Adam Clarke Commentary
The preface to the ten commandments, Exodus 20:1, Exodus 20:2. The First commandment, against mental or theoretic idolatry, Exodus 20:3. The Second, against making and worshipping images, or practical idolatry, Exodus 20:4-6. The Third, against false swearing, blasphemy, and irreverent use of the name of God, Exodus 20:7. The Fourth, against profanation of the Sabbath, and idleness on the other days of the week, Exodus 20:8-11. The Fifth, against disrespect and disobedience to parents, Exodus 20:12. The Sixth, against murder and cruelty, Exodus 20:13. The Seventh, against adultery and uncleanness, Exodus 20:14. The Eighth, against stealing and dishonesty, Exodus 20:15. The Ninth, against false testimony, perjury, etc., Exodus 20:16. The Tenth, against covetousness, Exodus 20:17. The people are alarmed at the awful appearance of God on the mount, and stand afar off, Exodus 20:18. They pray that Moses may be mediator between God and them, Exodus 20:19. Moses encourages them, Exodus 20:20. He draws near to the thick darkness, and God communes with him, Exodus 20:21, Exodus 20:22. Farther directions against idolatry, Exodus 20:23. Directions concerning making an altar of earth, Exodus 20:24; and an altar of hewn stone, Exodus 20:25. None of these to be ascended by steps, and the reason given, Exodus 20:26.
All these words - Houbigant supposes, and with great plausibility of reason, that the clause את כל הדברים האלה (eth col haddebarim haelleh), “all these words,” belong to the latter part of the concluding verse of Exodus 19, which he thinks should be read thus: And Moses went down unto the people, and spake unto them All These Words; i.e., delivered the solemn charge relative to their not attempting to come up to that part of the mountain on which God manifested himself in his glorious majesty, lest he should break forth upon them and consume them. For how could Divine justice and purity suffer a people so defiled to stand in his immediate presence? When Moses, therefore, had gone down and spoken all these words, and he and Aaron had re-ascended the mount, then the Divine Being, as supreme legislator, is majestically introduced thus: And God spake, saying. This gives a dignity to the commencement of this chapter of which the clause above mentioned, if not referred to the speech of Moses, deprives it. The Anglo-Saxon favors this emendation: God spoke Thus, which is the whole of the first verse as it stands in that version.
1.Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength.
2.Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
On these two hang all the law and the prophets. See Clarke‘s note on Matthew 22:37. See Clarke‘s note on Matthew 22:38. See Clarke‘s note on Matthew 22:39. See Clarke‘s note on Matthew 22:40.
I am the Lord thy God - יהוה אלהיך (Yehovah eloheycha). On the word Jehovah, which we here translate Lord, see Clarke‘s note on Genesis 2:4, and see Clarke‘s note on Exodus 6:3. And on the word Elohim, here translated God, see Clarke‘s note on Genesis 1:1. It is worthy of remark that each individual is addressed here, and not the people collectively, though they are all necessarily included; that each might feel that he was bound for himself to hear and do all these words. Moses labored to impress this personal interest on the people‘s minds, when he said, Deuteronomy 5:3, Deuteronomy 5:4: “The Lord made this covenant with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day.” Brought thee out of the land of Egypt, etc. - And by this very thing have proved myself to be superior to all gods, unlimited in power, and most gracious as well as fearful in operation. This is the preface or introduction, but should not be separated from the commandment. Therefore, -
Thou shalt have no other gods before me - אלהים אחרים (elohim acherim), no strange gods - none that thou art not acquainted with, none who has not given thee such proofs of his power and godhead as I have done in delivering thee from the Egyptians, dividing the Red Sea, bringing water out of the rock, quails into the desert, manna from heaven to feed thee, and the pillar of cloud to direct, enlighten, and shield thee. By these miracles God had rendered himself familiar to them, they were intimately acquainted with the operation of his hands; and therefore with great propriety he says, Thou shalt have no strange gods before me; על פני (al panai), before or in the place of those manifestations which I have made of myself.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image - As the word פסל (pasal) signifies to hew, carve, grave, etc., פסל (pesel) may here signify any kind of image, either of wood, stone, or metal, on which the axe, the chisel, or the graving tool has been employed. This commandment includes in its prohibitions every species of idolatry known to have been practiced among the Egyptians. The reader will see this the more plainly by consulting the notes on the ten plagues, particularly those on Exodus 12.
Or any likeness, etc. - To know the full spirit and extent of this commandment, this place must be collated with Deuteronomy 4:15, etc.: Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves - lest ye corrupt yourselves - and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of Male or Female. All who have even the slightest acquaintance with the ancient history of Egypt, know that Osiris and his wife Isis were supreme divinities among that people.
The likeness of any Beast - בהמה (behemah), such as the ox and the heifer. Among the Egyptians the ox was not only sacred but adored, because they supposed that in one of these animals Osiris took up his residence: hence they always had a living ox, which they supposed to be the habitation of this deity; and they imagined that on the death of one he entered into the body of another, and so on successively. This famous ox-god they called Apis and Mnevis.
The likeness of any winged Fowl - The ibis, or stork, or crane, and hawk, may be here intended, for all these were objects of Egyptian idolatry.
The likeness of any thing that Creepeth - The crocodile, serpents, the scarabeus or beetle, were all objects of their adoration; and Mr. Bryant has rendered it very probable that even the frog itself was a sacred animal, as from its inflation it was emblematic of the prophetic influence, for they supposed that the god inflated or distended the body of the person by whom he gave oracular answers.
The likeness of any Fish - All fish were esteemed sacred animals among the Egyptians. One called Oxurunchus had, according to Strabo, lib. xvii., a temple, and divine honors paid to it. Another fish, called Phagrus, was worshipped at Syene, according to Clemens Alexandrinus in his Cohortatio. And the Lepidotus and eel were objects of their adoration, as we find from Herodotus, lib. ii., cap. 72. In short, oxen, heifers, sheep, goats, lions, dogs, monkeys, and cats; the ibis, the crane, and the hawk; the crocodile, serpents, frogs, flies, and the scarabeus or beetle; the Nile and its fish; the sun, moon, planets, and stars; fire, light, air, darkness, and night, were all objects of Egyptian idolatry, and all included in this very circumstantial prohibition as detailed in Deuteronomy, and very forcibly in the general terms of the text: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the Heavens above, or that is in the Earth beneath, or that is in the Water under the earth. And the reason of this becomes self-evident, when the various objects of Egyptian idolatry are considered.
Jealous God - This shows in a most expressive manner the love of God to this people. He felt for them as the most affectionate husband could do for his spouse; and was jealous for their fidelity, because he willed their invariable happiness.
Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children - This necessarily implies - if the children walk in the steps of their fathers; for no man can be condemned by Divine justice for a crime of which he was never guilty; see Ezekiel 18. Idolatry is however particularly intended, and visiting sins of this kind refers principally to national judgments. By withdrawing the Divine protection the idolatrous Israelites were delivered up into the hands of their enemies, from whom the gods in whom they had trusted could not deliver them. This God did to the third and fourth generations, i.e., successively; as may be seen in every part of the Jewish history, and particularly in the book of Judges. And this, at last, became the grand and the only effectual and lasting means in his hand of their final deliverance from idolatry; for it is well known that after the Babylonish captivity the Israelites were so completely saved from idolatry, as never more to have disgraced themselves by it as they had formerly done. These national judgments, thus continued from generation to generation, appear to be what are designed by the words in the text, Visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, etc.
And showing mercy unto thousands - Mark; even those who love God and keep his commandments merit nothing from him, and therefore the salvation and blessedness which these enjoy come from the mercy of God: Showing mercy, etc. What a disproportion between the works of justice and mercy! Justice works to the third or fourth, mercy to thousands of generations! The heathen had maxims like these. Theocritus also teaches that the children of the good shall be blessed because of their parents‘ piety, and that evil shall come upon the offspring of the wicked: -
That love me, and keep my commandments - It was this that caused Christ to comprise the fulfillment of the whole law in love to God and man; see Clarke‘s note on Exodus 20:1. And as love is the grand principle of obedience, and the only incentive to it, so there can be no obedience without it. It would be more easy even in Egyptian bondage to make brick without straw, than to do the will of God unless his love be shed abroad in the heart of the Holy Spirit. Love, says the apostle, is the fulfilling of the law; Romans 13:10.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain - This precept not only forbids all false oaths, but all common swearing where the name of God is used, or where he is appealed to as a witness of the truth. It also necessarily forbids all light and irreverent mention of God, or any of his attributes; and this the original word לשוא (lashshav) particularly imports: and we may safely add to all these, that every prayer, ejaculation, etc., that is not accompanied with deep reverence and the genuine spirit of piety, is here condemned also. In how many thousands of instances is this commandment broken in the prayers, whether read or extempore, of inconsiderate, bold, and presumptuous worshippers! And how few are there who do not break it, both in their public and private devotions! How low is piety when we are obliged in order to escape damnation, to pray to God to “pardon the sins of our holy things!” Even heathens thought that the names of their gods should be treated with reverence. Παντως μεν δη καλον επι ηδευμα, θεων ονοματα μη χραινειν ῥᾳδιως, εχοντα ὡς εχουσιν ἡμων ἑκαστοτε τα πολλα οἱ πλειστοι καθαροτητος τε και ἁγνειας τα περι τους θεους . “It is most undoubtedly right not easily to pollute the names of the gods, using them as we do common names; but to watch with purity and holiness all things belonging to the gods.”
The Lord will not hold him guiltless, etc. - Whatever the person himself may think or hope, however he may plead in his own behalf, and say he intends no evil, etc.; if he in any of the above ways, or in any other way, takes the name of God in vain, God will not hold him guiltless - he will account him guilty and punish him for it. Is it necessary to say to any truly spiritual mind, that all such interjections as O God! my God! good God! good Heavens! etc., etc., are formal positive breaches of this law? How many who pass for Christians are highly criminal here!
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy - See what has been already said on this precept, Genesis 2:2, and elsewhere. See Clarke‘s note on Genesis 2:2. As this was the most ancient institution, God calls them to remember it; as if he had said, Do not forget that when I had finished my creation I instituted the Sabbath, and remember why I did so, and for what purposes. The word שבת (shabbath) signifies rest or cessation from labor; and the sanctification of the seventh day is commanded, as having something representative in it; and so indeed it has, for it typifies the rest which remains for the people of God, and in this light it evidently appears to have been understood by the apostle, Hebrews 4. Because this commandment has not been particularly mentioned in the New Testament as a moral precept binding on all, therefore some have presumptuously inferred that there is no Sabbath under the Christian dispensation. The truth is, the Sabbath is considered as a type: all types are of full force till the thing signified by them takes place; but the thing signified by the Sabbath is that rest in glory which remains for the people of God, therefore the moral obligation of the Sabbath must continue till time be swallowed up in eternity.
Six days shalt thou labor - Therefore he who idles away time on any of the six days, is as guilty before God as he who works on the Sabbath. No work should be done on the Sabbath that can be done on the preceding days, or can be deferred to the succeeding ones. Works of absolute necessity and mercy are alone excepted. He who works by his servants or cattle is equally guilty as if he worked himself. Hiring out horses, etc., for pleasure or business, going on journeys, paying worldly visits, or taking jaunts on the Lord‘s day, are breaches of this law. The whole of it should be devoted to the rest of the body and the improvement of the mind. God says he has hallowed it - he has made it sacred and set it apart for the above purposes. It is therefore the most proper day for public religious worship.
Honor thy father and thy mother - There is a degree of affectionate respect which is owing to parents, that no person else can properly claim. For a considerable time parents stand as it were in the place of God to their children, and therefore rebellion against their lawful commands has been considered as rebellion against God. This precept therefore prohibits, not only all injurious acts, irreverent and unkind speeches to parents, but enjoins all necessary acts of kindness, filial respect, and obedience. We can scarcely suppose that a man honors his parents who, when they fall weak, blind, or sick, does not exert himself to the uttermost in their support. In such cases God as truly requires the children to provide for their parents, as he required the parents to feed, nourish, support, instruct, and defend the children when they were in the lowest state of helpless in fancy. See Clarke‘s note on Genesis 48:12. The rabbins say, Honor the Lord with thy substance, Proverbs 3:9; and, Honor thy father and mother. The Lord is to be honored thus if thou have it; thy father and mother, whether thou have it or not; for if thou have nothing, thou art bound to beg for them. See Ainsworth.
That thy days may be long - This, as the apostle observes, Ephesians 6:2, is the first commandment to which God has annexed a promise; and therefore we may learn in some measure how important the duty is in the sight of God. In Deuteronomy 5:16 it is said, And that it may go well with thee; we may therefore conclude that it will go ill with the disobedient; and there is no doubt that the untimely deaths of many young persons are the judicial consequence of their disobedience to their parents. Most who come to an untimely end are obliged to confess that this, with the breach of the Sabbath, was the principal cause of their ruin. Reader, art thou guilty? Humble thyself therefore before God, and repent. 1. As children are bound to succor their parents, so parents are bound to educate and instruct their children in all useful and necessary knowledge, and not to bring them up either in ignorance or idleness. 2. They should teach their children the fear and knowledge of God, for how can they expect affection or dutiful respect from those who have not the fear of God before their eyes? Those who are best educated are generally the most dutiful. Heathens also inculcated respect to parents.
“We can obtain no more honorable possession from the gods than fathers and forefathers worn down with age, and mothers who have undergone the same change, whom when we delight, God is pleased with the honor; and every one that is governed by right understanding fears and reverences them, well knowing that the prayers of parents oftentimes, and in many particulars, have received full accomplishment.”
Thou shalt not kill - This commandment, which is general, prohibits murder of every kind.
1.All actions by which the lives of our fellow creatures may be abridged.
Thou shalt not commit adultery - Adultery, as defined by our laws, is of two kinds; double, when between two married persons; single, when one of the parties is married, the other single. One principal part of the criminality of adultery consists in its injustice.
1.It robs a man of his right by taking from him the affection of his wife.
2.It does him a wrong by fathering on him and obliging him to maintain as his own a spurious offspring - a child which is not his. The act itself, and every thing leading to the act, is prohibited by this commandment; for our Lord says, Even he who looks on a woman to lust after her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart. And not only adultery (the unlawful commerce between two married persons) is forbidden here, but also fornication and all kinds of mental and sensual uncleanness. All impure books, songs, paintings, etc., which tend to inflame and debauch the mind, are against this law, as well as another species of impurity, for the account of which the reader is referred to; See Clarke‘s note on Genesis 38:30.
That fornication was included under this command we may gather from St. Matthew, Matthew 15:19, where our Savior expresses the sense of the different commandments by a word for each, and mentions them in the order in which they stand; but when he comes to the seventh he uses two words, μοιχειαι πορνειαι , to express its meaning, and then goes on to the eighth, etc.; thus evidently showing that fornication was understood to be comprehended under the command, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” As to the word adultery, adulterium, it has probably been derived from the words ad alterius torum, to another‘s bed; for it is going to the bed of another man that constitutes the act and the crime. Adultery often means idolatry in the worship of God.
Thou shalt not steal - All rapine and theft are forbidden by this precept; as well national and commercial wrongs as petty larceny, highway robberies, and private stealing: even the taking advantage of a seller‘s or buyer‘s ignorance, to give the one less and make the other pay more for a commodity than its worth, is a breach of this sacred law. All withholding of rights and doing of wrongs are against the spirit of it. But the word is principally applicable to clandestine stealing, though it may undoubtedly include all political injustice and private wrongs. And consequently all kidnapping, crimping, and slave-dealing are prohibited here, whether practiced by individuals or by the state. Crimes are not lessened in their demerit by the number, or political importance of those who commit them. A state that enacts bad laws is as criminal before God as the individual who breaks good ones.
Thou shalt not bear false witness, etc. - Not only false oaths, to deprive a man of his life or of his right, are here prohibited, but all whispering, tale-bearing, slander, and calumny; in a word, whatever is deposed as a truth, which is false in fact, and tends to injure another in his goods, person, or character, is against the spirit and letter of this law. Suppressing the truth when known, by which a person may be defrauded of his property or his good name, or lie under injuries or disabilities which a discovery of the truth would have prevented, is also a crime against this law. He who bears a false testimony against or belies even the devil himself, comes under the curse of this law, because his testimony is false. By the term neighbor any human being is intended, whether he rank among our enemies or friends.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor‘s house - wife, etc. - Covet signifies to desire or long after, in order to enjoy as a property the person or thing coveted. He breaks this command who by any means endeavors to deprive a man of his house or farm by taking them over his head, as it is expressed in some countries; who lusts after his neighbor‘s wife, and endeavors to ingratiate himself into her affections, and to lessen her husband in her esteem; and who endeavors to possess himself of the servants, cattle, etc., of another in any clandestine or unjustifiable manner.
And all the people saw the thunderings, etc. - They had witnessed all these awful things before, (see Exodus 19:16), but here they seem to have been repeated; probably at the end of each command, there was a peal of thunder, a blast of the trumpet, and a gleam of lightning, to impress their hearts the more deeply with a due sense of the Divine Majesty, of the holiness of the law which was now delivered, and of the fearful consequences of disobedience. This had the desired effect; the people were impressed with a deep religious fear and a terror of God‘s judgments; acknowledged themselves perfectly satisfied with the discoveries God had made of himself; and requested that Moses might be constituted the mediator between God and them, as they were not able to bear these tremendous discoveries of the Divine Majesty. “Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die;” Exodus 20:19. This teaches us the absolute necessity of that great Mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus, as no man can come unto the Father but by him.
And Moses said - Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces - The maxim contained in this verse is, Fear not, that he may fear - do not fear with such a fear as brings consternation into the soul, and produces nothing but terror and confusion; but fear with that fear which reverence and filial affection inspire, that ye sin not - that, through the love and reverence ye feel to your Maker and Sovereign, ye may abstain from every appearance of evil, lest you should forfeit that love which is to you better than life. He who fears in the first sense can neither love nor obey; he who fears not in the latter sense is sure to fall under the first temptation that may occur. Blessed is the man who thus feareth always.
I have talked with you from heaven - Though God manifested himself by the fire, the lightning, the earthquake, the thick darkness, etc., yet the ten words, or commandments were probably uttered from the higher regions of the air, which would be an additional proof to the people that there was no imposture in this case; for though strange appearances and voices might be counterfeited on earth, as was often, no doubt, done by the magicians of Egypt; yet it would be utterly impossible to represent a voice, in a long continued series of instruction, as proceeding from heaven itself, or the higher regions of the atmosphere. This, with the earthquake and repeated thunders, (see on Exodus 20:18 (note)), would put the reality of this whole procedure beyond all doubt; and this enabled Moses, Deuteronomy 5:26, to make such an appeal to the people on a fact incontrovertible and of infinite importance, that God had indeed talked with them face to face.
Ye shall not make with me gods of silver - The expressions here are very remarkable. Before it was said, Ye shall have no other gods Before me, אל פני (al panai), Exodus 20:3. Here they are commanded, ye shall not make gods of silver or gold אתי (itti) With me, as emblems or representatives of God, in order, as might be pretended, to keep these displays of his magnificence in memory; on the contrary, he would have only an altar of earth - of plain turf, on which they should offer those sacrifices by which they should commemorate their own guilt and the necessity of an atonement to reconcile themselves to God. See Clarke‘s note on Exodus 20:4.
Thy burnt-offerings, and thy peace-offerings - The law concerning which was shortly to be given, though sacrifices of this kind were in use from the days of Abel.
In all places where I record my name - Wherever I am worshipped, whether in the open wilderness, at the tabernacle, in the temple, the synagogues, or elsewhere, I will come unto thee and bless thee. These words are precisely the same in signification with those of our Lord, Matthew 18:20: For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. And as it was Jesus who was the angel that spoke to them in the wilderness, Acts 7:38, from the same mouth this promise in the law and that in the Gospel proceeded.
Thou shalt not build it of hewn stone - Because they were now in a wandering state, and had as yet no fixed residence; and therefore no time should be wasted to rear costly altars, which could not be transported with them, and which they must soon leave. Besides, they must not lavish skill or expense on the construction of an altar; the altar of itself, whether costly or mean, was nothing in the worship; it was only the place on which the victim should be laid, and their mind must be attentively fixed on that God to whom the sacrifice was offered, and on the sacrifice itself, as that appointed by the Lord to make an atonement for their sins.
Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar - The word altar comes from altus, high or elevated, though the Hebrew word מזבח (mizbach), from זבח (zabach), to slay, kill, etc., signifies merely a place for sacrifice; see Genesis 8:20. But the heathens, who imitated the rites of the true God in their idolatrous worship, made their altars very high; whence they derived their name altaria, altars, i.e., very high or elevated places; which they built thus, partly through pride and vain glory, and partly that their gods might the better hear them. Hence also the high places or idolatrous altars so often and so severely condemned in the Holy Scriptures. The heathens made some of their altars excessively high; and some imagine that the pyramids were altars of this kind, and that the inspired writer refers to those in these prohibitions. God therefore ordered his altars to be made,
1.either of simple turf, that there might be no unnecessary expense, which, in their present circumstances, the people could not well afford; and that they might be no incentives to idolatry from their costly or curious structure; or
2.of unhewn stone, that no images of animals or of the celestial bodies might be sculptured on them, as was the case among the idolaters, and especially among the Egyptians, as several of their ancient altars which remain to the present day amply testify; which altars themselves, and the images carved on them, became in process of time incentives to idolatry, and even objects of worship.
In short, God formed every part of his worship so that every thing belonging to it might be as dissimilar as possible from that of the surrounding heathenish nations, and especially the Egyptians, from whose land they had just now departed. This seems to have been the whole design of those statutes on which many commentators have written so largely and learnedly, imagining difficulties where probably there are none. The altars of the tabernacle were of a different kind.
1.It is worthy of remark that there is none of these commandments, nor any part of one, which can fairly be considered as merely ceremonial. All are moral, and consequently of everlasting obligation.
2.When considered merely as to the letter, there is certainly no difficulty in the moral obedience required to them. Let every reader take them up one by one, and ask his conscience before God, which of them he is under a fatal and uncontrollable necessity to break?
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