Exodus 20:5
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;
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(5) Nor serve them.—The idolatry of the ancient world was, practically, not a mere worship of celestial beings through material representations of them, but an actual culture of the images themselves, which were regarded as possessed of miraculous powers. “I myself,” says Arnobius, “not so very long ago, worshipped gods just taken out of the furnace, fresh from the anvil of the smith, ivory, paintings, stumps of trees swathed in bandages; and if I happened to cast my eyes on a polished stone smeared with olive oil, I made reverence to it, as if a power were present therein, and addressed myself in supplication for blessings to the senseless block” (Advers. Gentes, i. 29). “People pray,” says Seneca, “to the images of the gods, implore them on bended knees, sit or stand long days before them, throw them money, and sacrifice beasts to them, so treating them with deep respect” (Ap. Lactant., ii. 2).

A jealous God.—Not in the sense in which He was regarded as “jealous” by some of the Greeks, who supposed that success or eminence of any kind provoked Him (Herod. iii. 40, 125), but jealous of His own honour, one who will not see “His glory given to another” (Isaiah 42:8; Isaiah 48:11), or allow rivals to dispute His sole and absolute sovereignty. (Comp. Exodus 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24; Deuteronomy 5:9; Deuteronomy 6:15; Joshua 24:19.)

Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.—It is a fact that, under God’s natural government of the world, the iniquity of fathers is visited upon their children. Diseases caused by vicious courses are transmitted. The parents’ extravagance leaves their children beggars. To be the son of a felon is to be heavily handicapped in the race of life. That this should be so is perhaps involved in “the nature of things”—at any rate, it is part of the scheme of Divine government by which the world is ordered. We all inherit countless disadvantages on account of our first parents’ sin. We each individually inherit special tendencies to this or that form of evil from the misconduct of our several progenitors. The knowledge that their sins will put their children at a disadvantage is calculated to check men in their evil courses more than almost anything else; and this check could not be removed without a sensible diminution of the restraints which withhold men from vice. Still, the penalty upon the children is not final or irreversible. Under whatever disadvantages they are born, they may struggle against them, and lead good lives, and place themselves, even in this world, on a level with those who were born under every favourable circumstance. It is needless to say that, as respects another world, their parents’ iniquities will not be visited on them. “Each man will bear his own burthen.” The soul that sinneth, it shall die. “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him” (Ezekiel 18:20).

20:3-11 The first four of the ten commandments, commonly called the FIRST table, tell our duty to God. It was fit that those should be put first, because man had a Maker to love, before he had a neighbour to love. It cannot be expected that he should be true to his brother, who is false to his God. The first commandment concerns the object of worship, JEHOVAH, and him only. The worship of creatures is here forbidden. Whatever comes short of perfect love, gratitude, reverence, or worship, breaks this commandment. Whatsoever ye do, do all the glory of God. The second commandment refers to the worship we are to render to the Lord our God. It is forbidden to make any image or picture of the Deity, in any form, or for any purpose; or to worship any creature, image, or picture. But the spiritual import of this command extends much further. All kinds of superstition are here forbidden, and the using of mere human inventions in the worship of God. The third commandment concerns the manner of worship, that it be with all possible reverence and seriousness. All false oaths are forbidden. All light appealing to God, all profane cursing, is a horrid breach of this command. It matters not whether the word of God, or sacred things, all such-like things break this commandment, and there is no profit, honour, or pleasure in them. The Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. The form of the fourth commandment, Remember, shows that it was not now first given, but was known by the people before. One day in seven is to be kept holy. Six days are allotted to worldly business, but not so as to neglect the service of God, and the care of our souls. On those days we must do all our work, and leave none to be done on the sabbath day. Christ allowed works of necessity, charity, and piety; for the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath, Mr 2:27; but all works of luxury, vanity, or self-indulgence in any form, are forbidden. Trading, paying wages, settling accounts, writing letters of business, worldly studies, trifling visits, journeys, or light conversation, are not keeping this day holy to the Lord. Sloth and indolence may be a carnal, but not a holy rest. The sabbath of the Lord should be a day of rest from worldly labour, and a rest in the service of God. The advantages from the due keeping of this holy day, were it only to the health and happiness of mankind, with the time it affords for taking care of the soul, show the excellency of this commandment. The day is blessed; men are blessed by it, and in it. The blessing and direction to keep holy are not limited to the seventh day, but are spoken of the sabbath day.Graven image - Any sort of image is here intended.

As the first commandment forbids the worship of any false god, seen or unseen, it is here forbidden to worship an image of any sort, whether the figure of a false deity Joshua 23:7 or one in any way symbolic of Yahweh (see Exodus 32:4). The spiritual acts of worship were symbolized in the furniture and ritual of the tabernacle and the altar, and for this end the forms of living things might be employed as in the case of the Cherubim (see Exodus 25:18 note): but the presence of the invisible God was to be marked by no symbol of Himself, but by His words written on stones, preserved in the ark in the holy of holies and covered by the mercy-seat. The ancient Persians and the earliest legislators of Rome also agreed in repudiating images of the Deity.

A jealous God - Deuteronomy 6:15; Joshua 24:19; Isaiah 42:8; Isaiah 48:11; Nahum 1:2. This reason applies to the First, as well as to the second commandment. The truth expressed in it was declared more fully to Moses when the name of Yahweh was proclaimed to him after he had interceded for Israel on account of the golden calf (Exodus 34:6-7; see the note).

Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children - (Compare Exodus 34:7; Jeremiah 32:18). Sons and remote descendants inherit the consequences of their fathers' sins, in disease, poverty, captivity, with all the influences of bad example and evil communications. (See Leviticus 26:39; Lamentations 5:7 following) The "inherited curse" seems to fall often most heavily on the least guilty persons; but such suffering must always be free from the sting of conscience; it is not like the visitation for sin on the individual by whom the sin has been committed. The suffering, or loss of advantages, entailed on the unoffending son, is a condition under which he has to carry on the struggle of life, and, like all other inevitable conditions imposed upon men, it cannot tend to his ultimate disadvantage, if he struggles well and perseveres to the end. The principle regulating the administration of justice by earthly tribunals Deuteronomy 24:16, is carried out in spiritual matters by the Supreme Judge.

4, 5. Thou shalt not make … any graven image … thou shalt not bow down thyself to them—that is, "make in order to bow." Under the auspices of Moses himself, figures of cherubim, brazen serpents, oxen, and many other things in the earth beneath, were made and never condemned. The mere making was no sin—it was the making with the intent to give idolatrous worship. Not only inward reverence is forbidden, but also all outward gestures that naturally or customarily express reverence, whether bowing down the body, as here; or bending the knee, as 1 Kings 19:18; or kissing the idol, or one’s hand towards it, as Job 31:27 Hosea 13:2; one gesture being by a synecdoche named for all. To them, nor before them; for to bow to them, and to bow before them, are expressions in Scripture of the same extent and use, as appears by comparing this place with Leviticus 26:1 2 Chronicles 25:14; and 2 Samuel 7:22, with 1 Chronicles 17:25; and Matthew 4:9, with Luke 4:7. Nor serve them; or, worship them, either inwardly in thy mind, or outwardly by any sensible mean or sign of worship given to them, as incense or sacrifice, vowing to them, or swearing by them, or the like. A jealous God, i.e. impatient of any partner in thy love and worship, and full of wrath against them that give my glory to images, Isaiah 42:8; as jealousy is the rage of a man Proverbs 6:34 against the defiler of his marriage-bed. God is pleased to call and account himself the Husband of his church and people, Jeremiah 2:2 Hosea 2:19; and therefore idolatry is called adultery, Deu 31:16 Jeremiah 3:3,10; and God’s anger against idolaters’ jealousy. The word el properly signifies the strong God, and shows God’s ability to avenge himself, as the word jealous notes his readiness and resolution to do it. Visiting, i.e. remembering, inquiring into, or punishing, (as that word is commonly used, as hath been noted before,)

the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.

Quest. How can this be just?

Answ. 1. All are born sinners, and are children of wrath, and therefore justly punishable for their own sins.

Answ. 2. He speaks not here of eternal damnation, but of temporal punishments, in which there is no shadow of injustice; as appears,

1. Because the sins of parents are oft punished in their children, even in human courts, as is manifest in traitors, which practice being acknowledged to be just, it cannot with any sense be accounted unjust in God.

2. Because such external punishments have more good than evil in them, and are in many, and may be so in others, if themselves do not hinder it, instruments of the greatest good, exercises of their virtues and graces, and means of their eternal happiness.

3. Because children are a part and the possession of their parents, and therefore it is not unjust if they suffer with them, and for them.

Answ. 3. This is to be understood with an exception of repentance, and penitent children, as appears from Eze 18 And if any such be temporally punished for their fathers’ sins, God will abundantly recompense it to them some other way. But if children tread in their fathers’ sinful steps, it is but just that they should partake of their plagues.

Unto the third and fourth generation; and further too, as appears in the ten tribes, and afterwards in the two tribes, upon whom the iniquity of their fathers hath been visited now for many generations. But he mentions them in particular, partly, because a parent may live so long, and see the dreadful effects of his sin in his children’s children; partly, because so far the memory of a father may extend, and be matter of imitation to his children; and partly, to show the difference between his exercise of justice and mercy, as appears by comparing the next verse.

Them that hate me. This word is opposed to the conceit that idolaters, at least many of them, have of themselves, that they love God more than others do, because they love, and honour, and worship the creatures for his sake, and for those excellencies that he hath wrought in them; but this will no more excuse their idolatry, than it will excuse him that commits adultery with his friend’s wife, that he did it for his friend’s sake, and from the love he had to his friend, and for his relations.

Thou shall not bow down thyself to them,.... Perform any worship to them, show any reverence of them by any gesture of the body; one being mentioned, bowing the body, and put for all others, as prostration of it to the earth, bending the knee, kissing the hand, lifting up of hands or eyes to them, or by any outward action expressing a religious esteem of them, as if there was divinity in them:

nor serve them; in a religious manner, internally or externally, by offering sacrifice and burning incense to them; by praying to, or praising of them; by expressing love to them, faith and trust in them, hope and expectation of good things from them, and the like. The reason of this second command, relating to the making and worshipping of images, next follows:

for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God; jealous of his own honour and glory, and will not give it to another; even to graven images, nor suffer it to be given to them without resenting it; and jealousy is fierce and cruel, and breaks forth into great wrath, and issues in dreadful scenes oftentimes among men; as a man that has reason to be jealous of his wife, and especially if he takes her and the adulterer in the fact, it often costs them both their lives, being so enraged at such an insult upon him, and such a violation of the marriage bed; and thus the great Jehovah, the God of Israel, their head and husband, is represented, in order to deter from idolatry, or spiritual adultery, than which nothing could be more provoking to him:

visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children; meaning chiefly, if not solely, the iniquity of idolatry; which being such an insult on his honour, "crimen laesae majestatis", is treated by him as high treason is among men; not only he punishes the authors and perpetrators of it in their own persons, which is meant by "visiting", but upon their children also, which are parts of themselves; and whatsoever is inflicted on them is the same as on themselves, and is an addition to, and a sensible aggravation of their punishment; and especially these are visited in such a manner, when they tread in their father's steps, and fill up the measure of their iniquity. So the Targum of Jonathan,"visiting the iniquity of ungodly fathers on rebellious children:

unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; as all idolaters must be thought to do, whatsoever love and affection they may pretend to God, by worshipping idols before him, besides him, along with him, or him in them: "the third and fourth generation" are mentioned, because sometimes parents lived to see these, and so with their eyes beheld the punishment inflicted upon their posterity for their sins, which must be distressing to them; or, however, these being but small removes from them, might impress their minds and affect them, to think what their sins would bring upon their descendants, who would quickly come after them, and share in the sad effects of their iniquities, and so be a means to deter them from them.

Thou shalt not {c} bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a {d} jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

(c) By this outward gesture, all forms of service and worship to idols is forbidden.

(d) And will have revenge on those who condemn my honour.

5. The command of v. 4 developed and emphasized.

bow down … serve] The same combination, Deuteronomy 4:19; Deuteronomy 8:19; Deuteronomy 11:16; Deuteronomy 17:3; Deuteronomy 29:26; Deuteronomy 30:17, Jdg 2:19 (D2[176]); and several times in Jer. [‘worship’ in these passages is in the Heb. bow down, as here].

[176] Deuteronomic passages in Josh., Jud., Kings.

a jealous God] who will not tolerate that the reverence due to Him, should be given to another,—whether to another god (Exodus 34:14), or, as here, to an image worshipped, or, if an image of Himself, likely to be worshipped, as Divine,—and whose jealousy is described elsewhere burning like fire against those who thus dishonour Him. Occurring, as it does here, in a comment on the original command (see p. 192), the expression is derived probably from Exodus 34:14. It recurs Deuteronomy 4:24 (with ‘a devouring fire’), Exodus 6:15, Joshua 24:19 (E), each time in a similar connexion: cf. the verb in Deuteronomy 32:16; Deuteronomy 32:21 (the Song; hence Psalm 78:58). Jehovah’s honour is, however, intimately connected with that of His people: so his ‘jealousy’ may also be exerted, if circumstances permit it, on His people’s behalf, as Isaiah 9:7; Isaiah 42:13; cf. Joel 2:18, Nahum 1:2, Zechariah 1:14, with the writer’s notes.

5. of them that hate me] The term is a strong one, and denotes those who persistently and defiantly oppose themselves to God.

5, 6. visiting …, and doing …] a further definition of Jehovah’s ethical character, as displayed in His attitude towards sin and goodness, respectively. The definition is based (Di.) upon Exodus 34:7 (cf. Numbers 14:18, Jeremiah 32:18), only with the two clauses transposed, so as to give the warning the first place, as the context here demands.

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. Exodus 20:5"Thou shalt not pray to them and serve them." (On the form תּעבדם with the o-sound under the guttural, see Ewald, 251d.). השׁתּחוה signifies bending before God in prayer, and invoking His name; עבד, worship by means of sacrifice and religious ceremonies. The suffixes להם and - ם (to them, and them) refer to the things in heaven, etc., which are made into pesel, symbols of Jehovah, as being the principal object of the previous clause, and not to כּל־תּמוּנה פּסל, although פּסל עבד is applied in Psalm 97:7 and 2 Kings 17:41 to a rude idolatrous worship, which identifies the image as the symbol of deity with the deity itself, Still less do they refer to אחרים אלהים in Exodus 20:3.

The threat and promise, which follow in Exodus 20:5 and Exodus 20:6, relate to the first two commandments, and not to the second alone; because both of them, although forbidding two forms of idolatry, viz., idolo-latry and ikono-latry, are combined in a higher unity, by the fact, that whenever Jehovah, the God who cannot be copied because He reveals His spiritual nature in no visible form, is worshipped under some visible image, the glory of the invisible God is changed, or Jehovah changed into a different God from what He really is. Through either form of idolatry, therefore, Israel would break its covenant with Jehovah. For this reason God enforces the two commandments with the solemn declaration: "I, Jehovah thy God, am קנּא אל a jealous God;" i.e., not only ζηλωτής, a zealous avenger of sinners, but ζηλοτύπος, a jealous God, who will not transfer to another the honour that is due to Himself (Isaiah 42:8; Isaiah 48:11), nor tolerate the worship of any other god (Exodus 34:14), but who directs the warmth of His anger against those who hate Him (Deuteronomy 6:15), with the same energy with which the warmth of His love (Sol 8:6) embraces those who love Him, except that love in the form of grace reaches much further than wrath. The sin of the fathers He visits (punishes) on the children to the third and fourth generation. שׁלּשׁים third (sc., children) are not grandchildren, but great-grandchildren, and רבּעים the fourth generation. On the other hand He shows mercy to the thousandths, i.e., to the thousandth generation (cf. Deuteronomy 7:9, where דּור לאלף stands for לאלפים). The cardinal number is used here for the ordinal, for which there was no special form in the case of אלף. The words לשׂנאי and לאהבי, in which the punishment and grace are traced to their ultimate foundation, are of great importance to a correct understanding of this utterance of God. The ל before שׂנאי does not take up the genitive with עון again, as Knobel supposes, for no such use of ל can be established from Genesis 7:11; Genesis 16:3; Genesis 14:18; Genesis 41:12, or in fact in any way whatever. In this instance ל signifies "at" or "in relation to;" and לשׂנאי, from its very position, cannot refer to the fathers alone, but to the fathers and children to the third and fourth generation. If it referred to the fathers alone, it would necessarily stand after אבת. וגו לאהבי is to be taken in the same way. God punishes the sin of the fathers in the children to the third and fourth generation in relation to those who hate Him, and shows mercy to the thousandth generation in relation to those who love Him. The human race is a living organism, in which not only sin and wickedness are transmitted, but evil as the curse of the sin and the punishment of the wickedness. As children receive their nature from their parents, or those who beget them, so they have also to bear and atone for their fathers' guilt. This truth forced itself upon the minds even of thoughtful heathen from their own varied experience (cf. Aeschyl. Sept. 744; Eurip. according to Plutarch de sera num. vind. 12, 21; Cicero de nat. deorum 3, 38; and Baumgarten-Crusius, bibl. Theol. p. 208). Yet there is no fate in the divine government of the world, no irresistible necessity in the continuous results of good and evil; but there reigns in the world a righteous and gracious God, who not only restrains the course of His penal judgments, as soon as the sinner is brought to reflection by the punishment and hearkens to the voice of God, but who also forgives the sin and iniquity of those who love Him, keeping mercy to the thousandth generation (Exodus 34:7). The words neither affirm that sinning fathers remain unpunished, nor that the sins of fathers are punished in the children and grandchildren without any fault of their own: they simply say nothing about whether and how the fathers themselves are punished; and, in order to show the dreadful severity of the penal righteousness of God, give prominence to the fact, that punishment is not omitted-that even when, in the long-suffering of God, it is deferred, it is not therefore neglected, but that the children have to bear the sins of their fathers, whenever, for example (as naturally follows from the connection of children with their fathers, and, as Onkelos has added in his paraphrase of the words), "the children fill up the sins of their fathers," so that the descendants suffer punishment for both their own and their forefathers' misdeeds (Leviticus 26:39; Isaiah 65:7; Amos 7:17; Jeremiah 16:11.; Daniel 9:16). But when, on the other hand, the hating ceases, when the children forsake their fathers' evil ways, the warmth of the divine wrath is turned into the warmth of love, and God becomes חסד עשׂה ("showing mercy") to them; and this mercy endures not only to the third and fourth generation, but to the thousandth generation, though only in relation to those who love God, and manifest this love by keeping His commandments. "If God continues for a long time His visitation of sin, He continues to all eternity His manifestation of mercy, and we cannot have a better proof of this than in the history of Israel itself" (Schultz).

(Note: On the visitation of the sins of the fathers upon the children, see also Hengstenberg, Dissertations, vol. ii. p. 446ff.)

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