Exodus 19-20

Israel belongs to God because of His covenant with Abraham; its status is based on God’s choice and isn’t conditional.  In this text, however, God makes another covenant with the people and its promises come with conditions.  God promises them peace, prosperity, longevity and a place in the world as His special representatives IF they abide by His terms – the Ten Commandments.  The ‘if’ is vital.  If they obey, God will bless them.  If they don’t, He won’t.  The covenantal aspect of the Ten Commandments shows them to be more than just a set of precepts.  They are the conditions of God’s promise of success and stability in the Promised Land.

Forty years after the event recounted here Moses will tell the descendants of this generation that they must hear and learn these statutes so they can observe them carefully (Deut 5:1).  They’ll have to know them to keep the covenant.  From a different perspective, the same goes for the believer today.  The Ten Commandments are a summary of God’s will for His people.  When Jesus tells His disciples that if they love Him they’ll keep His commandments (Jn 14:15), He means what’s written in Exodus 20.  Thus it’s incumbent on the Christian to know and understand what’s in this text.  We must know how a child of God is to live.  The Ten Commandments don’t save us; they do, however, show us how to live as saved and thankful people of God.

The Israelites reach Mount Sinai three months out of Egypt.  This is where God told Moses He would bring the people as proof that Moses was His chosen deliverer of Israel (3:12).  After they camp, God calls Moses up the mountain and gives him a message.  The message is that He is about to make a covenant with them.  If the people obey My voice and keep My covenant they will be God’s possession among all the peoples (protected in the world); a kingdom of priests (presumably taking God’s message to the world); and a holy nation (set apart and pure).  Notice that the promises are conditional – they only occur if the people keep their side of the covenant.  The Law God’s about to give them is His list of terms for the threefold promise.

In verse 4 God states the basis of the covenant – “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself.”  The basis for the people’s obedience to the covenant is their redemption.  God redeemed them; thus He’s worthy of their obedience.  The order of events is vital to understand.  They ARE redeemed; now they receive the Law.  The Law doesn’t make them God’s people or make them worthy of redemption; the Law shows them how to live as their Redeemer desires.  Thus obedience is based on redemption instead of being the basis of redemption.

The commonality with us is obvious, isn’t it?  We are redeemed, thus we obey.  We don’t obey to redeem ourselves or make ourselves worthy of redemption.  We obey out of love for the Redeemer and a desire to live according to His will.  That’s why Exodus 19-20 is a model for Christians.  It shows how God’s love and salvation work.  Redemption before Law.  Egypt before Sinai.

God tells Moses to prepare the people to meet Him.  The people are to sanctify themselves for two days and then meet at the bottom of the mountain on the third day to hear God.  When God comes down, no one is to touch the mountain because it will be holy ground.  Anyone who touches it will die (a warning which seemingly will be moot once the people see what happens to the mountain when God’s presence comes upon it).  The people have two days to wash themselves, wash their clothes, and abstain from sexual activity.

Notice that God also tells Moses that He will speak to Moses in the hearing of the people.  Contrary to what we might think when we picture the giving of the Ten Commandments, God doesn’t give the words to Moses written on stone tablets at the top of the mountain (not initially).  He speaks the commands to the whole congregation.  Everyone hears this first declaration.  One reason for this is so the people will believe in Moses forever (vs 9).  The other reason is so the people will fear God and obey (more on this later – 20:20).

20 – The Ten Commandments (a detailed analysis of the first, second, and tenth)
The Ten Commandments break into two sections.  The first section – commandments 1 through 4 – addresses our relationship with God.  This section is summarized as you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength (the greatest commandment – Matt 22:37-38).  The second section – commandments 5 through 10 – addresses our relationship with others.  It is summarized in the command you shall love your neighbor as yourself (the second greatest commandment – Matt 22:39-40).

While the sections are separate they are interdependent.  The second section cannot exist without the first and the first section never exists without the second.  The one who loves God with all his heart will also love his neighbor.  And no one will truly love his neighbor as himself without first loving God and experiencing God’s love in his life.

This is why Jesus described the two commandments together – they are never alone.  This is also why James (2:10-12) said that one who violates any of the commandments violates them all.  The one who commits adultery does so because something other than God is the god of his life.  The same goes for stealing and lying and coveting and murder.  The cause of sin really always comes back to loving something more than God.

On the other hand, the one who keeps the first two commandments will keep the other eight.  The first two really form the basis for the others because the primary need of every man is to make sure he worships no one and nothing other than God.  The one whose god is God does not look elsewhere for satisfaction and so does not have a hole that must be filled by sin.

The commands display the nature of God.  God is faithful, holy, loving, kind, true, and completely content.  These are the attributes reflected in the Commandments.  The Ten Commandments are law and covenant but also a roadmap for imitating God.  They are a path to godliness.

In that way they are also a path to understanding our need.  When we meditate on the perfection inherent in the Law (especially as Jesus defines it in the Sermon on the Mount – Matt 5), we understand how sinful we are and how far we fall short of what God requires.  We understand our need for the gospel.  This is true of the believer and unbeliever alike.  The unbeliever confronted with the Law grabs for the gospel as his only hope.  For the believer, he’s driven back to the gospel as his only hope.  In both cases, the Law becomes more than God’s guide to living or His covenant with Israel – it actually becomes His gift to all people to show them their perilous state and push them to the Savior He sent.  The Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith (Gal 3:24).  In this way the Law is a mark of God’s grace.

Once again God states the basis of the covenant.  He is the God who brought them out of slavery.  He is worthy of obedience because He saved them.

The first two commandments are the most important.  Those who keep the first two keep them all.  Nothing is more vital for the people of God than to worship and glorify only Him.  God created the universe and man for His glory.  It goes against the created order to give that glory to something else or try to capture it in an image.

For Israel these commands are important for another reason.  Their heritage is four centuries (perhaps) in a polytheistic culture.  And they’re going to a land completely given over to idolatry.  Thus it’s imperative that they worship one God and one only.

Note that He doesn’t bother declaring that there are no other true gods.  This isn’t a matter of comparison or definition.  God knows we’re made to worship and that apart from Him we’ll make gods in our own image and worship them.

God describes Himself as a jealous God.  God often describes His relationship to His people in terms of marriage.  As such, worshiping another god is a form of spiritual adultery.  God will not share His glory with another (Is 42:8) and will not share the affection of His bride with another.  God did not redeem His people to give them to someone else – He redeemed them for Himself.

These commands are the only ones to carry with them a specific curse.  God will visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.  Disobedience to these commands affects not just the transgressor but his family and generations after him.  Notice that God says it will be generations of those who hate Me.  The curse is that the succeeding generations will hate God because they have not been brought up to love only Him.  The transgressor puts in motion generational apostasy.  What a child learns from a straying parent he passes along to his own children and assures that generations of his descendants hate God and suffer the consequences.

The curse is illustrated in the corporate ramifications that Israel will suffer when it violates these directives.  The repeated invasions by foreign powers during the time of the judges, the dispersion of the northern kingdom by Assyria and the ultimate destruction of Judah by Babylon will all be brought on by disobedience to these commands.  Generations will be affected because their fathers worshiped false gods.  Individual choices will affect the entire nation.

Thought: The curse points to a universal truth we often forget when faced with temptation.  We NEVER sin in a vacuum.  Sin’s ramifications never accrue to just the sinner.  The one who chooses other gods sentences his descendants to the hopelessness of unbelief.  The adulterer sentences his kids to a confused understanding of fidelity to God and a distorted perspective of commitment overall (not to mention a hesitancy to trust).  The one given to lust develops a perverted and selfish view of others that affects everyone around him and teaches his children that nothing matters beyond self-gratification.  We may sin alone but we NEVER suffer its consequences alone.

{In so many ways can there be a scarier curse than this?  Substituting something or someone for God carries with it the risk that GENERATIONS of our descendants will be lost.  Choosing to glorify an image instead of God can affect our children, our grandchildren, our grandchildren’s children, and our grandchildren’s grandchildren.  Is there anything more important than making sure our view of God is correct and passing along that view to our kids?  Is anything more important than making sure our worship and commitment are to God alone?}

Worshiping God alone is what brings the first two commandments into the present day.  It is tempting to dismiss these commands as being for an ancient culture given to idolatry and not really applicable to modern society.  But it pays to remember what ancient idols and false gods were.  Baal – the most common of the Canaanite gods – was a fertility god focused on sex and prosperity and military victory.  Like him all false gods promised success as humans define success – peace, prosperity, and fruitfulness.  The worship of false gods was really the worship of success and hedonism – they were a means to the selfish ends of godless men.  They were a worship of self.

In that way they are no different from what man worships today.  We are not tempted – in most cases – to erect images of deities and bow down to them or offer sacrifices to them.  But we are just as prone to worship our own measures of success and prosperity.  A false god is anything that substitutes for God in our life.  When we focus more on money, sex, power, or any of the rewards of this world than we do on our Creator and Savior we engage in idolatry – we violate the first two commandments (Eph 5:5, Col 3:5).  There are millions of false gods available to us and millions of messages urging us to come and worship.  How much time do we spend worrying about and working for and contemplating our measures of success instead of contemplating, worshiping and praying to our Father in heaven?  It is frighteningly easy to violate these commands in our modern culture.  The first two commandments are not obsolete – they were the most important of the commands for Israel and they remain the most important of the commands for us.

Thankfully these commandments do not only carry with them a curse.  They also carry an even greater blessing.  God says that for the one who worships Him alone and does not substitute anything for Him He will show lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep my commandments.  Unlike the three or four generations who will suffer for the transgression of the father, the one who serves only God will provide for blessings to a thousand generations.  God uses hyperbole to show that His love is greater than His wrath.  His lovingkindness – his covenantal, steadfast love – will be on thousands of generations of those who love Him.

The blessing and the curse use the same logic.  Whereas the curse is that three or four generations will hate God, the blessing is that thousands of generations will love Him.  In neither case do the children enjoy blessing or suffer punishment for the actions of their fathers (no one is punished for another’s sin – Deut 24:16).  They instead continue the behavior of their fathers and experience the associated ramifications.

The tenth commandment is the only horizontal command that specifically addresses only the heart.  The final six commandments all deal with heart attitudes and motives, but only the tenth deals with the heart exclusively.  Coveting does not require any outward actions at all.  It is an inner attitude that is not necessarily obvious to others until it shows itself through the violations of other commandments.  What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?  Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?  You lust and do not have; so you commit murder.  And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel (Jas 4:1-2).

It’s the tenth command that shows the commandments overall are not limited to external actions.  If the final commandment addresses the heart, then how can the seventh only refer to a physical act?  How can the prohibition of murder not also apply to the thoughts that lead to it?  The tenth is the command that indicts merely external obedience to the Law.  It will back up Jesus’ contention that a focus on the letter of the Law completely misses the Law’s intent (Matt 5:21-48).

The tenth is the perfect final commandment because it brings us back to the first.  The command not to covet is really a command to have no other gods.  We covet when something other than God has our affections – when someone or something other than Him sits on the throne of our lives. Have you ever considered that the Ten Commandments begin and end with virtually the same commandment? “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not covet” are almost equivalent commands. Coveting is desiring anything other than God in a way that betrays a loss of contentment and satisfaction in Him. Covetousness is a heart divided between two gods. (John Piper, Future Grace; 221.)

When God finishes speaking, the people come to Moses and plead with him to never have God speak directly to them again.  The smoke along with the thunder and lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the voice of God were all too much.  “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.”  They’ve been confronted with God’s power and holiness and they never want to be confronted again.

Moses replies to them in a very interesting way.  He tells them not to be afraid (they aren’t going to die) but he also says their exposure to God was very intentional.  God wants them to understand Who is behind the Law and fear Him (and Him alone).  God wants their exposure to Him to stay with them and motivate them to obedience.  “Don’t be afraid but do fear God.”  Sadly, this picture of God won’t stay with them for long (see Ex 32).

When Moses later recounts this story, he tells of God’s response to what the people tell Moses.  Note God’s tone of wistfulness as He refers to the people and what it says about His heart and how much He WANTS the people to obey because He knows it’s what’s best for them.  Note this and remember it when you’re confronted with temptation:  “And the Lord heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They have done well in all that they have spoken. Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!’” (Deut 5:28-29)

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