6. Command Two: No Imitations Please (2)

Revisiting the Ten Commandments: 6. Command Two: No Imitations Please (2)

Ex 20:4,5   “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them;  

Significance: What do these verses say? They say, put most simply, that God will not tolerate imitation competitors or substitutes and will hold His people accountable if they do hold to such ‘competitors’ (though they are in reality no competition!) or substitutes. We said in the previous study that an idol is “an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship,” and as we noted previously, this command requires the people of God not to have any substitute ‘gods’ or make any such representations of those ‘gods’ who we considered in detail in respect of Israel and other nations in history.

But why? Why was it that Israel kept turning to idols? We highlighted it before: they wanted gods and idols that they could see. But it is more than that, they wanted something closer to them who they felt they could speak to and though whom they could feel reassured about daily life, who they felt they could rely upon. There is something about expressing out loud your concerns. We do it through prayer and we must assume that Israel did it with their idols in some measure or another.  They would burn incense to these idols as a means of ‘doing something’ they felt might please the idol, the god. There was a reliance there upon the god, through the idol.

An idol, therefore, was a substitute for God although it is difficult not to assume that in the case of the three golden calves (at Sinai and on the north and south borders of the northern kingdom) these idols were initially, at least, supposed to represent God. The Eastern Orthodox Church uses icons as ways of directing their thinking towards God. The Roman Catholic church uses statues of Mary similarly. Both would deny that they worship these as God but are simply tools to help their faith, yet whether it be in modern forms or in the life of Israel, such practices can easily become a substitute for a real, live, vibrant relationship with the Living God.

And Us? An idol today, therefore we might say, is anything we use as a substitute for God but that doesn’t take us to the heart of the matter.  The apostle Pail wrote, Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.(Col 3:5). To the Ephesians he also wrote, For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” (Eph 5:5) Now we tend to simply equate greed with idolatry here but, if we read it properly, the truth is that he is saying in both cases – and this is very important – that all of these things that “belong to your earthly nature” are the thing (the expression of ‘self’) with which we replace God.

The person who rejects God does so because they make ‘self’ the all-important heart of their life. They rely upon themselves to the exclusion of God. It is not a case of making one particular thing in their life – money, ambition, fame, family, work, an expensive car, two houses, a yacht, all the things that usually come to mind in these conversations – but the whole issue of what their life is given to, worshiping and relying upon self, or worshiping and relying upon God is what is important. Those things in that list I have just given are not in themselves wrong, none of them! They become ‘wrong’ when they are the expression of God-excluding-self.

But why – again! We still haven’t, I feel, yet got to grips with why people do this. In the first of this series we spent some time considering the absence of wisdom when we focus on behaviour rather than identity, on self-effort achievement rather than change that flows out of a Cross-centred and Holy Spirit based love relationship with God through Jesus. As I ponder on the two verses above from Colossians and Ephesians, I can’t help but feel that the heart of it is the effect of the presence of sin in every person seen in the form of that propensity that we have to ‘self-centred godlessness’ (my usual definition of Sin). The fallen world around us is often unpleasant and unkind and we want to take protective steps against that but with it comes a blindness (2 Cor 4:4) which can even remain in believers (Rev 3:17) and which so often prevents seeing life as it is, or the reality of the Gospel as it is.

So what changes that? The word of God that is the Gospel that comes by the Spirit usually through the mouths of others, and certainly on the pages of the New Testament. This and this alone, I would suggest, is how God brings a blend of conviction and hope that brings us – whether unbeliever for the first time, or believer perhaps again and again – a reason for turning away from ourselves and turning towards Him, of giving up our reliance upon ourselves and declaring our reliance upon Him. That reliance has to be in respect of the Cross – the foundation for any reassurance that forgiveness, cleansing and a new life is possible – and the presence and filling of the Holy Spirit – who is our power source to enable that divinely supernatural life to be lived.

Not that Simple: Now that may appear simple (when your eyes have been opened) but there is a little verse in Scripture that should bring warning. When Israel, the northern kingdom, were deported by Assyria in 722BC ending their existence after about 208 years, the king of Assyria did what was common practice back then of importing people from elsewhere but also sent back a priest to teach these new people about how to respond to God (see 2 Kings 17:24-28) but sadly it proved semi-abortive because those new people then exercised a mixed religion – “They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods.” (v.33) Do you see that? Worshiped God (great!) BUT they also served their own gods.

Now from what we have been saying, the options we presented are worshiping the god of self or the One True God, but the verse above reminds us that you can try and do the same – apparently worship God but at the same time hold on to major expressions of self.

So How? It isn’t a case of focusing on individual ‘bits’ of our lives, for that simply takes us back to behavioral theology, self-effort, the try harder approach that we rejected at the beginning. Yes, it is important to teach and face these things as stumbling blocks in our lives, but the bigger issue is still all about identity. This, we said at the beginning, is all about who you are in Christ, this is the wonder of what he has done for you, this is what he thinks about you, these are the resources he has provided for you, and here is the wonder of the life that you can aspire to with the help of his Spirit and his word.

Focusing on individual imaginary ‘idols’ simply brings us guilt, a need for more self-effort and likely sense of failure. Recognizing the wonder of who we are, in its fullest, sense – loved and accepted children of God, forgiven and cleansed by the work of the Cross, now indwelt by the Holy Spirit – these are the remedies for that self-life, these are the things that are at the heart of the Gospel, and these are the things that deliver us from the guilty wonderings of how to apply this commandment.

If you have been brought up in a legalistic Christian environment that has left you with guilt, shame, and an ongoing sense of failure, may I invite you to read back through the fairly detailed content of this particular study and ask the Lord to open your eyes to the wonder of who you are in him, and set you free from your past. Amen? Amen!

(There is more that could be said about this particular command but I don’t want to detract from what we have here, so we will simply move on to the next command in the next study.)

Application: May I suggest we conclude this study praying something like, “Lord Jesus, thank you that you have saved me and delivered me out of the dominion of darkness into your kingdom of light. I affirm you alone are my Lord and I give my life to you afresh this day. Amen.”

5. Command Two: No Imitations Please (1)

Revisiting the Ten Commandments: 5. Command Two: No Imitations Please (1)

Ex 20:4-6   “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 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 fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Idols? In the day in which we live, for most of us in the West, idols do not rate highly in our thinking. We have had a TV series called ‘Pop Idol’ and there is the recognition that we make idols of ‘celebrities’ in our thinking, but this is not the same as the idols that we find in the Bible. To understand this command we first need to understand the context and why idols featured so much in the text (this study) and then go on to ponder on what relevance this command has to today (the next study).

Understanding ‘gods’ and ‘idols’: In the style that is often found in the Old Testament Hebrew writings, repetition in a slightly different form is very common and so, for example, God uses it in prophetic writing to emphasis or expand on a subject. Similarly here. We have just seen in the first command, “You shall have no other gods before (or besides) me”, a call not to have any god other than the Lord for, we said, in reality He is the ONLY God. But we observed in that study, the multitude of ‘gods’ found in Egypt, Canaan, Greece and Rome. Now look up the definition of an idol and you find, “an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship.” So the existence of ‘idols’ becomes the material expression, if we may put it like that, of the belief in these ‘gods’ we considered previously.

The Command: So then we come to this second command which slides off the back of the first command. Note carefully the words: “You shall not make.” (v.4a) It is as basic and fundamental as that: idols are man-made and if you were one of God’s called-out people then you were NOT to go the way of the rest of the world and make idols.

But what sort of idols are forbidden? “an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” (v.4b) In other words you shall not make a model of anything on the earth or that you think might be in heaven and make it a source of worship. Why? What might you do with them? “You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (v.5a) i.e. if you make something like this you may use it as a substitute for the real thing.

The Effects: But what was the effect of creating such ‘models’ of the imaginary deity? Consider what happens. In so doing, in making an image to represent your deity, you will make the real thing smaller in your understanding, something or someone who you can control, who you can move around, who you have scaled down into manageable proportions, that is no longer scary. And as for attributing divine attributes to fish or birds or animals….. superstition at its extreme! But it was seen so often in the Old Testament, not only in pagan peoples but, tragically, also in the life of Israel.

Idolatry on Mount Sinai: This is perhaps why the terrible incident of the golden calf on Mount Sinai received such censure (see Ex 32). It started when Moses remained up the mountain for a long time and we see, “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods (or ‘a god’) who will go before us,” (Ex 32:1) and the consequence was the golden calf.

Wrong Thinking in Eli’s time: Now there is an interesting period in 1 Samuel where Israel treat the ark of the covenant as an idol or ‘good-luck charm’ (1 Sam 4:3). Now at a later date the Lord will show them that the ark is to be considered holy and not to be messed with or even touched by anyone not so appointed (see 2 Sam 6:1-15), but for the moment the Lord needs to teach them that it is not a good-luck charm to be taken onto a battle field, and so when they do, it is captured by the Philistines and taken home and placed in the temple of Dagon (1 Sam 5:1,2). Now we mentioned Dagon in the previous study on ‘gods’ and he was a god of fertility, the father of Baal, and the main god of the Philistines. The ark is placed before a large idol depicting Dagon, probably to symbolize Dagon’s superiority over the God of Israel, but the next morning Dagon’s idol is found lying face down before the ark, in an attitude of worship we might say! They place him upright again but next morning he is face down again before the ark and his hands and head are broken off and are lying by the threshold of the temple, almost as if the Lord had done it, gone to leave the temple and then just dumped them there in disdain (1 Sam 5:3,4). The message was clear: don’t mess with the Lord!

The Need for a Visible Representative: There is within sinful humanity something that says, “I want to be able to see what I worship and this, in a sense, is the problem with God – we cannot see Him. It was the same thinking that made Israel, a lot later, demand to have a king (1 Sam 8:6). Yes, they were disenchanted with the religious representatives (Samuel’s sons) but that was no excuse. But that is what sinful humanity is like. Previously we noted, Aaron made them a calf of gold that they could see, understand and foolishly bow down before. In no way could that calf convey anything of the wonder and greatness of the Creator and Sustainer of this world!

In the Land: Now when Israel went in to take over the Promised Land, again and again they were warned to destroy the idols of the inhabitants yet in the time of Samuel, we find him rebuking them: “Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths and served the LORD only.” (1 Sam 7:3-4) If we watch the history of Israel, we find them returning to this folly again and again.

Warnings & Condemnation: A large number of times when Moses was briefing Israel on the Plains of Moab before their entry to the Promised Land and before his departure, as we see in Deuteronomy, Moses warned Israel not to get into idol worship – as a starter check Deut 4:15,16,23,25.

There was no problem in David’s reign but tragically we read,  As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods…. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites,” (1 Kings 11:4,5) for which he was reprimanded by the Lord. When Lord split the kingdom He sent Ahijah the prophet to Jeroboam to tell him He was making him king of the north because, “they have forsaken me and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of the Moabites, and Molek the god of the Ammonites,” (1 Kings 11:33) so Jeroboam knew very clearly what caused the Lord to bring discipline but we soon find he sets up two idols (actually calves), one on the northern border and one on the southern border to dissuade Israel, the northern kingdom, not to return to Jerusalem to worship the Lord there. (1 Kings 12:25-30) These two idols  were never removed throughout the two hundred year existence of the northern kingdom. Throughout the history of the northern kingdom we find reference to idols in the land (e.g. 1 Kings 16:13,26, 31-33, 22:53, 2 Kings 1:2, 10:18-22,29, 13:6)

As a summary at the end of the northern kingdom we read, They worshiped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before them, as well as the practices that the kings of Israel had introduced. The Israelites secretly did things against the Lord their God that were not right. From watchtower to fortified city they built themselves high places in all their towns. They set up sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree.  At every high place they burned incense, as the nations whom the Lord had driven out before them had done. They did wicked things that aroused the Lord’s anger. They worshiped idols, ….They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless. They imitated the nations around them although the Lord had ordered them, “Do not do as they do.” They forsook all the commands of the Lord their God and made for themselves two idols cast in the shape of calves, and an Asherah pole. They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshiped Baal. They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They practiced divination and sought omens and sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.” (2 Kings 17:7-12,15-17)

It is a terrible indictment. For space sake we will not cover the southern kingdom beyond noting that before the exile took place we find, all the leaders of the priests and the people became more and more unfaithful, following all the detestable practices of the nations and defiling the temple of the Lord, which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.”  Perhaps the destruction of Jerusalem and specifically the temple was God’s way of purging both the temple and the city from these abominations. To see the fuller extent of these denunciations may I recommend a reading of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel that came in the years immediately prior to the Exile. For a devasting comparison (which we will pick up in the next study) between idols and God, read Jer 10:1-16 & 14:22. Ezekiel was even more scathing about their use of idols and you find the word over 40 times in his book!

And So: Never think the matter of idols was a minor issue in the Law and Life of Israel; it wasn’t, it was their major stumbling block, the thing that eventually brought them down.  Now we will go on in the next study to try to examine what it is about idol worship that appeals to humanity.

Application: May I suggest we conclude this study praying something like, “Lord Jesus, I reject any thought of allowing any one anything else to usurp your role as my Supreme Lord. I love you and worship you. Amen”

4. Command One: Only One God

PART TWO: First Four Commandments – about God

Revisiting the Ten Commandments: 4. Command One: Only One God

Ex 20:1,2    And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

Ex 20:3 You shall have no other gods before (or besides) me.

And More: There is a further historical dimension to our starter verses above, that we have been considering. It is found in verse 2: “who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” Now, perhaps, we will shortly be able to see why the first of these ten commands is so important. All the knowledge of Him that we pick up in the Bible, (and I realize this is a much bigger topic) is that He is one, He is the Creator of all of existence, He is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-wise and He is eternal and, of course, He communicates.  These are some of the minimums that come through in the Bible about Him. It also declares that He is love, He is good, He is holy, and He is perfect. In other words He is utterly different from any of these other ‘gods’ we soon need to be considering.

Historical Context: Now He can now be identified as the one who delivered Israel miraculously out of the hands of the most powerful despot in the world, from Egypt. In earlier meditation No.2 we emphasized the need to observe the historical context when approaching these laws. That is especially important with this verse. The law is simple and straight forward in this first command: God says, “You shall have no other gods before (or besides) me”, i.e. “I am God, there is only one of me, so don’t worship anyone or anything else,” but it comes in the context of a people living in the midst of a nation where ‘gods’ proliferate!

‘gods’ of Egypt: Bear in mind Israel had only recently left that fear-driven, superstitious nation, Egypt, which we are told had over 2000 ‘gods’. Many had similar characteristics and appeared all over the country but with different names.  Birds, crocodiles, snakes, turtles, frogs, cattle, dogs, cats and other domesticated animals were considered to be the living images of a particular god or goddess. One historian declares, ‘All parts of life were covered and there were gods for beer, plants, digestion, the high seas, female sexuality, gardens, partying etc.’

The best-known gods of Egypt we may have heard of – Ra, the god of the Sun, the most important god, lord of all the gods. He was usually shown in human form with a falcon head, crowned with the sun disc encircled by a sacred cobra – judge of the dead, and father of Horus, god of the sky (the Egyptians believed that the pharaoh was the ‘living Horus’) – Tefnut, goddess of the rain – Anubis, who guided the dead to the next life via the court of Osiris in the Underworld – Sobek, god of Nile who had the head of a crocodile, and many others (followers of ‘The Mummy’ films will know some of these names). But ‘gods’ appear all over ancient history.

‘gods’ of Canaan: In Canaan, gods we come across in the Bible were Asherah, the walker of the sea, a mother goddess, Baal, god of fertility, Dagon, god of crop fertility, Molech, god of fire, and there were also many, many others. A simple Google search reveals that virtually every nation had ‘gods’.

‘gods’ of Greece & Rome: Later in history we may be more familiar with the Greek gods – Zeus, god of the Sky – Hera goddess of marriage, mothers and families – Poseidon, God of the Sea – and so on. Following them, the Romans with their gods, mostly the same but with changed names, for example, Zeus, the king of the gods, the ruler of Mount Olympus, and god of the sky and thunder, Pallas Athena, is the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, Mars was the god of war, Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation, and so on.

Characteristics of ‘gods’: A study of such gods shows us six things:

  • First there were lots of them! In fact there were gods for any and every situation or feature of the world.
  • Second, they created or maybe were the result of superstitious fear, the insecurity of living in a changing and uncertain world.
  • Third, they were never benign, it seems; they all required some form of appeasement.
  • Fourth, when these gods took human form, or were thought of as being in human form, they also took on human foibles and struggled and fought with one another and did not have humanity’s best at heart!
  • Fifth, and this becomes very significant as we move on, the idea of the existence of such ‘gods’ meant that humanity’s attitude towards them was one of superstitious subservience.
  • Sixth, because we know that such secondary beings are purely expressions of superstitious imagination, there is never any way to measure the reality of interchange between a human being and a ‘god’. Indeed one wonders if there was really any real relationship involved. (how can there be a two-way interaction with a carved block of wood?)

And then: When we come to the Bible. We see A God who reveals Himself, first to the Patriarchs and what became Israel, and then to Moses and then to all of Israel but, as we’ve already seen He is utterly different from any of these other ‘gods’ we have just been considering.

The call to follow Him alone is surprisingly, and contrary to the crusading atheists claims, a claim to be free of superstition and a call to come to One who will bring love and goodness and security. For Moses and his people they already knew something of Him as revealed through His dealings with the Patriarchs and now recently His deliverance of them from Egypt. He was a God who appeared to want to be friendly, a God who had the power to deal with enemies on one hand and bless His friends on the other.

And So: Everything we know of these other ‘gods’ makes us want to shy away from them and their demands and the superstitious fear-filled life, and everything we come to know of Him says here is One who we would be foolish to reject. It is only that self-centred and godless propensity that we all have, which the Bible calls Sin, that makes us suspicious and fearful of Him.

It also makes us want to stand on our own two feet and foolishly think we can cope in life without Him, hence the popular ‘Don’t you tell me what to do!’ attitude that is the common expression of the rebellious aspect of Sin. In the folly of Sin we cannot believe that this God, who claims to be the one and only God, is loving and good and desires the best for us. But that, as we say, is the folly of Sin. The call to “have no other gods beside me” is, in one way, a common-sense call in accord with reality because there is NO other God, merely the imaginations of superstitious fear. Away with it!

But why, we might ask, do people have all these ‘gods’? Because it is such a big question, we will wait until the next studies and examine the nature of the working out of this superstitious fear seen in the form of worshipping idols. We will then compare this to the nature of God and then the nature of sinful mankind that turns to such things.

Application: May I suggest we conclude this study praying something like, “Lord God, you are so great that you defy my imagination. I confess my mind cannot comprehend the greatness of One who is all-powerful, all knowing and all-wise, and yet you have given us your Word, almost as if to attract us and get our attention, to reveal something of yourself to us. Forgive us Lord that we treat it so casually and so often give so little thought to what we find in it. Lord I need your help to see these things in a fresh light that will break through the confusions of limited understanding. Please help me. Amen.”

3. God?

Revisiting the Ten Commandments: 3. God?

Ex 20:1,2    And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

Pause Up: We have just spent two studies setting the context for understanding and seeing how these Ten Commandments came into being but before we actually move on to consider the first of the ten commands we need to focus again on these two introductory verses because it is so easy to take words for granted and thus miss the amazing claims being made.

We have already observed the fact that the Bible record here in these verses shows us a God who communicates with us – and if you are a Jew or Christian you take that for granted, but in some other world religions they have gods or idols who stay silent and offer nothing to their adherents. But here in the Biblical record we have a God who made this world and who interacts with this world and speaks to individuals in this world. Before we move on to see God’s description of Himself in these verses, I want us to ponder on just how much revelation about God had been given as we see it in the first two books of the Bible. How, at least from the Bible, did they come to know God, what does the text tell us about Him?

Origins: We perhaps need to ponder on just how the Bible came to be written, how these two books came into being. I am going to take the view that traditional academics and scholars through most of the last few thousand years (excluding the effects of liberal German so-called theologians of the late nineteenth century) and suggest that initially history was passed on by word of mouth. But that is probably only part of the picture. It is thought by traditional scholars that Genesis was written by Moses and was likely to be a combination of that passed on by word of mouth and that communicated to him by the Lord in the Tabernacle over the forty years of Israel’s wanderings in the desert before they entered the Promised Land. It is for this reason that we find the use of LORD in capital letters in Genesis although the proper origin of it doesn’t appear until the third chapter of Exodus, which we’ll consider shortly.

But of course before the word was written down on scrolls by Moses, while it was still in word-of-mouth form, we need to ask what was known of God by the experience of those who had encounters with Him as recorded in Genesis. In the Garden of Eden there seems to be what is called a theophany, God appearing in human form to be able to communicate with Adam and Eve. In the periods following that we just don’t know how God communicated and interacted with the likes of Cain, Noah, etc. and perhaps it is only when we come to a much longer record of His interaction with Abram that we can really start to make some reasonable assumptions about the sort of ‘Being’ we dealing with. Here are some of those:

The Patriarchs: In Genesis. Watching the interaction between God and Abram, (who later is renamed Abraham), Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, I want to suggest we see:

  • A God who is Creator of all things.
  • A God who thus sees and knows and understands everything there is to know about us.
  • A God who has a purpose for the earth which stretches far into the future.
  • A God who reveals Himself to mankind very gradually.
  • A God who persists with our slowness to understand, yet works to mature us.
  • A God who can intervene in His material world and bring what we call ‘miraculous’ changes.
  • A God who knows the future and plans and purposes through His people to enable them to cope with it.
  • A God who works for the good of mankind and to draw mankind back to Him after the Fall.

Moses: When we come to the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy and the life of Moses and the embryonic Israel, I suggest we see the following:

  • A God who is all-powerful and can deal with arrogant despots and superstitious, occult-following nations.
  • A God of revelation who wishes to impart His plans and purposes to those who will listen.
  • A God who planned to bring a unique nation into being to reveal Himself to the world.
  • A God who has designed this world and knows best how mankind can ‘work’ and who works to convey that to us and to present standards to be followed, which if they are not, result in self-destruction.
  • A God who will discipline to bring correction and under dire circumstances will bring judgment on some to save His world for the others.

These latter things in Exodus are, of course, only just starting to become obvious at the time of the giving of the Law. Nevertheless the Lord has already communicated various things about Himself to Moses at the burning bush (see Ex 3)

Origin of LORD: In our starter verses there is no printing mistake in the capitalising of the word LORD when He says, “I am the LORD your God.”  To see why that is like that there you need to go back to Ex 3 where God first contacts Moses and describes Himself. First of all He says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” (Ex 3:6) In other words, I am the God you have been told about who has had dealings with your patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There is a continuity of history even at this stage.

But then, after Moses had asked His name, who he should tell the Israelites had sent him, He went on to say, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: `I AM has sent me to you.’” (Ex 3:14) These things are repeated in the following verses and in your Bible there is a footnote that “the word for LORD (in capital letters) sounds like and may be derived from the Hebrew for I AM in verse 14.” Therefore, from then on, when God’s ‘name’ is used it is always in this form and may be taken as “The I AM” or, ‘the eternal one’, if you like. Verse 15 links the earlier v.6 with that later reference in verse 14. God identifies Himself not only as ‘the eternal one’, the one outside history, but also the God of the patriarchs, the God who has had dealings with men. He is the God who works outside of time AND into time-space history. So the ‘name’ from there on, that is printed, ‘LORD’, always conveys this sense – the Eternal One, the I AM, the One who always is.

Back to Abraham: We have just been suggesting that God reveals Himself, first to the Patriarchs of what became Israel, and then to Moses and then to all of the new nation of Israel. As an aside, there are some suggestions that He had already revealed himself to others. Studies of ancient Chinese suggest that they knew of this creator God who had the same characteristics as revealed to Israel.

But back in the Bible, earlier in Genesis, when Abram had just rescued Lot, we find the king of Jerusalem (otherwise known as Salem) came to him: “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” (Gen 14:18-20) Note that he describes God as “Creator of heaven and earth”. There is clearly prior revelation here about the Lord, a unique being who is greater than anything or anyone else we can comprehend, who is the originator of everything we know in material and spiritual existence. THIS is the God we are introduced to in the Bible. We will consider some more of just who He is as we start to properly consider the first commandment in the next study.

Application: May I suggest we pray something like, “Lord God, you who are Creator of all things, we bow before you and worship you. Thank you that you have gradually revealed much about yourself through your word. Thank you that you know us, love us, and call us to yourself, just like you did with Abram. Thank you that you have plans and purposes for us that are good. Thank you that you understand that we are but like little children and are often slow to learn, but you love us, accept us as we are, and persevere with us. Thank you for this wonderful accepting and understanding love. Amen.”

2. Seeking Context

Revisiting the Ten Commandments: 2. Seeking  Context

Ex 20:1,2    And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt , out of the land of slavery.

Our Source: As I wrote in the previous series, the Ten Commandments appear in Ex 20 and Deut 5. In Exodus it was the first time they were conveyed by God to Moses and in Deuteronomy it is Moses reminding the people of what had happened, just before he left them and they entered the Promised Land.

Our Beginning: Again may I start us off as I did previously:  “And God spoke all these words.” If you are an unbelieving skeptic then of course you will struggle with this but then you will struggle with all of the Bible. All I can do is ask you to open your mind to the possibility and see if you can catch the reality as we go through these studies. Yes, these words came to be written down on stone or slate slabs but initially they are spoken out loud (Ex 20:1-17) so that Moses hears them as he stands in God’s presence on Mount Sinai (otherwise known as Horeb). They are followed by the Lord giving a lot more ‘laws’ (Ex 21:1) that we find in chapters 21,22 and halfway through chapter 23 which Moses then conveys to the people who affirm their acceptance of them (Ex 24:3) and he then writes them down (Ex 24:4)  and that becomes the ‘Book of the Covenant’ or the basis of their agreement with God.

Tablets of Stone: Now there is also reference to God writing down on two stone tablets these laws: “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.” (Ex 24:12) and, “When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.” (Ex 31:18) After the debacle of the Golden Calf when Moses smashed these two tablets of stone in anger, the Lord called him to create two new tablets (Ex 34:1a) and although the Lord said He would rewrite the commands (v.1b) it was in fact Moses who chiselled the words: “Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.” (Ex 34:28) Now although your Bible may have a title in chapter 20 with the number, this is in fact the first reference to the ‘Ten Commandments’ and we thus understand that that was all that was on these two tablets of stone, written originally by God but imparted by God and written by Moses the second time.

The Grace of God: Now in the next study we will consider in more detail something of the nature or character of God as revealed in the text in chapter 20, but for the moment I want us to look outside those specific words and consider the whole context of these laws being given to Moses. Consider what we know of Israel up to this point in chapter 34 of Exodus where we have just been:

– God called a reticent Moses (Ex 3 & 4) to go back to Egypt to deliver the people of Israel out of Egypt.

– when he meets the elders they initially believe him (Ex 4:29-31)

– when Pharaoh turns nasty, the people turn on Moses (Ex 5:6-21)

– when Moses passes on God’s encouragement they refuse to listen (Ex 6:9)

– as the ten plagues develop Pharaoh sends them out of the land but then pursues them and the people have a crisis of confidence at the Red Sea and blame Moses (Ex 14:10-12)

– their journey across the desert from Egypt to the south of Canaan is a story of complaint and grumbling by the people again and again.

The point I would make here is that the God who describes Himself as the one who “brought you out of Egypt , out of the land of slavery,”  is a God of immense graciousness. He is the One – and it is only Him – who brings Israel out of Egypt, He is the One – and it is only Him – who provides for them miraculously in their desert travels.  Now this needs saying because so often whenever they – and we – hear words of ‘command’, that thing called Sin (that propensity towards self-centred godlessness) rises up in objection because we do not realize the shear love and goodness of God whose intentions towards Israel and towards us are always good. He always purposes good for us. What we have here is a God who made this world for our provision and pleasure and who interacts with this world and speaks to individuals in this world and it is all to bless us and get us back on the right track after the Fall.

The Design of God: He can now be identified as the one who delivered Israel miraculously out of the hands of the most powerful despot in the world. There are those who would wish to acclaim the Ten Commandments as the most sublime and perfect set of laws the world has seen (but we will see that in reality they don’t mean that), and they would like to leave it at that, but that ignores the context. These are laws that God gives to His chosen people, a people who have come to know Him through His dealings with them both through the patriarchs and now through the release from slavery.

This is not to say that these laws cannot be adhered to by those who have not become believers but, as we shall see, when the first four are all about attitudes towards God Himself, it is difficult to see how they can be adopted in total by those who would reject Him. When we come to see each individual law, we will see that outside of God there is no foundation and reason for them to be followed. God Himself puts meaning into each law and without him they are mere tokens of civilization!

So the first thing about these ten commandments, is not how wonderful they are as simple laws, but the fact that they are laws given by the gracious God, the Maker of the Universe, the One who has designed this world to work in a particular way and who now reveals something of that way to us. This gracious God seeks to convey to this nation that His design for the people of the world – starting with them – is a way of life that is first founded on their knowledge of Him and only then in respect of one another. These laws are how to build a good society, a good community, but if it is to be meaningful and lasting, that people must first and foremost realize the wonder and the grace and the goodness of this God. The temptation – and it was seen in the subsequent history of Israel – is to separate the nation and their laws from the God who created both. It never works; if you separate God from His ‘design laws’, if you forget Him, you very soon start deviating from the laws and they lose their ability to guide the people.

And Us: This same principle of ‘separation of rules from God’ leading to failure, applies to us just as much as to Israel. It applies in raising families, it applies at work, it applies in Government, it applies in church. If we try to do these things by rules alone – ignoring or excluding God – we will soon find that the rules become a point of dispute, a cause of failure and a source of blame. Without consciously seeking the presence of God continually in my life and seeking Him for guidance, wisdom and power to comply with laws I may find in His word, I will soon find I am running on autopilot, probably using the Internet for helpful guidance, and losing touch with Him. The Ten Commandments without God may be ‘good rules’ but they will not bring life. Forgive me that I have taken up two studies before we actually get to the first of the commands, but these are essential matters if they are to release faith, life and love within us.

Application: Again, may we pray something like, “Lord God, thank you that you are a communicating God. Please open the eyes of my heart (Eph 1:18) to understand you. Thank you for the wonder of your grace that is revealed in your word. Please help me appreciate it more and more as every day goes by. Please help me see and be motivated by your love and grace that those may also become the key characteristics of my life as I seek to put you first in all things. Amen.”

1. Clearing the Ground

PART ONE: Introductory

Revisiting the Ten Commandments: 1. Clearing the Ground

Ex 20:1,2    And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt , out of the land of slavery.

Today: A number of years ago I wrote a series on ‘The Wonders of the Ten Commandments’. Just recently I happened to hear two messages on two of the commandments, the least said of which the better, but it provoked me to go back and reread what I had written previously. This was only to find a measure of dissatisfaction about what I had written which then provoked me to consider how I now view these commands given to Moses on Mount Sinai. (I may use some of the previous material here but emphasize context and application more).

Two Questions: Listening and then rereading these commands afresh has caused me to ponder three questions: first, why should we think these commandments are relevant today and, second, how are we to convey them so that they release faith and not guilt and, third, how can we teach them with a sense of realism and honesty? (I will explain below)

i) Loss of Confidence: The first of those three questions needs to be considered in an age that, in the West at least, has moved more into situational, relative or even personal ethics that says, who are you to say what I should or should not do, my circumstances are different from yours, let me just live my life as I want! Put alongside this a way of thinking that has become more and more vocal in recent years, even in those who once attended church – “well there are so many translations and paraphrases of the Bible today, that are saying different things, can we really believe any of them?” or, “well, there are so many difficulties with the Bible that we now realize today that it has lost its credibility and so we need to reject large parts of it.” There are a whole spectrum of these bad ways of thinking and so without giving answers to such things here, I will simply say that I think that all of these negatives are the result of poor reading or even the absence of reading the Bible, and the more and more we do read it and think about what we read, the more we will be confident about what we find there.

ii) Avoiding Legalism & Self Effort: The fact is that with these Ten Commandments we have the best known part of the Law of Moses and so if we are to convey teaching about them we have to recognize two things. First, these are law. Second, law does not release faith. There is a way of teaching in evangelical circles that can only be described as ‘behavioral teaching’, i.e. we focus on behaviour and demand adherence to it. Now the fact that that is so common testifies to its validity; we are to conform to God’s design, but the big issue is how our behaviour comes about.

Behavioral teaching focuses on me, the individual, and sets goals for me to conform to. Behavioral teaching says, “This is what you ought to do, this is how you should behave.” That is law. It’s what the Pharisees of Jesus’ day said. The problem is that you only need to read Romans chapter 7 to realize that even the great apostle Paul struggled with trying to conform to the law. All of our struggles to conform to the legalistic preacher’s expectations of us, so often only produce failure and with failure comes a sense of guilt and even hopelessness. Often associated with this is the ‘method approach’ of behaviour – these are the things you need to do, the way you need to think and how you need to order them – which is very common, especially from ‘the cousins’ across the water who are so good at systematizing behaviour. This can seem to produce a good result, but when you examine it carefully, it tends to be godless. It mentions God, but the working out of it is by human effort and human planning which can proceed without the presence of God within it. It also tends to create a judgmental attitude against those who don’t seem to be doing very well at conforming to the requirements.

What, I suggest, we need instead is what I might call ‘identity teaching’ which says, this is who you are in Christ, this is the wonder of what he has done for you, this is what he thinks about you, here are the resources he has provided for you, and here is the wonder of the life that you can aspire to with the help of his Spirit and his word.   When we realize the wonder of what he has done for us and what he thinks about us, what are the resources he has provided for us (most simply put – his work on the Cross and the provision of his indwelling Holy Spirit), experience his presence in revelatory word or power, that will release love in us which is aspirational and enabled, and brought with a sense of wonder that encourages us to reach out and up for greater things.

iii) The Need for Realism and Honesty: There is,  further, a style of teaching from the pulpit that asks the congregation to think about and come up with answers about personal life-styles, and the Ten Commandments provide a fertile ground for this approach which, I am going to suggest, is unreal.  I have observed this many times and so, to take just one example in the Ten Commandments series, the preacher doesn’t preach and convey truth but asks, “I want you to think what are the idols in your life, for we all have them,” and they make various suggestions and may even line this up with what are to sort of things you would find difficult to let go of in your life, using Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac as an example. Other likely ‘idols’ may be careers, ambition, loved ones, your home, your car etc. etc. I have heard all of these things more than a few times over the decades of preaching that I have listened to.

A Way Ahead? Now please hear me clearly. I accept that it is quite possible that we elevate these things, any or all of them, to unhealthy heights. We may be dominated by oppressive family ties, we may feel insecure and so be worrying about making money go round, we may not have got to the point where some irresponsible character scratching our car is not the end of the world, but I would like to suggest a simple check list of things that might help us here:

  1. Unless the Spirit of God convicts you of the wrongness of a particular attitude you may have, (or it blatantly conflicts with Scripture) I suggest trawling our minds and memories for points of failure is simply providing the enemy with fertile grounds for breeding deception, guilt and a sense of failure, and there are many in the church who, having been brought up in this school, suffer ongoing guilt, strongly vulnerable to the lying whispers of the enemy. Your concern for money may simply be a concern to provide for your family. It may become idolatrous if you never take it to the Lord seeking His help, but then anything we keep from Him has that potential, and that is at the heart of the matter.
  2. Trying to assess your success levels of behaviour breeds deception. Constantly trying to assess our attitudes quite often not only breeds the guilt I referred to above, but it gives you a false sense of achievement and superiority over those less capable individuals around you. Some commands of God in Scripture are easy to assess, we think, such as don’t lie, but then we have to think further when we realize Rahab lied (Josh 2:4-6) and so perhaps it isn’t always quite clear, which is why we constantly need to seek Him for wisdom and learn to catch the Scripture-wide teaching. That we’ll try and do.
  3. Focusing on achievement, therefore, invites deception and failure. Focusing on the wonder of God, His love for you and His good intentions towards you, creates a sense a sense of living freedom which releases from insecurity and paves the way towards growth and being a blessing to God and those around you. A life conforming to His word, and of being led, inspired and empowered by the loving and wonderful Holy Spirit, is ‘life’ and life flows and grows.

And So? So the question arises, how can we approach these ‘commands’ and ‘laws’ in such a way that they thrill us not threaten us, empower us not enrage us (for God giving us impossible goals!)? The answer I suspect is by truth and grace (of which Jesus was full – see Jn 1:14). Can we seek out the truth behind each of these ten commandments and can we view them as the grace of God that is being held out to us? They were given originally to a brand new nation, Israel, in its embryonic and primitive state.  We today have the whole canon of Scripture to help enlighten us which includes Jesus’ take on some of these things, so we’re in a better place to comprehend them. They struggled over the centuries, as we’ll see, to be obedient because they hadn’t the clarity of God’s Goal that we now have in the entire Bible, focused by Jesus and by his Spirit. Come with an open heart, praying for wisdom, relying on Him in prayer as you approach each one, and together let’s see if we can open our hearts to Him in a new way. Amen? Amen!

Application:  I think these Commandments, and therefore these studies, ought to direct us to God and so I wish to conclude each study with a ‘devotional’ suggestion. We have been considering in this first study how we may go about studying these commandments, so may we pray now, something like, “Lord, please open my eyes to see the wonder of your commands, not as harsh instructions but as gifts of grace to my life to bless me, as I believe that is what they are supposed to be. Amen.”