Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 4, 2020

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 Commentary

What a massive text for one sermon!  I’ve preached ten-part series on these verses, spending much time on each word of the successive commandments.  No wonder the RCL tried to help us by leaving out the crucial theological material connected to the second and fourth commandments, which is unfortunate given how important those verses are.

The old grade school joke asked, “How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.”  I propose three large bites: verses 1-2, which emphasize the divine origin of what follows; verses 3-17, which demonstrate the comprehensiveness of God’s claim on our lives; verses 18-20, which introduce the issue of how we can deal with these words in our modern world.

All modern scholars emphasize that these verses follow the format of ancient Near Eastern covenant treaties, in which the covenant Lord outlines the conditions of his agreement with his subject people.  That is a helpful insight, unless it is used to suggest (as many do) that Israel has simply borrowed all of this from surrounding nations.  The first two verses make it very clear that, while God may have used a well-known form to give his law to his people, it was definitely God who gave these words.  In a day of almost universal relativism in morality and nearly unanimous agreement that Israel’s monotheistic religion evolved over a long period of time, it is crucial that a Christian preacher assert what verses 1-2 say so clearly.

“And God spoke all these words….”  These are not the words of Moses, or of Israel.  These are the very words of God to Israel through Moses.  That, of course, is a startling and offensive claim to make in our polytheistic/atheistic world.  This text claims that these words came from the one true God to a particular people, whom God had chosen to be the possessors and communicators of his words to the rest of the world.   Why would God do that?  As C. S. Lewis so wryly and offensively put it, “How odd of God to choose the Jews.”  That’s not anti-Semitic; it’s just an acknowledgment of the mystery of God’s way of revealing himself and his will to the world.

Lest we have any doubt about who the one God is, God is very specific here.  “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”  God has a name, a unique name that reveals much about his essence, as I pointed out in the Sermon Commentary on Exodus 3.  This law-giving God is the covenant making God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  This law-giving God is the liberator of Israel from Egypt.  We could preach a whole sermon on those introductory words, but at the very least they assure Israel and us that these words come from the God who has reached down into history, entering into an unbreakable covenant with a particular people, and acting historically in powerful ways to redeem them.

Thus, these negative words (note all the “no’s” and “not’s”) have a very positive intent.  God has just liberated them from a terrible bondage and here he tells them how to avoid falling back into bondage again, how to enjoy their liberty.  They might have gone out into the wilderness and simply imitated the lifestyle of the Egyptians who had been their masters for so long.  That was all they knew.  Or they might have gone on to the Promised Land and fallen into the customs of the peoples who lived there, which, sadly, they did (and found themselves in bondage again).  To help them maintain the liberated life, God gave them this set of simple rules, the “Royal Law of Liberty (James 1:25).”  Here is a good God, the Father of a new family, trying to help them learn to walk in a safe and healthy way.

“And God spoke all these words,” all of them which cover all of life.  Their covenant Lord lays a comprehensive claim on their lives, as the footnotes to my NIV Study Bible put it: “As his subjects, his covenant people are to render complete submission, allegiance and obedience to him out of gratitude for his mercies, reverence for his sovereignty, and trust in his continuing care.”  Yahweh lays this comprehensive claim on them, not as a hard hearted, heavy handed tyrant, but as a loving Father who would do anything to save his people (as he so powerfully illustrated centuries later when he gave his only begotten Son for the life of a sinful world).

Having said that, however, there is no doubt that this royal law of liberty is life encompassing and strict—from every dimension of their relationship with God to all aspects of their relationships with their fellow humans.   God’s people have always talked about the two tables of the Law, verses 3-11 focusing on how we are to love God properly and verses 12-17 spelling out what it means to love our fellow humans.

The First Table is the basis for the Second; loving God is the condition and source of loving each other.  If we don’t serve the One True God as we should, we won’t be able to care for each other as God directs.  I know, there is a whole movement today that insists we can be “good without God,” and there are many people who do good even though they have no faith in the God of Scripture.  But the sheer order of the commandments shows us that love for God is our primary duty as God’s children, and if we don’t, how on earth can we love his children?

Properly relating to God means that we must worship only one God, the God who calls himself Yahweh; that we worship him as he has commanded, not using images or idols to represent him; that we use his name only in praise and petition, not trying to manipulate him by uttering the magic word of his name; and that we devote one day each week to focus on God, not working all the time as though our very lives depended on our work, rather than on our God.

We could preach on each of those first four commands, pointing out, for example, that Israel’s great temptation, and ours, was to have other gods besides Yahweh, to trust other deities in addition to Yahweh, thus demonstrating that they didn’t really trust him completely. Or we could explain that God’s aversion to images counters the human desire to make God visible, so that we can hold him or manipulate him.  But God is our Lord, not our Servant.  If we want an image of God, God has provided us a perfect image in Jesus Christ.  And so forth.

In the Second Table, God begins with the family, the foundation of human society.  When the family falls apart, all of society will do the same, as we are seeing in our world today.  Strong families are based, not on obedience (because there are times when children should not obey their parents), and not on love (because we all go through moments when we do not love those closest to us), but on honor, giving weight and importance to the authority God has placed over us.  When respect and honor for those in authority are lost, the family and society will disintegrate, as we are seeing today all around us.

God goes on to address the value of human life, the sanctity of the marriage bed, the right to hold property, and the importance of truth telling in a society.  Each of those commands is filled with implications and difficulties; for example, how does the 5th commandment relate to war and self-defense?  At the very least these commands show us that God cares deeply about every dimension of human life.  Thus, loving God means that we must help other people flourish in their lives by guarding their right to life, by keeping sex within the bounds of marriage, by protecting the property rights of others, and by speaking the truth in love.

The last commandment reveals that God’s reign extends into our inner life.  Sin begins within, with a thought or a desire. Thus, God commands that we govern our desires, lest we become enslaved to them.  See Ephesians 2:1-3, where Paul says spiritual death can be traced to “gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts”).

This comment from the New Interpreters Bible leads us into the last few verses of the text: “human life in all its ambiguity and inscrutability is endlessly precious and must not be violated.  It is now clear that in the obduracy of totalitarian society and in the rapaciousness of market economy, a humane life of shared rights and responsibilities is exceedingly fragile.”  So, how are we to deal with these commandments in a day when a humane life is exceedingly fragile?

That question raises all kinds of issues for me.  Verse 18 returns to the theophany we read about in Exodus 19.  God gave his law in the setting of a terrifying theophany, a personal revelation designed to plant “the fear of God” in their hearts.  It sounds as though only that fear of God will keep God’s people from sinning.  Their fear of God “breaking out against them (19:24)” and killing them is the deterrent that will enforce obedience.

Is that true?  Does the fear of God keep people within the bounds of his law?  And if so, how does that square with my contention that God gave this law in love, to preserve liberty?  Further, if the fear of God is the key to obedience, what hope is there for a society that manifestly does not fear God?  And how do we square this fear motif with those enigmatic words of I John 4:18, “There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear.”  Does that verse signal a shift in how we are to approach God’s law in these New Testament times?  Is love now our motive in keeping it?  And gratitude?  I won’t attempt to answer these questions in this short piece, but you may want to wrestle with them as you bring this ancient word into these modern times.

Speaking of the New Testament, how are we to deal with Exodus 20, which clearly views the Law as a great gift from a Liberating God, with Paul’s often negative view of the Law as a seemingly negative force in the life of a believer.  While granting that it is “holy and righteous and good (Romans 7:12),” Paul also says that “the very commandment that was intended to bring life, actually brought death (Romans 7:9).”  He criticizes the Galatians for their return to a law-based life because it meant that they were “letting yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1).”

All theologians point out that Paul is railing against the law used as a means of salvation, as an escalator that can elevate us to heaven, rather than as guardrails on the path that is life in Christ.  The law still functions as a guide to grateful living for those who have been saved by Christ.  However, even that holy and righteous and good law is useless to us because of our sin.  We cannot and do not keep it by ourselves.

If the law is to be helpful for us, we must have another to help us keep it.  Which, of course, God has taken care of by giving us the Holy Spirit, “so that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:4).”  Thus, Paul can say boldly in Galatians 5:18, ”if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.”  That doesn’t mean that the Law is abolished. It means that we are not under it as a tyrant; it is in us as a part of our sanctified life exactly as the Old Testament predicted.  The Spirit empowers and directs us to live by the Royal Law of Liberty.

When we don’t live by the law of God, we have a mediator, even as Israel did at the foot of Sinai.  The theophany on top of the mountain so terrified them that they begged Moses to stand between them and God. “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”  So, he did.

Jesus did more than that.  He spoke to us in the role of the great Prophet who would take the place of Moses.  But even more, he died for us when we didn’t heed the Law of God. When we submitted again to the bondage of sin, he gave his life to set us free.  See Romans 8:1-3 for Paul’s definitive explanation of all this.  In the end, let this text point God’s people to God’s amazing love in Christ that set us free to live as God always intended when he gave this Law.  In Christ and by his Spirit, we can be free indeed.

Illustration Idea

The notion that a law can help us be free goes against the lawless instincts of those who live by the motto of “if it feels good, do it.”  But that notion is at the heart of my country, “the land of the free, the home of the brave.” (My apologies to all the citizens of other great countries.)  The beloved anthem, “America the Beautiful,” expresses that in these words that seem to echo our text: “Oh, beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress a thoroughfare of freedom beat across the wilderness!  American!  America!  God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”


Preaching Connections: ,
Biblical Books:

Dive Deeper

This Week:

Spark Inspiration:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!

Newsletter Signup