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Exodus 20:1-18 - Homilies By J. Orr

The moral law-General survey.

View this law of the ten commandments as—

I. AUTHORITATIVELY DELIVERED . "God spake all these words, saying," etc. ( Exodus 20:1 ). An authoritative revelation of moral law was necessary—

1 . That man might be made distinctly aware of the compass of his obligations . The moral knowledge originally possessed by man had gradually been parted with. What remained was distorted and confused. He had little right knowledge of his duty to God, and very inadequate conceptions even of his duties to his fellow-men. This lost knowledge was recovered to him by positive revelation. Consider, in proof of the need of such a revelation, the ignorance of God which prevails still, men's imperfect apprehensions of his holiness, their defective views of duty, etc. And this though the revelation has so long been given.

2 . That a basis of certainty might be obtained for the inculcation of moral truth. This also was necessary. Man has ever shown himself ingenious in explaining away the obligations which the law imposes on him. He may deny that they exist. He may make light of holiness. He may take up utilitarian ground, and ride off on disputes as to the nature of conscience, the origin of moral ideas, the diversities of human opinion, etc. The law stops all such cavilling by interposing with its authoritative "Thus saith the Lord." See on this point a valuable paper on "Secularism," by R . H . Hutton, in "Expositor," January, 1881.

3 . That the authority of conscience may be strengthened . Conscience testifies, in however dim and broken a way, to the existence of a law above us. It speaks with authority. "Had it might as it has right, it would rule the world." In order, however, that we may be made to feel that it is a living will , and no mere impersonal law, which thus imposes its commands upon us, there is a clear need for the voice within being reinforced by the voice without—for historical revelation. Sinai teaches us to recognise the authority which binds us in our consciences as God ' s authority.

4 . For economic purposes. See previous chapter.

II. GRACIOUSLY PREFACED . " I am the Lord, thy God," etc. ( Exodus 20:2 ). This preface to the law is of great importance.

1 . It testified to the fact that God ' s relation to Israel was fundamentally a gracious one . "The law was introduced with the words, 'I am the Lord thy God ,' and speaks with the majestic authority of the Eternal, dispensing blessings and cursings on the fulfilment and transgression of the law. But although this is given amidst the thunder and lightning of Sinai, whose roll seems to be heard constantly in its mighty imperatives—'Thou shalt not!' or 'Thou shalt!' yet still it points back to grace; for the God who speaks in the law is he who led the people out of Egypt, freed them from the yoke of bondage—the God who gave the promise to Abraham, and who has prepared a highest good, the Messianic kingdom, for his people" (Martensen).

2 . It furnished a motive for obedience to the law . Mark the order—the same as in the Gospel; God first saves Israel, then gives them his law to keep. Because God had redeemed them from Egypt, and had given them, of his free mercy, this glorious privilege of being his people, therefore were they to keep his commandments. This was the return they were to make to him for the so great love wherewith he had loved them. Their relation to the law was not to be a servile one. Obedience was not to be a price paid for favour, but a return of grateful hearts for favours already received. From this motive of gratitude, and that they might retain the privileges he had given them, and inherit farther blessing, they were to walk in the prescribed way. If, notwithstanding, a pronouncedly legal element entered into that economy, a curse even being pronounced against those who failed to keep the whole law, while the good promised to obedience appears more as legal award than as a gift of grace—we know now the reason for the covenant being cast into this legal form, and can rejoice that in Christ our justification is placed on so much better a footing. Obedience, however, is still required of us as a condition of continuance in God's favour, and of ultimate inheritance of blessing.

3 . It furnished to the pious Israelite a pledge of merciful treatment when he transgressed or fell short of the requirements of his law . What, e.g; had David to fall back upon in the hour of his remorse for his great transgression ( Psalms 51:1-19 .), but just such a word as this, confirmed as it was by acts of God, which showed that it was a word always to be depended on. This one saying, prefacing the law, altered the whole complexion of Israel's standing under law. It gave to the Israelite the assurance that he most needed, namely—that, notwithstanding the strictness of the commandment, God would yet accept him in his sincere endeavours after obedience, though these fell manifoldly short of the full requirement, i.e; virtually on the ground of faith —in connection, however, with propitiation.

III. MORAL IN ITS SUBSTANCE . This has been adverted to above. Though imposed on man by Divine authority, moral law is no arbitrary creation of the Divine will. It is an emanation from the Divine nature. (Cf. Hooker—"Of law there can be no less acknowledged than that her seat is the bosom of God; her voice the harmony of the world.") Herbert Spencer was never guilty of a greater misrepresentation than when he affirmed—"Religious creeds, established and dissenting, all embody the belief that right and wrong are right and wrong simply in virtue of Divine enactment". We may reply with Stahl—"The primary idea of goodness is the essential, not the creative, will of God. The Divine will, in its essence, is infinite love, mercy, patience, truth, faithfulness, rectitude, spirituality, and all that is included in the idea of holiness, which constitutes the inmost nature of God. The holiness of God, therefore, neither precedes his will (' sanctitas antceedens voluntatem ' of the schoolmen) nor follows it, but is his will itself. The good is not a law for the Divine will (so that God wills it because it is good); neither is it a creation of his will (so that it becomes good because he wills it); but it is the nature of God from everlasting to everlasting." The law, in a word, expresses immutable demands of holiness. What these are is determined in any given case by the abstract nature of holiness and by the constitution and circumstances of the being to whom the law is given. Man, e.g; is a free, immortal spirit; but he is at the same time an inhabitant of the earth, bound by natural conditions, and standing to his fellow-men in relations, some of which at least belong only to his present state of existence. Hence we find in the Decalogue precepts relating to the weekly Sabbath, to marriage, to the institution of private property, etc. These precepts are founded on our nature, and are universally obligatory. They show what duty immutably requires of us as possessing such a nature; but obviously their application will cease under different conditions of existence ( Matthew 22:30 ). Only in its fundamental principles of love to God and to our fellow-beings, and in its spiritual demands for truth, purity, uprightness, reverence, and fidelity, is the law absolutely unchangeable.


1 . Its two divisions , turning, the one on the principle of love to God, the other, on the principle of love to man.

2 . The relative position of the two divisions —duty to God standing first, and laying the needful foundation for the right discharge of our duties to mankind. True love to man has its fountain head in love to God. Neglect of the duties of piety will speedily be followed by the neglect of duty to our neighbour. The Scripture does not ignore the distinction between religion (duties done directly to God) and morality (duties arising from earthly relations), but it unites the two in the deeper idea that all duty is to be done to God, whose authority is supreme in the one sphere as in the other.

3 . The scope of its precepts . These cover the entire range of human obligation. The precepts of the first table (including here the Fifth Commandment) require that God be honoured in his being, his worship, his name, his day, his human representatives. The precepts of the second table require that our neighbour be not injured in deed, in word, in thought; and in respect neither of his person, his wife, his property, nor his reputation. So complete and concise a summary of duty—religious and ethical—based on true ideas of the character of God, and taking holiness, not bare morality, as its standard, is without parallel in ancient legislation.

V. SPIRITUAL IS ITS PURPORT . "The law is spiritual" ( Romans 7:14 ).

1 . The law to be studied in its principles . Taken in its bare letter, it might appear narrow. Here, however, as everywhere in Scripture, the letter is only the vehicle of the spirit. The whole law of Moses being founded on this part of it—being viewed simply as an expansion or amplification in different relations of the principles embodied in the ten words—it is plain, and common sense supports us in the view, that the principles are the main things, the true roots of obligation. Thus, the Third Commandment, in the letter of it, forbids false swearing, or generally, any vain use of the name of God. But underlying this, and obviously forming the ground of the command, is the principle that God's name, i.e; everything whereby he manifests himself, is to be treated with deepest reverence. This principle, in its various applications, carries us far beyond the letter of the precept. Read in the same way, the Sixth Commandment forbids killing, but not less the murderous motive than the murderous act; while the principle involved, viz; reverence for, and care of, human life (cf. Genesis 9:6 ), branches out into a multiplicity of duties, of which the other parts of the law of Moses furnish numerous illustrations. The true key to the spiritual interpretation of the law is that given by Christ in the sermon on the Mount ( Matthew 5:1-48 .- 7.).

2 . Summed up in love . "Love is the fulfilling of the law" ( Romans 13:8-10 ).


1 . By Divine threatenings (verses 5-7).

2 . By Divine example (verse 11).

3 . By Divine promises (verses 6-12).

See below. Behold, then, the beauty and perfection of the law. "Thy commandment is exceeding broad" ( Psalms 119:96 ). We are not to be misled,

1 . By the studied brevity of the law, which is part of its excellency; or,

2 . By its prevailing negative form—a testimony, not to the unspirituality of the law, but to the existence of strong evil tendencies in the heart, needing to be repressed ( Romans 7:7 , Romans 7:8 ; 1 Timothy 1:9 10). Yet perfect as it is of its kind, it is not to be compared, as a mirror of holiness, with the perfect human life of Jesus Christ. No accumulation of separate precepts can exhaust all that is contained in holiness. Precepts convey also a defective idea of the good by breaking up that which is in its own nature one—an ideal—into a number of separate parts. What, however, the law could not do for us, is done in the perfect example of our Lord. In him, law is translated into life. The ideal is no longer presented to us, as even in the Decalogue, in detached precepts, "broken lights," "words," which—just because holiness is so vast a thing—are left to hint more than they express, but in its true unbroken unity, in the sphered whole of a perfect human character. Our law is Christ.— J . O .

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