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Commentary on Exodus 19:1-6, 20:1-17

Rolf Jacobson
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 2014 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 weeks text is Exodus 20:3-11 -- 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.
Chart 1: Numbering the Ten Commandments1
Jewish

Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican,


Orthodox
other Protestants

1. I am the Lord your


God
2. No other Gods(and 1. No other Gods
no graven images)
(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 9. Do not covet your 10. Do not covet your
neighbor's spouse or neighbor's spouse
neighbor's spouse or
house
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 Gods 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 Israels 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:
1. Martin Luther, The Large Catechism -- section on the Decalogue
2. Patrick Miller, The Ten Commandments, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster
John Knox, 2009)
3. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, The Truth about God: The Ten
Commandments in Christian Life(Nashville: Abingdon, 1999)
Week 1: June 15, 2014
Preaching texts: Exodus 19:1-6; 20:1-1; accompanying text: Matthew 22:34-40
Nineteen comes before Twenty
My friend David Lose likes to describe the relationship between lawand gospelin 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 eagleswings 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 prologueto 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(verse 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 souls way into heaven, is like trying to build a faster-than-the-speedof-light spaceship or a time-travel machine out of plywood. Its 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 isnt 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 youor 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 neighbors house. Do not covet your
neighbors 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 isnt saying that if you have warm cozy
feelings about your neighbor, then youve done all that you have to do. Rather, the word
that is translated here as summed upis similar to the modern economic metaphor of the
bottom line, and that can help us understand Pauls 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 eagleswings.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 Gods
law, we must always remember that through Christs 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 22, 2014
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 verticaltable 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 Gods 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 isnt 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 noto
some things in order to say yesto God. Why cant 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. Gods name is poured out upon us in baptism. And the life of faith consists of
learning to use Gods name properly.
Fourth, loving God means keeping the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day of worship to attend
to Gods 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, youwill 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 Gods 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. Gods 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 -- Gods gracious intrusion
to free those in chains. And every seven times seven years, all land was to return to its
original family. Gods 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 29, 2014
Preaching text: Exodus 20:3-11; 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 ones 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
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 sinners 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 yourselfis the second greatest commandment. Jesus was quoting
Leviticus 19:18b.
The purpose of the law is not your best life now,but rather your neighbors 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 youre here in this condition, love
your neighbor."
We respond, OK, God, were 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, dont kill, dont steal, dont have sex with someone
elses spouse, dont hurt your neighbor with your words, dont desire your neighbors stuff.
Thats how you love your neighbor.
Because the law isnt about you. Its 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: July 6, 2014
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 neighbors house.
You shall not covet your neighbors 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 neighbors houseand You shall not covet
your neighbors 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 Uriahs 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. Se he took
her. And then, when she turned up pregnant, he arranged for Uriah -- and the entire military

company he was leading into war! -- 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 neighbors 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 hearts 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.

Notes:
1

This chart may be reproduced for congregational use, with the following attribution: Chart
courtesy of WorkingPreacher.org.