God Instructs His People

| Exodus 20:1-4,7-8,12-17; 24:4-8

Lesson Focus:  This lesson can help you live in obedience to God’s commands.

Be Loyal to God:  Exodus 20:1-4,7-8.

[1]  And God spoke all these words, saying,  [2]  "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  [3]  "You shall have no other gods before me.  [4]  "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  [7]  "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.  [8]  "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  [ESV]

[1-4, 7-8]  The Ten Commandments are rightly understood to be at the heart of the Mosaic Covenant, but if we are to grasp their true function, we must keep in mind the precise setting in which they are to be found. As has often been remarked, the Commandments were not given to Israel in Egypt so that by observing them they might free themselves from the oppression they were subjected to there. Rather the Commandments were given to the people who had already experienced the Lord’s salvation. They were given so that they would have guidance as to how they ought to conduct themselves, and so continue to enjoy the benefits He had provided for them and thus be capable of fulfilling the destiny the Lord intended for them, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation [19:6]. It is one of the recurring errors in theology to reverse the Scriptural order of events, and put Sinai before the Exodus; to take obedience to the Law as the basis of salvation rather than as the pattern of thankful dedication to the God of salvation. The Commandments fence Israel in to keep them from conduct which would mar their continued fellowship with God. They act as so many danger signs, warning of behavior that displeases God and undermines fellowship with Him. As time would show, the warnings are needed because of the inherent tendency of the human heart to wander off from the style of living that God expects. The overall thrust of the commandments is maintenance of the benefits they already had received and preparation for the task of witnessing to God’s grace that had been divinely extended to them. Though expressed negatively, the Commandments are a presentation of God’s gracious direction to His people, requiring that they show love to Him and to their fellows [see Matt. 22:37-40]. The theophany that has been described in chapter 19 was not the ultimate revelation that God gave of Himself to the Israelites. It clearly revealed His power, majesty and holiness, but God had not come just to overawe the people with His splendor, but to communicate to them His will so that they would know what sort of conduct was expected from them. Those who seek to serve the covenant King are not left to their own initiative as regards working out what pleases Him. And God spoke all these words [1] so that His people would be adequately informed as to how they should behave. In theological terms it is said that the Commandments reflect the moral law which is based on what the unchanging God is in Himself, and what He wishes to see prevailing in the world He has brought into existence. There is a structure in the Commandments. They focus first on the relationship between the subject and his King. It is only when that is on a proper footing that the basis has been laid for proper behavior towards our fellows. This is the invariable order in Scripture: true morality is founded on reverence towards God. We see this in the order of the petitions in the Lord’s prayer where the honor and majesty of God take precedence over human concerns [Matt. 6:9-13], and also in the reply of Jesus regarding the greatest commandment in the Law, where He placed our relationship with God first and that with our neighbor second [Matt. 22:34-40]. One other observation needed in connection with the commandments is that they are in the second person singular, You. These commands, though spoken to the nation as a whole, are addressed to each of them individually. The response that is required is a personal one. True loyalty to the King does not derive from a general, national response to His commands that is different from the aggregate of individual obedient responses from each of His subjects. The first commandment emphasizes the sovereignty of God. The second command prohibits the use of idols, which here refers to any representations of God Himself. That was how surrounding nations depicted their gods, but such a theology had no place in the worship of Israel because it represented a fundamental confusion of the creation with the Creator. The commandment is not a prohibition of art in general, but of all attempts to bring the divine into the realm of the perceptible. By denying the spiritual nature of God, the idol degrades God and misleads the worshipper into placing the divine on the same level as the world of ordinary experience. Far from being a help to worship, the idol sets up an insurmountable barrier to the refinement of human perception of what is spiritual. That is why there is an absolute ban on using the likeness of any natural being or phenomenon to represent God. The third commandment is about more than foul-mouthed profanity which is so prevalent today. Name refers to all that the Lord has revealed of Himself: His power, His love and His justice. Using His name in vain would then refer to presenting oneself as loyal to the God who has revealed Himself and yet attempting to pervert that revelation into a means of manipulating God. This was of the essence of heathen religions. Knowledge of the divine was seen as a way of enticing the gods into acting as the worshipper requested. Israel is reminded that their covenant King is not at their disposal. He is to be held in reverence and approached only in the way He has laid down. Misappropriation of His name would bring divine punishment, though how that would happen is not specified. The fourth and fifth commandments are the only ones that are expressed positively. The fourth commandment points to an on-going obligation to structure their time in a way that was patterned after the divine use of time and also to set apart part of it especially for God. Keep it holy points to that day being marked as out of the ordinary run of human activity and devoted to divine service. Sabbath comes from a root indicating ‘cessation’ or ‘rest’. It was a day on which the ordinary routines of life were suspended, not for idleness or mere recreation, but for particular consecration to divine service.

Be Respectful of Others:  Exodus 20:12-17.

[12]  "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.  [13]  "You shall not murder.  [14]  "You shall not commit adultery.  [15]  "You shall not steal.  [16]  "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.  [17]  "You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s."  [ESV]

[12-17]  The fifth commandment dealing with the family forms a bridge between those that relate to our relationship with God and those that are concerned with how we behave towards our neighbors. This commandment is not just a matter for young children, but presents the family as the foundation on which a well-ordered society has to be built. Honor requires that parents be treated publicly and privately with due respect as long as they live. The role of both father and mother is here clearly spelled out, and in large measure this challenges the caricature of Israelite society as male-dominated to such an extent that the role of women and mothers was devalued. Far from it. The status of father and mother had to be jointly acknowledged to preserve integrity of the family and also promote the well-being of society. When societies fail to observe the need to promote family life, they are sowing the seeds of their own downfall. There is attached to this commandment a particular promise. The nature of that promise as regards Israel is that they would enjoy to the full the blessings of the covenant by dwelling in the land God would give them. The sixth commandment reflects the general Old Testament teaching regarding the sanctity of life. Life is the gift of God and it is not at human disposal. The verb used refers to the killing of persons; it is never used of animals. Having guarded family life from internal disruption by the fifth commandment, the Lord now requires in the seventh commandment the relationship between husband and wife to be maintained with love and faithfulness. This too derives from the original creation order [Gen. 2:24]. Because the bond between the Lord and His people could also be compared to the marriage bond between husband and wife, adultery was often used to depict the way in which Israel turned away from Yahweh to worship other gods [Lev. 20:6-8]. The eighth commandment is You shall not steal [15]. All that exists belongs in the final analysis to God, but He has entrusted the stewardship of earth’s resources to particular individuals. Others are required to respect the way in which God has distributed His resources. To steal is to take unauthorized possession of what does not belong to one. There is an element of deception involved in the term. When theft is prevalent or unpunished, the life of the community is disrupted. The ninth commandment prohibits bearing false witness against your neighbor [16]. Again the covenant King directs the affairs of His people so that all is well-ordered within His realm. He prohibits deceitfulness in connection with evidence given in the judicial process. Testimony in court against a fellow covenant member must be in accordance with truth. Again disregard of the need for truth leads to a breakdown in the order of society. The requirement for truthfulness also applies to false statements in situations other than the law court. Slander and spreading false rumor were forbidden in Israel. Nor is it merely the positive action of speaking what is untrue that is condemned. Not speaking out when one is in possession of vital evidence is equally reprehensible. The last commandment extends the need for truthfulness from court proceedings into behavior in general. Covet describes a consuming desire to possess in a wrong way something belonging to another, this desire being stimulated by perception of the beauty or desirability of what is coveted. It is presented here as the last commandment because it points to the root of all breaches of the covenant as coming from wrong inner disposition. Rather there should be an attitude of contentment with what the Lord has placed at the disposal of His people. Covetous desires corrupt the inner life of an individual, and because our inner disposition is so often translated into overt actions, covetousness motivates many other sins [Mark 7:20-23]. Wrong desires enthrone in the heart what God has forbidden. They give what is desired greater priority in our living than God Himself or what He wants us to do or have. That is the essence of idolatry. We have to decide where our treasure is, for then our heart will be focused on that [Matt. 6:19-21].

Be Committed to Obedience:  Exodus 24:4-8.

[4]  And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel.  [5]  And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD.  [6]  And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar.  [7]  Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, "All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient."  [8]  And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, "Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words."  [ESV]

[4-8]  To show His people how serious He was in demanding their obedience, God sealed this covenant relationship with blood. This was the second main thing Moses had to do. After reading the law, He made sacrifices and then sprinkled the blood as a confirmation of the covenant. Following the second reading of the law, Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words [8]. As Moses did these things, he was careful to follow God’s instructions. The Bible repeats the basic phrase and Moses took three times, suggesting that the prophet went about his work deliberately. He was engaged in a solemn ritual. Moses also followed God’s instructions promptly. He sealed the covenant as quickly as he could, starting first thing the next morning. There is a practical lesson in this. When it comes to entering into a relationship with God, it is important not to delay. Moses started by building an altar, presumably according to the instructions given in Exodus 20:24-26. The altar, which represented God’s presence, was a place for making sacrifices. This was essential because sinners can only worship a holy God on the basis of a sacrifice. People worshiped God long before there was a temple, or even a tabernacle, but they never worshiped him without an altar. The altar Moses built was used for more than one kind of sacrifice. Initially these various sacrifices were offered by Israel’s young men, who served as a temporary priesthood until God appointed priests. One sacrifice was the burnt offering in which an entire animal was consumed by fire. Nothing was left; the whole offering was  given over to God. This costly sacrifice represented full atonement for sin and total dedication to God. The other sacrifice mentioned in these verses represented peace with God, and thus it was called the fellowship offering. Unlike the burnt offering, the fellowship offering was not consigned to the flames but was grilled until tender and then served for dinner. But before any of this could be done, the blood had to be drained. Blood from the fellowship offerings was carefully collected in large bowls and then sprinkled. This was the most important part of the ceremony. Moses took half the blood and sprinkled it on the altar. Then, after reading the Book of the Covenant, he took the other half and sprinkled it on the people. Why did he do this? What purpose did it serve to splatter the people with blood? The blood showed that the covenant was a matter of life or death. In the ancient world a covenant typically was sealed in blood to show what would happen if either party failed to comply. This was the symbolism of the covenant that God made with Abraham [Gen. 15]. God told Abraham to carve up sacrifices, separating the pieces into two rows. Then God, in the form of a burning torch, passed between the pieces. This was part of the custom. When people made a covenant (or ‘cut’ a covenant, as they said in those days), the parties passed between the severed animals. It was a way of saying that if they failed to keep the covenant they deserved to be dismembered, just like the animals they had sacrificed. The same pledge-to-death which played such a prominent role in the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant manifested itself in the inauguration of the Mosaic covenant. Animals were sacrificed. Then their blood was sprinkled on the people, and also on God, represented by His altar. Both parties were undertaking a covenant commitment. This covenant was not signed but was sealed in blood, which showed that the whole arrangement was a matter of life and death. The blood of the covenant held the threat of divine judgment for everyone who broke God’s law. At the same time, the blood was a sign of God’s mercy. God was not simply showing His people what would happen if they failed; He was also showing that there was a way for them to remain in His favor, even after they sinned. To put this another way, although the relationship God established with His people under Moses had a legal basis, it was a covenant of grace. This was shown by the sprinkling of the blood. First Moses sprinkled it on the altar of God, which showed that the people’s sins were forgiven. This is what a bloody altar always signifies: the forgiveness of sins. Atonement has been made; God has accepted a sacrifice as payment for sin. The blood was also a propitiation: it turned aside God’s wrath. Then the blood was sprinkled on the people. This showed that God had accepted their sacrifice and that they were now included in the covenant through the forgiveness of their sins. The blood – and therefore its benefits – was applied directly to them. It is significant that the blood was put on God’s altar first. For the people to have any kind of relationship with God at all, God had to accept the sacrifice they made for their sins. There were two sides to the relationship, but it all started with God. What the Israelites are to do is to accept and agree to live by the terms of the covenant that God and God alone has stipulated.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why does God connect His act of redemption with His commandments? Why is the order so essential for our faith: that the commandments come after God had redeemed His people?

2.         How do these commandments reflect His divine character? List all the attributes of God that you find in these commandments. Note here the importance of the connection between God’s character and His commandments. We must not seek to obey a commandment in isolation from His character. Our obedience is always a means of bringing glory to the character of God that stands behind the commandment. Thus, for example, when we seek to be faithful in our marriages by not committing adultery, we are bringing glory to the purity and faithfulness of God and we are expressing our gratitude for His gift of marriage.

3.         What is the relationship between blood and our obedience to the Book of the Covenant? Why was the blood sprinkled both on the altar and on the people? How does this relationship between blood and obedience carry forward to the New Covenant?


Exodus, John Mackay, Mentor.

The Message of Exodus, J.A. Motyer, Inter Varsity Press.

Exodus, Philip Ryken, Crossway.

Exodus, Douglas Stuart, NAC, Broadman.