A Bible Lesson on Exodus 19:3-6, 20:1-21

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The bulk of this passage is the 10 commandments, the core of God’s moral law.  Moses has miraculously taken the people out of Egypt and across the sea.  They are perhaps 2-3 million strong in the desert near Mount Sinai, being led by the pillar of cloud and fire.  God is ready to give the people further revelation of who He is.

Exo 19:3  while Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel:

To this point, God has limited the full revelation of Himself to a few individuals.  Moses has heard directly from God, but it’s clear that the people are generally clueless. Now, this word is to be broadcast more generally, to the whole nation.

4 You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

God’s requirements for the behavior of His people are not given in a vacuum.  They are given in a context of grace, in light of God’s great work and mercy on behalf of His people, in light of how He carried them.  Verse 4 states what the LORD has already done, verse 5a states what He requires, and 5b and 6 state what He promises.  This is the Biblical order.  God first sovereignly acts and offers humans grace.  This precedes law.  We’re given the law, not to make us righteous (that’s God’s provision beforehand) but to tell us how to then act consistently with that reality.

5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine;

God requires obedience and the keeping of His covenant, living in accord with His revealed will/nature.  The God of the universe is offering Himself to His people.  He’s offering relationship.  It only makes sense that He lay out what kind of a person He is and how it will be to live in harmony with Him.  We understand that on a human-to-human level.  The agreements between kings and subjects of the time even had such covenant duties in them.  We seek to please people with whom we hope to have relationship.  It is only evidence of the fallenness of our hearts that we balk when it comes to God, figuring there should be no boundaries or parameters.

Theologians say that the covenant that God offers is unconditional in bestowal and transmission.  That is, it’s a permanent agreement that doesn’t disappear with the hard-heartedness of some.  But it is conditional in its enjoyment and personal participation.  Particular people can set themselves outside of its provisions by refusing to obey and keep.  The Biblical order is that God acts in mercy, and pardoned human being respond in obedience and life lived in accord with His character.  5b and 6 state what He then promises.

The promise of living in relationship with God is that His people will be His treasured possession.  The idea is one of belonging privately to a king.  And there is something wonderfully special about it.  He does, after all, own everything.  But out of all that He owns, He chooses to call His people a “treasured possession”/”personal treasure.”  What an honor.

6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

God says “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  We western individualists hear only “priests and holy.”   But that’s not what God said to Israel, and it’s not what He said in almost the same language to the church through the apostle Peter.

1Pe 2:9  But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

That is, both here in Exodus and in 1Peter, the picture is corporate, not individual.  It’s the kingdom, it’s the nation, it’s a people that will be God’s treasured possession and will declare His praises.  The promise here has a very corporate nature.

Now jump ahead to Chapter 20 and the 10 commandments.  These are primarily about behavior, about how God’s people are to act.  They are absolutely central statements of what it is to “obey” in 19:5a.  Post-modern man pretends that our personal “feelings” are primary and that “love” is about feelings.  But the truth is that love for and relationship with God is seen in behavior.

Exo 20:1  And God spoke all these words, saying,

2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

This is, again, the context.  It’s one of God’s established gracious provision for His people.  I am the I AM/Yahweh your God.  What follows is not some capricious arbitrary set of hoops to jump through, but rather a revelation of what behavior is consistent with the character of the I AM.  Again, if there is to be relationship with this great God, it only makes sense that what is consistent with His nature be revealed.  This is the one true and living God saying “I want you to live this way because I am who I am.”  The people to whom these words were first spoken were former slaves in Egypt and they needed instruction as to how free people are to live.  This is a description of what it is to really be human, to be a free people, to live life as it really ought to be.  This is the “law of liberty” as James calls it (James 1:25).  This is the law of the LORD that Psalm 1 says is the delight of one who is living a blessed life.

3 “You shall have no other gods before me.

Literally it says “you shall have no other gods upon/to/at my face.”  The phrase was used for taking a second wife while the first was still alive.  The notion is one of breaching an exclusive personal relationship.  There is no room in this covenant relationship between God and His people for anyone or anything else purporting to have God’s place.  In reality there is but one God in the universe, and that one God insists that no one or no thing usurp His place in our lives.

4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,

6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

There are to be no physical representations of any “god,” neither Yahweh nor any other who would take His place.  No such representation can do the one true and living God justice (i.e. any such must diminish Him) and any such representation will of necessity carry with it its own distortions of the truth about Him.  He is self-revealing, and any physical aid we might make denies that and substitutes our own imaginations about Him for His revelation.  At heart, that is really a denial of His right to declare Himself to be the “I AM.”  And zeal in religion is worth nothing if it is wrongly directed.

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

It is not a light thing to misuse or misappropriate the name of God.  Again, we have no trouble understanding this principle in the realm of man.  You don’t misuse the name of an absolute monarch, if you have any sense.  And here is someone far greater, the Lord of the universe.  God’s people are not to use His name idly, frivolously, blasphemously or insincerely.  We aren’t to implicitly attribute to Him our own fallible thoughts.  We are to be very careful about how we invoke His name both explicitly or implicitly.  That maintains proper respect for Him and assures that His name will not be connected with things that are unworthy of Him.

8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,

10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.

11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Our post-modern societal notion is that our time is ours and we can use all of it to either work or play as we please.  And that is flat wrong.  Verse 10 says that one day of 7 is to be specially dedicated to God.  It’s not ours to begin with.  It is, as verse 11 says, “holy” or set apart.  It’s not set apart for our leisure or getting in some double-time hours, but set apart for God.  All we have to do is get up and drive to church on Sunday morning through empty streets to know that this commandment is little obeyed in our time.  Notice that we are to behave this way because bearing the image of God, we’re to live consistent with Him.  In six days, He made the world, and on one He rested.  He set it apart.

The first of the commandments are pointed vertically.  The last are directed horizontally, beginning with family.  Motyer puts it this way: ” … we do not have two tables or sections here, but three.  God comes first, the family comes second, and the community around us third … the fifth commandment recognizes our first and primary earthly obligation.”

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

This is just basic sanity for decent life in the most basic unit of society.  How seriously it is taken reveals a society’s fundamental attitude toward authority in general, and ultimately God’s authority.  Post-moderns foolishly act as if wisdom is in the hands of youth, parents are just an embarrassing necessity who can be ignored for sure by the time one is a teen, and that in general no one over 35 knows anything.  That is foolishness, utter foolishness.  And for those who are going to have relationship to God, practice must be different than that.  The promise that comes with the command is for long life.  In general, where this is obeyed, life is sane, society is ordered, and people have a fruitful place in it into old age.

13 “You shall not murder.

The “murder” translation is a good one.  The Hebrew word here is one that usually refers to the violent killing of a personal enemy.  This is not about capital punishment and it is not about pacifism.  It is about unauthorized killing of human beings for personal reasons.  God is the giver and taker of life, not us.  It’s not our place to kill one made in the image of God and given life by Him according to our own whims.  We know that in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus got to the heart attitude.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

God’s relationship with His people is to be exclusive.  Marriage likewise is to be exclusive.  It’s to be a picture of the relationship between Christ and His church.  There’s no room for another “god” between the one true and living God and His people.  There’s no room between husband and wife for another person, either in deed, or as Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount, in thought.

15 “You shall not steal.

It is God who provides for each person.  If I take what is rightfully yours, I’ve shown contempt for God’s work on two accounts.  In the first place I’ve negated His provision for you.  In the second place I have openly declared that by my reckoning, His provision for me is inadequate, He doesn’t know best and/or is stingy.  I have impugned His great and generous nature.

Every decent society that has ever been has recognized the importance of verses 13,14, and 15.  But here God makes it known that to murder, commit adultery, or steal is not just a crime against man, it is sin against God.  Because God is who He is and humans bear His image and are related to Him, these acts are an affront to His nature.

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

God is true (He is the very definition of truth) and He’s just.  If a people is to be His, is to function as His kingdom of priests for the whole world, is to show His great and perfect nature to all, how could this be otherwise?

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

And if we aren’t undone by the others and think that we’ve managed to stay at least within the letter of the law, here’s the one that will always find us out.  This one deals with the attitudes of the heart, the attitudes of the heart that produce transgressions of the other commands.  You shall not covet.  You shall not look at another’s circumstances and want what is his.  It’s coveting your stuff that leads me to steal and maybe murder.  It’s coveting another’s spouse that leads to adultery.  It’s being dissatisfied with the provision of God in my life that leads me to idolatry.

18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off

19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”

It’s hard to know how to think correctly about this response.  From one point of view, it could reflect a sensible response of a fallen and frail people to the presence of a holy and omnipotent God.  But from another it is a shrinking back from an offer of fellowship from God.  This is the One who has said “I have brought you to myself … you shall be my treasured possession … you shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  To fail to humbly and gratefully accept that offer would be less than real faith.

The people say they need an intermediary … but it’s not Moses they need.  It’s Christ alone.

20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.”

21 The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

So we’re left here with a people chosen by God, instructed in His nature and ways pleading for an intermediary.  Thanks be to God for the work of His Son.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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