Exodus 20:12 - 22:31
We now have to consider the six commandments that are concerned with man's duty in regard to his fellows. Sin has not only estranged man from God, so that the rights of the Creator have to be safeguarded, but utterly disorganized society, so that fundamental human rights have to be maintained. Only the first commandment of the six is of a positive nature. The last five are of a negative sort—"Thou shalt not."
The honouring of both father and mother is the one positive command. In God's ordering of human society the family is the fundamental unit, and of that unit the father and mother are the responsible heads, and to be recognized and honoured as such. If they are not so honoured rapid disintegration sets in, and all the relations of life are adversely affected. Proof of this stares us in the face today. Men of wholesome mind—magistrates, and others—join in deploring what is called "juvenile delinquency," as directly traceable to the break-up of home life. In most cases the parents themselves are mainly to blame. Obsessed with the pleasures of sin, parental discipline is neglected, and the children left to their own devices.
The Apostle Paul points out in Ephesians 6: 2 that this is "the first commandment with promise;" the promise being long life in the land which was to be given to them. Conversely, the flouting of this command was to entail severe penalty, as we see in Deuteronomy 21: 18-21. The penalty pronounced against the "stubborn and rebellious son," who would not, "obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother," may seem to us very drastic, but it serves to emphasize the great importance of this fifth commandment in the thought of God. Were it faithfully and universally observed, there would be very little infringement of the remaining five commandments.
In the sixth commandment there is the safeguarding of human life, of which God is the Source. Man cannot give life and he has no right to take it away, except he does so as ordained of God. After the flood Noah was authorized to slay animals for food, and government was established and the sword committed to his hand, so that death should be the penalty for murder. In the New Testament we are reminded that the earthly authority "beareth not the sword in vain" (Rom. 13: 4), which shows that the introduction of grace in Christ has not nullified what has been established as to government in the earth. Authorized government takes its course, but murder is strictly forbidden.
The seventh commandment safeguards the purity of human life. "Adultery" here has the widest sense, covering what are considered to be lesser forms of this sin between the sexes. The history of peoples shows those who have widely practised this evil have degraded themselves both physically and mentally, and out of it spring a host of other ills.
The eighth commandment enforces the rights of personal property. There was some measure of communal life amongst the children of Israel, and in the New Testament we read of a brief period of Christian communism, when many sold properties, and in Jerusalem they had all things in common. But even then the rights of private property were not set aside, for Peter said to Ananias, "While it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?" (Acts 5: 4). Yes, it belonged to Ananias, and no one had the right to grab it away from him. The law forbade stealing, and when today anyone is converted the word is, "Let him that stole steal no more" (Eph. 4: 28).
The ninth safeguards truth against man's sinful propensity to distort it into positive lying. A man may lie as to almost anything, but what is specially prohibited is his tendency to lie at the expense of his neighbour. The devil, we know, is the father of lies, but since man fell under his-influence he has become a very apt pupil in that direction. In this world lies have become one of the most potent forces of evil. We may note that while killing and stealing are two of the commonest and worst forms of violence, adultery and lying are two of the commonest and worse worst forms of corruption. All four are most destructive of human happiness. When they vanish in the millennial age the world will become a paradise.
But of all the commandments the tenth is the one that most surely brings conviction and a sense of the death sentence into the soul, if it be honestly faced. We find the Apostle Paul saying, "I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet" (Rom. 7: 7); and he goes on to say, "When the commandment came, sin revived, and I died." We all know that fallen human nature is such, that the fact of anything being prohibited stirs up a desire for that very thing. Quite possibly, before the prohibition reached us, the thing was not even in our mind; but, reaching us, the thing was presented to our mind, and at once the covetous desire was there, and we realized we were dead men in the sight of the law.
In the tenth commandment, then, God legislated against not only evil things but against the desire for evil things, and this makes it so death-dealing for the awakened conscience. It was in keeping with this that the Lord Jesus removed the weight of the law against both murder and adultery from the act to the desire and impulse that prompts the act, when He gave His Sermon on the Mount, reported in Matthew 5. Hence also the warning against covetousness, which the Lord uttered, in Luke 12; and the statement of the Apostle Paul, "Mortify therefore . . . covetousness, which is idolatry" (Col. 3: 5).
When the rich young ruler approached the Lord with his question as to eternal life, Jesus tested him with five out of the ten commandments. He did not cite the first four, dealing with what is due to God, nor did He mention the tenth. The young man could say he had kept the five that the Lord mentioned. No doubt he had, if only the prohibited acts were in question. Had he been tested on the basis of the tenth, he would have been hopelessly condemned.
Verses 18-21 give us the immediate reaction of the people to the giving of the law. Twice we get the words, "afar off." They had not yet had time to commit any breach of what was enjoined, but they were conscious at once that distance had supervened between themselves and God. Further, they begged Moses to act as mediator, saying, "Let not God speak with us, lest we die." So these two things—distance and death—laid their fear upon them. To the Galatians it was written, "As many as are of the works of the law are under the curse" (Gal. 3: 10). Paul did not say, "As many as have broken the law." Such are of course under the curse. But man being what he is, it is sufficient for him to be, "of the works of the law," that is, standing before God on that basis, to be under the curse. That is just what we see in the passage before us.
Moses realized that the law was given as a test, for he said, "God is come to prove you." The people moreover were to realize the gravity of the position in which they had set themselves. They appear to have taken up that position in quite a light-hearted way, and God intended that His fear should be before their faces, so that they might not sin. If fear could induce the fulfilling of the law all would have been well for there was everything present to provoke fear. We have to turn to the New Testament to learn that, "Love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom. 13: 10).
In the closing verses of the chapter we get what the people were not to make, and what they were to make. They were not to make gods, even of the most precious substances. They were to make an altar of earth. In the next chapter we get the "judgments" that accompanied the ten commandments, and the first of these is concerned with the "Hebrew servant."
Now at first sight the sequence of these subjects may seem strange, and especially we might be tempted to regard these regulations as to what was to be done when an Hebrew undertook the modified form of slavery that was permitted, as a descent into something very trivial compared with the thunders of the law. We discover it to be far otherwise when we consider their spiritual import. The giving of the law became a ministry of death. Nothing could meet that situation but sacrifice, hence next comes the altar. But where can a sufficient sacrifice be found? Only in the One, of whom the Hebrew servant was a type.
As to the altar, it was to be of earth or of unhewn stone. If men were to lift up their tools upon the stones to shape them according to their thoughts, they would pollute it. An altar of earth or of unhewn stone might seem very crude and offensive to aesthetic taste, but since it typified death—the death of Christ—God intended it to stand in its native roughness and not be embellished by art and human device.
Neither was the altar to be placed in an elevated position and approached by steps, as was the custom apparently with the altars of the heathen. We may give this a present-day application if we point out that in the sacrifice of Christ God has come down to us, so that we are not to attempt to climb up to Him. When men endeavour to do this, they only expose their own nakedness in a spiritual sense.
A peculiar form of bond-service was permitted amongst the children of Israel, details of which we have in the early verses of Exodus 21. An Hebrew might place himself under such a bond for six years, but in the seventh he was to go out free; and if he came under it with a wife, she went out free with him. If, on the other hand, he obtained his wife through his master, and children were given, complications ensued as we find in verses 4-6. In these complications we find a remarkable type.
If the bondman should declare that for love of master, wife and children he will not go out free, saying this plainly and distinctly, then his master shall take him before the judges, and to the door—normally the place of exit—and there shed a few drops of his blood by piercing his ear against the door or door post. Then henceforward he should be a servant in perpetuity. Such was the first of the "judgments" under the law.
We cannot but wonder if ever a Hebrew servant did say, "I love my master, my wife, and my children," thus placing his master before wife and children. We can only say that the master would have to be a most wonderful person to gain such a place of ascendancy. But when our blessed Lord took the servant's place, He came primarily to do the will of God in devotion to His glory, and secondarily to establish a relationship with redeemed men that nothing will be allowed to break. The Antitype of this we see in John 13: 1 and 14: 31.
In that Gospel, while the Deity of our Lord is fully stated, the place He took of subjection and dependence is made very manifest. At the close of the discourse in the Upper Chamber the Lord went forth to Gethsemane and Golgotha that the world might know that He loved the Father. The Evangelist had previously told us that having loved His own in the world He loved them to the end. His declaration of love to the Father, whom He came to serve and of love to those that He brought into relationship to Himself, could not have been more plainly made.
His love led Him into death. In the type we have only a faint type of this, but the spot of blood on the door post, where the ear was bored, does lead our thoughts to the true shedding of blood, when our Saviour was hanged on the tree.
Verses 7-11 deal with the case of the woman who becomes a bondservant. As the weaker party she might become the victim of wrongful treatment, so her rights are clearly defined. We may remark that under the law things were permitted that would not be tolerated by Christians today. That this was so is shown by the Lord's own words recorded in Matthew 19: 7, 8. We must ever bear in mind that, "the law made nothing perfect" (Heb. 7: 19), since it set forth the minimum of God's demands, so that all, who in any way or at any time fell short of it, came under the sentence of death. The maximum of all God's thoughts and desires are realized and set forth in Christ.
From verse 12 to verse 27, we get judgments in regard to acts of violence, beginning with the differentiation between manslaughter and murder. For the former a place of refuge is promised. Later we find how amply this promise was fulfilled, for no less than six cities of refuge were appointed.
On the other hand, we notice that the severity of God is displayed in the law. The death sentence is pronounced against sins that today are not accounted worthy of the capital sentence—verses 15, 16 and 17, for instance—though we must remember that the wages of sin—of all sin —is death. The sentence of verse 17 is one that our Lord quoted in Matthew 15: 4. To deprive forcibly a man of his liberty comes near to depriving him of his life, and this is legislated against in verse 16.
Verses 23-25, summarize the demands of the law as to these things, and to them the Lord referred in Matthew 5: 38; but there we see the grace of Christ beginning to appear.
The rest of the chapter is occupied with judgments connected with the ownership of cattle, and the violent acts they may perform, or violences that they may suffer. All is to be settled on a strictly righteous basis.
If in Exodus 21 we get judgments which give an extension to "Thou shalt not kill," we find in Exodus 22 judgments giving an extension to "Thou shalt not steal." Men may defraud each other in a variety of ways, and this theme continues to the end of verse 17; for a maid may be defrauded of her virtue, and a penalty lies against this as against all the rest. The first demand is for "restitution," and, if that be not possible then damages to be paid. No fairer form of penalty than this can be devised.
From verse 18 to the end of the chapter we get sundry judgments that may not seem very closely connected, but they evidently cover both the rights of God Himself and also of the poor among His people. The witch commits an outrage against God by trafficking with demons. The sinner of verse 18 outrages His order in creation. He who sacrifices to demon powers is to be destroyed. Verse 28 demands that the "gods"—the "elohim" who represented the one true God in matters of earthly judgment, were to be respected, and the following verses demand a steady yielding of the firstfruits to God, as befitted holy people.
The verses in between (21-27) safeguard the rights of the less important and more defenceless folk—strangers, widows, fatherless and poor. The tendency of fallen mankind is to take advantage of these, oppressing and defrauding them. Such conduct is abhorrent to God, and His kindness shines out, even as He gives His law. He will be their Defender. As He thinks of them His word is, "I am gracious.''
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