Israel reached Sinai in the third month after a journey of at least six weeks, in the course of which they travelled about 200 miles; they stayed there nearly a year (Num. 10:11). Moses’ first stay in the Mount was probably brief. He was to remind the people that the God of the Covenant had delivered them from Egypt, and to offer them the status of a unique people—a kingdom of priests and a holy nation—upon condition of obedience (verses 3–6). We note: (i) While the emphasis is naturally on the recent deliverance by virtue of which Jehovah as their divine Deliverer claimed them as His people (20:2), this was because of the Abrahamic covenant (2:24; 3:6; 6:8). The Mosaic covenant rests on the Abrahamic. (ii) The condition, “if ye will obey my voice indeed”, is not new. Abraham’s faith was constantly tested in the furnace of obedience (Gen. 22:18; 26:5).
The claim which is often made that the Abrahamic covenant was unconditional while the Mosaic was conditioned on obedience, finds no support in Scripture. God’s first word to Abram was a Command: “Get thee out of thy country … unto a land that I will show thee” (Gen. 12:1). Abram obeyed this command. The performance of the rite of circumcision was made an indispensable condition to covenant blessing (Gen. 17). Abram performed it at once. The claim that the Abrahamic covenant was “unconditional” has dangerous implications; for it suggests an antithesis between faith and obedience which is not warranted in Scripture. Paul joins the two together, when he speaks of the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). The condition, “if ye will obey my voice”, is merely the echo, we may say, of Genesis 2:16, “and the Lord God commanded the man”. The reply of the people, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do”, was the oath of allegiance of a loyal people to its ruler or king. They did not realize all that it involved, nor how unable they were to keep the law of God. Their words may show self-confidence and self-righteousness. But God’s requirement has always been perfect obedience (Gen. 3:11). And the law which so stresses this requirement also contains and unfolds that system of expiation by sacrifice by means of which the penitent sinner may find forgiveness and acceptance with his God.
This wonderful scene at Sinai was the fulfilment of the “sign” given to Moses (3:12) and it must have given him great joy and encouragement. How Moses sanctified the people we do not know, if more was involved than the two things which are mentioned, both of which were important: (i) they washed their garments as symbolic of cleansing; (ii) they were to practise continence (verse 15).
The second requirement is especially noteworthy, when we remember how prominently sensuous and orgiastic rites figured in the religions of the peoples with whom Israel had already come into contact, and of those among whom they were soon to dwell. The religion of Israel is not ascetic. Marriage is both normal and lawful. But the Old Testament draws the golden mean between celibacy and sensuality. Especially is this the case with acts of worship, from which the sensual and sexual is rigidly excluded. This is a remarkable evidence that the religion of Israel was of supernatural origin.
“And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai” (verse 20). The glory of the Lord had already been manifested repeatedly (16:10). But this Theophany surpasses them all. Fire is the special sign of His Presence (3:2; 14:24; 24:17; 40:38). The fire is both consuming and refining (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29). The holiness of God, and His separation in holiness are especially stressed. He is in the midst of His people, but apart from them. The awful majesty of the scene is referred to repeatedly by Moses (Deut. 4:5; 9:10, 15; 10:4; 18:16).
The Decalogue (20) opens with “And God spake all these words, saying”. The scene was both terrifying and unparalleled (Deut. 4:32, 33). The fact that the Decalogue was uttered by the voice of God Himself, without any intermediary, human or angelic, is a proof of its unique and enduring importance (Matt. 3:17). This is further stressed by the fact that God Himself wrote the “ten words” on tablets of stone (24:12; 32:15 f.; 34:1 f.; Deut. 10:2, 4). They were not written on clay tablets, nor on the scroll of a book. The “two tables (tablets) of stone” are repeatedly referred to, and they constitute the “testimony” (Exod. 31:18; 32:15; 40:20). Hence the ark in which they were placed was “the ark of the testimony”, and the tabernacle was “the tabernacle of the testimony”. The close connection between law and grace is illustrated symbolically by the fact that the mercy-seat was immediately above the testimony which was placed in the ark (Lev. 16:13).
There were two tables. How the laws of the Decalogue were divided between them, we are not told. The fact that the first four consist of duties to God, the rest of duties to man, would constitute a logical and impressive division. That the duties to God precede the duties to man is both natural and necessary. It is the only proper order. Only those who love God can truly love their fellow-men. The great defect in much humanitarian and philanthropic work lies in this, that it tends to make a religion of social service: to ignore the first table of the Law and to make a cult of the second. The true philanthropy of the second table derives both incentive and directive from the first.
The First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” This clearly means that Israel is to worship Jehovah, and Him only (Deut. 6:4 f.). Does it deny the existence of other gods (monotheism) or merely prohibit their worship (monolatry)? The answer is given in such passages as Genesis 1; 24:3; Exodus 20:11, which describe the God of Israel as the Creator of heaven and earth. The Old Testament writers, of course, recognize that the nations, and often even Israel herself, worshipped “other gods”. But again and again they point out how empty, vain, and sinful is such worship. The people gathered at Sinai have just had a wonderful demonstration of the impotence of the gods of Egypt (12:12). Moses’ estimate of such gods is given quite clearly in Deuteronomy 4:28. They are “no-gods”, they are “vanities” (Deut. 32:21), while Jehovah is the creator of heaven and earth (Deut. 4:35, 39; 6:4; 10:14; cf. Exod. 31:17). Yet, on the other hand, the appeal which they make to men is due to the fact that the worship given to these vanities is really offered to “demons”, to Satan and his angels (Deut. 32:17; Ps. 106:37). This is made especially clear in 1 Corinthians 10:20. The idol is “nothing”, but the worship rendered to it is given to “demons” (cf. Eph. 6:12) and the powers of darkness are very real and terrible (1 Pet. 5:8) as well as subtle (2 Cor. 11:14). To many, perhaps the vast majority of the people, these gods doubtless seemed very real, and they were at best only monolaters. This is shown by the sin of Baal-peor (Num. 25:1–9) when Israel turned aside to the licentious and idolatrous worship of strange gods. 2 Kings 17:33, “they feared the Lord and served their own gods”, illustrates very clearly what is forbidden in this commandment. But the teaching of the Pentateuch is definitely monotheistic.
The Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not make … thou shalt not bow down to.” The prohibition of idolatry is most explicit. This is the next to the longest of the commandments. No “likeness” of any visible object is to be made, nor is anything material to be worshipped. The language is very definite. Deuteronomy 4:15–40 is the best interpretation of it. At Sinai they saw no form or similitude: they heard only the Voice. Therefore all attempts at visible representation of the invisible God are strictly forbidden. But that this does not prohibit every form of artistic representation in connection with the worship of the invisible God is indicated by the fact that the figures of cherubim were placed on the ark and used on the veil and curtain of the holy of holies; and that the golden candlestick was to have flowers and cups like almond-blossoms (25:18, 33).
No commandment of the Decalogue was more frequently or flagrantly violated and disregarded than this one. Jeroboam’s calves became a symbol of the apostasy of the Northern Kingdom. The use of images is destructive of true spiritual religion (Isa. 44:9–20). All idolatry is condemned by the fact that the idol is the work of men’s hands (Hos. 8:6). To worship the idol is to worship what man has made, and put it in the place of God. But the God of Israel is a “jealous God”. He demands exclusive worship. He will not share His rights with any other.
It is this exclusiveness of the religion of the Old Testament and of the New Testament which has made the devout Jew and the true Christian the objects of hatred and persecution in every age. The early Christians would not have been persecuted for worshipping Jesus as God had they not insisted that “they be no gods which are made with hands” (Acts 19:26). The great error in the study of Comparative Religion to-day lies in the fact that most of its exponents emphasize the resemblances between the religion of the Bible and the ethnic faiths, and ignore or minimize the differences. Yet the resemblances are of minor importance, while the differences are of fundamental and supreme importance.
“Them that love Me.” Love and fear are master motives. Fear of punishment alone keeps those who hate God from breaking His Law. Love constrains those who love Him to obey Him; and their sins will be sins of ignorance and of frailty, for which atonement is possible and is provided. The basic demand of the entire Decalogue is obedience. Neither love nor fear is directly commanded, both are appealed to as motives for obedience.
The Third Commandment: The taking of the name of God in vain involves not only the false, but also the irreverent or trifling use of it. It does not prohibit the taking of an oath in a judicial or religious manner (e.g. Num. 30; Deut. 6:13; Joshua 9:19; 1 Kings 2:23 f.) and the same is true of the New Testament. Study Matthew 5:34 in the light of Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 11:31; Galatians 1:20.
The Fourth Commandment: “Remember the sabbath day.” The form of this commandment is unique and striking. “Remember” means more than “keep in mind”. It seems clearly to carry us back to Genesis 2:1–3. God’s resting on the seventh day is the reason that man should keep it holy. It seems probable that the observance of the sabbath had been almost forgotten in Egypt, and we find only meagre traces of it in the patriarchal history. But the word “remember” indicates that this is no new command, but one which goes far back into the history of the race. “Six days shalt thou labour.” It is the six days of labour which entitle a man to the rest of the seventh. It is because he has been so largely engrossed in the affairs of the world for six days that man needs the rest and worship of the sabbath.
“Thou shalt not do any work.” This command is purely negative. But it would be a mistake to infer that the Jewish sabbath was meant to be a day of idleness. Since it had a special divine sanction, it was the Lord’s day. In the light of such passages as Deuteronomy 4:9–14; 6:7–9; 11:18–23; 31:19, 30; 32:44, it is obvious that this day would be pre-eminently the time for meditation on, and instruction in, holy and heavenly things, for the people, and especially for their rulers (Joshua 1:8; Deut. 17:18 f.).
To the faithful Israelite the sabbath was a “delight” (Isa. 58:13). To the ungodly it was weariness and waste of time (Amos 8:5). And the same is true of the Christian sabbath to-day. Desecration of the Lord’s day paves the way to the breaking of every other commandment of the Decalogue. Keeping it holy is one of the best means of promoting holy living. The sabbath was made for man, and it is of vital importance to man. It is noteworthy that this is the longest of all the commandments.
The Fifth Commandment: “Honour thy father and thy mother.” This command properly stands first in the second table, duties to man. For in all our social relationships the home is of first importance. The honouring of parents implies first of all the recognition of their God-given authority. The words “and thy mother” indicate the high position of women under the law of Sinai. The parents are to teach and train their children, to pass on to them in all its fullness the precious heritage of truth which God has entrusted to them (see above). The home is the place for instruction, especially in matters of faith and duty. The Old Testament contains many examples of parents who failed to train their children, and of children who failed to obey their parents. Yet this is the “first commandment with promise” (Eph. 6:2); and the Bible has many examples of faithful parents and obedient children. True piety and true patriotism are nurtured in the true home. The readiness of many parents to shift to the day-school and to the Sunday-school many or most of their duties and responsibilities as parents, and the readiness of such institutions or of the State to assume or even to claim this responsibility, have in them elements of serious danger.
The Sixth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” This is the first of three commandments which are brief and entirely unqualified. Consequently, it is important to ascertain the exact meaning and use of the word “kill”. The Authorized Version renders ten different Hebrew words by the one word “kill”. The word used here occurs about fifty times in the Old Testament, and is more frequently rendered by “murder(er)” or “slay(er)”. More than half of its occurrences are in Numbers 35; Deuteronomy 4:41, 42; Joshua 20 and 21, i.e. in passages which refer to the cities of refuge. This makes it quite plain that what is prohibited is murder. This interpretation is in harmony with the teaching of the Old Testament as a whole, which requires capital punishment for certain crimes (Gen. 9:6; Exod. 21:12, etc.) and also approves of “lawful” war (e.g. Deut. 20; Judges 6:16).
While the New Testament places special emphasis on the duty of love, even to our enemies (Matt. 5:44), it does not radically change the Old Testament interpretation of this Commandment. It does not teach that peace between good and evil is possible (Matt. 10:34 f.) And “If magistrates, as we learn from the thirteenth chapter of Romans, are armed with a right or power of life and death over their own citizens, they certainly have the right to declare war in self-defence” (Charles Hodge).
The Seventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” This commandment deals with the greatest menace to the home, unchastity. Strictly interpreted, the word “adultery” means the violation of the exclusive right of the husband to the affection of his wife. Its primary aim is to prevent a married woman from bearing to her husband children that are not his. By implication it forbids “all unchaste thoughts, words and actions”. That the mutual love of husband and wife should be made the figure and type of the relation in which God stands to His people (Isa. 54:5; Hos. 2:19 f.; cf. Eph. 5:21–33; Rev. 21:2) gives us the best possible illustration of the ideal marriage. The prevalence of divorce, the ease with which it can be obtained, is one of the greatest perils of our modern world.
The Eighth Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” Here we have the clear recognition of the right of private ownership of property. It is directed primarily, of course, against the lawless individual. But it applies also and equally to the “soulless” corporation, the “boss-controlled” labour union, and the “totalitarian” State.
The Ninth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” That the Israelites were acquainted with the principles and methods of orderly legal procedure is clear from such passages as Genesis 23 and Exodus 18. False witness was severely punished (Deut. 19:16, 19). In many cases it involved the breaking of the Third Commandment also. By implication it enjoins the speaking of truth at all times, and forbids all falsehood and dishonesty.
The Tenth Commandment: “Thou shalt not covet.” This final command is in a sense a summary of the five that precede it. For the sin of covetousness may enter into them all, and lead to the breaking of them all. Perhaps it is for this reason that so many details are given. Nothing that a man has is safe from the hand of the covetous, if it be in his power to secure it. Nothing can wreck the happiness of a man more effectually than failure to be content with the things that he has (Heb. 13:5). Envy can make a man’s choicest possessions seem mean and contemptible in his eyes, and fill his life with bitterness. “Thou shalt not covet … anything that is thy neighbour’s” is a most impressive conclusion to this part of the Decalogue.
Looking back over these Commandments, we observe that while usually expressed in negative terms, they all imply or involve a positive attitude. In Deuteronomy, which is largely concerned (5–28) with repeating, expounding, and applying it, we find “love” repeatedly demanded. The first table of the Decalogue is summed up in the words of Deuteronomy 6:5, and the second in Leviticus 19:18, 34, i.e. in terms of love.
The immediate effect of the stupendous spectacle which accompanied the proclaiming of the Decalogue was to inspire the people with fear, which Moses told them was to keep them from sinning. The word “fear” deserves careful study, for in the Bible it gravitates between the extremes of abject terror and holy and reverent love. Moses loved God: yet he said, “I exceedingly fear and quake”. Not a little of our religious worship to-day is marked by the lack of reverent awe. We are tempted to be too “familiar” with God. Love, however ardent, will always be reverential. Jesus called His disciples “friends” and “brethren”. But Peter and Paul called themselves His “bondservants”; and while the simple name “Jesus” occurs very frequently in the Gospels and less frequently in Acts, it is quite rare in the rest of the New Testament.
There has been a marked tendency in recent years to minimize the importance of the Decalogue. To the critics, of course, who see in it merely a brief code of laws which reflects the gradual growth of moral and religious ideas and ideals in Israel, it can have little or no permanent and divine authority.
According to those, on the other hand, who set the Gospel in sharp contrast with the Law, the Decalogue is not intended for the present Church Age. This is, they tell us, the dispensation of grace; and the Old Testament law is Jewish and concerns the Kingdom and not the Church. But in the history of the Church the Decalogue has always, especially since the Reformation, occupied an important place in Christian education. The great Catechisms of Protestantism, such as Luther’s, the Heidelberg, and the Westminster Shorter and Longer Catechisms, have all stressed the Ten Commandments as of permanent and binding validity. They used to be memorized in the home and the Sunday-school; and they were recited in public worship much more frequently than to-day. And because the solemn “Thou shalt not” of the Law of God, with its clear and sharp distinction between right and wrong is so seldom heard, an easy-going system of morals which has few if any blacks and whites but consists largely of the greys of expediency and self-interest, has become popular even among Christians.
Christians need constantly to remind themselves that love is not an easy-going substitute for law, but the fulfilling of the Law (Rom. 13:10); and that the Law is needed both as a warning to those who are tempted to sin and as a pattern for those who are striving after righteousness. The sense in which Jesus regarded the Law as “fulfilled” in the Gospel is made appallingly plain in the Sermon on the Mount (e.g. Matt. 5:21 f.); and His summary of the Decalogue in terms of love to God and love to man (Matt. 22:37–40) makes it a counsel of perfection for all men, since even the most advanced in spiritual growth cannot hope to keep it perfectly.
The mention of the altar immediately after the proclaiming of the Decalogue is significant. The very rigour of the Law, and the terrifying holiness of the Law-giver, shows the necessity of expiation. Sacrifice may be offered wherever God manifests Himself. But such worship is to be of the simplest character; earth or unhewn stones are to be used, and every thing indecorous or suggestive is to be avoided.
The Book of the Covenant (21–23:19) contains a large number of statutes which Israel is to observe. That they are of less permanent nature than the Decalogue is indicated by the fact that they deal first of all with slavery, i.e. with an institution which was of great importance in ancient times but which is now recognized as contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. Yet is may be noted that even the New Testament does not expressly condemn it, though it teaches principles with which it is incompatible. Cf. Paul’s Epistle to Philemon.
The laws in this Code are very varied, dealing first with persons and then with property. Many of them are repeated and elaborated in the subsequent legislation. Some of them deal with matters of which Paul says it is “a shame even to speak”; and the necessity of stating them indicates something of the depravity and hardness of heart which the Law as the symbol of the moral government of God was unable to overcome (Rom. 8:3). The Code deals also with ceremonial and ritual: the sabbatic year, the annual feasts, first fruits, leaven, blood. It closes with the blessed promise that an Angel shall guide the people and bring them safely to their destination; and also with a solemn warning against all contamination with the peoples of the land which the Lord will destroy before them.
The covenant is then solemnly ratified by sacrifice and the sprinkling of blood (24:3–8). Then the leaders of Israel go up into the Mount to partake of a solemn feast of communion, like the peace offerings provided for by the Law.
The statement that they “saw” God must be interpreted in the light of the command not to “come nigh” (verses 1 f.) and the explanation given in verse 10, which describes only the glory which constituted as it were His footstool. Moses later reminds the people that they saw no “similitude” (Deut. 4:12). Only Moses was permitted to do this (Num. 12:8; cf. Deut. 34:10). Yet even this must be interpreted in terms of Exodus 33:18–23 and John 1:18.
 Allis, O. T. (1951). God Spake by Moses: An Exposition of the Pentateuch (pp. 72–81). Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.