Commentary of the Old and New Testaments

Exodus 23

By Joseph Benson


Verse 1
Exodus 23:1. Thou shalt not raise — Or, receive, as the margin reads it, and as the Hebrew תשׂא, tissa, also signifies, or, give credit to a false report. Sometimes the receiver, in this case, is as bad as the thief: and a backbiting tongue would not do so much mischief if it were not countenanced. Sometimes we cannot avoid hearing a false report, but we must not receive it, we must not hear it with pleasure, nor easily give credit to it.

Verse 2
Exodus 23:2. Thou shalt not follow a multitude — Either their counsel or their example; to do evil — General usage will never excuse us in any ill practice; nor is the broad way ever the safer for its being crowded. We must inquire what we ought to do, not what the most do; because we must be judged by our Master, not our fellow-servants; and it is too great a compliment to be willing to go to hell for company. Neither shalt thou speak in a cause — Either to extenuate or excuse a great fault, aggravate a small one, vindicate an offender, charge guilt on an innocent person, put false glosses, or sinister interpretations upon things, or do any thing tending to procure an unjust sentence; to decline after many — Either the friends of the party, the judges, the witnesses, or the opinions of the vulgar. The word רבים, rabbim, in this verse rendered multitude and many, signifying also great men, some prefer the following translation of the verse, Thou shalt not follow great men to do evil — neither shalt thou speak (Hebrew, answer) in a cause to decline after great men. This is a very important sense of the words: because the example of great men, of men of power, wealth, and authority, has great influence.

Verse 3
Exodus 23:3. Neither shalt thou countenance — Hebrew, honour or favour; a poor man in his cause. Thus we are properly cautioned against an opposite error which we may be also in danger of falling into, that of respecting the poor man’s cause, out of pity and compassion, when the cause of the richer man is more just. For however great the compassion of God may be for the poor, and how much soever he may recommend them to our care and protection, he would not have our tenderness for them carry us to countenance them unjustly, or give a wrong judgment for their sakes. The meaning of this and the former verse is, that there must be no respect of persons, whether rich or poor, but an impartial consideration of the cause.

Verse 4
Exodus 23:4. Thou shalt surely bring it back to him — So far shalt thou be from revenging his injuries, that thou shalt render good to him for them, whereby if thou dost not reconcile him, thou wilt at least procure peace to thyself, and an honour to religion.

Verse 5
Exodus 23:5. And wouldest forbear to help him — The duty inculcated in this verse is inculcated also Deuteronomy 22:4, although not in the same words in the original. And the intention of both verses is plain, but the marginal reading here shows that there is some difficulty in the Hebrew text in this place. The precept, however, evidently means, whatever controversy thou hast with him that hates thee, it shall not hinder thee from succouring him or his in any distress.

Verse 6
Exodus 23:6. Thou shalt not wrest the judgment of thy poor — As a judge should beware, lest through motives of compassion, or an affectation of popularity, he be biassed in favour of the poor; so, on the other hand, he must not despise a man because he is poor and without friends: he must not take advantage of his poverty to misrepresent his cause, to refuse to give him an impartial hearing, to strain a point of equity to his prejudice, or pass sentence wrongfully against him. The words thy poor, are emphatical, importing that they were members of their body, though poor.

Verse 7
Exodus 23:7. Keep thee far from a false matter — From assisting or abetting all ill thing. Yea, keep thee far from it, dread it as a dangerous snare. I will not justify the wicked — That is, I will condemn him that unjustly condemns others.

Verse 8
Exodus 23:8. Thou shalt take no gift — From those whose causes are depending before thee; because, if thou dost not sell justice for it, thou wilt both seem and be tempted to do so. The gift blindeth the wise — Bribes and interest cast a mist before the eyes, and bias the judgment and affections even of those who are otherwise wise and discerning. Besides, a habit of taking bribes will, in time, quite extinguish the light of reason, and destroy the sense of right and wrong. See Ecclesiastes 7:7. And perverteth the words of the righteous — The words or sentence of those who would otherwise be righteous: or perverteth the cause of the righteous, and all he can say in his own defence, and and procures a wrong sentence to be given against him.

Verse 9
Exodus 23:9. Thou shalt not oppress the stranger — Though aliens might not inherit lands among them; yet, they must have justice done them. It is an instance of the equity of our law, that if an alien be tried for any crime, except treason, the one half of his jury, if he desire it, shall be foreigners; a kind provision that strangers may not be oppressed. For ye know the heart of a stranger — That is, ye know by experience what a distressed, friendless condition that of a stranger is. The disposition, dejection, and distress of his heart, make him an object of pity, not of malice or injustice. Ye know his heart is easily depressed, and very unable to bear repulses. There is a great beauty in the expression.

Verse 10-11
Exodus 23:10-11. The institution of the sabbatical year was designed, 1st, To show what a plentiful land that was into which God was bringing them, that so numerous a people could have rich maintenance out of the products of so small a country, without foreign trade, and yet could spare the increase of every seventh year. 2d, To teach them confidence in his care and bounty while they did their duty; that as the sixth day’s manna served for two days’ meat, so the sixth year’s increase should serve for two years’ subsistence. 3d, Thus he would try and secure their obedience, keep them in dependance upon himself, and give to them and all their neighbours a manifest proof of his singular and gracious providence over them. 4th, By this kind of quit rent they were likewise admonished that God alone was the Lord of the land, and that they were only tenants at his will. And being thus freed from their great labours in cultivating the ground, in manuring, ploughing, sowing, weeding, reaping, they were the more at leisure to meditate on God’s works, and to acquaint themselves with his will. 5th, Another reason also is given here, That the poor of thy land may eat. God gave a special blessing to the sixth year, whereby it brought forth the fruit of three years; and in years of so great plenty, men are generally more negligent in their reaping, and therefore, the relics are more. So that in this appointment God had in view a more comfortable provision for the poor. It was likewise a curb to avarice, and habituated them to the exercise of humanity to their slaves, and even beasts. In like manner with thy vineyard and olive-yard — Thou shalt not prune nor dress them, nor gather and appropriate to thy own use what they shall produce, but shalt leave them to the poor.

Verse 12
Exodus 23:12. The seventh day thou shalt rest — This command is here repeated lest any should think the weekly rest might cease when the whole year was consecrated to rest. There were three sorts of sabbaths to the Jews, 1st, Of days: 2d, Of years, namely, the seventh year: 3d, Of weeks of years, namely, the jubilee. And all these are types of the eternal rest in heaven, where pain and sorrow shall never enter.

Verse 13
Exodus 23:13. In all things be circumspect — We are in danger of missing our way on the right hand and on the left, and it is at our peril if we do, therefore we have need to look about us. A man may ruin himself through mere carelessness, but he cannot save himself without great care and circumspection. Particularly since idolatry was a sin they were much addicted to, and would be greatly tempted to, they must endeavour to blot out the remembrance of the gods of the heathen, and must disuse all their superstitious forms of speech, and never mention them but with detestation. In Christian schools and academies, (for it is in vain to think of reforming the play-houses,) it were to be wished that the names and stories of the heathen deities, or demons rather, were not so commonly and familiarly used.

Verse 14
Exodus 23:14. The passover, pentecost, and feast of tabernacles, in spring, summer, and autumn, were the three times appointed for their attendance; not in winter, because travelling was then uncomfortable; nor in the midst of their harvest.

Verse 17
Exodus 23:17. All thy males — All that were of competent years, and health, and strength, and at their own disposal. It is probable, servants were exempt: for none was to appear without an offering: but most of these had nothing to offer.

Verse 19
Exodus 23:19. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk — It is remarkable that this command, extraordinary as it is, is repeated Exodus 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21, and that, as here, in connection with the offering of the first-fruits. Hence it has been conjectured that it has a reference to the payment of these fruits, and to some superstitious practices which the Pagans used on these occasions, who were wont, it seems, when they had gathered in all the fruits of the earth, to boil a kid in its mother’s milk, and “to sprinkle the trees, and fields, and gardens, with the broth in a magical manner, to make them more fruitful the following year.” See Dr. Cudworth, On the Lord’s Supper, page 14. Some, however, with an appearance of probability, take this for a prohibition against offering any animal in sacrifice when it was milky and unformed, or before it was eight days old, till which time it was to be left with its dam, Exodus 22:30. And others, again, consider the precept as being chiefly intended, like many other of God’s laws, to prevent cruelty toward the creatures, and to inculcate a mild and tender disposition.

Verse 20-21
Exodus 23:20-21. Behold, I send an Angel before thee — The Angel of the covenant: accordingly, the Israelites, in the wilderness, are said to tempt Christ. It is promised that this blessed Angel should keep them in the way, though it lay through a wilderness first, and afterward through their enemies’ country; and thus Christ has prepared a place for his followers. Beware of him, and obey his voice; provoke him not — It is at your peril if you do; for my name — My nature, my authority; is in him.

Verse 25-26
Exodus 23:25-26. He shall bless thy bread and thy water — And God’s blessing will make bread and water more refreshing and nourishing than a feast of fat things, and wines on the lees, without that blessing. And I will take sickness away — Either prevent it or remove it. Thy land shall not be visited with epidemical diseases, which are very dreadful, and sometimes have laid countries waste. The number of thy days I will fulfil — And they shall not be cut off in the midst by untimely deaths. Thus hath godliness the promise of the life that now is.

Verse 27-28
Exodus 23:27-28. I will send my fear before thee — And they that fear will soon flee: I will strike a terror into the inhabitants of Canaan, which shall facilitate the conquest of them, Joel 2:9-10. I will send hornets before thee — Thus Joshua observes, (Joshua 24:12,) that the Amorites were driven out, not by the sword and bow of the Israelites, but by the sting of these hornets, which are a kind of wasps, only larger and fiercer than the ordinary wasp. Some explain the word hornet metaphorically, I will send my terror before thee as a hornet, it appearing to them improbable that a parcel of insects should drive out a nation. But they are fully confuted by Bochart, who produces many instances of nations being forced to leave their country by these and such like contemptible creatures, appealing to the testimony of Herodotus, Appianus, and Strabo. And he particularly observes, that the sting of this sort of wasp, called a hornet, is of all others the most pernicious; for it seldom stings a man, as Pliny says, (lib. 11. c. 21,) without throwing him into the rage of a fever.

Verse 29
Exodus 23:29. Lest the land be desolate — The Israelites were not numerous enough to people all the land immediately. Providence had likewise another end in view in suffering some of the Canaanites to remain in the land: they were to prove Israel, and show whether they would hearken unto the commandment of the Lord, 3:4. And the beast of the field multiply — The wild beasts from Arabia Deserta made frequent inroads into Canaan, in quest of prey, and were not to be driven out but by continual hunting.

Verse 32-33
Exodus 23:32-33. Thou shalt make no covenant with them — Thou shalt give no toleration to idol-worship, nor suffer it to be introduced into thy territories. Thou shalt make no league with them, either civil or religious. They shall not dwell in thy land — Unless they renounce their idolatry, which is plainly understood; for, upon their becoming proselytes to the Jewish religion, they might dwell among them, and were called the strangers. If thou serve — Thou wilt serve, this will be the fruit of thy cohabitation with them. It will be a snare unto thee — Will bring great calamities upon thee, and, at last, be thy ruin, which accordingly came to pass.