God wants his people close, but not too close. Moses has gone up and down the mountain three times to help everyone prepare for their big meeting with God. Now, with Moses at the mountain’s foot with the people (Ex 19:25), God thunders his covenant from heaven.
Observation of Exodus 20:1-21
Most repeated words: you (19 times), your (19x), not (14), God (10), Lord (8), day (7), all (4), neighbor (4), people (4), servant (4).
- I normally would exclude words like “you” and “your,” as common stop words that carry little interpretive significance on their own. But since they serve as the subjects of most sentences here, I cannot disregard them.
- This repetition shifts the mood to what “you” must “not” do.
The setting: God speaks all these words (Ex 20:1), from the top of Mt. Sinai, along with thunder, lightning, a trumpet sound, and smoke (Ex 20:18).
The words begin (Ex 20:2) with an opening statement of Yahweh’s identity (“I am Yahweh your God”), history (“who brought you our of the land of Egypt”), and intention (“out of the house of slavery”).
Four of the “words” (Ex 20:5-6, 7, 11, 12) have a reason or motivation attached; six do not.
Eight of the words are negative; two (Ex 20:8, 12) are positive. But even the positive “remember the Sabbath” is actually a negative “you shall not do any work” (Ex 20:10). So only one (Ex 20:12) is a positive “do this” commandment.
The first four words (Ex 20:3-11) speak to the people’s relationship with God. The last six words (Ex 20:12-17) speak to their relationships with one another.
The first (Ex 20:3) and last (Ex 20:17) speak to the heart’s allegiance or desire.
Following God’s words, the narrative describes two response to God’s words:
- The people see, fear, and stand far off (Ex 20:18, 21).
- Moses comforts (Ex 20:20) and draws near to where God is (Ex 20:21).
- Yahweh affirms his identity, history, and intentions.
- Yahweh speaks four words about their relationship with him, beginning with their heart’s allegiance.
- Yahweh speaks six words about their relationships wth each other, ending with their heart’s desires.
- The people stand far off while Moses draws near to God.
Interpretation of Exodus 20:1-21
Some possible questions:
- Why does the passage follow this structure?
- Why does God speak these words to all the people with thunder, rather than with Moses on the mountain top?
- Why do God’s words begin and end by focusing on the heart?
- So what sort of response should we have to these words?
My answers (numbers correspond to the questions):
- We need some historical background to understand what would have been obvious and assumed to the original readers. This passage closely follows the structure of ancient treaties between a conquering king and a vassal king. Introduction of the parties, recounting their history, stipulating conditions, rewarding obedience & penalizing disobedience, documenting the agreement, and securing attestation. Though this text doesn’t use the term “covenant” or “treaty,” an ancient would recognize it as obviously being one. To learn more, see Douglas Stuart’s excellent article on the structure of ancient covenants. The point is that God is making a covenant and, in doing so, binding these people to himself as vassals. They do not earn their position as his people by obeying these words. He gives them these words because they are already his people.
- The setting gives these ten words a unique place among God’s instructions. In the next few chapters, there will be many more detailed commands; but all are spoken to Moses alone on the mountain top. These ten words thunder from heaven for all the people. Therefore, these ten words summarize the essence of God’s covenant with these people. The remaining details will expand on these ten words and apply them to specific situations.
- Because they focus on the heart’s allegiance and desires, the first and last words would be unenforceable in a human court of law. How would you get enough evidence to convict someone for something that can’t be observed? This fact shows us that God’s Law has always cared about the thoughts and intentions of the heart. There is no room in this covenant for outward, technical conformity from people whose hearts are far from their God.
- We see the two responses of Moses and the people. Ought we to see ourselves in them? Some believe we should hang these words in public schools and community centers, yet perhaps we need to feel the fear and awe the first audience felt. As we unpack the requirements and prohibitions, we tremble at God’s demand for perfection, vertical and horizontal, outside and inside. Maybe we are even scared of the words and want the New Testament to tell us they don’t apply any more. Regardless, the goal of these words is not to baffle you, but “to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin” (Ex 20:20). These words test you. They inspire you to fear the one who spoke them. And they minister his grace to you that you may not sin. We ought to love these words, along with (spoiler alert) the Spirit who indwells us and empowers us to obey (2 Cor 3:1-18).
Train of thought:
- Yahweh enters into covenant with his redeemed people, in order to capture their hearts.
- This covenant inspires appropriate fear, while also inviting them to draw near to God.
Main point: God makes a treaty with his redeemed people, inspiring them to fear and obey, so they might draw near to him.
Connection to Christ: Jesus speaks no longer from a mountain top but from heaven itself (Heb 12:18-26). He calls us to fear and obey him (Heb 12:28-29), but especially to draw near with full confidence of mercy and grace (Heb 4:14-16).
My Application of Exodus 20:1-21
When faced with impossible standards, I’m more of a run-and-hide person than a shake-my-fist-at-God person. I know well the fear and trembling caused by the Lord’s demands for perfection. At the same time, I struggle with treating my worship and approach to God too flippantly or casually. As though he’s lucky to have me around because I’m so much better than all the other people.
There’s an important tension here I haven’t yet figured out: Draw near with confidence, yet with fear and trembling.
All I know is that I can’t go wrong when I hold fast to Christ. My love for him has grown far too dull.
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