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.