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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible
Exodus 23



Verse 1

1.Thou shalt not receive (margin) a false report. It might also be translated, Thou shalt not raise, or stir up: and, if this be preferred, God forbids us to invent calumnies; but, if we read, Thou shalt not receive, He will go further, i e. , that none should cherish, or confirm the lie of another by his support of it. For it has been stated that sin may thus be committed in two ways: either when the wicked invent false accusations, or when other over-credulous persons eagerly associate themselves with them; and thus either sense would be very applicable, that the original authors are condemned, who raise a false report, or those who help on their wickedness, and give it, as it were, their endorsement. But, since it immediately follows, “put not thine hand with” them, I willingly embrace the version, “Thou shalt not receive,” in order that the two clauses may combine the better. Indeed Moses uses this word with great propriety, for a lie would soon come to nothing from its own emptiness, and fall to the ground, if it were not taken up and supported by the unrighteous consent of others. God, therefore, recalls His people from this wicked conspiracy, (167) lest by their assistance they should spread abroad false accusations; and calls those false witnesses who traduce their neighbors by lending their hand to the ungodly: because there is but little difference between raising a calumny and keeping it up.

If it be thought preferable to restrict the second verse to judges, it would be a Supplement to the Sixth Commandment as well as the Eighth, viz., that none should willingly give way to the unjust opinions of others, which might affect either the means or the life of an innocent person. But, inasmuch as the error of those who are too credulous is reproved by it, whence it arises that falsehood prevails, and calumniators throw what is clear into obscurity, it finds a fit place here. (168)

Verse 4

Exodus 23:4.If thou meet thine enemy’s ox. From these two passages it is very clear that he who abstains from evil doing, is not therefore guiltless before God, unless he also studies to do good. For our brethren’s advantage ought to be so far our care, that we should be disposed mutually to aid each other as far as our means and opportunities permit. This instruction is greatly needed; because, whilst everybody is more attentive to his own advantage than he ought to be, he is willing to hold back from the assistance of others. But God brings him in guilty of theft who has injured his neighbors by his negligence; and justly, because it depended only upon him that the thing should be safe, which he knowingly and willfully suffered to perish. This duty, too, is extended even to enemies; wherefore our inhumanity is the more inexcusable, if we have not helped our friends. The sum therefore is, that believers should be kind, (127) that they may imitate their heavenly Father; and should not only bestow their labor upon the good, who are worthy of it, but should treat the unworthy also with kindness: and since many might invent means of subterfuge, God anticipates them, and commands that the beast of a person unknown should be kept until reclaimed by its owner; and lays down the same rule as to all things that may be lost.

Verse 6

6.Thou shalt not wrest the judgment of thy poor. Since laws are enacted to repress the vices which are of frequent occurrence, no wonder that God should put forward the case of the poor, to whom it often happens that they fail though their causes are good, both because they are without interest and are exposed to injury through the contempt in which they are held, and also because they cannot contend with the rich in incurring expense. Justly, then, is provision made for their inferiority, lest the iniquity of judges should rob them of the little they possess. But the other point here referred to might appear superfluous, viz., that judges should not favor the poor, which very rarely takes place. It would also be incongruous that what God elsewhere prescribes and praises should here be reprehended. I reply, that rectitude is so greatly pleasing to God, that the judge would in no wise be excusable, under whatever pretext he might decline from it ever so little, and that this is the intention of this precept. For, although the poor is for the most part tyrannically oppressed, still ambition will sometimes impel a judge to misplaced compassion, so that he is liberal at another’s expense. And this temptation is all the more dangerous, because injustice is done under the cloak of virtue. For, if a judge only directs his attention to the poverty of the litigant, a foolish fear will at the same time insinuate itself lest his sentence should ruin the man whom he would wish to save; thus he will award to the one what belongs to the other. Sometimes the temerity, audacity, and obstinacy of the poor in commencing and prosecuting suits is greater than that of the rich; and when they despair of their cause, they are sure to have recourse to tears and lamentations, by which they deceive incautious judges, who, forgetful of the cause itself, only consider how their misery and want is to be relieved. Besides, too, whilst they think little of the rich man’s loss, because he can easily bear it, they make no scruple of declining from equity in favor of the poor. But hence it better appears how greatly God is offended by the oppression of the poor, when He will not have even them befriended to the injury of the rich.

Verse 7

7.Keep thee far from a false matter. Since he seems to speak of perjury, which brings about the death of the innocent, some might perhaps prefer that this passage should be annexed to the Sixth Commandment; but this is easily solved; for Moses is expressly condemning false-witness, and at the same time instances one case of it, whereby it may appear how detestable a crime it is, viz., the slaying of a brother by calumny, because the false witness rather kills him with his tongue than the executioner with his sword. Although, therefore, it is a gross act of inhumanity to lie in general against one’s brother, yet is its atrocity increased if he be put to death by perjury; because murder is thus combined with perfidy. A threat follows, whereby God summons false-witnesses before His tribunal, where they who have brought the good into peril by their falsehoods shall not escape with impunity.

Verse 8

Exodus 23:8And thou shalt take no gift. This kind of theft is the worst of all, when judges are corrupted either by bribes, or by affection, and thus ruin the fortunes which they ought to protect: for, since their tribunal is as it were sacred asylum, to which those who are unjustly oppressed may fly, nothing can be more unseemly than that they should there fall amongst robbers. (129) Judges are appointed to repress all wrongs and offenses; if therefore they show favor to the wicked, they are harborers of thieves; than which there is no more deadly pest. And besides, since their authority excludes every other remedy, they are themselves like rob-hers with arms in their hands. The greater, therefore, their power of injury is, and the greater the damage committed by their unjust sentences, the more diligently are they to be warned to beware of iniquity; and thus it was necessary to keep them in the path of duty by special instructions, lest they should conceal and encourage thievery by their patronage. Now, as avarice is the root of all evils, when it thus lays hold of the minds of judges, no integrity can continue to exist. But, since all utterly condemn this vice, even though they may be entirely under its influence, God speaks of it the more plainly and popularly, enjoining that judges should withhold their hands from every gift: for there is no more fatal poison for the extinction of all uprightness, than when a judge suffers himself to be cajoled by gifts. Let those who accept gifts allege as much as they please that they still maintain their integrity, the fact itself clearly shows that they are venal, and seek their own pecuniary advantage when they are thus attracted by gain. Formerly it was enough to render judges infamous that they were called nummarii, (moneyers.) (130) But it is superfluous to treat any further of this matter, since God cuts off all handles for subterfuge in a single sentence: “for gifts (He says) blind the eyes of him that seeth, and pervert the judgment of the righteous.” If, then, we acquiesce in His decision, there is no light of intelligence so bright but that gifts extinguish it, nor any probity so great but that they undermine it; in fact, gifts infect a sound mind before they soil the hand; I mean those which a person receives in reference to the judgment of a cause; for there is no question here as to those gifts of mutual kindness which men reciprocate with each other. Thus, in the passage from Deuteronomy 16:0, before God speaks of gifts, He forbids that justice should be wrested., or men’s persons respected: whence we gather, that only those snares are condemned which are set to curry favor. It must be observed on the passage from Leviticus, that to judge in righteousness is contrasted with respecting the person: and consequently, as soon as the judge turns away his eyes ever so little from the cause itself, he forgets equity. Moreover, to wrest judgment is equivalent to doing iniquity in judgment; but since injustice is not always openly manifested, but rather disguised by various artifices, after God in Leviticus has condemned corrupt and unjust judgments, He uses this word to wrest (inclinandi), in Deuteronomy, in order to dissipate all vain pretexts.

Verse 10

10.And six years shalt thou sow. Another Sabbatical institution (Sabbathismus) follows, viz., that of years, in reference to the cultivation of the land; for as men and cattle rested on every seventh day, so God prescribed that the earth should rest on the seventh year. According to the fertility or barrenness of the soil, fields are fallowed every third or fourth year, lest they should become altogether unproductive through exhaustion. Indeed a soil can hardly be found of such fecundity as to be fitted for continual productiveness. Some relaxation is therefore given, until the land recovers its vigor; but this only pertains to wheat, barley, pease, beans, and other pulse, and seeds. As to meadows and vineyards the state of things is different, since, when meadows are mown every year, the fertility of the soil is not weakened; whilst vines degenerate unless they are cultivated. It was a sign of extraordinary and exceeding fertility that the land of Canaan could bear six years’ sowing following, without being worn out. God honored it with this privilege in favor of His people; nor did He indeed ordain the rest from necessity, since on the sixth year He doubled the power of His blessing; but in order that the sanctity of the Sabbath might be everywhere conspicuous, and that thus the children of Israel, as they looked upon the land, might be the more encouraged to its observance. The nature of the rest was that they should not sow anything, nor prune their vineyards in the sacred year; and if anything should spring up from the scattered seeds of last harvest, it was the common property of the inhabitants of the land and strangers, although He peculiarly bestowed whatever grew of itself, whether corn or grapes, upon the poor, as a kind of gratuitous present for the relief of their wants. And this kindness and liberality was a kind of incidental adjunct to the performance of the religious duty. It was not indeed mainly or chiefly God’s purpose to give relief to the poor, but, as we said before, there was nothing strange in it that the offices of charity should be consequent upon God’s service.

If ungodly men should foolishly object that there is no connection between the senseless soil and a spiritual mystery, we have already answered, that although the Sabbath was deposited with believers only as a pledge of an inestimable blessing, still tokens of it appeared both in the flocks and herds, as well as in dead creatures, in order to renew the recollection of it, lest the people should grow cold, and their devotion should become languid. But if they mockingly persist that the Jews were finely dealt with, (341) when in their highest privilege they had asses and oxen, as well as the fields themselves, for companions; I answer, why do they not apply the same scoff to a commoner matter? For since the doctrine of salvation is committed to paper or parchment before it comes to us, why do they not laugh with all their might at the obedience of our faith? since in our silly credulity we embrace the promises transmitted to us by a stinking skin or some other filthy material? God would have the observation of the Sabbath engraved on all creatures, that wherever the Jews turned their eyes they might be kept up to it. Why, then, should not the earth be a conspicuous and impressive sign (character) for the rude inculcation of this doctrine? When it is said, “What they leave the beasts of the field shall eat,” the injunction does not extend to wild and noxious animals which they might drive away from their property; but God merely commands that whatever the earth produced should be exposed promiscuously for the food both of man and beast. And this affords an indirect answer to a question that might occur for God shews that the grass would not be lost, although there should be no hay-making; for the grass would be instead of hay for the beasts, so that they might feed abundantly in the fields and meadows.

Another question, however, arises from the passage in Leviticus, where God permits the owners of the land and their families to gather for food whatever shall then grow of itself. But there was nothing to prevent them, like the strangers, and anybody else, from eating of the fruits which were common to all, provided they did not defraud the poor by their covetousness. (342) The same thing is soon afterwards added in the description of the Jubilee; for although that year, which completed seven times seven years, was more holy than the rest, still God allows all to eat in it the fruits grown of themselves. He speaks more restrictedly in Exodus, in order to inculcate greater liberality upon them; but in Leviticus He shews that there is no danger of any of the produce of the land being lost, because permission is given both for themselves and their servants and cattle, besides the hireling and the stranger, to partake of it. Where He says, “that which groweth of its own accord of thy harvest,” I understand it of the land which they usually reaped; as also a little further on He calls their peculiar right of ownership in their vines “their separation.” (343) Although, therefore, the possessor might boast that the property was his own, and consequently that the harvest should be left entirely to himself, God reminds them that its fruits were nevertheless common to all during the Sabbatical year. The word “harvest,” therefore, is applied to the land which was sown, and “separation” to the private vineyard, or its fruit. The old interpreter has translated them “the grapes of first-fruits.” If it is preferred to adopt this sense, Moses would expressly declare that no oblation of them conferred on the owners of the property a right to claim as their own what grew in their vineyard (during the year;) (344) else it would have been a good excuse to offer to God the first-fruits of the vintage, and under this pretext for the Jews to contend that they had consecrated the whole produce in the first-fruits. But God anticipates this gloss, by shewing that what was said respecting the ordinary cultivation was improperly turned aside to the extraordinary year of rest. But since the word נאזיר, nazir, means “separation,” I do not see why we should change what accords very well. Still commentators differ as to the meaning of this word; some understand it “relinquishing,” because every owner resigned his private property, so that the vintage might be common. Others explain it as expressing that they had abstained from its cultivation for that year. My own opinion, however, as I have said, is simply that the peculiar right of the possessor is called his “separation;” so that it was not lawful for others to touch the vintage except in the Sabbatical year. Thus separation is opposed to common fields free to the public.

Verse 12

12.Six days thou shalt do thy work. In this passage the incidental use of the Sabbath is again referred to, although it is no inherent part of its original institution, viz., that by its means the family also and the cattle shall be benefited. There is no impropriety in reckoning this amongst the other blessings which enhance the value of the Sabbath, although it is a portion of the Second Table. And we know that this rude people required to be attracted by every possible means to present cheerfully to God the worship due to Him. The sum therefore is, that they were thus to testify not only their piety towards God, but also their kindness towards their servants. I have already shewn that their authority as masters was to be exercised in moderation by them, if they were mindful of their former condition:, since they also had been servants in Egypt. If any one should suppose that the argument does not hold good, because; they were oppressed by cruel and dreadful tyranny, the reply is easy, that so much the better could they determine from their own feelings how detestable and intolerable a thing cruelty is.

Verse 13

13.Make no mention of the name of other gods. There is no sort of doubt but that this declaration should be connected with the Third Commandment. Moses explains that God’s name is taken in vain and abused, if men swear by other gods; for it is not lawful to refer the judgment of things unknown to any other than the one true God. Consequently, the glory of the Deity is transferred to those by whose name men swear. Therefore by the Prophet God pronounces a severe denunciation, that He will destroy all those that swear by His name, and also by Malcham, (Zephaniah 1:5,) since thus the Jews mixed Him up with their idol, and so profaned His holiness. In sum, since by swearing we profess that He is our God, whom we declare to be both the knower of our hearts and the judge of our souls, the true God justly claims this honor for Himself alone, inasmuch as the glory of His name is detracted from, not only if we speak less reverently than we should of Him, but also if we associate with Him such as may usurp a part of His rights. And this more clearly appears from the two passages which we have adduced from Deuteronomy, wherein the people are commanded to swear by the name of the one God, which is equivalent to rendering to His sacred name in our outward profession of service the unmixed reverence which it deserves. (311) Still God does not exhort the people to indulge themselves freely in oaths, as if by frequent oaths they exercised themselves in the duties of piety, but simply means that when there is occasion for it or necessity, and a just cause shall demand it, they must swear in no other way than by invoking Him alone as their witness and judge.

Verse 14

Exodus 23:14.Three times shalt thou keep a feast. It is strange that Moses, who elsewhere enumerates several feast-days, should here only command them to appear in God’s presence thrice a year. Where then is the feast of trumpets and the day of atonement? for undoubtedly all were to be celebrated at Jerusalem. In the first place, it is to be observed that the principal ones, to which the greater honor appertained, are here mentioned. Secondly, because the three holidays in the seventh month were almost continuous, (it is probable (358)) that some indulgence was given them, lest they should be absent from their homes the whole month; for at the beginning of the month the trumpets sounded, on the tenth day was the solemn fast, and on the fifteenth they began to dwell in the booths. If the necessity of remaining in Jerusalem had been imposed on all, so long a stay would have been burdensome. But, if they chose to be present from the beginning to the end, still there would have been only one journey, which is named after the most remarkable day. And certainly (359) the word רגלים, raglim, which Moses uses, means, metaphorically, rather journeys than times, although I allow that פעמים, phagnemim, which signifies times, is used in Deuteronomy in a similar sense. At any rate, it appears that God spared His people, when prescribed only three necessary convocations, lest the fathers of families and their children should be wearied by the expense and trouble of them, since he approves of no service which does not proceed from a cheerful heart.

It is so used in Deuteronomy 1:2, and Deuteronomy 16:16.

For this critical sentence, the following is substituted in Fr., “ Ainsi trois festes y eussent este comprises; pource qu’ils ne fussent point retournez jusques a ce qu’elles eussent este aceomplies;” thus, three festivals would have been comprised in it; because they would not have returned until they were all completed.

Verse 19

19.Thou shalt not seethe a kid. The threefold repetition of the command reminds us that a serious matter is spoken of, whereas it would be a light and almost frivolous one, if, as some suppose, it is merely the prohibition of a somewhat unwholesome food. But the Jews, not considering its intent, and affecting sanctity, as they do, in trifling puerilities, dare not taste of cheese together with kid, or lamb’s flesh, until they have well cleaned their teeth. I have no doubt, however, but that this prohibition relates to the sacrifices, for in the first passage quoted, it is added in connection with the offering of the first-fruits; and in the second, we read as follows: “The first of the first-fruits of thy land thou shalt bring unto the house of the Lord thy God. Nor shalt thou seethe a kid in his mother’s milk;” and so also in the third passage: “Ye shall not eat of any thing that dieth of itself, etc., for thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God; nor shalt thou seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.” I allow indeed that Moses sometimes mixes together precepts respecting different things; but this running context shews that this precept is delivered among the ceremonies, and must therefore be reckoned to be a part of the legal service. Whence I conclude, that the people are not only interdicted from eating this sort of food, as if they were to partake of flesh steeped in blood; but that they should not pollute the sacrifices by the carnal mixture. It is however probable, that meat seasoned with milk was accounted a delicacy; but inasmuch as they might grow cruel, if they ate of a lamb or kid in its mother’s milk, God forbade to be offered to Himself, what was not allowable even in their common meals. The exposition of some, that kids were excluded from their tables until they were weaned, is not agreeable to reason; because they then begin to have a goatish flavor. But the reason is a very appropriate one, i.e., that God would not admit a monstrous thing in His sacrifices, that the flesh of the young should be cooked in its mother’s milk, and thus, as it were, in its own blood.

Verse 20

20.Behold, I send an Angel before thee. God here reminds the Israelites that their wellbeing is so connected with the keeping of the Law, that, by neglecting it, they would sorely suffer. For He says that He will be their leader by the hand of an angel, which was a token of His fatherly love for them; but, on the other hand, He threatens that they would not be unpunished if they should despise such great mercy and follow their own lusts, because they will not escape the sight of the angel whom He had appointed to be their guardian. Almost all the Hebrew rabbins, (267) with whom many others agree, too hastily think that this is spoken of Joshua, but the statements, which we shall consider more fully just beyond, by no means are reconcilable with his person. But their mistake is more than sufficiently refuted by this, first of all, that if we understand it of Joshua, the people would have been without the angel as their leader as long as they wandered in the desert; and, besides, it was afterwards said to Moses, “Mine Angel shall go before thee,” ( Exodus 32:34;) and again, “And I will send an Angel before thee,” ( Exodus 33:2.) Moses, too, elsewhere enlarges on this act of God’s goodness, that He should have led forth His people by the hand of an angel. ( Numbers 20:16.) But what need is there of a long discussion, since already mention has been so often made of the angel of their deliverance? This point ought now to be deemed established, that there is no reference here to a mortal man; and what we have already said should be remembered, that no common angel is designated, but the chief of all angels, who has always been also the Head of the Church. In which matter the authority of Paul should be sufficient for us, when he admonishes the Corinthians not to tempt Christ as their fathers tempted Him in the desert. ( 1 Corinthians 10:9.) We gather this, too, from the magnificent attribute which Moses immediately afterwards assigns to Him, that “the name of God should be in him.” I deem this to be of great importance, although it is generally passed over lightly. But let us consider it particularly. When God declares that He will send His angel “to keep them in the way,” He makes a demand upon them for their willing obedience, for it would be too base of them to set at nought, or to forget Him whose paternal care towards them they experience. But in the next verse, He seeks by terror to arouse them from their listlessness, where He commands them to beware of His presence, since He would take vengeance on their transgressions; (268) wherein, also, there is a delicate allusion to be observed in the ambiguous meaning of the word employed. For, since שמר, shamar, in Hebrew signifies “to guard,” after He has said that an angel shall be their guardian, He warns them, on the other hand, that they should guard themselves. Herein the Angel is exalted above the rank of a human being, since He is appointed to be their judge, if the Israelites should offend in any respect; not in the way that judgment is deputed to the Prophets with reference to their doctrine, the power of which is supreme, but because nothing shall be hidden from Him. For Scripture assigns to God alone as His peculiar attribute, that we should walk before His face. What follows is to the same effect, “provoke him not,” which is everywhere spoken of God. But, as I have just said, this seems to me to be of most importance, that the name of God was to be in Him, or in the midst of Him, which is equivalent to this, that in Him shall reside my majesty and glory; and, therefore, He shall possess both the knowledge of hearts, as well as dominion, and the power of judgment. Besides, we have already said that there is no absurdity in designating Christ by the name of the Angel, because He was not yet the Incarnate Mediator, but as often as He appeared to the ancient people He gave an indication of His future mission.

Verse 22

22.But if thou shalt indeed obey. He moderates the terror with which He had inspired them for two reasons, — first, that He may rather gently attract them than force them by the fear of punishment; secondly, lest, if they imagine that the Angel is formidable to them, the anxiety conceived in their minds should deaden their perception of His mercy and layout. Now, although I postpone to another place the promises whereby their obedience to the Law was confirmed, I have thought it right to include this among the exhortations or eulogiums whereby the dignity of the Law is enhanced, because it relates to the time past, for thus is the expression to be paraphrased, “Take heed that ye respond to God who deals so liberally with you. The promises which He made to your fathers as to the inheritance of the land, He is now ready to perform, unless your iniquity should stand in the way. Make room, then, for His grace, that, by the hand of the Angel, He may lead you into His rest.” In order to stimulate them still more, He points out to them their need of His aid, as though He had said that nothing, could be more miserable than their case, unless they were protected from so many enemies by His defense, for He enumerates several most important nations to which they would be by no means a match unless they should fight under the guidance of the Angel. He says, therefore, that if they only obey His Law, there is no occasion for them to be afraid, for that He will destroy by His own power alone all that shall rise against them to resist them.

Verse 24

Exodus 23:24.Thou shalt utterly overthrow them. I allow indeed that these supplements would partly agree with, and be applicable to, the First Commandment; but since express mention is everywhere made in them of idols, this place seems to be better suited to them. After Moses has taught what was necessary to be observed, he adds a political law about breaking down altars and overthrowing images, in order that the people may take the more diligent heed. These passages, however, differ from the foregoing; for in condemning thus far the superstitions which are vicious in themselves, God prescribed what He would have observed even to the end of the world. He now confirms that instruction by temporary enactments, that He may keep His ancient people up to their duty. For we have now-a-days no scruples in retaining the temples, which have been polluted by idols, and applying them to a better use; since we are not bound by what was added consequently (propter consequentiam ), as they say, to the Law. I admit indeed that whatever tends to foster superstition should be removed, provided we are not too rigorously superstitious in insisting peremptorily on what is in itself indifferent. The sum amounts to this, that to shew more clearly how greatly God detests idolatry, He would have the memory of all those things abolished which had once been dedicated to idols. The second passage more fully unfolds what Moses had briefly adverted to in the first; for under the word “image,” he included all those tokens of idolatry which he afterwards enumerates, and of which he commands the whole land to be so cleared that no relics of them should remain. From the words, when ye have come into the land “to possess it,” Augustin (297) sensibly infers, that there is no command for private individuals to destroy the instruments of idolatry; but that the people are armed and furnished with this authority to take the charge of regulating the public interests, when they have obtained possession of the land. The third passage is more brief, only enumerating three kinds; the fourth adds “graven images,” (sculptilia .) The fifth omits the groves, and puts in their place images or representations made of molten materials; and here we must observe what we have before adverted to, that the name of statue (statuoe ) is sometimes taken in a good sense; and therefore the Jews think that what was permitted to the fathers before the Law is now forbidden. To us, however, it seems more probable, that the statues now condemned are not such as Jacob erected only as a monument, but such as they pretended to be a likeness of God. Some translate the word “titles,” (298) others “pictures,” with what propriety I leave to the judgment of my readers. He adds “image, (299) a word which, though not in itself sinful, is still deservedly rejected in connection with the worship of God. Man is the image of God; for Moses uses this same word, when relating the creation of man. But to represent God by any figure, before which He is worshipped, is nothing less than to corrupt His glory, and so to metamorphose Him. By speaking of molten images, he admits neither sculptures nor pictures; but since they are generally cast in the precious metals, the people were expressly to beware of keeping gods of gold or silver for ornament.

Verse 25

25.And ye shall serve the Lord your God. It is true that this promise is very similar to others, to which I have assigned a peculiar place, but it has this difference, that, in inviting the people to be zealous in keeping the Law, it sets before their eyes the effect of the covenant already made with their fathers, in order that they may more cheerfully receive the Law. Therefore there was good reason for my saying just before that the promises which refer to the past have their appropriate place here, where their minds are prepared to obey God and keep His Law, because the race of Abraham God had chosen to Himself, that tie may continually visit them with His favor. He therefore promises them His blessing on their bread and water and bodily health, for on these three things depend the condition of our present life. Two other things He adds — fecundity in generation, and length of days. The sum is, that they had been prevented by God’s loving-kindness, in order that they might willingly honor Him, and that now all He had promised them was close at hand, if only they responded to His grace. But, although the fertility of the land was great, and its productions various and abundant, no mention is here made, as in other places, of wine or oil, but only of simple food, as if He had said that the necessary supports of life should not be wanting to them.

Verse 27

27.I will send my fear before thee. It is very clear from these words that God’s fatherly love towards the people is magnified, to prepare their minds to submit themselves to the yoke of the Law. Therefore their reward, if they should keep the Law, is not so much set before them here, as shame is denounced upon them if they should be ungrateful to God their deliverer, who was soon after about to give them the enjoyment of the promised land. Moreover, God is said to sent forth His fear, when by His secret inspiration He depresses men’s hearts. Whence we gather that fear, as well as courage, is in His hand. Of this no doubtful examples exist in every history, if only God obtained His due rights amongst men. It will often happen that the courage of brave men gives way to alarm, and on the other hand, that the timid and cowardly awake to sudden bravery. Where the cause is not discovered, the profane have recourse to the hidden dominion of fortune to account for it, or imagine that men’s minds have been stupified by Pan or the Satyrs. (269) Let us however learn, that it is in God’s power to bend men’s hearts either way, so as both to cast down the courageous with terror, as well as to animate the timid. From this passage what we read in Psalms 44:2, is taken, —

“Thou didst drive out the heathen with thine hand, and plantedst them, (our fathers.) For they got not the land in possession by their own sword, neither did their own arm save them,” etc.

Moreover, Rahab, who was both a harlot and belonged to an unbelieving nation, still acknowledged this, when she said to the spies,

“our hearts did melt; for the Lord your God is God in heaven above, and in the earth beneath.” (Joshua 2:11.)

She does not, indeed, express what we have here, that they were smitten from heaven with internal fear, but only says that their terror came from a sense of God’s power; still she admits that it is no human cause which makes them thus to tremble. Moses ascends higher, that God puts to flight or routs their enemies not only by setting before them external objects of terror, but that He works also inwardly in their hearts, that they may fly in confusion and alarm; as it follows in the end of the verse, “I will make them turn their backs,” as much as to say, that He would cause them immediately to retreat, and not even to sustain the sight of the people.

Verse 28

28.And I will send hornets. Although that secret terror, of which He had made mention, would be sufficient to put their enemies to flight, He states that there would also be other ready means, to rout them without any danger, or much difficulty to His people. Yet He does not threaten to send great and powerful warriors, but only insects and hornets; as much as to say, that God would be so entirely propitious to His people that He would prepare and arm even the smallest animals to destroy their enemies. (270) Thus is the easiness of their victory shewn; because, without the use of the sword, hornets alone would suffice to rout and exterminate their enemies. He adds, however, an exception, lest the Israelites should complain, if the land should not immediately lie open to them empty and cleared of its old inhabitants; and He reminds them that it would be advantageous to them that He should consume their enemies by degrees. Although, therefore, God might at first sight seem to perform less than He had promised, and thus to retract or diminish somewhat from His grace; yet Moses shews that in this respect also He was considering their welfare, lest the wild beasts should rush in upon the bare and desert land, and prove more troublesome than the enemies themselves. It came to pass indeed, through the people’s slackness, that they were long mixed with their enemies, because they executed with too little energy the vengeance of God; yea, His menace against them by the mouth of Joshua was then fulfilled,

“if ye cleave unto the remnant of these nations, know for a certainty that the Lord your God will no more drive out any of these nations from before you; but they shall be snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until ye perish from off this good land, which the Lord your God hath given you.” (Joshua 23:12.)

The fact, therefore, that it was later and at the end of David’s reign that these wicked and heathen nations were exterminated so as to deliver up to the people the quiet possession of the land, must be attributed to their own fault, since unbelief and ingratitude rendered them inactive, and disposed to indulge their ease. But, if no such inactivity had delayed the fulfillment of the promise, they would have found that the final destruction of the nations by God would have been delayed no longer than was good for them.

Verse 31

31.And I will set thy bounds. There is no question that He confirms here the covenant which he had made with Abraham in somewhat different words. More briefly had it been said to Abraham,

“Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.” (Genesis 15:18.)

Here the four cardinal points of the compass are enumerated, and, instead of the Nile, the other sea is mentioned, which is opposite to the sea of Tarshish. (271) Nor is it anything new which the Israelites are commanded to expect; but they are reminded of what they had heard of by tradition even from the time of Abraham. Hence what I have already said is more clearly perceived, viz., that the ancient covenant is set before them, in order that they may respond to God’s gratuitous favor, and on their part honor and worship Him, who had already anticipated them with His mercy. Furthermore, when they had robbed themselves of this blessing, God applied a remedy to their iniquity, by raising up a new condition of things under David, to whom this promise is repeated, as is seen in Psalms 72:0 Therefore, although even up to that time their inheritance was in a measure incomplete (truncata), (272) yet, under this renovated condition, they reached its full and solid enjoyment. But since that prosperity and extension of the kingdom was not lasting, but after Solomon’s death began to fail, and at last its dignity was destroyed; therefore Zechariah uses the same words in declaring its ultimate and perfect restoration. (Zechariah 9:10.) Thence we gather that by the coming of Christ this prophecy at length obtained its perfect accomplishment; not that the race of Abraham then began to bear rule within the bounds here laid down, but inasmuch as Christ embraced the four quarters of the globe under His dominion, from the east even to the west, and from the north even to the south. Meanwhile the power of David was the prototype of this boundless reign, when he acquired the sovereignty of the promised land. We ought not to think it unreasonable that the ancient people should be kept out of some portion of that inheritance which was to be expected by them in accordance with the covenant; but rather does God’s incredible goodness display itself, in that, when they had altogether disinherited themselves, He still combated their iniquity, and failed not to shew practically His faithfulness. We may see the same thing in the calling of the Gentiles; for, if the Jews had continued faithful, the Gentiles would have been joined with them, as it had been said,

“In those days it shall come to pass that ten men shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew,” (Zechariah 8:23;)

but their rebellion brought it about, that God only gathered from among them the first-fruits of His Church, and afterwards the Gentiles were substituted in the place which they had left empty. In this way neither did this people retain their right of primogeniture, neither did God’s truth cease to stand firm, as Paul more fully explains in the eleventh chapter of Romans.


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Bibliography Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Exodus 23:4". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, June 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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