Exegetical Notes: Exodus 20:1-17

20 And God spoke all these words, saying,

As in verses 1-17. Exodus 20:1-17 constitute one of the greatest moments in Israel’s history.

“The Law was not given so that the Israelites by keeping it could attain righteousness (Rom. 3:20a; Gal. 3:11). A righteous standing (justification) before God has always been only by faith (trust) in God (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3, 22; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:6, 21). The Law functioned to show the Israelites their sinfulness (Rom. 3:19–20b; 7:7) in contrast with God’s standards of holiness and righteousness, and to condemn mankind.”
 John D. Hannah, “Exodus,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 138–139.

It has been commonly regarded that the first four commands deal with man’s relationship with God, while the latter six deal with man’s relationship with each other. Thus it isn’t ironic that Jesus sums up the Law as such. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Mt 22:36–40.

The Ten Commandments are an excellent summary of 10 divine rules for human conduct. They might be called rules of (1) religion, (2) worship, (3) reverence, (4) time, (5) authority, (6) life, (7) purity, (8) property, (9) tongue, and (10) contentment. John D. Hannah, “Exodus,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 139.

2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me.

Verse 2 provides the foundation for all the commands which follow. This verse highlights God’s nature as Elohim (God) and His covenant love and action toward the nation of Israel.

“who brought you out” -literally, “I caused you to go out”.

“before me” -Throughout their history, Israel demonstrates their (and man in general) inability to keep the law by worshipping other god’s before they worshiped Yahweh. In fact, as early as Exodus 32 we see Israel’s disobedience to commandment one: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Ex 32:1.

It’s not just ancient man that struggled with idolatry.
 Often what is nearer becomes greater than what is Greatest. We struggle with perspectives.

Application: 2 questions:
1. What did you spend the majority of time, energy, and effort thinking of this past week?
2. What would be the one thing that would hurt the most if you lost it?
If the answer to these questions isn’t our relationship with God, then you struggle with idolatry.

4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Since God is Spirit, the worship of God is a spiritual, not a material issue.
”But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” Jn 4:23.

Paul also wrote of this in Romans: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” Ro 1:21–25.

The attempt to worship a figurine, would be far less than God’s true nature. There is no adequate representation of Him, except for the person of Jesus Christ.

Some might argue that modern Catholicism flirts with the worship of material objects. Note the Catholic article quoted below concerning relics:

”In the sacraments, common material things, such as water, wine, bread, oil, and the imposition of hands, result in the giving of grace. Related to the sacraments are the sacramentals, objects such as medals, blessed palms, holy water, and ashes. Their use can lead people to receive or respond to grace. Many non-Catholics wrongly believe that the Church teaches that these sacramentals actually provide grace. But one of the biggest problems for non-Catholics are the relics of saints—the bones, ashes, clothing, or personal possessions of the apostles and other holy people which are held in reverence by the Church and sometimes associated with miraculous healings and other acts of God…
The sacraments (and, derivatively, sacramentals and relics) don’t compel God to work in a certain way. Their use depends on God, who established their efficacy, so their effects are divine, not natural, in their origin. It is God who sanctions the use of relics; it is not a matter of men “overpowering” God through their own powers or the powers of nature, which is what magic amounts to…
The Church has never pronounced that any particular relic—even that of the cross—is genuine. But, the Church does approve of honor being given to the relics that can with reasonable probability be considered authentic.” https://www.catholic.com/tract/relics

Verses 5-6 provide a short explanation as to how seriously sinful idolatry can be. It can easily effect generations to come.

The nature of idolatry is usually misunderstood by modern people. Idolatry was not merely the practice of worshiping by means of statues and/or pictures as focal points for worship; it was rather an entire, elaborate religious system and lifestyle, all of it running counter to what God desired and desires true worship to be. The attractions of idolatry were very powerful and tended to draw even the Israelites away from true worship and covenant obedience to Yahweh in most generations. 
Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 450.

“jealous God” -God desires is to be one’s sole source of devotion. This seems egotistical to some, but he is the only one worthy of mankind’s devotion. It would be cruel for God to allow His creation to settle for the worship of something lesser than Himself.

“but showing steadfast love to thousands” -APP: Our relationship with God (or lack thereof) has implications for those who may come after us.

These verses have often been used to show the brutality of God in punishing the children of sinners, but the focus of this verse is on His steadfast love. It may also be noted that God is not punishing innocents, rather He is punishing each generation for their own sinfulness, which was learned from the previous generation.

7 “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

Although many perceive this to be a prohibition against using God as a curse, The command is broader and would include any misuse of God’s name where it is not used in reverence or proper context: Using God’s name in oaths, swearing, or using it as a point of emphasis to show a reaction, etc.

8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

This commandment serves a a continual reminder to the nation of the importance of the commands of the Lord and the communities devotion to keep it.

The Sabbath is not portrayed as a day of recuperation from those too weak to keep working day after day without rest. It is portrayed rather as a stoppage good for everyone, for the purpose of refocusing on holiness (all concerns that stem from belonging to God, which is what holiness is) in order to enjoy God’s blessings of that day and its potential (“Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy”). The Sabbath, in other words, is designed to help people become spiritually stronger and closer to God; whatever it does by way of helping people recuperate from being physically tired (and it certainly can do this) is an incidental, rather than a primary, benefit.

To love God is not to have a lazy day one day a week; rather it is to focus on doing his will specially on one day a week—to worship, learn, study, care, and strengthen the spirit. 
Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 460.

12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

There is not promise here of individually long life spans. Rather the promise refers to God’s protection of his covenant people if and as long as they keep his covenant.
 Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 462.

13 “You shall not murder.

no unauthorized “private” person or group has the right to end a human life. Moreover, the ban on murder has no modifying conditions: taking one’s own life or ending someone else’s for purposes of “mercy” do not qualify as allowable exceptions.
 Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 463.

This command prohibits abortion and euthanasia. Both violate the image of God within mankind and God’s right as Creator over man and display a complete lack of faith towards God.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

By over emphasizing the importance of sex in our culture, we devalue how important it really is.

God intends marriage to be a reflection of his relationship to the church in Eph. 6. Adultery says that 1)God is unfaithful to his people, or 2) God’s people are unfaithful to Him.

15 “You shall not steal.

A simple yet profound commandment in its application.

Regarding possessions:
1. This commandment implies two things about God’s will.
A) private ownership. Owning things, in some ways, is essentially human. When things are taken, it violates us personally. We were created to own and steward things for God’s glory.
B) God’s will toward prosperity. God is in charge of what we have. When we steal, we take this matter out of His hands. See Phil. 4:13. When we trust in things or money to meet our needs, more than God, we have a theft problem.
2. Where God’s will is ignored, harm is incurred.

Regarding work:
APP: Pay employees what they are worth. Don’t steal their wages.
APP: Don’t steal from your employer. By pilfering time. Or misusing their products.

Regarding tithe: 
See Mal.3:8. Eph. 4:28.

Regarding self:
 Eph. 5:15. Don’t steal time from God by trading time pursuing Him for lesser things. Don’t wast your talents and gifts on sinful uses.

Regarding sin:
All sin is theft. We are stealing from the glory of God. 1 Cor. 10:31. Rom. 5:20-21. Thank God that where our sin debt amasses, grace amasses all the more.

16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Not just in truth telling, but in the whole of verbal integrity. 

We treat truth so lightly today. We need a world filled with people of integrity.

APP: it doesn’t matter how well we look on the outside, a breach of integrity can bring down the best of us. 

This verse had and has drastic implications in the legal system. How much more should it apply to God’s people.

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

To covet means to Crave, want, or desire. This verse doesn’t teach us not to have desires, but to have desires for the right things. See Phil. 4:8. See also Phil. 4:11-13.

See also: 

Jer. 17:9.

1. Coveting is a contentment problem. When I don’t have as much as I want.
2. Coveting is a abundance problem. I want more. I want it now.
APP: It’s not that we covet too much, but that we desire too little. We desire lesser things than God has planned for is. Treasure and enjoy God. Don’t settle for lesser things. Covet Christ. Covet righteousness. See Matt. 5:6.

Coveting is a worship problem, an idolatry problem. See Col. 3:5.