Exodus 20:1-17: The Ten Commandments - Vertical
Our focus is the Ten Commandments or the Ten Words. Just to jog our memory, here they are in brief: (1) No other gods. (2) No idols. (3) Do not misuse the LORD's name. (4) Keep the Sabbath. (5) Honor your parents. (6) Do not murder. (7) Do not commit adultery. (8) Do not steal. (9) Do not give false testimony. (10) Do not covet.
The first four are directly concerned with our God relationship. They are vertical in nature. The last six are socially oriented and might be described as horizontal, though no doubt they also impact our relationship with God.
As we have observed, the setting and context of the giving of the commandments is extremely important. Under the leadership of Moses Yahweh had brought the Israelites out of Egypt and to Himself on Mount Sinai. Yahweh had descended upon Mount Sinai in a fiery cloud to meet with all of the people. Moses was not on top of the mountain but at the base with the people when Yahweh spoke the commandments. Yahweh spoke/revealed Himself and His will to all Israel. All of the book of Exodus as well as the event of exodus have been moving toward this Mount Sinai meeting.
What is so important about this Mount Sinai meeting? It helps me to think about it this way. The exodus was something that Yahweh did for Israel. They were in bondage and could not free themselves. Yahweh acted for them in delivering them from Pharaoh. There was very little that they did other than watch the mighty judgments of Yahweh and receive the freedom that Yahweh accomplished for them.
Sinai, on the other hand, reveals that Yahweh desired to do something in and through Israel. Yahweh's intention was to do more than for; it was to transform the Israelites, to do something in and through them, to make them a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation (19:4-6). It was through Yahweh's self-giving, in particular Yahweh's self-giving through the commandments, that this transformation would take place.
But here on Sinai a higher level of cooperation is called for than in the exodus. Here, Israel must obey rather than merely watch and rejoice in what Yahweh was doing for them. For Israel truly to receive Yahweh's self-giving, Israel must obey the voice of Yahweh; the people must keep the words of Yahweh. If they abide by Yahweh's words they will continue to enjoy the Presence of Yahweh. Through obedience to Yahweh's transforming word they will indeed be made into a priestly nation that mediates Yahweh's Presence to the rest of creation, including all the nations. Exodus is what God did for Israel. Sinai is what God did in Israel, so that God might work through Israel to redeem all peoples. What is important to note is that the purpose of exodus was Sinai, the purpose of liberation was transformation into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
The self-giving of Yahweh is expressed succinctly and profoundly in 20:2, "I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." We have seen the self-declaring phrase, "I am Yahweh" before, most notably in chapters three and six where Yahweh revealed His Name to Moses. Prior to this point in the narrative it was always simply "I am Yahweh." But here on Sinai a development takes place. Yahweh declared, "I am Yahweh, your God." The One Who IS, the One whose Presence determines reality, the One whose Presence makes all the difference in the world, the One who is more real than Pharaoh, declared "I'm yours." The One Who Is, the One who is utterly free and beyond manipulation, had given Himself to Israel. The evidence of this self-giving is two fold: the deliverance from Egyptian slavery and this Sinai meeting itself. It was Yahweh's gracious self-giving and nothing else that brought forth the exodus. It was Yahweh's continued self-giving that has brought about this Sinai meeting.
Having declared God’s self as "Yahweh your God, who brought you out" Yahweh proceeded to issue the ten commandments. Structurally and theologically the commandments hang on who Yahweh is and what Yahweh has done. This declaration with a "therefore" added to it should be heard before each commandment, for example, "I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, Therefore, you shall #1; I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, Therefore, you shall #2; I am Yahweh . . ., Therefore you shall #’s 3-10." God's saving self-giving includes expectations if the relationship is to continue. Because of Who Yahweh Is and what Yahweh has done, Israel must respond with appropriate living. To receive Yahweh's self-giving Presence, Israel must put into practice the revealing, transforming words of Yahweh.
The first commandment, "no other gods," is the foundation to all the other commandments. If Israel would keep this one, they would keep the rest as well. It is a straight-forward enough commandment, but I think it is helpful to try to hear it in its ancient context. Remember, Israel lived in an extremely polytheistic world. There were all kinds of gods and most people worshipped more than one without anyone seeing it as a problem. Yahweh was telling Israel, "I and I alone am the One who saved you, therefore, you shall worship Me and Me alone." Yahweh's saving self-giving requires Israel's exclusive and complete serving self-giving. Notice that at this point there is no attempt to disprove theologically the existence of other gods. In the exodus Yahweh already demonstrated that HE IS (and by implication that the gods of at least Egypt are not). In their polytheistic world, Yahweh's salvation lays a claim upon Israel for exclusive and utter devotion.
This is helpful in our increasingly polytheistic world. In our day of religious pluralism, why worship only Christ? Because it is Christ and not another who saved us. Who brought you out of Egypt? Who died for your sins? Through whom did you experience God's forgiveness? Who gave you a new life? That is the One and only One worthy of your worship.
Whereas this counter to polytheism looks back to what Yahweh had done, Micah (4:1-5) and Isaiah (2:1-5) counter polytheism by looking forward to what God is going to do. The two prophets share a vision of "days to come" in which all the nations will come to Yahweh to worship Yahweh and learn Yahweh’s ways. In the meantime while the nations yet worship their own gods, both prophets encourage Israel to walk in the name of Yahweh their God. In the end it will become evident to all that Yahweh Is ("every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord," Phil 2:10-11, Rom 14:11; cf. Isa 25:43). Therefore, no matter how many gods/religions might be laying claims to legitimacy now, make sure you give yourself completely and only to Yahweh/Christ. Thus, since the beginning and the end belong to Christ, worship only Christ in the middle. Don't be fooled by the false claims of a god who isn't.
It has been suggested that commandments two, three, and four are ways to keep the first commandment. Not making idols includes not just idols of other gods, but also not fashioning any supposed images of Yahweh. In that day the way to worship, the way to be religious, was to make idols to represent one's gods. The effect of making an image of a god is to reduce that god to a human work, to bring that god down to a size that one can manipulate and use for favor. In forbidding Israel to make an idol to represent Him, Yahweh is declaring to Israel that He is irreducible and beyond manipulation. To have no other God but Yahweh means to give one's self to Yahweh rather than finding a way to possess/control Yahweh.
Yahweh's Name is not to be misused, it is not to be used lightly. This commandment is a prohibition against more than just profanity. Yahweh asserts that His Name is not to be used in a trivial manner. No "Oh my Yahweh's" when we stub our toe, forget our lunch, or see the cost of a Big Mac. Such use of the Divine Name is just too meaningless for Who Yahweh Is. Misuse of Yahweh's Name also includes tacking on Yahweh's Name to our personal agendas in an effort to legitimate them. A lot of selfish ambition attempts to nest in the coattails of Yahweh's Name. When it is not truly Yahweh's agenda, we have no right to put Yahweh's Name on it. When we do, we break the third commandment and we put ourselves above the Name of God.
Keep the Sabbath. This is the fourth and final vertical command. The Sabbath is to be a day of rest. It is to be a day given to Yahweh. Here, this command is grounded in creation - God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The point is, Sabbath rest is built into the very fabric of creation. Not to rest, and not to permit others to rest, is to go against this creation fabric. There are six days for caring for the provisions of life. Every seventh day a rest is to be taken from such work.
But this is no ordinary rest, for it is to be a day given to Yahweh, a holy day. This discipline will insure that all of life is rendered unto Yahweh. By practicing Sabbath keeping, by ceasing from the unending demands of work, by giving a day a week to Yahweh, Israel will learn that Yahweh is at the center of every week, and indeed, at the center of every day. It will be a weekly reminder that life is a gift of Yahweh, not a product of our own hands.
Through putting these words into practice Israel/the Church/we will find ourselves being transformed into the kingdom of priests and holy nation that God intends us to be. We will learn not to attempt to reduce Yahweh to being just another resource to manipulate and use towards our own agendas. These words will guard and insist upon the integrity of our relationship with God, they will press us towards holiness. In keeping them, we will discover that obedience brings life to the relationship, that His Presence is abiding. We will see ourselves being changed by the One who desires to do something in us and through us. We will become mediators of His Presence to all creation.
Obey the four, be changed to the core.