Commentary on Exodus 20:3-11
The second week in this four-week series on the Ten Commandments is devoted to Exodus 20:3-11, which is the first table of the Decalogue — those laws that govern our relationship with God.
Preaching text: Exodus 20:3-11; accompanying text: Matthew 22:34-40
The first table — Tuned into God
Depending on which system for numbering and organizing the Ten Commandments one uses, this week the focus of worship and preaching in this series is commandments 1-3, or 2-4, or 1-4 (see Chart 1 above). But no matter which system one uses, here are the main points covered in the text:
- You shall have no other gods before me.
- You shall not make for yourself an idol … you shall not bow down to them or worship them.
- You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.
- Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy … you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male and female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.
These commandments, whether they are numbered as three commandments or four, are usually called the “first table” — the “vertical” table of those commandments that govern our relationship with God. These commandments point us toward God. They show that the goal of the life of faith is to be attuned to God. And they show us that in order to be tuned into God, we need to turn away from things that we would seek instead of God. And they show us that we are to use some of our time (the Sabbath) and to use God’s name in order to tune into God.
A few comments on each commandment.
First, the Ten Commandments start with the ultimate commandment — not to put anything else in our lives ahead of God. Positively, as both Moses (Deuteronomy 6:5) and Jesus (Matthew 22:34-40) say, this means to love God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our might (or mind). And when we fail to do this, our neighbors pay. When we center our lives around things other than God — whether it be money, fame, power, pleasure, beauty, even religion, or anything else — our neighbors will pay.
Second, this means not having idols in our lives. An idol can be anything we love, worship, or center our lives around that isn’t God. Luther wrote these famous words in his Large Catechism: “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress … That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.”
In a pluralistic society, we resist the idea that a person of faith might have to say “no” to some things in order to say “yes” to God. “Why can’t I just believe in God and other things, too? Why do I have to turn away from other gods?” But we cannot believe that 2 + 2 = 4 and that 2 + 2 = 5 at the same time. We cannot believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have created, redeemed, and empowered us for service and at the same time believe some other power has done these things. God demands we love God alone.
But we cannot do this — we cannot love God more than things or ourselves. We have many gods, many things that we love and trust more than God. So what then? Well, God has given us the divine name.
Third, the Lord has given us the divine name (in the Old Testament, YHWH, “The Lord”; in the New Testament, “The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”) in order that we might call upon God for forgiveness, sing out in thanksgiving and praise, and cry out for deliverance and healing. God’s name is poured out upon us in baptism. And the life of faith consists of learning to use God’s name properly.
Fourth, loving God means keeping the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day of worship to attend to God’s Word. A day for the gathering as a community of the forgiven who are sent in mission. A day for hearing the preaching of the Word and singing in praise. A day of fellowship, learning, and again as Luther put it, for the “mutual conversation and consolation of the saints.”
But the Sabbath is also a day of rest and justice. The Sabbath was the first fair labor law. Not only were the heads of households to rest, but also the working poor (sojourners?), slaves, and even the animals were to be given rest. Keeping the Sabbath, first and foremost, is about lives that are captured by a God who keeps faith with us and who keeps on intruding graciously into our lives.
The reason we keep the Sabbath, according to Deuteronomy, is that our people used to know what life was like when we had a lord named Pharaoh who did not allow days off. Put yourselves in the feet of the Exodus generation. For years they served Pharaoh, a burdensome master who gave no days off and when complaints arose, who said, “Now make bricks without straw.” God graciously intruded into that reality and said to the people, “You will no longer serve Pharaoh, you will serve me. And to serve me means that once every seven days, you, your kids, your workers, even your animals get the day off.” Why? Because God’s gracious intrusion into human existence was not a one-time event, but a regular, ritualized reality.
And this gracious reality extends beyond only one day a week. In the Old Testament laws, God offers a series of other sabbatical laws. Once every seven years, the land is given a rest — “the seventh year you shall let it rest … so that the poor of your people may eat.”
Notice that. God’s gracious intrusion now is ritualized over the course of years and it is for the sake of the poor. Once every seven years, all debts are to be forgiven God announced. Why? For the sake of charity and stewardship. God said this: “Give liberally and be ungrudging.” Likewise, every seven years slaves were to go free — God’s gracious intrusion to free those in chains. And every seven times seven years, all land was to return to its original family. God’s gracious intrusion to ensure that the means of life were not monopolized by the few.
Notice that keeping the Sabbath then, has to do with much more than one day a week. It is about an entire way of life. A way of life that is in keeping with the One who keeps faith with us.
Week 3: June 10, 2018
Preaching text: Exodus 20:12-16; accompanying text: Matthew 22:34-40
The second table: Turned toward the neighbor
As mentioned above, the Ten Commandments show us how a liberated people who have been freed by Jesus Christ from the powers of sin, the world, and self live a new life. Many modern people conceive of freedom as an end in and of itself. And many modern people also regard freedom as unimpeded access to any choice, as unlimited choice, as always keeping one’s options open. If you ask the stereotypically modern person, “What is freedom for?” you will likely get a blank stare. And if you ask a modern person, “What is it that free people may not ever do?” you will likely earn a shake of the head, roll of the eyes, and a scoff.
But the commandments are what divinely bestowed freedom looks like. Freedom is not when the powerful take whatever they want, but when we respect the property of others and we do our best to help them maintain it and retain it. Freedom is not when the strong dominate the weak, but when the bodies and lives of all — from the unborn, to the impoverished, to the handicapped, to the vulnerable, to the elderly — are protected and their rights are respected. Freedom is not the endless satisfaction of every sexual impulse, but the commitment of two people to each other. Christian freedom knows that within the bounds of a loving and committed marriage, there is more freedom to be experienced than there is in the lifestyle that does not commit to family.
As it was also mentioned above, the point of these laws are not to make the sinner’s soul into a self-help project, but rather to turn one neighbor towards there other. The point of the law is not self-improvement, but neighbor-improvement. Note that Jesus says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is the second greatest commandment. Jesus was quoting Leviticus 19:18b.
The purpose of the law is not “your best life now,” but rather “your neighbor’s best life now.” Because we are stuck in this fallen condition called sin, and because we are going to remain stuck in this condition until God unweaves all the fibers of creation and then reknits them in the new creation, God says to us, “For as long as you’re here in this condition, love your neighbor.”
We respond, “OK, God, we’re down with love. But, how do I love my neighbor?”
God says, “OK, let me be a little more explicit here. Make sure everyone gets one day off each week, take care of the elderly, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t have sex with someone else’s spouse, don’t hurt your neighbor with your words, don’t desire your neighbor’s stuff. That’s how you love your neighbor.”
Because the law isn’t about you. It’s about your neighbor. And God loves your neighbor so much that God gives you the law. And God loves you so much, that God gives your neighbor the exact same law.
In other words, in the second table of the Decalogue we find good news. Good news for free people. Good news for those we need help from a neighbor.
Week 4: June 17, 2018
Preaching text: Exodus 20:17; accompanying text: Matthew 22:34-40
The desires of the heart: Do not covet
We end this sermon series on the Ten Commandments with an entire week devoted to the coveting commandment.
The importance of the coveting commandment is signaled by the fact that it is the only one of the Ten Commandments that is repeated. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse.”
While I think that the most accurate way to number and divide the Ten Commandments is probably to count these two coveting commandments as a single command, as the Reformed tradition does, there is at least a spiritually significant point made by those traditions that count “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house”and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse” as separate commandments. And this point is a matter of emphasizing that many (perhaps most) big sins start when we set our gaze on something that belongs to another.
Two biblical examples.
First, King David. He was hanging out on the roof, his eyes fell upon Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, and boom! He wanted her. So he took her. As the king, he was already married and had plenty of access to women in the palace. But he wanted Bathsheba, too. So he took her. And then, when she turned up pregnant, he arranged for Uriah — and the entire military company he was leading — to be abandoned in the midst of the battle. They all were killed. And it all started with a little coveting (See 2 Samuel 11-12).
Second, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. This royal pair liked to garden. Or, at least, they liked to have a garden that their servants could work for them. Right near their palace, a faithful fellow named Naboth owned a vineyard. The king offered to buy the vineyard or swap the land for a better stretch of land. Naboth refused. So Jezebel arranged for false charges brought against Naboth and brought in two paid liars to testify falsely against Naboth. In the end, Ahab and Jezebel got what they wanted: Naboth dead and the vineyard a royal property. And it all started with a little coveting (See 1 Kings 21).
A friend of mine jokes about his own coveting heart, “If they make it, I want it.” I quoted that sentence one time while teaching about the coveting commandment at a church on a Sunday morning. One forgiven-sinner said, “Only one?”
The desires of our hearts will lead us astray. We are to love God. We are to love neighbor. We are not to desire our neighbor’s spouse or house.
And we cannot do it. Yes, we can develop all sorts of spiritual discipline and practices — prayer, meditation, service, fasting, accountability groups, and so on. These practices can help us curb the worst effects of our fallen nature. But we cannot do it.
So, in the end, two things. First, be aware of the incredible power of the heart’s desires. When you feel yourself desiring the wrong thing, pray. Call a friend and ask for help. Go see your pastor.
Second, remember, as it says in Romans, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift … For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works” (Romans 3:23-28).
Thanks be to God.
1 This chart may be reproduced for congregational use, with the following attribution: Chart courtesy of WorkingPreacher.org.