Commentary on Exodus 19:1-6, 20:1-17
My teacher James Arne Nestingen once said, “Every preacher should preach through the Ten Commandments once every three years.”
Ideally, a sermon series on the Decalogue would run twelve weeks — one week to proclaim the theological context of the law, ten weeks for the commandments themselves, and a final week to proclaim the paradox that we are freed from the law in order to make ourselves subject to the neighbor in love (see Galatians 5:1-12). Ideally.
But the realities of the calendar often impinge on ideals. So, the way that the Narrative Lectionary lays out the summer of 2018 allows for only four Sundays on the Ten Commandments. The first week is intended to provide the theological and narrative context for the law. The second week is devoted to Exodus 20:3-11, which is the first table of the Decalogue — those laws that govern our relationship with God.
The third week’s text is Exodus 20:12-16 — which includes most of the second table of the law, those laws that govern our relationships with each other. And the fourth week is devoted solely to the coveting commandment(s). The decision to have a single Sunday just for the coveting commandment(s) may seem odd. The reason for this choice is to emphasize that so many of our sins start with our desires. And, of course, congregations may exercise their freedom in Christ and change or adapt any of these decisions to the local context.
As is well known, there are three major ways of dividing and numbering the Ten Commandments. The following chart summarizes those three systems.
|1. I am the Lord your God|
|2. No other Gods(and no graven images)||1. No other Gods (and no graven images)||1. No other Gods|
|2. No graven images|
|3. Do not misuse God’s name||2. Do not misuse God’s name||3. Do not misuse God’s name|
|4. Keep the Sabbath||3. Keep the Sabbath||4. Keep the Sabbath|
|5. Honor father & mother||4. Honor father & mother||5. Honor father & mother|
|6. Do not murder||5. Do not murder||6. Do not murder|
|7. Do not commit adultery||6. Do not commit adultery||7. Do not commit adultery|
|8. Do not steal||7. Do not steal||8. Do not steal|
|9. Do not bear false witness against a neighbor||8. Do not bear false witness against a neighbor||9. Do not bear false witness against a neighbor|
|10. Do not covet your neighbor’s spouse or house||9. Do not covet your neighbor’s spouse||10. Do not covet your neighbor’s spouse or house|
|10. Do not covet your neighbor’s house|
The Ten Commandments occur twice in the Old Testament — they are found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The major difference in the two versions of commandments comes in the motive clause of the Sabbath commandment. In Exodus, the motive for keeping the Sabbath is based on God’s blessing and will for creation: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it” (Exodus 20:11).
In Deuteronomy, the motive for keeping the Sabbath is based on Israel’s experience of rescue from bondage: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15). The former emphasizes the Sabbath as blessing, the latter emphasizes the Sabbath as an institution of justice — the first fair labor law.
Finally, the Gospel reading for all four weeks is the same: Matthew 22:34-40. In this passage, Jesus (following early Rabbinic tradition) declares that two commandments are the greatest: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
This reading has two points. The first point is that the first table of the law can be summarized: Love the Lord your God. And the second table of the law can be summarized: Love your neighbor as yourself. The second point is that the purpose of the commandments is love. We do not keep the commandments for our own pleasure or benefit. Rather, we keep them as a way to love God and neighbor.
Preachers who are looking for other resources on the Ten Commandments would do well to consider the following:
- Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism” — section on the Decalogue
- Patrick Miller, The Ten Commandments, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009)
- Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, The Truth about God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999)
Week 1: May 27, 2018
Preaching texts: Exodus 19:1-6; 20:1-2; accompanying text: Matthew 22:34-40
Nineteen comes before twenty
My friend David Lose likes to describe the relationship between “law”and “gospel”in the Ten Commandments by saying, “Nineteen comes before Twenty.”The point is that the relationship God establishes with the chosen people comes first — it is literally primary. The law, with its ethical demands on our behavior, comes second — it is literally secondary. In Exodus 19 God says, “I bore you on eagles’wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples … you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation”(19:3b-6a).
The start of Exodus 20, verses 1-2 — what most Christians refer to as the “prologue” to the Ten Commandments, but which Jews consider the “First Word” — scores the same point: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”(Exodus 20:2).
God first establishes the relationship with us. Only then does God make a claim on our behavior.
There are two crucial points here — two things about the law that are good to know.
The first is that God does not give the law as a means to salvation. To use the law to earn salvation, to win your soul’s way into heaven, is like trying to build a faster-than-the-speed-of-light spaceship or a time-travel machine out of plywood. It’s not possible. And neither is it possible to earn salvation through the law. God does not give the law as a way to establish relationship with the people. God establishes the relationship and then gives the law.
That leads to the second point about the law. It isn’t about “us,” per se. God does not give you and me the law in order to perfect us or even to make us a better “you”or a better “me.” The law is not about us — it is about our neighbors. God gives you the law, not so that you can get more spiritual or have your best life now, but so that your neighbor can have her best life now.
Notice how many times God made this point in the Ten Commandments: Do not bear false witness against your neighbor. Do not covet your neighbor’s house. Do not covet your neighbor’s spouse. When it is the day of rest, make sure that all of your neighbors — from yours sons and daughters right down to your sheep and oxen — get to rest just like you do. And, oh yes, the elderly — “your father and your mother” — are still your neighbors as well.
Paul makes the same point in Galatians: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Paul isn’t saying that if you have warm cozy feelings about your neighbor, then you’ve done all that you have to do. Rather, the word that is translated here as “summed up” is similar to the modern economic metaphor of the bottom line, and that can help us understand Paul’s message. Paul is saying: The bottom line of the entire law is that it is about loving the neighbor.
And that is good news. Good news for my neighbor. God loves them so much that God tells me not to kill, steal, commit adultery, and so on. And good news for me. God loves me so much that God tells my neighbor not to kill, steal, and so on.
One last point: The Ten Commandments are for free people, for people whom God has freed: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” “I bore you on eagles’ wings.” These commandments are not meant to limit our freedom by telling us what things we are not free to do (although these laws do precisely that). These commandments are what lives freed in Christ look like. In order to love God’s law, we must always remember that through Christ’s death and resurrection we have been freed from the power of sin. And now that we are free, the law shows us what that free life looks like.
Week 2: June 3, 2018
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.