Exodus 20

You may want a whiteboard or similar for this study

(Verses 18-21 were covered in the study on Exodus 19)

Why do we have laws? (Many answers to this!)

Many generations of the Israelites had known only the law of the slave master: ‘You will do what I say’. Now, under their new lordship – not of a king but of Almighty God himself – they needed written laws to control their new society.

The commandments given here are simply an outline of some of the most important laws. Over the years that followed, more laws would be given. Some commentators suggest that the whole body of law was not considered complete until after the exile, in the time of Ezra (Nehemiah 8).

First, read verses 1-17

1 And God spoke all these words:

Right from the start, the emphasis is on the fact that God himself said these words. They are not a re-interpretation by Moses, and there is no question that they could ever be ignored.

2 ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

Surely no-one would deny that? (but look at Exodus 32:3,4)

Note also that he starts ‘I am’ (Yahweh means: ‘he is’)

3 ‘You shall have no other gods before me.

It is interesting that the other nations worshipped many other gods, some more powerful than others, but none was considered to be almighty, creator God. This was to be the unique character of Israel’s God.

But it would prove to be a stumbling block for the Israelites. Every tribe or nation had their own god or gods. They would generally be tied to their land – they were thought to dwell in a tree, a rock, a mountain, a river, animals etc.

Some, like the Egyptians had powerful gods like the sun. Others, like the storm-god Baal could only be represented by an idol.

Because every nation had its own god, the Israelite mind-set assumed that ‘Yahweh’ was to be their God. They did not understand the concept of a single God who ruled over everything and everyone. Consequently as they journeyed through the desert, and when they finally entered the ‘Promised Land’ they were still conscious of the other gods who they believe ruled there.

4 ‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

Well this was different: everyone made images of their gods.

Why did God now forbid this?

God himself had made man ‘in his own image’ (Genesis 1:26). Nothing man could ever make, however skilled, could remotely approach the glory of God, in fact it could only ever at best be a poor imitation, and to imagine that it represented God would take glory from him.  

5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

To make an image of anything God had created, and then consider it to be a god which could be worshipped was unthinkable.

The people must understand that there was one God, and to him belonged all glory (importance, honour, majesty, splendour etc.!). He would not permit anyone or anything taking the glory and worship that was his. The use of the word ‘jealous’ in verse 5 is a deliberately strong word.

In what way are children punished for the sins of the parents?

Criminals, and consequently their children, grandchildren etc.  

This particularly applied to idol-worshippers whose children would have been brought up to assume that it was acceptable behaviour and thus would themselves be condemned.

The other side of the coin ‘showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments’ is a wonderful promise that God’s love to those who ‘trust and obey’ is unconditional and everlasting.

7 ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

There are two meanings to this – swearing something is true ‘by the name of God’ (Whether it is or not!) (A), and using the name of God in blasphemy (B). Here we enter a grey area where often a euphemism or an attribute may be used to avoid blasphemy, but God knows what is in the heart

It may be helpful to ask for some examples of the things people say and write them on a board. Encourage people to think of common euphemisms too.

Some examples:


God knows (it’s true),   For ….. sake (as below)


God,   Jesus,   Christ

Good God,   Good Heavens

Oh my God,   Oh my gosh

For the love of God

Damn or Damn it, and Darn it (from ‘may God Damn it’, or ‘may God damn you’)

For God’s sake, For Jesus’ sake, for Christ’s sake

For Goodness’ sake,   For Heaven’s sake,   For Pity’s sake,   For Pete’s sake (probably a reference to St. Peter)

Which of these phrases or euphemisms are acceptable? (Acceptable to whom?)

Why do people so often use these phrases?

If we can’t stop ourselves saying something, what could we say instead?

A: Believe me

B: ‘I’m so cross (or frustrated)’ Or just ‘Oh bother’.

8 ‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labour and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Here again we have problems. In our modern society where we expect doctors, nurses, policemen, firemen, power workers, and many others – to work for us on Sundays – how can we obey this command?

Probably the best we can do is to ‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy’. How we do this must be a personal response – we cannot censure others for the decisions they make. But we do need to actually make those decisions; it is too easy to slide into ignoring the Sabbath entirely.

Does our Sabbath have to be Sunday?

No – it used to be Saturday. People who regularly are required to work on Sunday often choose another day for their Sabbath.

People must have one day a week to be able to spend time with God; and also to have opportunity to meet with other worshippers.

Why is this commandment so important to God?

For this emerging nation, as they began to understand the nature of God, it was vital at this early stage to establish the practice of setting aside one day a week for his worship. And this had to apply to all, without exception.

As Creator, God also knew our need for a day of rest each week (v11).

(During the last war it was proved that when people in factories were asked to work every day without a break, production dropped dramatically).

The first four commands were concerned with our attitude towards God. Now we have commands relating to our attitude to others.

12 ‘Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

‘Elders’ in the tribe (or church!) are not in that position just because they are old! However, only a lifetime of experience could lead to a village elder being able to make wise decisions. Young people had to learn that they actually did not have all the answers. The family unit too was vital for the nation’s continuing existence.

Why was that?

13 ‘You shall not murder.


The word translated ‘murder’ in the NIV is different to the word translated ‘kill’ and I think it is the right translation here.

Life is given uniquely by God. Only he has the authority to take it (Genesis 9:5,6). For someone to presume they can take that authority is a direct affront to God.

(You may get into a discussion about war – be prepared! Romans 13:1-5 is useful indicating that Governments are given the authority to ‘bear the sword’; and killing is not necessarily murder.)

14 ‘You shall not commit adultery.

Marriage was designed by God for his created humans. ‘That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). For more on this see http://www.gotquestions.org/one-flesh-marriage.html

There was a time when a complaint against Milkmen was that they sometimes adulterated milk – they diluted it with water. Once the water had been added it became part of the milk and its damage could not be reversed.

Adultery is a sin against the marriage itself. Introducing a third person destroys the unique bond of marriage and it can never be the same again. It is therefore a sin against the partners to the marriage, and that includes God himself.

15 ‘You shall not steal.

Why is stealing a sin against God?

For an Israelite, all he possessed came from God, so if you stole from someone else it would indicate that you were dissatisfied with God’s provision to you. Or simply that you were greedy for more – covered again in the tenth Commandment.

16 ‘You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.

Why is this another form of stealing?

It takes away the integrity of the neighbour, and his good name, and perhaps his innocence.

What causes people to lie?

(Many answers to this!)

17 ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’

As Barnes points out ‘As the sixth, seventh, and eighth commandments forbid us to injure our neighbour in deed, the ninth forbids us to injure him in word, and the tenth, in thought.’

Effectively this is an unsatisfied desire to steal, but it impacts on us more than our neighbour. A covetous heart will never know satisfaction, and peace. As we saw in Verse 15, this too is a sin against God as it shows we are discontented with his provision to us.

How can we best sum up these laws? Jesus did it like this:

‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’  Mark 12:29-31

Exodus 19Exodus 21

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Exodus 20:1-17 The Ten Commandments given verbally