Commentary of the Old and New Testaments

Exodus 20

By Joseph Benson


Verse 1
Exodus 20:1. God spake all these words — The law of the ten commandments is a law of God’s making, and a law of his own speaking. God has many ways of speaking to the children of men: he speaks by his Spirit, his providences, and our own consciences, his voice in all which we ought carefully to attend to: but he never spake at any time, or upon any occasion, as he spake the ten commandments, which therefore we ought to hear with the more earnest heed. This law God had given to man before; it was written in his heart by nature; but sin had so defaced that writing, that it was necessary to revive the knowledge of it.

Verse 2
Exodus 20:2. I am the Lord thy God — Herein God asserts his own authority to enact this law; and proposeth himself as the sole object of that religious worship which is enjoined in the four first commandments. They are here bound to obedience. 1st, Because God is the Lord, Jehovah, self-existent, independent, eternal, and the fountain of all being and power; therefore he has an incontestible right to command us. 2d, He was their God; a God in covenant with them; their God by their own consent. 3d, He had brought them out of the land of Egypt — Therefore they were bound in gratitude to obey him, because he had brought them out of a grievous slavery into a glorious liberty. By redeeming them, he acquired a further right to rule them; they owed their service to him to whom they owed their freedom. And thus Christ, having rescued us out of the bondage of sin, is entitled to the best service we can do for him. The first four commandments concern our duty to God, commonly called the first table. It was fit those should be put first, because man had a Maker to love before he had a neighbour to love, and justice and charity are then only acceptable to God when they flow from the principles of piety.

Verses 3-6
Exodus 20:3-6. The first commandment is concerning the object of our worship, Jehovah, and him only: Thou shalt have no other gods before me — The Egyptians, and other neighbouring nations, had many gods, creatures of their own fancy. This law was prefixed because of that transgression; and Jehovah being the God of Israel, they must entirely cleave to him and no other, either of their own invention, or borrowed from their neighbours. The sin against this commandment which we are most in danger of, is giving that glory to any creature which is due to God only. Pride makes a god of ourselves, covetousness makes a god of money, sensuality makes a god of the belly. Whatever is loved, feared, delighted in, or depended on, more than God, that we make a god of. This prohibition includes a precept, which is the foundation of the whole law, that we take the Lord for our God, accept him for ours, adore him with humble reverence, and set our affections entirely upon him. There is a reason intimated in the last words, before me. It intimates, 1st, That we cannot have any other god but he will know it; 2d, That it is a sin that dares him to his face, which he cannot, will not overlook.

The second commandment is concerning the ordinances of worship, or the way in which God will be worshipped, which it is fit himself should appoint. Here Isaiah , 1 st, The prohibition; we are forbidden to worship even the true God by images, Exodus 20:4-5. First, The Jews (at least after the captivity) thought themselves forbidden by this to make any image or picture whatsoever. It is certain it forbids making any image of God, for to whom can we liken him? Isaiah 40:18; Isaiah 40:25. It also forbids us to make images of God in our fancies, as if he were a man as we are. Our religious worship must be governed by the power of faith, not by the power of imagination. Secondly, They must not bow down to them — Show any sign of honour to them, much less serve them by sacrifice, or any other act of religious worship. When they paid their devotion to the true God, they must not have any image before them for the directing, exciting, or assisting their devotion. Though the worship was designed to terminate in God, it would not please him if it came to him through an image. The best and most ancient lawgivers among the heathen forbade the setting up of images in their temples. It was forbidden in Rome by Numa, a Pagan prince, yet commanded in Rome by the pope, a Christian bishop! The use of images in the Church of Rome, at this day, is so plainly contrary to the letter of this command, that in all their catechisms, which they put into the hands of the people, they leave out this commandment, joining the reason of it to the first, and so the third commandment they call the second, the fourth, the third, &c.; only to make up the number ten, they divide the tenth into two. For I the Lord, Jehovah, thy God, am a jealous God — Especially in things of this nature. It intimates the care he has of his own institutions, his displeasure against idolaters, and that he resents every thing in his worship that looks like, or leads to, idolatry; visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation — Severely punishing. Nor is it an unrighteous thing with God, if the parents die in their iniquity, and the children tread in their steps, when God comes, by his judgments, to reckon with them, to bring into the account the idolatries their fathers were guilty of. Keeping mercy for thousands of persons, thousands of generations; of them that love me, and keep my commandments — This intimates that the second commandment, though in the letter it is only a prohibition of false worship, yet includes a precept of worshipping God in all those ordinances which he hath instituted. As the first commandment requires the inward worship of love, desire, joy, hope, so this is the outward worship of prayer and praise, and solemn attendance on his word. This mercy shall extend to thousands, much further than the wrath threatened to those that hate him, for that reaches but to the third or fourth generation.

Verse 7
Exodus 20:7. The third commandment is concerning the manner of our worship: where we have, 1st, A strict prohibition. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain — Supposing that, having taken Jehovah for their God, they would make mention of his name, this command gives a caution not to mention it in vain, and it is still as needful as ever. We take God’s name in vain, 1st, By hypocrisy, making profession of God’s name, but not living up to that profession. 2d, By covenant-breaking. If we make promises to God, and perform not to the Lord our vows, we take his name in vain. 3d, By rash swearing, mentioning the name of God, or any of his attributes, in the form of an oath, without any just occasion for it, to no good purpose, or to no good. 4th, By false swearing, which some think is chiefly intended in the letter of the commandment. 5th, By using the name of God lightly and carelessly. The profanation of the form of devotion is forbidden, as well as the profanation of the forms of swearing; as also, the profanation of any of those things whereby God makes himself known. For the Lord will not hold him guiltless — Magistrates, that punish other offences, may not think themselves concerned to take notice of this; but God, who is jealous for his honour, will not connive at it. The sinner may perhaps hold himself guiltless, and think there is no harm in it; to obviate which suggestion, the threatening is thus expressed, God will not hold him guiltless. But more is implied, that God will himself be the avenger of those that take his name in vain; and they will find it a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Verses 8-11
Exodus 20:8-11. The fourth commandment concerns the time of worship; God is to be served and honoured daily; but one day in seven is to be particularly dedicated to his honour, and spent in his service. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy; in it thou shalt do no manner of work — It is taken for granted, that the sabbath was instituted before. We read of God’s blessing and sanctifying a seventh day from the beginning, (Genesis 2:3,) so that this was not the enacting of a new law, but the reviving of an old law. 1st, They are told what is the day they must observe, a seventh after six days’ labour; whether this was the seventh by computation from the first seventh, or from the day of their coming out of Egypt, or both, is not certain. 2d, How it must be observed; 1st, As a day of rest; they were to do no manner of work on this day, in their worldly business. 2d, As a holy day, set apart to the honour of the holy God, and to be spent in holy exercises. God, by his blessing it, had made it holy; they, by solemnly blessing him, must keep it holy, and not alienate it to any other purpose than that for which the difference between it and other days was instituted. 3d, Who must observe it? Thou, and thy son, and thy daughter — The wife is not mentioned, because she is supposed to be one with the husband, and present with him; and if he sanctify the sabbath, it is taken for granted she will join with him; but the rest of the family is instanced in it; children and servants must keep it according to their age and capacity. In this, as in other instances of religion, it is expected that masters of families should take care, not only to serve the Lord themselves, but that their houses also should serve him. By the sanctification of the sabbath, the Jews declared they worshipped the God that made the world, and so distinguished themselves from all other nations, who worshipped gods which they themselves made. God has given us an example of rest after six days’ work; he rested on the seventh day — Took a complacency in himself, and rejoiced in the work of his hand, to teach us on that day to take a complacency in him, and to give him the glory of his works.

Verse 12
Exodus 20:12. We have here the laws of the second table, as they are commonly called, the last six commandments, which concern our duty to ourselves and one another, and are a comment upon the second great commandment, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. As religion toward God is an essential branch of universal righteousness, so righteousness toward men is an essential branch of true religion: godliness and honesty must go together. The fifth commandment is concerning the duties we owe to our relations; that of children to their parents is only instanced in, honour thy father and thy mother — Which includes, 1st, An inward esteem of them, outwardly expressed upon all occasions in our carriage toward them. The contrary to this is mocking at them or despising them. 2d, Obedience to their lawful commands; so it is expounded, Ephesians 6:1-2, Children, obey your parents; come when they call you, go where they send you, do what they bid you, do not what they forbid you; and this cheerfully, and from a principle of love. Though you have said you will not, yet afterward, repent and obey. 3d, Submission to their rebukes, instructions, and corrections, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. 4th, Disposing of themselves with the advice, direction, and consent of parents, not alienating their property, but with their approbation. 5th, Endeavouring in everything to be the comfort of your parents, and to make their old age easy to them; maintaining them if they stand in need of support. That thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee — This promise (which is often literally fulfilled) is expounded in a more general sense, Ephesians 6:3, “That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.” Those that, from conscience toward God, keep this and other of God’s commandments, may be sure it shall be well with them, and they shall live as long on the earth as infinite wisdom sees will be good for them; and what they may seem to be cut short of on earth, shall be abundantly made up in eternal life, the heavenly Canaan, which God will give them.

Verse 13
Exodus 20:13. Thou shalt not kill — Thou shalt not do any thing hurtful to the health or life of thy own body, or any other’s. This doth not forbid our necessary defence, or the magistrates putting offenders to death; but it forbids all malice and hatred to any, for he that hateth his brother is a murderer, and all revenge arising therefrom; likewise anger, and hurt said or done, or aimed to be done, in a passion; of this our Saviour expounds this commandment, Matthew 5:22.

Verse 14
Exodus 20:14. Thou shalt not commit adultery — This commandment forbids all acts of uncleanness, with all those desires which produce those acts and war against the soul.

Verse 15
Exodus 20:15. Thou shalt not steal — This command forbids us to rob ourselves of what we have, by sinful spending, or of the use and comfort of it, by sinful sparing; and to rob others by invading our neighbour’s rights, taking his goods, or house, or field, forcibly or clandestinely, overreaching in bargains, not restoring what is borrowed or found, withholding just debts, rents, or wages; and, which is worst of all, to rob the public in the coin or revenue, or that which is dedicated to the service of religion.

Verse 16
Exodus 20:16. Thou shalt not bear false witness — This forbids, 1st, Speaking falsely in any matter, lying, equivocating, and any way devising and designing to deceive our neighbour. 2d, Speaking unjustly against our neighbour, to the prejudice of his reputation. And, 3d, (which is the highest offence of both these put together,) Bearing false witness against him, laying to his charge things that he knows not, either upon oath, by which the third commandment, the sixth, or eighth, as well as this, are broken, or in common converse, slandering, backbiting, tale-bearing, aggravating what is done amiss, and any way endeavouring to raise our own reputation upon the ruin of our neighbour’s.

Verse 17
Exodus 20:17. Thou shalt not covet — The foregoing commands implicitly forbid all desire of doing that which will be an injury to our neighbour; this forbids all inordinate desire of having that which will be a gratification to ourselves. O that such a man’s house were mine! such a man’s wife mine! such a man’s estate mine! This is certainly the language of discontent at our own lot, and envy at our neighbour’s, and these are the sins principally forbidden here. God give us all to see our face in the glass of this law, and to lay our hearts under the government of it!

Verse 18-19
Exodus 20:18-19. They removed, and stood afar off — Before God began to speak, they were thrusting forward to gaze, but now they were effectually cured of their presumption, and taught to keep their distance. Speak thou with us — Hereby they obliged themselves to acquiesce in the mediation of Moses, they themselves nominating him as a fit person to deal between them and God, and promising to hearken to him as to God’s messenger.

Verse 20
Exodus 20:20. Fear not — That is, Think not that this thunder and fire are designed to consume you. God is come to prove you — To try how they would like dealing with God immediately, without a mediator, and so to convince them how admirably well God had chosen for them in putting Moses into that office. Ever since Adam fled, upon hearing God’s voice in the garden, sinful man has not been able to bear either to speak to God, or hear from him immediately.

Verses 21-23
Exodus 20:21-23. While the people continued to stand afar off — Afraid of God’s wrath, Moses drew near unto the thick darkness — He was made to draw near; so the word is: Of himself he durst not have ventured into the thick darkness: if God had not called him, and encouraged him. And being gone into the thick darkness where God was, God there spoke, in his hearing only, all that follows from hence to the end of chapter 23., which is mostly an exposition of the ten commandments; and he was to transmit it to the people. The laws in these verses relate to God’s worship. Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven — Such was his wonderful condescension; ye shall not make gods of silver — This repetition of the second commandment comes in here, because they were more addicted to idolatry than to any other sin.

Verse 24
Exodus 20:24. An altar of earth — It is meant of occasional altars, such as they reared in the wilderness before the tabernacle was erected, and afterward upon special emergencies, for present use. They are appointed to make these very plain, either of earth or of unhewn stones. That they might not be tempted to think of a graven image, they must not so much as hew the stones into shape that they made their altars of, but pile them up as they were in the rough. In all places where I record my name — Or where my name is recorded; that is, where I am worshipped in sincerity; I will come unto thee, and will bless thee.

Verse 26
Exodus 20:26. Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar — Indeed afterward God appointed an altar ten cubits high. But it is probable they went not up to that by steps, but by a sloping ascent. The garments worn in those countries, being perfectly loose, were easily blown aside, so as to discover the lower parts of the body; to prevent, therefore, this inconvenience, and that no indecency might be intermixed with the service of God, this precaution was necessary. And for the same reason the priests were afterward appointed to wear breeches, which were worn by none of the people besides, Exodus 28:42.