Bible Commentaries
Exodus 20

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-2

Preface 20:1-2

These verses form a preamble and historical background to the Decalogue that follows. The Israelites were to obey God on the double basis of who He is and what He had done for them.

Most scholars have divided the Ten Commandments (cf. Deuteronomy 5:6-18) into two groups but in two different ways. The older Jewish method, called Philonic after the Jewish scholar Philo, was to divide them in two groups of five commandments each. The Jews believed that this is how God divided them on the two tablets of stone. The newer Christian method, called Augustinian after the church father Augustine, divided them into the first three and the last seven commandments. The basis for this division is subject matter. The first three commands deal with man’s relationship with God and the last seven with his relationship with other people (cf. Matthew 22:36-40). Some scholars believe that each tablet contained all ten commandments in keeping with the ancient Near Eastern custom of making duplicate copies of covenant documents. [Note: Kline, Treaty of . . ., ch. 2: "The Two Tables of the Covenant," pp. 13-26; idem, "Deuteronomy," in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 161; and Jack S. Deere, "Deuteronomy," in The Bible Knowledge Commentery: Old Testament, p. 270.] This explanation makes the most sense to me.

Verses 1-17

2. The Ten Commandments 20:1-17

"We now reach the climax of the entire Book, the central and most exalted theme, all that came before being, as it were, a preparation for it, and all that follows, a result of, and supplement to it." [Note: Cassuto, p. 235.]

There are two types of law in the Old Testament, and these existed commonly in the ancient Near East. Apodictic laws are commands with the force of categorical imperatives. They are positive or negative. The Ten Commandments are an example of this type of law, which occurs almost exclusively in the Old Testament and rarely in other ancient Near Eastern law codes. "Thou shalt . . ." and "Thou shalt not . . ." identify this type of law. Casuistic laws are commands that depend on qualifying circumstances. They are also positive or negative, and there are many examples in the Mosaic Law (e.g., Exodus 21:2-11, et al.) as well as in other ancient Near Eastern law codes. This type of law is identifiable by the "If . . . then . . ." construction.

Compared with other ancient Near Eastern codes (e.g., the Code of Hammurabi) the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) is positive and concise. God allowed the Israelites much freedom. There were comparatively few restrictions on their personal behavior (cf. Genesis 1:29-30; Genesis 2:16-17).

"The Ten Commandments were unique in Old Testament times because they possessed prohibitions in the second person singular and because they stressed both man’s exclusive worship of one God and man’s honoring the other person’s body, rights, and possessions. Breaking these commandments would result in spiritual confusion and in human exploitation." [Note: G. Herbert Livingston, The Pentateuch in its Cultural Environment, p. 158.]

The Ten Commandments use verbs, not nouns. Nouns leave room for debate, but verbs do not. God gave His people ten commandments, not ten suggestions.

Though Moses did not mention it here, angels played some part in mediating the law from God to the Israelites through him (cf. Deuteronomy 33:2; Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2).

Verse 3

The first commandment 20:3

"The Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches follow Augustine in making Exodus 20:2-6 the first commandment, and then dividing Exodus 20:17, on covetousness, into two. Modern Judaism makes Exodus 20:2 the first commandment and Exodus 20:3-6 the second. The earliest division, which can be traced back at least as far as Josephus, in the first century A.D., takes Exodus 20:3 as the first command and Exodus 20:4-6 as the second. This division was supported unanimously by the early church, and is held today by the Eastern Orthodox and most Protestant churches." [Note: Johnson, p. 69.]

Some scholars have argued that the first commandment comprises Exodus 20:3-6, the second Exodus 20:7, etc., and the tenth commandment begins, "You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife" in Exodus 20:17 b. [Note: E.g., Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., pp. 284-85.] Most scholars do not accept this view.

This commandment was a call to monotheism and faithfulness to the Lord. Israel was to have no other gods besides Yahweh. He was not just to be the first among several (henotheism) but the only One (monotheism; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:31; 1 Timothy 2:5; Acts 14:15; James 2:19; 1 John 5:20-21).

"Yahweh had opened himself to a special relationship with Israel, but that relationship could develop only if Israel committed themselves to Yahweh alone. Yahweh had rescued them and freed them, delivered them and guided them, then come to them. The next step, if there was to be a next step, belonged to them. If they were to remain in his Presence, they were not to have other gods." [Note: Durham, p. 285.]

Verses 4-6

The second commandment 20:4-6

"As the first commandment forbids any association with other gods to those who would be Yahweh’s, the second commandment and the two that follow it set special dimensions of their relationship with him." [Note: Ibid.]

This command was a prohibition against making images or likenesses of Yahweh. God did not forbid making pictures or images of other creatures. The rationale behind this command is that any likeness of God demeans Him and retards rather than advances His worship. Furthermore, by making an image of a god people put themselves in a position of sovereignty over the deity. God wanted His people to accept their place as the creatures of the Creator. The Israelite who made an image of Yahweh would put himself or herself in the position of creator and Yahweh in the place of created thing. Also he or she would face temptation to confuse the image with God and worship it rather than Him.

The consequences of disobedience to this command would continue for a few generations, as the later history of Israel illustrated. However obedience to it would result in blessing for limitless generations (cf. Deuteronomy 7:9-10).

"Yahweh’s jealousy is a part of his holiness (Exodus 34:14) and is demanded by what he is. It is justified by the fact that it comes only upon those who, having promised to have no God but him, have gone back on that promise. Those who do so show that they ’hate’ him, that they hold him in contempt: upon them in result must come a deserved judgment, across four generations." [Note: Ibid., p. 287.]

"The use of images and the human control of the god that was a part of their use would infringe on the freedom of Yahweh to manifest himself when and how he sovereignly determined. By prohibiting the one means by which the gods of the people around Israel supposedly manifested themselves Israel was protected from the assimilation of foreign religious values, and the prohibition of images played a significant role in the successful survival of Israel’s religion. It seems clear that the prohibition of images both in practice and in its theological basis is but another example of the fundamentally different religious value-system that distinguished Israel from her ancient Near Eastern contemporaries." [Note: Edward M. Curtis, "The Theological Basis for the Prohibition of Images in the Old Testament," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 28:3 (September 1985):287.]

"Through sacrifice to the idol, large amounts of material productivity were funneled into the control of the Canaanite priestly and royal classes. The idol was therefore a kind of tax or tribute gathering device. In this context, Israelite hostility to cultic images yields to a possible two-fold interpretation. First, by repudiating the cultic image, Israel rid itself of an important source of wealth for the ruling classes, thereby thwarting possible internal programs seeking to re-establish political hierarchy. Second, frontier Israel was insuring [sic ensuring] that agricultural goods used in cultic sacrifice would be circulated back into the producing community [cf. Deuteronomy 12:5-7; Deuteronomy 26:12-15]. An imageless cult was one way of enhancing political and economic self-sufficiency." [Note: James M. Kennedy, "The Social Background of Early Israel’s Rejection of Cultic Images: A Proposal," Biblical Theology Bulletin 17:4 (October 1987):138.]

Verse 7

The third commandment 20:7

Taking God’s name in vain means using the name of God in a common way. The name of God represents the person of God. The Israelites were to show respect for the person of God by their use of His name. They were not to use it simply for emphasis or for any unworthy objective in their speech (cf. Matthew 5:33-37; James 5:12).

"The third commandment is directed not toward Yahweh’s protection, but toward Israel’s. Yahweh’s name, specifically the tetragrammaton but in principle all Yahweh’s names and titles, must be honored, blessed, praised, celebrated, invoked, pronounced, and so shared. To treat Yahweh’s name with disrespect is to treat his gift lightly, to underestimate his power, to scorn his Presence, and to misrepresent to the family of humankind his very nature as ’The One Who Always Is.’" [Note: Durham, p. 288.]

The "tetragrammaton" refers to the four-letter name YHWH.

Verses 8-11

The fourth commandment 20:8-11

The Sabbath was the seventh day of the week, Saturday. This day was to be a day of rest for Israel because God ceased from His creation activity on the seventh day (Genesis 2:3). God blessed it and made it holy (Exodus 20:11) in that He made it different from the other days of the week for Israel.

This is the only one of the Ten Commandments not reiterated for the church in the New Testament. Traditionally the church has celebrated the first day of the week as a memorial to Jesus Christ’s resurrection, which event is the ground of our rest (Romans 4:25). [Note: See Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, "The Sabbath Controversy," Biblical Research Monthly 49:4 (July-August 1984):15-16; Gerhard Hasel, "The Sabbath in the Pentateuch," in The Sabbath in Scripture and History, pp. 21-43; and Merrill F. Unger, "The Significance of the Sabbath," Bibliotheca Sacra 123:489 (January 1966):53-59.]

Verse 12

The fifth commandment 20:12

"The first four commandments set forth the principles guiding Israel’s relationship to Yahweh; and the last six commandments set forth the principles guiding Israel’s relationship with the covenant community, and more broadly, with the human family. As the second, third, and fourth commandments are in many ways extensions of the first commandment, the first four commandments are the foundation for the final six commandments. And all of the commandments, as principles governing covenant relationships, are founded on the ultimate OT statement of relationship, which stands as prologue to the ten commandments: ’I am Yahweh, your God’ . . . Because Yahweh is, and is Israel’s God, Israel both is and must become a certain and special people." [Note: Durham, p. 290.]

All Israelites were to honor their parents because parents are God’s representatives to their children in God’s administrative order. Thus the fifth commandment is as foundational to commandments six through ten as the first commandment is to commandments two through four. The Israelites were to honor God because He had given them life, and they were to honor their parents because they were His instruments in giving them life. The promise of long life in the Promised Land is a reminder that God gave the command to Israelites. The Apostle Paul repeated this responsibility as binding on the church in Ephesians 6:1-3 but changed the command to "obey," as well as the promise (cf. Matthew 15:3-4; Colossians 3:20). [Note: See Maurice E. Wagner, "How to Honor Your Parents When They’ve Hurt You," Psychology for Living 28:6 (June 1986):12-14.]

Verse 13

The sixth commandment 20:13

God did not forbid killing per se. He commanded capital punishment and some war. The Hebrew word used here specifies murder, not just killing. The Israelites were to execute murderers and others under the Mosaic Law. However, He prohibited taking a human life without divine authorization. This included suicide (cf. John 3:15). [Note: See J. P. Morgan, "The Morality of Suicide: Issues and Options," Bibliotheca Sacra 148:590 (April-June 1991):214-30.]

Verse 14

The seventh commandment 20:14

Adultery is sexual intercourse when one or both partners are married (or engaged, under Israelite law; cf. Deuteronomy 22:23-29) to someone else. Adultery destroys marriage and the home, the foundations of society (cf. Matthew 5:27-28; 1 Corinthians 6:9-20). Adultery is an act, not a state. People commit adultery; they do not live in adultery, except in the sense that they may continually practice it.

Verse 15

The eighth commandment 20:15

Since stealing of any kind and under any circumstances was wrong, clearly God approved of private ownership of goods in Israel. Israel was somewhat socialistic economically, but it was not communistic (cf. Ephesians 4:28).

Verse 16

The ninth commandment 20:16

Social order depends on truthful speech (cf. Leviticus 19:11; Colossians 3:9-10).

Verse 17

The tenth commandment 20:17

It is specifically what belongs to one’s neighbor and is not for sale, contrasted with something for sale, that is the focus of this command. A legitimate desire is not the same as coveting, which is an obsessive desire. Coveting is a root attitude from which many sins in word and deed against a neighbor spring (cf. Ephesians 5:3). The five categories, of the most valuable possessions the neighbor could have, represent all that he has.

". . . none of the Ten Commandments reappear in the New Testament for this age of grace as Mosaic legislation. All of the moral principles of the ten laws do reappear in the New Testament in a framework of grace." [Note: Roy L. Aldrich, "The Mosaic Ten Commandments Compared to Their Restatements in the New Testament," Bibliotheca Sacra 118:471 (July 1961):257. I have added italicizing for emphasis. See also Charles C. Ryrie, "The End of the Law," Bibliotheca Sacra 129:495 (July-September 1967):239-47, for an excellent explanation of the Christian’s relationship to the Ten Commandments. Mark Rooker, Leviticus, pp. 67-77, also included a good discussion of the New Testament and the Law.]

"The Christian must think through contemporary ethical issues with the Ten Commandments as a guide. How does the commandment not to steal apply to computer theft? How does the commandment not to kill apply to the abortion pill? Nuclear arms?" [Note: Longman and Dillard, p. 76.]

"The influence of the Ten Words on Western morality and law is beyond calculation. They have come to be recognized as the basis of all public morality." [Note: Ramm, p. 127.]

In view of this fact it is especially tragic that it is now illegal to post a copy of the Ten Commandments in any American public school classroom. [Note: See Joyce G. Baldwin, "The Role of the Ten Commandments," Vox Evangelica 13 (1983):7-18, for a good synopsis of the role of the Decalogue as the Reformers and the Old Testament and New Testament writers saw it. Childs’ commentary deals with the Decalogue in more detail than most others on pp. 385-439, as does Davis’, pp. 196-210. Ezekiel Hopkins wrote a classic explanation of the Decalogue in 1701 from the Puritan viewpoint that has been reprinted: "Understanding the Ten Commandments," in Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation, pp. 51-58. For a dispensational exposition of the Ten Commandments, see Steve Minter, "Ten Timeless Words (Exodus 20:1-17)," Exegesis and Exposition 1:1 (Fall 1986):67-80. For argumentation for the Mosaic origin of the Decalogue as opposed to a later origin, see Harold H. Rowley, "Moses and the Decalogue," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library of the University of Manchester 34:1 (September 1951):81-118.] A fuller exposition of the Ten Commandments follows in my notes on Deuteronomy 5.

Verses 18-21

3. The response of the Israelites 20:18-21

The rest of this section contains the record of the Israelites’ reaction to the giving of the Law and God’s reason for giving it as He did. He wanted the people to reverence Him and therefore not to sin (Exodus 20:20).

"It can be argued that in the present shape of the Pentateuch, the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-17) is intended to be read as the content of what Moses spoke to the people upon his return from the mountain in Exodus 19:25. After the Decalogue, the narrative in Exodus 20:18-21 looks back once again to the people’s fear in Exodus 19:16-24. In retelling this incident, the second narrative fills the important ’gaps’ in our understanding of the first." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., pp. 56.]

Similarly Genesis 2 retells the story of creation in Genesis 1 to fill in important gaps.

"The Book of the Covenant begins technically with Exodus 20:22, having been separated from the Decalogue by a brief narrative (Exodus 20:18-21) describing the people’s response to the phenomena accompanying Moses’ encounter with Yahweh on Sinai (cf. Exodus 19:16-25). The technical term ’ordinances’ (mispatim), which describes the specific stipulations of the covenant, does not occur until Exodus 21:1, so Exodus 20:22-26 serves as an introduction to the stipulation section. This introduction underlines Yahweh’s exclusivity, His self-revelation to His people, and His demand to be worshiped wherever He localizes His name and in association with appropriate altars." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," p. 41.]

God evidently spoke the Ten Commandments in the hearing of all the Israelites (Exodus 19:9; Exodus 20:19; Exodus 20:22) to cause them to fear Him (Exodus 20:20). The people were so awestruck by this revelation that they asked Moses to relay God’s words to them from then on (Exodus 20:20), which he did (Exodus 20:21).

"This verse [Exodus 20:20] contrasts two types of ’fear’: tormenting fear (which comes from conscious guilt or unwarranted alarm and leads to bondage) or salutary fear (which promotes and demonstrates the presence of an attitude of complete trust and belief in God; cf. the ’fear of the LORD God’ beginning in Genesis 22:12). This second type of fear will keep us from sinning and is at the heart of the OT’s wisdom books (cf. Proverbs 1:7; Ecclesiastes 12:13 et al.)." [Note: Kaiser, "Exodus," p. 427.]

"Whereas Exodus 19:16-24 looks at the people’s fear from a divine perspective, Exodus 20:18-21 approaches it from the viewpoint of the people themselves. What we learn from both narratives, therefore, is that there was a growing need for a mediator and a priesthood in the Sinai covenant. Because of the people’s fear of God’s presence, they are now standing ’afar off’ (Exodus 20:21). Already, then, we can see the basis being laid within the narrative for the need of the tabernacle (Exodus 25-31). The people who are ’afar off’ must be brought near to God. This is the purpose of the instructions for the tabernacle which follow this narrative." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., pp. 56-57.]

Verses 22-23

Exodus 20:22 is a preamble and historical background for what follows. On the basis of God’s revelation on the mountain, the Israelites were to obey Him as follows.

The Israelites were not to make idols representing gods other than Yahweh nor were they to represent Yahweh by making idols to help them worship Him (Exodus 20:23).

Verses 22-26

The basic principles of worship in Israel 20:22-26

God did not just condemn forms of worship that were inappropriate, but He instructed the Israelites positively how they were to worship Him.

"The point of the section is this: those who worship this holy God must preserve holiness in the way they worship-they worship where he permits, in the manner he prescribes, and with the blessings he promises." [Note: The NET Bible note on 20:22.]

This pericope serves as an introduction to 42 judgments in Exodus 21:1 to Exodus 23:12. A similar section repeats the emphases of the introduction and forms a conclusion to the judgments (Exodus 23:13-19). [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 289.]

Prohibition of idolatry
(Exodus 20:22-23)
Proper forms of worship
(Exodus 20:24-26)
42 judgments
(Exodus 21:1 to Exodus 23:12)
Prohibition of idolatry
(Exodus 23:13)
Proper forms of worship
(Exodus 23:14-19)

Verses 22-33

4. The stipulations of the Book of the Covenant 20:22-23:33

"It is worth noting that the stipulations are enfolded within matching frames that stress the exclusivity of Yahweh (Exodus 20:22-23; cf. Exodus 23:24-25; cf. Exodus 23:32-33), His presence in specified places (Exodus 20:24; cf. Exodus 23:14-17; Exodus 23:20; Exodus 23:28-31), and a proper protocol and ritual by which He may be approached by His servant people (Exodus 20:24-26; cf. Exodus 23:18-19). It is within the context of a vertical covenant relationship, then, that the horizontal, societal, and interpersonal relationships of the Book of the Covenant take on their ultimate meaning." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," p. 41.]

"The section before us has something to say about each of the ten commandments, even if only incidentally." [Note: Youngblood, p. 101.]

Verses 24-26

Yahweh permitted His people to build altars where He granted special theophanies, that is, manifestations of His presence. [Note: Marten H. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua, p. 166.] These were in addition to the altars at Israel’s central sanctuary (the tabernacle and later the temple; cf. Judges 6:25-27; Judges 13:15-20; 1 Samuel 9:11-14; 1 Samuel 16:1-5; 1 Kings 18:30-40). They were to build these altars for formal worship and for special occasions (e.g., Joshua 8:30; Judges 6:25-26) out of earth or uncut stone. The Canaanites used cut or "dressed" stone for their altars, and it was probably to distinguish the two that God directed Israel as He did.

Israel’s altars were not to have steps, as many Canaanite altars did, so the naked flesh of the priests might not appear as they mounted them to make their offerings.

"Possibly the verse intends to oppose the practice of certain peoples in the ancient East, like the Sumerians for instance, whose priests . . . used to perform every ritual ceremony in a state of nakedness. Likewise the Egyptian priests . . . used to wear only a linen ephod, a kind of short, primitive apron." [Note: Cassuto, p. 257.]

"This simple description of true worship is intended to portray the essence of the Sinai covenant in terms that are virtually identical to that of the religion of the patriarchs-earthen altars, burnt offerings, and simple devotion rather than elaborate rituals. A simple earthen altar is sufficient. If more is desired (e.g., a stone altar), then it should not be defiled with carved stones and elaborate steps. The ultimate purpose of any such ritual is the covering of human nakedness that stems from the Fall (Exodus 20:26 b; cf. Genesis 3:7). The implication is that all ritual is only a reflection of that first gracious act of God in covering human nakedness with garments of skin (Genesis 3:21)." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 289.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Exodus 20". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.