Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker

Exodus 20

Verses 1-26

The Commandments

Exodus 19-20

We cannot get rid of Sinai in human education. If we persuade ourselves by some false reasoning that the things recorded in these chapters did not literally happen, we are playing the fool with ourselves. God could only come to us at the first by the letter. He touches us by infinite accommodations of his own nature and by a gracious study of our own. This is the plague of the imperfect reason, that it will quibble about the incident, the wrappage, and decoration of things. It seems to be unable to penetrate to inmost thoughts, essences, qualities, and meanings. Sinai is in every life. Let us part with as much as we can of the merely external, and still there remains the fact that in our lives are lightnings, and thunderings, and great trumpetings of power, as well as solemn claims and urgent appeals to every quality and force in our nature. Who has not been in stony places in the carrying out of his education,—great, black, inhospitable localities, well called wildernesses; wild and howling deserts; mountains of stone; embodiments of difficulty; types of arduous discipline and inexorable demand? Why play the fool? Why miss the wine of God"s grace and wisdom by asking narrow or foolish questions about the vessel which contains it, when within the whole mystery of life there stands the barren mountain—the inhospitable sand stretches mile on mile on every hand and nothing speaks to us in all the terrific scene but law, claim, and obligation—the tremendous demand of an unyielding creditor, who has come to arrest and imprison us until the uttermost farthing be paid? Our spiritual experience makes the letter quite small. There are still those who are asking questions about the local Sinai, the narrow and comparatively trivial incident, and are missing all the poetry of the occasion, not hearing the Divine and solemn voice, and not answering the sublime demand for more perfect purification, completer refinement, and profounder obedience. Why not start our inquiries from the other side?—What is this voice of law? What is this standard of discipline which forces itself upon our moral attention? What is this claim that is pressed upon us by every variety of expression which follows us, now affrontingly, now pleading, according to the moral phase which we exhibit towards it? Did we begin our inquiry at that end, and so come along the line of Revelation, Sinai, the local mountain, and the desert, and all trumpetings, thunderings, lightnings, tempests, all upheavals, and earthquakes, and terrible scenes, would fall into their right proportion and relation, and the one sovereign thought would be,—Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?

Instead of looking at the commandments one by one, and thus running the risk of missing their whole meaning, let us look at the commandments in their totality and call them One Commandment with many different phases, and aspects, and bearings upon human life.

What is the teaching of that great law pronounced from heaven? Is there any grace in it? Is there any touch of love? Is there any trembling of pathos? Is it all hard iron? Is it all tremendous exaction, pitiless, tyrannous claim? Have we always read the commandments aright? and have we been just to their innermost meaning when we have characterised them as hard? I think not. What do these commandments urge upon us?—A right view of God. That is the first injunction. We are called to right theology—not of a formal and technical, but of a moral and spiritual kind. The great movement of the heart must first of all be Godward. We cannot work until the soul is brought into the right mood and proper quality by a full perception of the sovereignty and righteous claim and tender grace of God. We cannot break in upon the commandments where we please, and obey the law in parts and parcels. There is a temptation to think we can do so. We are sometimes tempted to think that we can keep the eighth commandment, but not the fifth; the fourth, but not the ninth; the tenth, but not the first, and so on. That is impossible. To keep one commandment is to keep all; to offend in one commandment is to break all. This may not seem to be so on the surface; but a complete analysis of the occasion and circumstances will result in the finding that the commandments are one law, complete, indivisible, only set forth in points and aspects for the convenience of learners, and as an accommodation to the infirmity or incompleteness of children. First of all, then, we are called to a right view of God. We cannot move one step in a right direction until something like this view has been realised. Every succeeding commandment will be dumb to us, if we have not entered into the mystery of the first. What is God to us? What are his claims upon us? What is there in us that responds to his presence, and that, so to say, reveals him before he comes with any obvious manifestation of his personality upon us? Are we akin? Are we his children? Is there any sound in the ear or the heart which, being interpreted, means,—"In the beginning God made man in his own image and likeness"? That is our first study. We shall be mere moralists if we begin at the second commandment. That is Song of Solomon -called legalism and morality,—the pedantry which snaps off the commandments from the great central stem and treats them as separate particles, as isolated possibilities of virtue. We must come from the Divine point, from the spiritual communion of the soul with God, and then the commandments will come upon our souls as appeals to our power, and as sweet necessities, not as arbitrary impositions and tyrannies.

What next have we in this consolidated commandment? Having a right view of God, we have a right view, in the next place, of labour. God condescends to take notice of our working ways, of our allotments and appointments of a temporal kind. The voice of mercy is in this injunction regarding labour. In effect, God says to us, "You must not always toil; your heads must not be bent down in continual proneness to the earth; you may labour six days, but the seventh part of your time should be devoted to spiritual communion, to the culture of the upper and better nature, to the promotion of your higher and nobler education." This is the gracious law; but, say, is this law without tears? Is this commandment without grace? Is there no mercy here? Is there not a subtle allusion to an earlier charter in which God made man to commune with himself? If you are doomed to seven days" work, it is against God"s mind. If any have to work seven days for the mouthful of bread they need, it is the doing of an enemy; it is not the claim of God. I ask you to praise him for this defence of feeble human nature and this plea for a higher human education. Do not fritter away the blessing by technical inquiry and pedantic analysis of meaning. The sublime, infinite purpose is this: that man is more than a labourer; he is a worshipper; he is a kinsman of God; he has belongings in the sky. A religion that thus comes to me and takes me away from my toil, and bids me rest awhile and think of the larger quantities, and the more ample time, and the heavenly kingdoms, is a religion I cannot afford to do without. It is a religion of grace; it is a religion which knows my necessities, pities my infirmities, spares my wasting strength. The Sabbath, in its spiritual aspect and meaning, is one of the strongest defences of the inspiration of the Bible and the Divinity of the religion which it reveals. It is man"s day and God"s day; more thoroughly man"s day because completely God"s day. It is their united time,—time of fellowship, hour of communion, opportunity for deeper reading, larger prayer, and Diviner consecration.

Having a right view of God and a right view of labour, we have also a right view of physiology. The Bible takes care of man"s body. Thou shalt not waste it; thou shalt not poison it; thou shalt not degrade the inner nature by a prostitution of the outer constitution. "Thou shalt not commit adultery." A commandment which so speaks to us is associated with a religion that is no merely spiritual phantasy. This is a practical monitor. It enters every room, remains in the house night and day, tarries as a guest seven days a week, goes out with us to the marketplace, takes care of our bodily ablution and cleansing, and regards the sanctity of the body with a Divine care. Who are they that tell us that the Bible religion is a superstition, an affair of fancy, something having in it bright points here and there, and to be treated with proportionate respect? The Bible searches us, tries us, and finds if there is any wicked way in us, and is as careful about the body in its degree as about the soul in its higher plane, because nobler quantity. No man ill-treats his body with the permission of the Bible; no soul quenches its thirst at forbidden wells with the sanction of the Book which we believe to be God"s. The Bible would keep society sweet, would watch over our life with ineffable tenderness, would have us right in tone, wholesome, good at every point. A book so graciously exacting, charged with so Divine a spirit of discipline, is a book which will survive every assault made upon it, and return to the confidence of man after many an act of apostacy and ingratitude on his part.

A right view of God, a right view of labour, a right view of physiology, and then a right view of society. Not only is God interested in the individual Prayer of Manasseh, he is also interested in the social, imperial, national world—humanity. What says he?—"Thou shalt not kill,"—however hot thy blood, thou shalt not kill; however apparently just thine anger, restrain thyself, lift not the hand to strike, have no weapon in thy fist,—"Thou shalt not kill." Woe betide society when it holds human life lightly, when it regards human existence as a mere trifle in an infinite aggregate of circumstances and events! Blessed be that society which numbers the hairs of its children, in which a sparrow is not lost without knowledge, and in which a gracious economy will gather up the fragments that nothing be lost! This is Christian society which will not allow one chair to be vacant. Seeing that vacant chair, Christian solicitude becomes akin to Divine agony; a parental yearning makes the heart sore because one little child is absent, one wanderer is not at home, one man is missing.

"Thou shalt not steal." It is not enough to be less than a murderer, we must be honest,—not superficially honest, not having hands merely untainted with overt crime, and theft, and felony; but thoroughly honest, sweet in the soul, really, superbly, almost Divinely honest in thought, in speech, in feeling, and in all the relations of life. Where is there an honest Prayer of Manasseh, except in the common and superficial sense of a man who is not a thief? Honesty is not a negative virtue; honesty is a positive excellence. It renders to every man his due; it steals no man"s reputation; it trifles with the property of no heart; it is more anxious to give than to take away. "Thou shalt not covet." We are becoming more spiritual still. "Thou shalt not kill,"—to that we assented readily; "Thou shalt not steal,"—to that we also assented with large concession; "Thou shalt not covet,"—who knows when he covets? We can covet in secret; we can covet, and never speak about the covetousness. Desire need not commit itself to audible terms. We can desire what another man has and yet can look the embodiment of innocence. The law is now becoming sharper, keener, more like a two-edged sword piercing to the dividing asunder of the joints and marrow. We cannot keep company with this law in its inner and deeper meanings without finding that its intention is to divide us asunder, and search us, and try us, and never leave us until we become like the Lawgiver himself. Can we wonder that Jesus Christ said he had not come to destroy but to fulfil?—that Isaiah, to interpret the law and give it its fullest and deepest meaning. When asked what the law was, he said, "All the law is fulfilled in one word—love." But we read the commandments and found no love in them,—because we misread every tone in the ancient and solemn music. You could not have the commandment but for the love which makes it law. Outwardly it looks iron-like, stern, rigorous, exacting, pitiless; but within its heart is large as the heart of God.

Mark the elevation of the commandments,—of what god are they unworthy? Their Divinity must have impressed us. Point out one weak word; lay the critical finger upon one line that is wanting in intellectual dignity or in moral splendour. By the nature of the laws themselves their inspiration may be vindicated. A bold task it was for any mere poet or dreamer to attempt to invent a commandment which would be worthy of God; but the task was realised. Great opening lines have been expressed in the very finest terms, in the most delicate and exquisite exactions and compulsions. Nowhere does this Decalogue fray away into pointlessness, vagueness, intellectual meanness, moral declension. From first to last the level is one, and the level is worthy of God. To find fault with the commandments is to injure ourselves; to trifle with the commandments is to jeopardise society. They are not repeated formally in the New Testament, but they are fulfilled in that holy covenant. We are now in Christ Jesus, if we are living up to Gospel privileges and opportunities; and, being in him, we breathe the commandments, rather than execute them as with arduous effort. They become part of our very life; they belong to us as the fragrance belongs to the odorous flower. They are no longer burdens grievous to be borne. We love them because we have experienced their love. Away with moral legerdemain! Away with the gymnastics which attempt to climb to heaven by their own moral cleverness! We must go the right road, from God to Prayer of Manasseh, from the law to the neighbour, from the heavenly image to the social obligation; and if the Church would, in the spirit of Christ, without one taint of legalism or servility, keep the commandments, we should have a right view of God, a right view of labour, a right view of the body, and a right view of society. The life would be consolidated upon love and law, and lifting itself up with infinite strength, would be crowned with beauty, and on the top of the pillar would be lilywork; RIGHTEOUSNESS and GRACE would form one noble, sublime, everlasting figure.

Note

"The promulgation of the law, including the construction of the tabernacle, occupied nearly twelve months—from Whitsuntide to Whitsuntide—as we should say. Throughout this period the people were encamped in the wide plain at the foot of the "Mount of God." The whole region seems to be called "Horeb"; the mount is called "Sinai." Travellers seem now disposed to identify it with an isolated mountain which rises so abruptly from the great plain at its foot, that its northern cliff might be said to be touched by one standing in the plain. The northern peak is called Ras-Susâfeh; the southern, Jebel-Mûsa. It rises to a height of2,000 feet above the plain, and about7,000 above the sea level."—Bible Educator.

"A spacious plain (Er Rahah) confronts a precipitous cliff2,000 feet in height, which forms the north-western boundary of that great mountain block called Jebel-Mûsa, which tradition and the opinion of travellers and authors of eminence alike point to as the mountain of the law. The plain is of a level character—as flat as the palm (rahah) of the open hand. It is large enough, if needs be, to encamp all the hosts of the Israelites. There are fully400 acres of the plain proper, exactly facing the mount, with a wide lateral valley, which extends right and left from the base of the cliffs. Besides this, there is a considerable further open space extending northwestward from the watershed or crest of the plain, but still in sight of the mount—the very spot, it may be, to which the trembling Israelites "removed and stood afar off" when they feared to come nigh by reason of the cloud and thick darkness."—Captain Palmer.

Verse 22

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"I have talked with you from heaven."Exodus 20:22.

There is no mistaking heavenly music. Other voices may seem to rival it, but at points here and there it separates itself from all rivalry, and with an energy all its own appeals to human imagination.—A beautiful expression is this word, "I have talked"; it is full of simplicity and condescension; God is quite close to our car and is conducting communication upon an almost equal level.—God sometimes thunders from heaven or causes the shining of his glory to dazzle the firmament so that no human eyes can gaze upon it.—With these dispensations we cannot interfere; it is when God "talks" with us that we may draw near and listen and ask questions and make replies.—We like to be talked to from heaven when we are in a right condition of mind; though the language is sublime it seems to appeal to something that is born within us. When we hear the heavenly speech, all earthly appeals become low and narrow and unworthy of us.—It is the same with the Book of God.—Once get into its spirit and enjoy the fellowship of its very heart, and all other books seem to be unworthy of the nature that is to be excited and hallowed by Divine communications.—God talks with us from heaven that he may lure us to heaven.—His purpose is never that we should be lower and meaner, but always that we should be higher and richer.—He stands up in the heavenly light to show us to what altitude we may rise.—It is not great superiority that is here indicated, it is a lesson to us of stimulus and encouragement—If God has spoken to us what has he said? Where is his word recorded?—Not a syllable of the Divine message should be lost.—Let us be misers in gathering up every tone and speech of God.

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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 20". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://beta.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/exodus-20.html. 1885-95.