, is grounded on a moral basis.
III. The History of Revelation is the history of the relationship between God and man, fitly pictured under the figure of a covenant; and so the relation of God in Christ is spoken of as the new covenant, a nearer, sweeter relationship. The terms of the covenant are the same as those of the covenant at Horeb, only of richer content. He is the Lord our Redeemer who delivered us from the house of bondage, who has shown Himself in the face of Jesus Christ as our Heavenly Father condescending to men, displaying the miracle of Divine sacrifice, redeeming us at the jeopardy of blood, loving us with an everlasting love.
—Hugh Black, Christ's Service of Love, p. 304.
References.—V. 6, 7—J. Oswald Dykes, The Law of the Ten Words, p. 19. V. 12.—J. Budgen, Parochial Sermons, vol. i. p. 12. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, The School of Christ, p. 94. V. 12-15.—J. Oswald Dykes, The Law of the Ten Words, p. 87. V. 16.—Ibid. p. 105.
The Finality of the Ten Commandments
These words may be very sad or they may be very joyous. We cannot tell what they are merely from reading them—it is needful to go a little into the circumstances in order that we may catch their precise significance. Moses has first copied down the commandments as they were given to him by the Lord, and having gone through the whole Ten Words, as these commandments were anciently called, he says: 'He,' that is 'God,' 'added no more'. He did not give eleven commandments; He gave ten. Man must stop where God stops as he must begin where God began. The words would be sad if the Lord had turned away in anger, saying, 'I will not speak again to you'; but they may be very joyous, yea, musical after a heavenly sort, when God has said just enough to meet the necessity and the weakness of man, and when He forbears to add one word that would overtax his strength and throw his dying hope into melancholy and despair.
I. You have something like completeness of law in these Ten Commandments—a completeness adapted to the time in which they were delivered. God Himself puts the full stop to the legal literature which He has written on the two tables of stone. His delight is, as little as may be needful for proper discipline, and to secure loyal, loving and sufficient obedience. Has He written all the universe over with commandments? He has written the universe over with promises and blessings, and here and there His commanding word is written—for too many benedictions and promises, untempered by these severer words, might lead us into presumption, and might end in making us molluscous instead of strong and grand. This is a kind of authority which begets love and thankfulness. God never shows me His power merely for the sake of inspiring me with awe. When I see the universe I see the suppression of His almightiness, not its extent, not its abundance. God has given me a memory short and shadowed. He could have turned it into a daily plague by the multitude of His commandments and requirements; He gives me ten, it is enough; by and by He will shorten them to one. Here is the authority of gentleness, authority limited to my condition, stooping to my capacity.
II. What marvellous commandments these are when looked at in their simplicity. They are ten speeches to little children. These are not commandments for the manhood of the world, but for its child-age. 'He added no more.' It was beautiful in its tenderness, it was Divine in its pathos. The commandments are not abolished, they are fulfilled, glorified, carried up their highest interpretation and most beneficent meanings. Jesus Christ said, 'Think not that I am come to destroy, I am not come to destroy the law but to fulfil it,' to carry it on to its higher meanings. Now how does He deliver the Ten Commandments? 'Thou shalt not steal' becomes 'If you would like to steal, you have stolen'. He digs down the outer wall and searches into the chambers of imagery and there, on the walls around, are seen symbols and images and faces and pantomimes of evil that the heart does and that the life would like to do. So we who are in Christ are not under the law, and yet we are under the law as Israel never was. Jesus Christ has given one commandment—will it be easier to keep one than ten. 'A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another,' and we must all confess 'I count not myself to have attained, but press towards the mark'.
III. How easy for Christ to lay down the law. No, He did not lay it down; He did it. He became obedient unto death, even the Cross-death, that He might redeem us. 'By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples,'—not if you utter the same theological Shibboleth, but by this 'if ye have love one to another'. Love is the highest exposition, love is the profoundest criticism, of Christianity. Love repeats the cross and sets the crown above its bleeding head.
—J. Pulsford, The Clerical Library, vol. 11. p. 49.
Reference.—V. 22.—J. Oswald Dykes, The Law of the Ten Words, p. 1.
'This representation of Moses,' says Prof. Harper, 'is not accidental. It is in complete accord with a characteristic of Israelite literature from beginning to end. In the earliest historical records we find that the chief heroes of the nation are mediators, standing for God in the face of evil men, and pleading with God for men when they are broken and penitent, or even when they are only terrified and restrained by the terror of the Lord. At the beginning of the national history we see the noble figure of Abraham in an agony of supplication and entreaty before God on behalf of the cities of the plain. At the end of it, we see the Christ, the Supreme Mediator between God and man, pouring out His soul unto death for men "while they were yet sinners," dying, the just fur the unjust, taking upon Himself the responsibility for the sin of man, and refusing to let him wander away into permanent separation from God.'
Hearing for Others
'Go thou near, and hear for us.' That is an old and still abiding plea. It is born of an old and still abiding necessity. It has been the cry of the human heart in all ages in its endeavours to find God and worship Him and learn His will. As we look at Moses standing in the lurid shadow of the mountain that might not be touched, standing and listening in the place of thunder—whilst the people waited afar off not daring to draw nigh, we can see, if we will, not an incident of ancient history about which certain critical minds can grow brilliantly sceptical, but a great fact, too deeply grounded in human experience for any wise soul to doubt it. I mean the ever personal and persistent need for mediation.
God speaks to men through men. We are in this world, all resonant with His voice, to hear not only for ourselves but also for other people. Now hearing for other people suggests a task which some find by no means unpleasant or difficult, indeed a task to which they address themselves with enthusiasm and delight. 'Hearing for other people' sometimes means dodging the truth with a fervent hope that it will hit some one else. It means becoming an expert in so receiving the shafts of rebuke or warning coming straight for your own conscience that they glance harmlessly aside and bury themselves in your neighbour's conscience. It is the subtle art of misapplication. And it is essentially unprofitable. The gains thereof are a heart of pride and a starved soul. There is not one of us but can ill afford to miss one of those life-enriching pains God sends to teachable and listening souls.
I. But there is a way of hearing for other people that is wholly meet and right, and that plays a necessary part in the religious education of the race. Think for a moment of music. It is a mediated treasure. There are a few great names, and we call them the masters. I think we might call them the listeners. They heard for duller ears the choral harmony that is wherever God is. Did the great poets fashion their poems out of their own vibrant and sensitive souls? If we could ask them I think they would say 'No, we heard these things'. The musician and the poet have been men with ears to hear. The music of the 'Messiah' was waiting for Handel, the message of the hills and vales of Cumberland was waiting for Wordsworth. And through them he may hear who will.
II. Most people consider originality a very desirable thing. Strange to say, however, people often think that the short cut to originality is found by copying some one else. The attempt to be original invariably defeats itself. Yet originality is a very precious thing. It is worth a great deal to the world. And the one thing that truly develops and safeguards it in human life is the worshipping and the listening spirit. The most original man is the most devout man. The freshest thing any man can give to the world—the one thing the world can never have unless he does give it—is the word of God spoken in his own soul—the transcript of his personal experience of divinity. The hardest task a man can have in this world is to find himself. Indeed no man can make that all-important discovery unless God guides him to it.
III. The word that is given to a man thus is an authoritative word. The children of Israel said to Moses, Tell us what God shall say to you; and we will hear it, and do it. How did they know it would be God's word he would bring back to them, since they would not be present at that awful communion? Whence this readiness of theirs to obey a word not yet spoken? They knew that in this matter deception was impossible. A man can fashion many deceits, but he cannot speak God's word until he has heard it. It does not take a spiritual expert to detect a sham divinity. There is an instinct in the human heart that can always tell how far a word has travelled. Men can always tell whether your life message is an echo of the temporalities—a word picked up in the valley of time—or whether it has come through your hearts listening to the voice of the Eternal.
—P. Ainsworth, The Pilgrim Church. p. 117.
References.—V. 29.—R. D. B. Rawnsley, A Course of Sermons for the Christian Year, p. 209. V. 31.—J. Keble, Sermons for Easter to Ascension Day, p. 182.
The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb.
The LORD made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day.
The LORD talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire,
(I stood between the LORD and you at that time, to shew you the word of the LORD: for ye were afraid by reason of the fire, and went not up into the mount;) saying,
I am the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
Thou shalt have none other gods before me.
Thou shalt not make 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 waters beneath the earth:
Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto 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,
And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.
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.
Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee.
Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work:
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, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.
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.
Honour thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
Thou shalt not kill.
Neither shalt thou commit adultery.
Neither shalt thou steal.
Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour.
Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour's wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbour's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or any thing that is thy neighbour's.
These words the LORD spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: and he added no more. And he wrote them in two tables of stone, and delivered them unto me.
And it came to pass, when ye heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, (for the mountain did burn with fire,) that ye came near unto me, even all the heads of your tribes, and your elders;
And ye said, 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 thou 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.
And the LORD heard the voice of your words, when ye spake unto me; and the LORD said unto me, I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken unto thee: they have well said all that they have spoken.
O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!
Go say to them, Get you into your tents again.
But as for thee, stand thou here by me, and I will speak unto thee all the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments, which thou shalt teach them, that they may do them in the land which I give them to possess it.
Ye shall observe to do therefore as the LORD your God hath commanded you: ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.
Ye shall walk in all the ways which the LORD your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess.