Exodus: The Birth of the Nation

Series ID: 

1. Pharaoh’s Fears and Israel’s Faith (Exodus 1)

Introduction to This Series

“The trouble with the Bible … is that so much of it is Old Testament. And the trouble with the Old Testament is just that. It is old. Now, of course, for some things, oldness speaks of permanence and lasting, even increasing, value. For other things, oldness spells outmoded, obsolete and irrelevant. Which category does the Old Testament belong to?”1

In the prologue to his excellent book, An Eye for an Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today, Christopher J. H. Wright raises a question which troubles many Christians today. And for those whom it does not trouble, it should. It is with a great deal of enthusiasm and expectation that I commence this Old Testament study, beginning with the Book of Exodus.2 I believe we will find, as Wright’s excellent book shows, that the Old Testament is a book rich in relevance to the New Testament saint.

Specifically, this series begins with the “birth” of the nation Israel, as described in the Book of Exodus, a book rich in themes which will recur in the Old and New Testaments.3 While we will not cover this book in a thorough, chapter-by-chapter analysis, we will begin our study in chapter 1, which sets the stage for the drama of the Exodus.

Introduction to This Message

Francis Shaeffer has written a book entitled God is There and He is Not Silent. Without disagreeing with this book or its message, I do believe that there are times when God is there, but He is, at least from our perspective, silent. I believe that you can see this in the Psalms when the psalmist cries out to God, as it were, “Where are you, God?”4 Have you not experienced times in your life, especially times of adversity, when it appeared as though God was not present? The period of time depicted in the first chapter of Exodus is one of those times—a time when from all appearances, God was silent. Nevertheless, God was there. We shall learn to see His hand in those “silent times” as we study this first chapter of Exodus more carefully.

Linking the Past and the Present

Verses 1-7 serve to link the events of the Book of Genesis5 and those recorded in the Book of Exodus. These two books were intended to be understood in relationship to each other.6 Verses 1-6 sum up the history of Israel as a clan, as described more thoroughly in Genesis, chapters 12-50. These six verses remind us that all that is going to take place in this book is directly related to what has gone before as described in Genesis.7 The curse of God in Genesis 3 included hard toil, which is surely the lot of Israel in Egypt. The salvation of mankind, as promised also in Genesis 3, was through the birth of a child. So too it was through the birth of a child (Moses, Exod. 2) that God provided a deliverer for His people. As men strove to provide themselves with security and significance by the building of a city and a tower, using bricks and mortar, so Egypt sought to secure herself by forcing the Israelites to build cities with bricks and mortar (compare Gen. 11 with Exod. 1:14; 5:1ff.).

Most importantly, this portion of the introduction to the Book of Exodus (Exod. 1:1-6) links the existence and rapid growth of Israel as a nation to the covenant which God made with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:12ff.), and which He reiterated to the patriarchs (Isaac: Gen. 26:2-5, 24; Jacob: Gen. 28:13-15). The sons of Israel and their families numbered 70 (v. 5) when they arrived in Egypt,8 a mere clan. But when the “sons of Israel” leave Egypt, they do so as a great nation (Exod. 1:7, 12, 20; 12:37).

Verse 7 fills in a nearly 400-year gap covering the period from the death of Joseph9 to the time of the Exodus. If it were not for this verse and the remainder of chapter one, we would know little of this period of time.

A moment’s reflection will cause us to remember that there are other periods in history which are likewise neglected in the biblical record. There is, for example, the 400-year period of silence between the post-exilic prophets (Malachi, for example), and the books of the New Testament.10 There is also the period of silence from the time of the close of the New Testament canon (the Book of Revelation) to the present day.

What should we conclude from those periods in time which biblical revelation seems to pass over unmentioned? Shall we say that these periods of time, the events and the people involved, are of no concern or interest to God? Certainly not. Shall we say that because God is silent about these times (at least in the Scriptures), He is not only uninterested, but also uninvolved?

Personally, I conclude that there are times when God is there, but when He is silent. By this I mean that God is at work, but that He is not, at that moment in time, telling us what He is doing, nor is He publicly displaying His purposes or His power. At such times (and at other times as well) God is at work providentially. He is at work behind the scenes, and in ways that at the time are not immediately apparent. Verses 8-22 focus on the particular things which God was doing during this period of persecution which are important to the purpose of the Book of Exodus. These verses give us a great deal of insight into those periods of time when God appears to be silent, when He is at work providentially, bringing His purposes to pass, or preparing history for another of His dramatic interventions into the affairs of men.

Lest we conclude that God is altogether silent about certain periods of history, let me remind you that even though God may not record the history of a certain period in detail, He will often foretell of the events in order to prepare those who will live in such times. For example, this 400-year period of time was the subject of a divine revelation to Abraham, long before it would take place:

Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:13-16).

This brief prophetic description of this dark period of time in Israel’s history is proof of the faithfulness of God with regard to the fulfillment of His promises. Abraham’s descendants did dwell in Egypt, under bondage, for 400 years. They were brought forth, and with great riches given freely by the Egyptians. They did return to the promised land, just as God had promised.

So too events occurring in other periods of time concerning which the Scriptures have been silent (the 400-year inter-testamental period and the time from the close of the New Testament canon until now) have been foretold in advance by means of prophecy. Through Daniel (e.g. chapter 2) the kingdoms of the world were foretold. And through various Old and New Testament prophecies, the events of the last days and of the return of Christ are described. Thus, God has prepared men, in advance, for those periods of relative silence.

As we leave verses 1-7 let us keep two words in mind which will enable us to summarize the role of this section. The two words are CONTINUITY and CONTRAST. We are reminded of the continuity of God’s program by the fact that the promises and purposes of God commenced in the Book of Genesis are continued in the Book of Exodus. We see the contrast between these two books: a small handful of men entered Egypt to dwell with Joseph, but a great multitude will leave Egypt with Moses to dwell in the promised land. It is this rapid growth of Israel, in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and in preparation for possessing the land, which was the result of God’s providential dealings with Israel under the cruel hand of the Egyptians.11 Let us look then at the providential hand of God in this period of Israel’s history.

A New King and a New Policy

When Joseph brought his family to be with him in Egypt, they came to the “best of the land” (Gen. 47:6,11). Even at this time there was an underlying prejudice against the Israelites as Hebrews (Gen. 43:32) and as shepherds (Gen. 46:34). There is considerable disagreement among the scholars as to the identity of this “new king, who did not know about Joseph” (Exod. 1:8). Much of the problem hinges on the date of the Exodus, a matter which we shall not discuss here in detail.12 Keeping with an early date for the Exodus, it is most likely that the king referred to here was new in a very significant sense. He represented not only a new person, but also very likely a new dynasty.

An Asiatic people of Semitic origin (thus, related to the Hebrews) began to migrate into Egypt, eventually gaining control of the government at a time of weakness and confusion during the Second Intermediate Period. The Hyksos13 ruled for about 150 years during the time of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, from about 1700 to 1550 B.C. The Hyksos kings were “Egyptianized,” assuming the title of Pharaoh,14 and adopting the gods of Egypt. The Hyksos capital was very close to Goshen where the Israelites had settled in Egypt. It would seem that the “new king” of Exodus 1:8 was a Hyksos king, and he would thus truly be “new” as Moses has indicated, especially if he succeeded an Egyptian king. Note also that he is not called an Egyptian. In the light of these considerations, Davis suggests the following rendering of verse 10: “Come on, let us [Hyksos] deal wisely with them [Israelites], lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when war occurs, they join also unto our enemies [the Egyptians], and fight against us [Hyksos], and so get them up out of the land.”15

If indeed a small minority of Hyksos had gained control over Egypt, it is not a surprise that these “foreigners” would have had no knowledge of Joseph. In fact, there would very likely be a tendency to try to blot out the past and to create a new allegiance to the Hyksos dynasty. It would also explain the fear of the Hyksos king that the Israelites might join with their enemies (the Egyptians) to overthrow their (foreign) rule.

The fears of the Pharaoh (be he a Hyksos or an Egyptian) are of interest: “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country” (Exod. 1:9-10).

He feared the numerical strength of the Israelites, and sought to diminish them. He feared that they would become allies with the enemy against their rule, and would overcome them and leave Egypt. Interestingly, everything Pharaoh feared came to pass, in spite of his diligent efforts to prevent it. The reason is, of course, that the Pharaoh’s plans were contrary to the purposes and promises of God with regard to His people.

Pharaoh’s plan, which was readily adopted by the people, was to enslave the Israelites, and to tighten their control over them. A substantial part of this plan seems to be that of intimidation and oppression, so demoralizing and frightening the Israelites that they would not dare to resist their masters. In addition, their value as slave labor would be utilized to strengthen the nation both economically and militarily. The storage cities of Pithom and Rameses16 were built by the Israelites with brick and mortar,17 and the fields were worked by them as well. Josephus claims that Israelite manpower was also used to dig canals.18

Just as Israel had greatly multiplied during the time of Joseph (cf. Gen. 47:27) and after his death (Exod. 1:7), so they continued to multiply under the cruel hand of their taskmasters: But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians19 came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly (Exod. 1:12-13).

The Egyptian response to the continued phenomenal numerical growth of the Israelites was to increase the workload and to intensify the harassment and cruelty imposed on them by their taskmasters (1:14). It is apparent that these tactics did not work, which led to an even more evil plot directed against the people of God, as outlined in verses 15-21.

Pharaoh and the Midwives

Considerable time had passed since the first stage of oppression had been initiated, as described in verses 1-11. Frustrated by the utter failure of previous administrations to curtail the rapid growth of the Israelites, concern seemed to have turned to near panic. It was one thing to outnumber the Hyksos, a mere fraction of the population of Egypt. It was quite another to threaten the Egyptians themselves. The birth rate must be dramatically changed. To bring this about, the Pharaoh turned to the Hebrew20 midwives,21 two of whom are mentioned specifically here,22 either as specific examples, or as leaders.

Pharaoh’s demands are incredible. First of all, this is an abominable act of violence against the innocent. Second, I am amazed that Pharaoh passes on all responsibility for the death of these Hebrew infants. He wants the midwives to solve this national dilemma of the Hebrew birth rate. The plan is virtually unworkable. How were the boy children to be “terminated”? Were the deaths to look accidental? How could Pharaoh expect any Hebrew woman to call for a midwife if it were known that all boy babies were somehow dying at their hand? I see here a poorly conceived (pardon the pun) plan, decreed by a desperate man.

The midwives feared God more than Pharaoh, and so they refused to put the infant boys to death (1:17). This infuriated the Pharaoh, who summoned the midwives and demanded an explanation. They respond that the Hebrew women were in such good physical condition that their children were born too quickly, before they could even arrive to help (1:19). Whether or not this was the full explanation,23 it ironically points to the affliction of the Israelites as a boon to child-bearing, rather than as a hindrance. The previous plan had backfired in the Pharaoh’s face. Hard work produced more Hebrew babies.

For their fear of God, these midwives were rewarded in two ways. The first blessing is more immediately evident than the second. The first blessing was that of being fruitful themselves: “So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, He gave them families of their own” (Exod. 1:20-21).

Hyatt suggests one possible reason why child-bearing may have been a special blessing to these midwives: “It is possible that barren women were regularly used as midwives; if so, their reward is that they become fertile and have families.”24 The blessing of bearing children was not denied the Hebrew women, and neither was it denied the Hebrew midwives.

There is another blessing not as apparent but very significant, I believe. If someone asked you the names of the midwives, what would you answer? From this text you could quickly respond, “Shiphrah and Puah.” Now if I asked you the names of any of the pharaohs mentioned in this chapter, could you respond from this text? No! Many have speculated as to the identity of the pharaohs, but this is still speculation. Think of it, the highest official in the land, old “what’s his name.” These men’s names were known and feared by millions, but we don’t even know who they were. And this in spite of such massive projects as the building of pyramids and extensive efforts as mummifying the bodies of kings.

Unfortunately, some have failed to see that the omission of the names of the pharaohs is deliberate, and in contrast to the naming of the midwives.25 What a gracious gift of God to these two God-fearing Hebrew midwives—He records their names for an example to believers throughout the centuries. God doesn’t really care that much about the name of the king, king “what’s his name,” but He is intimately concerned with Shiphrah and Puah, for they trust and obey Him. What better honor than to be known and remembered by God.

As I have considered the naming of the midwives but not the Pharaoh’s, my mind turned to some interesting passages of Scripture. I am reminded of the biblical proverb which says, “The memory of the righteous will be a blessing, But the name of the wicked will rot” (Prov. 10:7), and of the psalmist who prayed: “May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation. … May their sins always remain before the Lord, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth” (Ps. 109:13,15).

God cares not about your position or your prestige in life, my friend. He cares only if you fear Him and have trusted in His Son, Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life. If you are His child, by faith, He knows you by name. If not, no matter what your earthly splendor or power, you are a “what’s his name” to God, and you will spend eternity away from His presence.

The futility of the Pharaoh’s military conquests and building projects is typified by this poem of Shelley:


I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.26

Overshadowing the figure of the Pharaoh, the heroes of our chapter are Shiphrah and Puah. They feared God more than men. They applied that fear of God to the practical outworkings of their day-to-day lives. They lived their faith where God had put them. It was not such a dramatic thing to do (daring, but not dramatic), but it revealed a faith that would not disobey the living God. Would that there were more saints of this variety today—saints who would live out their faith in whatever arena God has placed them, a faith that if necessary will defy the highest power in the land.

A Final Futile Effort

Pharaoh’s attempt to indirectly destroy the Israelite boy children had miserably failed. What he had attempted to do in a clandestine, underhanded fashion, Pharaoh will now demand openly: “Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: ‘Every boy that is born you must throw into the river, but let every girl live’” (Exod. 1:22). The intent of this decree is obvious. Pharaoh hopes not only to destroy the boy babies, but to enslave all the girl children, thus wiping out Israel as a distinct nation in one generation.27 What Pharaoh failed to discern was that he was simply a pawn of Satan, who was seeking to wipe out the seed from which Messiah was to come:

What Pharaoh did was, without his knowledge, a battle of the “serpent” against the “woman’s seed” (Gen. 3:15). For with the extermination of the Jews the coming of the Redeemer would have been made impossible, because, since Abraham, the promise concerning the Seed of the woman and the Treader-down of the serpent was definitely connected with this people (Gen. 12:1-3; John 4:22; Gal. 3:16).28

The struggle between Satan and “the seed” is one that can be found throughout biblical history. Satan has sought to corrupt the seed through the Canaanites (cf. Gen. 38; Num. 25). Now, at the time of the Exodus, he seeks to annihilate the seed by murder. Later on Satan will employ the jealousy of Herod, who will attempt to overthrow the “King of the Jews” by murdering many innocent children (Matt. 2).

The decree to murder the boy babies by drowning them is a part of Satan’s diabolical plan to destroy the seed which will destroy him. Once again Pharaoh puts the responsibility for killing infants on someone else, this time, the Egyptian people it would seem, or perhaps, the Hebrew parents: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the river, but let every girl live” (Exod. 1:22). It is this command which provides the backdrop for the drama of chapter 2, where the deliverer of Israel is born.

The application of these verses to the present American abomination of abortion on demand should be obvious. There is a deadly sequence of events in Exodus 1 which closely parallels the origins and rise of abortion in America. It begins with a disdain for those who threaten our self-interests. The Egyptians disdained the Israelites who seemed to endanger their position of power and prestige, just as Americans disdain children as an economic liability and an unwanted burden. The killing of the Israelites began as a matter of national policy, just as the Supreme Court’s decision opened the door to the mass slaughter of the innocent unborn. The killing is subtle at first, and then much more blatant. Pharaoh seemed to want the midwives to arrange for the death of the boy babies, making murder appear to be a result of the birth process. Finally, the boy babies were commanded to be thrown (after their birth) into the Nile. So too in our day, the abortions which once were allowed early in pregnancy now are performed very late, and children are also terminated after birth as well. Just as the murder of the babies was selective (boys only) in Egypt, so we kill babies for being of the “wrong” sex or for having a possible imperfection which may make our lives inconvenient. Let us not avoid seeing the great similarities between the murder of the infants in that day and in our own. Let us be like those midwives and have no part in such murder.


From a human perspective, things in Egypt have gone “from bad to worse” so far as the Israelites are concerned. A sojourn which began with a royal welcome by decree became slavery and then deteriorated to a plot to kill the Hebrew boy babies and to enslave the girl children. It would seem that things could hardly get worse. One might wonder if God was aware of what was taking place, and, if so, why He was not more involved.

As we consider the events of Exodus 1 we need to recognize that there are several points of view. From the human perspective, there is the selfish and sinful motivation of the Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, willing to sacrifice the Israelites to their own self-interest. There is also the perspective of the Israelites who may well have wondered where the God of their fathers was. The perspective of the Hebrew midwives should be our model. While they did not understand all that was going on, they did fear God, and they refused to obey the orders of Pharaoh when they were contrary to the will of God.

Then too there is the supernatural perspective which recognizes in all of the events of this chapter the hand of Satan, seeking to thwart the purposes of God by using the rulers of this world to his own ends. The battle between the Serpent and the seed is not to be overlooked in this Egyptian episode.

Finally, there is the divine perspective. God was achieving His purposes and promises largely unnoticed by any of the actors in this divine drama. The affliction and bondage of which God had foretold Abraham (Gen. 15:12-16) is fulfilled in this first chapter of Exodus. Through the bondage and adversity of those 430 years (cf. Exod. 12:40) a number of purposes were being providentially fulfilled. Let me briefly enumerate some of the “blessings” which resulted from the sufferings of the Israelites in Egypt.

(1) Israel was spared from absorption by the Canaanites through intermarriage by being sent to Egypt, where that nation’s prejudice precluded the kind of intermingling which was common in Canaan (cf. Gen. 38).

(2) Judgment on the Canaanites was delayed until her sins were filled to the brim (cf. Gen. 15:14-16).

(3) The light of God’s salvation was taken to the Egyptians by the Israelites. The multitude of those who left Egypt included some who were Egyptians.

(4) Israel was enabled to grow from a handful of people (70 men) to a great multitude. Can you imagine a clan of 70 men attempting to possess Canaan?

(5) God was preparing Israel physically for the rigors required in the wilderness and militarily for the warfare with the Canaanites. Also, God was preparing for the economic needs of the nation with a forced savings plan that put necessary capital in the hands of the Israelites when they left Egypt (cp. Gen. 15:14; Exod. 12:35-36).

Noting these benefits of the Egyptian sojourn, we can see that God was providentially working for the benefit of His people. We can therefore derive several principles from this passage which will help us in those times when the hand of God is not evident and when the forces of evil seem to be prevailing.

First, God’s purposes are being fulfilled, even when we are not actively involved in bringing them to pass.

Second, God’s purposes are being fulfilled, even when we are not aware of it and when every appearance points to the contrary.

Third, when this is the case, God has often previously announced prophetically what He is going to do during such times of apparent silence.

Fourth, when God is “silent” we must live by faith (as at all other times) and by the principles of His word.

Fifth, God’s purposes are as easily achieved in adversity as they are in comfort, and as readily accomplished through unbelievers as through the saints.

Sixth, there are great similarities between these experiences of Israel and the events of the last days before our Lord’s return.29

Finally, I want to say a word about God’s “editorial policy” as it is reflected in this chapter. The fact that God chooses to describe, in sketchy terms, a period of 400 years is an evidence of His sovereignty. But God does things for a purpose. As I thought through the message of this chapter, I realized that God has a purpose for what He does not say as well as for what He does reveal in the Scriptures. God has chosen to say little about the 400 years of Israel’s bondage in Egypt. The emphasis of what He does say is on the good intended which God was bringing out of the evil Pharaoh, Egypt, and the Evil One (cp. Gen. 50:20).

It occurred to me that God’s “editorial policy,” as reflected in Exodus 1, is diametrically opposed to that of the media today. If we were to read a secular account of this period in Israel’s history, we would have much more space devoted to the afflictions of the Israelites. We would have gruesome pictures, in full color, of sweaty Israelites, stumbling along in the slimy mud pits, making their bricks. We would have numerous “human interest” stories, all focusing on the plight of these people and the cruelty of the Egyptians.

This is not the emphasis of Exodus 1. Oh, we are told of the cruelty of the Egyptians and of the sufferings of the Israelites, but the emphasis of the chapter is on the faithfulness of God to His purposes, His promises, and His people. The thrust of the chapter is that in spite of Egypt’s efforts, God’s people miraculously grew in number and in strength. In all of this, God was preparing His people for deliverance and Egypt for judgment. God’s purposes were sure, and those whom God blessed were those who feared Him. God’s “editorial policy” is to deal briefly with human grief and misery, and to focus upon God’s grace and faithfulness. When you look at our chapter in this light, you can see that this is the case.

Let me ask you about your “editorial policy.” Every one of us “edits,” as it were the circumstances of our lives. The worrier edits out all of the good things, all of the positive possibilities, and highlights every element of possible pain and disaster. The grumbler edits out all of the blessings of God and focuses on those things which were painful and unpleasant. Faith edits life’s circumstances differently. It recognizes all of the evils of this life, but it does not emphasize them. Faith chooses to focus upon the purposes, the promises, and the power of God, and looks for His hand at work, preserving His people, and preparing them for the blessings which are to come. I urge you, my friend, to establish an “editorial policy” for the circumstances of your life which is like that of Moses, the human author of Exodus.

1 Christopher J. H. Wright, An Eye for an Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), p. 12.

2 The reason I have chosen to begin this series here is that I have already dealt with the Book of Genesis in 50 lessons.

3 “It would be hard to find a single major topic of Old, or even New, Testament that is not exemplified in the Book of Exodus. Many of the themes, used later in the Bible, actually take their rise in this book, in the interpreted experience of Israel, through the great events that led to her foundation as a people.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), p. 19. I highly recommend Cole’s commentary as the first commentary you purchase in your study of the Book of Exodus.

4 Cf. Psalm 73:1-14; 74:1ff.; 77:7-9; 79:1-5.

5 Genesis may have been written about the time of the Exodus. Since we believe Moses to be the author, it could not have been written sooner than shortly before the Exodus. Genesis would have provided an excellent backdrop for the Exodus, providing Israel with a reminder of her roots and of the basis for God’s blessings which were soon to be experienced.

6 “The initial ‘and’ found in the Hebrew makes clear that Exodus is not a new book, but simply the continuation of the Genesis story, and the fulfillment of the promises made to the partiarchs. But this is an appropriate place for a break: it is the last time in the Pentateuch that ‘sons of Israel’ is used to describe Jacob’s immediate family. From now on, the phrase will be a collective patronymic, describing the whole people of God, formed like any Arabic tribal name.” Cole, p. 53.

7 There are certain literary allusions which are intended to make these connections between Exodus and Genesis. For example the expression, “were fruitful and multiplied” (Exod. 1:7), is an allusion to the early chapters of Genesis: “The Hebrew deliberately repeats three verbs used in Genesis 1:21,22 which may be translated ‘were fruitful … swarmed … became numerous.’ This increase was interpreted as God’s promised blessing on His creation. A considerable time had passed since Joseph’s death: at the very shortest reckoning, Moses was the fourth generation after Levi (Nu. 26:58) and he may have been many hundred years later (Ex. 12:40).” Cole, p. 53.

8 In Genesis 46:26-27 the number of the direct descendants of Jacob, minus the wives of his sons, is 66 (v. 26), with the total number who came to Egypt numbered at 70 (v. 27). In the Septuagint (Greek) translation of this text, the number is 75 which agrees with Acts 7:14. There are various possible solutions to this problem. Davis suggests that the explanation is that the count of 75 would include the five grandsons of Joseph. John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 44.

“The sons are arranged according to their mothers, as in Genesis 35:23-26, with the sons of the two maidservants appearing last. The number of males that accompanied Jacob is given as 70 in verse 5. This is in agreement with a similar number which appears in Genesis 46:27 and Deuteronomy 10:22; however, the Septuagint reading of this text and Acts 7:14, which is apparently a quotation from the Septuagint text, reads seventy-five souls. … Notice that in Genesis 46:26 the figure of the descendants of Jacob is given as only sixty-six. This is due to the fact that Jacob, Joseph and his two sons were not included in the calculation.” Davis, p. 44.

9 In verse 6 the expression “now … but” seems significant to me. The sons of Israel were indeed blessed on account of Joseph, but even after his death, Israel continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Ultimately it was not Joseph who was the cause of Israel’s blessings, but God.

10 Even in the period of the life of our Lord, there is a great deal of disproportion (time-wise) evident in the gospels. A fair amount of space is devoted to the birth of our Lord, a very little space to His early childhood (Luke 2:39-52), and a great deal of space to the three years of His earthly ministry (with the greatest emphasis given to the last week of His life). We see selectivity everywhere in the Bible, in terms of what periods of time God has chosen to depict.

11 “Assuming that the original group to enter Egypt was at least 140 persons (the number 70 of verse 5 includes males only), the original population would have had to have doubled fourteen times to produce the number who took part in the exodus (about 2,000,000). This apparently reflects special divine blessing and intervention as promised in the Abrahamic covenant (cf. Gen. 12:2; 15:5).” Davis, pp. 47-48.

12 The vast majority of liberal scholars, along with a few conservatives, hold that the exodus took place in the thirteenth century B.C. As a rule conservative scholars hold to an earlier date of the exodus, in the fifteenth century (ca. 1440 B.C.). For a more extensive discussion of the issues from a conservative viewpoint see Davis (pp. 16-33), or Cole (pp. 40-43). There is also an excellent article cited by Davis entitled: “The Time of the Oppression and the Exodus,” by John Rea found in Grace Journal, II, No. 1 (Winter, 1961), pp. 7ff.

13 For a concise treatment of the Hyksos kings, see C. E. Devries, “Hyksos,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), II, pp. 787-788.

14 “Pharaoh is not a personal name, but the equivalent of ‘king of Egypt’ (vv. 8, 15, 17). The Egyptian word … means ‘great house.’ In the third millennium B.C. it designated the royal palace, but by 1800 B.C. it had become an epithet for the king. In the XVIIIth and XIXth dynasties it was a royal title, and by the ninth century it was prefixed to the royal name (e.g. Pharaoh Shishak).” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 58.

15 Davis, p. 46.

16 The mention of these two cities has become a major argument in support of the exodus late date. See Rea (cited above for a refutation of this) pp. 6-10.

17 The mention of “bricks and mortar” brings to mind the futile efforts of fallen men to build the city and the tower of Babel (cf. Gen. 11:1-4).

18 Cf. Davis, p. 49.

19 The term “Egyptians” here may indicate that the period of Hyksos rule has ended, and that the oppression begun by them was continued and even increased by the Egyptian rulers (cf. Rea, p. 8). The general population of Egypt, who had to support such oppression, was the same, even when the government changed hands.

20 There is some discussion as to the precise meaning of the term “Hebrew” here, since it is used in both a narrow and in a broader sense: “The name ‘Hebrew’ is derived from the name ‘Eber’ (the opposite, on the other side; Gen. 10:21, 24; 11:4, 15), and rests, apparently upon a family migration, unknown to us, of the forbearers of Abraham from ‘beyond’ the Jordan … the word ‘Hebrew’ is at first the description of pre-Abrahamic-Semitic family groups. … Only later did the name become the national description of the Old Testament covenant people as a political and ethnic unit, in contrast to other though related peoples. …” Erich Sauer, The Dawn of World Redemption (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951), pp. 111-112.

I personally understand these midwives are Israelites. It would have been only natural for the Israelite women to turn to Israelite midwives for help in child-bearing. Also the term “Hebrew” is repeated in 16 with reference to the Israelite women.

21 “The Hebrew word ‘midwife’ … literally means ‘one who helps to bear.’ The midwife aided at childbirth by taking the newborn child, cutting its umbilical cord, washing the baby with water, salting, and wrapping it (cf. Ezek. 16:4).” Davis, p. 50.

22 “The name of the first midwife, Shiphrah, appears in nearly the same form in the Brooklyn Museum Papyrus, dated about 1740 B.C.” Davis, pp. 49-50.

23 I am inclined to see here a less than complete answer to the Pharaoh. I doubt that what was said was untrue, however. What was not said was that the midwives refused to obey the king of Egypt, choosing rather to obey God than men. Such a bold statement may have cost these women their lives.

24 Hyatt, p. 61.

25 Hyatt, for example, writes, “… the writer apparently does not know his name.” Hyatt, p. 58. This is an even sadder observation when we realize that Hyatt does not even seem to know the name of the author—Moses, and that he thinks Moses didn’t know the name of the Pharaoh even though he grew up in the home of the Pharaoh.

26 “Ozy Mandias” by Shelley, The Oxford Anthology of English Poetry, Vol. II, edited by John Wain, (New York: Oxford University Press) 1990, p. 224.

27 “These [daughters] presumably would become slave wives, and so could be absorbed by the Egyptians in a generation.” Cole, p. 56.

28 Sauer, p. 118.

29 I encourage you to explore the similarities between the conditions described in Exodus 1, before the deliverance of God, and the conditions in the last days, before the return of Christ.

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2. The Preservation and Preparation of Israel’s Deliverer (Exodus 2)


A number of years ago, liberal students of the Scriptures determined that their calling was not to interpret the Bible as it was but to “demythologize” it so that the text could be restored to what it should be. The evangelical community was outraged, and rightly so. We believe that the Bible AS IT IS is the revealed Word of God: inspired, inerrant, and authoritative. Deeply committed to these fundamental presuppositions, I have no desire to “demythologize” the text which we are about to study. I do, however, intend to “demythologize” some of our assumptions as to what this text actually says, for many of our views of the events in Exodus 2 are more the product of our own imagination than the result of a careful study of the passage itself, along with the New Testament commentary on its message and meaning.

Few stories in the Bible are more familiar to us than that of Moses who is set afloat in the waters of the Nile and rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh. The interesting thing about this incident in Exodus 2 is that Christians today think of this chapter largely in terms of that little papyrus “ark,” while the New Testament writers almost completely pass over this aspect of the event to focus on other matters, which we must conclude are more important. In Acts 7:21 Stephen simply says that Moses “was placed outside.” The writer to the Hebrews passes over the basket episode altogether, choosing to call our attention to the three previous months when the parents of Moses hid him in their house, defying the order of Pharaoh.

As we approach our study, we shall seek to better understand the events of the chapter and then explore the meaning of these events as recorded for our edification and instruction (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).

In the first chapter of the Book of Exodus, we saw the hand of God providentially working to fulfill His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This He had done by bringing Joseph to Egypt and by their prospering and growth during the time of Pharaoh’s favor. While Egypt was being reduced to servitude (Gen. 47:20-21), the household of Jacob was prospering (Gen. 47:11-12, 27; Exod. 1:7). The phenomenal numerical growth of Israel continued, even after the rise to power of a new king who established a policy of cruelty and oppression toward the Israelites (Exod. 1:8ff). In Exodus 1 we saw the faith of the Hebrew midwives evidenced in their determination to save the boy babies contrasted with the Pharaoh’s fervent efforts to kill them.

In chapter 2, we find God’s hand at work in the history of Israel, preserving the life of one child who will become Israel’s deliverer. There are three incidents in Moses’ life portrayed in this chapter. First is the birth of Moses and his divinely ordained deliverance (vss. 1-10). The second is Moses’ attempt to deliver some of his Hebrew brethren from the oppression of an Egyptian slave master (vss. 11-15). The third event is his help being offered the daughters of Reuel at the well which led to his marriage and sojourn in Midian (vss. 16-25). In each of these incidents, there is a common thread showing Moses as a deliverer of the oppressed. Let us look at each of the three events in the life of Moses, and seek to discover the message which God has for us in this divinely inspired record of them.

Moses—Out of the Water

The previous chapter ended with the decree of Pharaoh to all of his people: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the river, but let every girl live” (Exod. 1:22). This command is the backdrop for the first 10 verses of chapter 2, where Moses, a newborn Hebrew baby boy, is “thrown into the Nile” in a basket, in token obedience to the Pharaoh, and taken out of the river by none other than the Pharaoh’s daughter.

It may seem needless to say, but the account is not only portrayed as history,30 but it is history and not myth. Unfortunately, some “scholars” find themselves unable to accept the biblical account as accurate and authoritative.31

We are told that a particular Hebrew man of the tribe of Levi married a woman who was also of the same tribe (v. 1). Later on, we learn that the man’s name is Amram and the mother’s is Jochebed (Exod. 6:20). The fact that both the man and his wife are of the tribe of Levi is a point which Moses wants us to view as significant.32

To this couple, a child was born. The mother is said to have sensed something special about the child which prompted her to hide him for three months. Verse 2 is rendered several ways by translators: “… he was a fine child” (NIV), “… he was beautiful” (NASB), “… he was exceptionally well-formed” (Berkeley), “… he was a goodly child” (King James). In the New Testament we find the child described thus: “… he was no ordinary child” [margin: “was fair in the sight of God”] (NIV), “… no ordinary child” (Heb. 11:23).

The problem which I have with these translations is that they do not accurately convey the meaning of the original terms, and they do not provide us with an acceptable reason for the actions of Moses’ parents which could thus be considered a commendable act of faith. The two principle explanations of the statement in verse 2 are: (1) that the child was exceedingly well-formed and beautiful; and (2) that the parents somehow perceived that God had a special purpose for this child.

The first suggestion seems to be a takeoff on the old song that goes something like this: “You must have been a beautiful baby …” But dare we conclude that the baby Moses was simply too good looking to throw to the crocodiles? Does this mean that all of the other parents were justified in casting their ugly (and what parent has ever viewed their baby as ugly) babies into the Nile? Surely good looks is not the basis of Moses’ deliverance. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that the parents of the child acted on faith which must preclude outward appearances such as good looks. That Moses was simply “a beautiful baby” is not a satisfactory explanation for the action which his parents took.

Other renderings (e.g. “no ordinary child”) suggest that the parents of Moses saw beyond the child’s good looks to something even more special in him. His parents, we are told, believed God had a special purpose for the child. As Gispen puts it,

The mother … saw that he was ‘a fine child’ … that is, attractive, well-formed, but here perhaps also: robust, promising. The mother saw something special in the child (a future savior?). … The Jewish historian Josephus mentions a separate revelation of God to Amram concerning Moses’ future greatness, but it is not necessary to accept this.33

Thus, Moses’ parents would not kill their child because he was special, one for whom God had great plans. But is it commendable to save a child simply because God has certain plans for it? Does not God have a special purpose for every child? If Moses’ parents were motivated by this kind of reasoning, it would seem to justify killing every child for whom greatness was not ordained. Many are the abortions performed with such logic. No, there must be a better explanation.

In Exodus 2:2 the text could simply be rendered, “she saw that he was good.” The Hebrew word rendered “good” is frequently used by Moses in the five books of the Law, and in most it has the sense of goodness which is the result of being made (or given) by God, and/or of being declared good by Him. Thus, the frequent expressions in Genesis 1 and 2, “it was good,” employ the same term. The same sense is suggested by Arndt and Gingrich in their Greek lexicon for the Greek word which refers to the child.34 Stephen’s words, “he was good, to God” (Acts 7:20), points us in this same direction.

I would therefore suggest that Moses is not telling us that God moved his parents to hide him because they were convinced that there was something very special (either in appearance or in purpose) about him as a particular child, but rather that they saw something special about him as a child, period. You see, the biblical perspective is that children come from God (cf. Ps. 127). Every child is the product of divine creation (cf. Ps. 139:13-14), and thus is “good” in the eyes of God. Moses’ parents refused to put their child to death because God had created him, and because this meant that this child (like every other child ever born) was good in God’s eyes.

How far short of this kind of faith and obedience modern day parents come when they choose to abort the child which God has brought into existence and which therefore is good in God’s sight. The abortionist would have us believe that many children are really not “good” at all and should thus be terminated. This is simply a refusal to see children as God sees them. It may be a bit more sophisticated to vacuum a child from its mother’s womb, or to cut it out, but it is no different from throwing the child into the Nile, to be devoured by a crocodile.

Moses’ parents35 feared the God who created their son more than the Pharaoh who wished to kill him. Thus they hid the child in their home for the first three months of his life (Exod. 3:2). Keeping the boy-child from being discovered eventually became impossible.36 The time came when something different had to be done. The result was a feigned obedience to the letter of the Law of Pharaoh.37 Moses was “thrown into the Nile” but in a woven “ark,” which was sealed with tar.38 The sister of Moses39 was tasked to stand at a distance to “see what would happen to the child” (Exod. 2:4).

In the providence of God, Pharaoh’s daughter40 arrived at the banks of the Nile to bathe. She saw the basket, sent one of her maids to fetch it, and discovered a Hebrew baby boy inside. At this point we should remember the order which the Pharaoh, this woman’s father, had given to all of those in his kingdom which would include his daughter: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the river …” (Exod. 1:22).

The Pharaoh could sit upon his throne and pass down edicts which caused untold sorrow, suffering, and death without ever being touched by the consequences of his decisions. Now, the Pharaoh’s daughter came face to face with the implications of her father’s policy of genocide. Looking into that basket, she saw a Hebrew baby—there was no mistaking its identity (v. 6). The child was crying, perhaps already having been adversely affected by his period of exposure. Nevertheless, this was a pathetic sight, one that tugged at the compassion and maternal instincts of this woman.

What her father, the Pharaoh, had commanded was not only unthinkable; it was undoable. No doubt she was pondering what she would do with the child when Moses’ sister arrived with the solution. How gracious of God to give this child back to his parents for a time and even to pay the mother wages for keeping him. This must have given a year or two, or more,41 during which they enjoyed their son with the protection of Pharaoh’s daughter. Depending on the age of Moses and the amount of ongoing contact his parents had with him, they must have had some opportunity to instruct him in the ways of the Lord.42 Let us not forget, however, that God’s plan for the education of Moses included years of instruction at the feet of pagan Egyptians, too (cf. Acts 7:22), which greatly facilitated his future leadership.

When Moses was weaned, he was taken into the household of Pharaoh, where he became her son. She named the boy Moses,43 a name rooted in the event of her finding him as a baby at which time she “drew him out” of the Nile.

The deliverance of Moses is significant in several ways. First, his deliverance is a beautiful illustration of the truth which we find declared most clearly in the New Testament: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory …” (Eph. 3:20-21a).

God gave the parents of Moses more than they ever thought possible. Not only was their son spared and now protected by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter’s love, but they were allowed to keep him for a time, train him in the ways of their God, and then, in addition to all these blessings, they were paid for it. What a rebuke to our unbelief! What a challenge to the limits of our faith! What a gracious God we serve!

The second observation which must be made is that the placing of Moses in the river is not the high point of faith in the lives of his parents. Most often this text has been interpreted romantically rather than realistically. We readily choose to believe that the “putting out” (exposing to die) of Moses by his parents was an act of faith, but a little bit of thought raises some serious questions. Why was the baby put “among the reeds” of the Nile? I believe that the reason was to hide the baby from sight. If the parents had cast their son into the Nile, surely no other Hebrew family would want to run the risk of saving the child. Any Egyptian who encountered the child would have been inclined to throw the child into the river, either out of personal prejudice and animosity, or at least out of a fear of disobeying the Pharaoh’s command.

I personally believe that Moses’ sister gasped when she saw the Pharaoh’s daughter spot the basket in the reeds and commanded her servants to bring the basket to her. Of all the people in Egypt, who would you least want to find that baby than a member of the Pharaoh’s household? My concerns are not a matter of mere conjecture, however, for the New Testament commentary confirms what I have suggested. I urge you to think through the biblical commentary on this event before you reject what I am about to suggest.

The writer to the Hebrews chose to cite the hiding of Moses for the first three months of his life as an evidence of his parents’ faith, but virtually ignored the incident of the tar-covered ark in which Moses was put in the Nile: “By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict” (Heb. 11:23). Accepting these verses as divinely inspired and authoritative, I came to the conclusion that the act of Moses’ parents in hiding him for three months was a matter of greater faith than their act of putting him in the basket in the Nile.

But this does not go far enough when we take into account the words of Stephen:

“Then another king, who knew nothing about Joseph, became ruler of Egypt. He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our forefathers by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die. At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for in his father’s house. When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son” (Acts 7:18-21, NIV, emphasis mine).

Stephen, like the writer to the Hebrews, refers to the three month period when Moses was hidden in the house of his parents. Unlike Hebrews, Stephen does obliquely refer to the placing of the ark in the Nile but in such a way as to suggest a very distressing thought: this was more an act of unbelief than it was an act of faith.44 The translation of the NIV blunts Stephen’s point by translating the same Greek term by two different words (“throw out,” v. 19; “placed outside,” v. 21). The NASB brings the force of Stephen’s words home much more literally and precisely by rendering the same term “expose” in both verses. The point, disturbing as it may be, is this: Just as Pharaoh commanded that Hebrew boy babies be “put out to die,” Moses’ was “put out to die” by his parents.

No wonder the writer to the Hebrews chose not to include the placing of Moses in the River Nile as an example of Old Testament faith, which we should strive to imitate. Moses’ parents were at first unwilling to put their child to death, hiding him at home in defiance of Pharaoh’s decree. But, when this seemed impossible, they weakened to the point where they were willing to put their child in the Nile, in partial obedience to Pharaoh’s order. They were unwilling to put their child to death and thus put him in that woven basket. In their hearts, I believe that there was some hope that something might happen to save their child’s life, but mostly there was the fear that he would die (to which Stephen refers).45 The writer to the Hebrews thus rightly passes over this occasion, for it is not a model of biblical faith.

Third, described in these verses is not just “the deliverance of the deliverer,” but the deliverance of the Hebrew boy babies for drowning in the Nile. Not only did God deliver Moses, but through his deliverance it appears that the Pharaoh’s policy of genocide was set aside. Pharaoh had decreed that every boy baby born to an Israelite was to be cast into the Nile, but Pharaoh’s own daughter defied this order, thereby making it virtually impossible for the Pharaoh to enforce his own decree.

Think about it for a moment. Pharaoh’s daughter refused to abide by her father’s orders by taking Moses out of the water, and then she takes a Hebrew child home with her as her son. Now, in the palace of the Pharaoh whose orders were, “Throw them in the water!”, there is a Hebrew boy whose name means “Taken from the water.” There is, in my mind, no way that Pharaoh could have enforced his decree when his own daughter disobeyed it when living testimony of this disobedience (namely Moses) lived in the palace of Pharaoh, under his protection. Once again, Pharaoh’s efforts to destroy the people of God are turned inside-out, resulting in the fulfillment of His promises concerning the blessing of His people, Israel.

Once again, God has providentially preserved and prospered His people. Moses has been spared, and so have the other Israelite boy babies; now there is a Hebrew living in the palace, part of the royal family.

Moses—In Hot Water

Verse 11 passes over nearly 40 years (cf. Acts 7:23), taking up the story of Moses as an adult. Preceding the events of verses 11 and following is, I believe, a decision which is made by Moses described in the Book of Hebrews:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward (Heb. 11:24-26).46

This seems to mean that Moses had already made the critical decision to identify with his people, before he went out to observe the affliction of his brethren.47 Hebrews informs us that the reason Moses visited his brethren was due to his decision to identify with them and even to suffer with them. Thus, Moses did not lose his status as a son of Pharaoh’s daughter by the killing; he gave that up before the killing.48 Moses’ visit to his brethren backfired, in one sense, but it was used providentially to prepare him for his future calling.

We dare not seek to defend Moses in the murder of the Egyptian, no matter how cruel he may have been. Moses’ act was in defiance of the authority of Egypt, and it was premeditated murder (“he looked this way and that,” v. 12). While Moses’ method of dealing with this problem was wrong, we can see that his motivation was commendable. Moses sought to defend the oppressed. When he sought to rebuke his Hebrew brother for wrongly mistreating another Hebrew (v. 13), Moses revealed, once again, the disposition of a deliverer. As Stephen’s message highlighted, the rejection of Moses’ leadership by this Israelite typified Israel’s hardness of heart and rebellion against God (cf. Acts 7:23-29).

Moses’ motivation was right, but his methods and his timing were altogether wrong. What seemed to start out with a bang (the deliverance of Moses and his rearing in the palace), appears to have ended with a whimper. Instead of rising to power and delivering his people, Moses ran for his life, away from his people, to the land of Midian.49

Moses—The Waterer

Fleeing to the land of Midian, Moses ended up at a well, to which the daughters of Reuel,50 a Midianite,51 had come to water their father’s flocks. At this well, the character of Moses as a deliverer of the oppressed is once again manifested.52

What took place on this particular day was typical, not unusual.53 The seven daughters of Reuel arrived at the well, where they apparently waited in line for the well to be opened (cf. Gen. 29:2-3). It would seem that these women arrived earlier than the other shepherds who came later, knowing they could “bully” their way ahead of the women who would end up watering their flocks last. Moses did not like what he saw at all. One way or the other, Moses enforced the policy of “ladies first.” The oppressed were once again “delivered.” Moses could not look the other way, even when advantage was being taken of strangers.

Noting their early arrival, Reuel asked his daughters what had happened. When they had told him the story of their rescue, Reuel gently chastised his daughters for not extending the hospitality of a meal to this stranger who to them was an “Egyptian.” No doubt his speech and dress led to this conclusion. Regardless of his nationality, he should have been extended hospitality, especially due to his kindness.

With great economy of words, Moses briefly records that this “chance encounter” led to a lengthy stay in Midian, his marriage to Zipporah,54 and the birth of a son, Gershom. What is significant is the naming of his son. Moses named the child Gershom55 because, he said, “I have become an alien in a foreign land” (v. 22).

This statement is very significant in describing Moses’ state of mind at this point in time. In Midian, a land closer to Canaan than Egypt, Moses thought of himself as an alien and a sojourner. He still thought of his homeland as Egypt, not Canaan. I personally see this as an indication of a rather low point in the spiritual state of Moses. He has fled from Egypt to Midian. He has married a non-Israelite (technically, at least, although Zipporah was certainly more closely related than an Egyptian woman would have been). From Moses’ point of view, Egypt, his homeland, is far away. One can hardly think of this time as that of great faith or purpose in Moses’ life. This becomes even more evident when God’s call of Moses is described in chapters 3 and 4. The great faith and commitment to the people of God with which verse 11 began has somehow eroded into something far less.

If one were reading this account for the first time, without any knowledge of what was ahead, one would have a great sense of letdown here. Israel’s future seemed dim, threatened by Pharaoh’s oppressive measures, and now the command to kill every Israelite baby boy. Moses is providentially delivered and becomes the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, but this status is renounced, and when Moses sought to deliver his brother, he simply got himself into trouble. Moses fled the country, married into a Midianite family, and seemed to fade out of the picture entirely. We expect Moses’ life to end in obscurity.

In spite of all these appearances, God is very much at work as is stated in the final verses of the chapter:

During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them (Exod. 2:23-25).

To me, this final paragraph reads like the expression, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch …” The point of it is to remind us that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, God is very much at work. Humanly speaking, it looks as though everything is working against Israel, but this paragraph reminds us that God is very much informed, involved, and intent upon fulfilling His purposes and promises with respect to Israel. On the one hand, God is aware of Israel’s affliction,56 and He has heard their cries for help. On the other hand, God is mindful of His covenant with Abraham, which is also with his offspring (Isaac and Jacob, and the twelve resulting tribes). No matter how bad things may appear to be, God’s purposes are being realized. This section ties together the agony of God’s people in Egypt (described in chapter 1, but overshadowed by the personal account of Moses in chapter 2) with the deliverance about to take place in the following chapters.

This portion reminds us that God’s intervention into Israel’s history is due to God’s compassion and His faithfulness to His covenant. It also hints to the fact that God’s salvation is not the result of Israel’s faithfulness but rather is in spite of her spiritual state. The text here does not speak of Israel’s praises, but only of her groanings. While these groanings must have been expressed in prayer (cf. Deut. 26:7), God responded to them as a cry for His intervention. But lest we have an exaggerated view of Israel’s spirituality at this point in time, allow me to remind you of their idolatry and false worship while in Egypt which had to be dealt with later: “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:14; cf. Ezek. 20:5-10; 23:2ff.).


As we conclude this lesson, there are several truths underscored in our text which I would like to highlight.

(1) The fallibility of men and women of faith. We can easily acknowledge the fallibility of men in general, especially those who do not know or serve God. Thus, for example, we are not at all surprised by the cruelty of the Pharaoh or of the Egyptian taskmasters. But having acknowledged the depravity of man in general, I want to point out to you the fallibility of the faithful. Remember that both Moses and his parents are listed in the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11, and yet both Moses and his parents failed, in spite of their faith.

Moses’ parents began well, refusing to obey the command of Pharaoh to kill their baby boy. This was obviously an act of great faith, one that is commended in the Scriptures. But after hiding their son for three months, they were willing to concede to the point of placing their son in a woven basket and risking (at the least) his death. I do not think that this incident, no matter how much we have glorified it, is one that Amran and Jochebed will want to remember as one of the high points of their faith. And so we see the fallibility of this couple who were noted for their faith.

Moses failed as well. He started very well when he determined to divest himself of the privileges and power of being known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He did very well in seeking to identify with the suffering of his brethren. But what began well quickly fell apart (or so it would seem). He failed badly in trying to deliver his brethren from Egyptian oppression, murdering the offender and thus resorting to violence and cruelty himself. Standing up to Pharaoh at first soon deteriorated to fleeing from Pharaoh because of the slaying of the Egyptian. And, finally, we find Moses in a “foreign land” married to a “foreign wife” and seemingly forever derailed as far as his original commitments are concerned.

The people of God are not faring so well either. There have been great “flashes of faith” in Israel’s past, but now all that we see is suffering and oppression, and all that we hear is groaning. Far from trusting in God and serving Him only, they are engaged in idolatry and false worship.

The point of this account, when all of the erroneous romantic sentimentalism is stripped away, is that men are fallible, even men and women of faith. This should surely serve to humble us, for it reminds us that no matter how “high” we may be spiritually at a given point in time, there are likely to be “lows” as well. This we should see from the Hebrew midwives (chap. 1) and from Moses and his parents (chap. 2). Our Christian growth and development, like that of Israel as a nation, has its ups and downs, its highs and lows. If we think otherwise we do not know human nature very well, and we read the Scriptures romantically rather than realistically.

Knowing the fallibility, even of the faithful, should help us to weather the storms of life and the failures of others, as well as ourselves. God has not chosen to save perfect people (after all, such people don’t really need saving—if there were such people), but He has chosen to perfect imperfect people, over time, and ultimately in eternity. We should not excuse the failures of ourselves or others, but we should not be surprised when people of faith fail. We often suffer from very unrealistic expectations, both of ourselves and of others. The Bible consistently describes the saints as fallible people.

(2) The Grace of God. This chapter in Exodus, like all of the Scriptures, is oozing with the grace of God. God saved Moses in spite of the lapse in the faith of his parents, and in spite of the determined opposition of the Pharaoh. God continued to work in the life of Moses, preserving his life and preparing him for his future role as deliverer, even when Moses miserably failed at his own efforts to deliver his people. Israel was graciously heard and delivered, in spite of her disobedience, because of the grace of the God who called her and who promised to bring her into the land of Canaan. God’s hand is evident throughout this chapter, and it is always at work due to His grace, not due to the faithfulness and perfect obedience of men. The fallibility of men, even men and women of faith, is the occasion for grace, and so while men persist in failing, God persists in preserving and in delivering His people. When we are overcome by our own fallibility, let us remember that our standing before God, our salvation, our sanctification, our service is all a matter of His grace, not our goodness.

(3) The Providence of God. The grace of God is often worked out in the lives of men through the providence of God. God’s providence is His work that is often unseen or undetected by men at the time of its outworking. God’s providence is God’s purpose being worked out in ways that we would never have expected and through people whom we would not have chosen to use. Often this may be through disobedient people, such as Jonah, or through unbelievers, such as Pharaoh or his daughter. The providence of God is that unseen work of God which moves men and history toward the goal which God has foreordained, and which He has purposed and promised.

Think through the events of this chapter in Exodus, using the grid of providence. Pharaoh’s decree that every boy baby should be cast into the Nile endangered the life of Moses and all the Hebrew boy babies, but it resulted in the preservation of Moses and all boy babies, and in the preparation of Moses for his role as Israel’s deliverer. Pharaoh’s daughter, who was probably the most unwanted “finder” of the basket, turned out to be the one who could most effectively be used of God to further His purposes for Moses and for Israel. Even the slaying of the Egyptian, Moses’ flight to Midian, his “chance encounter” at the well and his marriage to Zipporah were all of a part of God’s providential workings.

Every detail of your life, every incident, every failure, is employed by God providentially to further His purposes. While this should in no way make us lax in our desire to know God’s will and to be obedient to Him, it should serve to assure us that even when we fail, He does not. Even our failures (which will have painful consequences to us) are a part of God’s providential working in our lives. Thus, Joseph could forgive his brothers and praise God for the time when they sold him into slavery, for he knew that what they intended for evil, God intended for good (Gen. 50:20).

The real issue is this: are you identified with God and with His purposes, or have you set yourself against Him? Moses, his parents, and all of the other fallible saints were ultimately blessed of God because they looked to Him in faith to fulfill His promises. Pharaoh and all of disobedient Egypt were providentially used of God but were destroyed because they did not trust in Him. May the truths of your fallibility, of God’s grace and of His providential dealing be of comfort to you because you have placed your faith in Him, trusting in Him alone for the forgiveness of your sins and for eternal salvation. If you have not yet placed your faith in Him, and trusted Him alone for the forgiveness of your sin, may today be the day of your salvation.

30 “The biblical story has unique features. It has no mythological elements but is told as if it were history.” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 62.

31 Note some of the comments made by Hyatt: “This narrative is a legend and should be read as such, not as history. Similar stories were widespread in the ancient world with the principals sometimes being gods, sometimes human beings, and sometimes both” (p. 62). “The story here involves belief that a special providence watches over the child from his birth, although the Deity is not mentioned in it” (p. 62). “The legend represents the Egyptian princess as knowing Hebrew!” (p. 65).

Hyatt’s last statement is, perhaps, the most telling. It is one thing for a liberal scholar to view the Bible stories as myth, like that of the pagans; it is another to scoff at what is said, as though it were ridiculous. What is so incredible about believing that Pharaoh’s daughter might know some Hebrew. Remember, she may well have had Hebrew slave girls as some of her servants (cf. Exod. 2:5). With so many Hebrew people in the land of Egypt, it would have been very likely for this woman to have known a few words. I have friends who once lived on the border between Mexico and the United States. Since this woman had Mexican servants, she determined to learn Spanish, at which she became quite fluent.

32 “Levi had no priestly associations in the early days, as can be seen from Genesis 49:5-7 where, with Simeon, he comes under his father’s curse for a bloodthirsty attack on Shechem (Gn. 34). The curse will be fulfilled: but in the case of Levi it will be turned into blessing, for Levi will be ‘scattered’ as the priestly tribe (Nu. 35:7,8).” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 56.

33 W. H. Gispen, Exodus (trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 39. F. B. Meyer also seems to combine the idea of an unusual beauty and a special calling when he writes, “Something in the babe’s lovely countenance appeared to the mother’s eye as the halo of special Divine affection. A voice whispered to her heart that her child was specially dear to God. Was not its smile the result of the Divine embrace? And did not those limpid eyes look into the face of the Angel of the Covenant? She was, therefore, encouraged to brave the royal edicts, and screen the little taper from the gale of destruction that was sweeping through the land.” F. B. Meyer, Devotional Commentary on Exodus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications [reprint], 1978), p. 25.

34 While Arndt and Gingrich mention that the Greek word may have the meaning “beautiful, well formed,” they seem to favor the rendering, “acceptable, well-pleasing,” which much more accurately conveys the sense of its Hebrew counterpart. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 117.

35 I am choosing here to speak in terms of both parents, rather than just of his mother. That both parents were involved is evident from the statement of the writer to the Hebrews (“By faith, Moses’ parents hid him,” Heb. 11:23). Stephen emphasized this fact as well in Acts 7:20, where he indicates that Moses was nurtured in “his father’s house.”

36 Most commentators make much of the fact that the child’s crying would be heard at the age of three months. Frankly, I have heard a younger child make just as much noise. Furthermore, it was not wrong to have a baby girl, only a baby boy. I cannot help but wonder if she did something like put Moses in pink dresses, with cute little bows in his hair, or whatever, to conceal his sex, not his existence. Sooner or later, however, the diapers would come off and the truth would be known. Another factor may have been involved which relates to the “three month” crisis. The Israelite men and women were oppressed and cruelly forced to labor. Is it possible that mothers were given a three month “leave” from work, until their babies were old enough to be given to others to care for? If so, one can understand the problem which suddenly occurred at three months. These conjectures at least expand the possibilities as to what might have occurred, and caution us about too quickly accepting any one explanation.

37 “Jochebed’s act, like Abram’s claim to be the brother of Sarai in Genesis 12, is just within the Law. She had indeed thrown her son into the river as ordered, but in a wicker basket.” Cole, p. 57.

38 The word for “ark” here is found elsewhere in the Old Testament only in Genesis 6 and 7, with reference to Noah’s “ark.” The “tar” with which the ark was coated is the same as that mentioned in Genesis 11:3.

39 The “sister” of Moses appears to be Miriam (Exod. 15:20; Num. 12; 20:1), but she is not named. Some have suggested that since the appearance is that this is the first child of the couple, the brother and sister may have been of a previous or other wife (cf. Cole, p. 57, who mentions this option, but does not favor it).

40 “The identity of this daughter of Pharaoh is subject to speculation. If Thutmose I were the Pharaoh of 1:22 then his daughter, the famous queen Hatshepsut who later assumed kingship, may have been this daughter. This view has been suggested by a number of writers. While this view is entirely possible, it is equally possible that Moses was reared in one of the royal harems which were common to the New Kingdom period.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 52.

The best brief description of Hatshepsut is to be found in Gispen, who writes that Hatshepsut was: “…one of the most remarkable women in the history of Egypt, and indeed of the world. She was the daughter of Thutmose I (1539-1514 B. C.) who I believe to the king who issued the order that all boys be drowned. … Hatshepsut was her father’s favorite and after his death became very influential under her weak husband Thutmose II (1514-1501 B.C.), even to the extent that her brother (or stepson?) Thutmose III (1501-1447 B.C.) had no say at all during her lifetime, no matter how famous he later became … She ruled Egypt from 1501-1479 B.C. Monuments of Hatshepsut still exist, although Thutmose III later tried to eradicate her name. She ruled in peace, built temples, and sponsored expeditions; her grave has been found. When Moses was born she was still only ‘Pharaoh’s daughter,’ yet she had sufficient influence to be able to keep Moses alive.” Gispen, p. 40.

I once imagined the scene in the palace to be something like this, when Pharaoh’s daughter appeared with the boy and the basket: The Pharaoh sternly ordered his daughter to take the boy back to the river and throw him in, just as he had decreed to the entire nation. Copious amounts of tears began to well up and flow from the big brown Egyptian eyes of his daughter. “But, Daddy,” she pleaded, “can’t I keep him?” In fatherly fashion, the Pharaoh melts at the sight of his daughter’s tears.

Having read the account of Hatshepsut, a totally different scenario came to mind. Resolutely, the Pharaoh’s daughter marched into the palace, announcing her decision to keep the child, daring her father to try to harm him, defying his order to kill the boy and demanding that this order be retracted—immediately! Ah, the providence of God—how sweet it can be.

41 “After the child grew, which is interpreted by some to mean the weaning period of about two or three years, or perhaps as much as twelve years, he was brought back to Pharaoh’s daughter to receive the full training as one who was a member of the royal household.” (Davis, p. 54).

42 “No doubt it was in these early years that Moses learnt of the ‘God of the fathers’ (Ex. 3:15) and realized that the Hebrews were his fellow countrymen (Ex. 2:11).” Cole, p. 58.

43 There is a fair bit of discussion in the commentaries as to who named Moses (his mother, or Pharaoh’s daughter), and the derivation of the name. I don’t such speculation is that of great value. The significance of Moses’ name is given in the text itself. There is clear irony here, since the Pharaoh gave the order to “throw Hebrew boy babies in Nile” and yet the name Moses means to “draw out”. The Pharaoh’s decree: “throw out”; Pharaoh’s daughter’s declaration of the name of her son: “draw out.” Cf. Davis, pp. 54, 55 for a summary of the various views of the naming of Moses.

44 This is contrary to the views of most commentators, as exemplified in this statement: “And now we see the confidence of his mother’s faith. She waterproofed a basket, made of the sticky papyrus found along the Nile, with tar (a bitumen imported in Egypt from Palestine) and pitch.” Gispen, p. 39.

45 I believe that we make too much out of Moses’ sister’s watching to “see what would happen” to the child, assuming that she was looking expectantly for their plan (to save the child) to work. I suspect that while this was a genuine hope, she was tasked to watch the child and to report, if necessary, its death to the parents. The child would not be allowed to perish alone. I do not rule out the fact that there was some hope, some faith, but I do believe that there was also much fear, and gloomy expectations. The faith of Moses’ parents at this stage has thus been greatly exaggerated. A bold faith at such a time, of course, is what we would prefer to believe.

46 I understand Hebrews 11:27 to be referring to Moses’ exodus from Egypt with the people of God, rather than his “escape” from Egypt, described in Exodus 2:15. I cannot imagine the writer to the Hebrews describing a flight based upon the fear of Pharaoh as a departure motivated by faith, not fear. In Hebrews 11:29, the writer then takes up the faith of the entire nation as they passed through the Red Sea.

47 “This phrase means more than ‘to see.’ It means ‘to see with emotion,’ either satisfaction (Gn. 9:16) or, as here, with distress (Gn. 21:16). Moses is one who shares God’s heart. God too has seen what the Egyptians are doing to the Israelites, and He will come to deliver (Ex. 3:7,8). It was not Moses’ impulse to save Israel that was wrong, but the action that he took.” Cole, p. 59.

48 There are three reasons why I find it necessary for Moses’ decision, as described in Hebrews, to be made prior to the events of Exodus 2:11ff.: (1) Only at this point is this a great act of faith, worthy of mention in Hebrews 11. One can hardly commend Moses for fleeing for his life later on. (2) To make this decison before verse 11 explains Moses’ visit to see the affliction of his brethren. Having chosen to identify with his brethren, he went to see them. (3) The rejection of Moses’ authority by his Hebrew brother in verse 14 would be explained best by Moses decison at the time I have suggested. If Moses had previously set aside his power and privileges, it is easy to understand why the Hebrew failed to accept his authority. If Moses still had the status of “the son of Pharaoh’s daughter” no one would dare to challenge his right to interfere, as this man had.

49 Midian “… is usually located on the east shore of the Gulf of Aqabah, to the south of Palestine. This is where Ptolemy, geographer of the second century A.D., and later Arab geographers located Madiana or Madyan. However, the OT represents the Midianites as nomads who ranged over a wide territory to the south and east of Palestine; therefore we should not seek to locate them precisely to a specific territory. According to Gen. 25:2, Midian was a son of Keturah, wife of Abraham; verse 6 says that Abraham sent her sons away ‘eastward to the east country.’” Hyatt, p. 66.

50 “The … Midianites were descendants of Abraham by Keturah (Gen. 25:1-2) and may have remained to some extent worshippers of the true God. The man with whom he stayed (Reuel) may have been a priest of the true God (cf. 18:12-23). The identity of this “priest of Midian” is referred to a number of ways in Scripture. In verse 18 he is named Reuel (cf. Num. 10:20). Later he is given the name Jethro (3:1; 18:1), and Raguel (Num. 10:29). At one place he is identified as a Midianite (Exod. 18:1). Later, however, he is associated with the Kenites (Judg. 1:16).” Davis, p. 57.

51 “In 3:1 and chapter 18 he is called ‘Jethro the priest of Midian,’ and in 4:18 ‘Jether’ (some Hebrew MSS. have Jethro). In Num. 10:29 he is ‘Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite.’ In Jg. 4:11 he is ‘Hobab,’ one of the Kenites; and in Jg. 1:16 he is called simply ‘the Kenite,’ with some MSS. of the LXX inserting the name ‘Hobab.’” Hyatt, p. 67.

“All this means either that several variant traditions survived as to the identity of Moses’ father-in-law, or that he had at least two names. There is of course no problem in supposing him to have two (or more) names, since double names are known from South Arabic sources. In such cases the biblical editor sometimes specifies both names together, as in ‘Jerubabbaal (that is, Gedeon)’ (Judg. 7:1): but sometimes both are used independently within a few verses (Judg. 8:29f.).” Cole, p. 61.

52 In Genesis before, and now in Exodus, the “well” serves as an occasion to portray the character of the one who has come to it. Cf. Gen. 24:10-21; 26:17ff.; 29:1-20. To pursue this further, I recommend Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), pp. 47-62.

53 Reuel asked his daughters, “Why have you returned so early today?” (v. 18, emphasis mine). This suggests that they arrived late every day, and for the same reasons—the bullies made them water their flocks first.

54 “Zipporah is the feminine form of the noun meaning ‘bird.’” Hyatt, p. 68.

“We might translate as ‘warbler’ or, less kindly, ‘twitterer’; it is the name of a small bird.” Cole, p. 61.

55 “The name contains a pun by assonance, for it is translated as though it were the Hebrew ger sam, ‘a resident alien there.’ Philologically, it is probably an old noun meaning ‘expulsion,’ from the verb garas; the general sense is thus much the same. As often in the Old Testament, the remark is rather a commentary on the meaning of the name rather than an exact translation (cf. Exod. 2:10).” Cole, pp. 61-62.

56 It may be noteworthy that the same term is used here (rendered “looked on,” v. 25, NIV) as was employed in verse 11 (2 times, rendered “watched” and “saw”). The comment in footnote 18 thus applies here, too. Moses’ heart was a reflection of the heart of God, when he looked with compassion and pity on the afflicted.

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3. The Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-15)


In the first chapter of the Book of Exodus, we learned of the cruel oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptians. God’s blessings of the Israelites caused the Egyptians to fear them and to attempt to insure their control over them. This began with enslavement and harsh treatment. When this failed, Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew handmaids to kill all the Israelite boy babies at birth. This also failed to accomplish the goal of annihilating the Israelites as a race. The first chapter ends with the order of Pharaoh to the entire Egyptian population that they must throw the Hebrew boy babies into the Nile.

Chapter 2 focuses on one Hebrew boy baby, Moses, who is destined to become the deliverer of the nation. The parents of this child hide him for three months, refusing to obey Pharaoh’s order. Eventually they concede to partially obey, “casting Moses into the Nile” in a woven ark. What could well have been the death of Moses became his deliverance, as he was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and eventually taken into the palace to be raised as her son. There came a time, however, when Moses decided to identify himself with his own people, and thus he refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. This identification of Moses with his people led to his visiting the Israelites and the killing of an Egyptian. Hence, we are told of Moses’ flight to Midian to escape Pharaoh’s attempts to kill him once again. A “chance” meeting with a Midianite priest, who was a distant relative, led to Moses’ settling down, marrying, and having children.57 From all that we are told, we would hardly expect to see Moses back in Egypt again, and certainly not as God’s deliverer.

Chapter 3 introduces a significant change in the drama of the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt. From God’s providential dealings in the life of the nation Israel, we move to God’s direct intervention through Moses and the miracles performed by Him. We move from the silence of God over the past 400 years to God’s speaking directly to Moses from the bush, and later on, from the same mountain.

Chapter 3 then is a very significant point of transition.58 It begins with the revelation of God to Moses from the midst of the burning bush. It develops with the commissioning of Moses to go back to Egypt and the Pharaoh and to deliver God’s people from their oppression and bondage. It ends with the beginnings of Moses’ reticence and resistance toward the task which God has given him.

In this message we will focus on the revelation of God to Moses, which, I believe, is the basis for all that is to follow. It is the basis for Moses’ obedience, as well as for the entire nation. It is also the basis for all of God’s actions with regard to Egypt and to His people. In many ways, the incident of the burning bush is critical to our understanding of God.

The message will be structured so that we first consider the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush (vss. 1-6), and then the revelation of God to Moses as He spoke to him (vss. 7-15). We shall next turn our attention to those Old and New Testament texts which refer to this incident and guide us in its interpretation. Finally, we shall seek to find the application of this text to our own lives. Let us listen carefully to the voice of God as He speaks to us in these verses.

The Burning Bush

The day started out like any other. The leather-skinned shepherd expected nothing out of the ordinary, though he no doubt wished for something different to break the monotony of tending sheep. After forty years of sheep tending (cf. Acts 7:30) Moses’ life had become all too predictable. He knew all the grazing places and had the exact location of every water hole within many miles etched in his mind. An occasional viper or wild beast offered the only excitement. In the solitude of the wilderness, Moses perhaps talked to himself and even to his sheep. Little did he know that today would be the beginning of a new chapter in his life. The burning bush of Exodus 3 was one of those life-altering events which happens but a few times in a person’s life.

This chapter is more than just the account of a life-changing incident in the life of one man; however, it is a crucial turning point in the history of the nation Israel. The burning bush marks the beginning of God’s direct intervention into the affairs of history. It is the basis for the call of Moses to return to Egypt as Israel’s deliverer. It is the beginning of the end of Egyptian oppression.

The burning bush made not only a profound impact upon Moses and the nation Israel, but it also continued to serve as one of those key events in history—the significance of which was not lost on Israel in the generations which followed. This passage of Scripture is one that must have been well known to the Jews of Jesus’ day. The account of the “burning bush” was so central to the thinking of the gospel writers, Mark and Luke, that they (perhaps like most men in their day) came to call this section of Scripture “the bush” portion (Mark 12:26; Luke 20:37).

Looking for richer pasture, Moses led his father-in-law’s flock to the west or back side of the wilderness, to Mt. Horeb (his father-in-law is now referred to as “Jethro,” which seems to mean “excellence” or “superiority”—could Moses have made him a rich man by now?).59 Little did he know that here he was going to come face to face with God. I think of Moses tending his sheep here as something like Peter going fishing (John 21:2ff.), thinking that the past was over and that life had settled into a routine.

In the distance, something caught the keen eye of Moses and snapped him out of his thoughts. Something was burning in the distance. A more careful look proved it to be a bush. In and of itself, this would hardly be the cause of much excitement or interest, but as time passed the bush seemed unaffected by the flames. It burned, but did not burn up. Since there was no real hurry and the sight of the bush had aroused Moses’ curiosity, he set out to have a closer look.

What Moses did not yet know was that while the bush was apparently a typical common desert bush, the “fire” was far from ordinary. The closer he got to the bush, the more incredible the scene became. Moses surely had to wonder about this phenomenon. He would have probably been amused at the explanations offered for the burning bush over the years. These “explanations” are even more incredible than that of the Bible. Not wanting to acknowledge a full-fledged miracle here, a number of “natural” explanations have been given. Here are some of the ones I have come across in my study:

(1) “St. Elmo’s fire.” This is a discharge of electricity which causes a kind of glow.60

(2) “… firebrands or reflexes of light, which must often have occurred in dry lands with an abundance of storms.”61

(3) A volcanic phenomenon.62

(4) A myth, based on ancient accounts of burning objects which were not consumed.63

(5) “… a flake of gypsum blown against a twig may have set a bush alight.”64

(6) A beam of sunlight, piercing through a crack in the mountain.65

(7) A purely psychological experience.66

(8) A gas plant, which burst into flames.67

(9) The brilliant blossoms of mistletoe twigs.68

The God of the Burning Bush

Such explanations as we have seen above are not only unacceptable, they are also unnecessary. We are told by none other than the author himself (remember, Moses is the author of this book) that the “angel of the Lord” (cf. Gen. 16:7; 22:11; Judg. 6:11; 13:3), the preincarnate manifestation of the second Person of the Godhead,69 was manifested in the burning bush. Verses 4-15 contain a description of the God of the burning bush. Verses 16-22 contain specific instructions concerning the task which God has for Moses, along with God’s brief summary of what is going to take place in the rescue of the nation Israel from their bondage in Egypt. In this lesson we must limit our study to the first half of chapter 3. In our next message we shall deal with the remainder of chapter 3 and with all of chapter 4.

The first half of chapter 3 describes the character of the God who is calling and commissioning Moses. This is the basis for Moses’ faith and obedience. There are several dimensions to the description of the God of the burning bush which we will briefly consider. These will give us some mental hooks with which to remember the message of this passage.

The God of the burning bush is a holy God. At first, the burning bush was but a curiosity, something novel to which Moses was drawn. Now, the bush (or rather, God, who was manifested in the flames encompassing the bush) was an object of fear and reverence. This occurred when God twice called Moses by name, to which he answered, “Here I am.”70 Then God warned Moses not to come any closer and instructed him to take off his sandals because the ground on which he stood was “holy” (v. 5).71 Moses hid his face, knowing that looking at God could cost him his life (cf. Gen. 32:30; Exod. 33:20; Judg. 6:22-23; 13:21-22). I doubt that Moses stooped to loosen his sandals. Like others who have beheld the glory of the living God, he may have fallen to the ground, prostrate. The flames which encompassed (but did not consume) the bush, along with the warning issued by the Lord from within the flames, emphatically impressed Moses with the holiness of the One who was manifesting Himself. Moses was deeply impressed with the holiness of his God.

The relationship between God’s holiness and the exodus may not be immediately evident. At the time the Law is given on Mt. Sinai, God’s holiness is the basis for Israel’s conduct, which the Law prescribed. But the holiness of God is a significant factor in the exodus. The sins of the Egyptians must be dealt with. In addition, the possession of the land of Canaan by the Israelites (Exod. 3:8,17) is a judgment on these peoples for their abominations in the sight of God (cf. Gen. 15:16; Lev. 18:24-28).

The God of the burning bush is the covenant-making, covenant-keeping God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In verse 6, God identified Himself to Moses in this way: “I am the God of your father,72 the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod. 3:6).

The God in the burning bush is the God of Moses’ forefathers, the God of the patriarchs, Israel’s God. He is the God who made a covenant with Abraham and reiterated it to Isaac and Jacob. It is not a new and different God who is here made known to Moses,73 but the God of his forefathers, the God of Israel. There is no new plan, but simply the outworking of the old plan, revealed to Abraham in Genesis 15:

“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” … On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—the land of the Kenites, Kennizites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites,74 Girgashites and Jebusites” (Gen. 15:12b-16, 18-21).

The God of the burning bush is a compassionate God. God’s intention to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian bondage is not only motivated by His holiness, or by His covenant with Abraham and the patriarchs—God’s deliverance of His people is also based upon His compassion for them in the midst of their affliction:

“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey …” (Exod. 3:7-8a).

The God of the burning bush is an imminent God. For 400 years, God appeared to be distant and removed as far as the Israelites must have thought. They would probably have thought of God as more transcendent (distant, removed, uninvolved in the world), rather than imminent (directly concerned with and involved in the affairs of men). This was not the case, for we have seen God’s hidden hand working providentially to preserve His people and to prepare for their release (Exod. 1 and 2). Lest Moses not appreciate the involvement of God in the lives of His people, God emphasizes that He is taking a personal interest in the release of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage:

“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. … So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing75 with milk and honey …” (Exod. 3:7a, 8a).

The God of the burning bush is a God who commissions people to participate in His purposes. While God is going to be directly involved in the deliverance of His people, He will do so through human instruments. Specifically, God has manifested Himself to Moses because He intends to manifest Himself through Moses. God’s first words to Moses were, “Moses, Moses” (v. 4). Although God indicated His personal involvement in the exodus (“I have come down to rescue them,” (v. 8), it is Moses through whom these things will be accomplished. Thus, we find Moses commissioned by God to return to Egypt, to confront Pharaoh, and to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.76

Some of the richest revelation concerning the character of God is found in verses 11-15, where God responds to two questions raised by Moses.77 In essence, these questions can be summarized: (1) “Who am I?” (v. 11), and (2) “Who are You?” (v. 13). God’s response to these questions serves to clarify His character even further. Verses 14 and 15 are two of the most crucial verses in the Old Testament, for they contain one of the central truths concerning the nature and character of God.

The first question, “Who am I?,” is one that is easy to understand. Forty years before, Moses had made a very critical decision concerning his identity. He had determined that he was an Israelite, and thus could not be known any longer as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter (cf. Heb. 11:24-26). Having done this, Moses determined that he would attempt to deliver his people, which resulted in the slaying of the Egyptian. When Moses then tried to intervene in a dispute between two Hebrews, the guilty party hurled these stinging words at him, “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” (Exod. 2:14). While wrongly motivated, this was a question worth pondering. Moses had assumed authority which had not yet been given him. (Moses’ commission comes in chapter 3 at age 80, not in chapter 2 at age 40.) Moses had 40 years to ponder his presumption, and its consequences. Now, when God commissions him to deliver the Israelites, Moses wants to be very careful not to go off half-cocked again. His question is one which reflects a caution and a desire to receive a clear commission from God.

God’s answer seeks to refocus Moses’ attention from looking at the sendee (Moses) to the Sendor (God). What is important is not the instrument in God’s hand, but the One in whose hand the instrument is being held. God therefore promises Moses that His presence will go with him as he obeys his calling: “I will be with you.78 And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (Exod. 3:12). From this statement we learn that Moses’ authority is wrapped up in the presence of God which is assured when he is obedient to God’s command. It has been observed that the “great commission” of the New Testament is strikingly similar to the commission of Moses in our text. The “great commission” begins with the statement by our Lord, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18), and ends with, “Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Divine authority is thus inseparably linked with divine presence. Moses’ question about his authority was answered by God’s promise of His presence with Moses.

It is interesting that the sign which God promises Moses in verse 12 is one that will occur after Moses has acted in faith, rather than before:79 “And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (Exod. 3:12, emphasis mine). The first “you” in this statement is singular; the second is plural. God is not promising Moses a permanent and private worship retreat on Mt. Sinai. He is saying that the “sign” to Moses will be when the nation which he leads out of Egypt worships God at Mt. Sinai, which they did (cf. Exod. 19ff.).80

We would tend to think that God would have first performed a sign, then and there, and then have expected Moses to obey. This God did. The signs were (1) the burning bush (Exod. 3:1-3); (2) the rod which became a serpent (4:2-4); and (3) the leprous hand (Exod. 4:6-7) But the sign which is promised in verse 12 will only be given after Moses acts on what God has already revealed. While signs may be given to stimulate our faith, they are also given in response to faith, as is the case here.

The practical application of what has taken place in this case is evident. Many of us are waiting for God to give us a sign before we are willing to step out in faith. When God has made it sufficiently clear who He is and what it is that we are to do, God may well require that we act in faith before we are given a sign of His presence and His power. Such is the case here.

The second question which Moses asked grows out of the answer to the first. Moses had first asked, “Who am I?”, only to be told that the important thing is not who he is, but whose he is and who is ever present with him. In other words, Moses should redirect his attention from himself to his God. If Moses’ authority is wrapped up in his God, then we can understand why Moses asks secondly, “Who are you?” “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (Exod. 3:13).

How could Moses possibly ask God’s name when God has already revealed His identity so clearly in His previous statements to Moses? Notice that Moses (at least in appearance) is not asking this question on his own behalf but on behalf of any who might ask? How many times those who counsel others are asked for advice under the guise, “I have this friend who …”

Why would the Israelites need to ask the name of the God who has sent Moses to deliver them? I can think of only two reasons. First, due to their worship of other (Egyptian) gods (cf. Josh. 24:14), they may wonder which of their gods is answering their prayers.

The second reason is that one’s name is a description of one’s character.81 If Moses’ authority is wrapped up in the God who has called and commissioned him to lead Israel out of Egypt, then he may need to be able to describe the character of this God to assure them of God’s willingness and ability to lead them into the land of blessings. The name by which God chooses to identify Himself would capture the essence of His character and being.82 God’s answer to this question (be it a concession to Moses’ doubts and fears or not) is, indeed, the basis for great assurance and hope:

“I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.” God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation” (Exod. 3:14-15).83

Recognizing the importance of these two verses, the scholars have spent a great deal of effort to determine the exact meaning of the expression “I am who I am.” Predictably, they do not all agree.84 Personally, I have concluded that the best rendering is “I am who I am,” as rendered by the NIV and the NASB. I believe that there are certain truths about the nature of God as the “I AM” concerning which most conservative scholars are in agreement.85 I will summarize these dimensions of the character of the God who is the “I AM.”

The “I AM” is the God who is, that is, the God who exists. There were many “no gods” in both Egypt and Canaan, which were worshipped, but in contrast to all of these “gods” was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God who is, the only true God.86

The “I AM” is the God who exists independently. Theologians speak of God as self-existent. God is the Creator, but has no creator. He exists apart from any dependence on anything or anyone. He is a God who does not need help, either to exist or to accomplish His will. Thus, there is nothing which can prevent God’s will from being accomplished.

The “I AM” is the God who exists independently and unchangeably. As the “I AM,” God is not the God who was anything, in the sense that He changes. Whatever He was, He continues to be, and He will be forever. The God who is exists not only really, and independently, but also unchangeably. Therefore, whatever God has begun to do He will bring to completion, because there are no changes which necessitate any alterations in His original plans and purposes.

On the human level, we know only the opposite. We plan to build a house, but unforeseen contingencies usually involve considerably more time and money. Public projects are no different. Have you ever heard of a freeway, a bridge, or a new bomber being completed on schedule, and at the originally estimated cost? As the “I AM” we never need to agonize about the completion of what God has promised.

As the “I AM,” God exists, independently, unchangeably, eternally. God is eternal and unchanging. How often we have put our trust in a political candidate, only to find that he changes once he has been elected. Campaign promises often are mere rhetoric. Those few politicians who do attempt to keep their promises eventually get voted out of office or die. Consequently our hopes which are founded on men are very short-lived. God is eternal; thus each and every promise is as solid as a rock. If God is both eternal and unchanging, then nothing which He has purposed and promised to do can ever fail.87

How can Moses and the people of Israel be assured that God will deliver them from Egyptian bondage and will lead them into the promised land? Their confidence is well placed in the God whose nature and character is that of the “I AM” in Exodus 3. That this is the point of this passage is evident from our consideration of two later Old Testament texts.

But now, this is what the Lord says—he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead” (Isa. 43:1-3).

In this text, intended to comfort Israel and to assure the nation of God’s promises, God refers to the past experiences through which Israel has gone to assure her of future blessings as well. The “passing through the waters” is an allusion to the exodus and the passing through the Red Sea. Just as Israel was not swallowed up by the sea, neither will she be swallowed up by her present and future affliction. And neither will she be burned when she passes through the fire. Just as the burning bush was not consumed by the “fire” of the “angel of the Lord,” so Israel will not be consumed by the fires of affliction and adversity, now or forever.

“But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. …So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty. “I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed” (Mal. 3:2-3, 5-6).

The nation Israel, God said through the prophet Malachi, was to go through “the fire” as it were, in order to be refined. The “fire” is, on the one hand, the affliction imposed by the cruelty of foreign nations. In the final analysis, however, it is the fire which God Himself has brought to purify His people. Malachi’s consolation for Israel is that while God’s purifying “fire” may appear to be consuming them, this will not be the case. Indeed, it will purify them and save them in the final analysis. The basis for Israel’s preservation is, as in Exodus 3, the character of God as the “I AM,” the God who does not change (Mal. 3:6).

Malachi’s words, undoubtedly rooted in the experience of Israel and in the revelation of God in the burning bush, serve to confirm our interpretation of the incident of the burning bush in Exodus 3. The affliction of the Israelites in Egypt was a man-imposed, but God-ordained, experience of “passing through the fire” to purify and prepare the Israelites for their deliverance and future blessings: “But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are” (Deut. 4:20).

The burning bush was no meaningless miracle, merely intended to get Moses’ attention—in and of itself, it was a parable full of meaning, which meditation on the event and on God’s words would make clear, and on which later prophets would expand and expound. The fires of affliction are an outworking of God’s wrath on sin; they purify the people of God and prepare them for God’s blessings. God’s people are not consumed by these “fires,” not due to their own faithfulness, but due to the character of God as the great “I AM.” Moses is thus encouraged to return to Egypt, from the “frying pan to the fire” as it were, knowing that he and the nation would be preserved and prospered by the God who is.

The implications and applications of the nature of God as the “I AM” are endless. It is not surprising therefore to find similar revelations of God to the prophets and people of God in both the Old and the New Testaments. Perhaps the most dramatic New Testament parallel is found in the Book of Revelation. Before God reveals the “things to come” in the last days, He begins with this description of the God who is about to speak through His prophet, John: “Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come …” (Rev. 1:4). Is this not the same truth as we have just found in Exodus 3? In Exodus 3 God is the “I AM,” the eternal One. Here, He is the “One who was, and is, and will come.” In both cases, the same truth is being conveyed. Just as the nation Israel will for one final time “pass through the fire of tribulation,” they can be consoled and comforted in the assurance that, this time as well, they will not be consumed by the fire, for their God does not change.

Here then is the message of God to Moses and to the people of his day. God manifests Himself through the fire of affliction and adversity, but His purposes are certain and His people are secure in the assurance that they will not be destroyed nor consumed, due to the fact that He is constant, never changing, and eternal. Here is the basis for faith and obedience. On this assurance Moses can stake his life and base his ministry and service.


One of the applications of this text can be seen in the New Testament, disclosed by our Lord Himself. Let us consider the comfort and hope which we can find through the “I AM,” the Lord Jesus Christ.

When our Lord applied the “I AM” teaching of Exodus 3, I believe He did so in light of the reference to the “burning bush” in Deuteronomy:

This is the blessing that Moses the man of God pronounced on the Israelites before his death. … “About Joseph he said: ‘May the Lord bless his land … with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness and the favor of him who dwelt in the burning bush. Let all these rest on the head of Joseph …’” (Deut. 33:1, 13, 16).

Take note that the context of these blessings which Moses pronounced is the approaching death of Moses himself. In addition, the blessings here are pronounced on Joseph, who has long since died. Now, of course there is the sense in which Joseph will be blessed through his offspring, but this is not the only blessing which Joseph will receive. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of those who died and who are yet to receive the blessings which God promised them (cf. Heb. 11:13-16, 39-40). The promises of God are therefore certain, because God will never die. But just as true, because God is the eternal “I AM,” those who die are still assured of the fulfillment of God’s promises to them. The fact that God is the “I AM” assures us that we “shall live with Him forever,” if we are His children by faith.

Jesus applies the truth of the “I AM” passage on two different occasions88 in the Gospels. In the first instance, the context is the hypothetical question raised by the Sadducees (who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, cf. Mark 12:18) of whose wife a woman would be in heaven who had had seven brothers as her husband. Pointing out their hypocrisy and error regarding their rejection of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, Jesus said, “Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!” (Mark 12:26-27). In the statement of God, “I AM,” we find assurance that God is not only eternal, but that because of this His relationship with men is also eternal. “I am the God of Abraham,” not only means that God is everlasting, but also that Abraham is as well. God’s eternality is not only the basis for our faith in God’s promises being fulfilled (in the lives of those who are alive at the time), but also is our assurance that we will personally experience those blessings. As the writer to the Hebrews put it, God intended that those who died in faith would wait to be made perfect with us (Heb. 11:40). God’s eternality and our immortality are therefore intertwined truths.

In the Gospel of John, one of the keys to its structure is the “I AM …” statements of our Lord (cf. John 6:48, 51; 8:58; 10:9, 11; 11:25, etc.). The watershed of this Gospel seems to be the “I AM” statement of our Lord in chapter 8. We are again in the context of one’s hope for life after death, a truth about which some Jews were skeptical. Jesus said to the Jews, “I tell you the truth, if a man keeps my word, he will never see death.” At this the Jews exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that if a man keeps your word, he will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?” (John 8:51-53).

The issue, of course, is “who is Jesus?” Jesus is greater than Abraham, as is evident by the fact that He is the “I AM”: “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). To the Jews who were debating with our Lord, those who had died were dead and gone. It was all over for them (cf. John 8:52-53). Jesus countered that this was not true at all, for “if a man keeps my word, he will never see death” (John 8:51). Death has no dominion over those who trust in the Lord and keep His Word. Abraham saw the “Lord’s day” and rejoiced (8:56), and as a believer, he would see the promises God had made to him fulfilled—personally.

Related to the question of Jesus’ authority was His relationship to Moses. The Jews claimed to have Moses’ authority (cf. Matt. 23:2), thus (in their distorted thinking) giving them higher authority than the Lord Jesus. But think of it—when Moses was asked about his authority, the best he could say was, “I AM sent me.”

When our Lord was asked concerning His authority in John 8, He answered, “I AM, I AM!”

While Moses was sent by “I AM,” Jesus was “I AM.” Thus, those who believe in the I AM need have no fear of death, for the blessings of God are as certain beyond the grave as they are before it—indeed, more so.

Belief in the God who is the “I AM” is therefore the foundation for our hope of eternal life and of experiencing the blessings God has promised us, even though we die. Our eternal hope is wrapped up in the eternality of God. Exodus 3 etches the truth of God’s eternality in bold letters. Let us believe it. Let us stake our earthly and our eternal destiny on it!

There are many Christians today who think that the study of the attributes of God is an intellectual exercise with very little practical application. Nothing could be further from the truth! Recently, I heard R. C. Sproul talk about the greatest need of America. When asked, “What is the greatest need of non-Christian Americans?,” he answered, “To know what God is like.” When asked, “What is the greatest need of American Christians?,” his answer was the same, “To know what God is like.” The attributes of God are simply a description of what God is like. The basis for the call of Moses and for his obedience to that call was an assurance as to the character of God. Personally, I am convinced that the measure of our faith is proportionate to our grasp of the greatness and the goodness of our God. I do not think that any person’s faith will be any greater than their grasp of the greatness of God as the Object of their faith. I do not think that great things have been done for God without a grasp of how great the God is whom we serve. It is the attributes of God which describe Him as He is and which become the basis for our faith and obedience. Let us become students of the attributes of God.

Specifically, from this text we have focused upon the eternal, unchanging nature of God. This truth is frequently underscored in the Scriptures:

God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? (Num. 23:19; cf. 1 Sam. 15:29).

Of old Thou didst found the earth; And the heavens are the work of Thy hands. Even they will perish, but Thou dost endure; And all of them will wear out like a garment; Like clothing Thou wilt change them, and they will be changed. But Thou art the same, And Thy years will not come to an end. The children of Thy servants will continue, And their descendants will be established before Thee (Ps. 102:25-28).

Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow (James 1:17).

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8).

For the Christian, there is no thought more comforting than the eternality of God and His changelessness. It assures us that His purposes for us will be fulfilled.

The God who came down to deliver His people from Egypt in the person of Moses (Exod. 3) has now come down in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, to deliver us from eternal damnation due to our sins (cf. John 1:1-17, 29-34; Phil. 2:5-8). Just as the fire of God burned the bush but did not consume it, so the wrath of God was poured out on the Lord Jesus Christ, but did not consume Him. He died for our sins, but He was raised from the dead. Through Him, men can be delivered from the wrath of God on sinners. What a blessed hope there is for those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, the “I AM” God, who came that we might live through Him.

For the unbeliever, there is no thought more horrifying, for the God who in the Old Testament poured out His wrath on sinners still hates sin and will punish the wicked eternally.

Unfortunately, those who reject the provision which God has made in the person of Christ, and who trust in their own righteousness, will suffer the eternal fires of Hell. And this fire will not consume them either, so that it will be endured forever: “Then he will also say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matt. 25:41, emphasis mine).

The text which we have been studying underscores, in my mind, the importance of character. Ultimately, it is the character of God which is the basis for our faith and for our obedience. It is the character of men which is to be much of the basis for identifying church leaders (cf. 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). So too it is the character of the Christian which God is developing (cf. Prov.; 2 Pet. 1, etc.). Christian character is very often forged in the fires of affliction (Rom. 5:3-5; James 1:3). The endurance of the saints in the purifying fires which God brings into our lives is also evidence of the supernatural work of God (cf. 2 Cor. 3-4). While we need not seek affliction, let us acknowledge that it is often affliction which God uses to purify our lives (1 Pet. 1:6-7) and to prepare us for the glories which lie ahead.

One final thought. Israel, like the bush which Moses saw, is still, as it were, aflame. The great tribulation in the Book of Revelation describes the intense purifying fires of God which will be required to turn the nation Israel back to Himself. But in the midst of her fires of affliction, past, present, and future, Israel has endured, not consumed by the flames, and thus is a testimony to the unchanging nature of God whose promises are sure.

Great is Thy faithfulness,
O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As Thou has been Thou forever wilt be.

57 From Exodus 2 we might conclude that Moses had only one son (cf. 2:22), but Stephen informs us that he had two sons while in Midian (Acts 7:29). In Exodus 2 the point of verse 22 is to inform us of the mind of Moses at this time, as reflected in the naming of his firstborn, not to inform us as to how many children Moses had.

58 The importance of chapter 3 is stressed by Hyatt, who writes: “Chapter 3 is one of the most significant chapters in all of Exodus, for here Moses receives his commission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and God reveals his name ‘Yahweh’ for the first time. This account of the call of Moses has many similarities to accounts of the call of several later OT prophets, and may have provided the model for them.” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 70.

It should be pointed out that Hyatt is not correct in saying that the name “Yahweh” is revealed here for the first time. This is a conclusion based upon some of Hyatt’s liberal presuppositions concerning the authorship of the Pentateuch—namely that Moses was not the author. He adheres to the source document hypothesis (JEDP). For a summary and critique of this view, consult R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), pp. 13-15, 62, or John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), pp. 37-38. Edward J. Young’s articles are also very helpful as a scholarly refutation of the liberal view. Cf. Edward J. Young, “The Call of Moses,” Westminster Theological Journal, XXIX, No. 2 (1967), pp. 117-135 and XXX, No. 1 (1967), pp. 1-23.

59 Several things may need to be said concerning Mt. Horeb. First, Mt. Horeb is also known as Mt. Sinai: “Why, however, is the mountain here named Horeb and not Sinai? The most likely answer is that Horeb and Sinai are simply two different names of the same mountain, just as Jermon and Sirion both designate Mt. Hermon (cf. Deuteronomy 3:9; Psalm 29:6).” Young, “The Call of Moses,” p. 2.

Second, we do not know precisely where Mt. Horeb is located: “… in fact, we do not know where ‘God’s mountain’ … was. Was it within the Sinai Peninsula? If so, was it in the south (the traditional area) or in the north east among the mountains of Seir, overlooking the oasis of Kadesh Barnea, where Israel made her tribal centre for so long? Or was it in the mountains of Arabia, to the north east of the Gulf of Aqaba? The general geographic details in the Bible seem to point to the southern area: and the traditional site of Gebel Musa, ‘Moses’ mountain’ (7,467 feet), has much to commend it, though others will prefer the higher peaks nearby. It is noteworthy that, as in the exile in Babylon, this most striking event of Israel’s faith took place on foreign soil (cf. Abram’s call) and that later Israel seems neither to have known, nor cared, exactly where it was. Neither is there any suggestion of later pilgrimage to it, with the possible exception of the journey of Elijah (1 Kings 19). Israel, however, knew that ‘God’s mountain’ lay somewhere to the south of Canaan.” Cole, p. 63.

In the providence of God, the location of this “holy place” has been kept from us, otherwise there would be another “tourist trap,” and various kinds of merchandising (packets of “holy soil”?) as a result. Cf. also the words of our Lord in John 4:21-24.

Third, Moses led his flock to the west side of the wilderness to get there:

“… Hebrew ‘ahar,’ ‘back, behind.’ This must be ‘west’ from the Midianite point of view, and therefore it may be a Midianite term. As usual in Semitic thought, one faces east when giving compass directions; ‘behind’ is therefore ‘west.’” Cole, p. 62.

60 “Martin Noth claims that it is a favorite explanation of exegetes that the burning bush is a manifestation similar to St. Elmo’s fire. …” “During stormy weather discharges of atmospheric electricity give off a glow from the extremities of pointed objects such as ships’ masts. The term St. Elmo is a corruption of St. Erasmus (or Ermo), the patron saint of Mediterranean sailors. Has anyone, however, ever mistaken St. Elmo’s fire for a burning bush that burned yet was not consumed? Certainly the learned and wise Moses would not have done so.” Quoted by Edward J. Young in “The Call of Moses,” Westminster Theological Journal, p. 130, and fn. 29, p. 30.

61 Ibid, p. 131.

62 “If Sinai were a volcano, one could he [Gressmann] thinks, if he were proceeding upon rationalistic grounds, seek to explain the burning bush upon the basis of volcanic phenomena, or of subterranean fire, assuming that the bush stood near escaping gases from under the ground.” Ibid.

63 “Believing eyes have supposedly seen mysterious fires or lights in trees and pious ears have at the same time heard wondrous music.” Ibid, pp. 131-132.

64 Ibid, p. 133, fn. 34.

65 “It is said that once a year the sunlight penetrates through a chink in the rocks on the summit of Jebel ed-Deir and falls upon a spot at the foot of Jebel Musa.” Ibid, p. 133, fn. 34.

66 “Such a revelation, however, may well have been mediated through a visionary experience. The visionary experience would likely have assumed its descriptive character from the cultural ideas common to the era in which Moses lived. For Moses, the bush burned with the flaming presence of the angel of the Lord. But it may well have been an inner experience, and one standing next to Moses may have seen nothing extraordinary.” Roy L. Honeycutt, Jr., “Exodus,” The Broadman Bible Commentary, Clifton J. Allen, ed. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1969), p. 328, as cited by Davis, p. 61.

“Moses recognizes that what he sees is a ‘great sight,’ and hence something out of the ordinary. Had it been merely the glistening of the berries of a bush in the sun or the campfire of the shepherds, or anything of similar nature, Moses could hardly have considered it a ‘a great sight.’ It is noteworthy also that the only reason for Moses’ turning aside is that he is moved by curiosity. … It is this fact of Moses’ curiosity which rules out once and for all the idea that Moses, because of long meditation upon the suffering of his people in Egypt, is in a frame of mind or attitude in which he could readily believe that a voice was speaking to him.” Young, pp. 6-7.

67 “This is a plant with a strong growth about three feet in height with clusters of purple blossoms. The whole bush is covered with tiny oil glands. This oil is so volatile that it is constantly escaping and if approached with a naked light bursts suddenly into flames. …” Werner Keller, quoting Harold N. Moldenke, The Bible as History (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1956), p. 131, as cited by Davis, p. 61.

68 Davis, p. 62. Davis (p. 62) also tells of being shown “some of the ‘original ashes’ from Moses’ burning bush!”

69 The angel did not appear in the fire as much as it did as the fire: “We can read ‘in flames of fire,’ as do most English versions, but ‘as flames of fire’ is better. The fire, which the angel of the Lord chose as the form in which to appear, did not consume the bush.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Mass (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 51.

This fire may have been intended for us to associate with other instances of fire in the Old Testament: “There may be a deliberate reminiscence of the Genesis story, where the angel beings that guard the tree of life have flaming swords (Gen. 3:24). Fire is a symbol of God’s presence when He descends on Sinai too (Ex. 19:18), as often in the Bible. Exodus 13:21 speaks of God’s guiding and protecting presence as a ‘pillar of fire.’ Perhaps the basis of this symbolism lies in the purificatory, as well as the destructive, properties of fire (Duet. 4:24); the metal refiner was a familiar sight in the ancient world (Mal. 3:2). Normally, however, fire seems to speak of God’s holiness and, in particular, His anger in relation to sin (Exod. 19:18; 32:10).” Cole, p. 64.

The “angel of the Lord” is the second Person of the Trinity: “If we would do justice to the Scriptural data, we must insist therefore both upon the distinguishableness of the Angel from the Father and also upon the identity of essence with the Father. Christian theologians have rightly seen in this strange Figure a preincarnate appearance of the One who in the days of His flesh could say, ‘And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness of me’ (John 5:37).” Young, pp. 4-5.

70 Both the two-fold call by name and the response are reminiscent of God’s call to Abraham (Gen. 22:11) and Jacob (Gen. 46:2). “In this narrative emphasis falls upon the initiative of God. Moses is not seeking a revelation, nor does he have any intention of drawing near to a ‘holy place’ in the hope of meeting God. He is simply engaged in his ordinary daily business when God approaches him. This factor also is characteristic in the performance of a miracle. God comes to man to convince man that He is man’s Redeemer. Hence, the address, ‘Moses, Moses.’” Young, p. 11.

71 “It is the presence of God which renders the place holy, and the putting off of the shoes is intended as a recognition of that fact. Removing the sandals is a sign of reverence to God, whose presence sanctifies the place of His appearance to Moses.” Young, p. 14.

72 The translators of the NIV (above) and the NASB have accurately rendered “father” above, instead of “fathers,” as other translations have chosen to do. The Hebrew text uses the singular term (“father”), rather than the plural (fathers). The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), however, does use the plural, which Stephen also employs in Acts 7:32. Since the singular can be used with a plural sense, one should be cautious to make too much of the singular form here.

73 Some liberal scholars would have us believe that Moses here really came to adopt the god of his father-in-law” as his God, and thus Israel’s God as well. This is referred to as the Kenite theory. Young briefly outlines this theory and its origin: “The late George A. Barton, for example, maintained that as Moses was alone with the flock in the desert he spent the time brooding upon the ‘acute problems of life as he had experienced it.’ Among these thoughts were considerations of the nature of the ‘desert god’ that his father-in-law, Jethro, served. The mountain was volcanic, and its smoke and flames expressed the wrath of the desert god, Yahweh, whose presence was indicated by the smoke of the volcano.” Young, p. 9.

Cole states: “Moses brings no new or unknown god to his people, but a fuller revelation of the One whom they have known. …Yet in its day the Mosaic revelation, while a fulfilment of patriarchal promises, was as new and shattering to Israel as the coming of the Messiah was later to prove to be.” Cole, p. 66.

74 “It is, however, important to realize that these ‘nations’ of Canaan are not mutually related to each other, as Israel’s twelve tribes were. They may have shared a common cultural and religious pattern, but that is all. There is no evidence that they shared common historical traditions, in the way that Israel’s tribes did: nor indeed have we evidence to show that they even lived in distinct and separate areas.” Cole, p. 67.

75 “…‘oozing’ would be a better translation. This is a dairyman’s metaphor: the drops of milk ooze from the animal’s teats, so full of milk is she. This description of Canaan is a pastoralist’s dream. Milk, curds, cheese and honey are not the produce of closely-settled arable country. Cf. Isaiah 7:22, where ‘curds and honey’ are the product of an area that has reverted from tilth to pasture, because of war. The phrase is a frequent and probably proverbial description in the Pentateuch of the hill country of Canaan, and is an accurate one, when Canaan is compared with the more arid country of Sinai or even with oases like Kadesh-barnea.” Cole, p. 66.

76 “Interestingly while God promised the people two things (deliverance from Egypt and entrance into a new land), He commissioned Moses to accomplish only the first. God knew Moses would not enter the Promised Land (Deut. 32:48-52).” John Hannah, “Exodus,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985), (Old Testament), p. 112.

77 As I understand these two questions which are found in chapter 3, Moses is legitimately seeking clarification. The questions in chapter 4, however, cross over the line of what is appropriate and acceptable, for they reveal a deficiency in the faith of Moses, one that exasperates God to the point where the reader begins to fear for Moses, if he were to resist God’s commission any further. Cole writes, “God answers Moses’ objection as to his own inadequacy in two ways. First He promises His own presence; secondly He gives Moses a sign or proof that He is with him. After this Moses has no right to protest further. It is now no longer lack of self-reliance (which is good), but lack of faith (which is sin).” Cole, p. 68.

78 “The phrase ‘I will be’ (Heb. ‘ehyeh) is almost certainly a play on YHWY, God’s name, explained in verses 14 and 15.” Cole, p. 68.

79 “The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, as we say. It will be the success of Moses’ mission that will show beyond contradiction that God was indeed with him and had sent him. Such signs always follow faith. Meanwhile Moses must go forward in faith: this is typical of the whole biblical approach to signs.” Cole, p. 68.

80 There are some very interesting parallels between the incident of the “burning bush” in Exodus 3 and the “burning mountain” in Exodus 19. In both, God is revealed in His holiness and power by means of fire. In the first instance, God reveals Himself to Moses, demonstrating His character and His authority, under which Moses is to return to Egypt to deliver the Israelites. In the second instance, God reveals Himself to the people, demonstrating to them the authority which He has given Moses. I encourage you to compare these two chapters more thoroughly in your own study.

81 “… to the Semite the name had far deeper significance than is the case in our occidental world. With us the name is little more than a vocable; to the Semite, however, it either signified the character of a person or brought to mind something distinctive about him. To ask for the name of God was to desire to know the nature of God.” Young, p. 15.

“We cannot assume that the Israelites were ignorant of the titles of the God worshipped by their patriarchal ancestors, and presumably also worshipped by them during their stay in Egypt (but see Joshua’s blunt words in Jos. 24:14). …To ask the question, ‘Under what new title has God appeared to you?’ is equivalent to asking, ‘What new revelation have you received from God?’ Normally, in patriarchal days, any new revelation of the ancestral God will be summed up in a new title for Him (Gn. 16:13) which will in future both record and recount a deeper knowledge of God’s saving activity. We may therefore assume that, in asking this question, they were expecting a new title for the patriarchal God.” Cole, p. 69.

82 “The concern of the people in asking after the Name of God was to discover what relation this God sustained to themselves. Of what help would He be in this very present time of trouble? … The people were not interested merely in a question of metaphysics; they were interested above all in the practical matter of how the One who claimed to be the God of the Fathers could be of aid to them.” Young, p. 21.

83 “Here, the full form of the divine name is used, YHWH, usually represented as LORD (in capitals) in English versions. The pious Jew of later years was reluctant to pronounce God’s name lest he incur the penalty for taking the name of YHWH in vain (Ex. 20:7). He therefore read the vowels of adonay ‘my Lord,’ with the consonants of YHWH, so producing the hybrid ‘Jehovah’ in English. … Perhaps the easiest way to understand what the name YHWH meant to the Jews is to see what it came to mean, as their history of salvation slowly unrolled. It ultimately meant to them what the name Jesus has come to mean to Christians, a ‘shorthand’ for all God’s dealings of grace.” Cole, p. 70.

84 “Davies rightly points out that since this is the only place in the Old Testament where there is any explanation of the meaning of the name YHWH, we ought therefore to take very seriously the association with ‘being’ which is clearly stated here. … Simplest of all, does it mean that God exists, as opposed to idols without being? Along these lines, Hyatt sees ‘I am He who is’ as a possible translation. … Or does it mean ‘I will only be understood by My own subsequent acts and words of revelation’? … The revelation of the name therefore is not merely a deep theological truth; it is a call to the response of faith by Moses and by Israel.” Cole, pp. 69-70. Cf. also, Young, pp. 18-23 for a summary of the various interpretations of these verses, along with his carefully arrived at conclusions.

“In the bush, he [Calvin] holds, we see the humble and despised people surrounded by the flames of oppression; yet in the midst is God who prevents the flames from devouring the nation. Keil appeals to Judges 9:15 to support the position that in contrast to the more noble and lofty trees the thornbush aptly represents the people of God in their humiliation. On this particular point there seems to be fairly widespread agreement among interpreters.” Young, p. 5.

“… this [vss. 7-12] was, in fact, a self-revelation of God to Moses. … The holiness of God is emphasized (v. 5). While He is a God of power and transcendent glory, He is also imminent and therefore the God of history (v. 6). The section presently under consideration reveals additional information concerning the One who was challenging Moses. According to verse 7 He was a God sensitive and aware of the deep need of His people. He was a merciful God. He had seen and heard their cry and knew their sorrows, and the means by which God would care for the tragedy of His people would be to “come down” to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians (v. 8). The description here is that of a God who acts not above history, but in and through history.” Davis, p. 63.

85 “Thus at the burning bush God gave to Moses the revelation of His NAME. In His historical revelations He is absolutely independent of His creation, the self-existing one, who manifests in deeds of wonder the nature of His being expressed in His Name. … At the burning bush there appeared to Moses One who is eternal, who changeth not, who depends not upon His creation, but in sovereign and supreme majesty, exists independently of that creation. He, the BEING ONE, is unchangeable; yet He is the living and true God. In His revelation of deliverance He displays the glory of His majesty, the blessed truth that He alone is the I AM.” Young, p. 23.

“… the Lord is the God of the covenant (see v. 15). As such He remains the same, is consistent. What He is in general comforts His people through its application to the specific situation (Israel’s oppression) and the special relationship (covenant) that already existed between Him and Israel’s ancestors, and now (‘I am’) will also exist between Him and the descendants ‘from generation to generation.’” Gispen, p. 55.

86 In contrast to the idols which had no life and could not move, Yahweh is the eternal, living One. He changes not, yet He is living and can reveal Himself to His creation. He will make known to Moses and to the children of Israel what kind of God He is by means of the deeds which He will perform in their midst and by means of the words which He will speak unto them. These words and deeds are such that only one who in all His attributes and perfections is infinite, eternal and unchangeable can perform them. In His revelation the I AM makes Himself known to His people.” Young, pp. 21-22.

87 “Not only does the miracle attest the present working of God but it also points to the continuity of His working in His determination to accomplish redemption. The revelation which accompanies the miracle first looks back to the promises made to the patriarchs, ‘I am the God of thy father’ (Exodus 3:6a), and it also points to the future, ‘And I came down to deliver it from the hand of Egypt’ (Exodus 3:8a). This particular miracle, therefore, was for the benefit of Moses primarily, that through it he might become convinced that the God who had spoken to his ancestors was in the midst of His people and would be faithful to His promise to redeem them.” Ibid, p. 11.

88 In saying this I am looking at the Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27 and Luke 20:27-38 accounts as the same incident, reported by each Gospel. The John 8 account is a separate (second) incident.

Taxonomy upgrade extras: 

4. Beating Around the Burning Bush (Exodus 3 and 4)


When I was considerably younger, my uncle arrived at a family picnic, riding a new Honda motorcycle. Unimpressive by today’s standards, at the time it was one of the most powerful bikes on the road. Proudly my uncle let several relatives ride it around the park, barely idling. Seeing that I was drooling over the bike, my uncle asked if I had ever ridden. With great confidence, I assured him that I had. On that Honda 305, my intention was not to idle around a few stumps as I took it up to the highway and pressed the limits a bit.

I had been truthful to the degree that I had ridden a motorcycle before, but not entirely honest about the extent of my experience. You see, I had ridden a Honda 50 (the smallest Honda bike) once around the service station where I worked. I was not adequately prepared for the ride on that Honda 305 (the biggest bike Honda then made).

Moses felt that he was adequately prepared for the task of delivering the Israelites from the oppression of the Egyptians, but Exodus 2 indicates that his efforts failed miserably. He was rejected and rebuked by his fellow-Israelite, and he was pursued by the Pharaoh who wanted to kill him. This led to a 40-year sojourn in the land of Midian, where Moses married, had two children, and tended the flocks of his father-in-law.

We would readily acknowledge that Moses was not ready for leadership at age 40, but we seem to think that those 40 years Moses spent in the wilderness with Jethro’s flocks must have equipped him to serve as Israel’s deliverer. I do not think this is the case. I believe that Moses was about as prepared to lead Israel at age 80 as I was ready to ride a Honda 305 after having ridden a Honda 50. The events of Exodus 3 and 4 bear out, I believe, that Moses’ preparation for leadership had barely begun. The man we find described in this portion of Scripture is hardly the model of leadership we would expect. Let us look carefully at this chapter, because I suspect we will find Moses a great deal like us. Let us learn the kind of men God chooses and uses as leaders and the process He used with Moses.

In our previous lesson, the focus was on the character of God, Israel’s “I AM.” The focus of our study in this lesson will be on the character of Moses, the man “I AM” sent to rescue Israel from Egypt.

Moses’ Marching Orders

In our last lesson we focused on the burning bush and the character of the God who revealed Himself in the bush—the “I AM.” The revelation of the character of God, particularly by His name, is the basis for the faith and obedience which God expects (indeed demands) of Moses. In verses 16-22 the task which Moses has been commissioned to accomplish is outlined, along with an outline of the events which will take place due to Moses’ ministry. Essentially, there are three general categories covered in these verses:

(1) Moses was commanded to assemble the elders of Israel to reassure them of God’s covenant promises, and to convey God’s plan for delivering His people from their bondage, and to bring them into the land of Canaan (Exod. 3:16-17). In effect, Moses was to repeat the words which God had spoken to him from the burning bush.

(2) Moses was told to go to Pharaoh with the elders of Israel and to request a three-day “leave” to worship God in the desert (Exod. 3:18-20). This request would be denied, and only by compulsion (the plagues) would the king of Egypt release the Israelites. It is important to observe that the resistance of Pharaoh was foretold, thus preparing Moses for the hard times ahead. The release from Egypt would not come quickly or easily, but it would come.

(3) Finally, God instructed Moses to “collect,” as it were, the wages the Israelites had earned in Egypt (Exod. 3:21-22). This was to be accomplished by asking the Egyptian women for articles of silver and gold and putting them on their children.

These commands summarized the task which God had given Moses and the response of the Egyptians to Moses’ request. Here, in a nutshell, is an outline of “things to come” for Egypt. These commands clarify the task which Moses has been given. They are all based upon the promise and the prophecy which God had previously given Abraham in Genesis 15:12-20. Moses now knew who God was, and the task He had given him to do. The real struggle here is between Moses and God, and whether he will do it. I thus have entitled the message, “Beating Around the Burning Bush.” Moses will learn, as we all must, that God’s commands are not to be refused.

The Five Points of Moses

As a friend and I discussed possible titles for this section, he suggested this one, which I like a lot: “While Israel gathered straw, Moses grasped at straws.” For those who are into theological inquiry and discussion, I am convinced that Moses was a “five pointer.” Here are the five points of Moses, as he seeks to prove that he is not the man for the task which God has given him. The essence of Moses’ argument is: “Here am I, send someone else!”

Moses responds to the commission of God five times. The first two responses we have dealt with previously, but we shall briefly review them so that we can view Moses’ response as a whole.

(1) Who am I? (Exod. 3:11). After prematurely and presumptuously asserting himself as a deliverer (Exod. 2:11-15), and being rebuffed by a fellow-Israelite (“Who made you ruler and judge over us?” Exod. 2:14), Moses was not so full of self-confidence. Moses, we are told in Scripture, was the “meekest man on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). To the degree that Moses’ question reveals true humility, it is legitimate. But in this instance, I fear that his humility is out of bounds. The issue here is not who Moses is, but whose he is. God has sent him, and it is God who will be with him. Moses’ authority is based upon his divine call and the divine presence with him as he goes (Exod. 3:12).

There is a great deal of discussion these days about self-esteem. While one’s self-concept has a great deal to do with how one feels about himself and how he (or she) may function in life, it is not the key to Christian growth or obedience. Why? Because the orientation is wrong. Self-esteem focuses one’s attention selfward. One can only be confident if one is confident about one’s self. God redirects Moses’ attention to Himself. The burning bush is a revelation of God to Moses, not an introspective analysis of Moses himself. No man, no matter how capable, is fit or able to adequately serve God. It is God who is infinite, eternal, and all-powerful. Thus, when Moses has a proper God-concept, he is able to serve. Let us learn from this text to focus our attention on the One whom we serve, rather than on ourselves.

(2) Who are you? (Exod. 3:13). If Moses’ authority is wrapped up in the God who has called and commissioned him, then it is surely worthwhile for him to inquire as to the nature and character of God. If it were not for the other three responses of Moses (the last two are protests, not inquiries), we might find this question altogether acceptable. My own inclination is that Moses already knew enough.

Knowing God is the highest calling of the Christian and a lifetime occupation (cf. Phil. 3:10). As such, one should always seek to know more of Him. But Moses does not seek this knowledge for himself; he seeks it because he fears that the Israelites will reject his authority. In other words, this is really a reflection of the same fears of Moses which were more openly admitted in the first question. God’s answer to the first question was not sufficient for Moses, so he asked it again, in different terms. Moses still expects to be rejected by the Israelites, as he was 40 years before.

I find many of us seek to avoid immediately acting on the commands of God, excusing this by our “lack of information, knowledge, or training.” How many people “want to think it over,” or “pray about it,” when in reality they are reluctant to obey God’s leading? How many have excused themselves because they have not gone to seminary or Bible college? Very often, these are merely a smoke-screen for unbelief. We are never ready when we act on our own, but we are always ready when God says, “Go!”

(3) What if they89 do not believe me or listen to me? (Exod. 4:1). Is this question not a bit shop worn? Moses is asking the same question of God for the third time. This time, it is even more inappropriate. No, I have not said it strongly enough. This time, the question is sinful. In the past, Moses doubted his calling; now he is doubting the Word of God, for the Lord has just told him, “The elders of Israel will listen to you” (Exod. 4:18). From the words which follow this assurance, we know that Moses was not only told that the leaders of Israel will accept his leadership, but that it will all work out, just as God has said. Moses therefore is guilty of unbelief, pure and simple.

I have been rather hard on Moses, and I believe that the text (which Moses wrote) is making his weakness and unbelief clear. As an inveterate coward, let me say a word or two in behalf of Moses. Have you ever had to face a group of skeptics and convince them that God sent you, based upon a conversation you had with a bush? I find it easy to understand why Moses feared that no one would believe his story. People don’t stand around talking to burning bushes. That this was unusual was an evidence of its significance. It is also something which is difficult to convince others is true.

God still graciously deals with the weakness of Moses here. In response to his question, God grants Moses the ability to perform three signs.90 The first two Moses performs on the spot, at God’s instruction, so as to assure him. The final sign (turning water from the Nile to blood) has to wait until the raw materials (Nile water) are available.

The specific meaning of each miracle91 is without common consensus among scholars. Overall, I believe that we can see several important contributions of these signs. First, for the Israelites these signs were visible evidence that God had appeared to Moses in the burning bush. Would they refuse to believe the account of the burning bush? Let them see a shepherd’s staff92 turned into a serpent, and then transformed once again to the staff. Let them see a hand turned leprous, and then restored. A burning bush is no harder to believe than these phenomena.

Second, for the Pharaoh and the Egyptians, these signs were evidence of the “finger of God” (cf. Exod. 8:19). Not only did they emphatically prove the existence of the God of the Hebrews, but they gave evidence of His superior power. More than this, these three signs were of a similar kind. At the word of Moses, a staff could become a serpent, leprosy could be inflicted, and water contaminated. In other words, Moses had the power to inflict injury and to destroy. Pharaoh had tried, in vain, to destroy Israel. Moses could easily destroy Egypt. The signs were all “plague-like,” and Pharaoh would do well to take heed. He had been warned, not only of the power of God, but also of the nature of the divine judgment which he could and would inflict on Egypt. Finally, since Moses had the power to reverse the adverse plague, Pharaoh was also instructed as to Moses’ power to restore, once a plague was brought to pass. The three signs were therefore very significant, both to the Israelites, and to the Pharaoh.

(4) But I am not eloquent! (Exod. 4:10; cf. 6:12,30)93. From here on, it is all down hill—fast. Moses is still hung up about his inability. Rather than acting on the basis of who the God is who commissioned him, Moses is now retreating on the pretext that he is not a gifted communicator. This is indeed a piece of false humility. Look at what Stephen has to say about Moses’ abilities: “When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action” (Acts 7:21-22, emphasis mine). Moses did not have a speech problem, as some might suppose. Neither was he ungifted in speech. According to Stephen, Moses was eloquent. Moses is not only doing a disservice to God (by refusing to believe Him and obey in faith), but to himself. Moses should not trust in his own abilities, but neither should he deny the abilities which God has given him.

The historian Josephus goes even farther than Stephen. Now, of course, Josephus did not write under inspiration. Worse yet, Josephus has been accused of exaggerating. But it is interesting to note that Josephus writes that Moses was a commander of the Egyptian army, attacking and defeating the Ethiopians who had humiliated Egypt.94 It is a glorious story—too much so to take too seriously. Nevertheless, it indicates that at least Josephus didn’t take Moses’ excuse seriously either.

The Lord’s response reveals His displeasure and has the tone of rebuke.95 Little wonder! Moses is talking to His creator. He is saying, in effect, “God, I can’t do what you ask because you did not make me well enough.” God reminds Moses that, as his Creator, He fashioned him precisely as He intended, and he was therefore fully able to carry out his commission. The problem of what to say is one that the Lord will handle in due time. He will teach him what to say (Exod. 4:12).96 While Moses is worrying about what he will say when he gets to Egypt, God is spurring him to get going. Moses is looking too far down the path. His immediate task is to get going.

(5) Please send somebody else (Exod. 4:13). Here is the bottom line. Moses does not want to go. It is not that he lacks the assurance or the authority; he simply lacks the courage to act. No reason is stated here as to why God should send someone else, because Moses is all out of excuses. And so Moses pleads with God for someone else to go.

God is longsuffering and patient, but now He is angry. I do not know precisely what physical manifestations evidenced the anger which Moses mentions in verse 14, but my own impression is that this must have scared Moses half to death. Can you imagine making God mad and then having to stand there faced with His anger? If Moses was afraid of the presence of God in the burning bush before (Exod. 4:6), one can hardly imagine the fear which Moses had at this point.

God’s anger was not only reflected in some visible way (did the burning bush suddenly flare up?), but it was evident in the answer which God gave to Moses (vv. 14-17). Aaron could speak fluently, so let him speak for Moses. As later events will indicate, the presence of Aaron was a burden for Moses and a stumbling block for others. Among other things, Aaron fashioned the “golden calf” and led Israel in false worship (Exod. 32:1-6). Aaron was, at best, a mixed blessing.

Moses’ Request to Return

Clutching his staff, Moses set out to ask Jethro’s permission to leave, along with his wife and two sons. It would seem that such permission was required (cf. Gen. 31, esp. vss. 26-30). Moses’ request was evasive, even deceptive: “Let me go back to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive” (Exod. 4:18).

Moses avoids telling Jethro of God’s appearance in the burning bush and of the commission he had been given. Can you imagine asking your father-in-law to release his loved ones to accompany a man who is going to take on Pharaoh and the entire nation of Egypt? And can you conceive of trying to convince Jethro that you were sure of this, based upon a conversation you had with a bush that burned, but did not burn up? No wonder Moses wished to avoid the real purpose of his return.

Avoiding the true (or the whole) purpose of his return was one thing, but Moses went beyond this. He told Jethro that he wanted to learn if any of his people were still alive. It is possible that Moses meant that he wanted to see if his mother and father were still alive. He certainly knew that the Israelites were living, for how could God send him to rescue a people who had been exterminated (which was, of course, Pharaoh’s intention)?

Verse 19 seems to serve as a kind of explanation for the reason which Moses had given Jethro for returning to Egypt: “Now the Lord had said to Moses in Midian, ‘Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead’” (Exod. 4:19). Moses had no reason to fear, God assured him, for the Pharaoh who had sought to take his life was dead. But it almost seems as though Moses rearranged the facts God had given, so as to suggest that Moses needed to see if his own people were, in fact, alive and well. Did Moses inadvertently confuse the facts, or did he deceptively rearrange the facts so as to gain the permission of Jethro to take his family to Egypt? We do not know, but Zipporah and her two sons did return to her father’s house (cf. Exod. 18:2-6), perhaps after the incident in verses 24-26.97

Jethro, who seems to be a wise and gracious man, grants Moses’ request, wishing him well (v. 18). And so it was that Moses set out on his way back to Egypt, taking along his wife and two sons. Moses, we are told, took the “staff of God” in his hand (v. 20). How he must have studied that stick, which he had carried so long, and which now was an instrument of God.

Matters Between Fathers and Sons

One’s initial impression could be that these verses are inappropriate or out of place. Since we are not willing to say that the text has been rearranged, we can only conclude that these words from the Lord to Moses were spoken after Moses had departed from the house of Jethro, or they were spoken from the burning bush but recorded here for a specific purpose.98 I am inclined toward the latter because these words then provide the backdrop for the incident depicted in verses 24-26. One might, in fact, better grasp the thread of the argument of verses 21-26 by entitling the section, “between fathers and sons,” for there are three father-son relationships referred to here: (1) God as the Father of Israel, His firstborn son (vv. 22-23a); (2) Pharaoh and his firstborn son (v. 23b); and (3) Moses and his son (firstborn?—cf. fn. 17) (vv. 24-26).

God had instructed Moses to perform all the wonders he was empowered to do before Pharaoh. This was not in the hope of convincing or converting Pharaoh, however, for his heart would be hardened by God. We are also told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.99 Both statements are true and do not contradict each other.

Here, for the first time, the nation Israel is referred to as the firstborn100 son of God (Exod. 4:22-23). Because Pharaoh would not release Israel, God’s firstborn son, to worship Him in the desert, God would have Moses tell Pharaoh that He will kill his firstborn.

What is the significance here of this statement about Pharaoh’s firstborn son? It would seem that it is intended to serve as a backdrop for the strange, almost bizarre, incident described in verses 24-26.101 Here Moses, Zipporah, and their two sons are on their way to Egypt (v. 24) via Mt. Sinai it would appear (cf. 4:27). The Lord102 met Moses at their lodging place and seemed103 intent to kill him. This action on God’s part seems so unusual and so harsh that some have even suggested the “deity” was demonic.104 Moses’ life was spared by the quick action taken by his wife, Zipporah. She took a flint knife (cf. Josh. 5:2-3), circumcised her son,105 and touched Moses106 with the foreskin, with the rebuke, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” Because of her actions, God let Moses alone.

What does this action on Zipporah’s part mean, and what is the purpose of including this story in Exodus? Surely this is the kind of incident which Moses would not wish to become public, let alone become a part of holy Scripture. And remember, Moses wrote this book and could have omitted it. What then does this mean, and what are we to learn from it? I would suggest that this enigmatic event is the key to the entire chapter, explaining Moses’ deeply rooted resistance to obeying the call of God to return to Egypt to rescue the Israelites.

The “gospel,” if you would, of the Israelite was the covenant God had made with Abraham and reiterated to the patriarchs and now, through Moses, to the people of God, the Israelites. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant, an evidence of the parents’ faith in the promise of God to Abraham that through his seed blessings would come to Israel and to the whole world (cf. Gen. 12:1-3). As a testimony of the parents’ faith in God’s covenant promise, every male in Israel was to be circumcised:

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Gen. 17:9-14).

So there we have it. The basis of Israel’s preservation (as pictured by the bush that didn’t burn up) was the covenant made with Abraham by the eternal God who is, from now on (cf. Exod. 3:15) the “I AM.” The covenant was the “gospel,” the promise of blessing and salvation which every Israelite was called upon to believe and whose belief was symbolized by the circumcision of his sons and all the males in his household. Moses was to go to Egypt and tell the Israelites that God was about to fulfill His promises, based upon His covenant. And yet Moses had not yet circumcised his son.107 And if this son is his firstborn, he has had many years in which to do so.

If God takes the “hardness of Pharaoh’s heart” so seriously as to kill his firstborn son (Exod. 4:21-23), then He must likewise deal with the sin of Moses who by not circumcising his son has endangered him greatly. According to the word of the Lord recorded in Genesis 17, his son should have been “cut off from his people.” The holiness of God is clearly manifested in the near fatal illness of Moses. God does not look lightly on any sin.

Moses’ wife rightly perceived the problem and spared the life of her husband by her prompt action. The great man Moses was saved by his wife’s keen perception and decisive measures. Her rebuke was well-deserved, and Moses was man enough to record it for posterity. Would that we husbands had the integrity to be so honest.

For whatever reasons, Moses’ wife and children do not appear again in the account of Exodus until chapter 18. It may therefore be that Zipporah and the two sons returned to the home of Jethro at this time.108


By divine revelation God instructed Aaron to meet Moses in the wilderness (4:27). They met on the holy mountain of God. What a happy reunion that must have been. At least 40 years would seem to have passed since they had seen each other. Most of all, Moses had to share the most recent events of his life, especially his encounter with God at the burning bush, the commission he had been given to deliver Israel, and the part which Aaron was to play in it all. One can only surmise what Aaron’s response to this might have been.

Together Moses and Aaron went back to Egypt and met with the elders of the Israelites, telling them all that God had said to Moses and performing all the signs which God had given Moses (4:29-30). Both the elders of Israel and the people believed Moses and bowed down to worship the God of their fathers (4:31). This brief account of Israel’s belief and worship underscores the fact that all of Moses’ fears were unfounded.


The conclusion of chapter 4 serves as a divine commentary on the five-fold objection of Moses to the call of God. The last verses of the chapter, which report the belief of the people and their worship of God, inform us that Moses’ fears were unreal and unreasonable. All of his fears and all of his objections as reported in chapters 3 and 4 were groundless, based more on Moses’ fears than on reality.

Verses 24-26 then identify the underlying problem with Moses’ fears: unbelief. If one were to summarize the objections of Moses to his commission to return to Egypt, it would be this: “But God, they won’t believe me.” But Moses’ fears about Israel’s unbelief are rooted in his own unbelief. The basis for God’s redemption of Israel from Egyptian bondage is the Abrahamic Covenant. Consequently, God repeatedly identifies Himself as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (cf. 3:6,15,16,18; 4:5). The reason why Moses was not ready to return to Egypt is that he did not have sufficient faith in the covenant which God had made with his fathers. And since he did not have great faith in God’s covenant promises, he did not expect the Israelites to have it either. The evidence of Moses’ lack of faith is here, in his failure to circumcise his son as an evidence of his trust in God’s covenant promises.

In this text there are two separate threads pertaining to Moses which are intertwined. The first we might call his personal walk with God. The second we will call his public work for God. Moses’ objections all deal with God’s call and commission with reference to his public work. The essence of his protest is summed up in his last petition, “Please send someone else.” While God graciously answers each inquiry (points 1-3) and makes provision for his concerns (points 4 and 5), we never really get to the root of Moses’ problem until we come to verses 24-26.

We find that Moses’ problems with regard to his public work (returning to Egypt to rescue Israel) are all rooted in his private walk. His son is not circumcised. He cannot challenge men and women to step out in obedience, based upon their faith in God’s covenant promises when he has not yet even circumcised his son as an evidence of his faith. Thus, Moses’ problems in relationship to his public work are rooted in his personal walk. No wonder Paul wrote this to Timothy: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Tim. 4:16, NASB).

Take note that Paul urged Timothy to take heed to himself (his personal walk) and then to his ministry (his public work). One’s personal spiritual life takes priority over one’s public ministry. When our personal walk is deficient, our public ministry will suffer as well. In the context of Paul’s exhortation in this passage, it is clear that Timothy needs to pay attention to his personal walk, as well as to his ministry. Moses’ problems are an illustration of what happens when one’s personal walk is defective. It is hard to call people to faith when one is deficient in this very area. It is difficult to challenge people to obey God when we are disobedient.

I am suggesting that one’s personal walk with God has priority over one’s public work for God. God became angry with Moses regarding his reticence toward his public work. The result of this anger was to be stuck with Aaron as an assistant. But when God became angry with Moses relative to his private walk, it nearly cost Moses his life. I would infer from this that the latter evil was greater than the former. Thus, one’s private walk is the highest priority for our lives.

This incident also suggests that the saints often fall because of their failures in the most elementary areas of the Christian life. Think of it. Moses had an extensive education in Egypt, and a post-graduate course at the burning bush, and yet with all this knowledge Moses failed to obey God in the simplest area of his life—to circumcise his son. In the failures which I have observed in the life of great Christian leaders (as well as in my own life), these have most often been failings in the simple disciplines of life, especially related to our personal faith and walk and to our family. Such was the case with Moses. The cure for the problem was not hidden, not deep, not profound. Zipporah knew what needed to be done by Moses and did it for him when he was stricken (to act in his behalf at any other time would have been wrong, in my opinion).

May I suggest that this passage and the principle of the priority of one’s personal walk has a great deal of relevance to Christians today. Very often I find the attention of Christians focused on the same areas which Moses raised in protest to God’s command. Allow me to characterize the complaints or objections of Moses, and then relate them to our day.

(1) Moses was introspective, looking at himself, rather than looking to the God who called him. The questions, “Who am I?” and “What if they don’t believe me?” are both self-oriented, rather than God-oriented. God’s answer was to direct Moses toward His character and toward His provisions for Moses’ ministry. Many of the excuses which many of us are using for failing to do what God has commanded us to do are of the same kind—they are self-oriented.

One of the catch concepts of Christianity (and, significantly, of the world) is that of one’s self-concept or self-image. We seem to find a “poor self-image” the basis for crime, improper behavior, marital failures, and who knows what all. Now I do not wish to be understood to say that “self-image” is all hogwash. Much of it is, but not all of it. I am not saying that we should never consider the area of self-concept. I am saying that it is, at best, a symptom, more than it is a cause. Moses, we might say, had a bad self-image, but God did not work to change his self-image. Instead, God focused Moses’ attention on Himself, by revealing Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the “I AM.” When Moses grasped the greatness of the God who called him, then his self-image began to revolve around God, not man. The greatness of Moses is to be found in the greatness of the One who called him and who sent him. God listened to Moses’ objections founded on his self-concept, but He corrected Moses by focusing his attention elsewhere.

(2) Moses was more interested in academics than he was with action. Moses wanted to know more about God, and thus the question regarding the name of the God who sent him. I know of many people who would rather study about ministry than to do it.

I know of many who want to study about God, as an excuse not to serve Him. Study is important, but it is not a substitute for service, especially when God calls us to serve. Many are the intellectual pursuits of those who are resistant to obey.

(3) Moses was more concerned with his method than with the message he was given. The protest, “But I have never been eloquent” (4:10) is not only a lie; it is a diversion. The method of presentation (while important) was not nearly as important as the message. God promised to provide Moses with both (4:12). Many seem to think that the reason people don’t witness is because they don’t know how and that teaching them a method will produce evangelism. As helpful as training in methods of evangelism can be, the real problem is with our motives, not with our methods. A newly married couple does not need a manual on making love, and the reason is that they have the motivation to learn. Moses’ problem was not a methodological one, but a motivational one—he didn’t want to go, as evidenced by his final plea, “Please send someone else.”

(4) Moses’ problem was not so much a fear of failure as it was a failure of faith. Moses problem, bottom line, was not to be found in the things Moses expressed in his objections but on those which God exposed in verses 24-26. Moses’ problem was fundamentally a lack of faith—unbelief. He did not take the Abrahamic Covenant seriously, personally, and thus he found the thought of basing a ministry on it frightening.

Although hard to admit, I believe that many, if not most, of our problems as Christians are rooted in unbelief. The reason we are so lax in witnessing is because we do not really believe the gospel as we should. We don’t believe our friends and relatives are facing a Christless eternity, in continual torment. We don’t really believe that apart from faith in Christ men are hopelessly lost. We don’t really believe that the things of this life are momentary, and that eternity will expose what is both lasting and enjoyable.

If the gospel is the bedrock foundation on which our personal walk and public work is based then we dare not become forgetful of it. This is why we as a church believe that the remembrance of the Lord’s death is necessary on a weekly basis. We therefore observe the Lord’s table every week, and in this way remind ourselves of what is essential and foundational to our faith and walk. Let us never cease to look to the cross of Calvary. You see, the gospel of the Old Testament saint was summed up in the covenant of God with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The gospel of the New Testament is summed up in the cross of Christ on Calvary and in the “new covenant in his blood” (Luke 22:20). Let us never lose sight of the bedrock of our faith and of the devastation of unbelief.

In conclusion let me suggest some secondary applications which come by inference from our text. With regard to leadership, it seems that many of the current conceptions of Christian leadership are challenged by the call of Moses in Exodus 3 and 4. Moses is sovereignly called to lead; he does not volunteer. In fact, Moses’ self-confidence and self-assertiveness are set aside before he is called to lead.

Not only is Moses sovereignly called, but he is prepared in a way quite different from what is proposed as normative today. Moses was not discipled, as we seem to think is required today. Moses learned most of his lessons in solitude and the rest in a secular (dare I say secular humanist) educational environment in Egypt. Moses is not trained so much by his successes as by his failures.

Moses is not called and commissioned because he is so spiritual, or so successful, or because he is “ready,” but because God is ready, and He will equip him to serve as he serves. There is more “on-the-job” training here than we might wish to admit.

The leaders whom we find portrayed in the Bible are not the giants we would like to find, but men whom God has used in spite of their weaknesses and failures. Surely we must admit that Moses, like Elijah, was a man of “like passions” (cf. James 5:17), a man who had the same fears and failures as we do. It is not the greatness of the man which is the key to his success, but the character of the God who calls and uses fallible men to do His will.

We expect our leaders to succeed and always to do the right thing. Nothing in the Scriptures gives us the right to expect such perfection, either in our leaders or in ourselves. Let us look upon our leaders as men who have fears and failings like ourselves, and who need our prayers, and our encouragement and exhortation as much as we need them.

In this brief glimpse of the life of Moses covering 80 years, let us recognize that that are two equally dangerous extremes with regard to leadership. The first is that of self-confident, self-assertiveness. Moses presumptuously set out to deliver his people and ended up running for his life. That is because he was neither called nor commissioned to lead at this point in his life. Many are those who would like to lead and who assert themselves as leaders, whom God has not commissioned to lead. Presumption in leadership is deadly.

Second, there is the danger of self-conscious passivity. This is what we see in Moses at the time when God did commission him to go to Egypt. Now Moses is full of all kinds of excuses why he is not the man for the job. There are many Christian men who seek to step away from leadership which God has thrust upon them. In the final analysis, it is because they do not trust God enough to believe that He can achieve His purposes through them.

Regardless of the ministry which God has given, let us do so with diligence, looking first to our own walk and then to our work, trusting and obeying the “I AM” who has called us and is forever with us.

89 One may wonder to whom the “they” of verse 1 refers. Is Moses doubting that the Israelites will believe God has appeared to him, or the Egyptians (especially the Pharaoh)? The context clearly indicates that the “they” refers to the Israelites. First, they would need to know that God had appeared to Moses, not Pharaoh. Pharaoh was simply to be told that “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us” (Exod. 3:18). Secondly, Exodus 4:5 specifies that the Hebrews will believe that “the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob— has appeared to you.”

90 It is absolutely incredible what some people are able to do with these miracles. Below are a few statements for you to consider: “The first sign was that Moses’ staff (which according to an Arabian saga was taken from paradise by Adam, but according to Moses’ own words was nothing more than an ordinary staff) was changed into a snake.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 59.

“The magical trick here performed is probably based on knowledge of an Egyptian snake-charmer’s trick.” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 82.

“Moses is thus taught magic by the Lord of all wonders. The three he learns are transformation-miracles, in which one substance is changed into another. Moses himself performs two of the miracles immediately, perhaps to gain confidence, but the third can be carried out only in Egypt with the Nile water.” Ibid.

91 For example, Hannah writes: “Because snakes symbolized power and life to the Egyptians, God was declaring to Moses that he would be able to overcome the powers of Egypt.” John Hannah, “Exodus,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985), p. 113.

92 “In verse 20 it is called God’s rod, as being used in signs, and in Exodus 7:9 it is used by Aaron.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), p. 73.

93 “It is interesting that during this appearance Moses addressed God twice (4:10, 13), but in neither case did he use the name God had revealed to him.” Gispen, p. 60.

“The Hebrew reads ... ‘I am not a man of words.’ Later in the verse he speaks of the fact that he was ‘slow of speech’ and ‘slow of tongue.’ The Hebrew literally reads ‘heavy in mouth and heavy in tongue’; that is, he was not fluent in speech.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 68.

94 The Works of Flavius Josephus, translated by William Whiston (Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and Authors Inc. [reprint], n.d.), Book II, pp. 57-58.

95 “Compare Exodus 5:23 for a similar rebuke. Such an attitude to God is culpable, but very natural and common, not least among the saints of the Old Testament covenant (Jeremiah [Jer. 1:6], the psalmist and Job are noted instances). Like Peter’s failings, these lovable faults bring them very close to us, since we see ourselves only too clearly in them. I am slow of speech: lit. ‘heavy of mouth.’ This vividly expresses the frustration of the man who knows that he cannot speak (cf. Paul in 2 Cor. 10:10 for a similar rueful admission). We are never told that Moses’ self-estimate was incorrect. He is blamed for making excuses, not necessarily because the reasons given are untrue, but because they indicate lack of faith.” Cole, p. 75.

96 “The Hebrew word for ‘teach’ contains the same root as tora, ‘instruction,’ especially used in later times as a title for the Law of Moses. There may be a hint of the later meaning here.” Cole, p. 76.

97 “It was probably at this time Zipporah and her two boys were sent back to Jethro by Moses (cf. 18:2-3).” Davis, p. 72.

98 You will notice that the NIV renders verse 19, “Now the Lord had said to Moses. …” The inference is that these words were spoken earlier, perhaps at the bush, but that they were recorded here for a reason. The reason is that we find out how Moses either misunderstood what God had told him or how he distorted it. God never suggested that “his own people” had died, but that “those who wanted to kill him” had died. When God’s words are placed in juxtaposition with those of Moses, Moses’ words do not conform to the truth. This revelation of God, placed where it was, informs us that Moses hedged concerning the truth.

99 “Three different Hebrew words are used to describe this condition attributed to Pharaoh. The first is the verb kabed which has the idea of ‘to be heavy, insensible, or dull,’ and is used in 7:14; 8:15,32; and 9:7,34. The next word used is qasah which conveys the sense of ‘being hard, severe, or fierce.’ In the Hifil stem it has the sense of ‘making difficult.’ There are two occurrences of this term, one in 7:3 and the other in 13:15. The final term used is hazaq which is one of the strongest terms employed, meaning ‘to be or grow firm, strong.’ In reference to its use in this context, it has the sense of ‘growing stout, rigid, or hard.’ Two things should be observed in connection with this problem. One is that Pharaoh hardened his own heart and resisted the demands of God. This is clearly indicated in a number of the passages (cf. 7:13,14,22; 8:15,19,32; 9:7,34-35; 13:15). … On the other hand, it is clearly stated that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (cf. 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8,17). This act of God should be considered judicial and real.” Davis, pp. 69-70.

“Three different Hebrew verbs are used, but there is no essential difference in their meaning. Sometimes it is said that God hardens pharaoh’s heart, as here. Sometimes pharaoh is said to harden his own heart, as in Exodus 8:15. Sometimes the position is described neutrally, by saying that pharaoh’s heart was hardened, as in Exodus 7:13. Even to the Western scholar, it was a problem of theological interpretation, not one of history and fact. No one doubts that pharaoh was stubborn, that he had an iron will and purpose, that he found it impossible to change his pattern of thought and adjust to new ideas. These and more are all implied in the biblical ‘hard-hearted,’ which does not refer to emotion, as in English, but to mind, will, intelligence and response. Often ‘dull-witted’ would be a good translation.” Cole, p. 77.

“Another factor in God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is that it was a reversal of an Egyptian belief. Egyptians believed that when a person died his heart was weighed in the hall of judgment. If one’s heart was ‘heavy’ with sin, that person was judged. A stone beetle scarab was placed on the heart of a deceased person to suppress his natural tendency to confess sin which would subject himself to judgment. This ‘hardening of the heart’ by the scarab would result in salvation for the deceased. … For the Egyptians ‘hardening of the heart’ resulted in silence (absence of confession of sin) and therefore salvation. But God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart resulted in acknowledgment of sin and in judgment.” Hannah, pp. 114-115.

Lest we begin to feel a little puffed up about Pharaoh’s hard heart, let us recall that Israel is persistently described in Scripture as “stiff-necked.” Pharaoh was hard-hearted in not acknowledging the truth. Israel was stiff-necked in refusing to obey what they knew to be the truth.

100 “The mention of Israel as Jehovah’s ‘firstborn’ is significant in this larger context. The firstborn son was to the Egyptians not only special, but in many respects sacred. It is therefore most interesting that the people of God are regarded as firstborn in this passage (cf. Hos. 11:1).” Davis, p. 71.

“This is the first introduction of the ‘first-born’ theme in the book (cf. Gen. 22). Passover, unleavened bread, and the redemption of Israelite first-born are inextricably linked with the events of Exodus (cf. Ex. 11:4) for reappearance and therefore doubtless in Israel’s religious thought afterwards. The connection is very simple and patterned on the ‘lex talionis,’ a fundamental principle of Hebrew Law (Ex. 21:23). Israel, considered collectively, is God’s first-born, presumably as being His chosen people and as ‘first-fruits’ of all the peoples (Jer. 31:9; 2:3).” Cole, p. 78.

101 “This is the most obscure passage in the Book of Exodus. It has given rise to a number of different interpretations, none of which is wholly satisfactory. The obscurity arises in part from the extreme brevity of the account, and the indefiniteness of reference of several of the personal pronouns.” Hyatt, p. 86.

102 One version of the Septuagint reads, “the ‘angel of the Lord’” here, while another reads ‘an angel.’

103 I have chosen the word “seemed” advisedly. There are a number of times in the Bible when the appearance was different than God’s intended outcome. God appeared to desire to destroy Israel and to make a new nation out of Moses, but this is something God would not do, based upon the argument of Moses that He could not do it without breaking His promise to Abraham and failing to accomplish His purposes (Exod. 32:7-14). In the New Testament, the resurrected Lord “acted as if he were going farther,” but He did not actually do so (Luke 24:28-29). So, in this passage in Exodus as well, I believe that God appeared to intend to put Moses to death, but he was the one who had been commissioned to deliver Israel. Thus, it only seemed that God would put him to death.

104 “It is a very ancient, primitive story that pictures a ‘demonic’ Yahweh. It is very probable that it has been borrowed by the Israelites from a pagan source, possibly Midianite, and imperfectly assimilated to Israelite theology. … The original story may have concerned a demon or deity of the boundary between Midianite territory and Egypt whom Moses failed properly to appease.” Hyatt, p. 87.

105 The text does not tell us which of the two (cf. Exod. 4:20; 18:3, 6) sons of Moses was circumcised. Gershom, the first-born could have been as old as 40, which makes the second son a possibility. This is the preference of Gispen, who writes, “Usually the son is understood to be Gershom, but since verse 20 speaks of sons, and the word circumcision is used in the plural in verse 26, I believe that we must think here of the younger son, Eliezer (18:4). Gershom then had already been circumcised, but Moses, under pressure from Zipporah, had neglected to circumcise his second son. That this happened at Zipporah’s instigation follows in my opinion from her action and from her words later.” Gispen, p. 63.

The emphasis on the firstborn in the preceding context (4:22-23) would tend to favor Gershom being the uncircumcised son. The name of the son is not that important in this text, however, which is precisely why the matter is not clarified in the text.

106 “Her touching Moses’ feet with the son’s foreskin was possibly a symbolic act of substitution, in which obedience was seen as replacing disobedience.” Hannah, p. 114.

107 A number of interpreters seem to feel that Moses failed to circumcise his son due to Zipporah’s disdain for this practice. This view is reflected in the statement, “It is generally the view of commentators that these words were an expression of reproach and unhappiness. They reflect the fact that Zipporah performed the rite grudgingly, not from a desire to obey the God of Moses, but primarily out of practical necessity to save his life. Perhaps Moses had neglected this rite in order to accommodate the wishes of Zipporah. In any event, he was punished by God and was apparently desperately sick.” Davis, p. 71.

I find no evidence to indicate that Zipporah is the problem, and in this passage, she is the solution while Moses is the problem.

108 “Some exegetes assume that Moses sent Zipporah and the children back to Jethro after the circumcision of Eliezer, in order to establish agreement with 18:1ff.; this is probably correct.” Gispen, p. 65.

Taxonomy upgrade extras: 

5. The Finger of God (Exodus 7:14-10:29)


There are some tragedies in life which are simply that—tragedies. The crash of Delta flight 191 this past Friday evening is certainly one of those tragedies. No one would dare, at this point in time, to call this tragedy an act of divine judgment. It is simply one of those tragedies which is a part of the sufferings and sadness of life. There are also tragedies which have a very positive and beneficial purpose. The tragedies of Job’s life, for example, were beneficial to his walk of faith. The “tragedy” of the cross of Christ was beneficial, for it is through His death that we can be saved. The sufferings of the nation Israel during the 400 years of their slavery in Egypt also will, in the drama of Israel’s history in the Book of Exodus (and in the course of our study), prove to be beneficial.

There are also those tragedies which are the outworking of the wrath of God. The plagues which God brings upon the Egyptians are a part of God’s judgment of Pharaoh and his people for their oppression of His people, the Israelites (cf. Gen. 15:13-14; Deut. 11:1-4; Ps. 78:44-52). This is a side of God’s dealings with men which we would like to ignore, but we dare not.

The judgment of the Egyptians is given a significant amount of space in the Book of Exodus. If we are sensitive to God’s “editorial policy” then we must acknowledge that this judgment is important for us, as well as for the Old Testament saints. Not only does Moses go into a great deal of detail in describing the plagues of the Exodus, but this incident is frequently referred to throughout the Old Testament and the New. Thus we must come to the plagues as a rather unpleasant subject, but one that is vitally important to each of us. At the conclusion of this message we shall seek to explain why.

In response to the suffering of the Israelites (chap. 1), God has called Moses, whom He has divinely protected and prepared for the task of delivering His people from Egypt (chaps. 2-4). After considerable resistance, Moses has returned to Egypt, where he has been received by the elders and the people of Israel, rebuffed by Pharaoh, to the consternation of the Israelites. In chapter 7 we come to the beginning of the plagues which God will bring upon Egypt through Moses and Aaron. Because of the significance of the final (10th) plague, we shall make it the subject of our next lesson. This lesson will focus on the first nine plagues, which seem to have a distinct pattern of their own, as will be pointed out shortly.

The resistance (hardened heart) of Pharaoh and the resulting plagues come as no surprise, either to Moses or to the reader. God had foretold the necessity of the plagues which were to be brought upon Egypt: “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go” (Exod. 3:19-20). Pharaoh may have found the petition to release the Israelites for three days so that they could worship their God in the wilderness especially irksome, for two principle reasons. First, he would not be inclined to acknowledge the existence of some other God, especially since he, himself, was regarded as a god. Second, religious observances necessitated a “day off,” and there seem to have been a sufficient number of those already:

But Pharaoh contemptuously dismissed this God as one more obscure Semitic godling—there were already enough religious holidays and festivals on which no work was done, and this was just an excuse to be idle (Ex. v. 8, 17).

… As for absence from work, Egyptian ostraca … include journals of work that give a day-to-day record of absenteeism, names of absentees, and reasons. One ostracon shows that the workmen of the royal tomb were idle at one period for thirty days out of forty-eight. One journal of absences takes note of several workmen, ‘offering to his god’ … and the laconic entry wsf, ‘idle,’ is not infrequent in such journals.109

One wonders if the “days off” which religious worship necessitated might not have been a factor in Israel’s worship of the gods of Egypt (cf. Josh. 24:14). After all, by simply going along with the worship of the various Egyptian deities, a brief rest from their hard labor was the reward for the Israelites.

For many reasons, Pharaoh was unwilling to release the Israelites so that they could worship their God. This necessitated the demonstration of the mighty hand of God through the plagues, which would compel Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.

The Nature of the Plagues

Before we look briefly at each of the plagues individually, it will be helpful to consider all of the plagues as a unit. When we seek to discern the nature of the plagues, explanations generally fall into one of these categories:110

(1) The plagues were mere myth. There are those who hold that none of the plagues which are described in this portion of Exodus as though they were miracles even occurred. This account, some believe, is merely a fabrication, myths which are fabricated to dramatically or creatively communicate certain religious beliefs. This view cannot be taken seriously, for it fails to take the Bible seriously, certainly not as the inspired Word of God.

(2) The plagues did occur, but were not miraculous. Such scholars take the events to be natural disasters which were common in Egypt, and which were interpreted as an act of divine judgment. This is an improvement over the first view in that it takes the text more seriously. It, however, fails because it does not want to find anything miraculous here, either. The event is true, but the miraculous element is false, being added by the author(s) for ideological or theological reasons.

(3) The plagues did occur as natural disasters, which were moderately miraculous. There are some writers who would be included in the camp of evangelicals who still lean a bit too far (in my opinion) toward the second view. These “miracles” would appear to be either Class C or Class B miracles, but not really first class (Class A) miracles. The miraculous element is to be found, we are told, in the timing and intensity of the natural disaster. K. A. Kitchen111 and Alan Cole112 both seem to fall into this category. The Nile turned to blood is viewed either as having reached flood stage, laden with red colored silt, or with some kind of micro-organism, which gave the river a red color. All of the other eight plagues are a kind of aftermath, a natural outworking, of the first plague.113 While nature is certainly employed (frogs, storms, locusts, etc.), there is something here which is more miraculous than just a greater-than-average natural disaster. These miracles were signs, and thus significantly out of the ordinary.

(4) The plagues involved nature and natural forces, but in a way that was designed to be decidedly and convincingly miraculous.114 As the magicians put it, “This is the finger of God.” There is a tension which we must be willing to acknowledge. On the one hand, the text tells us that the Nile was turned to blood. On the other, we know that elsewhere, “blood” is used in a non-literal way. We are told in Joel 2:31 and Revelation 6:12 that the “moon will be “turned to blood.” In the final analysis, we must take the text as literally and seriously as possible. Our motivation must be to understand the passage as it was written, and not in accordance with the explanation which is most believable.

Joseph P. Free lists five unique aspects of the plagues which set them apart as miraculous events. These are as follows: (1) Intensification. While frogs, insects, murrain and darkness were known in Egypt, these were intensified far beyond any ordinary occurrence. (2) Prediction. The fact that Moses predicted the moment of the arrival and departure sets them apart from purely natural occurrences (cf. 8:10, 23; 9:5, 18, 29; 10:4). (3) Discrimination. Certain of the plagues did not occur in the land of Goshen where Israel was living (8:22, no flies; 9:4, no murrain; 9:26, no hail). (4) Orderliness. There is a gradual severity in the nature of the plagues concluding with the death of the firstborn. (5) Moral Purpose. “These were not freaks of nature but were designed to teach moral precepts and lessons.”115

The “Miracles” of the Magicians

In addition the determining how “miraculous” the plagues of Moses and Aaron were, we must come to some conclusion as to the nature of the “miracles” performed by the magicians. The first two plagues were, to Pharaoh’s satisfaction, reproduced by his magicians. There are several ways to understand what was accomplished by the magicians.116 At the bottom line, we have but two options:

(1) The “miracles” were only apparent miracles, performed by some kind of illusion or sleight of hand. Either by trickery, deception, or sleight of hand, the magicians appeared to reproduce the miracles of Moses and Aaron. We are told, for example, that the cobra can be made rigid by applying pressure at the proper spot at the back of the creature’s head. Thus, the staffs of the magicians were really serpents all along, only appearing to be sticks.

(2) The “miracles” were supernaturally empowered, by Satan or his demonic helpers. It would appear that the magicians actually did reproduce the first two plagues, but were prevented from removing any of the plagues or of reproducing any others. In the case of the plague of the gnats, the text seems to indicate that the magicians thought they could produce gnats and tried, unsuccessfully, to do so (Exod. 8:18). There are several lines of evidence which inclines me toward the view that Satan was, indeed, the means of the magicians reproducing the first two “miracles.”117 This is more than just a contest between Moses and the magicians, it is God challenging the gods of Egypt (Exod. 12:12), behind which is Satan and his demonic assistants. False worship is often demonically inspired (cf. 1 Cor. 10:20-21; I Tim. 4:1).

The Pattern of the Plagues

As one views the first 9 plagues as a whole, there is a distinct pattern to them (note the summary chart at the end of this lesson). The 9 plagues can be grouped into a series of 3 contests, each composed of 3 plagues. The first plagues (1-3) produce discomfort; the next 3 bring about greater damage or destruction (4-6); the last 3 (7-9) produce the added dimension of downright dread. So the plagues progress from discomfort to destruction to dread. The first plague of each series (plagues 1, 4, and 7) begins with the expression “in the morning.” The last plague of each sequence (3, 6, and 9) comes unannounced and without the warnings of the others.

In the first series of plagues (1-3), the staff is stretched out by Aaron. In the second series (4-6), no staff is used. In the third series (7-9) Moses uses his staff. As the plagues progress, Pharaoh’s heart becomes increasingly hardened. When the king of Egypt bargains with Moses for relief, he agrees to grant more and more concessions, but he fails to keep his promises. In the first series of plagues, no mention is made of the Israelites being distinguished from the Egyptians so far as experiencing the plagues is concerned. From the second series onward, a distinction is either clearly made or implied.

The plagues begin with the magicians imitating the miracles of Moses and Aaron; then they themselves move to admitting the hand (or finger, to be more exact) of God in the plague; next, they are themselves so afflicted that they cannot stand before Moses. The “officials” of Pharaoh (who seem to be a different group from that of the magicians) have within their number those who heed the warning of Moses and put their slaves and cattle under cover (9:20). Finally, all of Pharaoh’s officials plead with him to release the Israelites before Egypt is completely ruined (10:7).

The Plagues in Particular

Having considered the plagues as a whole, we will now briefly consider each of the plagues individually. Each of the plagues conveys a message from God.

PLAGUE ONE: THE NILE TURNED INTO BLOOD (Exod. 7:14-25). The Nile is virtually the “life blood” of Egypt. Without the silt provided during its times of overflow and the water with which it constantly sustained life, Egypt would be almost uninhabitable. John Davis informs us of the importance of the Nile to the Egyptians and the way this affected their theology:

Were it not for this inundation Egypt would be as desolate as the deserts on either side. The Egyptians fully recognized this fact, and in thanksgiving for the blessings of the Nile, hymns were written. Not only were gods associated with the Nile, but fertility, blessing, and happiness were also associated with the faithfulness of this river. From the New Kingdom period comes a document known to us today as the “Hymn of the Nile,” a composition which may have originated in the Middle Kingdom period. The words of this hymn best tell the story of the importance of the Nile River to the Egyptian.

Hail to thee, Oh Nile, that issues from the earth and comes to keep Egypt alive! … He that waters the meadows which Recreated, in order to keep every kid alive. He that makes to drink the desert and the place distant from water: that is his dew coming down (from) heaven.118

The meaning of this miracle of turning the Nile to blood can best be understood in the light of the later prophecy God gave through Ezekiel:

“Son of man, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt and prophesy against him and against all Egypt. Speak to him and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, you great monster lying among your streams. You say, ‘The Nile is mine; I made it for myself.’ But I will put hooks in your jaws and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales. I will put you out from among your streams, with all the fish sticking to your scales. I will leave you in the desert, you and all the fish of your streams. You will fall on the open field and not be gathered or picked up. I will give you as food to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the air. Then all who live in Egypt will know that I am the Lord’” (Ezek. 29:2-6).

PLAGUE TWO: THE FROGS (Exod. 8:1-15). Frogs were also regarded as having divine power:

In the Egyptian pantheon the goddess Heqet had the form of a woman with a frog’s head. From her nostrils, it was believed, came the breath of life that animated the bodies of those created by her husband, the great god Khnum, from the dust of the earth. Therefore frogs were not to be killed.119

Frogs were not uncommon in Egypt, especially around the Nile river. But there had never been so many. The account of the frogs is almost humorous. One can visualize them hopping and croaking all over Egypt. Especially delightful is the thought of them overrunning the palace of the Pharaoh. In my childhood, one of our favorite tricks at camp was to place a slimy creature, like a frog, in someone’s sleeping bag. In Egypt, the bag would have been full of frogs. They got into the food, into the kneading troughs, ovens, everywhere. The fact that the magicians of Egypt could produce even more frogs must have been a real delight to the Egyptians. What they wanted was no frogs, not more frogs.

Only Moses could take the frogs away. Moses gave Pharaoh the option of naming the time for the frogs to be removed. Pharaoh chose the next day. I would imagine that he did not ask for the frogs to be removed immediately, hoping that they would go away by themselves, before the appointed time, thus showing that Moses was not in control of the situation. Egypt was rid of the frogs through their death, which meant that huge heaps of frogs were piled all over the country, creating a stench that was a plague in and of itself. One can imagine that frog legs were not a delicacy offered in the fancy restaurants of Egypt for many years, due to the memory of this plague.

PLAGUE THREE: THE GNATS (Exod. 8:16-19). It is not altogether certain what is meant by the Hebrew term translated “gnat” in the NIV. The KJV renders the term “lice,” which is also possible. Some have suggested that it was a plague of mosquitoes. Having suffered from mosquitoes in the past, I find this at least a believable option. It does not really matter exactly what is meant. The gnats plagued both men and animals. I can almost see the Egyptians (and their animals) constantly scratching themselves (or swatting away at the creatures), trying to get some relief.

The importance of this plague is that the magicians of Egypt were unable to produce these gnats, even though they tried. This was convincing enough for the magicians to say to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God” (v. 19). From the other places where this same expression is found (Exod. 31:18; Deut. 9:10; Ps. 8:3; Luke 11:20), it seems to refer primarily to the power of God, directly intervening in the affairs of men. Nevertheless, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he refused to listen.

PLAGUE FOUR: THE FLIES (Exod. 8:20-32). With this plague, the second sequence of three plagues is commenced. Here, discrimination is made between the Egyptians and the Israelites. While we cannot be certain of the exact species of flies that plagued Egypt,120 we would probably be safe in assuming that they were bigger, and bit harder than the gnats previously set loose on the Egyptians.

The flies were so bothersome, Pharaoh was willing to negotiate with Moses. He offered to let the Israelites have time off to worship their God, but only if they were to stay in the land of Egypt (8:25). When Moses refused this offer, Pharaoh countered with an offer that they could “go into the desert, but not very far” (8:28). Pharaoh’s request, “Pray for me” (v. 28), indicates his self-centered interests. Moses left, but with the warning that there must be no more deceit on Pharaoh’s part regarding his promise to let Israel go. But when the flies were gone, so was Pharaoh’s motivation to let Israel go.

PLAGUE FIVE: LIVESTOCK KILLED (Exod. 9:1-7). The fifth plague was one that was directed against the livestock of the Egyptians, but which did not affect the cattle of the Israelites. Speculations as to what the cause of death was are simply that. By whatever means, God virtually wiped out the cattle of the Egyptians. Since wealth was measured largely in terms of cattle, this was an economic disaster. The gods of Egypt were once again proven to be lifeless and useless:

… many animals were sacred (cf. 8:26), particularly, as stated earlier, the bull which represented the god Apis or Re, and the cow which represented Hathor, the goddess of love, beauty, and joy. Hathor was depicted in the form of a woman with the head (or sometimes only the horns) of a cow. Also Khnum was a ram-god.121

PLAGUE SIX: BOILS (Exod. 9:8-12). Hannah writes, “The Egyptians, fearfully aware of epidemics, worshiped Sekhmet, a lion-headed goddess with alleged power over disease; Sunu, the pestilence god; and Isis, goddess of healing.”122 There is another humorous note here. The magicians are not only unable to rid the land of Egypt of the boils, they are also so afflicted themselves that they cannot even show up to stand before Moses. The expression, “Physician, heal thyself,” surely applies here.

PLAGUE SEVEN: THE STORM123 (Exod. 9:13-35). Usually, this plague is referred to as “the plague of hail” (cf. NIV). This, however, is only partly true. In reality, the plague is the worst thunderstorm in Egypt’s history (9:18). The death and destruction which occurs is the result of both hailstones and lightening (v. 24).

This plague begins the third and final trilogy of plagues. Things get considerably worse, and the account of the plagues become more lengthy and detailed. These last plagues begin with the warning that unless Pharaoh releases the Israelites, God will “send the full force of His plagues against Pharaoh and Egypt” (v. 14). God could have legitimately and easily wiped out all of Egypt in one blow, but He did not (v. 15). Now, if Pharaoh persists in his hardness of heart, things will get considerably worse.

In verse 16 Moses explains why God has allowed Pharaoh’s stubbornness to persist. God raised Pharaoh up for the purpose of hardening his heart and thus of providing the occasion for God to manifest His power to men. That God is free to do so is the point Paul makes in Romans chapter 9, citing this statement to Pharaoh as an example.

PLAGUE EIGHT: LOCUSTS (Exod. 10:1-20). The previous plague of the thunderstorm had destroyed the flax and barley crops, but the wheat and spelt crops were not destroyed, because they matured later on (9:31). The locusts would wipe out the wheat and the spelt crops.

This plague would, God said, give the Israelites something to tell their grandchildren about (10:1-2). When Moses foretold of the coming of the locusts on the next day, Pharaoh’s officials pled with the king to let the Israelites go (10:7). Egypt, they protested, was ruined, so why incur any further disasters? Pharaoh offered to let the men go, but not the women, and then drove Moses and Aaron out of his presence (10:10-11).

When the plague struck Egypt, Pharaoh confessed that he had sinned against God and against the Israelites. He asked Moses for forgiveness, and that he pray for the plague to be removed (10:16-17). A strong west wind carried the locusts into the Red Sea. When the plague was removed, Pharaoh returned to his old ways, and would not let Israel go (10:20).

PLAGUE NINE: DARKNESS (Exod. 10:21-29). The ninth plague was that of a darkness so intense that it produced a dread in the hearts of the Egyptians. For three days the Egyptians and the Israelites were confined to their homes. For the Egyptians, it would seem that their homes were darkened as well, but for the Israelites, there was light in their homes (10:22-23). Some have suggested that this “darkness” was only a partial darkness, created by a dust storm.124 This can hardly be the case, for the darkness which is described here is much more intense. The three days of darkness must have had a tremendous emotional and psychological impact on the nation as a whole. The experience may have been something like the 3 day period of blindness which Saul experienced prior to his conversion (cf. Acts 9:8-12).

This plague of darkness struck hard at the Egyptian deities:

This plague was aimed at one of the chief Egyptian deities, the sun god Re, of whom Pharaoh was a representation. Re was responsible for providing sunlight, warmth, and productivity. Other gods, including Horus, were associated with the sun. Nut, the goddess of the sky, would have been humiliated by this plague …125

The ninth plague, like the third and the sixth plagues, came upon the Egyptians without warning, which would have given them no opportunity to prepare for the disaster, either physically or psychologically. Pharaoh’s response to the plague was to offer to allow all the Israelites to leave Egypt to worship God, but that the cattle must remain behind (10:24). When this offer was rejected, Pharaoh hotly warned Moses that he must leave his presence, and to return would be his death. Moses agreed, but he had yet one more plague to proclaim before his final exit from Pharaoh’s presence. This tenth plague, he threatened, would bring about the release of the Israelites.

The Point of the Plagues

The plagues came from God upon the Egyptians for specific purposes. Let us briefly review what these purposes were.

(1) The plagues were an indictment and judgment of the gods of Egypt. “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt; I am the Lord” (Exod. 12:12; cf. 18:11; Num. 33:4; Isa. 19:1).126 Not only did the Egyptians need to renounce their pagan gods as no-gods, but so did the Israelites, who also worshipped them (cf. Josh. 24:14).

(2) The plagues were a demonstration of God’s existence and power. Pharaoh rejected Moses’ request that he allow the Israelites to travel three days into the wilderness to worship God (Exod. 5:1-2). The plagues were a rebuttal to Pharaoh’s response. They proved that Israel’s God alone was Lord. “And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it” (Exod. 7:5; cf. also, 7:17; 8:10, 22; 9:14, 16; 10:2).

(3) The plagues were a judgment on Pharaoh and the Egyptians for their cruelty and harshness. “But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions” (Gen. 15:14).

(4) The plagues were God’s means of forcing Pharaoh to release Israel from Egypt. “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go” (Exod. 3:19-20; cf. 6:1; 7:4-5; 12:31, 33, 39; 13:3).

(5) The plagues were a prototype, a sample of God’s future judgment. The plagues which came upon the Egyptians for their sin were like those which Israel would experience, if this nation disobeyed the Law which God was soon to give them: “The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured” (Deut. 28:27). There is also much similarity between the plagues of Egypt and the plagues described in the Book of Revelation, which are poured out upon the earth in the last days, just preceding the return of our Lord. Thus, in the Book of Revelation we find the victorious tribulation saints singing the “song of Moses” (Rev. 15:3).


As we begin to probe the principles which underlie our text and their application to our lives, let me warn you not to assume that all calamity is the result of our sin, and evidence of God’s judgment. Job’s adversity, as outlined in the Book of Job, was not the result of Job’s sin, but a means of Job’s growth in his walk with God. In addition, Job’s affliction was a teaching tool for Satan, who cannot fathom why a saint would continue to worship God when it not profitable, but painful to do so.

The plagues of our passage were the judgment of God upon the Egyptians, but notice that God clearly identified them as such. The Egyptians may not have chosen to believe it, but God was clearly judging the gods of Egypt and those who would worship them. When God’s judgment comes upon men, He will let them know what is happening and why. When God is disciplining one of His saints, He will be sure to let that saint know what is going on. We need not agonize, searching for hidden sin, at the onslaught of every adversity and affliction. When God chastens us for sin, we’ll know about it.

When God is punishing men for sin, He is not silent about it. When He is silent at the time of the suffering of a saint, this is a test of our faith, not an evidence of God’s judgment.

This text reminds us of the seriousness of sin. God takes man’s sin very seriously. The severity of the plagues is the measure of how seriously God took the sin of the Egyptians. It is not just the sin of the Egyptians which God abhors, He hates our sin just as much as that of the pagans. Christians sometimes minimize the sin in their lives, and when they do so they fail to take our text seriously. Sin is serious business.

This is why God warns the Israelites of the judgment which awaits them for their disobedience (Deut. 28). This is why God sought to slay Moses on his way to Egypt (Exod. 4:24).

The seriousness with which God deals with sin is also the measure of His holiness. Often times we find ourselves horrified at the severity with which God deals with the sinner. When we think of God as harsh in such instances we only reveal our failure to grasp the holiness of God and the gravity of sin. R. C. Sproul has recently written an excellent book entitled, The Holiness of God, in which he deals with the difficult judgment texts of the Old Testament. I highly recommend this book to you for your reading.

If we think God’s judgment of the Egyptians to be severe, let me remind you of several other factors. The first is that God judged the gods of Egypt more than He did the Egyptians. Just as hell is the place prepared for Satan and his angels, so judgment here was for the Egyptian gods. But whoever chooses to serve these gods shares in their judgment. Second, God’s judgment was intended, I believe, to bring some of the Egyptians to a saving faith. The fact that some Egyptians left Egypt with the Israelites (Exod. 12:38) gives substance to this possibility. Third, God’s judgment upon the Egyptians was the means of delivering His people from terrible bondage. Finally, God’s judgment was poured out upon His own Son on the cross of Calvary, so that all men might be saved. God’s “severity” extended to His own Son. Finally, there was an alternative provided by God to suffering the plagues of Egypt, and that was believing God’s warning and doing as He commanded. God’s judgment could be avoided by faith and obedience.

The judgment of God on sin is something which false religionists seek to deny. Judgment is not something which men would choose to believe nor a subject which men like to dwell upon. In his second epistle, Peter speaks of the false teachers who deny the coming of our Lord to judge men: “First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation’” (2 Pet. 3:3-4). Judgment is not a popular subject, and thus the plagues of God against Egypt are not popular reading. But it is nevertheless a subject which we must give heed to, for it is a vital part of divine revelation.

This passage reminds us of the fact that the judgment of God is a strong motivation. It is a strong motivation for evangelism. It was the desire of Peter’s audience in Acts chapter 2 to avoid the coming wrath of God which motivated them towards repentance and faith. The Holy Spirit convicts men of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8), bringing the sinner to faith in Christ. It is also an awareness of the coming judgment of God which motivates the Christian to evangelize (2 Cor. 5:11) and to live pure and holy lives until He comes (2 Pet. 3:11-12).

It has just occurred to me that the judgment of God, like His salvation, is a matter which must be believed and applied by faith. The psalmist in Psalm 73 looks about and senses that the wicked are not suffering for their sin, but are prospering, while the righteous seem to be the ones who suffer. In this present day, it may seem that sin is profitable, while righteousness is painful. At such times we must remember that we accept the fact of God’s future judgments (as we do His future rewards) by faith. It is no wonder that so few believe in the judgment of God, or live their lives as though judgment were a certainty.

The Book of Revelation speaks a great deal about this future judgment, and the descriptions we find of it make the plagues of the Book of Exodus almost pale. There is coming upon the earth of time of judgment that will be unlike that of any age. It surely is a time which should be avoided. The solution is that of faith in the provision which God has given—His own Son, Jesus Christ, who died in our place, who suffered our judgment, so that we might be forgiven.


Level of Pain: Discomfort




Conditions / Details

Application to Egyptian Gods

Outcome / Responses

Nile turned
to blood


Pharaoh as he went to get water from Nile in the morning.

“In the morning”

Hapi (Apis), the bull god of Nile;
Isis, goddess of Nile; Khnua, ram god, guardian of Nile

Magicians duplicated; Pharaoh refused to listen; People dug along Nile for water



Let My people go, or else …


Heqet, goddess of birth—frog head

Magicians duplicated; Moses petitioned to remove frogs; Pharaoh to set time





Set, god of desert

“This is the finger of God”

Level of Pain: Destruction



Pharaoh as he goes to get water in early morning

“In the morning”
Time specified, Goshen exempted

Re, sun god;
Uatchit, possibly represented by fly

Moses summoned / Pharaoh bargains: “Don’t go far”

Livestock killed


If you refuse…

Israel’s cattle exempted,
Time of plague

Hathor, goddess with cow head; Apis, the bull god (fertility)

Pharaoh informed, no repentance




Soot of furnace tossed in air

Sekhmet, goddess over disease; Sunu, pestilence god

Magicians afflicted, could not stand before Moses. Pharaoh hardened.

Level of Pain: Dread



“Let my people go, or else… Plagues full force!”

“In the morning” worst storm in Egypt’s history. Time set. Bring in livestock.

Nut, sky goddess;
Osiris, god of crops, fertility;

Set, god of storms

Some officials brought in servants, cattle.
Goshen exempted
Pharaoh: “I have sinned—We are wrong”
King & officials hardened hearts



“Let my people go … if you refuse. . .”


Nut, sky goddess
Osiris, god of crops, fertility

Officials plead for release of Israel before plague.
Pharaoh bargains, “Men, only”
“I have sinned”




Total darkness.
Light in Israel’s homes

Re, sun god
Nut, sky goddess
Hathor, sky goddess

“Go, without herds”
“Out of my sight”
“Don’t come back”

109 K. A. Kitchen, “Moses,” The New Bible Dictionary, J. D. Douglas, ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), p. 846.

110 Davis gives three categories. John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), pp. 84-85.

111 “The element of miracle in these plagues is usually bound up with their intensity, timing, and duration. By far the most painstaking study of the plague phenomena is that by G. Hort in ZAW LXIX, 1957, pp. 84-1-3, and ZAW LXX, 1958, pp. 48-59. While her treatment of the first nine seems excellent, her attempt to explain the tenth as ‘firstfruits’ instead of firstborn is decidedly artificial and unlikely. Hort has pointed out that the first nine plagues form a logical and connected sequence, beginning with an abnormally high Nile-inundation occurring in the usual months of July and August and the series of plagues ending about March (Heb. Abib). In Egypt too high an inundation of the Nile was just as disastrous as too low a flood.” K. A. Kitchen, “Plagues of Egypt,” The New Bible Dictionary, J. D. Douglas, ed., (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), p. 1001.

112 R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973). Cole seems to follow the same position as Kitchen, as cited above.

113 “This would correspond with the conditions brought about by an unusually high Nile. The higher the Nile-flood, the more earth it carries in suspension, especially of the finely-divided ‘red earth’ from the basins of the Blue Nile and Atbara. And the more earth carried, the redder became the Nile waters. Such an excessive inundation could further bring down with it microcosms known as flagellates and associated bacteria: besides heightening the blood-red colour of the water, these would create conditions so unfavourable for the fish that they would die in large numbers as recorded. Their decomposition would foul the water and cause a stench.” Kitchen, “Plagues of Egypt,” pp. 1001-1002.

“The heavy precipitation in Ethiopia and the Sudan which led to the extraordinary high Nile would also provide favourable conditions for a dense plague of locusts by about March. These, following the usual route, would in due course be blown into northern Egypt by the east wind; the ‘west wind,’ … is literally ‘sea-wind’, i.e. really a north (or north-west) wind, and this would blow the locusts right up the Nile valley.” Ibid, p. 1002.

114 Gispen, in my opinion, best handles the issue of the nature of the plagues. W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), pp. 84-85. Hannah also takes a conservative stance here. John Hannah, “Exodus,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985), p. 121.

115 Davis, p. 85.

116 Cf. Davis, pp. 81-84 for an overview of the various explanations.

117 “…since the Septuagint translates this word [enchantments (KJV); secret arts (RSV); witchcraft (Jerusalem Bible)] as pharmakeiais which means “sorcery, magic, or magical arts” (cf. Gal. 5:20), it may well be that the original root was the Hebrew lat … which means secrecy or mystery.” Davis, pp. 82-83.

The magical arts of the Egyptians included “… cursing (including killing); curing; erotic magic; agricultural (including weather); divination; and resurrection.” Barbara Mertz, Red Land, Black Land (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1966), pp. 207-208, as cited by Davis, p. 82.

118 ANET, ‘Hymn to the Nile,” trans. by John A Wilson, p. 272, as cited by Davis, p. 91.

119 Hannah, “Exodus,” p. 121.

120 “These flies may have been the dog flies known for their painful bites. They may have represented Re, a prominent Egyptian deity. Or the flies may have been Ichneuman flies, who depicted the god Uatchit.” Hannah, “Exodus,” p. 122.

121 Hannah, “Exodus,” p. 123.

Some have asked, “If all the cattle died here, how, then, can we later (vss. 10; 20-21) read of other livestock which is killed in the thunderstorm?” Hannah (p. 113) suggests (1) hyperbole or (2) only all the animals in the field were killed. A better suggestion may be that the Egyptians purchased cattle from another country. To allow some time for the Egyptians to begin to recover from one disaster, only to lay them low again, is of much greater economic consequence.

122 Ibid.

123 “Nut, the sky goddess, was not able to forestall the storm; and Osiris, the god of crop fertility, could not maintain the crops in this hailstorm; nor could Set, the storm god, hold back this storm.” Ibid.

124 “This was a khamsin dust storm, but no ordinary one. The heavy inundation had brought down and deposited masses of ‘red earth,’ now dried out as a fine dust over the land. The effect of this when whirled up by a khamsin wind would be to make the air extraordinarily thick and dark, blotting out the light of the sun. The ‘three days’ of Ex. x. 23 is the known length of a khamsin. The intensity of the khamsin may suggest that it was early in the season, and would thus come in March. If the Israelites were dwelling in the region of Wadi Tumilat as their part of Goshen, they would miss the worst effects of this plague.” Kitchen, “Plagues of Egypt,” p. 1002.

125 Hannah, “Exodus,” p. 125.

126 Davis writes, “Unlike other rulers in the ancient Near East, the Egyptian Pharaoh did not merely rule for the gods, but he was in a literal sense one of the gods. His birth was a divine act. He was counted specifically as the child of certain deities and thus possessed the properties of deity. … In light of this observation it is not difficult to see why Pharaoh reacted as he did to the initial request of Moses and Aaron (Exod. 5:2). The king, as god, was to have sole rule over the people. … The plagues served to demonstrate the impotency of Pharaoh, both as a ruler and as a god. He was subject to the same frustrations and anxieties as the average man in Egypt during the period of the plagues. The fact that he called for Moses and Aaron rather than the wise men of Egypt during times of greatest distress attests to this fact.” Davis, pp. 89-90.

Kitchen adds, “In Ex. xii. 12 God speaks of executing judgments against all the gods of Egypt. In some measure He had already done so in the plagues, as Egypt’s gods were much bound up with the forces of nature. Ha`pi, the Nile-god of inundation, had brought not prosperity but ruin; the frogs, symbol of Heqit, a goddess of fruitfulness, had brought only disease and wasting; the hail, rain, and storm were the heralds of awesome events (as in the Pyramid Tests); and the light of the sun-god Re` was blotted out, to mention but of few of the deities affected.” Kitchen, “Plagues of Egypt,” p. 1003.


6. The Passover and the Plague of the Firstborn (Exodus 11:1-13:16)


This last week marked the 40th anniversary of the first atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima. A number of commemorations were held, ranging from memorial services for those killed or injured to demonstrations protesting the use of nuclear weapons. Underlying most of these commemorations there was a reaction to the killing of thousands of people who were not personally involved in the military forces of Japan, many of whom were women and children.

Not too long before, there was a very strong reaction to the visit of President Reagan to a German cemetery, where some Nazi soldiers were buried. It was felt by many that it was inappropriate for our president to dignify the deaths of those involved in the mass slaughter of Jews, based solely on their race. Here as well, those who died were not military combatants, but civilians, among whom were many women and children.

It is with such protests in mind that we must seek to interpret and apply the killing of every firstborn in Egypt, not only of men, but of the animals as well. Our text informs us that this slaughter (no need to use a more euphemistic term) was directed at the Egyptians alone, and without regard to social or economic status. While every Egyptian home suffered loss (cf. Exod. 11:5; 12:29-30), all of the Israelites were spared. The nation Israel did not suffer so much as a dog bark (or bite, Exod. 11:7).

The slaughter of the Egyptians took place a long time ago, and thus we do not have the kind of emotional reaction to this account as we have seen to the bombing of Hiroshima or the Nazi death camps of Germany. Nevertheless, we must come to grips with the tremendous moral issues which this account raises. Not only is the slaughter of the Egyptian firstborn the means God used to release His people from slavery, it is the angel of the Lord who smote the firstborn. In other words, while we can refer to the deaths occasioned by the other plagues as “acts of God” (meaning that some natural disaster occurred), this 10th plague is very literally an “act of God” for God Himself slew the firstborn of Egypt (Exod. 11:4-8; 12:29).

How, some will ask, can we find it possible to justify God’s actions here? Not only are innocent children slaughtered by God here, but the occasion is the basis for an annual celebration by Israel, one that is to be carried on forever (Exod. 12:14, etc.). While the deaths of innocent Jews and Japanese are protested, in our text God is to be praised, partially on the basis of the slaughter of the Egyptians.

In our study of this text we will seek to face these moral issues squarely. I must say at the outset that Christians are obliged to praise and worship God, regardless of whether or not we understand His actions, and that, as God He is free to act in any way He chooses. Nevertheless, God’s actions here (and similar actions elsewhere) are explainable. Thus we shall seek to grasp the meaning and the application of God’s judgment to our lives. It is a holy God whom we serve, and this text will remind us of that fact as we come to it with reverence and sincerity. Let us each ask God to prepare our hearts to take the lesson of this incident seriously.

The Structure of the Passage

In the final verses of chapter 10, Pharaoh angrily demands that Moses and Aaron leave his presence, threatening that to do so again will mean their death (v. 28). Moses tells Pharaoh that he is right, that he will never see his face again (v. 29). And then, in the 4th verse of chapter 11 Moses seems to appear again before Pharaoh, in contradiction to Pharaoh’s order and to Moses’ retort. The solution to this apparent discrepancy is to observe the way this text (as well as others in Exodus) is structured.

Several times the narrative of events is interrupted by explanatory statements, which serve to explain the “turn of events” which is described in the narrative. In chapter 11, verses 1-3 and 9-10 are parenthetical explanations.127 The statements which are quoted have been made previous to the event, but are interspersed to explain why things are happening as described. Thus, Moses has not left Pharaoh’s presence at the end of chapter 10 and returned again to make his statement in verses 4-8 of chapter 11. Instead, verses 4-8 are Moses’ final retort to Pharaoh, made immediately after his demand that Moses leave. Verses 1-3 are cited before the announcement of Moses to Pharaoh that the firstborn of Egypt will be slain. This explains how Moses knew that this was the final plague, and why Pharaoh will nonetheless reject the warning. It also informs us that Moses had nothing to say to Pharaoh, but that which God had commanded him to speak. Verses 9 and 10 are also a parenthetical explanation of why Pharaoh stubbornly refused to heed the warning of the plagues.

In chapters 12 and 13 there is constant alternation between (first) the instructions God gave Moses, and these same instructions as Moses conveyed them to the people. There is not a great concern for a smooth flow chronologically as there is for laying, as it were, a historical and theological foundation for the ordinance of the Passover. Great effort is taken here to establish the fact that the Passover is based upon Israel’s experience in time and space, and upon the direct revelation of God, made to and through Moses. The purpose of this revelation thus dictates its form. Since the purpose is not merely a chronological review of history, chronological smoothness is set aside in deference to theological explanation.

Let us remember that when we come to the Passover celebration and the plague of the firstborn, we are now dealing with the tenth and concluding plague which God has brought upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Thus, this plague is the capstone, as it were, of the plagues. It is the final blow of the ten plagues (there is yet to be the drowning of the Egyptian army) which will compel Pharaoh to release the Israelites.

The Plague of the Firstborn and the First Passover
(11:4-8; 12:1-13, 21-23, 29-30)

The tenth and final plague is described in several phases. The first is the pronouncement to Pharaoh by Moses that this plague is about to come upon all of Egypt. The second is the instructions given to the Israelites regarding the Passover, which is God’s means of protecting His people from the plague. Finally, there is a brief account given of the plague itself, just as God had said through Moses.

Moses’ pronouncement to Pharaoh: the coming of the final plague (Exodus 11:4-8). As I understand the sequence of events in chapters 10 and 11, Pharaoh had just demanded that Moses leave his presence, and warned that to return would mean death (10:28). Verses 1-3 of chapter 11 inform us of a revelation God had given Moses sometime before, in which the details of the final plague had been outlined. In verses 4-8, Moses declared the essence of this revelation to Pharaoh, as it related to him. At midnight, God would go throughout Egypt, slaying the firstborn, from Pharaoh’s own son, to the firstborn son of the lowest slave. No grief will have ever been greater for the Egyptians, and yet not the least evil128 would fall upon the Israelites. After this blow, Pharaoh’s own officials (who must have been standing there in Pharaoh’s court during this confrontation) would come to Moses, begging him to leave, with the Israelites. Hot with anger, Moses then left the presence of Pharaoh.

Moses’ pronouncement to Israel: instructions regarding the Passover (Exodus 12:1-13, 21-23). Chapter 12 can be divided into four major sections. (1) Verses 1-20 contain the revelation which God had given to Moses and Aaron. (2) Verses 21-30, the revelation which Moses conveyed to the Israelites. (3) Verses 31-42 give a historical overview of the exodus, from the command to leave issued by Pharaoh to an account of the departure, showing that God’s promises had been carried out in accord with His schedule—to the very day. (4) Verses 43-51 conclude with further instructions for the Israelites regarding the celebration of the Passover in the future, especially focusing on the participation of foreigners.

Since we will not attempt to cover all the material contained in chapter 12 in this message, I want to point out that the structure of the chapter links the instructions given by God to Moses (verses 1-20) and the instructions from God spoken by Moses (verses 21-30). God would have Israelites (and the reader of New Testament times as well) know that the institution of the Passover was done in accordance with direct divine revelation. This was not a feast which Israel devised on her own, but one which God designed and very carefully prescribed.

The instructions for the celebrations of the first Passover were specific, and dealt with several aspects of the feast. We will briefly review these:

(1) The time of the Passover meal. A new religious calendar was given to the nation at this time. Since the Passover was the commencement of a new life, the month (of Abib129, cf. 13:4) was to be viewed, from this time forward, as the first month of the year (Exod. 12:1-2). The Passover lamb was to be purchased or selected on the 10th day of the month, and slaughtered at twilight130 on the evening of the 14th.

(2) The Passover lamb (12:3-8, 21-23). The Passover animal was to be a male yearling, either a goat or a sheep (12:5). There was to be one sacrificial animal per household, unless the family was too small to consume one. Under such circumstances, two families could share one (12:4). There was to be provision of enough meat for each person to be adequately supplied. The blood of the animal was to be put on the sides and tops of the door frames where the animal was to be eaten (12:7). This blood was to serve as a sign, which would protect the Israelites from the death angel (12:13, 23).

(3) The Passover meal. The Passover meal was largely provided by the Passover sacrifice. The animal was to be roasted whole over the fire, not boiled or eaten raw. Each household was to eat the meal inside the door on which the animal’s blood had been placed. The meat was eaten along with bitter herbs and unleavened bread (12:8). Surplus food was not to be kept overnight, but was to be burned (12:10). There would be no “leftovers” for dinner because they would be long gone before another meal could be eaten. This is why the meal was to be eaten with an atmosphere of readiness and anticipation. They were to eat the meal in the same way we would eat in an airport restaurant, knowing that the departure of our flight was about to be announced. In our day, we would have our coats on and our briefcase in hand. In that day, they were to have their cloak tucked in (so they could hurry without tripping over it), their sandals on their feet, and their staff in hand (12:11).

(4) The participants of the Passover. The Passover was a corporate celebration in that all Israel observed the meal, just as Moses had instructed them (12:28, 50). On the other hand, the meal was a family matter. Each family was responsible for its own sacrificial animal, its own act of placing the blood on the door frame, and its own celebration of the meal. There is no specific mention of any Egyptians celebrating the first Passover, although this is possible, even likely. This possibility is enhanced by the report that some Egyptians had taken heed of previous warnings (9:18-21). Also, in the instructions God gave concerning the future observance of Passover, foreigners who placed themselves under the Abrahamic Covenant (as signified by circumcision) were allowed to participate, with no distinctions made between them and (other) Israelites (12:43-49). Those who did not refrain from eating leavened bread were to be banned from the congregation of Israel, whether or not he was a native Israelite (cf. 12:19).

The account of the Passover plague (Exodus 12:29-30). There is absolutely no sensationalism here, but only the most cursory account of the fulfillment of the Word of the Lord, spoken through Moses. At midnight, the firstborn of the Egyptians were slain, from the king of Egypt to its cattle, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh to that of the prisoner. The weeping and wailing that night was not like anything ever heard in the land before. At the same time, none of Israel’s firstborn, whether man or beast, was smitten. God’s promises, for pleasure or pain, of prosperity or peril, are certain. There is no need to elaborate further.

The Passover and Related Ceremonial Observances

The initial Passover meal was the first of endless annual celebrations (12:14, 17, 24; 13:10). The instructions concerning the Passover celebration alternate between the present and the future. What Israel did on that first Passover night was a prototype for all future Passover observances. We shall therefore now consider the future implications of the first Passover celebration, as outlined in our text.

(1) The redemption of the firstborn (Exod. 13:1-2, 11-16). The firstborn of all the Egyptians were smitten, while those of the Israelites were spared. We must acknowledge that God had the right (as He still does) to smite the firstborn of Egypt. Indeed, He had the right to smite the firstborn of Israel as well, and this would have happened apart from the provision of the Passover lamb and the shedding of its blood. God therefore struck down the Egyptian firstborn while He spared the Israelite firstborn. Because the sparing of the Israelite firstborn was not a matter of merit, but of grace, God owned them. Since He had spared their lives, He possessed them. The rite of redeeming the firstborn was a constant reminder to the Israelites of all subsequent generations that the firstborn belonged to God, and that this was due to the sparing of the firstborn at the Exodus. Thus, every time the first boy was born to an Israelite family, the parents were reminded of their “roots” and the reason for their blessing, and every child was retold the story of the exodus.

(2) The Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exod. 12:14-20; 13:3-10). The first Passover meal was to consist of the roasted sacrificial animal, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread (12:8). The hasty departure of the Israelites did not afford the time required to bake leavened bread (12:34, 39). The Passover celebration was to commence the Feast of Unleavened Bread. On the first day of the feast, all presence of yeast is to be removed from the house. On this first and last of the seven days, a sacred assembly is held (12:16). On these (two) days, no work was to be done, other than cooking. For the entire seven days, no leavened bread was to be eaten. The entire week of celebration was to serve as a reminder to Israel of the day on which God brought them out of Egypt.

The Purposes of Passover Celebrations
(12:21-27, 43-49)

Like the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the redemption of the firstborn, the Passover was to become a permanent part of Israel’s religious liturgy (cf. 12:24-25). There were several purposes for the Passover celebration, some of which were to be understood at a later time. We will briefly survey the principle purposes of the Passover.

(1) The Passover was a memorial of the deliverance of Israel, accomplished by the mighty power of God: “This observance will be for you like a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead that the Law of the Lord is to be on your lips. For the Lord brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand” (Exod. 13:9; cf. 13:14, 16; 3:20).

(2) The Passover and its related celebrations, the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the redemption of the firstborn, were intended to serve as a means of instruction for the future generations of Israel (Exod. 12:26-27; 13:8, 14-16). God directed that the meaning of the celebration was to be explained to the children (13:8). Also, when a child asks the meaning of a celebration, the parent is to teach its significance (12:26-27; 13:14). God therefore designed these celebrations as occasions for instruction. Thus the story of the Exodus was to be retold, and its meaning reinforced. The “bitter herbs” (12:8) would certainly help the children gain some sensory stimulation in this educational endeavor.

(3) The Passover celebrations was a means of incorporating or excluding the Gentiles in the covenant of God to Abraham (Exod. 12:38, 43-49). Those who ate anything leavened during the week of the Feast of Unleavened Bread were to be excluded from the community of Israel, whether this person was an Israelite or a foreigner (12:19). No uncircumcised person could partake of the Passover, but by receiving circumcision—that is, by identifying oneself with the Abrahamic Covenant—even a foreigner could partake of Passover, and with no distinctions between this individual and an Israelite. Thus, circumcision enabled one to participate fully in the Passover celebration. Passover thus was a kind of dividing line between a true believer and an outsider. Since a number of foreigners accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt (12:38), this was a necessary distinction.

(4) The Passover Lamb was a model, a prototype (a type) of the Messiah, the “Lamb of God” through whom God would bring redemption to both Israel and the Gentiles (Exod. 12:5-7, 46-47). This was likely not immediately perceived, but there are several similarities between the Passover lamb and the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. The sacrificial lamb131 was to be without defect (Exod. 12:5), just as the Lord Jesus was without blemish (1 Peter 1:19). It was the shed blood of the lamb which saved Israel’s firstborn from the plague (Exod. 12:12-13, 22-23), just as it is the shed blood of the Lamb of God which saves men from the judgment of God (1 Peter 1:18-19; Rev. 5:9). As there was to be no bone broken of the Passover lamb (Exod. 12:46), so no bone of our Lord was broken (John 19:32-36). Thus, the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, could speak of Israel’s Savior as a lamb:

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth (Isa. 53:6-7).

The Passover in the New Testament
(John 1:29, 36; Luke 22:1-23; 1 Cor. 5:1-8; Rev. 5:6-14)

John the Baptist could thus identify and introduce our Lord as Israel’s Messiah by the words, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

The Passover meal was very naturally transformed into the Eucharist, the Lord’s Table. Thus, in the gospel accounts, we find the death of our Savior corresponding with the sacrifice of the Passover sacrificial lambs and the Passover meal (cf. Luke 22:1-23). Paul clearly identified the Lord Jesus as the Passover lamb: “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). One can see that the first Passover, along with each subsequent annual remembrance of Passover, was an event of great significance, one which was to be celebrated from that time on.


The meaning of the Passover plague for the Egyptians

The Passover and the plague of the firstborn had several purposes with regard to the Egyptians.

(1) The Passover and the plague of the firstborn was a defeat of Egypt’s gods: “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt; I am the Lord” (Exod. 12:12). As the tenth and final plague, the smiting of the firstborn of Egypt conclusively proved that the “gods” of Egypt were powerless, non-existent, while the God of Israel was all-powerful.

(2) The Passover and the plague of the firstborn served as the final blow, which compelled the Egyptians to let the Israelites go (Exod. 3:20; 6:1; 11:1; 12:31-32). After the death of the firstborn of Egypt, the Egyptians did not want to be reminded of their grief by seeing the Israelites. Thus, this final plague brought the Egyptians to the point where they virtually compelled the Israelites to leave. This plague accomplished precisely what God intended, and what Moses had been asking for all along.

(3) The plague of the firstborn was an appropriate punishment of Egyptians for their oppression of Israel (Gen. 15:14; Exod. 1 and 2; 7:14ff.). God had told Abraham that the oppressive nation (which we now know to be Egypt) which would enslave Israel would be punished (Gen. 15:14). The plague of the firstborn was exceedingly appropriate since the Egyptians were seeking to kill all of the male babies born to the Israelites (cf. Exod. 1:22).

(4) The Passover and the plague of the firstborn was an act of grace, as well as an act of judgment. I believe that there is grace to be seen in this final plague (as in the rest), not only toward the Israelites, but also toward the Egyptians. The plagues revealed the powerlessness of the gods of Egypt, and the power of the God of Israel. The plagues pointed out the sin of the Egyptians and their need to repent and believe in the God of Israel. While the account is not written to underscore the conversion of Egyptians (the thrust of the account is on the judgment of Egypt, especially her gods), I think that there is ample evidence to suggest that some of the Egyptians were converted to true faith in the God of Israel.

In the first place, most of the plagues were preceded by an announcement and a warning. Each succeeding plague was further proof of God’s existence and power, and gave greater substance to the warnings which followed. All of the Egyptians came to respect Moses (11:3), and some took heed to his warnings (9:13-21). Provision was also made for non-Israelites to partake of the Passover, if they were circumcised (acknowledging their faith in the Abrahamic Covenant, cf. Exod. 12:48-49; Gen. 17:9-14). Since there were many non-Israelites who left Egypt with Israel (Exod. 12:38), it is likely that a number were converted and physically spared from death through the process of the plagues and the provision of the Passover.

(5) The Passover and the plague of the firstborn was an occasion for God to manifest His great power: “But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exod. 9:16). Like it or not, God is the Creator of the universe (in general) and of man (in particular). As man’s Creator, God is absolutely justified in dealing with His creation as He sees fit (cf. Romans 9). When the sinfulness of man is added to his creatureliness, God’s wrath is even more clearly seen to be right.

The meaning of the Passover for the Israelites

The Passover and the final plague also had great meaning and significance for the Israelites.

(1) The Passover and the tenth plague served as a judgment on the gods of Egypt, whom the Israelites had worshipped in Egypt (cf. Josh. 24:14). Because the Israelites had also worshipped the gods of Egypt, the judgment of these gods caused God’s people to turn from their false worship, at least for the moment. Ridding them of their false worship entirely was a much more long-term operation, but this was at least a beginning.

(2) The Passover was for Israel a manifestation of God’s power. One of the most commonly repeated phrases employed in conjunction with the Passover is “with a mighty hand” (Exod. 13:3, 9, 14, 16; cf. 15:6, 12; 16:3). The power of God was made manifest by the Passover and the plagues.

(3) The Passover and the plague of the firstborn was proof of God’s possession of Israel. When Moses spoke to Pharaoh about the Israelites, he said, “Let My son go, that he may serve Me” (Exod. 4:23). The fact that God claimed to possess the firstborn, so that they needed to be redeemed (13:1-2; 11-16), evidenced God’s ownership. When God freed the Israelites, He did so so that they may become His servants. As we shall show later, the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai was based upon the events of the exodus (cf. Deut. 5:6ff.). The firstborn of Israel thus belonged to God as a result of the Passover, and all of Israel as a result of the exodus. Israel was God’s possession. All of the commandments and requirements which God placed upon the Israelites was predicated upon the fact that they were a people who belonged to Him.

(4) The Passover was another evidence of the grace of God in the lives of His people. The firstborn of Israel were not spared because they were more worthy or more righteous than the Egyptians. Like the Egyptians, the Israelites were sinners, fully deserving of divine wrath. Had Israel been worthy, there would have been no need of the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, with its blood applied to the door frame. The firstborn of Israel were spared due to the grace of God alone. God’s provision of a means of escape was based upon His grace, not Israel’s merits.

The meaning of the Passover for unbelieving men and women today

There is no clearer example of salvation by grace in the Old Testament than the Passover which we have just studied. Every person in Egypt, whether an Israelite or an Egyptian, was worthy of God’s divine judgment. The reason why men find the judgment of God in the smiting of the firstborn so difficult to justify is that they do not grasp the seriousness of their own sin. I happened to overhear a small portion of a television program the other day, where a young woman asked, “Do I have to suffer the rest of my life for one little indiscretion?” Whatever her “indiscretion” was, I would imagine it would better be labeled “sin.” So the answer to her question should be, “For as much as one sin, God is just in condemning you, not only for time, but for all eternity.” The reason why we have so much difficulty with the subject of judgment is that we fail to comprehend the immensity of our sin. The striking of the firstborn of Egypt should cause us to rethink the matter of sin.

Our attitude toward sin is very much shaped by our own perspectives and experiences. Drunks are people we can laugh at, until they get behind the wheel and kill one of our loved ones. Sex offenders are people who simply have a different sexual orientation or preferences, until they molest someone close to us. So, too, idolatrous worship doesn’t seem very serious, until we view this evil from God’s perspective. Ignoring God does not seem so serious, until we understand the importance of trusting and obeying Him.

Once we have come to grips with the seriousness of sin, we need to focus on the solution. Just as the firstborn were worthy of divine judgment, and in danger of it, God’s solution must be believed and acted upon. The divinely provided protection from the death angel was the sacrifice of a lamb, with its blood applied to the door frame. All those who remained within the house which had blood applied to its door frame were spared.

Just as the firstborn in Egypt were in danger of being smitten by the death angel, so men, women, and children are in danger of living out eternity in Hell, enduring the eternal wrath of God (cf. Rev. 20:11-15). The solution to the problem is, once again, a Lamb, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, on whom our sins were laid. He died for our sins; He bore the wrath of God, so that men could escape from the coming wrath of God, and could participate in His promised blessings (Isa. 53). It is my prayer that you will, even at this moment, accept the salvation which God offers to you through the sacrifice of His Son, who has been raised from the dead and who will return to the earth to execute judgment on all those who have rejected His sacrifice (cf. 2 Thes. 1). The offer of salvation is before you.

The meaning of the Passover for Christians

The New Testament teaches a number of practical applications of the Passover for contemporary Christians. Let me outline some of them briefly.

(1) Because Christ is our Passover Lamb, we are God’s possession. The firstborn of Israel had to be redeemed because God had spared them, and thus they belonged to Him. While only some of those Israelites who were in Egypt were firstborn, and thus in need of being redeemed, all of us who have trusted in Christ belong to Him. Every child of God belongs to God, and must live in the light of belonging to Him. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). “You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men” (1 Cor. 7:23).

Since the firstborn of the Israelites belonged to God, they had to sacrifice them (in the case of an animal, except for the donkey, 13:13), or (in the case of a son) to offer a sacrifice to redeem them. Because God has spared us from His wrath by His mercy, we are to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).

Because Christians have been redeemed by the Lamb of God, they do not belong to themselves, and they must therefore live out their lives as a living sacrifice to God. I fear that all too many presentations of the gospel do not inform people that when they come to faith in Christ, they cease to own themselves, and that they become Christ’s possession. In fact, all men belong to God by virtue of creation, and all Christians belong (doubly) to God by virtue of redemption. We cannot live our lives independently, autonomously, as Christians, but we must live them out as those who have been bought with a price and as those who belong to God. Just as God’s claims on the Israelites were spelled out in the Law, given a little later on in Israel’s history, so God’s claims on our lives as believers are given to us in the Scriptures. Let us heed His commandments well, for we belong to Him.

(2) Because Christ is our Passover lamb, we must live our lives in purity, in holy living. In the first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, we read, “Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:6-8).

In the context of this chapter in First Corinthians, Paul has been speaking of a Christian who was living with the wife of his father (5:1). The Corinthians had not done anything to remedy the situation, and even seemed to be proud of their liberality in this matter (5:2). Paul told them he had already acted (5:3-4), and that they should do likewise, by putting this man out of the assembly.

The principle on which Paul based his instruction was that of the relationship between the sacrifice of the Passover lamb and the observance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The sacrifice of the Passover lamb set in motion the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Since Christ is our Passover lamb, and He has already been sacrificed, the Corinthians should begin the Feast of Unleavened Bread, looking for any sign of leaven (a symbol of sin) and putting it far away from them (5:7-8). Thus the fact that Christ is our Passover lamb necessitates maintaining purity in our lives, and in the church as well.

(3) The Passover teaches us the important role played by religious ceremony (liturgy, if you prefer) in the Christian’s experience. By the annual observance of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, God not only reminded His people of His mighty deeds in the past, but also taught them concerning the future. The institution of the Lord’s Table (“communion”) serves the same purposes. The observance of the Lord’s Table reminds the Christian of the salvation which our Lord accomplished by His death, burial, and resurrection (cf. Lu. 22:14-22; 1 Cor. 11:17-34). Unfortunately, Christians have come to take the remembrance of our Lord lightly, and do it infrequently, often as a kind of footnote to some other service. Let us learn to value and to practice those times of remembrance and anticipation which God has established and commanded us to do.

Just as the Passover celebrations (including the redemption of the firstborn and the Feast of Unleavened Bread) provided an opportunity to instruct the children concerning God’s work in the past and its bearing on the present, so the Lord’s table and baptism provide us with teaching opportunities which we dare not neglect.

(4) The Passover (Passion) of our Lord is a pattern for Christians regarding suffering. While it is true that the Egyptians suffered for their sins in the plague of the firstborn (and the other plagues too), we ought not overlook the suffering of the Israelites during the 400 years of oppression, and even during the days which immediately preceded the exodus. Some Christians believe that suffering is not to be a part of the experience of one who trusts in the Lord and is obedient to Him. This is entirely untrue. Ultimately, it was not those many Passover lambs which spared the Israelite firstborn from death, it was the suffering and death of the Lamb of God, who died for all who would believe. The Passover necessitated the suffering of the Son of God. The degree to which He suffered can only be estimated in the light of the holiness of God and the dread which our Lord experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane when He anticipated the cross.

In the first epistle of Peter, the apostle informs Christians who are suffering that the passion, the suffering of the Lord Jesus, the Passover lamb, was a pattern for the suffering of all the saints (cf. 1 Pet. 2:16-24). The Lord Jesus, as the Passover lamb, is the pattern for Christian suffering, and the way it should be dealt with.

Paul also speaks of our suffering in “Passover” terms. In the 8th chapter of his epistle to the Romans, Paul writes of the victory which the Christian can have in suffering (8:31-35). He then quotes this passage from Psalm 44 to show that we, like Christ, are called to suffer as “sheep”: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom. 8:36).

In the context of Psalm 44, from which this citation was taken, we learn that those saints who suffered as described above were those who were faithful to God, not those who were disobedient. The Passover lamb is therefore a pattern for the saints, showing us that innocent suffering is often a part of God’s will for the righteous, and that through the suffering of the saints, God’s purposes may be accomplished.

Let no one seek to suffer in this way, but let no one dare to suggest that suffering in the life of the saint is inappropriate, the result of either sin or unbelief. The suffering of the Passover lamb is the pattern for the saints to follow when they suffer.

127 The NIV takes these verses as parenthetical and indicates so by rendering the text as a past perfect, rather than as a simple past tense. Thus, verses 1 and 9 of chapter 11 begin, “the Lord had said to Moses…”

128 “This is expressed by a proverbial saying, ‘A dog would not move his tongue against man or beast’ (v. 7). The word which is translated ‘move’ … literally means ‘to cut into,’ ‘to sharpen,’ or ‘to bring to a point.’ The allusion here is to the fact that none would bring injury to Israel (cf. Josh. 10:21).” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 136.

129 “Another name for this first month of the sacred calendar is Abib (Exod. 13:4; 23:15; 34:18; Deut. 16:1) which literally means ‘ear-month’ because it was at that time that the grain was in the ear. The month of Abib approximates to our month of April. After the Babylonian captivity, new calendar names were adopted and the ancient name Abib was changed to Nisan (cf. Neh. 2:1; Esth. 3:7). From this time onward two calendar reckonings were employed by the Israelites: one for sacred and the other for civil purposes, the first month of each year being in the seventh month of the other though the numbers always from Nisan as the first.” Davis, p. 137.

130 There is considerable discussion and disagreement over the precise time at which the Passover sacrifice was to be slain. It may not be possible to determine with any degree of certainty, nor is it necessary that we do so. For a survey of the different views, cf. Davis, pp. 138-139.

131 We use the term “lamb” aware that the sacrificial animal could have been either a lamb or a goat (Exod. 12:5), but since our Lord was referred to as “the Lamb,” I have chosen to speak of the sacrificial animal as a lamb.


7. The Red Sea: Israel’s Deliverance and Egypt’s Defeat (Exodus 13:17-14:31)


Dr. James Dobson has recently been sharing some of the letters he has received from his listeners concerning the funniest thing which has happened to their family. There is one story which is both amusing and relevant. I will retell the story to the best of my recollection:

This family lived in the Northeast part of the country. In the bitterly cold part of winter their car had become especially dirty, what with road salts, frozen slush, and other wintry deposits. Conscious of the condition of their car, this family was driving down the road and came across an unusual sight. Water was gushing into the air from a broken pipe, beneath the surface of the road. A work crew had arrived and was just getting set up. Simultaneously, the family concluded that this was the perfect occasion for a car wash. They pulled the car far enough forward to park under the shower of water. The road crew watched, somewhat puzzled, and a little amused.

Since it was still bitterly cold, they left the engine running, and kept the heater going as well. In a short time, a rather unpleasant odor began to dominate. It was about this same time that the family noticed that the water which was running down the windshield was not clear, not clear at all. Finally they understood the problem—they were not parked under the shower of a broken water main, they were under the shower of a broken sewer main. Quickly. they departed, watching the filthy matter freeze to their car in the bitter cold of that day.

Things do not always turn out the way we expect. One can surely say this with regard to the Egyptian soldiers, who were pursuing the Israelites in the Egyptian desert. They left Egypt hastily, expecting that it would take but a little time and effort to round up the Israelites and drive them back to Egypt. Confidently, they pursued them into the midst of the Red Sea, only to discover, too late, that God was fighting for Israel and against them. In spite of their best efforts to escape, the entire army was wiped out that day, drowned in the Red Sea.

Israel’s passing through the Red Sea is one of the most exciting events recorded in the Old Testament. It was an event of great importance to the nation. It rid the Israelites, once for all, of Pharaoh’s dominion. It also released them from their obligation to return to Egypt, after traveling three days journey into the wilderness to worship God. This was, in fact, the birth of the nation Israel.

While this story is an exciting account of Israel’s escape, it is also the awesome account of the destruction of the Egyptian army who pursued them. In our next lesson, we will focus more on the deliverance of the nation Israel, but in this study we shall concentrate our attention on the destruction of the Egyptian army which pursued them into the sea. It is one of the vivid accounts of the judgment of God which we dare not neglect. Let us, then, consider the destruction of the enemies of God.

Charting Israel’s Course

The structure of verses 17-22 is an important clue to our understanding of this passage. I agree with Gispen132 that verses 17-19 are parenthetical and explanatory, and that verse 20 begins the description of Israel’s movements as they leave the land of Egypt and begin the trek to Canaan. Verse 20 therefore does not describe a change in course, but begins to describe the course which was the outworking of God’s purpose for Israel, as outlined in verses 17-18.

There were three possible land routes for Israel to take, by which they could have reached Canaan.133 The shortest route would have been to follow the “way of the land of the Philistines” (v. 17),134 but God deliberately avoided this road. The reason given is that they would have encountered war and this would have caused them to lose heart and turn back to Egypt (v. 17).

It is not altogether certain with whom the Israelites would have had to fight. Some reject the possibility of fighting with the Philistines because they have concluded that the Philistines had not settled in Canaan in sufficient numbers as yet.135 I am inclined to think that it is war with the Philistines to which Moses is referring here.136 While the Egyptians had forts strategically located along the routes to other countries, the Israelites had gained Pharaoh’s permission to leave Egypt. Besides this, Israel did, in fact, confront the army of Egypt at the Red Sea.

It may seem strange that God wanted to avoid a military confrontation when we are told in verse 18 (cf. also Exod. 6:26; 12:41) that the Israelites were “armed for battle.” The expression used here has been understood to refer only the orderly way in which the Israelites (nearly 2 million people, counting women and children, cf. Exod. 12:37) departed Egypt.137 Others understand that the Israelites did come out of Egypt at least partially armed, but all seem to agree that Israel was not at all prepared to fight a full scale battle at this point in time.138 It would be some time before the Israelites were ready to do battle. At this time, all Israel needed to do was to “be still and watch” (14:14).

Note is made of the fact that the “bones of Joseph” were taken along. This was a reflection of the faith of Joseph, and the carrying out of his instructions that his remains be preserved and carried from Egypt to Canaan (cf. Gen. 49:26; 50:24-26). The fulfillment of Joseph’s request is recorded in Joshua 24:32. Stephen also refers to this in Acts 7:15-16. The exodus of Israel is thus linked historically to the Abrahamic Covenant and to the faith of the patriarchs of Israel.

While the writer gives us the names of the places where the Israelites stayed,139 the exact locations of these places are simply not known.140 At best, one can only conjecture as to their locations, and even at this scholars disagree. In general, we can safely infer that the nation was moving in a south-easterly direction. The wilderness which the Israelites are skirting is not the wilderness of Sinai, but of Egypt.141

Verses 21 and 22 describe one of the primary means God employed to guide the people as they traveled. A pillar-shaped cloud, in which God was present (cf. 14:24), served to guide the people both day and night.142 In the daytime the pillar took the form of a cloud; at night the pillar was a pillar of fire, thus being visible as a guide, as well as providing light for the people as they traveled (remember that at night vipers would be active, for example). Later, this pillar would serve as a protective buffer when moved between the Israelites and the Egyptians (14:19-20). There have been a number of naturalistic explanations of this pillar, but their only value is for our amusement.143

The important thing to observe, I believe, is that God was faithful to provide the Israelites with a visible manifestation of His presence, protection, and guidance. The pillar, we are told, was constantly with them and never left (or failed) them. God continually gives His people evidences of His presence with them.

Changing Israel’s Course

With the pillar to guide the Israelites, one may wonder why it was necessary for God to speak to Moses concerning the leading of the people in verses 1-4 of chapter 14. There is a very good reason, I believe. Moses was to bring about a “change of course” for the Israelites, one that would greatly perplex the people without an explanation. The Israelites were instructed to “turn back” and to camp near Pi Hahioroth, between Migdol and the sea.144

Had the pillar of cloud moved in this direction without any word from God, the people may have been inclined to disregard it. They might have thought that the pillar needed repair. There are several reasons why.

God’s instructions were required to assure the Israelites that the new course which the pillar would set were correct, even though perplexing.

First, the Israelites were going to “turn back,” that is, to reverse their direction. Why in the world would they possibly retrace their steps backwards? Instead of fleeing from Pharaoh, it might look as though they were making it easy for him to catch up with them. Second, the course which they were about to take would be one that would place them in a very dangerous position.

Through Moses, God ordered a change of direction which to many Israelites must have seemed strange and indeed risky, for their course was to turn in a southwesterly direction which in a short time would place great bodies of water between themselves and the Sinai peninsula to the east.145

It didn’t take a military genius to figure out that what the Israelites were doing was to put themselves in a very vulnerable position, trapped, between natural barriers. Were Pharaoh to pursue them, they would be in a bunch of trouble. God explained through Moses that this change of course was indeed intended to encourage Pharaoh’s pursuit. Pharaoh, God knew, would think that the Israelites were miserably lost or misguided, and that recovering them as a work force would be like “taking candy from a baby.”146 Pharaoh’s attack would result in his defeat, to the glory of God (v. 4).

Changing Pharaoh’s Mind

From what we are told in these verses, Pharaoh was ready for any sign of hope that he might recover the slave labor which he had released. Shortly after the Israelites had departed, Pharaoh and his officials had second thoughts about the wisdom of releasing this valuable economic resource—slave labor (v. 5). Pharaoh mustered his entire division of chariots and went after them in hot pursuit, six hundred chariots in all (v. 6). Pharaoh’s decision was not only hard-hearted, it was hard headed. Six hundred chariots (with 2, or at the most 3 men per chariot) would hardly seem to be a match for 600,000 men.

The change of course of the Israelites seemed to be playing right into Pharaoh’s hands. He overtook the Israelites at Pi Hahiroth, undoubted looking like the cat that had just eaten the canary. How could he possibly fail?

Calming Israel’s Fears

Israel was in trouble now. “To the east was the sea, to the south and west were the mountains, and the north was blocked by Pharaoh’s armies.”147

The Israelites were shaken by the sight of the rapidly approaching chariots of Pharaoh and his men. They were terrified (v. 10). At first, the people cried out to the Lord (v. 10), but as the troops drew nearer and as Israel’s hopes of escape faded, their fear turned to bitter regret, focused toward Moses. Were there not enough graves in Egypt? Had they not told Moses to leave them alone, and not to meddle with Pharaoh? What had Moses done to them now? They would have been better off to have stayed on as slaves in Egypt. Such is the reasoning of fear and unbelief.

Moses was much more calm, at least initially. Confident that God would deliver them from the Egyptians, Moses sought to reassure the Israelites of God’s protection, and of the defeat of the Egyptians. They were told to “fear not.” They need not fight, but only to stand firm and observe God’s victory over the Egyptians. They would never see these Egyptians again.

From what God had revealed to Moses, he was confident of the defeat and destruction of the Egyptian army, now hotly pursuing them. What Moses was apparently not aware of was how and when this victory would occur. As the Egyptians drew closer, Moses probably expected to see them wiped out before the eyes of all, perhaps by some plague. Instead, they only got closer—much too close for comfort. Moses may have raised his staff, pointing it in the direction of the Egyptians. Like a jammed rifle, it didn’t seem to work. At some point, Moses began crying out to God, not unlike the Israelites had done before him (compare 14:10 with 14:15). The man who had begun “cool and calm” had begun to lose his grip.

Divine Instruction and Intervention

My imagination may have run a little wild in the description I have just given of Moses’ uncertainty, but I doubt that it is too far afield. Without informing us of the exact manifestations of Moses’ fears, the text does give us a record of God’s mild rebuke to Moses in verse 15: “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.” Not only do we know from God’s words to Moses that he had cried out to Him, but there is a very clear inference that Moses was wrong in doing so. Why was it wrong for Moses to cry to God for help? There is only one reason that I can think of: Moses should have known what to do, and he should have done it.

It is possible that Moses knew what to do because God had already given him precise instructions. Because we do not find any such instructions in our text, I am inclined to set this possibility aside. It is my opinion that God rebuked Moses for crying out for instructions because Moses should have been able to figure out what to do, and he should have then done it.

Let’s think for just a moment about what Moses did know. He knew that God had guided them to the place in which they found themselves—between the Red Sea and the Egyptians. The pillar had led them there (13:21-22; 14:19), and God had also explained to Moses that this was what He was going to do, so that He could gain glory through Pharaoh and his army (14:1-4). Moses knew that God had promised to bring the Israelites into the land of Canaan, which was across and beyond the Red Sea (cf. Gen. 15:13-21; Exod. 3:7-8, 16-17; 6:4; 12:25; 13:5). Moses also knew that God had given him power through the use of his staff.

It is therefore my opinion that Moses should have reasoned that the only direction he could and should go was toward Canaan, and that meant through the Red Sea. The means for passing through the sea was for Moses to lift up his hand with his staff and to part the sea. This is precisely what God instructed Moses to do, but I believe that God’s gentle rebuke of Moses in verse 15 implies that Moses should have reasoned this all out.

I want to pause here for a moment to emphasize the relationship between faith and reason. Some seem to think that faith and reasoning are opposed to each other, and that faith is therefore, by its very nature, unreasonable. I think this is far from the case. When God had Israel turn back, it only seemed unreasonable, until the purpose of God (in causing Pharaoh to think that they were lost, thus prompting his attack) was made known by God to Moses. God’s actions were very reasonable, when seen in terms of God’s purpose.

Our Lord persistently encouraged men and women to use their minds. “Consider the lilies of the field,” He urged (Matt. 6:28), which was an appeal to man’s ability to reason. Abraham, we are told, “reasoned that God could raise the dead” (Heb. 11:19), when He commanded him to sacrifice his son. God did not tell Abraham He would raise his son, Abraham reasoned it was so, based upon his experience of having a son when he and Sarah were “as good as dead” (Rom. 4:19-21). God delights in faith that reasons and then responds. Moses should thus have reasoned what God wanted him to do and done it without asking God for guidance. I believe that we often ask God for guidance when reason would clearly indicate our course of action already.

In spite of Moses’ lack of faith, God graciously responds to his cry for help. He specifically instructed Moses to raise his staff and stretch out his hand over the sea, so as to divide the water, making it possible for the Israelites to pass through on dry ground (14:16).148 The Egyptians, God informed Moses, would enter the sea behind them, due to their hearts being hardened, but this was to result in their destruction and God’s glory (v. 17). The nation of Egypt will know for certain that God alone is Lord through this event (v. 18).

God did more than just speak. The angel of the Lord, manifested in the pillar of cloud and/or fire, moved from in front of the Israelites to become their rear guard. He stood between the Israelites and the Egyptians. Throughout that night the pillar brought darkness to the Egyptians and light for the Israelites, thus enabling the Israelites to see as they passed through the sea, and perhaps preventing the Egyptians from seeing the sea as they followed after them (v. 20).

Israel’s Deliverance and the Egyptians’ Destruction

Moses did as he was instructed, stretching forth his hand over the sea. This brought about a “strong east wind”149 which drove back the sea all night long, even turning the seabed to dry ground (v. 21). This was no doubt to facilitate the need of the Israelites to quickly pass through the sea with their goods, which were likely loaded on wagons or carts of some sort.

It must have taken a certain amount of faith on the part of the Israelites to enter into the sea.150 They, unlike the Egyptians, had the benefit of the light provided by the cloud. Thus, they were able to clearly see the water of the sea piled up like walls151 on both sides of them (cf. 14:22). What faith the Israelites lacked was compensated for by the fact that the Egyptians were right behind them. When confronted with the choice between the sea and the Egyptians, the sea would have been the less dangerous choice. God’s motivations are a wonder to behold!

To me, the most difficult thing for me to believe is not the parting of the sea, or of the Israelites passing through it, but the fact that the Egyptians followed them into the sea. Think of this for just a moment. Any well-trained army knows better than to plunge (pardon the pun) into an ambush. Whenever an army is faced with its enemy ahead and barriers are on both sides, there is a serious concern of being trapped in the middle by your opponent. Even worse, if you were to see the sea parted by the God of your adversary, would you be inclined to enter into that sea, knowing that you were seeking to capture the very people God was aiding to escape? To me, there are only two possible explanations to the entrance of the Egyptians into the sea, and both of them are incredible.

One surprising possibility is that the Egyptians entered into the sea without even knowing it. This possibility is usually one which we would not even entertain, largely due to our own preconceived ideas of what happened. I do not know of anyone else who has come to this conclusion, so I would caution you to think critically here (as elsewhere). Nevertheless, there are several observations which make this an option which must be reckoned with.

First, we are not told anywhere that the Egyptians knew that they were entering into the sea. We are told that they entered the sea (v. 23), but it is not specifically reported that they knew this was the case. Second, the time of the passing through the sea (for both the Israelites and the Egyptians) was late at night (cf. 14:20, 24,27). Third, the pillar which gave light to the Israelites, produced or promoted darkness for the Egyptians (v. 20). True, the Israelites could see the sea in the light provided by the pillar, but could the Egyptians? Fourth, it would seem highly unlikely that the Egyptians would enter into the sea, knowing that God had parted it for His people. Fifth, the Egyptians appear to be guided only by the Israelites. The Egyptians were in hot pursuit. Where the Israelites went, the Egyptians followed. (It wouldn’t be difficult to follow the tracks of 2 million people, now would it?) The Egyptians were concentrating on the object of their pursuit (the Israelites), not the scenery around them. You tend not to see what you are not looking for. Sixth, since the seabed had become dry ground, there would be no particular evidence that the Egyptians were in the midst of the sea. If, perchance, my speculations here are correct, can you imagine the horror of the Egyptians when they first realized where they were? They really did get in “over their heads” this time.

The only other possibility is that the Egyptians knowingly pursued the Israelites into the sea, somehow blinded to the incredible dangers of doing so. As I have said before, it is absolutely incredible that the most powerful, well-trained army of that day could blunder so badly as to march straight into a perfect ambush, without the least hesitation. There is only one explanation for their actions—hearts which were supernaturally hardened, to the degree that the Egyptian army failed to see the obvious, to their own destruction. As God said to Moses, “I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen” (Exod. 14:17).

In the morning watch, which is known to be from 2 a.m. till dawn,152 God looked down from the pillar of fire and brought confusion to the Egyptian troops (v. 24). This was brought about by causing the wheels of their chariots either to fall off,153 to swerve, or to sink into the sands, which may now be wet. The poetic description of Psalm 77 seems to inform us that the occasion for the confusion was a thunderstorm:

The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. The clouds poured down water, the skies resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen (Ps. 77:16-19).

Assuming that the Egyptians did not know they were entering the sea, can you imagine the horror of the charioteers when the first bolt of lightening revealed the seas towering above them? Too late, the Egyptians recognized that God was fighting for the Israelites and against them. They sought to retreat, returning to the shore from which they had entered the sea. Instead, they plunged, headlong, into the waters (cf. v. 27) as they returned to their place.

At daybreak, God instructed Moses to once again lift his staff over the sea, but this time to bring the waters of the Red Sea thundering down upon the Egyptians. The sea closed in on the Egyptians, so that every one of them was drowned (v. 28). In marked contrast, the Israelites passed through the sea on dry ground, safely reaching the other side (v. 29). The Red Sea thus became the instrument of Israel’s deliverance and the Egyptians’ destruction. The Israelites witnessed the power of God and came to a deeper appreciation of Moses as the leader God had appointed, and through whom God’s power was manifested in a mighty way (v. 31).


The destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea causes us to look seriously at the judgment of God. Several principles of divine judgment are evident in the events of the exodus as described in our text.

The judgment of God begins sooner than His final destruction. To put it differently, the judgment of God begins with the hardening of men’s hearts. While the final destruction of the army of Pharaoh came at the time Moses lifted his hand over the sea and it came crashing down on the enemies of Israel, that judgment was already at work much earlier. The drowning of the charioteers was but the final blow of divine judgment, a judgment which had begun a year or more earlier.

God had begun to judge the Egyptians at the time that Moses returned to Egypt and appeared before Pharaoh, and the plagues were commenced. Each plague was a judgment of the gods of the Egyptians (cf. Exod. 12:12). For about a year, the ten plagues had been poured out upon Egypt. The destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea was the culminating act of divine judgment.

But how is it possible, given ten previous plagues and the present perils of entering into the Red Sea, that the Egyptians could so blindly persist in their oppression of God’s people, and in their indifference to God’s warnings? The biblical answer, found in Exodus and confirmed in other biblical texts, is that they persisted to pursue their own destruction because their hearts were hardened.

A little investigation in a Bible concordance will show that reference to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (and sometimes his officials’ or his army’s hearts) occurs 14 times in Exodus. Of these 14 instances, six refer to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart (9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8), three refer to Pharaoh hardening his own heart (8:15, 32; 9:34), and five are indefinite (7:13, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35). From these passages and others, we can identify several characteristics of hardening.

(1) The hardening the heart is a process. Pharaoh’s heart was not hardened once, it was hardened repeatedly. Hardening is thus a process, not a one-time event.

(2) The hardening of the heart involves both divine and human initiative. On the one hand, God hardens a man’s heart, yet, on the other hand, a man hardens his own heart. When God hardens a man’s heart, He does not cause a man to think and to do other than what that individual is inclined to do. God does not harden a man’s heart by making him want to sin. Pharaoh did not want to release the Israelites, nor did he wish to submit to the God of Israel. God hardened the heart of Pharaoh so that he would pursue the Israelites (14:4), but this is precisely what Pharaoh was already predisposed to do (14:5).

Men often harden their hearts at crucial decision points. Notice that Pharaoh’s heart was always hardened with respect to a particular decision. Each time hardening occurred, it was in regard to a decision which Pharaoh had to make. During the period of the plagues, he had to decide whether or not to let Israel go. After the plagues, he had to decide whether or not to pursue the Israelites to bring them back (thus breaking his word which gave them permission to go). Pharaoh’s army had to make a decision whether or not to pursue the Israelites into the sea. At each decision point, the Egyptians were hardened or hardened themselves.

From a divine perspective, God hardened men’s hearts in order to achieve His pre-determined purposes (such as the destruction of the Egyptian army and the deliverance of the Israelites). From a human point of view, men hardened their hearts by deciding to do that which was clearly identified as sin. The link between sinning and hardening is seen in Pharaoh’s actions: “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts. So Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had said through Moses” (Exod. 9:34-35). The New Testament likewise speaks of hardening as the product of the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). Thus, we can say that men not only harden their hearts, which results in sin, they also sin, which results in a hardened heart.

(3) The hardening of a man’s heart occurs when God “locks that man on his course.” The man makes his choice, based upon his own nature and course, but when God hardens that man’s heart, He prevents man from changing the course he has set for himself. What I am saying is that hardening the heart does not override the choices a person would make for himself, it is like a catalyst which causes the person to lie in the bed he has chosen to make, as it were.

I know of people who have heard the gospel and have said, “I know that I am a sinner, and that I need to trust in Christ as my Savior. I also know that to make such a choice will necessitate a change in my lifestyle. Therefore, I am going to live my life the way I want to (sinfully), and then, when life is nearly over, I will trust in Christ and be saved from the coming wrath of God.” But, you see, God does not give such a person any consolation in this decision. The hardening of a man’s heart compels that man to live out the consequences of his choices and lifestyle. The process of the hardening of the heart forces us to make our eternal choices now, knowing that we may not be free to change our course in days to come.

(4) The hardening of a person’s heart dulls and deadens their perception of danger and judgment. As we have seen in the headlong plunge of the Egyptians into the sea, the only explanation for such a foolhardy advance is that their hearts were hardened, so that they advanced, with little or no perception of the dangers of their actions. It was not until things actually began to fall apart that the Egyptians finally realized the grave danger they were in (14:25). When one’s heart is hardened, they are unable to see the danger which is abundantly clear to others.

(5) The hardening of the heart can occur both to believers and to unbelievers alike. Pharaoh and the Egyptians who died in the Red Sea were undoubtedly unbelievers. It is not difficult to acknowledge the hardening process in the lives of unbelievers. I believe Scriptures indicate that a similar hardening can happen to the Christian. We read, for example, that the Israelites of old had their hearts hardened (2 Cor. 3:13-14; Heb. 3:7-19), and the application is extended to saints today. So, too, the hearts of our Lord’s disciples were hardened (cf. Mark 6:52; 8:17). I have seen numerous instances where Christians have chosen to do wrong, and as they progress on the path of sin, their hearts become increasingly hardened. Their fate will not be that of the unbeliever, but surely severe consequences will follow (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5).

(6) The hardening of men’s hearts is for the purpose of achieving what is good. The hardening of the hearts of Pharaoh and his soldiers was for the purpose of releasing Israel, once and for all, from Egyptian bondage. It was also for the purpose of glorifying God. And finally, it was for the purpose of demonstrating to the remaining Egyptians that God alone is Lord (Exod. 14:4). Is it possible that because of this disaster, Egyptians came to faith in the God of Israel?

The final judgment of God comes suddenly and unexpectedly upon those whose hearts have been hardened by sin. We have already seen that the hardening of men’s hearts is the judgment of God. In other words, it seals the fate of those who are destined for judgment. Because of this, hardening the hearts of men dulls their sensitivity to sin and judgment so that it comes upon them suddenly and unexpectedly, as it did to the Egyptians.

As I was thinking of the aloofness and apathy of men with regard to God’s judgment, it occurred to me that throughout the Scriptures those whose hearts have been hardened have found that judgment comes upon them suddenly and unexpectedly.154

The Lord will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him (Deut. 28:20).

Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! (Ps. 73:18-19)

Therefore disaster will overtake him in an instant; he will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy (Prov. 6:15).

A man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy (Prov. 29:1).

While they are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape (1 Thes. 5:3).

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon” [quickly, NASB]. Amen. Come Lord Jesus (Rev. 22:20).

Throughout the Scriptures the judgment of God falls quickly and unexpectedly on the unbelieving, whose hearts have been hardened to sin and to the judgment to come. On the other hand, the Bible speaks of the saints as being ready, expectant, sensitive to sin, and pursuing and promoting purity as the day of the Lord’s return draws near (cf. 1 Thes. 5:4-11; 2 Pet. 3:8-18; 1 John 3:2-3).

In marked contrast to the destruction-bent pathway of the Egyptians is the security of the Israelites, whether or not they perceived it at the moment. Reading the account of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea reminded me of the fact that things are often not what they seem to be. The Israelites were fearful, concluding from their circumstances that the Egyptians would be victorious over them. The Egyptians, on the other hand, were confident, thinking that there was no way they could not recapture the Israelites and take them back to Egypt as their slaves. Both the Egyptians and the Israelites were wrong in the estimation of things. Confident as they were, the Egyptians perished in the sea. And fearful as the Israelites were, they passed through the sea, delivered once and for all from their oppressors.

The Egyptians felt confident and secure because it appeared that they had the upper hand. They had the chariots and the soldiers. They had the military might of Egypt. But the Egyptians failed to reckon with the fact that they were opposing themselves to God and to His people. No matter how strong and secure one might feel, opposing God is a deadly occupation.

The Israelites were fearful and would even have considered going back to Egypt (cf. Exod. 14:10-12). The only thing which prevented this was the providential care of the God who had purposed and promised to deliver them safely to the promised land. Thus, God led them by another way than the “way of the Philistines,” knowing that war would have resulted in their losing heart and retreating (13:17-18). The Lord also assured the Israelites of His presence and guidance by the pillar of cloud and fire, and informed them as to why He was leading them so as to appear to have lost their way. The Lord also prevented the Israelites from retreating by placing the pillar of fire and the Egyptian army behind them. While the destruction of God’s enemies was assured, so was the deliverance of His people. No people were more secure than the Israelites, no matter how the circumstances appeared. No people were in greater peril than the Egyptians, regardless of their confidence and military might.

The ultimate issue, which determined the destruction or deliverance of God, was this: ON WHICH SIDE OF THE CLOUD DO YOU STAND? In our text, the judgment of God and the salvation of God employed the same means—the Red Sea. Those who stood in the sea in front of the cloud (the Israelites) were delivered, but those who stood behind the cloud (the Egyptians) were destroyed. To put it in a little different way, those who had sided with the God of Israel were saved, while those who opposed Him were struck down by the sea.

While this text graphically portrays the hardness of man’s heart, which leads ultimately to his destruction, it also pictures very clearly the salvation which God offers to all men, regardless of race. The sea was the instrument of God’s wrath, which destroyed the Egyptians. But that sea was also the instrument of Israel’s deliverance. Today, the dividing line between those who will be saved and those who will suffer God’s wrath is not a cloud, but the cross. God’s righteousness demands that sin must be paid for. The sinner must face the wrath of a righteous God. But in His grace, God has provided salvation, by pouring out His wrath on His Son, Jesus Christ. This he did nearly 2,000 years ago on the cross of Calvary. All those who accept Christ’s sacrifice on that cross are saved, and all those who reject it (either actively or passively), must bear the coming wrath of God, which will come upon them just as quickly and unexpectedly as God’s wrath fell on the Egyptians.

If this is true, the most important question you will ever answer is this, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH REGARD TO CHRIST AND HIS CROSS? Our Lord Himself said,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:16-18).

I urge you not to delay in this decision about the cross of Christ. To delay is to further the hardening process of your own heart, and to bring about greater blindness and insensitivity toward your sin and the judgment which will come upon you.

132 W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 138.

133 “Most traffic leaving Egypt heading eastward would take one of three roads. The most direct route to Canaan was the Via Maris, ‘the way of the sea.’ This road began at the frontier fortress of Sile, near modern Qantara, and reached Canaan at Raphia. … Another route that was taken by travelers heading eastward was ‘the way of Shur’ which crossed the Sinai peninsula to southern Canaan where it connected with the important water-parting route from Jerusalem and Hebron to Beersheba in the Negeb. … The third route, known today as ‘the pilgrim’s way,’ ran across the peninsula from the head of the Gulf of Suez to Exion-geber which was located at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), pp. 155-156.

“The fact is that it was not absolutely necessary for the Israelites to cross a body of water in order to travel from Egypt into the Sinai peninsula. Many persons imagine that Egypt in ancient times was separated from that peninsula by a continuous body of water, as it is today. But the Suez Canal was dug in the nineteenth century A.D. The isthmus of Suez at its narrowest is about 70 miles from north to south. Of this distance, about forty miles are covered by lakes, the rest being land.” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 156-157.

134 “This was the direct route, but was heavily guarded by Egypt: the commentators give instances of the careful lists, kept by the Egyptian guards, of arrivals and departures at the frontier. The Israelites would certainly have ‘seen war’ (Hebraic for ‘experienced war’) along that route.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 116.

“The Pharaohs used this road for their expeditions to Syria, both during Moses’ time and afterward; it was the most direct link between Egypt and Canaan. Yet God avoided it, since the Philistines were outstanding soldiers, and God did not want His people to lose heart and change their mind when they were attacked by chariots in the open plains and would prove inferior to the Philistines in military equipment.” Gispen, p. 138.

135 “The mention of the Philistines has been used as an argument against the factual accuracy of this narrative; it is claimed that the Philistines did not yet live in the southern coastal plains of Canaan at this time and did not settle there until after 1200 B.C., while the Exodus took place around 1445 B.C. … However, the Philistines were already mentioned in Genesis 26 as living in Canaan, and Gerar was called ‘the land of the Philistines’ in Genesis 21:32, 34. The Philistines are also mentioned in 15:14 and 23:31. Noordtzij has offered plausible reasons why the Egyptian inscriptions before 1200 B.C. are silent about the Philistines. … Excavations, especially those at Gerar, where pottery from the period 2000-1500 B.C. has been found similar to that of the later Philistines, also support Noordtzij’s opinion. It is thus correct to speak here of the land of the Philistines.” Gispen, p. 139.

136 Keil and Delitzsch hold this view, observing that, “The Philistines were very warlike, and would hardly have failed to resist the entrance of the Israelites into Canaan, of which they had taken possession of a very large portion.” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, The Pentateuch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968 [reprint]), II, p. 38.

137 Keil and Delitzsch write that this term “… signifies equipped, … not ‘armed,’ but prepared for the march, as contrasted with fleeing in disorder like fugitives.” Ibid.

138 “… we may well believe they left Egypt with some arms in order to combat resistance at the border fortresses.” Hyatt, p. 149.

“The statement that the Israelites left Egypt ‘armed for battle’ (some think that the word used here is related to the Egyptian word for ‘lance,’ others that it means ‘arranged in battle units,’ …) serves to explain their subsequent readiness to do battle with e.g., Amalek (ch. 17). The Israelites took not only jewelry, but also arms out of Egypt!” Gispen, p. 139.

“The use of this term in Joshua 1:14; 4:12 and Judges 7:11 has led some to suggest the meaning ‘armed’ or perhaps ‘equipped for battle.’ Whether it is approriate to describe the children of Israel as ‘armed’ at this point is doubtful. They, in all probability, did secure some armor from the Egyptians but could not at this point be described as a mobilized army.” Davis, pp. 156, 158.

139 This indicates that the writer was one who knew this area very well, and that it would not be possible for anyone other than Moses to have supplied this information.

140 “The exact locations of these places are unknown …” Cole, p. 118.

141 “The wilderness spoken of here is the desert area lying between Egypt and the Red Sea—not the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula.” Davis, p. 156.

142 “This pillar of cloud and fire is mentioned on several occasions during the wilderness journey, cf. 40:38; Numbers 9:15-23; 14:14; Deuteronomy 1:33; Nehemiah 9:12, 19; Psalms 78:14; 105:39; 1 Corinthians 10:1. This pillar, the proof of the Lord’s presence, expressed His love and care for Israel (cf. Gen. 15:17).” Gispen, p. 140.

143 Cole is disappointingly wishy-washy here, leaning toward the explanation that the pillar was a desert ‘whirlwind.’ Cf. Cole, p. 118. Hyatt (p. 150) includes such possibilities as the tradition of the Arabs of carrying braziers filled with burning wood at the head of an army or caravan to indicate the line of march. He also suggests volcanic activity as a “more probable” explanation.

144 Once again, we don’t know exactly where Migdol, Pi Hahiroth, or Baal-Zephon were located. Cf. Gispen, p. 141.

145 Davis, p. 159.

146 “If Israel encamped by the Sea opposite Baal-Zephon (which lies on the other side), then Pharaoh would think that they were confused or had lost their way, and did not know their way in the wilderness east of Egypt and west of the Red Sea. This was an obvious conclusion from the rather curious route Israel followed. Then the Lord would harden Pharaoh’s heart (cf. 4:21; 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10; 14:8, 17; Josh. 11:20) so that he would pursue Israel, and the final outcome would be that the Lord would gain glory for Himself through Pharaoh and his entire army, so that the Egyptians would know that He was the Lord (cf. e.g., 10:2). Verses 2-4 give us an impression of Pharaoh’s reprobation and of God’s omnipotence (cf. 9:15; Rom. 9:17, 22-23). From a human standpoint this hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was necessary to give Israel complete freedom and to release it from any obligation to return, since Pharaoh had broken his promise. … Pharaoh’s disposition toward Israel, and that of his officials … changed. They were not forced to sin, but made a voluntary choice in the wrong direction. And what was seen in the first chapter was repeated: greed and the desire for gain once again came to the fore, now that the plagues had been gone for a few days. They asked themselves and each other what could have induced them to let their cheap labor go. But the mistake could be corrected.” Gispen, pp. 141-142.

147 Ibid, p. 143.

148 I must, of necessity, point out that there are many attempts made to explain the passing through the sea in terms of natural causes. Davis warns us that, “A very popular view is that the Israelites crossed in a generally shallow and marshy district which could easily have been cleared of water and laid dry by the normal action of a strong wind.” Davis, p. 164.

I believe Gispen’s advice should be taken at this point: “No sound arguments can be brought against the historicity of this event. … We should stay with the text of Exodus for both the fact and their explanation…” Gispen, p. 136.

Another (often related) item of discussion among the scholars pertains to the place from which the Israelites crossed over the “sea”: “Broadly speaking, there are only three possible routes for the exodus, either near the Mediterranean coast (which is unlikely, because of the proximity of the Egyptian outposts) or directly across the Sinai peninsula to Kadesh (which not only seems to conflict with the biblical evidence, but would be very difficult from the point of view of the water supplies), or south to Sinai, and then north to Kadesh (which seems most likely on any score).” Cole, p. 117.

“… I am of the opinion that, even if the Gulf of Suez was still connected with the Bitter Lakes and the Lakes were thus part of the Gulf, the statements in the text more fully agree with a crossing through the Gulf of Suez where it is deeper, thus in the vicinity of present-day Suez. … The biblical data point to the Gulf of Suez, not to the Mediterranean Sea. It would also be difficult to imagine that Solomon’s fleet was stationed on Lake Serbonis (cf. 1 Kings 9:26).” Gispen, p. 137.

149 Davis concludes that while the wind is a ‘natural’ force, this ‘wind’ had to be supernatural: “This writer feels that the best interpretation of the ‘strong east wind’ is to regard it as a supernatural wind rather than a purely natural wind. There are at least four reasons for assuming this view. First, it is doubtful that a purely natural wind would make a ‘wall’ (v. 22). Second, if this wind came from the east (v. 21) it most likely would have walled up the water in the wrong direction; that is, north and south. Third, two walls are mentioned (v. 22) which indicates that the waters were divided by this special wind (cf. v. 16). … Fourth, if this were a natural wind capable of moving enough water so as to provide a depth to drown the Egyptians, could the people have walked through such an area, assuming that a natural wind would have come through the area with tremendous velocity?” Davis, pp. 165-166.

Cole adds, “Winds and fire are often described poetically in the Bible as almost personified messengers of the God who controls them (Ps. 104:4).” Cole, p. 121.

150 “Hebrew yam is a very general word which may be used of a lake, a sea (such as the Mediterranean), a river (such as the Nile, Isa. 19:5) or possibly other bodies of water. However, in Exod. 13:18 a body of water is referred to as the Red Sea, and that is the designation often used in other passages which speak of the crossing of the sea (Exod. 15:4, 22; Dt. 11:4; Jos. 2:10; 4:23; 24:6; Ps. 106:7, 9, 22; Neh. 9:9 etc.). The Hebrew in such passages is yam sup, which means literally ‘sea of reeds,’ or ‘sea of rushes.’ In Exod. 2:3, 5 sup is used of ‘the reeds’ in which Moses was placed. Yam sup could well be rendered ‘Reed Sea.’ The translation of RSV by ‘Red Sea’ is based upon the rendering in LXX, eruthra thalassa, and Vulgate, mare rubrum. In antiquity ‘the Red Sea’ was a general term including the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and perhaps even more. … The OT uses yam sup with more than one meaning. In 1 Kg. 9:26 it clearly refers to the Gulf of Aqaba, and probably also in Num. 21:4; Dt. 2:1. In Num. 33:10 (P) yam sup obviously means the Gulf of Suez, and is distinguished from ‘the sea’ through which the Israelites had passed just after leaving Hahiroth (33:8).” Hyatt, p. 158.

151 It is disappointing to read Cole’s conclusions about the “walls” of water on both sides of the Israelites: “This metaphor is no more to be taken literally than when Ezra 9:9 says that God has given him a ‘wall’ (the same word) in Israel. It is a poetic metaphor to explain why the Egyptian chariots could not sweep in to right and left, and cut Israel off; they had to cross by the same ford, directly behind the Israelites.” Cole, p. 121.

While the Bible often uses metophorical language, it seems to me that Cole is somehow trying too hard to find a phenomenon here that is too ‘natural’ and not enough ‘supernatural.’ Davis writes, “It appears that the basic sense of the use of the word wall (Heb. homah) is to designate a passageway between two generally perpendicular masses. On the basis of the Hebrew text alone, however, it is difficult to determine whether a literal perpendicular wall is necessarily implied. … In the light of the full context, however, preference certainly must be given to the former [perpendicular wall] viewpoint …” Davis, pp. 167-168.

152 “I Samuel 11:11 also mentions this, the last of the three watches, from 2 a.m. to dawn, about 6 a.m. This, the darkest hour before the dawn, was traditionally the time for attack, when men’s spirits are at their lowest.” Cole, p. 122.

153 “The expression ‘took off’ their chariot wheels (v. 25) is a translation of the Hebrew word sur meaning in the Hif’il stem to ‘take away or to remove.’ … The Septuagint, on the other hand, speaks of God ‘clogging their chariot wheels’ an idea which has been carried over into the Revised Standard Version.” Davis, p. 167.

154 I highly recommend that the reader look up the terms “suddenly” and “quickly” in their Bible concordance. You will be impressed with this emphasis on the judgment of God.


8. The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15)


A number of years ago, a child was tragically killed in an accident. The child was the son of the minister of a very liberal church. His funeral was one of the saddest occasions because there was no evidence of a truly Christian faith on the part of those most intimately involved. I will never forget the song that was given as an expression of the young boy’s affirmation of faith. The song was “Zippiddy Doo Dah.”

Israel’s first great affirmation of faith was expressed in a song as well, but a very different kind of song. Some have titled this song, the “Song of the Sea.” Since it is not the only song of Moses (cf. Deut. 32; Psalm 90), this title is definitive enough, linking it to Israel’s passing through the Red Sea, as described in Exodus chapter 14.

The 400 years of the Israelites’ oppression in Egypt which God had foretold Abraham (Gen. 15:13-15) has now ended, fulfilled precisely, to the very day (Exod. 12:40-41).155 The affliction of the Israelites was noted by the God who had covenanted with Abraham to bless him through his offspring and to bring them out of bondage into the land of Canaan. Sending Moses to Pharaoh, God forced this reluctant ruler to release the Israelites through the ten plagues wrought by the hand of Moses. The death of every firstborn male of the Egyptians moved them to urge the Israelites to leave their midst, providing them with gifts of the best of Egypt (Exod. 12:31-36). After the Israelites, Pharaoh and his officials had second thoughts, and with the report which led them to believe that the Israelites were wandering about, lost in the wilderness, they pursued them, up to and even into the Red Sea, where they were destroyed as the waters of the sea returned to their place (Exod. 13:17–14:31).

The deliverance of the Israelites and the defeat of the Egyptians is the occasion for the song which is recorded in Exodus chapter 15. It would appear that Moses wrote this song, which is no surprise in the light of the other songs he has written (Deut. 32; Psalm 90). The mood of the song is triumphant. The song is a description of the power of God as Israel’s defender, as evidenced in the destruction of the Egyptian army and in the deliverance of Israel by means of the Red Sea. The recent victory of God at the Red Sea is seen as a guarantee of the fulfillment of God’s purposes for Israel in the future, especially in the defeat of their enemies and in their possession of the land of Canaan.

The structure of Exodus 15 is straightforward. Verses 1-21 contain the “Song of the Sea.” Verses 22-26 describe the incident at Marah, occasioned by thirst of the Israelites and the bitter water which they found there. Verse 27 records the arrival of the Israelites at Elim, where there was water in abundance.

God’s Victory Over the Egyptians in the Red Sea

Generally speaking, the structure of the “Song of the Sea” is straightforward. The simplest division of the song is two-fold: (1) What God had done for Israel by drowning the Egyptians in the Red Sea (vss. 1-12); (2) What God will therefore surely do for Israel in the future (vss. 13-21). Finer distinctions can be drawn, but there is less agreement as one becomes more detailed in the breakdown of the song.

Moses apparently wrote the song,156 and may have led Israel as they sang it. The first refrain, “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea” (v. 1) is echoed by Miriam,157 who led the women in singing almost the same words and dancing: “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea” (v. 21). While this song was sung corporately as Israel’s expression of praise and thanksgiving for God’s deliverance from Egypt through the Red Sea, verses 1 and 2 express this praise in a personal and singular. The first person pronouns “I” and “my” make the praise here personal.

In typical psalm-like fashion, the acts of God are viewed as evidences of His nature and character. Consequently, the defeat of the Egyptians is described in poetic imagery. God’s deliverance is then viewed in the light of the character of God which is demonstrated in His deliverance.

With dramatic poetic strokes, the event which just occurred in the midst of the Red Sea is described. While natural forces are employed, they are seen as miraculous events, brought about by the direct intervention and involvement of God. The Lord is said to have “hurled the Egyptians into the sea” (v. 4). They sank to the depths158 “like a stone” (v. 5). The winds are described as coming from the “nostrils of God” (v. 8). The waters “congealed” so as to “pile up like a wall” (v. 8). God’s sovereignty is evidenced by His control over the forces of nature (e.g. the winds), and by His ability as the Creator to cause nature to act unnaturally (e.g. the “congealing” of the water, so as to pile up like a wall).

In verses 9 and 10, the sovereignty of God is seen in His ability to prevail, as a mighty warrior (cf. v. 3) over the Egyptians, the mightiest army on the face of the earth. They arrogantly pursued the Israelites, confident of victory (v. 9). In spite of their power and confidence, God simply “blew them away,” causing them to “sink like lead” in the sea (v. 10). The greatest army on the face of the earth was no problem for the God of Israel to dispose of.

Verses 11 and 12 summarize the implications of the mighty acts of God at the Red Sea, focusing upon God’s nature and character: “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders? You stretched out your right hand and the earth swallowed them.” The greatness and the goodness of God are thus recognized by the Israelites as they reflect on God’s victory over their enemies, the Egyptians. What impresses me about the conclusions which this song reveals is that they are the same as those purposes God has already stated in the Book of Exodus. What God intended for His people to learn from the miracles of the exodus is exactly what they concluded, as indicated in the song which they sang.

Before his return to Egypt, God told Moses that Pharaoh would not release the Israelites until He compelled him to “with a mighty hand,” revealed by performing “wonders” among them (Exod. 3:19-20; cf. 6:1). Now, after their passing through the Red Sea, Israel praised God for what His “mighty hand” had done (vss. 6, 9, 12). God revealed through Moses that He was about to “bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt” (Exod. 12:12). Now, after the exodus, Israel proclaims, “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord?” (Exod 15:11). By the exodus, God said that Israel would know He was the Lord their God, who brought them out from under the yoke of the Egyptians (Exod. 6:7). Thus, after the crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites sang, “He is my God, and I will praise him” (Exod 15:2). That which God sought to accomplish in the events of the exodus, He did accomplish, as seen by the praises of His people in this song.

God’s Victory Over the Enemies of Israel in the Future

The first half of the “song of Moses” emphasizes the defeat of Israel’s enemies, the Egyptians. The second half of this song, in verses 13-21, is upon the defeat of those who would oppose Israel in the future. To state the matter differently, the first half of the song dwells on the Egyptians’ defeat, while the second half focuses on Israel’s deliverance, especially that deliverance which was yet to come, the defeat of those enemies who would resist Israel’s possession of the land of Canaan, which God promised He would give them.

The New International Version clearly underscores the shift from the past defeat of the Egyptians to the future defeat of Israel’s enemies by consistently rendering the verbs of verses 13 and following in the future tense.159 Thus, while verses 1-12 have dwelt on God’s past deliverance of His people, verses 13-21 look to His future deliverance of the Israelites.

Rightly, the Israelites saw the plagues and their passing through the Red Sea as a beginning. God did not just promise to release the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, He promised to bring them into the promised land of Canaan. In one sense, the whole exodus event was somewhat of a secondary matter, a means for His people to possess the land of Canaan:

“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them and will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. … And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord’” (Exod. 6:6, 8).

Verse 13 therefore begins with a summary statement of what God is yet to accomplish for His people. Out of His unfailing love, He will lead His people, whom He has just redeemed, into His “holy dwelling.” There is a lack of consensus as to what is meant by the expression “holy dwelling” here. I doubt that it’s primary reference is to the temple (cf. Psalm 92:13), which is, as yet, not an element of Israel’s hope.160 The song could be referring to the promised land of Canaan as God’s “holy dwelling” (cf. Psalm 78:54; Isaiah 11:9). In the light of the promise of God to Abraham that the sign of His presence with Israel would be that Israel would worship God on “this (holy) mountain” (Exod. 3:12; cf. v. 5), the “holy dwelling” may be Mount Sinai. In any case, I believe that the “holy dwelling” of God is a reference to the promised land, whether or not a particular place (either Mt. Sinai or the temple) is also in mind.

The hope expressed in verse 13 will require the defeat of Israel’s enemies, the Canaanites, who will resist their entrance and possession of the land. The means of accomplishing this are viewed as the same as those used to deliver her from Egypt and the Egyptian army. The defeat of Israel’s Canaanite foes is thus described in verses 14-15.161 The defeat of the Canaanites is assured by the defeat of the Egyptians, the most formidable enemy of all. The Canaanites will be more easily overcome because of the terror produced by the report of the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. They will know that the God of Israel is a God of might, a warrior (v. 3), who is able to overcome the enemies of His people.

There is a play on words evident in the second half of the “Song of the Sea,” which takes up some of the same expressions or imagery employed to describe the defeat of the Egyptians and uses them to apply to the defeat of the Canaanites. For example, the Egyptian soldiers were said to have sunk “like a stone” in the Red Sea (15:5). Now, the terrified Canaanites are prophesied to become “as still as a stone” (15:16). As the arm of the Lord enabled Israel to pass through the Red Sea, so the Israelites will pass through their enemies (15:16).

Verses 17 and 18 conclude with a confident affirmation that God will bring His people in to the promised land, where He will plant them on His holy mountain. Perhaps now the reference to the Lord’s sanctuary does refer to the temple. At least this can be the fulfillment in a way that is more specific than Israel anticipated. There, the Lord will reign over His people for ever and ever. The Lord is now seen, for the first time I believe, as Israel’s king. The treaty between God and His people will be delivered to them from Mt. Sinai. The exodus will serve as the basis for that treaty, as the early chapters of Deuteronomy will make clear.

Verses 19 and 20 turn from poetry to prose, but they may still be a part of the song. These verses serve to emphasize the fact that Israel’s hope for the future is directly related to God’s act of deliverance at the Red Sea. Miriam, a prophetess and the sister of Aaron (not to mention Moses, cf. footnote 3), led the women as they repeated the first refrain of the “Song of the Sea,” which must have been quite a feat for a woman who would have had to be around 90 years old. Both the men and the women seemed to have sung their own parts in this marvelous hymn of praise.

The “Song of the Sea” was obviously important to the Israelites who passed through the Red Sea, and who sang it as recorded in our text. It served as a vehicle by means of which they could praise God. It also provided the mechanism for recording and recalling God’s great act of deliverance at the Red Sea. It directed Israel’s attention on the character of God, and it produced hope and confidence in God’s future protection and blessing.

The “Song of the Sea” reveals the great significance the exodus event had for the one who had passed through the sea, but what value does this event have for others? Is the exodus and the passing of Israel through the Red Sea only dull history, unrelated to our lives? Far from it, the exodus is a theme which permeates the remainder of the Old Testament, as well as the New. For saints of every age, the exodus is both a prototype and a prophecy of the future redemption(s) of God. Notice the following allusions to the exodus or to the terminology of the “Song of the Sea”:

(1) The events of the exodus were retold to the next generation of Israelites, as the basis and motivation for their obedience to the Law which God had given (cf. Deut. 4:32-40; 7:17-19).

(2) In the crossing of the Jordan, there is a decided parallel to the crossing of the Red Sea (cf. Josh. 3:14-17).

(3) The story of Israel’s exodus and portions of the “Song of the Sea” are frequently quoted in the Psalms.162

(4) Throughout the Book of Isaiah, as well as in some of the other prophets, the deliverance of Israel from its bondage in Egypt was likened to the deliverance of Israel and Judah from their Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. Thus, either by a direct reference or by an allusion, the exodus is constantly drawn upon as a symbol and source of hope for Israel’s future deliverance.163

(5) The exodus was, in the Old Testament prophets and in the New Testament gospels, a prototype of the greatest redemption of all, the redemption of men’s souls from bondage to sin, which was accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ, the lamb of God (cf. Luke 9:31, where the “departure” which Jesus was discussing with His disciples was literally His “exodus”).

(6) In the Book of Revelation, the deliverance of Israel (as depicted in the “Song of the Sea”) was seen as typical or symbolic of the deliverance of the tribulation saints (Rev. 15:1-4).

Biblical history is not written to bore us with irrelevant details. It is written in order to provide our faith with historical roots. Israel’s hope regarding the future (Exod. 15:13-21) was rooted in their experience in history, through the plagues and their passing through the Red Sea. So, too, our future hope is based upon God’s actions in the past, both in our experience, and in the experience of those who have lived (and experienced the hand of God) before us. The Old Testament is therefore a rich source of faith-building history, which assures us of what God can do, based upon our knowledge of what God has already done. This assumes, of course, that we read the Old Testament with the “eyes of faith,” believing that these events did happen, as they were described.

The “Song of the Sea” and the exodus experience which it describes is an excellent illustration of a principle which is taught in the New Testament:

And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us (Rom. 5:2b-5).

Here, Paul is teaching us that the joy of the Christian remains, and even grows, in the midst of trials and tribulation. The more difficult things become, the more our faith is put to the test. The more our tested faith proves to be legitimate and living faith, the more hope we have for the future. It is the testing of tribulation and trials which shows that our faith is much more than a “fair weather faith,” thus giving us even greater confidence in the future.

Israel came to know God in a greater way as a result of the trials and testings that they experienced in Egypt and in the wilderness. We, too, come to know God more intimately and more fully in the midst of the trials which He leads us through. And when we “pass through” these trials, we look to the future fulfillment of God’s promises as even more certain, having experienced His faithfulness in the tough times of our lives.

The “Song of the Sea” which the Israelites sang also serves to remind us that our security and hope are ultimately dependent upon the character of God. While their song described the deeds of God in the destruction of their enemies, the song points to the character of God which His actions point to. God’s greatness, goodness, and faithfulness are the basis for our faith and our hope. Ultimately, we trust a person for his character, and not for his abilities. God is both able and willing to help us in our time of need. The God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New, and because He does not change (Jas. 1:17), we can trust in His character as demonstrated in the lives of the saints of old.

Israel’s Protests at the Waters of Marah

The “Song of the Sea” was not written to be sung but once. Perhaps the Israelites continued to sing this song as they traveled on their way from the shores of the Red Sea, entering into the Desert of Shur. For three days they found no water. This does not mean they had no water to drink, but their supplies would have been limited, and they would have had to ration them carefully. The people were no doubt anxious about their water supply as they came to Marah.

Sighting the waters at Marah must have brought great rejoicing to the Israelites. Their thirst, they thought, would be quenched, their cattle could be watered, and their reserves replenished. What a disappointment it must have been to discover that the waters were bitter, and thus unfit for consumption. Their joy at discovering water turned quickly to anger at Moses for leading them to such a place. How could Moses have bungled this matter so badly? They did not hesitate to place the responsibility for this blunder squarely on the shoulders of their leader—Moses. They demanded that he come up with a solution.

Moses cried out to the Lord, who showed him a piece of wood, which he cast into the water, causing it to become sweet. No one knows of any wood which could produce the result which is here described. The transformation of the waters of Marah (which means “bitter,” cf. Ruth 1:20) was a miracle. The casting of the wood into the water must have been a symbolic act, like Moses raising his staff over the waters of the Red Sea.

The incident at Marah was divinely designed as a test of Israel’s faith (v. 25), and as a teaching tool (v. 26). By Israel’s protest against Moses, the people had revealed their lack of faith and hardness of heart. They were deserving of the same plagues which God had brought upon the Egyptians. If the Israelites would obey Him (which, I take it, meant to obey the leadership of Moses) God would keep the plagues of Egypt from falling upon them. If they persisted in protesting against Moses’ leadership, the inference is that God would plague His people as He had done to the Egyptians. God does not tolerate disobedience and unbelief, either in the Egyptians or in His people. Just as the Lord “healed” the bitter waters of Marah, making them sweet, so He would be Israel’s healer, if they would but obey.

Having brought this message home to the Israelites, God led them on to Elim, where there was an ample supply of water. Here they camped, and gained needed refreshment from the water of the springs and the shade of the trees (v. 27).


While this chapter appears to have two very distinct accounts, there is good reason for the fact that Moses has placed them side by side. The “Song of the Sea” and the “bitter waters of Marah” are contrasting accounts, but accounts which have a direct relationship to each other. Two observations are crucial to our understanding the relationship between the praises of Israel in the “Song of the Sea” (vss. 1-21) and the protests of Israel at Marah (vss. 22-26).

(1) The Israelites failed to see the relationship between the affirmation of their faith in their worship (vss. 1-21) and the application of their faith in their daily walk (vss. 22-26). Israel had just proclaimed her faith in God as her warrior (15:3), but she was unable to trust in God as her waterer (15:22-26). That God could handle a problem with the water at Marah should not come as any surprise. After all, God had delivered Israel and destroyed the Egyptians by means of His control of the water in the Red Sea. The winds (which the song describes as coming from the breath of God, vss. 8, 10) caused the waters to part. God was able to make the waters congeal, so that there were walls of water on both sides of the Israelites (cf. v. 8). God caused the waters to close in upon the Egyptian army, drowning them all. If God could deal with the waters of the Red Sea, surely He could be trusted to deal with the waters of Marah. Israel should have been able to apply the faith she affirmed in the “Song of the Sea” to her dilemma at the waters of Marah, but she did not.

Lest we become unnecessarily perturbed at the Israelites for their lack of faith, and become a little proud of ourselves, let me suggest that the problem which Israel illustrates is also one of the greatest problems of Christians in every age, including our own. We often fail to apply our faith in God, resulting from one event, to another event which is virtually identical. For example, the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:30-44) should have taught the disciples to trust in the Lord Jesus to feed the multitudes, and yet shortly after this great miracle, the disciples failed to apply their faith to the matter of feeding the 4,000 (Mark 8:1-10).

When we gather to worship God, we do not sing the “Song of the Sea” but we do sing many hymns and choruses which express our faith in God. We sing, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” and then go our ways fretting and worrying about the petty details of our lives, as though God was not faithful at all. We sing, “It Is Well With My Soul,” but when some little irritation comes along, our faith flounders. We sing, “O, for a Thousand Tongues,” and then, when someone makes fun of our faith, we are tongue-tied and cannot find any words to say concerning our faith.

The point is simply this. It is a great deal easier to affirm our faith in public worship than it is to apply our faith in our daily walk. Here is the real crunch. Here is where the rubber meets the road. It is not that we need to worship less, it is that we must apply in our daily walk those truths which we affirm in our worship. Just as God led the Israelites to the waters of Marah, so He leads us in such a way as to give us ample opportunity to apply our faith, or at least to reveal our lack of faith.

One of the contributing factors to our failure to apply our faith in our daily walk is that we tend to create false distinctions between those areas which are sacred (church, public worship) and those which are secular (work, daily living). The result is that we think of our faith as relevant to our “devotional” activities, but not to our daily activities. It is my contention that God distinguishes between those matters which are holy and those which are profane, but not between those matters which are sacred and those which are secular. A more careful look at the Law of Moses will reveal that Israel’s faith was to govern and guide them in the minute details of their (secular) lives.

(2) Not only did Israel fail to apply their faith to their situation at Marah, they failed to even see the problem as being spiritual. In the text we read that the Israelites protested against Moses, not against God (v. 24). They demanded that Moses produce water for them, they did not cry to God for water. It is my contention that they did not see their circumstances as demanding a “spiritual” solution, but only as demanding a “secular” solution. At least when the Israelites were trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea they cried out to God for help (before they began to grumble against Moses, cf. 14:10-12). Here, at Marah, they immediately confronted Moses, and ignored God altogether.

Ironically, the Israelites forgot that the pillar of cloud was still guiding them (cf. 13:21-22), and that God Himself was present with them in the cloud. If they were wrongly led, God led them wrongly by the cloud. Imagine the protests of the Israelites, while the cloud hovered over the waters of Marah. The Israelites failed to understand that if God promised to bring them safely out of Egypt and into the land of Canaan, any obstacle which would hinder or prevent them was one with which God was concerned, and which He could overcome. They failed to see bitter water as a matter about which God would be concerned, but He was concerned because water was necessary to preserve His people.

At the Red Sea, Israel should have learned that God was able to overcome any obstacle (such as the Red Sea, which He parted) or any opponent (such as the Egyptians, which He drowned in the Red Sea—the obstacle). Thus, while the Israelites sang that God was going to overcome their opponents (the Canaanites), they did not grasp the fact that He would also overcome all the obstacles to their entrance into Canaan (such as the bitter waters of Marah).

How often we fall into the very same trap. We view God as being concerned only with the big problems of life, those which appear to be spiritual. But anything which hinders our growth, our sanctification, or our ability to do what He has purposed is a matter about which He is concerned, and which He is able to overcome. Frequently, when we encounter a problem in our lives, we do not even consider that it is something about which God is intimately concerned. We immediately begin to turn to secular solutions, without seeking God’s solution.

One reason why we fail to view our problems as an occasion for faith is that we have become accustomed to living by scientific principles rather than spiritual principles. The scientific method is a good method—for matters of science. But it is incompatible when it comes to matters of faith. Here, the scientific method must be set aside (not scrapped, but set aside). Scientific principles are essential for scientific purposes. One does not, for example, design an airplane, load it full of people, and hope that it flies. It must pass a rigorous series of tests and be proven functional and reliable.

The scientific method requires that every scientific fact be proven, being performed under controlled conditions, having hard empirical evidence, and being repeatable, time after time. In order for one to accept the account of the Red Sea on scientific grounds, the depth of the sea would have had to have been measured, the velocity of the winds calculated, and all other variables considered. In order to prove that this was something scientifically verifiable, the parting of the sea would have to be repeated time after time. And after being scientifically proven, one could only predict that the event would happen again if it were repeated under identical conditions. Any change in any variable would cause the scientist to question the possibility of repeating the phenomenon under different conditions.

The spiritual method is different. The spiritual method observes what God has done, accepting the event on face value, governed and qualified by the divine revelation which accompanies the phenomenon. The spiritual method then views the event as a manifestation of the character of God. On the basis of God’s character (as consistent with biblical descriptions of His character elsewhere), the Christian then looks at any future circumstance as an opportunity for God to act in such a way as to achieve His purposes by overcoming both obstacles (like the Red Sea, or the hardness of men’s hearts) and opponents (like Satan, the antichrist, or the armies of men who have been deceived and used by Satan). Variations in conditions do not change the character of God, nor do they pose a problem to the God who is all-powerful.

The reason why we fail to see many circumstances as occasions that require a spiritual solution (and therefore require faith as well) is because we are using the scientific method of reasoning, rather than the spiritual method of reasoning, which reasons according to God’s revealed will and in accordance with the character of God, as demonstrated in history.

As we come to the conclusion of the message, let me attempt to apply this text to a current problem, which I shall call the “charismatic problem.” Many contemporary charismatics are inclined to think and to teach that life can and will be lived on the spiritual mountain tops. Thus, we should expect the Israelites to continually experience the euphoria and optimism of the “Song of the Sea.” Such is not the case, however. God did not allow the Israelites to stay by the sea, singing their glorious song. He did not keep them on the mountain. Instead, God led the Israelites into the desert, allowed them to be thirsty, and gave them bitter water. This adverse situation tested the faith and endurance of the Israelites, and provided the occasion for God to teach His people an important lesson. Expecting to live the Christian life on a continuous high is not only unrealistic, it is unbiblical. Thank God for the times of victory and elation, but do not expect things to stay this way forever.

Now a word to my non-charismatic reader. While we often accuse our charismatic brethren of expecting the miraculous and the ecstatic to be the norm, we often have become content to expect that things will always happen according to natural laws and practices, so that we expect miracles not to happen. God is not obliged to work a miracle for our benefit, but He is able to do so, and He sometimes does do so. The Israelites saw the miraculous hand of God at work in their passing through the Red Sea, and they expected His hand to work mightily and miraculously as they entered into the land of Canaan to possess it. We, on the other hand, have convinced ourselves that we ought not expect the miraculous.

The conversion of souls is a miracle. If we do not look for God to work in miraculous ways, we may as well stop witnessing and trying to evangelize the lost. The process of sanctification as well as the manifestation of the Spirit in the lives of the saints for ministry is a miracle, and we dare not seek to serve the Lord without asking for His miraculous power to do so.

Frankly, I do not know which is worse—thinking miracles should be the rule, or thinking that miracles have been ruled out—but there must be a balance. The exodus event is a manifestation of God’s miraculous might, employed to achieve His purposes and to fulfill His promises. The Israelites saw the miracle of God accomplished in the past as a guarantee of His intervention in the future. May God give us the faith to look for (but not demand) the miraculous in our lives, when it is required to accomplish the purposes and promises of God.

If you have not personally come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, then you have not experienced the miracle of being born again, of having your sins forgiven, your guilt removed, and of the joy of fellowship with God and the hope of heaven. It is only when you experience this miracle of conversion that you will look for the miraculous hand of God to work in your life in the future.

155 The reason for the difference between the 400 years given in Genesis 15 and the 430 years given in Exodus 12 is easily explained. God spoke of 400 years of oppression in Genesis 15. During the lifetime of Joseph, the Israelites were not persecuted, and thus Moses writes in Exodus that Israel departed from Egypt 430 years after they had arrived. The difference of 30 years is therefore the time which Israel spent in Egypt in the favor of the Pharaoh who exalted Joseph (cf. Exod. 1:8-9).

156 I have worded this statement carefully because there is no clear statement that Moses actually wrote this song. It is, however, rather strongly implied. Moses and Miriam are the two prominent leaders in Israel’s worship. Both Moses and Miriam are prophets of God, who can give inspired utterance (Exod. 15:20; Num. 12:6-8). This song is sung by the victorious tribulation saints in Revelation 15, where it is called the “song of Moses” (Rev. 15:3). We can, I believe, safely infer that Moses is the author of this song. The motivation for rejecting the Mosaic authorship of the “Song of the Sea” is the belief that some, if not all, of this song was written considerably later than the time of the exodus. The primary reason appears to be the “prophecies” of verses 13 and following, which they choose to view as history, described after the event.

157 It is interesting that Miriam is referred to as “Aaron’s sister” (v. 20), and not as the sister of Moses. On the basis of this statement, some have suggested that Aaron and Miriam had the same father as Moses, but that Moses was the child of another wife. Others, perhaps more reasonably, have understood that this choice of words emphasized the prominence and position of Moses, even though he was the youngest of the three.

158 Davis reminds us that the description of the waters of the Red Sea is not consistent with the drying up of any shallow body of water: “The poetic description of Pharaoh’s defeat further substantiates the concept of a crossing where the water was relatively deep. In verse 5 it speaks of the ‘depths’ having covered the Egyptian army. The Hebrew word for depths … usually carries the sense of oceanic depths, the sea, or an abyss.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 174.

159 This is done even when the verb is actually a past tense. The reason for this is that the past tense is often used to describe a future event, which is certain due to the promise or prophecy of God (this is called, by the grammarians, a “prophetic perfect”). The future is so certain it can be described as already having occurred. In our idiom we would say, “It is as good as done.”

160 Those who would argue for a late dating of this song would argue that the temple is in mind here.

161 It is evident that the utter terror of Israel’s foes, which will cause them to “melt away in terror and dread” (15:15) is not as complete as is here envisioned. That the enemies of Israel did fear is clear from the words of Rahab to the Israeli spies in Joshua 2:9-11 (cf. also Josh. 2:24; 5:1; Deut. 2:25). Nevertheless, the Canaanites did resist Israel, in a way that seems inconsistent with the optimism of this song (cf. Num. 14:14-21; 20:18ff.; 21:4; 22:2ff.; Deut. 2:1, 3, 8). There are at least two possible explanations. First, the text of the song does not speak of immediate and total defeat, but of the fear of Israel which the exodus produced. The fierce resistance of the Canaanites was motivated, no doubt, by this fear. Secondly, Israel’s delay in entering the land would tend to minimize the impact of the Red Sea event. Had Israel attempted to take the land sooner, the defeat of the Egyptians would have had a greater psychological effect on Israel’s enemies.

162 Gispen supplies us with this list of citations from the “Song of the Sea” in the Psalms: “v. 1, cf. Pss. 66:6; 68:18; 106:12; v. 2, cf. Ps. 118:14, 21, 28; v. 3, cf. Ps. 24:8; v. 4, cf. Ps. 136:15; vv. 5-17, cf. Ps. 78:52-54; vv. 5-13, cf. Ps. 77:14-21; vv. 5-10, cf. Ps. 106:11; v. 7, cf. Ps. 78:49; v. 8, cf. Ps. 78:13; v. 11, cf. Pss. 66:3, 5; 78:4, 12; 86:8; vv. 13-17, cf. Pss. 44:2, 4; 74:2; v. 17, cf. Ps. 80:9, 16; v. 18, cf. Ps. 146:10.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 146.

163 The following are just a few of the passages in Isaiah and other prophets which are dependent upon the exodus account or exodus terminology: Isa. 12 (compare v. 2 with Exodus 15:2); Isa. 43:1-3a, 14-21; 44:24-28; 50:2-3; 51:9-11; 52:3-6, 11-12; Jer. 16:14f.; 23:7f. Hosea (takes up on the theme of Egypt) 7:16; 8:13; 9:3, 6; 11:5, 11.

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9. Boot Camp and “C” Rations (Exodus 16)


This week, one of my friends reminded me of the newspaper account of a Brinks armored truck, which was loaded with money which was nearly worn out and was on its way to be destroyed. The truck was involved in some kind of traffic accident, the result of which was that the doors flew open and the money was scattered in the intersection. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to visualize what happened. People jumped out of their cars, which they left to block the traffic, and frantically ran about, trying to gather as much money as they could hold.

Naturally, none of us would have done such a thing. Well, at least none of you would. But I would. One Christmas Eve, my younger brother and I had run to our neighborhood Safeway store to purchase some last minute provisions. We wanted to be sure to get what we needed, knowing that the stores would soon close for Christmas. When we got to the checkout counter, my brother overheard the checker telling a customer that all the bread which was on the shelves was free for the taking, since it would be too old to sell after Christmas.

Besides my brother and I, several other customers heard the good news, and began to work their way over to the breads. They walked slowly, and they picked through the bread, being careful to take only a loaf or two. Not so with us. We grabbed a couple empty shopping carts and began sweeping loaves of bread into them, starting of course with the expensive specialty breads. Fortunately, we had come in my van, which we loaded with bread. Calling friends and relatives, we shared the blessing of the free bread.

These stories of human greed may strike you as amusing, but they are also relevant to the account of God’s provision of manna for the Israelites in the wilderness, described in Exodus chapter 16. Having run out of food in the desert, so that the Israelites feared they would starve to death, one can only imagine the zeal with which they harvested the first provision of manna. There was enough manna, it would seem, for every Israelite to have filled his tent with it. From the account it appears that some tried, only to discover that it would not keep, turning foul and wormy. The efforts to hoard the provision of manna was in direct disobedience to God’s instructions. Their greed, like mine, and yours (admit it, you would have been trying to out maneuver me at that Safeway store), was evidenced in their attempt to hoard a surplus supply of manna, so that they could feel secure about the future.

In the passage which we will be studying in this message, Israel is guilty of two sins: greed and grumbling. We discover that both of these sins are symptomatic of an even more serious underlying sin. It is that sin which is characterized, and which God works to cure, in our text.

The background of God’s provision of manna for His people is to be found in the final verses of the previous chapter. Not finding water for three days, the Israelites came upon the waters of Marah, which they were unable to drink because they were bitter. The people initially cried out to God, and then began to grumble against Moses. They demanded to know what they were to drink. The Lord first made provision for the sweetening of the bitter waters of Marah (which means bitter), and then He spoke these words: “If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you” (Exod. 15:26).

God’s words suggest to me that there is a relationship between the plagues which are brought upon the Egyptians and the sweetening of the waters at Marah. For all intents and purposes, the “bitter” waters of Marah were as useless to the Israelites as the “bloody” water of the Nile after the first plague was brought upon Egypt. The Egyptians were plagued by God because they failed to heed the instruction of God to “Let His people go.” When God’s command to the Egyptians was disobeyed, the plagues ensued. Now, God is laying down commands to His people, the Israelites. If they disregard His commands, they will be plagued, just as the Egyptians were. The response of Israel to the bitter waters at Marah reveals that the Israelites are sinful, too. God’s commands will be given to His people to test them.164 To fail to obey will be to invite His judgments on them.

While God’s statement to Israel is a general command to them, the first of the “commands and decrees” which God refers to here are given in chapter 16.165 These commands are God’s instructions regulating the gathering and use of the manna which He is about to provide for His people. It is these commands which serve as a test of Israel’s faith and obedience. It is these same commands which serve to strengthen Israel’s faith and to teach His people to obey Him.

After the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai and Israel’s failure to possess the promised land, Israel’s wilderness wanderings are a part of her judgment, due to her unbelief. But here, at the beginning of Israel’s journey from Egypt toward Canaan, the time spent in the wilderness is not disciplinary (the result of her sin), but didactic (intended to instruct), an occasion for teaching Israel the necessity of faith and obedience. Chapters 16 and 17 describe God’s “boot camp” for Israel. Keeping God’s commands and decrees pertaining to the gathering and use of manna will teach God’s people to trust and obey.

Growling Stomachs and Grumbling Saints

A month passed between the time Israel departed from Egypt to the time when the nation reached the Wilderness of Sin.166 Water had already been a problem (cf. 15:22-26), and now they had run out of food.167 Their growling stomachs soon produced grumbling lips. The whole assembly grumbled against Moses and Aaron (16:2). They said they would rather have died in Egypt than to have been brought out into the desert to starve to death (16:3).

Characteristics of Israel’s Grumbling

Before we consider God’s response to the grumblings of His people, it may be worthwhile to point out some of the characteristics of Israel’s grumbling in this incident. Very likely, we will find that grumbling was not only a problem then, but that it is also a problem in our lives as well.

(1) Grumbling is a problem with pain or problems. Grumbling almost never occurs when we are experiencing pleasure, but nearly always when we are in pain. In our passage, there is a definite relationship between the Israelites’ growling stomachs and their grumbling lips. We grumble because we do not like the pain or the discomfort of the situation we are in. We grumble because we think that we should experience pleasure rather than pain, affluence and ease rather than adversity and deprivation.

(2) Grumbling is a problem of perception. Grumbling results from a difference between the way we perceive things to be and the way we think they should be. The problem is that when we grumble our perception of how things are is distorted. Grumbling invariably distorts the facts. In our text, Israel greatly exaggerated the benefits of Egypt. They said they “sat” (v. 3) by their flesh pots, and that they ate “all they wanted” of a great variety of foods and meat. This is, quite frankly, hard to believe. If the Egyptians made them gather their own straw and were attempting to kill boy babies, why would they be concerned to feed the Israelites so well? Also, their perception of their own imminent danger of starvation was greatly exaggerated. They believed that their hunger was starvation. No one had yet starved; at best, a few had begun to feel hunger. Worst of all, perhaps, they accused Moses of leading them into the wilderness in order to kill them. Their perception of Moses’ motivation was entirely distorted. Finally, Israel’s perception of God’s care and compassion is minimized to grotesque proportions. They failed to perceive the loving hand of a sovereign God in their sufferings.

(3) Grumbling is a problem of submission. The Israelites grumbled against their leaders, Moses and Aaron. The people had forgotten that it was God who was leading them, not only by Moses, but also by the cloud which was before them (cf. Exod. 13:21-22; 16:10). Ultimately, then, Israel’s grumbling was a protest against God’s leadership, as Moses pointed out (16:7-8).

(4) Grumbling is a sin of the tongue, which is closely related to disobedience. Grumbling occurs when we can’t control our situation. Disobedience occurs when we have an option and we choose to do other than that which God has commanded.

(5) Grumbling is a communicable disease. We are told in verse 2 that, “the whole community grumbled …” I would suggest that the grumbling of a handful of people spread into the epidemic plague of the grumbling of the whole congregation. Grumbling is not only a malady of the mouth, it is a malady which is spread by the mouth.

(6) Grumbling is the result of a failure in our faith. Grumbling is a sin, but it is a symptomatic sin. It reveals a lack of faith, for the grumbler does not see that good hand of God, refuses to accept the adversity, and sees disaster rather than blessing as the outcome of their circumstances. In fact we can go farther and say that grumbling is allowing our present circumstances to nullify our confidence in God’s purposes and promises.

God’s Response to Israel’s Grumbling

Knowing that Israel’s grumbling was the result of her lack of faith, God responded to it in a way which I would not expect. Later on, the grumbling of the Israelites resulted in some painful chastisement. The difference between God’s response to Israel’s grumblings here in Exodus 16 and His more severe dealings in Numbers 11 is explained, I believe, by the difference in time spent with God in the wilderness. Here, the Israelites have spent but one month following God, and are relatively immature in their faith. Later on, God’s Law has been given, and His faithfulness to Israel has been repeatedly demonstrated.

Consequently, God responded gently and graciously to the grumblings of the Israelites. Rather than to rebuke them for their complaining, He did two things, both of which were intended to demonstrate His presence with His people in their affliction and adversity. First, He revealed His glory to the Israelites by some special manifestation of Himself in the cloud by which He had been leading them (16:10). Second, God provided His people with quail168 and with manna (16:11-14).

The Nature of God’s Provision of Manna

As usual, there are many who attempt to demonstrate that the manna which was provided for the Israelites was not miraculous at all.169 This is very difficult to believe in the light of what the text tells us about the manna which God provided for His people.

(1) The manna which God provided appears to be very nutritious, as would be required for desert rations. Israel was given nourishment and energy for the rigorous task of desert travel. It may not have had the most exciting flavor, or at least the Israelites eventually tired of it, asking for something more spicy (cf. Numbers 11:4-9).

(2) The manna which God provided could be prepared in different ways. It could be baked or boiled (v. 23).

(3) The manna was not necessarily the only item which constituted Israel’s diet.170

(4) The manna was provided in abundance, so much so that limits had to be placed on how much was gathered (cf. vss. 13-21).

(5) The manna was miraculously provided. It was “rained down from heaven” (v. 4). It was like nothing the Israelites had ever seen before (v. 15). It appeared every morning, except on the Sabbath. At the end of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness it ceased falling (Joshua 5:12).

(6) The manna appeared in the morning and disappeared in the heat of the day.

(7) The manna would not keep, except over the Sabbath.

(8) Some of the manna was miraculously preserved, as a memorial of God’s provision for future generations (vss. 31-36).171

God’s Regulations Regarding Manna

When God provided the Israelites with this “bread from heaven” (16:4), He also gave instructions as to how this bread was to be gathered and used. These instructions were intended to test the Israelites as well as to teach them obedience and increase their faith. We will therefore review these instructions briefly and then consider their role in promoting Israel’s faith.

(1) Israel was to gather only what was required for that day (v. 16).

(2) It would appear that every Israelite was required to gather manna for his own needs (v. 16).

(3) Manna was to be gathered daily, and only enough for that day was to be gathered. Any excess from that day was to be disposed of at the end of the day (v. 19). In other words, manna could not be stored up or hoarded.

(4) Israel was to gather twice as much on the sixth day, and to gather none on the Sabbath (vss. 23-26).

The Meaning of the Manna

God was not imposing needless rules and regulations on the Israelites, as we sometimes accuse our government of doing today. God’s rules always have reasons. The purpose of God’s provision of manna and for His exacting rules regarding its collection and use, can be best understood in the light of the rest of the Bible, beginning with the Book of Deuteronomy and ending in the Book of Revelation. I will briefly survey the major references to manna in these texts, and then summarize their relevance to our lives today.

The temptation of our Lord (Matt. 4:1-4; cf. Deut. 8:1-3). Israel was led into the wilderness to be tested by God for forty years (Deut. 8:2). Our Lord was led of God into the wilderness to be tested (including hunger also) for forty days (Matt. 4:1-2). At the end of the forty day period, Satan approached our Lord to tempt Him. The first attempted temptation172 centered around food. Since our Lord was hungry after His forty day fast, it seemed only logical that He should eat. Satan challenged Him to prove His deity by satisfying His human need for food, doing so by the exercise of His divine power.

Our Lord’s answer was to refer Satan to Deuteronomy chapter 8, which was a theological reflection of incidents such as that recorded in Exodus chapter 16. The lesson drawn from Deuteronomy 8 was that one’s physical needs are secondary to one’s spiritual responsibilities—namely to be obedient to the will of God. Our Lord’s hunger, like Israel’s, was the will of God. To satisfy the physical need for food and, at the same time, to disobey God’s will, was wrong. In point of fact, Jesus was saying that obedience to the will of God is more life-saving for a hungry man than is the eating of bread. Obedience to the will of God is the basis for survival, and is of higher priority than the act of eating. The pertinent principle is this: Submission to the will of God is more important than the satisfaction of our physical, bodily, needs.

Think about this principle as it helps us to understand our study of the Book of Exodus. Egypt was the bread basket of the world, both in the days of Joseph, and in the days of Moses. When Pharaoh, his officers, and the Egyptians disobeyed the command of the Lord to “let His people go” that “bread basket” was virtually emptied. The plagues show the progressive agricultural and economic devastation of that nation. Thus, disobedience to the will of God brought the Egyptians to physical hunger.

On the other hand, the barren desert was no place to find food, but because the Israelites obeyed God and followed Moses and the guiding cloud, God provided the hungry Israelites with a bumper crop of manna, six out of every seven mornings, for forty years. Disobedience turned a bread basket into an empty basket. Obedience turned a barren wilderness into a breadbasket. Submission to the will of God is of higher priority than the meeting of our physical needs.

The words of our Lord’s prayer in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:11). Our Lord taught His followers to pray, “Give us today our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). Given the backdrop of God’s daily provision of manna in the wilderness for forty years, it is almost impossible to conceive of this prayer being unrelated to the purpose of the giving of the manna in Exodus 16. I would suggest to you that the divine daily provision of manna in the wilderness taught the Israelites to look daily to God for their daily sustenance. The Israelites had to trust God very literally for their “daily bread.” Those of us who are not living “hand-to-mouth” need to look to God as the source of our life, whether or not we have a supply of food adequate for the week. Dependence is a daily matter, and our prayers should demonstrate this kind of dependence. Whether or not we have a surplus of goods is not the issue, so much as on whom or what we have our sense of dependence. As Paul instructed Timothy, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim. 6:17).

The feeding of the five thousand and the resulting discussion and discourse (John 6). The crowds had followed our Lord to a desolate place (dare I say a wilderness? cf. Mark 6:35), where there was no food available. Our Lord gave them bread and meat (fish) to eat, just as God had given the Israelites bread and meat (quail) in the wilderness in Exodus 16. The response of the crowd was to look to the Lord Jesus to become a “meal ticket” for them for the rest of their days: “Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread” (John 6:34). In response, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe” (John 6:35-36).

Jesus not only fed the 5,000 to meet their physical needs, He sought to show them their spiritual needs, which He had come to supply. Like the manna in the wilderness, which saved the lives of the Israelites from physical death, He was the “bread of heaven” (a play on words which goes back to the manna which God “rained down from heaven,” Exod. 16:4). Unlike the “bread from heaven” which God gave the Israelites (the manna), the new “Bread from heaven” would give men eternal life. Jesus was not only claiming to be bread, but to be better bread.

If the parallel is not clear enough, we find that just as the Israelites grumbled in the context of the manna which God gave in Exodus 16 (and later on, cf. Num. 11, esp. v. 6), so, too the Israelites grumbled about our Lord as the “bread from heaven”: At this the Jews began to grumble about Him because He said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:41). The New Testament therefore shows us that the “bread of heaven” is the instrument of God’s salvation. The former “bread of heaven” preserved men’s physical lives. The final “bread of heaven” is Him who saves men's souls from eternal death. This He has done by giving His life as a sacrifice. It is no wonder that one of the two symbols present at the Lord’s Table which we partake of each Sunday is bread.

The teaching of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 and 2 Corinthians 8:14-15. The Corinthian church was a self-indulgent church. There were those living in sexual immorality (cf. 1 Cor. 6). The church even condoned a man living with his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5). Not only was the church self-indulgent in matters of their sexual appetites, they were also self-indulging in the area of food. Rather than to abstain from certain foods for the benefit of a weaker brother, some of the Corinthians indulged in the sumptuous meals which were related to pagan worship and sacrifice (cf. 1 Cor. 10:14-33). Even at the Lord’s table, some did not have sufficient self-control to wait for those who had to come later (1 Cor. 11:17-34). In taking a public role in the worship meeting of the church, many indulged themselves to the exclusion of others, depriving the church of edification (1 Cor. 14).

Paul speaks to the Corinthian self-indulgence by turning their attention back to the exodus of the Israelites:

For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them, God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. And do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.” Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer (1 Cor. 10:1-10).

I would suggest that while there is much more referred to here than just the events of Exodus chapter 16, there is a common theme, a common element—that of self-indulgence in matters of the physical appetites. That is why the verses immediately preceding this section pertain to the self-discipline required of the Christian (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-27).

The manna which God provided in abundance in the wilderness provided the Israelites with the opportunity of over-indulging, but God’s commands pertaining to the harvesting and use of it prohibited such excesses. The manna was thus given to give God’s people a lesson in self-restraint. When Paul refers to the “spiritual food” of the Israelites, he does so in the context of self-control, and no wonder. That is what manna was all about—self-control.

The warnings and promises to the church at Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17). The church at Pergamum had fallen into an error which our Lord referred to as “the teaching of Balaam” (v. 14). We know from the context that this involved “things sacrificed to idols,” and “acts of immorality,” the very same evils as were present in the Corinthian church (see above). To those who were faithful and would be overcomers, our Lord gave this promise, “To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna” (Rev. 2:17).

I would like to suggest that our Lord is promising His “hidden manna,” that is His provision of the inner needs (not just physical needs) of those who were faithful, and who exercised the self-control necessary to deny the fleshly lusts which were being peddled by the false teachers referred to as the “teaching of Balaam.”


From the New Testament references to the manna of the Israelites, I would suggest that several principles were being taught in the provision of this “bread from heaven” which are just as applicable to Christian living today as they were for the Israelites.

(1) Manna teaches us the priority of submission to the revealed will of God. The great danger which Israel faced was not starvation in the midst of a wilderness, but the wrath of God. God could make a breadbasket into an empty basket, as He had just done to the Egyptians. God could also turn a desert into a breadbasket, as He did with the manna. As the closing verses of Exodus chapter 15 reveal, Israel’s reaping of God’s blessings and her healing from Egypt’s judgments are dependent upon her careful obedience to the commands and decrees of God. It is our response to the revealed will of God that results in either life or death, blessing or judgment.

This points out the importance of our Lord’s self-revelation as the “bread of heaven.” Our Lord came from heaven to save men from the divine wrath of God, which we all deserve. God offers healing to all who will accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, as the one who died in their place, and who bore the penalty for their sins. Just as God’s provision of manna, the “bread from heaven” was not “steak and ale,” it was the only means God had provided for her life. So, too, Jesus Christ is God’s only provision as the “bread from heaven” whom we must partake of in a personal way, if we are to be delivered from the wrath of God. Obedience to the revealed word of God is a matter of life and death.

(2) Obedience to the will of God is diametrically opposed to the self-indulgent orientation of our culture. Obedience to the word of God therefore requires self-denial and self-discipline. Few cultures have been more oriented toward self-indulgence and self-fulfillment than our own. In this sense, our culture is diametrically opposed to the Word of God. The self-sacrifice of our Lord (cf. Philippians 2:5-8) is the pattern for every saint, who must “take up his cross daily” to follow Christ (Luke 9:23). Obedience to the Word of God is our highest calling, even if this means physical deprivation or even death.

Our obedience to God therefore requires self-denial, and self-denial requires self-discipline. If we would be obedient to our Lord, we must obey His commands. Since He has commanded us to deny ourselves daily and to take up our cross (Luke 9:23), we must have self-discipline to replace self-indulgence (encouraged both by our culture and our fallenness) with self-denial. More and more I can understand why God did not immediately lead His people from Egypt into Canaan. They did not have the discipline necessary to survive either the adversity or the affluence of the land of Canaan.

The more I read the New Testament, the more I see the importance of self-discipline, which, you will recall, is one of the manifestations of the Spirit of God: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).

Reading through Paul’s second epistle to Timothy, along with his letter to Titus has underscored in my mind the vital role which self-discipline plays in the Christian’s life. And, incidentally, it is also noteworthy to observe that one of the common characteristics of the false teacher is self-indulgence: “These men are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage” (Jude 16, cf. also v. 18; 2 Pet. 2:10, 13-22).

I would like to suggest two very practical outworkings of self-discipline in our daily lives. I must warn you, they are not easy, nor are they pleasant (which is exactly why self-discipline is required). The first suggestion I would make is that we must learn to do without those things which we cannot afford. Such a suggestion is so obvious, you may wonder why I make it. The reason is that contemporary advertising and credit buying consistently encourage us to buy what we neither need nor can afford. We are told that “we owe it to ourselves,” “we are worth it,” and in addition, we are given credit sufficient to enable us to buy those things which we don’t have the money to buy. I am not saying that all credit buying or borrowing is wrong. I am saying that most of us buy things we cannot afford, simply to indulge ourselves.

The second practical suggestion I would make is that we need to develop the ability to deny ourselves of some things which we can afford. I have a negative illustration from personal experience. This week, a friend took me and another friend to lunch. It was a buffet, so that once you paid, you could eat all you wanted. I ate two pieces of angel food cake, with gooey icing. Affording the cake was not the issue. Let’s face it, I indulged, I over-indulged. All of us need to learn to say no to things which we could have, but need to do without for the sheer discipline of it. That is what God required of the Israelites. They could have harvested huge quantities of manna, but He told them to take only what was required for that day.

(3) Self-discipline is not something which man can produce from within himself, but comes from God. When I speak of self-discipline, I want to be clear that I am not speaking of the teeth-gritting, self-effort which is merely a form of “works” which is displeasing to God. There are those who engage in self-denial, in a way that is offensive to God.

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Col. 2:20-23).

No, we are not talking about the kind of self-denial which we generate within ourselves, feeling that such asceticism makes us more holy in God’s eyes. We are talking about the self-control which the Spirit of God works within the believer and which characterizes those who are mature in their faith and sets them apart from false teachers (cf. 2 Tim. 1:7; 2:1-7; 3:3; Titus 1:8; 2:2, 6, 12). We are talking about that discipline which is motivated by our love for God, and our love for men.

The tension which we face here, with regard to self-discipline, is a part of the broader tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The manna God provided Israel in Exodus 16 illustrates the fact that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are inter-related. God provided the manna which Israel needed, but He commanded them to collect, cook, and keep it, in accordance with His instructions. So, too, self-control is something which God produces in the saint through His Spirit, but it is something in which we participate as well.

Let me attempt to draw these matters of self-indulgence and self-control to a conclusion by summarizing several principles which relate to them:

(1) The Christian frequently must choose between immediate pleasure and eternal blessings. Self-indulgence inclines one to pursue the former, while self-discipline is required to gain the latter. Hebrews chapter 11 is filled with the names of those who chose to deny themselves of immediate pleasure for the certainty of God’s eternal blessings.

(2) The Christian who would rid himself of self-indulgence must learn to be content with the condition and the circumstances in which God has placed him (cf. Phil. 4:10-13; 1 Tim. 6:6-10).

(3) The Christian who would overcome the tendency toward self-indulgence must develop a sense of daily dependence upon God to meet his every need (cf. Matt. 6:11). For those of us who have enough food for today and tomorrow and the next several weeks, we must recognize that it is God who is our provider. We must seek to avoid a false sense of confidence based upon our material wealth (1 Tim. 6:17), and we must be free to share out of our surplus (2 Cor. 8; 1 Tim. 6:18). We must recognize that we are dependent upon God daily for our life, for health, and for the grace to deal with all that comes our way. These are things which money cannot buy.

May God give us the grace to learn to live with affluence, and to avoid the perils of self-indulgence by the development of self-discipline and self-denial in our lives.

164 Note the words of Exodus 15:25: “There the Lord made a decree and a Law for them, and there he tested them.” This suggests to me that God tests men by the decrees and laws which He gives them. Surely this was the case with Adam and Eve. So, too, it is the case with Israel, and with us. Our obedience to God is revealed by our response to His commands.

165 Ultimately, the commands and decrees of God will be spelled out on Mt. Sinai, as summarized in the 10 commandments, but initially the commands of God which are referred to are those regulations regarding the gathering and use of manna.

166 In Exodus 12 we learn that the Passover meal was eaten on the night of the 14th day of the first month (12:2, 6). Israel departed early the next morning. In 16:1 we are told that Israel arrived at the Desert of Sin on the 15th day of the second month.

There is no commonly accepted view of the location of the Wilderness of Sin. Davis outlines four views, and gives his preference. This is not really a matter which bears upon the interpretation or the application of the text. Cf. John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), pp. 178-179.

167 From Deuteronomy 8:3, we learn that Israel had come to the point of suffering hunger before God supplied them with manna.

168 At this time the quail are barely mentioned. God gave the Israelites what they desired, and without any negative consequences. The quail were provided once, while the manna was a daily provision. It is the manna which is clearly in focus in this chapter.

169 So far as I have read, there are two primary natural explanations of the manna which is provided in Exodus 16. One is a “mossy manna,” which produces “pea-sized globules, found in central Asia, but absent from Sinai during the last 150 years.” The other is a substance which comes from the tamarisk trees, which grow in thickets in that part of the world. Cf. Davis, pp. 181-182.

It is somewhat disturbing to find Cole leaning toward the natural explanation of manna. He writes, “The manna was white, round and sweet. It was obviously unknown to later Israelites: hence the careful characterization. This description, and its quality of disappearing in the heat of the sun (when collected by ants), prove almost conclusively that it was the Arabic man, a globular exudation of two types of scale insects, living on twigs of tamarisk. This substance is chemically composed of natural sugars and pectin, and is found today only in the south-western part of the Sinai Peninsula after the rains of spring.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 133.

As to the origin of the term manna, the text informs us that the name manna originated from the question of the Israelites, when they first saw the manna, “What is it?” (v. 15). While the Hebrew expression rendered “What is it?” is not identical to the expression “manna,” they are similar. Davis (p. 180) quotes Bohl, who argues that there was another form of the question which closely approximates the term manna.

170 “It should not be assumed from these passages that manna constituted the only part of the diet of the Hebrews during this forty-year period. … That wheat and meats were available is clearly implied in such references as Exodus 17:3; 24:5; 34:3; Leviticus 8:2, 26, 31; 9:4; 10:12; 24:5; and Numbers 7:13, 19.” Davis, p. 181.

171 One cannot fail to be impressed with the many memorials God instructed the Israelites to prepare and/or to preserve. The importance of memorials is something which we ought not overlook.

172 I refer to this as an “attempted temptation” because we know from James 1:13 that God is not temptable. This was a temptation so far as Satan’s motivation was concerned, however. Satan’s desire was to tempt our Lord, but we learn that He could not be tempted to sin because there was no inclination to sin in Him. Jesus had no sin nature, and just as a magnet cannot attract a non-metalic object, so Satan found nothing in our Lord which was inclined toward or desirous of sinning.

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10. The Grumbling of Men and the Grace of God (Exodus 17:1-7)


Several years ago I watched a movie which featured Malcolm Muggeridge. Standing beside the family plot in an English cemetery, this elderly Christian statesman spoke as one who would soon join those of his family who had died. I will never forget the way he contrasted his youthful dreads and desires with those of his old age. He said that those things which he felt were most desirable in his youth he now saw to be of relatively little importance, while those things which he dreaded in his youth had proven to be the richest experiences of his life.

I believe that Muggeridge is right. Those things which we think are most important often prove to be otherwise, while those things which appear to be undesirable, even painful, often prove most precious and profitable. Our text is an excellent example. The Israelites viewed the lack of water at Rephidim as a disaster and an indication that God had abandoned them to die in the desert. They questioned whether God was with them or not. In reality, God was with them in a way that was beyond their comprehension, a way that would be revealed centuries later by the apostle Paul. What first appeared to be an indication of God’s absence proved to be one of the most dramatic illustrations of God’s presence, provision, and protection. Let us listen carefully to the words of this text, for they offer encouragement to every saint who has ever questioned the presence of God in a time of personal crisis.

Massah and Meribah: Water From the Rock

Leaving the Desert of Sin where God’s miraculous provision of manna had commenced (cf. chapter 16), the Israelites went from place to place, as the Lord directed them. It is significant to note that God was in no hurry to bring the Israelites into the land of Canaan. While Israel’s later “wilderness wanderings” were the result of their sin at Kadesh-barnea (cf. Numbers 13-14), the wanderings here are designed to serve as Israel’s “boot camp” experiences. The events of chapter 17 occur while Israel is camped at Rephidim,173 where there was no water for the Israelites or their cattle.

It is important to note that it was God who led Israel to Rephidim where there was no water. The Israelites traveled, we are told, “from place to place as the Lord commanded” (emphasis mine). While the cloud is not specifically referred to in our text, we have previously been told that God always led Israel by means of the pillar of cloud (in daytime) and of light (at night, cf. 13:21-22). While the Israelites are without water, it is apparent that it is God’s will for this to be their dilemma.

Israel’s response to the lack of water is no mere repetition of their previous actions,174 however. Described here is an even greater transgression than we have seen previously. The Israelites should have learned to trust God to supply their needs, based upon His previous provision of water at Marah (15:22-26) and quail and manna in the wilderness of Sin (chapter 16). Furthermore, the Israelites did far more than just grumble, as they had previously done. Before this, the Israelites had grumbled against Moses and Aaron (15:24; 16:2, 7-8), but now they are quarreling175 with Moses and about to stone him (17:4). Before, the Israelites asked Moses what they were to drink (15:24), but now they are demanding that Moses give them water to drink. Since Moses had been able to miraculously sweeten the waters at Marah and to produce quail and manna, the people appear to be demanding that he perform another miracle for them. It is as though he must prove he has God’s authority to lead them by producing water miraculously.

It is bad enough that the Israelites argued with Moses and demanded that Moses provide them with water, but the text informs us that they were also challenging God here as well. Moses accused the people of “putting God to the test” in their quarreling with him (17:2). Since Moses’ authority is due to his divine appointment (chapters 3 and 4), to quarrel with Moses is ultimately to dispute with God. The issue, however, is not only whether Moses had the right to continue to lead this people, but whether God was among His people. The challenge of the Israelites was, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Imagine this question being asked as the pillar of cloud, in which God was present and by which He revealed His glory and led them to this place, hovered in their sight. Moses’ rebuke (that the people were putting God to the test) fell on deaf ears. They began to rehearse their memories of the “good old days” in Egypt, contrasted with their miseries and near-certain death in the desert (17:3). Unable to dissuade the people, Moses could only cry out to the Lord for help (17:4).

God’s answer was that Moses should walk on ahead of the people. Among other things this indicated that Moses was making no retreat. It also reminded the congregation of Israelites that Moses was their leader, because when water was provided from the rock the people had to follow Moses to get to it. Some of the elders were taken along by Moses to witness, it would seem, this new miracle. (Did Israel’s hardness of heart prevent them from this privilege?) As commanded, Moses took along his staff—the same one with which he had struck the Nile (17:5). The Lord promised Moses that He would be standing before Him at the176 rock at Horeb.177 Moses was to strike the rock, causing water to flow from it. When Moses did this, water came forth in abundance, providing for the needs of the Israelites. He named the place Massah (test) and Meribah (quarrel), an epitaph which the Israelites would gladly have stricken from their history.

There are many scholars who would attempt to interpret this miraculous provision of water as a merely natural phenomenon. For example, there are those who suggest that there was a vein of water near the surface of the rock and that Moses just happened to hit this rock in the right place, so as to “uncap” the supply. This sounds more like the television description of how Jeb Clampett (of the Beverly Hillbillies) accidentally discovered oil on his place—a shot fired from his rifle accidentally released oil hidden underground.178

The Meaning of Massah and Meribah

The incident at Massah and Meribah179 is seminal in two very different ways. The events of this chapter are developed into two major themes in the Scriptures. First, Massah and Meribah becomes an epitaph of the hardness of the Israelites’ hearts (and not just that first generation) as well as for the Gentiles. Second, Massah and Meribah is an evidence of the grace of God and of His presence and provision for His people. We shall explore both of these themes and their relationship to each other.

Massah and Meribah: The Hardness of Man’s Heart

This incident is far more than a mere occurrence of corporate “temporary insanity,” as the contemporary excuse for sin is so often labeled. The Israelites were not just momentarily “out of sorts.” Unfortunately, this incident is typical of Israel’s stubbornness. Moses informed them that it was typical of their stubbornness and rebellion against God:

Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people. Remember this and never forget how you provoked the Lord your God to anger in the desert. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the Lord. At Horeb you aroused the Lord’s wrath so that he was angry enough to destroy you (Deut. 9:6-8, cf. v. 24; Heb. 3:10).

The grumbling of the Israelites in the wilderness was therefore a persistent problem, not a rare and infrequent one. Furthermore, the sin of this first generation of Israelites was almost identically reproduced by the second generation of Israelites, some years later (cf. Num. 20:1-13). The problem of grumbling is one that is common to every generation, in every age. Thus, we find the events of Massah and Meribah frequently referred to in the Old Testament.180 “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did” (Ps. 95:7b-9). The New Testament picks up “Massah and Meribah,” making this incident a lesson for contemporary Christians as well (cf. Heb. 3 and 4; 1 Cor. 10:1-13). We must therefore conclude that the problems which underlie Massah and Meribah are universal. Let us seek then to explore the nature of the Israelites’ sin here as well as the solution which God has for this sin.

(1) Israel’s actions at Massah and Meribah constituted testing181 God (Exod. 17:2,7; Deut. 6:16; Ps. 106:14). Israel’s lack of water was by divine design, for God was testing the Israelites by their response to adversity: “I tested you at the waters of Meribah” (Ps. 81:7; cf. Deut. 8:2,16). It was good for God to test the Israelites, for it revealed the sinful condition of their hearts. It surfaced their willfulness and waywardness and revealed that God was always blessing them on the basis of His grace, not their works. God has every right to test His creatures, and His tests are always for our good (Deut. 8:16).

On the other hand, no creature has the right to “put God to the test.” To do so is to demand that God prove Himself in a way that we dictate. God had proven Himself more than sufficiently in the miracles of the exodus. Israel did not lack evidence; they only lacked faith. If God were among them, then let Him prove it by giving them water, then and there. How arrogant! How inappropriate! How sinful! The creature demands that the Creator jump through his hoops.

(2) Israel’s demand that God prove His presence among them betrayed their lack of faith in Him. The Scriptures indicate that Israel’s actions at Massah and Meribah betray hearts which are hardened and unbelieving: “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did” (Ps. 95:8-9). They did not believe His promise. They grumbled in their tents and did not obey the Lord (Ps. 106:24b-25; cf. Heb. 3:12, 19). “Like their fathers they were disloyal and faithless, and unreliable as a faulty bow” (Ps. 78:57).

Satan challenged our Lord to prove that He was the Son of God by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, but our Lord rebuked him with a reference to the evil committed by the Israelites in putting God to the test at Massah and Meribah (Matt. 4:5-7). Satan had no right to challenge the Son of God to act in a such a way, for this would suggest that God is so unreliable He must be proven. The Jewish religious leaders persistently challenged Jesus to prove Himself by giving them a sign (cf. Matt. 12:38), a challenge which He refused to take up (cf. Matt. 12:39ff.).

When we demand that someone prove themselves to us we reveal our lack of trust in them. For example, the United States and Russia frequently attempt to come to some kind of nuclear arms agreement. The Russians persist at attempting to negotiate an agreement which has no “on sight inspections.” The United States insists that such “tests” be a part of the agreement. The reason for this insistence is simple—we don’t trust the Russians. Demanding that God prove Himself to us betrays our lack of trust in Him. It is not He who is untrustworthy; it is us. When we demand that Russia give proof of their integrity, we are wise. When we demand such proof from God, we are fools.

A beautiful illustration of the kind of trust in God which does not “put God to the test” is found in Daniel 3. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow in worship to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, even when threatened with being thrown into a blazing furnace. When they spoke to the king, they said: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Dan. 3:17-18).

Faith trusts in God, even when the result appears to be fatal.182 The Israelites should have learned by now that God had promised to deliver them, not to destroy them, and that He had always protected them and provided for their needs, no matter how bleak things looked. And yet when they ran out of water, they doubt the presence of God and demand a miracle so that God may prove Himself to them once again.

(3) Israel’s actions at Massah and Meribah reveal their lack of patience. God would not have allowed His people to die of thirst, as they accused. Had they but waited, God would have provided for them. Their lack of faith was manifested in their impatience: “But they soon forgot what he had done and did not wait for his counsel. In the desert they gave in to their craving; in the wasteland they put God to the test” (Ps. 106:14). In every instance where Israel lacked either food or water, Israel acted prematurely. God would have provided for His people’s needs in His own time, but this was too late so far as the Israelites were concerned. Unbelief is often hasty; faith is patient and endures.

(4) Israel’s response at Massah and Meribah were acts of disobedience. The first instance of thirst at Marah (Exod. 15:22-26) was an occasion for God to test His people (15:25), as well as to teach them: “If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you” (Exod. 15:26).

When Israel tested God at Massah and Meribah, God viewed their actions as disobedience: “But they put God to the test and rebelled against the Most High; they did not keep his statutes” (Ps. 78:56). “They grumbled in their tents and did not obey the Lord” (Ps. 106:24; cf. Heb. 3:16,18; 4:6,11). The question we must answer here is, “Just what command of God did the Israelites disobey at Massah and Meribah?” The only commandments given so far have been general (15:26) and those which specifically related to the harvesting and use of manna in chapter 16. I find the key to be in the first verse of chapter 17: “The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded” (emphasis mine). The guidance which God gave the Israelites was by command our text informs us. When Israel resisted Moses and insisted that he had led them into the wilderness to die of thirst, they rebelled against the guidance of God, and thus they disobeyed His command. In the previous lesson, I likened grumbling to disobedience. Now, in the light of God’s commentary on this chapter, I must say that it is disobedience.

(5) At Massah and Meribah, Israel doubted God’s presence among them. It is an incredible thing that Israel could doubt God’s presence and power among them (17:7). God had evidenced His presence and power so many times in their very recent past—in the plagues, in their passing through the Red Sea, and in His provision of food and water. Moreover, God’s presence was manifested in the cloud (cf. 13:21-22; 16:11). Nevertheless, the absence of water causes the Israelites to suspect the absence of God.

Massah and Meribah: A Picture of God’s Presence and Power

The amazing thing about the incident at Massah and Meribah is that God graciously provided His grumbling people with water in abundance, through the rock at Horeb. In spite of the great sin of the people in disputing with Moses and in putting God to the test, they were abundantly provided for. Because of this, the rock at Massah and Meribah quickly became a symbol of God’s presence and power among His people. It is little wonder that the Lord is worshipped as Israel’s “rock” in the “song of Moses”: “I will proclaim the name of the Lord. Oh, praise the greatness of our God! He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just” (Deut. 32:3-4a; cf. also vv. 13,15,18). Psalm 95 begins, “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation” (Ps. 95:1).

The rock of Massah and Meribah became the symbol of God’s presence with His people. From this time onward, the “rock” becomes a frequently employed term to refer to God’s faithfulness in providing for His people: “He opened the rock, and water gushed out; like a river it flowed in the desert. For he remembered his holy promise given to his servant Abraham” (Ps. 105:41-42). “But you would be fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the Rock I would satisfy you” (Ps. 81:16).

The “rock” of Exodus 17 is therefore employed as a symbol of Israel’s hope for the future, because it symbolized God’s faithfulness to His people in the past when He promises to be faithful in the future: “They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split the rock and water gushed out” (Isa. 48:21).

While the Old Testament saint came to view God as their “rock,” there was yet unfathomed meaning to this symbol which is revealed by the apostle Paul after the coming of Christ. Paul’s words are both profound and perplexing when he writes, “They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3-4).

The Jews had a legend concerning the “rock” which tumbled along behind the Israelites in the wilderness, and some scholars seem to think that Paul somehow adopted it or modified it. The key to understanding Paul’s meaning when he speaks of Christ as the rock which followed Israel is the term “spiritual,” found three times in these two verses.

Paul could be spiritualizing the rock, using the term “spiritual” so that he can liken the experience of the Israelites to that of the Corinthians. Both had their baptisms (Israel in the cloud and in the sea, and unto Moses; the Corinthians in the baptismal waters, and unto Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:13-17; 12:12). Both also had their “spiritual food”—the Israelites had their bread and water; the Corinthians their bread and wine. Other explanations of this text have also been offered.183

In what sense then is our Lord to be identified with the rock in the wilderness? I do not believe that we should go so far as to say that our Lord actually manifested Himself to Israel as a rock. The Lord told Moses, “I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb” (Exod. 17:6).

There is a world of difference between our Lord standing by that rock and being that rock. Nevertheless, our Lord was closely associated with the rock, as Paul suggests. This helps to explain why God saw Moses’ act of striking the rock in Numbers 20 as such a serious sin, so serious that it kept Moses and Aaron from entering the promised land with the second generation of Israelites.

For our purposes, it is not necessary to struggle over the precise meaning of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10. What we do need to understand is that Paul informs us that God was present with the Israelites in the person of His Son. Although the Israelites believed that the absence of water in the wilderness was sufficient evidence for them to conclude that God had abandoned them, Paul tells us that Christ Himself was present with them.

Here is the irony of the passage. At the very time when the Israelites are inclined to doubt (or at least dispute) the presence of God, the text informs us that God was very present, and the New Testament goes so far as to tell us that Christ was present as well. Was God among them? More so than they could have dreamed!

The great wonder is how Israel’s perception that God was absent could be so far from reality. How could the Israelites question God’s presence among them when it is so obvious that He was present? I would like to suggest that the reasons why Israel doubted God’s presence and demanded His provisions are the very same causes of doubt among contemporary Christians. The issue is this: “What are the evidences of God’s presence and power whether in days gone by or today?” The answers which are commonly believed reveal the shallowness of our biblical and doctrinal understanding.

What are the evidences of God’s presence and power we look for in the life of a person whom we believe to be godly? I would suggest that we, like the Jewish religious leaders of old, tend to look primarily at external appearances—success, popularity, a life free from struggles, suffering and sorrow. It is no wonder that our church leaders are so often chosen from the upper echelons of the socio-economic strata.

What are the evidences of God’s presence and power which we look for in a church? Most often, we look at the size of the church, its staff, and its budget.184 If there is a mood of excitement and we go away feeling turned on and having our needs met, we think that God is present in that church. Apart from the Jerusalem church in the early chapters of Acts, how many churches do you find in the New Testament which square with your standards for a “spirit filled” church?

This is why we find it very difficult to believe that God is present when things are not going well. We find it hard to believe that God would lead His people or His church into times and circumstances of difficulty. But when we think this way, we are no different from the Israelites. We doubt God’s presence and power whenever the going begins to get tough. We fail to understand the necessity and importance of the school of discipline through which God puts all of His children (even including His Son, cf. Heb. 5:7-10).

Here is where the two major themes of our text converge, giving us a principle by which we can face the adversities of life with faith, rather than with fear, and by which we can trust God, rather than test Him: GOD OFTEN REVEALS HIS PRESENCE THROUGH CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH HE APPEARS TO BE ABSENT. This principle is a reflection of the two principle themes of our text: (1) that the Israelites doubted God’s presence and demanded proof of it; and (2) that God was far more present with Israel at Massah and Meribah than the Israelites ever knew. This leads me to generalize God’s dealings with His people by pointing out that God uses those times in which we suppose He is absent to show us how real and present He is.

How can we be assured of God’s presence with us? Let me briefly outline some of the assurances Christians have of the presence of God in their midst, especially in times of adversity:

(1) Our Lord’s name assures us of His presence among us. When our Lord Jesus Christ came to the earth as a babe in a manger, we are told the meaning of His name: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:22-23, emphasis mine). The very name of our Lord, “Immanuel,” assures us that God is with us in the person of Christ, just as Paul says He was present with Israel at Massah and Meribah.

(2) Our Lord came to the earth, not to be with those who were at ease, but to minister to those who were afflicted. When our Lord was questioned about His contact with “sinners” He replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). And when the Lord Jesus presented Himself at the outset of His ministry, He revealed Himself as the fulfillment of this prophetic passage: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, citing Isaiah 61:1, 2).

(3) God sovereignly controls every detail of our lives. Thus, we are where God wants us to be, even when we are in danger or distress. We read in Exodus 17:1 that Israel was “traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded” (emphasis mine). In the place to which He leads us, God will be with us.

(4) God uses situations of adversity to draw us closer to Him. We are informed that Israel’s adversity was designed by God for their good:

“He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you” (Deut. 8:15-16).

Thus, the difficulties which come into our lives are under God’s sovereign control, designed to produce (in the final analysis) that which is good for us. Adversity is therefore not an argument for God’s absence but for His presence with His people (cf. Hebrews 12:1-13). Thus the psalmist can say,

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees (Psalm 119:67-68).

It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees (Ps. 119:71).

(5) God promises His children that He is always with them and that He will never forsake them.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20).

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you: never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).

(6) God’s Spirit has been given to witness to His presence within and to intercede for us, especially in times of adversity.

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. … In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will (Rom. 8:15-17, 26-27).

I would like to suggest that while we do not look forward to those times of adversity and testing (God testing us, that is), these are often the times when God becomes most present and most precious to us. A great deal of divine discipleship is worked out in the quiet and lonely solitude of our own wilderness situations, when we perceive that apart from divine intervention and provision, we would perish.

All too often we think of discipleship in “warm, fuzzy” terms, rather than in “wilderness” terms. We like to think of discipleship as intimate fellowship and sharing with other Christians, and so, in part, it is. But to be very candid with you, most of the men whom God “discipled” learned obedience in the lonely “wilderness” experiences of life. So it was for Abraham, for Jacob, for Joseph, for David, and the apostle Paul, to mention but a few.

Discipleship is the process of being disciplined, so that we are learners and followers of Christ. Generally speaking, we come to our greatest levels of trust and of faith when God pulls out all else on which we rely and leaves us only with Himself. Discipleship is not a comfortable process. And thus we should expect difficulties to come our way, and at the very same time, expect our Lord to be as near (or nearer) than He has ever been.

Is it possible that you are in a kind of wilderness, my friend, even as you read the words of this chapter? Then I would suggest that God may have purposed this so that you could come to know Him, in a much more intimate way than you have previously known Him. Perhaps you have never yet come to know Christ as your personal Savior. God may have pulled out all the props of your life, as He did with Israel, so that you could come to the point where you have no one but a gracious and loving God in whom to trust—first for your salvation—and then for your sanctification (your growth in His grace).

If you are a Christian and you have entered into a wilderness experience, I urge you to trust and obey God, to look for Him in a way that you have not yet known Him. Just as God meant Massah and Meribah for Israel’s good, He means your wilderness experience to be for your good as well. Ask God to reveal Himself to you in a new and fresh way, and He will do it.

173 “Rephidim has been identified with two places. The first is Wadi Feiran which leads up to Mount Sinai. Others have identified it with Wadi Refayid. This latter suggestion seems desirable because the name is similar to the biblical name and it is within several hours’ reach of the wilderness of Sin.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 184.

174 “This is the second of three accounts of murmuring caused by thirst (cf. 15:22-27; Num. 20:1-3): Marah-Massah, Massah-Meribah, and Meribah-Kadesh. … In the first account (15:22-27) Yahweh provides Israel with a law or statute by which to test its faithfulness toward him. This account features the spirit of rebellion in the people. The third account (Num. 20:1-13 …) cites Moses’ own lack of faith.” J. Edgar Park, “Exodus,” The Interpreter’s Bible (New York and Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1952), I, p. 957.

175 “This verb [quarreled] is the key word of the passage, explaining why the name ‘Meribah’ (‘argument’ or ‘strife’) is used for the place afterwards.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), p. 134.

“The faultfinding with Moses … has the nature of a legal argument. The people challenged Moses to justify his leadership by providing water; rather, they insist their thirst denies the validity of his position. The contention, says Moses, is tantamount to putting the Lord to the proof (cf. 16:7-8). The Hebrew verb … means ‘to test,’ ‘to see’ (or ‘to doubt’) whether one will act in a certain way. It does not imply provoking one to act in a certain way, as the English verb tempt (KJV) now does.” Interpreter’s Bible, I, p. 958.

176 The definite article (the) implies that there is a particular rock referred to here, not just any rock: “The reference is, it seems, to a particular rock on Mount Horeb. It is so interpreted by Josephus (Antiquities III. l. 7) … In I Cor. 10:4, Paul reveals his knowledge of this legend and seems to take it seriously, ‘The supernatural Rock which followed them.’” Interpreter’s Bible, I, p. 959.

177 There is no concensus as to the meaning of “Horeb” or where it was located. For a discussion of this matter cf. W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), pp. 166-167.

178 “The only reasonable explanation for this event is that God again intervened miraculously. It is not sufficient to argue that Moses struck a rock accidently and due to the closeness of the water to the surface discovered the answer to his problem.” Davis, p. 185.

179 In the Old Testament and the New (e.g. Psalm 95 and Hebrews 3 and 4) the “Massah and Meribah” include a broader reference than just Exodus 17. Also included would be the later incident in Numbers 20:1-13, which involved the second generation of Israelites.

180 Some of the references to the events or imagery of Massah and Meribah are: Num. 20:1-13; Deut. 6:16-17; 8:15; 32:4, 13, 15, 18; 33:8; Neh. 9:15; Psa. 78:15-16, 35, 56; 81:7, 16; 95; 105:41; 106:7, 13-14, 25, 29, 32; 114:8; Isa. 48:21; 1 Cor. 10:1-13; Heb. 3 and 4.

181 “Testing as used here means to invoke the Lord’s power, not in faith, but with challenge and irreverance, which is precisely what Israel was doing. It was an expression of discontent rather than a prayer.” Gispen, p. 165.

182 Notice, for example, how often death is referred to either directly or by inference in Hebrews 11.

183 Often in 1 Corinthians, the term “spiritual” refers to that which is produced by the Holy Spirit. Spiritual gifts, for example, are the gifts which the Spirit gives. So, too, the spiritual food and drink of the Israelites was the water and manna which God provided, as the “spiritual rock” is likened to our Lord, who miraculously accompanied His people.

184 Gordon MacDonald has recently written, “We assume that the larger the church, the greater its heavenly blessing. The more information about the Bible a person possesses, we think, the closer he must be to God. Because we tend to think like this, there is the temptation to give imbalanced attention to our public worlds at the expense of the private. More programs, more meetings, more learning experiences, more relationships, more busyness; until it all becomes so heavy at the surface of life that the whole thing trembles on the verge of collapse.” Gordon MacDonald, Ordering Your Private World (New York: Oliver Nelson, 1984), p. 16. I highly recommend this excellent book for your reading.

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11. The Tyranny of the Urgent (Exodus 18)


There is a term which is more and more frequently employed in Christian circles, which depicts a problem that has become widespread among evangelicals—even epidemic. The term is burnout. Burnout happens frequently to Christian leaders, who strive to meet impossible expectations and demands, the achievement of which will show him to be both spiritual and successful (these two evaluations are too frequently found together these days). Failure to accomplish these expectations and demands is believed to prove one a sluggard, unspiritually minded, or a failure. Burnout occurs when, in sheer exhaustion and frustration, one looses all hope of meeting the standard which is imposed on them (either by one’s self, others, or both), and simply gives up. By my definition at least, burnout does not lead to reevaluating and restructuring one’s ministry, but to cessation of ministry.

Burnout is certainly not just a phenomenon found among Christian leaders, or just among Christians for that matter. Burnout is probably a significant factor in what is now referred to as the “mid-life crisis.” In spite of diligent effort and much sacrifice, individuals discover, to their dismay and depression, that their pursuit has been, in the words of the wise man of Ecclesiastes, vanity.

The burnout of which I am speaking is that which plagues Christians, whether leaders or laymen (I dislike both labels, but I use them here anyway). It is not the squeezing out of things spiritual by things secular (so called). It is the smothering of the fundamental spiritual essentials by the sheer volume of the plethora of non-essential activities and “ministries” which we foolishly strive to maintain.

In his excellent book entitled, Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald likens the burnout phenomenon to sinkholes.186 When underground streams dry up, the surface soil begins to sink to fill in the void. Whatever is placed on or near the surface of the ground caves in, to fill that void. MacDonald likens the soul, the “private world” of a person to those underground streams. We often divert so much of our attention and energy to our ministries and outward activities that we fail to attend to the needs of our souls. Eventually, MacDonald explains, the pressure of those activities, combined with the inner void of our lives, produces a sinkhole—burnout.

Moses was dangerously close to burning himself out when his father-in-law came to his rescue. What appears on the surface to be the insignificant visit of a relative is a really a divine provision to deliver Moses, not from the wrath of Pharaoh, nor from the attack of the Egyptian army, but from himself. As Jethro himself put it, Moses was wearing himself and the Israelites out (18:18). Thanks to the common sense of a wise father-in-law, Moses was delivered from his own destruction, the burnout which resulted from a distorted perception and a too-demanding ministry.

I must pause here to point out that Moses illustrates and typifies a problem which has become widespread and even epidemic in evangelical circles in America, but that Moses’ problem is typical of only a segment of evangelicalism. For some who will read this message, your problem is not burnout, not burning your candle at both ends, but not having ever been lit. There are many overworked Christians who need to learn the lesson which Jethro taught Moses, but the reason why some Christians are overtaxed is because others are lazy and inactive. If you are uncommitted, uninvolved and sluggardly in your Christian service, I exhort you not to try to use this text as a pretext for your inaction. God is not pleased with this kind of abuse of His word. If you are of the sluggardly disposition, I urge you to turn to the wisdom which the Book of Proverbs has for you, or to those texts in the Bible which speak of our need for commitment and obedience.

The structure of this chapter is simple and straightforward. The text divides evenly into two portions: verses 1-12, which I summarize by the title: “Jethro’s Arrival”; and verses 13-27, which depict “Jethro’s Advice.” The two portions are very much related. Initially, I viewed the first 12 verses as a kind of formality, a setting of the scene. The more I have studied the text, however, I have come to see that the first half of the chapter reveals several symptoms of a serious problem in Moses’ life, which prompted not only the “arrival” of Jethro at the Israelites’ camp, but also his “advice.” Let us listen well to the sage words of this Midianite, who has much to teach us about managing our lives and our ministries. For those who are predisposed to business and over-involvement, they can spare us from the deadly disease of burnout.

Jethro’s Arrival

The first section (verses 1-12) breaks evenly into two divisions. Verses 1-6 might be titled “focus on the family.” They reveal the occasion for the arrival of Jethro. Verse 1 informs us of the basis for Jethro’s decision to visit Moses, while verses 2-6 tell us the purpose of that visit. The second division, verses 7-12, focus on the faith of Jethro. They depict the outcome of Jethro’s arrival: (1) Moses’ reports of God’s good hand on the Israelites; and, (2) Jethro’s response to God’s goodness to Israel—rejoicing, proclaiming God’s greatness, and worshipping Him with Moses and the elders of Israel.

It is difficult for me to envision how Jethro gathered information about the well-being of Moses, but the text tells us that he had been well-informed. The text tells us “he heard everything God had done for Moses and for his people …” (v. 1). Perhaps Jethro made a point to invite travelers, even caravans, to share a meal with him or to spend the night in his tent, enabling him to learn of events in Egypt. Today, Jethro would have devoured the daily newspaper, and watched every newscast with interest. He would have tuned in to “Radio Egypt” on his short wave radio. And, by the way, Zipporah and Moses’ two sons probably gleaned a considerable amount of this information, for they must have had great interest in the welfare of Moses, as husband and father.

The point of the passage, however, is not how Jethro learned of Moses’ well-being, but of what he learned. Jethro had learned that God had protected Moses, and that He had delivered the Israelites out of Egypt. He obviously learned (or would learn) the location of the Israelites, which would not have been nearly as far away as Egypt had been.

Jethro had learned enough to conclude that circumstances were such that Moses and his family should be reunited. Verses 2-6 indicate the purpose of Jethro’s visit to Moses—to reunite Zipporah (his daughter, Moses’ wife), Gershom and Eliezer (his grandsons, Moses’ sons) and Moses.

We are not told precisely when nor why Moses and his family were separated. In chapter 4, Moses requested, somewhat deceptively, that he be given leave to return to Egypt with his family (v. 18). There was an unpleasant event with Zipporah, related to the circumcision of Moses’ son, which nearly cost Moses his life (4:24-26). Some have concluded that Zipporah, in anger, returned to her father at this time, but our text tells us that Moses “sent her away.”187 We can at least conjecture that Moses sent his family back to Jethro at a time when Moses feared for their safety. Perhaps, too, he felt that the pressures of confronting Pharaoh and of leading Israel were too great to have the additional responsibilities of a husband and father.

From the information which Jethro had gathered, he concluded that the reasons for the separation of Moses and his family were now safely set aside. The purpose of Jethro’s visit to Moses was quite clearly to reunite Moses with his family. There may have been some frustrations, even some irritations, with having to support and raise Moses’ children, and to care for his wife. Maybe Jethro eagerly awaited good news about the Israelites so that he could have a little peace and quiet around the home. The text, however, never suggests anything but the purest of motives for Jethro’s actions. Here, as later in the chapter, he acts out of wisdom, compassion, and concern for Moses’ best interest. This was truly a magnanimous act, especially after the deceptive explanation Moses had given for his return to Egypt (Exod. 4:18).188

The arrival of Jethro, accompanied by Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer, was apparently a pleasant surprise for Moses.189 While I would have expected Moses to pay much more attention to his wife and children, Moses is reported to have gone to meet Jethro, kissed him, and then went into Jethro’s tent190 with him. Where in the world were Zipporah and the children? Probably, they were there as well, but given the culture of that day, this is simply how things were done. Remember, too, that Jethro was a very prominent man,191 deserving of a formal reception.

Inside the tent, Moses and Jethro went through the formalities of the reception of an honored guest in an eastern culture. Moses brought Jethro up to date with a detailed report of how the hand of God had delivered the Israelites and devastated the Egyptians (v. 8).

Jethro’s response, described in verses 9-12, seems to be much more than just oriental courtesy. While there is some difference of opinion on the matter,192 it seems that Jethro here professes a personal faith in the God of Israel, which he had not had previously. First, Jethro rejoiced with Moses, praising God for His grace manifested toward Israel, as evidenced by Moses’ report (vss. 9-10). Second, Jethro seems to acknowledge, for the first time, the superiority of God over all other “gods,” which one would suppose included his own previously worshipped pagan gods.193 Jethro’s faith is demonstrated in his offering of sacrifices to God, and in the sacrificial meal, which Jethro, Moses, and all the elders of Israel shared (v. 12).

Having briefly considered the arrival of Jethro and Moses’ family and the affirmation of Jethro’s faith, I am left with a nagging question: Why was it that Jethro had to initiate the reunion of Moses and his family? Put differently, Why didn’t Moses send for his wife and sons, rather than to have Jethro show up with them unexpectedly?

My question arises out of an uneasy feeling, based upon several observations from verses 1-12:

(1) Moses seems to have sent his wife and sons back to Jethro without previously informing him of this, just as Jethro seems to return them to Moses in the same way.

(2) Moses’ motivation in sending his children back may be questionable, especially in the light of the names he gave his sons. What reasons can we suppose would be justifiable for Moses sending his wife and sons back to Midian, to be raised by a pagan (at that point in time)? Moses named his first son Gershom, which our text tells us is based upon the fact that Moses was (or, more likely) had become an alien. If Moses felt “alienated,” how could he alienate his family by sending them away from himself, and from the nation Israel. Moses felt the pangs of his separation from “his people” and yet he sent his wife and sons away from him. That appears to be inconsistent. So, too, if Moses could name his second son Eliezer, based upon his own deliverance from the sword of Pharaoh (v. 4), why then could he not trust God to deliver his family from the dangers of Egypt and from the sword of Pharaoh. And if Moses could tell the Israelites to trust God daily for food and water, why then could he not trust God to provide for his family’s needs? There seems to be an inconsistency here.

(3) Moses was remarkably slow to send for his family, when one would have expected him to be eager to have them near him. As I read the first verse of chapter 18, the question which seems to be paramount in the minds of Moses’ family (especially Jethro’s) is: “How’s Moses?” As the passage continues for us, and as time went on for Moses’ family, the question changed from “How’s Moses?” to “Where’s Moses?” It is not at the initiative of Moses that he is reunited with his family, but at the initiative of Jethro, who surprises Moses with a visit. Moses was not that far from his family, but he seems almost to have forgotten them.194

There is a tendency among Christians to minimize the failings of a man like Moses in this situation, even to attribute faith and trust to him, rather than doubt and failure. The assumption is that the saints who are described in the Bible always tend to do the right thing for the right reasons. One example of this is the explanation of Moses’ actions here in such a way as to focus on Moses’ piety:

The absence of his wife and children cause us to have an even deeper respect for his maturity and spiritual insight during Israel’s most troubled moments. No hint is given in the biblical text of personal discomfort or dissatisfaction with this situation. He apparently had placed his wife and children in the hands of the Lord and concluded that in God’s time they would be reunited. Therefore, for Moses this was a happy occasion not only because of Israel’s victory over Amalek but because of the renewed fellowship with his wife and family.195

I call this tendency to assume the best of biblical characters the “pious bias.” It seeks to elevate biblical characters to a level far above our own performance and far above what we would expect, knowing man’s nature. In contrast to this, I tend to interpret Moses’ actions according to what I call the “sinner syndrome.” Thus, it is not Moses’ virtues which are extolled in this chapter, but his vices. Now here is a man (Moses) whom I can identify with, a man with flaws like mine. These flaws are keenly observed by Jethro, whose advice in verses 13-27 is based upon his observation of Moses’ unconscious blunders both with regard to his family (vss. 1-12) and to his function as Israel’s leader (vss. 13-27). Let us press on, then, to see how the events of verses 1-12 serve as a clue to the failures which Jethro seeks to remedy by his counsel.

Jethro’s Advice

The next morning, Moses and the people of Israel began their daily routine. The people who sought to know God’s will from Moses began to line up at the designated place, perhaps just outside Moses’ tent. With a nation composed of nearly 2,000,000 people (600,000 men, cf. 12:37), one can imagine that the line was long, and that it began to queue up very early in the morning. Moses, we are told, seated himself, sitting as Israel’s sole judge (vss. 13, 14). The people came to him with all those matters which needed a decision, instruction, or counsel. The people looked to Moses alone for a word from God for guidance in their lives. At the end of the day, the long line of waiting Israelites was still there. The people were weary from standing all day, and so was Moses (vss. 14, 18). Jethro was able to quickly identify the problem to which, it seems, Moses was oblivious.

Jethro was baffled by the inefficiency of what had taken place during the day. Perhaps around the dinner table that evening, Jethro began to inquire about Moses’ rational for administering justice (judging) as he was doing. It is apparent from Jethro’s questioning that he did not agree with the way Moses was handling things. Even from the way his questions are phrased in writing, you can imagine the tone of voice with which he asked. (Fathers-in-law, you know, can do this better than others. It all starts with a question like, “Why are you a good enough man to be my daughter’s husband?”)

I believe that Moses was completely caught off guard by Jethro’s disapproval. Moses was so covered up by his work, so desperately trying keep his head above water that he didn’t have time to reflect on what he was doing. Jethro, on the other hand, had already suspected a problem for some time. Moses had not only sent his family home for him to care for, but he had apparently had little contact with them, and he had delayed in reuniting with his family. That morning, Jethro began to see the piece fall into place. Moses had not sent for his family because he did not have time to care for them—even to think of them.

The response of Moses reveals his distorted perception, which was the root problem. While Jethro quickly sized up the situation, Moses wasn’t thinking very clearly about what he was doing. His response reveals several misconceptions regarding his role as a leader. Consider them with me for a moment.

(1) Moses believed that every request for his help made the matter his responsibility. When asked why Moses handled matters as he did, Moses responded, in effect, “I am doing this because the people have asked me to.” I believe that Moses was a kind, caring, and compassionate man. I believe that the Israelites felt this way as well. No wonder they wanted to take their problems to Moses. Moses found it hard to refuse to help anyone who asked for it. He simply fell into the trap of assuming that every need which he became aware of was his responsibility to meet. If you have not learned so already, you will discover that we will always be aware of far more needs than we can personally meet. Moses was running himself ragged because he had not yet come to grips with his error.

(2) Moses seemed to assume that because people came to him personally for help it was his responsibility to help them personally. In answer to Jethro’s question, Moses explained that he judged the people from dawn to dusk because they came to him for help. Moses assumed that when there was a need, it was his personal obligation to meet it. In effect, Moses was not really leading at all, for he was unwilling to refuse any appointments, or to involve others in meeting the needs of the Israelites. Whoever wanted to speak with Moses (and was willing to wait in line to do so) could speak with him.

(3) Moses wrongly reasoned that because his task was to lead the entire nation, he must do so by dealing with people one at a time. It did not seem to occur to Moses that he not only could but must handle his task on a larger scale, dealing with groups, rather than individuals. Rather than to teach a class of 100 (which would have been a small class in that setting), Moses was teaching the same thing 100 times to 100 people.

(4) Moses seems to have assumed that no one else was able to do what he was doing. Moses told Jethro that the people came to him “to seek God’s will” (v. 15). It seems as though this placed the needs of the people in a category for which only Moses was able to give an answer.196

(5) Moses seems to have lost sight of his unique gifts and calling. God had not called Moses to do everything, but to do some things. Moses was given responsibility to lead the nation Israel as a whole, and thus his task was very different from that of others, who could deal with people on a personal, intimate, one-on-one basis.

I believe that we can distill several important principles of leadership from the words of Jethro, which were addressed to Moses. Let us give them careful consideration. These principles and their practical implementation provide the solution to Moses’ problems.

(1) To be a leader one must be in control. Here, I am referring to the fact that Moses should be in control of his ministry and his time, not so much that he should be in control of Israel. Moses was not in control of his ministry. As Israel’s leader, Moses should have had control of his time, but it is obvious that he did not. From morning till night, Moses was captive to the crowds who wanted his guidance. To put the matter in contemporary terms, the higher the level of a corporate executive, the more difficult it becomes to obtain an appointment with that leader. Our text implies that Moses was not turning down any appointments. Jethro urged Moses to exercise leadership by getting in control of his time, and of the ways in which he would lead the people.

(2) To be an effective Christian leader, one must balance the principle of servanthood with that of stewardship. While it is possible that Moses’ motives were not entirely pure (whose are?), I am willing to believe that Moses’ primary motivation for ministering as he did was that he genuinely cared for the Israelites and wanted to serve them. Moses, we are told, was known for his meekness (Numbers 12:3). Therefore, I assume that it was a genuine servant’s heart which motivated the ministry which caused Jethro to marvel at its inefficiency.

Every leader is to be a servant, but we are to be the Lord’s servant, doing His will, not the servants of men, fulfilling their every expectation and desire. As the Lord’s servants, we can have only one master (Matthew 6:24), to whom we shall have to give account of our stewardship (cf. Matthew 25:14-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 4:1-5). God will hold us responsible for how we have used those things which He has given us. If we strive to please men, we will most frequently fail to please God and to do those things which He has given us to do. Thus, in our attitudes, we must be servants at heart, but we dare not allow others to dictate or to determine how our stewardship shall be managed.

To put this matter in different words, Moses was to be a servant, but he was to serve by leading. As such, he must take charge, he must determine his calling, he must establish priorities, and he must stick to them, even when others would seek to modify his ministry. Moses was to serve the Israelites, but he must do so in the way which God had called him to serve. Servanthood is thus an essential attitude for the Christian leader, but that leader’s actions must be determined by other factors.

(3) Leadership is shepherding and shepherding involves a flock. Moses was dealing with the Israelites individually, but Jethro advocated dealing with them collectively (cf. vss. 19-20). It is a good goal for a leader to desire to know all the people he leads personally, but it is quite honestly an impossible goal when the group gets very large. Surely we cannot fault Moses for failing to “know” each of the nearly 2 million Israelites intimately. Moses told the Israelites that their great number was the reason for his taking the action recommended by Jethro: “And I spoke to you at that time, saying, ‘I am not able to bear the burden of you alone. The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude’” (Deut. 1:9-10).

There are reasons why we have come to expect our leaders to know us intimately, even though this is impossible. One reason is that we have not carefully interpreted or applied the shepherd imagery of the Bible. When shepherding is described as a function of human leaders, they are spoken of as shepherds of a flock, not shepherds of an individual sheep (cf. Psalm 77:20; 78:52; 80:1; Isaiah 63:11-14).

Another reason is that we have failed to distinguish between the shepherding of the flock by men from the shepherding of our Lord. When our Lord is the shepherd, however, then we find the relationship described is much more personal and intimate (cf. Psalm 23; John 10), as well it can be, for our Lord does not have the human limitations of earthly shepherds.

Another error, in my opinion, is that we have tended to restrict the task of shepherding to elders alone. As I understand the concept of the church as a body, I see that it is the work of the church to minister to itself. We are all priests, not just a select few (1 Peter 2:5). Elders are instructed to shepherd the flock of God (1 Peter 5:1), but this does not mean that they do all the shepherding. It means, I believe, that they are responsible to see to it that the flock of God is shepherded. The leadership of the local church involves more than just elders. Thus, the writer to the Hebrews avoids equating church leadership with elders alone (cf. Hebrews. 13:7, 17).

This explains why shepherds are spoken of in the plural, rather than in the singular (starting with Moses and Aaron—Psalm 77:20, and then on with the plurality of elders/shepherds in the New Testament (cf. Acts 20:17 Philippians 1:1; 1 Peter 5:1-2). The work of shepherding is beyond any one man’s ability to accomplish.

When Moses attempted to settle disputes, he was dealing with the Israelites on an individual basis. When he taught the people the principles and precepts of God, he could do so to large groups, thus functioning more as a shepherd.

(4) Because leadership requires a plurality of leaders, it also requires leaders to be managers. Moses was unable to manage his ministry because he failed to see that his ministry required management. One of the essential functions of leadership is management. Moses was dealing with nearly 2 million people, but he was trying to do so all by himself. He failed to see the need for management—the ability to make use of others in meeting the needs of the Israelites. The New Testament speaks frequently of the management function of church leaders. Thus the terms “manage,” “be in charge of,” and “overseer” are frequently used with reference to church leadership. Moses had forgotten that leadership involves management.

(5) Leadership involves both public and private obligations, neither of which can be sacrificed entirely for the other. Moses had become so entangled in his public duties (judging the Israelites) that he had unwittingly been neglecting himself and his family. He was, according to Jethro, “wearing himself out” (v. 18). Furthermore, Moses had seemingly forgotten his family. Who knows how long they would have been left with Jethro, had this wise man not taken the initiative to reunite Moses’ family?

There is a delicate balance which must be maintained between public and private responsibilities. Moses had allowed his sense of public duty to overshadow his sense of personal responsibility. A leader is one who is to manage his family well, as a prerequisite to his assuming a leadership role in the church (cf. 1 Timothy 3:4, 12). There are those (myself included, at times) who use their public duties as an excuse to avoid their private obligations. There are very pious-sounding ways to do this, but the essence is that we often shirk the things we wish to avoid by conjuring up a “lion in the road” (cf. Prov. 26:13)197 which provides us a compelling reason for our inaction. The scribes and Pharisees had this skill fine-tuned (cf. Mark 7:9-12). Paul therefore found it necessary to underscore the importance of meeting our family responsibilities (1 Timothy 5:8).

It should quickly be added that some pay so much attention to their personal affairs as to exclude their public obligations. The “cares of the world” can crowd out what might be called “kingdom concerns” (cf. Mark 4:19). Concerns with one’s family can hinder one from his commitment to follow Christ (cf. Luke 9:57-62; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35). In my opinion, there is a tendency among some Christians today to become far too introverted, using their responsibilities to their family to excuse their lack of attention to penetrating the world as “salt” and “light.”

Paul’s advice to Timothy is applicable to every Christian, for it underscores the need to attend to one’s personal responsibilities as well as one’s public duties: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16, NASB).

Attending to one’s own “inner man” is vital, not only because we must maintain our own walk with the Lord, but also because we can quickly use up our spiritual reserves in ministering to others. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy reminds us of the importance for each of us to attend to our own spiritual nurture, as well as that of others. Gordon MacDonald’s work, Ordering Your Private World, is devoted to the disciplines of this important personal ministry. I strongly recommend that you read and apply MacDonald’s advice.

(6) Leadership must deal with problems, but must guard against becoming consumed with them. Moses had gravitated into the role as Israel’s “problem-solver.” As I look at the biblical text more carefully, it seems that Moses was primarily consumed with arbitrating disputes.198 He had become more of a referee than anything else. His role was almost entirely prescriptive (problem-solving), rather than preventative (problem prevention). Jethro’s advice was that Moses rearrange his time so that priority was given to teaching the people God’s principles and precepts, thus preventing the problems, and prescribing guidelines for solving problems when they arose.

In my opinion, when we become absorbed in problem-solving, we often are so busy that we lose our sense of direction. Moses seems to have been taken totally by surprise by Jethro’s response. Moses appears to have been completely ignorant of his own failure, or of the fact that the Israelites’ needs were not being properly met. I believe that this is because he was too involved in the details of ministry and not involved enough in directing ministry.

Jethro’s Advice and Contemporary Christianity

There is one way in which all of us have been directly affected by the advice which Jethro gave Moses centuries ago. I did not think of it, but a friend of mine did, and he shared it with me as we were discussing this text. He pointed out that Jethro’s advice was probably directly related to the writing of the Pentateuch by Moses. Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament—the Pentateuch. This is a great literary work, not to mention its status as divine revelation. The writing of the Pentateuch was Moses’ implementation of Jethro’s counsel: “Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform” (Exodus 18:20).

The way Moses was consumed by his duties as judge, he would never had the time to write the very chapter which we have studied, and from which we can learn so much. How directly we have benefited from Jethro’s counsel to Moses. Millions have been blessed because of the change which Jethro’s visit brought about in the life of Moses.

No doubt many of my readers are feeling rather comfortable as they consider this passage of Scripture. In the first place, it is a text which may seem irrelevant to New Testament Christians because of its antiquity. Second, this is a text which deals with leadership, and thus those who are not official leaders in the church may feel exempted from any of the implications of the text, even if they are relevant. I want to suggest that this conclusion is wrong. Let us explore the reasons why Jethro’s advice is as relevant to every Christian today as it was to Moses centuries ago. I will seek to show the relevance of Jethro’s advice by establishing three principles below.

(1) The principles and practice advocated by Jethro are those which we can find applied by the church in the New Testament. The parallels between Exodus chapter 18 (including its implementation in Deuteronomy 1:9-18) and Acts 6 are uncanny. Both the Old and New Testament incidents stemmed from problems which were the result of rapid growth, large numbers of people, and too few leaders. Both events required the leadership to expand, and for those on the highest level of leadership to devote themselves to their primary calling, and to delegate the other ministries to highly qualified men. Jethro’s advice was that Moses appoint others to deal with the problems which arose, and for him to devote himself to intercession for the people (v. 19) and instruction (v. 20). The same practice can be seen in the New Testament. The apostles were made aware of the discrimination that was taking place in the feeding of the widows, but they quickly delegated the solution of this problem to others, rather than to become distracted from their primary responsibilities of prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:1-6).199

Acts chapter 6 is an example of how the early church applied the administrative principles of Exodus 18 and Deuteronomy chapter 1. As a matter of fact, the more I study the incident in Acts, the more inclined I am to conclude that the apostles found the precedent for their decision from these Old Testament texts. If the apostles and the early church could find the solution to their dilemma in Exodus chapter 18, why should we not apply the text to our church as well?

(2) The principles which Jethro recommended to Moses are those which we find individual leaders in the New Testament applying to their ministries. As we read the New Testament, we find that the great leaders of those days regulated their ministries in a way that was consistent with the advice Jethro gave Moses.

We may not think that our Lord could be used as an example here when we come upon certain verses in the New Testament which describe an incredibly heavy demand on the time and energy of our Lord. For example, we read: “And He came home, and the multitude gathered again, to such an extent that they could not even eat a meal. And when His own people heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him; for they were saying, ‘He has lost His senses’” (Mark 3:20-21, NASB).

Before we look at the ways in which our Lord was an example for leaders, let us bring to mind the ways in which our Lord was unique as a leader. First, He was God incarnate. Second, He was a man who had no wife or children. Third, He knew that his days were numbered, that He was destined to die on the cross of Calvary after a short ministry. In other words, our Lord was able to “burn the candle at both ends” and thus to press his body to its limits of hunger and fatigue because He was not pacing Himself for a long period of earthly ministry. Jesus was running a 100 yard dash, and thus He put His all into the little distance He ran. We are running a cross country race, and we must therefore pace ourselves differently.

Nevertheless, our Lord exercised His leadership in a way that illustrates many of the principles Moses was taught by his father-in-law. Our Lord did not purpose to minister alone. Instead, He called 12 disciples to follow Him, and these He trained to carry on without Him. In turn, they would also make other disciples. While our Lord was constantly busy, He never forgot His priorities. Even though He was constantly needed as a healer, He restricted His healing so that His principle task of proclaiming the gospel could be fulfilled (cf. Mark 1:32-39).

While our Lord ministered to the masses, He frequently withdrew for times of privacy with His Father. His public ministry was interspersed with times of private fellowship with God (cf. Matthew 4:12; 12:15; 14:13; 15:21; Luke 9:10; 22:41; John 6:16). It was at these times that critical decisions were made. Thus, our Lord always had a keen sense of His calling and purpose. He could not be deterred from it by Satan, by circumstances, or even by the wrong advice of well-meaning disciples. Our Lord always knew what it was He was sent to do, and He never wavered in His sense of direction.

I believe that a study of the life of Paul would demonstrate the same kind of leadership.200 In both cases there were constant pressures and problems. I do not believe that the efforts of contemporary Christians to live life at a slower pace are often realistic. I do believe, however, that there is a need for an inner calm, a keen sense of direction, and a clear set of priorities which govern our decisions as to what tasks we will undertake when there are more demands on our time than we can possibly meet. I believe that in those times when life is unavoidably frantic we ought to have a clear sense of our calling and that we should minister with an inner calm that facilitates our ministry. We should be like a doctor who is called to the hospital at a time of disaster. Though there may be dozens of patients dying, he can only deal with them in an orderly way. As he operates on each one, he must do so with an inner calm and confidence. If he were to panic, he could only do great harm. If he remains calm, he can be of great help, but only within his limitations. I see this kind of inner calm in our Lord and in the apostle Paul, even in times of great demand, or of great stress.

(3) The principles which Moses learned from Jethro are applicable to every Christian, whether he is a leader or not. The principles which we have learned from Jethro are leadership principles. Whether or not we are leaders in the church, most of us have some leadership responsibilities. Men have leadership responsibilities in marriage. Mothers have leadership responsibilities in the home. Older Christian women have a leadership role with the younger women. Many have leadership roles on the job or in the community. In whatever task we have a leadership role, the principles we find in Exodus 18 are applicable.

Beyond this, the principles which are found in our text apply to every Christian, for we all are stewards of the time, gifts, and opportunities which God has given us. In other words, we must take the leadership in our own lives, which involves managing those things of which God has made us stewards. In many ways, our judgment at the Bema seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:12-15) will be an assessment by our Lord of our stewardship. Frequently in the gospels there is a portrayal of God’s stewards giving account to Him for their stewardship (cf. Matthew 25:14-30). If we would be good stewards, we must be good managers, of our time, of our talents and abilities, and of our God-given opportunities.

Practically speaking, good management is necessary for our spiritual survival in a culture which is seemingly confined to the “fast track.” For some Christians, there is a need to get control of our ministries, so that they can be more effective and so that they do not defeat us in the fulfillment of our personal and private responsibilities. Some of our ministries are in such disarray that our private worlds are crumbling. For others, there is a desperate need to get control of our private and personal lives so that we can fulfill the public ministries which God has given us. There are countless Christians whose ministries are non-existent because they are squeezed out by other pressures. In either case, we need to get in control of our lives and of our ministries.

Management ability is not innate, but is learned. Good leaders are not born, they are made. Moses was called to lead the Israelites, but even with years of education in Egypt and in practical experience, Moses had a lot to learn. This should encourage those of us who feel that administration is not our forte. Let us learn from Moses that we can learn to become better managers, better administrators, better leaders.

As we conclude, let us consider several initial steps which may get us started on our way to becoming better leaders and managers.

(1) Find a Jethro. Those whose ministries are out of control may, like Moses, not even be aware of their difficulties. God gave Moses a Jethro to point out his problems. Fortunately, God has given me a Jethro, a dear Christian friend and brother, who points out the disorder in my life, and who lovingly exhorts me to get in control. If you do not have such a friend, get one.

(2) Prayerfully determine those things which should be under your control but are not, and ask God to enable you to do so.

(3) Determine the gifts of which God has made you a steward, and plan how you will best utilize them for God’s kingdom.

(4) Establish goals for your life, and form a plan as to how you will, by God’s grace, reach them. God may very well sovereignly intervene to change these plans, but better to have a plan to be changed than to have no plan at all.

(5) Establish a plan for both your private world and for your public ministry, and determine not to neglect either.

(6) Determine the priorities which will govern those things you will do and those which you will turn down. Of all the things you could do, seek to identify and to achieve those which you should do.

(7) Seek to differentiate between the crises of your life and the calling of your life, and then minimize the former and maximize the latter.

(8) Determine to facilitate the ministry of others, especially by encouraging and equipping them to do what they do best. In other words, begin to function as a Jethro to the many Moseses around you.

(9) Desire to grow in both faith and humility. Faith is required to trust God to enable you to do what He has called you to do. Faith is also required to enable you to leave what you should not do to others. Humility will keep you from self-trust, and will prevent you from taking credit for what God has accomplished. It will also enable you to resist the ego-flattering suggestion that only you are the solution to a particular problem.

185 I might as well confess that after I decided on the title “The Tyranny of the Urgent” for this chapter, I was tempted to change the title of the messages on chapters 16 and 17 to be: “The Tyranny of the Urges.”

186 Gordon MacDonald, Ordering Your Private World (New York: Oliver Nelson, 1984), pp. 13-18.

187 While this expression (“send her away”) can be used as a technical term for divorce, it is obviously used in its neutral sense here. Gispen informs us of Calvin’s explanation: “Calvin believed that Moses took Zipporah and her two sons with him to Egypt, but that he had allowed them to visit Jethro during the wilderness journey; Jethro then brought them back to Moses. The expression ‘after sending her away’ argues against this view, but it also contradicts the idea that Zipporah voluntarily left in anger to return to her father after the circumcision of her son. Moses had sent them away, and Jethro wanted to return them to Moses, now that the situation for Moses and Israel seemed to be more hopeful than Zipporah might have anticipated.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 173.

188 Jethro had good reason to be upset with Moses. He did not tell him of the call of God, nor of the real purpose of his return to Egypt, which would have endangered his daugher and grandchildren. Neither does it seem that he asked Jethro’s permission to send his family back to the land of Midian. To top matters off, Moses seemed to be in no hurry to call for his family, once the dangers of Egypt were a thing of the past.

189 The impression I gain from the text is that Jethro did not send word to Moses of his arrival until he was almost to the camp of Israel. Moses, therefore, would have been taken largely by surprise by the arrival of his family. Further explanation will reveal why.

190 On initial reading, one would tend to conclude that Moses took Jethro into his tent, in the Israelite camp, but the text tells us that Moses had gone out to meet Jethro. It was there, it would seem, that Moses kissed Jethro, and then entered into Jethro’s tent, to share what God had done for Israel. It is no wonder then, that it is not until the next day, when Moses is entertaining Jethro at his own tent that the administrative and ministerial nightmare is spotted by Jethro. One can learn a lot by a visit to the home of another.

191 Jethro is identified in verse 1 as “the priest of Midian.” This seems to signal the fact that he was not just a priest, but one of the most prominent (if not the most prominent) leaders. A similar situation can be found in John chapter 3, where Nicodemus is called “the teacher of Israel” (v. 10, cf. v. 1). Cole, observes: “The whole scene is typical of eastern courtesy. Both men are now great chiefs in their own right, and behave accordingly.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 138.

192 Cole writes: “This may not be true monotheism (the belief that there is only one god), but it certainly leads to monolatry (the worship of one god to the exclusion of others) as a logical sequence. … Was Jethro ‘caught up’ into the worship of YHWH, a ‘new convert,’ as doubtless others were later? Or had he already known and worshipped YHWH previously? Jethro’s own words here seem to favour the view that YHWH was a new god, as far as he was concerned.” Cole, p. 139.

193 Davis reminds us that, “Jethro must be considered unique, for it is clear from Scripture that the Midianites generally were idolaters (cf. Num. 25:17-18; 31:16).” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 188.

194 It occurred to me that Jethro may have been inspired to reunite Moses with his family because he became aware of the fact that Moses was now heading toward Canaan without his family. After the exodus of Israel from Egypt, Moses kept getting closer and closer to Midian and to his family. All during this time, the hopes of Moses’ family of being reunited with him were rising. If reports now placed Moses at locations which were growing more distant, one can see how Jethro would have been motivated to seek Moses out and to renite him and his family. Jethro could have feared that Moses would actually lead Israel into the promised land without taking his family along. Moses might have rationalized that this would be the “safest” thing to do. All of this is conjecture, but it is within the realm of possibility.

195 Davis, p. 187.

196 I believe that Davis is wrong when he concludes that Moses was wrongly involving himself here with civil disputes and judgments, rather than spiritual matters. He writes, “Apparently a good deal of Moses’ time was devoted to civil problems judging from the language of verse 13. … As Jethro sized up the situation he rightly concluded that Moses could not exercise effective leadership if he were constantly bogged down with civil matters.” Davis, p. 188.

Cole differs, and rightly so in my opinion, when he writes, “To see the anecdote as a separation of ‘sacred’ cases judged by Moses, and ‘civic’ cases judged by elders, seems mistaken: all justice was sacred to Israel. The administration of justice, of whatever kind, is here set in the context of sacrifice and sacred meal. The distinction is therefore not between sacred and secular but between difficult and simple matters, those already covered by tradition and revelation as against those requiring a fresh word from God, mediated through His agent, Moses.” Cole, p. 140.

197 The sluggard’s “lion in the road” is not (as I first supposed) a weakly fabricated excuse, which is easily seen through (there were lions in Israel in those days), but a compelling excuse. If there was a lion in the road, who in their right mind would go outside? Thus, the sluggard’s mind is always searching for compelling reasons for inaction.

198 The fact that Moses was occupied with the task of settling disputes is seen in Exodus 18:16 and Deuteronomy 1:12.

199 It is not coincidental that both Moses and the apostles were to give priority to intercession (prayer) and instruction (ministry of the word).

200 Cf. especially 2 Corinthians, chapters 4-7, where Paul’s ability to endure under opposition and adversity is the result of his sense of direction and calling, and from the inner strength which comes from the renewal and growth of the inner man.

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12. The Preamble to Israel’s Constitution (Exodus 19)


There is a contemporary Christian song which has become popular recently, which goes something like this: “take another lap around Mt. Sinai …” This, of course, refers to the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness, due to their disobedience. If we were to relate the lyrics of that song to Exodus chapter 19, it would go something like this: “take another lap up Mt. Sinai,” and it would be addressed to Moses, not the Israelites.

When I read Exodus chapter 19, I have a somewhat silly picture which plays in my mind. It is the picture of a profusely sweating Moses, huffing and puffing his way up and down Mt. Sinai. (I have to confess that in my mental movie, Moses is wearing a jogging suit and tennis shoes, not the flowing robes which we read about in the Bible.) Four times in the chapter Moses ascends and descends that mountain. Now I realize that Mt. Sinai is no Mt. Everest, but nevertheless it must have caused Moses to feel every one of his 80 plus years. As much as my mental picture causes me to smile as I read this chapter, there are other impressions which are far more important, and much more deliberately designed.

The 19th chapter of Exodus serves as a preamble to the commandments given by God to Israel through Moses in the following chapter. It informs us as to the purpose of the commandments, as well as to the perspective we should have toward them. There are many opinions as to how the Christian of today should relate to these commandments. Some would suggest that the Law is really a curse, and not a source of blessing. Some would tell us that the Law has absolutely no relevance or application to the Christian, since we are “not under Law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). I suggest to you that our text in Exodus chapter 19 strongly implies that the commandments which are about to be given through Moses are to be taken seriously by every believer, in every age.

This chapter divides into three major sections. In verses 1-6 we have the preface to the chapter, highlighted by the words of God to Israel, spoken to Moses in verses 4-6. Verses 7-15 constitute the second division, which pertains to the preparations required of the Israelites before God’s appearance to them on Mt. Sinai. The third section is made up of verses 16-25, which describe the appearance of God in splendor and majesty on Mt. Sinai. All of this is to set the scene for the deliverance of the Ten Commandments in chapter 20.

I am convinced that we will not appreciate the significance of the commandments in chapter 20 apart from a careful consideration of the “preamble” which is recorded in chapter 19. Our application of the Law will directly flow from our attitude toward the Law, and the purpose of chapter 19 is to shape our attitude toward the laws which follow.

God’s Purpose for the Decalogue

Verses 4-6 are the heart of the section, and some would go so far as to say they are the heart of the Old Testament revelation of God pertaining to His covenant with Israel. The first three verses set the stage for the pronouncement which God is about to make. Perhaps it is the third month “to the very day” (v. 1, cf. Exod. 12:41) that Israel is said to have arrived in the wilderness of Sinai. It may be that the Holy Spirit is reminding us by these words that Israel was right on schedule. They were precisely where God wanted them, when God wanted them there. It was here that the reunion of Moses’ family took place (Exodus 18:5). It was here that Israel would remain for 11 months (cf. Numbers 10:11).

Apparently it was not necessary for God to summon Moses. Verse three implies that Moses went up the mountain without any overt prompting from God. This may very well be due to the fact that it was here, on Mt. Horeb (which seems to by synonymous with Mt. Sinai) that Moses first encountered God (cf. Exodus 3 and 4). At the burning bush, God promised Moses that the nation would come to worship Him “at this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). Thus, Moses seemed to know that he was to ascend the mountain to speak with God.

From the mountain, God spoke some of the most significant words found in the Old Testament,201 words which Moses was to proclaim to the Israelites (vss. 3, 6b): “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6a).

These words convey several important truths:

(1) Israel’s history is proof of God’s faithfulness to His covenant, for He distinguished the Israelites from the Egyptians, delivering them and making them the special object of His care. In verse 4 God reminds the Israelites of the contrast between their fate at God’s hand at the exodus and that of the Egyptians. God brought about Israel’s deliverance, while at the same time He destroyed the Egyptians.

God uses a beautiful image here, that of the eagle’s care for its offspring. In the Book of Deuteronomy Moses explains the image more fully: “Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, That hovers over its young, He spread His wings and caught them, He carried them on His pinions” (Deuteronomy 32:11). While there were times when God seemed (to the Israelites) to have abandoned His people, in reality, God, like the mother eagle, was simply stirring up the nest, forcing the Israelites to “try their wings.” When Israel thought she was about to perish, God swooped beneath her, bearing her up. What a beautiful picture of the loving and compassionate care of God for His people. Israel’s past proved that God had dealt graciously with her, while at the same time He destroyed the Egyptians.

(2) Israel’s deliverance was for the purpose of being brought to God, so that the nation could be His prized possession and to serve Him as a priestly nation. In the Abrahamic Covenant, God promised Abraham that Israel would become great as a nation, the special object of His blessing. The blessing of Israel was also meant to be a source of blessing to all nations (Genesis 12:2). While this would ultimately be fulfilled by the coming of Messiah, there was also a more immediate application. God purposed to bless the nations by establishing Israel, His Servant, as a mediatorial people, who would be a “light to the Gentiles,” sharing with the nations the way of entering into fellowship with God.

(3) In order to maintain this privileged status, Israel must keep God’s covenant (as defined by the Law). Israel’s calling was to a position of both privilege and of responsibility. To whom much is given, much is required. Thus, in order to enjoy fellowship with God and to serve Him as His representative to the nations, Israel must reflect His holiness and purity. Israel was thus given the commandments, so that Israel would be distinct from the nations and God-like, so that they could fulfill their priestly calling.

Preparations for the Appearance of God

Moses conveyed the words which God had spoken to him on the mountain to the people (v. 7).202 Unanimously, the people responded, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” (v. 8) It is noteworthy that the Israelites agreed to do all that God commanded in principle, rather than in particular. That is, the Law has not yet been given. To this point, God has only indicated that the people must keep their covenant by obeying the laws which He is about to set down. This indicates to us the eagerness with which the Israelites anticipated the Law, as well as the implicit trust they had in the character of God, so that they could commit themselves to obedience without knowing what it is that they would obey.

Moses returned to the top of the mountain to convey the words of the people to God.203 Before he was able to speak, however, God revealed to Moses that He would appear to Moses in a thick cloud. The purpose for this appearance is not what we would have expected: “Behold, I shall come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe in you forever” (v. 9). God was going to speak with Moses as Israel watched and listened, so that his leadership would be evident to the people. In light of later (not to mention earlier) events, when Moses’ authority would be challenged, God purposes to clearly establish Moses’ position and authority publicly. His appearance to Moses will accomplish this purpose.

Verses 10-15 outline the steps which the Israelites must take in order to purify and prepare themselves for the appearance of God on the third day. During the two day interval, a number of things were to be done:

(1) Boundaries were to be set, barring both man and beast from coming in contact with the mountain (vss. 12-14). Any man or beast which touched the mountain was to die. Death was not to come from the hand of God, but from the hand of the Israelites (vss. 12-13). Execution must occur in such a way that no one would touch the executed person (v. 13).

(2) The people were to consecrate themselves by washing their garments (vss. 10, 14).

(3) The people were to abstain from sexual intimacy prior to God’s visitation on Mt. Sinai (v. 15). There was, of course, nothing evil or defiling about normal marital sexual relations, but, as the Law would later spell out, there was a ceremonial uncleanness. Thus, until God’s visitation sexual abstinence was required.

What is it that makes violating the boundaries God has set such a serious matter? Why would God demand that anyone who touches the mountain be put to death? Usually we think of “capital punishment” as the penalty for a grievous sin, such as murder or adultery. Why would execution be required here, however? Is this not unduly severe? And why would God require the person to be killed by the Israelites? Why would he not be stricken dead by God?

The text does not provide us with the answers to these questions directly, but I would like to make several suggestions, which would help to explain the severity of this offense of overstepping the barriers which were set up at the base of the mountain.

(1) We must acknowledge that the offense of violating the boundaries is an offense of the highest order, and thus worthy of the same punishment as a murderer would receive. The severity of the penalty is our clue to the seriousness of the violation. The violation here is one that must be most serious, if not in our eyes, it is at least so to God.

(2) The sin which is punishable by death appears to be that of irreverence. The barriers which were constructed at the foot of the mountain made it impossible for one to inadvertently wander onto the mountain. The reason stated for pressing past these barriers is that of gazing (v. 21)—we would say “gawking.” In other words, it was curiosity which would have motivated people to draw too close to the mountain.

To press past the barriers which were constructed to satisfy one’s curiosity would be to demonstrate an attitude of irreverence. It is this irreverence which God finds such a serious sin. If you are not inclined to agree with me as to the seriousness of irreverence, let me remind you that it was irreverence which resulted in Uzzah being struck dead, even though his intentions (to keep the ark from falling from the ox cart) were well-meaning (2 Samuel 6:6-7). It was also Moses’ irreverence (in the striking of the rock) which kept him from entering into the promised land (Numbers 20:12).

But why was it irreverent to touch the mountain? The answer to this question is clearly given in our text. The mountain was to be constituted a “holy mountain” due to the fact that God would manifest Himself to Moses and to the Israelites there. Thus, just as the ground around the burning bush was holy (Exod. 3:5), so the mountain was holy as well. This is the reason why the mountain was to be “consecrated” by placing boundaries around it (v. 23).

If irreverence is such a serious sin, it is surely one about which we should be most sensitive. And yet, I find few (including myself) who are conscious of this evil, let alone sensitive to it in their own personal relationship with God, or in their worship.

(3) Irreverence is the byproduct of an inadequate sense of the holiness of God. The Israelites did not, as yet, have an adequate grasp of the holiness of God. The manifestation of God on Mt. Sinai was a spectacular demonstration of God’s power and majesty. His coming necessitated preparatory consecration, and it also motivated continual consecration, as men could see themselves in the light of His glory and grace. The purpose of this passage is intended, I believe, to serve as an antidote to irreverence. Let us therefore consider the final section of the chapter, which highlights the majesty and holiness of God.

The Manifestation of God on the Mountain

Don Curtis, one of my friends with whom I have studied this text, shared with me that he has come to view chapter 19 something like a wedding ceremony. First, there is the engagement, the announcement of the purpose of a man and woman to be married and to enter into a new and wonderful relationship. Then, before the wedding ceremony, there is a period both of preparation (making plans, perhaps making the wedding dress, showers, etc.) and of anticipation. Traditionally, the groom does not see the bride before the ceremony, heightening the sense of expectation. Then, there is the ceremony, a time of beauty and joyous celebration.

Don’s suggestion caught my attention, for this is very much what we see in this passage. The first section (vss. 1-6) contains God’s announcement: His purpose to have a unique relationship with Israel, set apart from every other nation. The second section (vss. 7-15) describes the preparations which were required for the appearance of God to come. And now, in this final section, we are overwhelmed with the splendor and the majesty of God as He manifests Himself to Israel on the mountain. Here is the grand finale, the manifestation of God in all of His majesty, purity, and power.

The sights and sounds are impossible to fully comprehend, and not easily brought to our conscious minds as we read the chapter. But let us use our imaginations for a moment and try to recreate in our minds what it must have been like to have been standing at the base of that mountain as God descended upon it.

On the morning of the third day, you are already tingling with the sense of expectation your two days of preparations have produced. While still in your tent, thunder and lightning commence (v. 16). A thick cloud encompasses the mountain. Then, the piercing blast of a trumpet fills the air. Along with all the other Israelites, you begin to tremble, with excitement, but mainly with fear.

At the command of Moses, you gather with the whole congregation of the Israelites at the base of the mountain (v. 17). As you look on, the Lord descends upon the mountain in fire, with smoke billowing from the mountain (v. 18). Suddenly, the whole mountain quakes violently. The trumpet begins to sound again, each time getting louder and louder (v. 19). Moses speaks and God responds with thunder. It would seem that all of the forces of nature have been summoned to salute their Creator, as He manifests Himself to His people on Mt. Sinai.204 If the sight of the burning bush was awesome to Moses, what impact must this scene have had on the Israelites? Other portions of Scripture205 signal the fact that this made a great impression on the people of God.

Moses alone was summoned to the top of the mountain to meet God (v. 20). He was told to go back down to the people and to warn them not to draw too near to the mountain to gaze at the spectacular scene which was taking place (v. 21). The priests,206 too, were to consecrate themselves, lest they be smitten of God (v. 22). When Moses descended this time, he was to return with Aaron (v. 24). Their leadership was thereby confirmed.

The Problem With Our Passage

If we grasp the mood of Exodus 19 as one of glory and splendor, then we must come to the conclusion that the way the giving of the Law is portrayed here is in contrast to the way we look at the Law from the perspective of the New Testament. The problem we face is this: the giving of the Law was not the tragic imposition of a horrible system upon a reluctant nation, but rather the glorious giving of the Law by God to His people, in an occasion marked by splendor and the glory of God. The problem with acknowledging this fact is that it seems to fly in the face of the New Testament, which, we believe, speaks disparagingly of the Law, and describes its coming more in terms of a curse than a blessing. In the New Testament we do find texts which seem to disdain the Law:

But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved in stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how shall the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? (2 Cor. 3:7-8).

For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall life by faith.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live by them” (Gal. 3:10-12).

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain (Gal. 4:9-11).

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law (Gal. 5:18).

For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under Law, but under grace (Rom. 6:14).

Our problem, then, is to attempt to reconcile the positive perspective of the Law which we find in the Old Testament with the negative connotations it has in the New. Our approach will be to gain a broader grasp of the Law, as it was viewed in both the Old and the New Testaments. We will begin by considering the Law as a corporate entity, defining the relationship between God and the nation Israel, and then as a private source of revelation and inspiration to the individual Old Testament saint. From here, we will move on to the New Testament perspective of the Law as indicated by our Lord’s attitudes and actions, and those of the apostles.

The Law was Israel’s corporate covenant with God and her constitution as a nation. Repeatedly, the Law which God gave Israel through Moses was referred to as a covenant (Exod. 19:5; 24:7-8; 34:10, 27-28; Deut. 4:23; 5:2). The three principle covenants of the Old Testament were the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:1-3), the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7:11-16; 1 Chronicles 17:10-14), and the Mosaic (or Sinaitic) covenant. The Mosaic covenant is different from the other two covenants.207 This was a covenant which was provisional, and which was to be replaced by a “new covenant” which would be an eternal covenant:208

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My Law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34; cf. also Isaiah 55:3; 61:8; Ezekiel 37:26).

The Law contained not only the regulations of God, but also the account of God’s mercy and grace in saving and keeping His people. Each generation was to teach the next generation the goodness of God, and each new generation was to ratify the covenant for itself:

For He established a testimony in Jacob, And appointed a Law in Israel, Which He commanded our fathers, That they should teach them to their children; That the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born. That they should put their confidence in God, And not forget the works of God, But keep His commandments (Ps. 78:5-7).

Thus, the second generation of Israelites was reminded of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt, and of God’s care and protection up to the time of their entrance into the promised land (Deuteronomy 1-4; also the account of the exodus, as recorded in the Book of Exodus). It was necessary for this new generation to ratify the covenant for themselves (Deuteronomy 5). Later, when the Law was misplaced and then discovered, that generation also ratified the Law (2 Chronicles 34:14ff.). The Israelites who returned to Jerusalem upon their return from captivity heard the Law and accepted the covenant for themselves (Nehemiah 8 and 9; cf. especially 9:38).

The Mosaic covenant was never given as a means of earning righteousness by Law-keeping. The covenant was given to the Israelites after God had delivered them from Egypt. The Law could not be kept, except by God’s grace, and provisions were made (the sacrificial system) for men when they would fail to abide by the Law. The new covenant was promised because the Mosaic covenant could not be kept by Israel (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Whenever Israel failed with regard to the Law, it was not just a matter of violating the Law in some minute particular, but it was a result of unbelief: “Therefore the Lord heard and was full of wrath, And a fire was kindled against Jacob, And anger also mounted against Israel; Because they did not believe in God, Nor trust in His salvation” (Ps. 78:21-22; cf. also, vss. 32-33, 37).

The proper interpretation and application of the Law can best be determined by a study of the Old Testament prophets, whose task it was to call Israel to obedience to the Law. These prophets persisted in fighting a legalistic interpretation and application of the Law. They always sought to focus upon the essence of the Law, rather than upon mere particulars of its expression:

For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant; There they have dealt treacherously against Me (Hosea 6:6-7).

With what shall I come to the Lord And bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, With yearling calves? Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8).

The Law (in its broadest form—the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) was intended to serve as a record of God’s faithfulness to His promises and to His people. The ten commandments, along with the rest of the laws of God, was given to serve as the covenant between God and His people, and as their national constitution, by which the nation would be guided and governed.

The Law was also God’s personal revelation to individual saints. In addition to the public, corporate role of the Law as Israel’s (collective) covenant and constitution, the Law also had a private role to play in the life of the Old Testament saint. This role of the Law is readily seen in the Psalms. We shall focus our attention on two specific psalms, Psalms 19 and 119. Notice the crucial role the Law has in the life of the individual saint, as reflected by the psalmist in Psalm 19:

The Law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether. They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them Thy servant is warned; In keeping them there is great reward (Psalm 19:7-11).

Let me suggest some of the specific ways which the Law applied to the individual saint:

(1) The Law was seen as a source of personal edification, through which God spoke personally to the individual saint: Restoring his soul (19:7); Making the simple wise (19:7); Rejoicing his heart (19:8); Enlightening his eyes (19:8); Providing guidance (119:105); Reviving him (119:154); Convicting him of sin (119:80, 126, 133; Ps. 19:11-14).

(2) The Law was a revelation of God’s character (Ps. 119:138, 156).

(3) The Law was a promise of future salvation (Ps. 119:166, 174). The psalmists never view the Law as the standard they must keep in order to be saved. In fact, they viewed salvation as something which the Law anticipated, but did not produce itself. Thus, the psalms look forward to a future salvation, one which the Law itself will not bring about.

(4) The Law was a consolation to the sufferer, but it was not viewed as a means by which one could earn blessings or avoid adversity (cf. Ps. 119:67, 71, 75). Rather than seeing the Law as the means to keep him from suffering, the psalmist saw suffering as God’s means of bringing him to the Law.

(5) From the Law the psalmist learned that he could neither understand nor apply this revelation, apart from God’s grace (Ps. 119:68, 73, 124-125, 144, 169). The psalmist understood that the Law required God’s grace to understand and to apply.

(6) The Law was simple, yet profound. It would not be grasped quickly and easily, but only through study, prayer, and meditation (Ps. 119:114, 123, 147).

New Testament Perspectives of the Law

There is great continuity between the New Testament and the Old in terms of their perspectives of the Law. We will focus our attention on two dimensions of the New Testament perspective of the Law: that of our Lord, and that of the apostles (primarily Paul).

Our Lord and the Law. Some think that our Lord disdained and disregarded the Law, based upon a misunderstanding of two events. When our Lord was confronted with the self-righteously indignant scribes and Pharisees, who demanded that Jesus stone the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:2-11), Jesus refused to do so. This is taken by some to mean that He refused to comply with the Old Testament Law. Note, however, that Jesus did not forbid them from stoning her, only that those who were without sin should do so (thus exposing their hypocrisy). But our Lord was without sin, why then did He not stone her? The reason is not that Jesus came to set aside the Law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). This He would do by living up to all of its demands, which proved Him to be sinless and also qualified Him to die for the sins of men, thus bearing the penalty which the Law pronounces on all men. This woman who was guilty of adultery would not be stoned by our Lord because He had come to die in her place. The requirement of the Law for her sin (and that of all men) would soon be met on the cross of Calvary.

The second source of misunderstanding is the misconception of our Lord’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. The frequent expression, “You have heard … but I say” is not our Lord’s overturning of the Law. He did not mean, “The Law formerly taught … but I now teach.” Instead, He is correcting the wrong interpretation of the Law, as believed and proclaimed by the scribes and Pharisees. “You have heard” therefore refers to the pharisaic interpretation of the Law. “But I say” indicates our Lord’s interpretation of the Law, indeed, that interpretation which God had always intended men to understand.

When you compare the Lord’s interpretation of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount with that of the Old Testament prophets, you find them to be virtually identical. Both the prophets of old and the Lord focused upon the essence of the Law, both in motivation and application, while the legalistic scribes and Pharisees “majored on the minors,” the details of the Law.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:23-25).

One need only compare these words with Micah 6:6-8, and then to note how Jesus reiterated the words of Hosea 6:6 (Matthew 9:13; 12:7) to see that there was no discrepancy between His interpretation of the Law and that of the Old Testament prophets.

As I have reflected on our Lord’s teaching on the Law of the Old Testament, I believe it is safe to say that our Lord placed much more emphasis on the private or individual use of the Law than He did on the corporate function of the Law, as Israel’s covenant and constitution. This is consistent with the fact that this dimension of the Law is soon to be set aside, replaced by the new covenant. The private use of the Law, that is, the individual use of the Law as demonstrated in Psalms 19 and 119, would continue on, and thus would be that function our Lord would emphasize.

Most importantly, however, our Lord’s coming to earth and His sacrificial death on Calvary was the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise of a new covenant. Thus, our Lord instituted the “Lord’s table” as a commemoration of the “new covenant” which was accomplished through His shed blood: “And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood’” (Luke 22:20; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:25). Our Lord did not disdain the Law, but He affirmed it, affirming its demands, fulfilling them completely, and then dying on behalf of all those who could not meet its requirements. If the Law were evil our Lord would not have complied with it, taught it, and died in accordance with its demands.

The apostles’ attitude toward the Law. No apostle is more outspoken about the Law than Paul. Because of his negative statements about the Law, we often fail to overlook his favorable comments. It is Paul who spoke of the glory with which the Law was first given: “But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how shall the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory?” (2 Corinthians 3:7-8).

Paul also defended the Law as that which was “Holy,” “righteous,” “good,” and “spiritual” (Romans 7:12, 14). At the first reading of 1 Timothy chapter 1, one might conclude that the Law was good, but only with regard to those who are evil (cf. 1 Timothy 1:8-10). A more careful reading informs us that Paul not only included himself as one of those “evil” people who needed the Law in the past (v. 13), but that he still considered himself as “chief of sinners” (v. 15). Thus, Paul saw the Law as applicable to himself, even as a saint.

What, then, are we to say of those texts which seem to condemn the Law as something which is evil (at worst) and worthless (at best)? First, we must see that Paul speaks demeaningly of the Law (the old covenant) only in contrast209 to the new covenant which was implemented by the death of our Lord. Thus, in 2 Corinthians chapter 3 Paul contrasts the glory attending the giving of the Law with the greater glory associated with the ministry of the Spirit. This is not a contrast between what is evil and what is good, but rather between what was good and that which is far better. The Law is therefore viewed by the apostles as that which was prophetic—it foreshadowed the better things to come (Colossians 2:16-17; Hebrews 10:1), and that which was provisional and preparatory (Galatians 3 and 4).

When Paul speaks absolutely disparagingly of “the Law” it is not of the Law as given by God and properly interpreted and applied, but the Law as interpreted and applied by the Judaizers, who sought to pervert the Law into a system of works-oriented righteousness. It is vitally important to approach each passage which deals with the Law in the light of its context. In Romans chapter 7, for example, the context is living the Christian life. Paul is showing that the flesh is incapable of resisting the power of sin and thus of producing righteousness. The problem is not the Law, for it is “holy, righteous, and good” (7:12). The problem is the flesh, which is weak (vss. 18-24). The solution to the problem is not to do away with the requirements of the Law, but to fulfill the Law by walking in the Spirit. Those who walk in the Spirit fulfill the requirement of the Law (Romans 8:4).

In the Book of Galatians, Paul is fighting the false doctrine of the Judaizers, who insist that men are saved by submitting themselves to the Mosaic covenant, as signified by circumcision. This is nothing less than heresy, and must be adamantly rejected. The “Law” to which Paul refers in Galatians is thus the “Law” as interpreted and applied by the legalizers. Thus, Paul can write, “And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by Law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:3-4). In this context “Law” refers to the legalistic doctrine of the Judaizers.

In order to refute the false teaching of the Judaizers concerning the Law, Paul finds it necessary to teach the proper perspective of the Law. When Paul interprets the Old Testament Law, he does so in a way that is completely consistent with the Old Testament prophets and our Lord. The Law, writes Paul, was provisional and preparatory, and was superseded by the new covenant. The Law (as given by God) was not bad, it was good—but the new covenant is far better. With this conclusion the writer to the Hebrews agrees (Hebrews 8:1-13; 10:1-18). The verdict of Christ and of the apostles is unanimous, and consistent with the viewpoint of Moses and the prophets.


We can say with conviction that the giving of the Law as described in the Book of Exodus was a glorious occasion. The Law was a gracious provision of God for the nation Israel, albeit a temporary one. The new covenant would be far better, but the old covenant was a necessary prerequisite and preparation. What, then, are the practical outworkings of our text? These can best be seen in the light of the differences between the old covenant and the new.

The old covenant was introduced in a blaze of glory. All Israel beheld the manifestation of the glory and power of God as He descended upon the mountain. There was an immediate sense of the holiness of God which gripped the entire congregation of Israel. It was not so difficult for the Israelites to appreciate the distance which God kept between Himself and the people. Indeed, the people urged Moses to intercede and to mediate between them and God, fearing to be near Him (cf. Exodus 20:18-20; Deuteronomy 5:22-27). Whether due to the boundaries established at God’s orders, or to the fear of the Israelites of God, the people kept their distance.

The new covenant was introduced quite differently. The old covenant was commenced with a public appearance of God to Israel, displaying to all His majesty and might. A select few enjoyed intimate contact with God (namely Moses, Aaron, and the elders, cf. Exodus 24:9-18). The new covenant was introduced by the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ to Israel. His coming was quite the opposite. He came as the child of poor parents, who could not even find suitable housing, so that the child was born in a cattle trough. His glory was manifested to a very few. At His birth and in His early life, a few humble people were given a glimpse of His majesty and power. Later, at His baptism and transfiguration, only a select few were privileged to witness His glory. Rather than the barriers which kept men away from God, on threat of death, the multitudes pressed upon on the Lord and touched Him.

Thus, in the first covenant God’s majesty and might were manifested to all, but a select few could draw near. In the new covenant, all who wished could draw near, but only a few beheld His majesty. The first manifestation of God on Mount Sinai portrayed the marvelous truth of the holiness of God, and the separation which that demands. The second manifestation of our Lord (on Mount Calvary) revealed the marvelous grace of God, by which He drew near to men and by which we may draw near to Him. How careful we must be to keep both the holiness and the grace of God in perspective. There are some that stress the grace of God to the point of diminishing the truth of His holiness, and of our need for purity. There are others (not many) who so emphasize the holiness of God that men despair of ever having intimate fellowship with Him. The coming of our Lord makes it possible for men to have intimate fellowship with the same God who was manifested on Mt. Sinai.

The message of the gospel is evident in what we see here. The barriers which were, of necessity, constructed to keep men from God at the giving of the old covenant have all been taken away by the institution of the new covenant. The veil which kept men from the presence of God has been severed. The barrier of our sins has been torn down. This is because the holiness which the Law requires has been fulfilled by the Lord Jesus Christ, just as the penalty of death which the Law pronounces on every sinner has been born by the same Savior, on the cross of Calvary.

Let all those who would point to the gentle Jesus, who refused to cast the first stone at the woman caught in adultery, comforted by His refusal to condemn her, be reminded that He is the same God who was so holy that men dreaded even to approach Him, let alone offend Him on Mt. Sinai. Let them also be warned that this same Lord will, one final time, manifest Himself to men on a mountain, in the same splendor and awesome power that God appeared on Mt. Sinai:

And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives will be split in its middle from east to west by a very large valley, so that half of the mountain will move toward the north and the other half toward the south. And you will flee by the valley of My mountains, for the valley of the mountains will reach to Azel; yes, you will flee just as you fled before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lord, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him! (Zechariah 14:4-5).

In that day, those who have trusted in God will rejoice in the presence of God, but His enemies will flee. The God who has drawn near in Jesus Christ will return in splendor and glory, to reward the righteous and to render judgment on the wicked. Let us rejoice in the holiness and in the grace of God. Let us look forward to His appearance because we belong to Him. And let us, like Israel, prepare for His appearance by the purification which He requires, and which His Spirit accomplishes.

A final word on the application of the Law to the lives of Christians today. Surely we can see that the standard of the Law is still valid, as indicated in Romans 8:4. Also, we should be cautioned about trying to apply those aspects of the Law which have been done away with by the new covenant. We should not attempt to apply the Law to our nation and our government (as a covenant and a constitution) in the way Israel was commanded to do. Nevertheless, we are now the kingdom of priests, having been given that holy task which Israel was given and failed to fulfill. We should therefore understand that the standards for God’s kingdom of priests would be the same. The means of reaching this standard is not that of human effort at Law-keeping. It never was, and it never will be. We can never fully meet this standard, but in Christ it has been met. We can never achieve it in this life, but since Christ lives in us, we can expect evidences of righteousness because He is at work in us to will and to do His good pleasure.

The personal application of the Law, as seen in Psalms 19 and 119 is still valid and necessary for the Christian today. We should therefore come to a love of God’s Law and a delight in it that approaches that of the saints of old. Let us learn to love God’s Law and to see its beauty, because it is holy, righteous, and good, and because it has been fulfilled in Christ.

201 Gispen cites others to show the importance of the revelation contained in verses 4-6: “These words were spoken out of unfathomable love, which have been considered the center and theme of the entire Pentateuch (e.g., by Rupprecht, a conservative German Old Testament scholar, and Dillmann, who calls vv. 3-6 ‘the classic pronouncement of the Old Testament concerning the nature and purpose of the theocratic covenant’).” Gispen, p. 180.

202 This was done by means of the elders (v. 7). Due to the size of the nation, the elders would be told the message by Moses, and they would then convey it to the rest of the nation.

203 The mediatorial role of Moses is evident here, for God surely did not need to be told what the people had said. Notice that in verse 8 Moses returned to convey the words of the people to God, but that were reported as spoken by Moses in verse 9b. Before Moses spoke, God informed him of His appearance in a thick cloud, an appearance which would reveal the majesty and splendor of God (v. 9a).

204 The manifestation of the majesty of God on Mt. Sinai serves, I believe, as a commentary on these words of our Lord, spoken in response to the rebuke of the Pharisees for receiving the praise of the people as He entered Jerusalem: “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” (Luke 19:40). Nature responds to the presence of God, even when men are ignorant of it.

205 Cf., for example, Deut. 4:10-15; 5:2-6; Psalm 18:8-16.

206 We might be caught by surprise to see priests referred to here, since the priesthood had not yet been established. Let it suffice to say that many of the things formally established by the Law given at Sinai were already existent in some form already. Sacrifice, for example, predated the inauguration of the sacrificial system of the Law. Sabbath rest (cf. Exodus 16:22-30) predated the commandment to observe the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11).

207 “… most Old Testament scholars link the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants on royal grant types of treaties. … But the Sinaitic covenant is placed on a different footing even though it shares much of the same substance with the Abrahamic and Davidic promises. It is not modeled on royal grant treaties, but on a vassal treaty form.” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1983), p. 76.

208 Cf. Ezekiel 16:60; 37:26; Isaiah 55:3; 59:21.

209 In summary form, here are some of the contrasts between the old and the new covenants: Mosaic Covenant: (1) Provisional; (2) Partial (a shadow); (3) Taken advantage of by Law (Rom. 7); (4) Prophetic/prototype; (5) Good; (6) Written on Stone; (7) Conditional; (8) Condemnation. New covenant: (1) Permanent; (2) Complete; (3) Nullifies the condemnation of Law; (4) Final, fulfilment; (5) Best; (6) Written on hearts; (7) Unconditional; (8) Justification.

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13. An Overview of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17)


We know that “all Scripture is profitable” (2 Timothy 3:16). We should also know that some portions of Scripture are more crucial than others. Some texts of Scripture serve as a key to the understanding of other Scripture. For example, the parable of the soils (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-25) is a significant clue to understanding the teaching of our Lord. It is a key to grasping the reason for His use of parables (Mark 4:13). It was also the key to understanding the differing responses of men to the message of our Lord.

The Decalogue210 (the Ten Commandments) is one of the keys to understanding the Old Testament. Cole writes: “… the ‘ten words’ are at once the beginning and the heart of the Mosaic revelation. Around the ‘ten words’ it is possible to group most of the provisions of the ‘book of the covenant’ in chapters 21-23, and around the book of the covenant in turn to group the rest of the Torah.”211

While all do not agree on this point, I believe that Cole is right in his conclusion that the Ten Commandments are an introductory summary of the Law,212 the central core of the more lengthy Law of Moses which will follow in the Pentateuch. The essence of the Law is outlined for us first, and then the more detailed documentation of the Law will follow.

I am opposed in principle to the “red letter” editions of the Bible because they imply that the words of Jesus are somehow more inspired than those of the apostles and prophets. Nevertheless, I will remind you that verse 1 of chapter 20 begins by informing us that these commandments were not indirectly given to the Israelites, but were spoken by God directly: “Then God spoke all these words, saying …” (Exodus 20:1). We thus have one of the few “red letter” statements of the Old Testament before us. Surely we must sense that something significant has been spoken, to which we should give heed.

In following lessons, we will look at each of the commandments in detail, but in this lesson we will attempt to gain an appreciation for the Ten Commandments as a whole. They are, after all, a unit, and must be understood individually in relationship to the whole. We will therefore seek to get an overall impression of the commandments as a whole in preparation for our more exacting study of the Law in its parts.

The Structure of the Decalogue

I suppose that most of us have a mental picture of the Ten Commandments, with five of them engraved into each of the two stone tablets. Actually, there is a great difference of opinion on this particular matter.213 Also, there are a number of differences over the numbering of the commandments.214 Our attention, however, will be directed toward the overall structure of the commandments.

It has been noted that there are really only three positive statements made in verses 2-17, while the remaining statements are negative—prohibitions. This has led some to view the commandments as having a three-fold division.215 Seen in this way, the commandments can be outlined in this way: Israel’s Worship (vss. 2-7); Israel’s Work (vss. 8-11); and Israel’s Walk (vss. 12-17). This is the general outline which will be assumed in our study of the commandments.

The Characteristics of the Commandments

As we consider the Ten Commandments as a whole, there are a number of characteristics which are noteworthy.

(1) The content of the commandments is not really new. Kaiser points out that while the commandments are formally given as God’s Law here, the Book of Genesis reveals the fact that these formalized laws were already followed, or assumed as a moral standard:

In spite of its marvelous succinctness, economy of words, and comprehensive vision, it must not be thought that the Decalogue was inaugurated and promulgated at Sinai for the first time. All Ten Commandments had been part of the Law of God previously written on hearts instead of stone, for all ten appear, in one way or another, in Genesis. They are:

    The first, Genesis 35:2: ‘Get rid of the foreign gods.’
    The second, Genesis 31:39: Laban to Jacob: ‘But why did you steal my gods?’
    The third, Genesis 24:3: ‘I want you to swear by the Lord.’
    The fourth, Genesis 2:3: ‘God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.’
    The fifth, Genesis 27:41: ‘The days of mourning my father are near.’
    The sixth, Genesis 4:9: ‘Where is your brother Abel?’
    The seventh, Genesis 39:9: ‘How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?’
    The eighth, Genesis 44:4-7: ‘Why have you stolen my silver cup?’
    The ninth, Genesis 39:17: ‘[Joseph] came to me to make sport of me … but … he ran. …’
    The tenth, Genesis 12:18; 20:3: ‘You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.’

Of course, not every one of these illustrations are equally clear, for the text does not pause to moralize on the narratives, but each would appear to add to the orders of creation already given in the first chapters of Genesis.216

(2) The Decalogue is in the form of the suzerainty-vassal treaties of that day in the ancient Near East. Archeologists have discovered that there were certain literary forms by which treaties were made between the king and his subjects. Comparing the Decalogue with these Near Eastern treaties reveals that the same suzerainty-vassal treaty form was employed in the covenant which God gave Israel.

… God reveals Himself precisely in those moral commandments. To Israel, the ‘book of the covenant’ is a definition of the terms under which God, as a great monarch, accepts Israel as His subjects under a ‘suzerainty treaty’ … The ‘great king’ stated his identity, outlined what he had done for his prospective vassal, promised future protection and, on the grounds and basis of this, demanded exclusive loyalty and laid down certain obligations for his subjects. Often lists of curses and blessings are appended: these too are familiar from the Old Testament.217

(3) The Decalogue, while similar in form to other Near Eastern treaties, is strikingly different in its content. It has been observed that there are similarities between the Law of Moses and other Near Eastern treaties, such as the Code of Hammurabi. The two covenants are decidedly different in that the Mosaic covenant is based upon religious belief, while the Code of Hammurabi (and others) is not:

The main similarity lies in their form, e.g., in the use of the formula ‘if someone … then. …’ The discovery of the Code of Hammurabi has reinstated the previously mentioned ‘Book of the Covenant’ … and the Decalogue as being of Mosaic origin. … But the Code of Hammurabi stands on a lower level than the Decalogue, if only because the former does not forbid covetousness (cf. 20:17). H. T. Obbink says: The entire code of Hammurabi does not contain a single religious idea, not even in the laws concerning temple prostitutes and magic’ (Inleiding tot den Bijbel, p. 27). The purpose is not to inculcate godliness, but rather to regulate social relationships. And Israel’s laws are, according to Wildeboer, more imbued with a spirit of mercy. But we must not forget that Hammurabi’s code was intended to be a legal rather than a religious document.218

The Decalogue is religious in nature, beginning with stipulations related to Israel’s relationship to her God, the God who delivered her from her bondage in Egypt. Every stipulation from beginning to end, is based upon Israel’s relationship to her God. The codes of other Near Eastern covenants is thoroughly secular.

(4) The Decalogue is, in one sense, intensely personal.

It [the Law] was, first of all, intensely personal. God spoke from heaven so all the people could hear his voice (Deut. 4:32-34: ‘Has any other people heard the voice of god speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived?’). The ultimate motivation for doing the Law was to be like the Lord—in holiness (Lev. 20:26) and action (Deut. 10:17-19; 14:1-2; 16:18-20). The covenant aims to establish a personal relationship, not a code of conduct in the abstract.219

Students of the Decalogue have observed that the “you” in the commandments is not plural, but singular. The mood, likewise, is that of exhortation. Each individual is therefore urged to enter into the joy of service (of being a holy priesthood) by adopting this covenant and by obeying the laws which are contained therein.

(5) The Decalogue is a not only a constitution, it is God’s standard for Israel’s culture. As I was studying the commandments, it suddenly occurred to me that God was prescribing, to a large degree, the culture of the nation Israel. We evaluate men by their character (or at least we should). But what is the measure of a nation? I submit to you that a people can, to a large degree, be judged by their culture. While some aspects of a culture are amoral, many are not. By giving Israel the Decalogue, God was prescribing the moral base for their culture.

Remember that Israel had just emerged from the Egyptian culture. As a persecuted minority, the Egyptian culture, to which the Israelites had been exposed for 400 years, was perhaps easier to shrug off when they left that land. On the other hand, the Canaanite culture was surely not one which was to be adopted by God’s people. Thus, God gave the Law to Israel to dictate not only individual conduct, but to establish a corporate code of behavior, a new culture, if you would.

The significance of this can hardly be overemphasized. When God saved Israel, He did so as a nation. The nation is composed of individuals, with its corporate witness equal to the sum total of the godliness of every Israelite. From New Testament times, God has saved individuals, but He has made them a part of a corporate body, His church. While there is much room for cultural differences in the church (cf. Acts 15), there are some dimensions of one’s culture which must be set aside because they are inconsistent with Christian morality. There is a sense in which the church corporately establishes its own culture. This may be one reason why John R. W. Stott entitled his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, Christian Counter-Culture.220

(6) The commandments are predominantly negative. It doesn’t take long for the reader to observe that there are more no’s and do not’s in the Decalogue than there are positive statements. While this cannot be denied, I would suggest that the overall tone of the text is positive, nevertheless. I come to this conclusion on the basis of several factors.

The main reason why we focus on the negatives here in the Decalogue is because we have a negative attitude toward the Law. Those of us who believe that we are “not under Law, but under grace” (Romans 6:15), need not seek to give the new covenant its proper place by trying to make the old covenant look bad. The biblical stance, as I have previously proposed, is that the old covenant was good, while the new covenant is better.

I am reminded of R. C. Sproul’s comments about the grace which is evident in the Old Testament Law:

We cannot deny that the New Testament seems to reduce the number of capital offenses. By comparison the Old Testament seems radically severe. What we fail to remember, however, is that the Old Testament list represents a massive reduction in capital crimes from the original list. The Old Testament code represents a bending over backwards of divine patience and forbearance. The Old Testament Law is one of astonishing grace.

Astonishing grace? I will say it again. The Old Testament list of capital crimes represents a massive reduction of the original list. It is an astonishing measure of grace. The Old Testament record is chiefly a record of the grace of God.221

As Sproul will go on to say, originally the standard was, “The soul that sins shall die.” Adam and Eve had the death penalty pronounced upon them because of their partaking of a forbidden fruit. That was not murder, rape, or kidnapping; it was disobedience to a simple command of God. In our society, it would hardly rate as a misdemeanor, let alone be considered a felony, worthy of the death sentence. The Law, then, greatly reduced the number of offenses which were punishable by death. Once again, we find that the Law had a very positive dimension.

Every prohibition (negatives) is the outworking of an initial positive statement (of which there are three). As we have seen above, the Decalogue can be viewed as having three positive statements, each of which is followed by corresponding prohibition. While we are inclined to focus on the fact that there are more negatives than positives, let us remember that the negatives are all the logical consequence of an initial positive statement.

The laws of physics tell us that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The same is true in the moral and spiritual realm. For every positive there are corresponding negatives. If we are to shine as lights in this dark world we must avoid the evil deeds of darkness. If we are to be pure and holy, we must avoid that which is unclean. The emphasis should be on the positive, not on the negative. Negatives are only necessary in order to produce positive results.

One may wonder why it would not have been possible for God to have made more positive statements than negative ones. The answer is simple: when the number of positives greatly exceeds the number of negatives, it is simpler to name the negatives. As counted, there are something like nine negative commands, but this is a very few negatives when you think about it, especially when compared to the number of positive things which constitute obedience to the commandments.

Let me attempt to illustrate the positive dimension of negative commandments by drawing your attention to the vows a husband takes in the marriage ceremony. The husband to be will promise that he will “forsake all others” and take this one woman as his wife. The husband could say to himself, “I cannot live with Betty as my wife … I cannot live with Sarah as my wife … I cannot live with Paula as my wife …” On and on the husband could go. In this mode of thinking, the husband could think of millions of women with whom he could not live as husband and wife. But he does not think this way. Instead, the husband who has just taken his vow to forsake all others goes his way rejoicing in this one positive truth, which overrides all others: “I can take Betty Lou (or whatever his one wife’s name is) as my wife—Hallelujah!” It is not the number of no’s compared to the number of yes’s, but the value of the yes that matters most. In this light, the few negatives of the Ten Commandments are far outweighed by the positive blessing of having fellowship with God and taking part in being a priestly nation, which manifests God to men.

In order to keep the commandments to a concise summary statement, God found it easier to list the few prohibitions (negatives) than to attempt to enumerate every positive freedom under the Law. When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, He could have walked about the garden with them saying, “This, Adam and Eve,222 is a Jonathan apple tree. You may eat of its fruit.” “This is a MacIntosh apple tree, of which you can eat as well.” “And this is an Alberta peach tree. You may eat its peaches. …” This could have gone on for a long time. Finally, God could then have said, “Now as for this one tree, you cannot eat of its fruit, lest you die.” This method would have emphasized the freedom which they had in the garden, but it would have made the Book of Genesis a whole lot longer. And so, for the sake of brevity, God simply said, “You may freely eat of the fruit of every tree of the garden, but of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat, lest you die” (my paraphrase of Genesis 2:16-17).

Satan attempted to take that one prohibition and to create in the minds of Adam and Eve the suspicion that God was really negative and restrictive, rather than generous and gracious. And so it can be with the Law as well. Satan would like nothing better than to underscore the negatives of the Law so that we would lose sight of the positive contribution of the Law. Thus, we find the teaching of negatives a part of the satanic strategy of deception, in the hope of getting men’s attention off of God’s grace (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1-5).

The Decalogue is positive because our Lord said so. When asked to summarize the essence of the Law our Lord responded, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

In Exodus 20 God expressed the essence of the Old Testament Law in ten principle statements. Here, our Lord summarized the Law even more concisely, expressing its essence in two statements.

If we were asked to capture the essence of the Law in but one word, based upon the response of our Lord in Matthew chapter 22, what would that one word be? Without a doubt, that word would have to be love. The Law can be summarized in this simple way: Love (1) God; and (2) your neighbor.

Now, is love a positive or a negative concept? Primarily, it is a positive concept. Secondarily, it is a negative one. The reason is that love is exclusive, we love someone or something over something else. Thus, love is positive, but it has negative implications. This is precisely the way we should view the Law. It is essentially and fundamentally positive, although this positive dimension has negative implications.

Finally, the Decalogue is positive because God purposed that the demands of the Decalogue would be fulfilled by one Israelite—the Messiah—not the nation as a whole.

In Exodus chapter 19 we learned that the giving of the Law was directly related to Israel’s calling to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (v. 6). Israel was called of God for a specific purpose: to manifest God to the world by being a “kingdom of priests,” and a “light to the Gentiles” (cf. Isaiah 42:6; 60:1-3). In order to do this Israel must keep the Law of God, not in order to be saved, but in order to manifest the character of God. If Israel was to represent God they must be like God. The Law defined how God’s holiness would be manifested in the lives of men and women. When the Israelites failed to obey God’s Law they also failed to manifest their God to the nations.

This did not come as a surprise to God, however. God never had any delusions that Israel would ever live up to the standard set by the Law. After the Law was given (for the second time) in Deuteronomy, God said, “‘Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!’” (Deuteronomy 5:29).

Later on, when the people pledged to follow God and to obey His Law under the leadership of Joshua, Joshua responded,

“You will not be able to serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression of your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” And Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen for yourselves the Lord, to serve Him” (Joshua 24:19-22).

The history of Israel is the account of how one generation after another failed to live up to her high calling and according to the standard of the Law. We learn from the New Testament that God knew Israel would fail and thus planned to fulfill His promise to Abraham another way. Thus, we read,

Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on Law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise (Galatians 3:15-18).

This is not the time for a full exposition of this text. Notice, however, how Paul stresses that the promise of God given in the Abrahamic covenant looks forward to its fulfillment by one person (seed, singular), rather than by a group (seeds, plural). Paul underscores that God never expected Israel to be a blessing to the Gentiles as a nation, by her fulfillment of the Mosaic covenant. Instead, God purposed to fulfill the Abrahamic covenant through one person, the seed, Israel’s Messiah. So it was that the promise to Abraham would be fulfilled. So, too, through Messiah, Israel’s high calling would be fulfilled.

We see this evidenced in the Old Testament Scriptures. There is a mysterious blending or converging (at least in Old Testament times) of Israel’s corporate identity and her identity with Messiah. Let me point out a couple of examples of how Israel’s corporate destiny was realized through the one seed, Messiah. Israel was to be “a light to the Gentiles,” and yet in those passages which speak of this function we gain the definite impression that somehow this function is the task of a single person. Note the blending of the individual and the collective in these passages:

The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them (Isaiah 9:2; cf. Matt. 4:12-16).

“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you, And I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6; cf. Luke 2:32; cf. also Isaiah 51:4).

And if you give yourself to the hungry, And satisfy the desire of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness, And your gloom will become like midday (Isaiah 58:10).

“Arise, shine; for you light has come, And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth, And deep darkness the peoples; But the Lord will rise upon you, And His glory will appear upon you. And nations will come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes round about, and see; They all gather together, they come to you. Your sons will come from afar, And your daughters will be carried in the arms. Then you will see and be radiant, And your heart will thrill and rejoice; Because the abundance of the sea will be turned to you, The wealth of the nations will come to you” (Isaiah 60:1-5).

At one time, the “light to the Gentiles” is Israel itself, and yet the Messiah is the one who is seen as the “light to the Gentiles.” This is especially clear in the quotation of these texts from Isaiah in the gospels, referring to our Lord’s coming.

The same merging of Israel’s calling and destiny with that of her Messiah is seen in the references to “the servant” of the Lord in Isaiah:

“But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, Descendent of Abraham My friend” (Isaiah 41:8).

“Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry out or raise His voice, Nor make His voice heard in the street. A bruised reed He will not break, And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not be disheartened or crushed, Until He has established justice in the earth; And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His Law” (Isaiah 42:1-4).

Once one recognizes the interchange between the corporate (Israel) and the singular (Messiah) sense in which “servant” is used in servant portion of Isaiah, you can understand why it is difficult, at times, to discern which of the two senses is most prominent. For example, in my edition of the NASB, the text is rendered this way:

Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up, and greatly exalted. Just as many were astonished at you, My people, So His appearance was marred more than any man, And His form more than the sons of men (Isaiah 52:13-14).

The expression “My people,” is italicized in the text, indicating that it has been supplied by the translators to enhance the sense of the literal text. Later editions have deleted this expression. Some evangelical scholars were greatly distressed because the translators suggested that the plight of the nation Israel was the cause of many being astonished. They rightly insist that the entire portion of this passage (52:13—53:12) is referring to the suffering Servant, Israel’s Messiah, not the nation itself. But when you see how Israel (God’s servant) was inseparably identified with Messiah (God’s Servant), the reason for the difficulty is obvious, even if the translators were wrong in their rendering of the text.

In the Gospels we have various other clues to the way in which our Lord, the Messiah, retraced, as it were, the steps of the Israel, only in a way that perfectly fulfilled God’s precepts and purposes, thus achieving for Israel what she, as a nation, failed to accomplish. Israel spent forty years in the desert, but when there was no food or water, the people grumbled. Our Lord spent forty days in the wilderness, going without food and yet perfectly obeying God, in the midst of intense satanic temptation. And when our Lord responded to Satan’s temptations, He did so from the passage in Deuteronomy chapter 8, which spoke of God’s purposes in Israel’s testings. Thus we should not be surprised when we read in the gospel of Matthew: “And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt; and was there until the death of Herod, that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, ‘Out of Egypt did I call My Son’” (Matthew 2:14-15).

This is a citation from the prophecy of Hosea, which is a reference to the exodus of the nation Israel: “When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son” (Hosea 11:1). The corporate calling of Israel out of Egypt is now seen as a prophecy or prototype of the calling of Messiah from Egypt. The New Testament writers therefore saw the merging of Israel’s corporate identity and her identity with the one “seed” of Abraham, Messiah.

The important thing to see is that Israel’s failure to keep the Law was dealt with by Messiah’s perfect obedience of the Law. The death penalty which the Law pronounced on Law-breakers was executed on Israel’s Messiah. The righteousness which the Law required was the righteousness of Messiah. The task of revealing God to men was fully carried out by Messiah.

This is why the Law is such good news. The higher the standard of the Law, the more impossible it was for Israelites to keep it. But, when they failed, the greater the accomplishment of Messiah, who did keep it, to the letter. The blessing which God promised to Israel and to the nations in the Abrahamic covenant was not the blessing which came from man’s Law-keeping, but the blessing which came from Messiah, the perfect Law-keeper and Law-fulfiller. The blessings which Israel seeks are those which can be experienced by being in Messiah, by faith. The blessings which the Gentiles are promised are those which are offered to those who, by faith, are “in Christ” (Messiah). The good news of the gospel is that the penalty which the Law prescribed has been carried out on Messiah, who died in the sinner’s place. The blessings which are promised to the righteous are also those which come to all who are “in Christ,” and who can therefore share in His righteousness.

The Law is a positive blessing, not because Israel was able to keep it, or that we can either, but that Christ has fulfilled it, and offers all who trust in Him the blessings He has won. My prayer is that you can rejoice in the demands of the Law, knowing that these have been met, and that you are “in Him” who met them.

210 “In 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13; 10:4 it is called literally ‘the ten words’ (translated ‘Ten Commandments’), and hence the name ‘Decalogue’ (from the Greek deka = ‘ten’ and logos = ‘word’), which was apparently used first by Clemens of Alexandria, and is appropriate.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 185.

211 R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 149.

212 There are other such summaries, as Kaiser points out: “This penchant for reducing a maze of details into a limited set of principles is not limited to the two accounts of the Decalogue in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. There are at least seven other summaries to which the Jewish community have regularly pointed. These are: the eleven principles of Psalm 15 (cf. Ps. 24:3-6); the six commands of Isaiah 33:15; the three commands of Micah 6:8; the two commands of Isaiah 56:1; and the one command of Amos 5:4; Habakkuk 2:4; and Leviticus 19:2.” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1983), p. 81.

213 “There is no agreement as to whether each of the two tablets contained five commandments (Philo, Josephus, Irenaeus, etc), or one four and the other six (Calvin), or one three and the other seven (Augustine). Today some are of the opinion that each of the two tablets contained all ten commandments …” Gispen, pp. 187-188.

214 “The laws are not numbered, however; therefore Roman Catholic and Lutheran communions make but one what Reformed and Greek Orthodox call the first two. In order to keep the number ten, the reformed and Greek Orthodox must divide the tenth commandment into two, making the first sentence of the tenth commandment number nine and the rest number ten.” Kaiser, p. 82. Cf. also, Cole, p. 152.

215 “There are only three positive statements in verses 2-17 of Exodus 20—all without a finite verb. … John J. Owens has suggested that these three clauses might serve as the basis for dividing up the Decalogue into three sections and govern the other seven commands. In fact, in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, the commands are connected (unlike Exodus 20:2-17) by the conjunction … (‘and’) that suggests that they are all governed by the fifth commandment. If adopted, the phrases might be rendered: (1) I being the Lord your God … [therefore observe commandments one to three]; (2) Remembering the Sabbath day … [therefore do vv. 9-11]; and (3) Honoring your father and mother … [therefore observe commandments six to ten]. It would seem appropriate, therefore, to use this outline for discussing the Decalogue: (1) Right Relations With God (vv. 2-7), (2) Right Relations With Work (vv. 8-11), and (3) Right Relations With Society (vv. 12-17).” Kaiser, p. 84.

216 Kaiser, pp. 81-82. Gispen seems to agree, when he writes, “… the archaeological discoveries support the thesis that the Ten Commandments are a restatement and clarification of the innate moral Law with which man was created (cf. Rom. 2:14-15).” Gispen, p. 186.

217 Cole, pp. 150, 153. Referring to Exodus 20:2, Cole writes, “Our new understanding of the process of covenant making in early Western Asia … has shown conclusively that such a self-proclamation is an integral part of any covenant making. Although Mendenhall’s evidence is largely from Hittite sources, no doubt the Hittites are simply reproducing what was the wider pattern throughout the whole area” (p. 153). Cole goes on to indicate that while the form is strikingly similar to the ancient Hittite suzerainty treaties, this does not mean that the content is diluted or diminished in any way, comparing the similarities in style to that of Paul’s letters with the contemporary Greek format of his day (p. 153).

218 Gispen, p. 186.

219 Kaiser, p. 77.

220 John R. W. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978).

221 R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1985), p. 148.

222 Just to keep the record straight, God seems to have given the command regarding the forbidden fruit only to Adam, since Eve had not yet been created. It would appear that it was Adam’s responsibility to communicate this command to her.

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14. Israel’s Worship (Exodus 20:1-7)


The importance of the first three of the ten commandments cannot be overestimated. Our Lord’s summation of them is given in the gospels:

And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment” (Matthew 22:35-38).

If the first and foremost commandment of the Law is to love God, and loving God is explained more fully in the first three commandments, we are dealing with the very essence of the Law in this lesson. We can say, then, that our study is crucial because the test deals with man’s number one priority—his worship of God.

Because the worship of God is primary, false worship is one of the greatest evils man can practice. Idolatry is a serious problem, and not just for the Israelite of Old Testament times. The final sentence of John’s first epistle (1 John 5:21) is a warning against idolatry. Idolatry is dangerous because it involves the worship of demons (1 Cor. 10:20; cf. Deut. 32:17), and because we can do it thinking that we are actually worshipping God (cf. Exod. 32:1-6; 1 Kings 12:28-30).

One of the finest books written in recent years is Loving God, written by Chuck Colson. In the introduction to this book, Colson describes his attempt to learn from other Christians what it means to love God:

The greatest commandment of all, Jesus said, is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” I’d memorized those words but had never really thought about what they meant in practical terms; that is, how to fulfill that command. I wondered if others felt the same way. So I asked a number of more experienced Christians how they loved God.

… The cumulative effect of my survey convinced me that most of us, as professing Christians, do not really know how to love God. Not only have we not given thought to what the greatest commandment means in our day-to-day existence, we have not obeyed it.223

This reveals another reason why our text is so important. Not only is loving God our highest priority, but it is one which is poorly understood, so far as its implementation. Most thoughtful Christians may be able to tell you that loving God is the most important duty of man, but they struggle with the very practical matter of how such love is expressed.

There is another reason why our text is so important to Christians living in 20th century America. The warnings we find in Exodus (and indeed the entire Old Testament) regarding the worship of other gods and idols seems totally irrelevant. We feel as safe in listening to these words as Christians sometimes do listening to an evangelist preach the message of the gospel—that, we think, doesn’t apply to us any more.

Such a conclusion would be hasty and ill-founded, as has been pointed out by those who have thought more carefully on these things. Consider, for example, these words from the pen of Herbert Schlossberg: “But anyone with a hierarchy of values has placed something at its apex, and whatever that is is the god he serves. The Old and New Testaments call such gods idols and provide sufficient reason for affirming that the systems that give them allegiance are religions.”224

Idolatry in its larger meaning is properly understood as any substitution of what is created for the creator. People may worship nature, money, mankind, power, history, or social and political systems instead of the God who created them all. The New Testament writers, in particular, recognized that the relationship need not be explicitly one of cultic worship; a man can place anyone or anything at the top of his pyramid of values, and that is ultimately what he serves. The ultimacy of that service profoundly affects the way he lives. When the society around him also turns away from God to idols, it is an idolatrous society and therefore is heading for destruction.225

Western society, in turning away from Christian faith, has turned to other things. This process is commonly called secularization, but that conveys only the negative aspect. The word connotes the turning away from the worship of God while ignoring the fact that something is turned to in its place. Even atheists are usually idolatrous, as Niebuhr said, because they elevate some “principle of coherence” to the central meaning of life and this is what then provides the focus of significance for that life. Niebuhr’s principle of coherence corresponds to what we referred to earlier as the apex of the hierarchy of values. All such principles that substitute for God exemplify the biblical concept of idol. The bulk of this book is an exploration of the forms these idols take in late twentieth-century America. … Our argument, then, is that idolatry and its associated concepts provide a better framework for us to understand our own society than do any of the alternatives.226

Dave Hunt and T. A. McMahon, in their recent book, The Seduction of Christianity, have a chapter entitled, “Christianized Idolatry?”227 One could go on and on with the evidences that our society has become idolatrous, but this we shall see more clearly as we proceed with this lesson.

Some Crucial Definitions

The prohibitions which we are about to study require an understanding of the meaning of God, “gods,” and “idols.” These terms seem so common that we might not think a definition of each is required. I have concluded that it is only when these terms are defined that we can understand the meaning of the three commandments we are about to study.

GODS: When the Bible speaks of “gods” there are several characteristics common to virtually all. It is these characteristics which enable us to define “gods” somewhat generically.

First, “gods” are the object of man’s worship and service. “Gods,” then, have a certain authority and claim over men, which men acknowledge by their worship and service. The strength of this claim over men is seen by the price which men are willing to pay in order to worship their gods. In some instances pagans actually offer their children as sacrifices to the gods. The value attributed to the gods is therefore extremely high in many instances.

Second, “gods” are superhuman beings, possessing powers much greater than men. The powers which the gods possess are restricted to certain aspects of life. A given god may have control over fertility, while another over the rains or agricultural productivity, and yet another over war (as when Goliath cursed David in the name of his gods (1 Samuel 17:43). Most gods operate within certain geographical boundaries (often, the boundaries of a nation or empire, cf. Judges 10:6; 2 Kings 17:27-31; 18:33-35). In the Old Testament we find “mountain gods” distinguished from “plain gods” (1 Kings 14:23, 28).

The gods are worshipped for very pragmatic reasons. Almost never are the gods worshipped for their intrinsic beauty or goodness, but for what they control. Hostile, capricious gods are worshipped to appease their anger and to avert the outpouring of their wrath. Others are worshipped largely due to the powers which they possess and the benefits which they produce. In other words, the gods are viewed by their subjects as means to a desired end. It is no wonder that the worship of false gods is called harlotry in the Bible. The relationship between men and the gods is closely akin to prostitution. A price is paid and a service is rendered, but there is certainly no love between the two parties.

Third, “gods” are seldom worshipped alone, but in plurality. Pagan worship almost always involves a plurality of gods. More than one god is assumed. Thus, the Philistines assumed that Israel was delivered from the Egyptians by her gods (plural, 1 Samuel 4:8), rather than by her God (singular). There is a rather obvious reason for the pagan need of plural gods. Since each god is limited in its power and function, a different god must be served and worshipped for each desired end. A war god must be worshipped for military might; a fertility god was believed to produce offspring; etc. And so the pagan was always inclined to be on the lookout for a new god, who would produce even further benefits (cf. Acts 17:23). Even today, a polytheistic (serving many gods) people will often gladly add another “god” to their pantheon of gods. After all, what can it hurt?

Fourth, the “gods” of the pagan religions are man-made. A few years ago, any manufactured goods which were stamped “made in Japan” were considered a cheap imitation in comparison to American made goods. I tend to think of the gods of pagan worship as having the stamp “man-made” on them, for they are the creation of man, shaped in his image, defined according to man’s preferences and desires.

In India, it is not surprising to find that the gods of the peoples of the tribal areas are cobra, monkey, or tiger gods. In these interior areas you do not expect to find primitive tribesmen worshipping a shark god, for example. (You will not be surprised to find a sea-going people worshipping a shark god, however.) The gods which men worship are thus those which reflect their hopes and their fears. A brief review of the gods of ancient Egypt would show the same tendency.

The Bible rightly reveals the fact that the gods of people are the product of their imaginations and the creation of their hands (Isaiah 2:8; 17:8; 37:19). The gods of the heathen conform to their desires. False gods and idols are chosen in place of the true God, and this by a choice to worship the god of their choice, as the first chapter of Romans clearly teaches us.

IDOLS: Since the gods are man-made, it is no surprise that false worship almost always employs idols. While there are a number of terms used in reference to idols,228 there are certain common characteristics which all idols possess.

First, an idol is used as a representation of a particular god. This idol is almost always made by men, most often bearing the image of some part of creation. This might be an inanimate object (the sun, stars, a rock), or it might be a living creature (a bull, a fish, a snake). The idol does not necessarily represent the god itself, but may depict or symbolize some attribute or characteristic of the god. For example, the bull might symbolically represent the strength of a god. Idols are misused, most often to represent pagan gods (Isaiah 42:17), but at other times they are actually used to represent the one true God (Exod. 32:1, 4, 8; 1 Kings 12:28).

Second, idols are often viewed as being the locus of the presence and power of a particular god. While an idol may initially be conceived of only as a representation of a god, it can often become viewed as the god itself. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, “But the Lord made the heavens” (1 Chronicles 16:26; Psalm 96:5). Thus, wherever the idol is, the god is thought to be present. In this case the idol becomes more than a means of worshipping a god, it becomes the object of worship—the god itself (cf. Isaiah 42:17). Not only does the idol become the locus of the presence of the god, but also of the power of the god. The idol becomes the means of unleashing the magical powers of the god. Through its presence and proper (magical) manipulations the idol is believed to be able to produce a desired result. The idol functions as a kind of “rabbit’s foot.” This can true of the idol of a false god as well as of an “idol” of the true God. Thus, the Ark of the Covenant was taken to war as an almost magical instrument, which could assure the Israelites of military victory (1 Samuel 4:3; cf. 2 Kings 18:4).

GOD: The God of Israel can best be viewed here in contrast to the “gods” of the heathen.

“First, while the “gods” of the heathen are many (plural), there is only one God of Israel. While pagan religions are almost always polytheistic (many gods), Israel’s religion was monotheistic (one God). God would not share His glory with any other. The Book of Genesis has already informed us that God is the Creator of the universe. Exodus proclaims God as the Creator of Israel. There is therefore no other god than the one true God of Israel. Israel’s confession therefore was, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4).229

Second, while the gods of heathendom are limited in their power and in their sphere of activity or influence, God is omnipotent, and is in control over every aspect of life. This is precisely why Israel needed but to trust in God alone, while the pagans found it necessary to serve many gods. Because God is in control of every aspect of the life of His people, no other god is needed in addition to Him.230

Third, while the “gods” seem to need to be prompted to act, the God of Israel is an initiator. It was God who called Abraham and made a covenant with him. It was likewise God who acted to free Israel from her bondage in Egypt. God even took the initiative in giving Israel His Law. Israel’s task was to respond to God’s commands and initiatives. The pagans had to prompt their lifeless, powerless, no-gods to act.

Fourth, while the nature of pagan gods is creature-like and can thus be represented by physical forms (idols), the nature of the God of Israel is essentially spiritual, so that He cannot be represented by any earthly or heavenly form. When God appeared to Israel on the mountain, He did not take a given form, and He could not be represented by any form.

“Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice. … So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth” (Deuteronomy 4:12, 15-18).

Beyond this, God is the essence of perfection, so that nothing man-made can ever do justice in reflecting or symbolizing God’s perfection. Creation as a whole reflects God’s power and divine nature (cf. Romans 1:20), but the created is always inferior to the creator. God revealed Himself to men through His word (e.g. the Law), through His people (Exodus 19:6), and through His actions (e.g. the exodus from Egypt, and the majestic scene on Mt. Sinai), but His final and complete revelation of Himself would be in the person of His Son (John 1:1-18; Hebrews 1:1-4). The absence of visual images speaks volumes as to the greatness of our God. The ark, hovered over by the cherubim, was empty. Nothing other than the Son of God could fully and finally reveal God to men.

Fifth, while the pagan gods were worshipped for what they were thought to be able to do, God is to be worshipped for who He is. Pagan worship was pragmatic, true worship views God as the great Reward, not just as a rewarder. Satan could not conceive of any explanation for Job’s worship other than that God blessed this man so greatly (Job 1:8-12). God afflicted Job, taking away these blessings, to show Satan than He is worthy of man’s worship, even when He sends adversity into the lives of His people. Many of the Psalms are the praises of men who are deep in adversity, and yet who persist in praising God as the One who is always worthy of worship.

Understanding the essential characteristics of the “gods” of the heathen, their representation by means of idols, and the great chasm between these and the God of Israel, will help us to understand the first three commandments, in which these differences are to be practically applied.

Preface to the Ten Commandments

Verses 1 and 2 serve as a preface or introduction to all of the ten commandments, but they have a special relationship to the first three, which are the focus of our study in this lesson. Verse 1 informs us that God not only engraved the commandments on stone, but that He spoke these words in Israel’s hearing. These commands, God wants us to know, came directly from God.231 Their inspiration and authority are thus beyond question, indisputably so to that generation of Israelites which heard them spoken.

Verse 2 distinguishes the God of the Israelites from all of the gods which are about to be forbidden. God’s actions in history on Israel’s behalf are the basis for all that He is about to command. God first reminds Israel that He is the God who has acted in history, altering the course of world history in order to fulfill His promise to Abraham and the patriarchs, and to deliver Israel from her bondage in Egypt. No other gods control history. They, in the words of the prophets, are carried by men, they do not carry men. Second, God acted in history for Israel’s specific benefit and blessing. God delivered Israel, and made them His own people.

The words of this verse remind the Israelites that God has singled them out, distinguishing them from all other peoples on the face of the earth. They will thus be called upon in the following commandments to respond to God’s exclusive relationship with them by worshipping Him exclusively, without any other gods. It is no wonder that the marriage relationship is used metaphorically of the relationship between God and His chosen people, Israel. In both, there is a relationship which excludes others. The freedom which God had given the Israelites was the freedom to serve Him (cf. Exodus 4:23). The demands of that service are now to be defined in the commandments. These words also remind us that Israel’s service was to be motivated by gratitude for what God had done.

The First Commandment
(Exodus 20:3)

“You shall have no other gods before Me.” With these words God is commanding an exclusive relationship between Himself and His people.232 The command instructs Israel that God will not allow His people to have any gods in addition to Himself. The statement is simple and forthright, but what did it mean to the Israelites? Why would the Israelites have been tempted to have other gods? What is this prohibition seeking to prevent? Our introductory definition of God and “gods” will provide us with a clue to the answers to these questions. There are three principle reasons why the Israelites were given this first commandment:

First, Israel’s history demonstrates their tendency toward false worship. The Israelites frequently sought to serve other gods in addition to Yahweh, who is speaking in our text. Rachel stole her father’s household gods when they fled from his house (Genesis 31:19). Israel lived 400 years in Egypt, a nation which had many gods, and the Israelites continued to attempt to worship them (cf. Joshua 24:14; 1 Samuel 8:8). It was for her rejection of God that Israel was sent into captivity (Ezekiel 20).

Second, to have other gods is always to forsake God (cf. Joshua 24:15-16, 20; 1 Samuel 8:8). To my knowledge Israel never meant to reject God altogether by having other gods, but simply to add other gods to those which they would worship. The Old Testament consistently indicates that having any other god or gods always constitutes the forsaking of God. The relationship of the Israelites to her God is like that of a man’s relationship to his wife—it is an exclusive relationship which allows for no others. Thus, turning to other gods is called harlotry and adultery in the Bible.

Third, having other gods is evidence of one’s lack of faith in God. Here is the reason why having other gods constitutes forsaking God. I believe it is significant that God forbade the worship of other gods, not of another god. This commandment assumes that multiple gods will be worshipped, not just one. The reason goes back to the pagan theology, which viewed each god as having power over a particular (but restricted) area. To “cover all the bases” one would have to serve many gods. Thus, once one came to doubt God’s sovereignty, the addition of other gods would be necessary to assure the worshipper of being provided for and protected by his gods. God is thus forsaken when other gods are served, for we have failed to find Him sufficient and trustworthy if other gods are required to make us feel secure. This commandment therefore suggests that once we cease to trust God for every area of our life, we have ceased trusting Him altogether, and have turned to other “gods.”

Why would Israel be tempted to serve other gods, in addition to the One true God? First, because of the social pressure to do so. Normal social intercourse with the Canaanites would revolve around pagan deities. Meals and feasts were a part of pagan worship and heathen sacrifices. It is no wonder that God commanded that the Israelites exterminate the Canaanites and forbade the Israelites to engage in social (let alone sexual) intercourse with them. This would tempt them to engage in forbidden worship activities.

The Second Commandment

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6).

The first and second commandments are similar in that both deal with the matter of Israel’s worship. They are distinct in that the first commandment has restrictions pertaining to the object of worship (God alone), while the second has restrictions regarding the means of worship. The second commandment prohibits worship by means of “visual aids,” more commonly known as idols.233

Since we have already looked at the characteristics of idols, let us settle on a very simple working definition of an idol: an idol is a symbolic representation of a god, as determined by man, which often represents the presence and available power of the god it symbolizes. There are several important reasons for this prohibition of idolatry.

First, an idol is contrary to the nature of God. God is invisible. He revealed Himself to the Israelites without any form (Deuteronomy 4:12-19). Therefore, physical forms are inconsistent with the nature of God, and cannot be used to represent Him.

Second, idols are demeaning to God, since there is no created thing which can do justice to the perfections of the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.

Third, idols are contrary to the nature of faith. In the Bible, faith is belief in that which is not seen: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).234

Our Lord gently rebuked Thomas for not believing the testimony of His resurrection apart from visual proof, and pronounced blessing on those who would believed on Him without seeing Him (John 20:29). This is not to say that there is no visible evidence for God’s existence and character. In Romans chapter 1 Paul teaches that those who have turned to idols are those who have first seen the witnesses to God’s divinity and power through His creation (Romans 1:20).

Fourth, idols are contrary to God’s goal for worship, which is to worship Him in the person of His Son. In His conversation with the “woman at the well” Jesus gently focused her attention away from special places of worship, to the person whom all must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:20-24, esp. v. 24). God deliberately forbade the use of imperfect representations of Himself, having purposed ultimately to reveal Himself in the Lord Jesus Christ. The ultimate goal of history, I believe, is that all men will fall in worship before the Son (cf. Philippians 2:9-11).

The consequences for violating the second commandment are severe: “… visiting the iniquity of the father on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Exodus 20:5). We may wonder why this is so. Consider the following facts:

(1) The nature of the penalty is proportional to the seriousness of the offense. If the consequences of idolatry are serious, then we must also conclude that the offense is a serious sin.

(2) The punishment described is an outworking of the principle of imputation. We have been constituted sinners by virtue of being Adam’s offspring (Romans 5:12-21). Levi, through Abraham, gave an offering to Melchizedek, and acknowledged this man’s priesthood to be greater than his own (Hebrews 7:1-10). The principle of imputation means that children share in the acts of their fathers. As applied to idolatry, this sin is passed on from father to son. The consequences of the sin of idolatry flow through the principle of imputation.

(3) This warning spells out the dire consequences which the sin of idolatry can bring on future generations. I am told that “acid rain” is devastating forests in Europe, and that even if air pollution were stopped instantaneously and completely the devastating results of past pollution will continue to destroy forests for 50 years. In a similar way, the Israelites are to understand what great harm they can bring on their descendants by neglecting to obey the second commandment.

(4) I believe that the specific reference in this warning is to Israel’s captivity, as the result of her idolatry. There are many passages which link Israel’s captivity to her idolatry and false worship.

Then the Lord said to me, “A conspiracy has been found among the men of Judah and among the inhabitants of Jerusalem. They have turned back to the iniquities of their ancestors who refused to hear My words, and they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers.” Therefore thus says the Lord, “Behold I am bringing disaster on them which they will not be able to escape; though they will cry to Me, yet I will not listen to them. Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they burn incense, but they surely will not save them in the time of their disaster” (Jeremiah 11:9-12, emphasis mine; cf. also Deuteronomy 28:32, 41).

“Now it will come about when you tell this people all these words that they will say to you, ‘For what reason has the Lord declared all this great calamity against us? And what is our iniquity, or what is our sin which we have committed against the Lord our God?’ Then you are to say to them, ‘It is because your forefathers have forsaken Me,’ declares the Lord, ‘and have followed other gods and served them and bowed down to them; but Me they have forsaken and have not kept My Law. You too have done evil, even more than your forefathers; for behold, you are each one walking according to the stubbornness of his own evil heart, without listening to Me. So I will hurl you out of this land into the land which you have not known, neither you nor your fathers; and there you will serve other gods day and night, for I shall grant you no favor’” (Jeremiah 16:10-13, emphasis mine).

“But if you turn away to forsake My statutes and My commandments which I have set before you and shall go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will uproot you from My land which I have given you, and this house which I have consecrated for My name I will cast out of My sight, and I will make you a proverb and a byword among all peoples” (2 Chronicles 7:19-20).

We know that Judah’s captivity in Babylon was 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11-12). Assuming that a generation is approximately 20 years, the consequences of Israel’s idolatry would last for 3 to 4 generations. The evidence seems, then, to favor the conclusion that the specific penalty in mind in verse 5 of Exodus chapter 20 is that of the Babylonian captivity.

(5) The good news is that God overturns the curse of the second commandment of the Mosaic Covenant by the promise of the new covenant. The prophet Jeremiah foretells of the coming of the new covenant, at which time the principle of imputation (with regard to the sins of the fathers) will be set aside:

“And it will come about that as I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to overthrow, to destroy, and to bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the Lord.

“In those days they will not say again, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But every one will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge. Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My Law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:28-34).

The principle of imputation is not just set aside (with regard to the consequences of sin), it is applied positively so that as the sins of the fathers constituted the children sinners, now the righteousness of Jesus Christ will constitute all who are in Him, by faith, righteous. No wonder Jeremiah’s prophecy can promise that God will remember Israel’s sins no more!

The Third Commandment

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).

If the first commandment dealt with the object of our worship, and the second the means of our worship, the third commandment deals with our verbal worship of God.235 In order to determine the meaning of this commandment we must first understand the meaning of two things: first, the concept of the “name of the Lord,” and second, the meaning of the term “vain.” Both are explained by Kaiser: “What then is involved in the ‘name’ of God? His name includes: (1) his nature, being, and very person (Ps. 20:1; Luke 24:47; John 1:12; cf. Rev. 3:4), (2) his teaching and doctrines (Ps. 22:22; John 17:6, 26), and (3) his ethical directions and morals (Mic. 4:5).”236

The ‘vain’ or ‘empty purposes’ to which God’s name may be put are: (1) to confirm something that is false and untrue, (2) to fill in the gaps in our speeches or prayers, (3) to express mild surprise, and (4) to use that name when no clear goal, purpose, or reason for its use is in mind, whether it be in prayer, in a religious context, or absent-mindedly invoked as table grace when no real heart, thankfulness, or purpose is involved. When God’s name is used lightly, what will we do in times of great distress? Proverbs 18:10 says “the name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.”237

Contrary to the popular conception of this commandment, much more than foul-mouthed profanity is prohibited. Since God’s name is directly linked with His character, to misuse His name adversely reflects on His character. To illustrate this in an extreme way, think of what it would suggest if many Americans were to name their dogs “Reagan” or “Ronald.” The very common use of this name would surely detract from the dignity of the president of the United States and of his office. So, too, the too-common use of God’s name would demean His character.

The Israelites of old were so careful to avoid violating this command that they refused to even pronounce the sacred name of God. Many today have gone to the opposite extreme. They seem to feel that the more often they refer to God, the more love for Him they demonstrate and the more spiritual they must be for doing so. Thus, the Lord’s name is constantly being spoken in everyday conversation. No doubt this is viewed as a witness to their faith, providing a possible opportunity to talk with unsaved friends or neighbors about the Lord. But if we get to the point where the Lord’s name proceeds from our mouth without being prompted by our minds and our spirit, then it becomes vain and empty talk, of such a kind as to defame the character of God. This danger is summed up: “… the Third Commandment … forbids the cheap and easy use of the divine name to cover up poverty of real thought and feeling.” 238

I have summarized this commandment as a prohibition of “divine name-dropping.” It is the use which men make of God’s name to sanctify their conversation, to add a little holiness or piety to their common, everyday existence. The danger is that in overly associating God with that which is common, it tends to profane the name and the character of the God who is the opposite of common, who is utterly different, set apart, and holy. We often give God credit (which really may be the blame) for our decisions and actions. We say, “the Lord led me to do this or that,” “God told me that this was the right decision.” What we may really mean is, “I decided to do this, and I have assumed it to be God’s will too.” But if our decision was a foolish one, God then becomes the author of that bad decision, which is far from a testimony to His majesty and might. Let us then take care about the way in which we make use of God’s name in our conversation.239


We know that these commandments were given to the nation Israel, and thus we expect that there must be some distinctions drawn between the way they were to be applied by the Israelites and between the way they should be applied today. Let me begin by pointing out one critical difference and one significant similarity between the Old Testament applications and those which relate to contemporary Christianity.

The critical difference between our Old Testament text and the New Testament is that God has now revealed Himself to men in human form, in the person of Jesus Christ. Note the contrast, then, between these two passages, one from the Old Testament, the other from the New:

“Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice. … So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a graven image …” (Deuteronomy 4:12, 15-16a).

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

The difference is that in God’s revelation of Himself to Israel in the Old Testament He took on no physical form, but in His revelation of Himself to Israel in the New Testament, He took on Himself the form of a man (cf. also Philippians 2:6-8), and as a perfect God-man perfectly manifested the invisible God to men. The prohibition of idolatry in the Old Testament was but a preparation for the perfect revelation of God in Christ in the New.

One of my fellow-elders told me that his son was asked by a Sunday School teacher to draw a picture of God. The young lad was absolutely correct in turning in a blank piece of paper, for God cannot be seen and thus cannot be drawn. In the New Testament sense, we could draw a picture of God by drawing a picture of Christ. Of course we have no pictures of our Lord and so the result is the same. The difference between a blank sheet of paper and a perfect picture does, however, illustrate the difference between the Old Testament prohibition of idols and the New Testament revelation of Christ as the image of God.

I must say to you, my reader friend, whoever you are, that there is only one way for you to worship God today, and that is by worshipping Him in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. Those who would attempt to worship God in any other way will forsake the One true God, and the only way of salvation. If you would worship God you must worship Christ, not as one who was like God, but as the One who is very God, and who died in your place, and was raised from the dead, so that you might be saved in Him.

The striking similarity between the Old Testament commands pertaining to worship and the New Testament teaching of worship is this: they both are based solely on faith. So often we hear that the Law was a matter of works, and that salvation is a matter of faith. But the only way that one could keep the commandments was by faith. Obedience to the Law required faith. To worship God alone was to find Him wholly trustworthy, wholly able to provide for and to protect His people. To worship God without images was to believe in God’s word alone, apart from visual props. In both the Old Testament and the New, obedience is only possible on the basis of faith. Some things never change. Faith is one of those things.

The real issue, then, between false gods and the one true God is this: who do we trust? To find God alone trustworthy leads to worshipping and serving Him only. To find God inadequate and untrustworthy is to turn to other “gods” which will do those things we think God cannot do. The question for our day is this: “In whom or in what do we really trust” for our salvation, for our security, and for our daily needs?” If the answer to this question is anything, anyone, but God, we have identified a false god.

In many instances, we are trusting more in our money than we are in our God. As long as we have a nest egg in the bank we feel secure. When there is no money we worry and fret, we do everything possible to create a savings account. The evil here is not in having money, but in trusting in money, rather than in God (1 Timothy 6:17). It is possible to serve money rather than God (Matthew 6:24).

In American culture at this moment I fear that the number one “god” in which we trust is the “god of our inner, hidden, abilities.” In a word the “god” of contemporary culture is the “god” of self. Gloria Steineim has boldly stated, “By the year 2000 we will, I hope, raise our children to believe in human potential, not God. …240 For others, our trust is in our education, or in our position, or in technology. In whatever we place our trust besides God we are serving a false god. We cannot trust in God and money, in God and science, but only in God alone, for God will not share His glory with anything else.

Our culture has its idols as well as its “gods.” An idol is the symbol which indicates the presence and the power of a particular god (whether it be the true God or a false “god”). An idol tells us, in effect, God is here. Some make idols of men, who would wrongly accept the obedience and adoration of men (cf. Matthew 23:1-12). When these people are around us we feel closer to God, or that He is closer to us. Another idol is success. Given the prosperity teaching which is so popular among Christians today, prosperity is viewed as the evidence of God’s blessings and thus of His presence in the life of the one so prospered. No wonder so many people are striving so hard to succeed and to prosper. They want to have the outward evidences of godliness. A final idol in the Christian church is “spirituality”—those outward evidences which are interpreted as evidence of greater godliness. In the pursuit of spirituality men seek to be regarded as spiritual more than they seek God. This, too, is idolatry.

Another idol, as J. I. Packer241 has well indicated, is the idolatry of a sloppy or distorted theology. Theology gives us “word pictures” as it were of God. To the degree that our theology is inaccurate, we have distorted God by definition. Whether, therefore, our idolatry is by wooden symbols (a wooden idol) or word symbols (wrong theology), it is idolatry none the less, with all of the consequences which accompany it.

Taken as a whole, the first three commandments convey a most important message: the priority of our relationship with God and of our worship. The fact that the first three commandments deal with our relationship with God tells us that this is our highest priority. Our estimation of God’s greatness is proportional to the measure of our faith. The measure of our estimate of God’s greatness is also proportional to the quality and quantity of our worship. The measure of our faith is the basis for our obedience. Let us learn from these commandments to seek to fathom the greatness of our God and thus to live in the light of Who He is.

To worship one God is to have one supreme loyalty in one’s life which all one’s instincts and passions and vagaries obey. So that, like Luther, one can stand before other principalities and powers of the outer and inner world and refuse to bow to them, saying humbly and definitely, ‘I can do no other,’ i.e., ‘I obey one greater than all of you.’242

223 Charles W. Colson, Loving God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), pp. 15-16.

224 Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983), p. 5.

225 Ibid, p. 6.

226 Ibid, pp. 6-7.

227 Dave Hunt and T. A. McMahon, The Seduction of Christianity (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1985), pp. 149-169.

228 “There are fourteen Hebrew words for idols or images, but … ‘idol’ (v. 3) probably refers to ‘gods of silver or gods of gold’ (Exod. 20:23) as well as images carved from stone, wood, and those that later are made from metal.” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1983), p. 86.

229 This is the translation which my former professor and present fellow-elder and friend, Don Glenn, has suggested. Given the context of the heathen worship of a plurality of gods, I think this is the best translation.

230 Because of this fact, I favor the word “besides” rather than “before” in the rendering of verse 3: “You shall have no other gods besides Me” (emphasis mine). I now understand better why the books of Genesis and Exodus go into such great detail in matters such as the creation of the world and God’s dealings in Israel’s history. It is to underscore His infinite power and His concern with every detail of the lives of His people. In Deuteronomy, God’s promises of His future blessings on Israel are also very specific, covering every area of life, those for which pagans looked to many gods to care for. In the portrayal of the life of Christ in the gospels we also see our Lord’s power evidenced in a great diversity of areas, once again showing that He is all that we ever need, and that we need not place our trust elsewhere for any area of our life.

231 “In Hebrew, words is deliberately connected with the verb spoke with which the verse begins. The whole stress is that these commandments are words of revelation from God … It has well been said that the commandments are God’s nature expressed in terms of moral imperatives: and it is significant that God chose to reveal Himself so, rather than in terms of philosophical propositions.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), pp. 151-152.

232 “This slightly unusual phrase seems also to be used of taking a second wife while the first is still alive. Such a use, of breach of an exclusive personal relationship, would help to explain the meaning here.” Ibid, p. 153.

233 “The Hebrew word …, which stands back of graven image, comes from the root meaning ‘to carve.’ Strictly and originally the word means a sculptured object. But it also became a general term for image, whether graven or molten (Isa. 30:22; 40:19; 44:10; Jer. 10:14). When used of a molten image it is always with the signification of idol …” J. Coert Rylaarsdam and J. Edgar Park, “The Book of Exodus,” The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1952), vol. 1, p. 981.

“The Hebrew word for ‘carved image’ is pesel (from the root pasal meaning to carve wood or stone. A pesel therefore is a figure made of wood or stone) sometimes a representation of Jehovah as in Judges 17:3ff.; whereas, other times it was used for figures of heathen gods (II Kings 21:7).” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 201.

There were symbols in Israel’s worship, such as the ark or the covenant, the tabernacle, and the bronze serpent, but these were not to be viewed as representing the nature of God or of being the locus of God’s presence and power. At times, Israel abused these symbols in pagan-like fashion (cf. 1 Samuel 4:3; 2 Kings 18:4).

234 As one reads through the 11th chapter of Hebrews, there is continual emphasis on that which is not seen, but which God has spoken.

235 Kaiser, p. 87.

236 Ibid, p. 88.

237 Ibid.

238 Interpreter’s Bible, I, p. 983.

239 Since time will not permit a more complete discussion of this third commandment, I suggest you consider these additional comments on this text: “The third commandment covers all occasions on which the name of the Lord is used, and includes e.g., perjury (cf. Lev. 19:12), swearing, etc. Konig translates Deuteronomy 5:11 ‘with inner insincerity.’ ‘Any pronouncing of the Divine name without heartfelt sincerity is thus prohibited.’ The name is spiritual in nature; even in the absence of images, the name that the Lord has revealed as His makes it possible to have communion with Him, to name Him. That name must be used in a holy manner (cf. the first petition of the Lord’s prayer), that is, it must be kept far from that which is sinful, frivolous, or vain. ‘Name’ has a profound meaning: the revelation of that which can be known of God. … The Lord Himself guards the holiness of His name, as is indicated by the threat that accompanies this commandment.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 193.

“In later Judaism, this covered any careless or irreverent use of the name YHWH. It was pronounced only once a year by the high priest, when giving the blessing on the great day of atonement (Lv. 19:27). Originally the commandment seems to have referred to swearing a lying oath in YHWH’s name (Lv. 19:12). This seems to be the true meaning of the Hebrew. To bless or curse in the name of YHWH was permissible under the Law (Dt. 11:26); it was virtually a proclamation of His revealed will and purpose to different categories of men. To swear by His name was also allowed then, although forbidden by Christ (Mt. 5:34). Indeed, to swear by His name (and not by the name of another god) was the sign of worshipping Him (Je. 4:2) and was laudable.” Cole, p. 157.

“A deeper reason for the prohibition may be seen in the fact that God is the one living reality to Israel. That is why His name is involved in oaths, usually in the formula ‘as surely as YHWH lives’ (2 Sa. 2:27). To use such a phrase, and then to fail to perform the oath, is to call into question the reality of God’s very existence.” Ibid.

240 Gloria Steinem, “Saturday Review of Literature,” March 1973, as cited by Hunt and McMahon, p. 31.

241 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), pp. 38-44.

242 Interpreter’s Bible, p. 981.

Taxonomy upgrade extras: 

15. The Meaning of the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11)


As I sat at breakfast with a friend this week, discussing this message, I told Don that I could not conceive of a way to teach on the Sabbath in less than two lessons. He confessed to me that he was wondering how I would “fill up” one message with the subject. The reason why so much time is required is that there are so many other texts in the Scripture which deal with the Sabbath. To illustrate how much material there is to cover beyond the Old Testament texts, in one of the books recently published on the Sabbath243 the one chapter dealing with the Sabbath in the Old Testament has about 20 pages, including numerous footnotes. There are ten additional chapters, containing over 350 additional pages. Thus, if we are to understand the Sabbath, we must consider more than its Old Testament texts. If you look up the terms “Sabbath,” “Sabbaths,” and “rest” in a concordance you will find the reason for a more extended study of this subject.

There is another reason why the Sabbath is a subject worthy of our thorough investigation: the Sabbath is one of the most important commandments of the ten. It is a part of those commandments related to our relationship with and our worship of God. It is also the commandment chosen to be the “sign” of the entire Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 31:13). A violation of this commandment is to result in the death penalty (Exodus 31:14).

Last, learning the meaning of the Sabbath will provide us with a most valuable lesson in how to study, interpret, and apply the Scriptures. The difference between education and indoctrination is the difference between a process and a product. Indoctrination gives you the product—what you should think—but it does not convey the process—how to think. Given this distinction, most sermons would have to be called indoctrination, not education. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with indoctrination, other than the fact that without education, those who are taught will always be dependent upon the teacher, who must tell them what to think.

In my sermons I have always sought to combine indoctrination and education. I attempt to communicate the process by which I have arrived at my product so that sooner or later you will discover, to your delight, that you have gained a fair bit of information, but that you have also learned how to study the Bible on your own. One of the greatest rewards I ever receive as a teacher is to see my listeners become students of the Word, so that they see for themselves whether or not my conclusions are rooted in the text of Scripture.

The most difficult portion of Scripture to study for most Christians is the Old Testament. Not only do we find the culture of the Ancient Near East foreign and the events unrelated to us, but when we do discover a biblical principle we are not sure that it applies to the New Testament saint, and if so, how.

The Fourth Commandment provides us with an excellent opportunity to sharpen our interpretive skills. The commandment is found early in the Pentateuch (the five books of the Bible written by Moses, the first five books of the Bible). Two related texts come before Exodus 20:8-11, but there are many Sabbath passages in the rest of the Old Testament and in the New. Because this passage comes so early in the Bible, we are able to learn how the later Old Testament writers interpreted and applied the Sabbath teaching of the Fourth Commandment. We then can turn to the New Testament, to see how the Pharisees misinterpreted and applied this commandment, and how our Lord corrected them. Finally, we can find the interpretation of the Sabbath as provided us by the teaching of the apostles and the Book of Hebrews. We have the privilege to look over the shoulder of the prophets, apostles, and even our Lord, to learn from them the way to interpret and apply the Old Testament Scriptures. This, my reader friend, is a rare privilege, which should make better Bible students of all of us.

And lest you think that all of my comments above are but a preparation for the study of an irrelevant text (where we learn a method, but get no message), I can assure you that the Fourth Commandment is related to more than the question of whether or not the State of Texas should repeal its “Blue Laws.” Surrounding the subject of the Sabbath are many differences of opinion, some of the strongest opinions are held by those who are Christians. There is one denomination (which some call a cult), the Seventh Day Adventists, who have chosen to hang their hat on this commandment as one of the touchstones of the faith. The principles we will discover from our study of the Sabbath will take us to where “the rubber meets the road.”

In this lesson, then, we will focus on the meaning of the Sabbath to the Old Testament saint. We will study the major Sabbath texts in the Law (the Pentateuch) and the Prophets (the rest of the Old Testament). We will then isolate several principles from these passages and explore their practical implications for each of us. In the next lesson we will turn to the New Testament, where we will first consider the twisted view of the Fourth Commandment held by the scribes and Pharisees, who were ready to stone our Lord as a Sabbath-breaker. We will consider our Lord’s defense of His actions and learn the correct interpretation and application of the Sabbath. Then, we will study the meaning of the Sabbath as taught by the apostles through their epistles. Finally we will attempt to determine the meaning and application of the Sabbath for the New Testament Christian.

The Sabbath in the Pentateuch

Our study has been one of the birth of the nation Israel, as depicted in the Book of Exodus. There are two crucial passages which we must first consider, for they not only precede the Fourth Commandment, they actually lay the foundation for it, on which foundation the commandment is based. We shall first consider the “Sabbath rest” of God in Genesis 2:1-3 and then the “Sabbath rest” of Israel related to the gathering of the manna in Exodus 16:22-30.

Thus, the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. And by the seventh day God completed His work which He had done; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made (Gen. 2:1-3).

The principle contribution of this text is to establish a precedent on which future Sabbath commandments will be based. The precedent is one that God Himself established with regard to the seventh creation day. The work of creation had been completed on the sixth day. On the seventh day, God rested because He had finished the work of creation. He then blessed and sanctified this day because it was on this day that He rested. This text draws together three separate, but related, events:

  • God finished His work of creating the universe.
  • God rested on the seventh day because His creation work was finished.
  • God blessed and sanctified the seventh day because on it He rested.

The important thing to notice is this: no commandment is made in this text. The seventh day is not even called the Sabbath. But the seventh day is differentiated and set apart (sanctified) from the other six creation days. It is assigned a special significance (blessing) by God, based on the fact that it was the day on which God rested. All subsequent commands to keep the Sabbath assume that this sanctity of the seventh day has already been established (here, at creation) by God. Thus, the Israelites are not commanded to sanctify the Sabbath, but to conduct themselves in such a way as not to profane it (Exodus 31:14; Isaiah 56:2), because it has already been declared holy. The declaration of its sanctity is found in Genesis chapter 2:1-3. God’s act of resting and then of sanctifying the seventh day is the basis for all subsequent commands related to the Sabbath. Israel was to treat the seventh day as holy because God had done so, and had declared it so. This brief statement in Genesis is pregnant with future meaning, as further study will reveal.

Exodus 16:22-30:

Now it came about on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, then he said to them, “This is what the Lord meant: Tomorrow is a Sabbath observance, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.” So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered, and it did not become foul, nor was there any worm in it. And Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none.” And it came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? See, the LORD has given you the Sabbath, therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” So they rested on the seventh day (Exod. 16:22-30).

This text makes several significant contributions to the developing doctrine of the Sabbath. First, it is the first occurrence of the term “Sabbath”244 in the Bible. Second, it is the first time in the Bible that Israel is commanded to observe a Sabbath practice of any kind. Here, the practice is specifically related to resting from the work of gathering manna. Third, manna was not to be gathered on the seventh day because it was a “Sabbath to the Lord” (vss. 23, 26). In the context, I believe we see that it was first a “Sabbath to the Lord,” and secondarily a “Sabbath for the Israelites.” God did two things differently to set this Sabbath aside as something distinct, something sanctified. (1) God caused manna not to fall on the Sabbath (v. 27). (2) God kept the double portion of manna gathered on the sixth day from rotting, as it did on all other days (cp. vss. 20, 24).

There are two additional features of this “Sabbath instruction” in the light of Israel’s past. The first is that this command not to gather manna was a very gracious and positive gift from God. Moses told the Israelites that God had given them the Sabbath (v. 29). There were few if any days off in Egypt for slaves. The gift of one day off a week was indeed intended to be a blessing, to be gratefully received. The second feature of the Sabbath was that it established a seven-day week. We might assume that this is always the way men have divided time, but research has shown that the Egyptians followed a ten day week.245 Thus, God was reordering Israel’s conception of time.

In the light of the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus chapter 20, the “Sabbath instructions” of Exodus 16 are preparatory for what will soon follow. God told the Israelites to keep a form of Sabbath observance several weeks before it was laid down as one of the Ten Commandments (and one with a death penalty attached). Once again, God’s dealings here are preparing His people for the future.246

Exodus 20:8-11:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).

This text is the basis of this lesson. This series of messages is focused on a study of the Book of Exodus. We have looked at Genesis 2 and Exodus 16 as preparation for our passage. We will study later texts as well, to see how they explain and expand on this commandment. This passage in Exodus 20 is the first proclamation of the Fourth Commandment, as a part of the entire Ten Commandments. It will be reiterated, in a somewhat different form in Deuteronomy chapter 5. The commandment to observe the Sabbath which is given here builds upon the two texts which we have previously considered. Let us see how this commandment builds upon the previous revelation.247

There are six important features of this passage which I wish to point out here:

(1) This commandment looks back for its basis. The first word of this commandment is “remember.”248 “Remember” points back, first to the rest of our Lord on the seventh day, the day which He sanctified and blessed in Genesis chapter 2. Second, we are reminded of the “Sabbath commandment” given Israel in Exodus chapter 16, which forbade the gathering of manna on the Sabbath. The two previous texts are thus viewed as foundational for the Fourth Commandment, as specified in Exodus 20.

(2) The Fourth Commandment is not just a requirement to “keep the Sabbath,” but more than this is the instruction to “keep the Sabbath holy” (cf. Exodus 16:23; 20:8). The Sabbath day is commemorated as a holy day, one designated such by the Lord (Genesis 2:1-3) and declared to be such in Exodus 16:23. Keeping the Sabbath involves much more than abstinence from labor, it requires the acknowledgment of the sacredness, the sanctity, of this day because of God’s deeds and declaration.

(3) The Fourth Commandment instructs each Israelite to plan and to finish his week’s work by the Sabbath. The reason why men do not wish to stop what they are doing is most often that they have not finished. The Fourth Commandment deals with this problem by instructing the Israelites to plan to be finished by the end of the sixth day, and to see to it that they do finish.

(4) The commandment here is broadened from the command given in Exodus chapter 16. In that passage, God specifically prohibited the Israelites from gathering manna on the seventh day of the week. Now, all labor is prohibited. This command is now so general it will require further clarification. We are thus prepared for the next revelation God will give the Israelites. Also, the number of those prohibited to work is significantly increased to include the Israelites’ servants and their beasts. Not only was rest guaranteed for all, but this would constitute a nation-wide shut down, which would make it more difficult for any who might be tempted to overlook this commandment.

(5) This commandment is not given in isolation, but it is given in relationship, in concert with the other nine. We cannot understand this command in isolation, apart from its relationship to the other commandments. We shall wait until our next passage to consider the relationship of the Fourth Commandment to the commandments as a whole. Here, I wish to point out the relationship of the Fourth Commandment to the preceding three, those which bear upon Israel’s relationship to her God. I believe that the Fourth Commandment makes a significant contribution to the Israel’s (true) worship of God.

(6) This commandment in verse 11 we are reminded that the Lord “made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them.” Previously in the Commandments, God had forbidden the worship of other gods and the use of idols and images. Specifically, God said, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). We find that the Israelites would be tempted to make images of those things which God created, either in the heavens above, on the earth, or in the sea. After they were forbidden to fashion any images in the form of any creatures in these three spheres, God then refers to the fact that He rested after having finished creating everything in the heavens above, on the earth, and in the sea (Exodus 20:11). Is there any significance to the repetition of these three spheres? I believe so. I believe that God is teaching a very important lesson about worship: ISRAEL WOULD BE WRONG TO TRY TO WORSHIP GOD BY IMITATING HIS CREATURES (MAKING IDOLS), BUT THEY WERE TO WORSHIP GOD BY IMITATING HIS ACTIONS AFTER CREATION—BY RESTING AS HE DID.

To summarize this matter concisely we might say that Israel could not worship with idols, but was to worship by being idle. Here is a crucial difference between false worship and the true. We are wrong to worship God by making imitation gods; we are right in imitating God in His response to having finished His creation. God is worshipped as we imitate His actions and character, not as we serve the things He created.

Exodus 31:12-18:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My Sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the Sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall surely be put to death. So the sons of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to celebrate the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.’ It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.” And when He had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God (Exodus 31:12-18).

Several new dimensions to the Sabbath commandment are given in this text:

(1) This passage refers to the Sabbaths as “MY” Sabbaths (v. 13). The Sabbaths which Israel are to observe are the Lord’s. This is undoubtedly related to the Sabbath rest of God after creation, referred to once again in verse 17.

(2) The observance of the Sabbath is extended in time, so that it becomes a permanent one (throughout your generations, v. 13) for Israel.

(3) The observance of the Sabbath is declared to be the sign of the Mosaic Covenant between God and His chosen people Israel. The obligation is restricted to Israelites (“It is a sign between Me and you,” v. 13; “It is holy to you,” v. 14). The fact that this commandment comes virtually at the middle of the commandments, bridging Israel’s obligation to God with her duties to men, conforms to the pattern of the treaties of the Ancient Near East. Note that the reiteration of the Fourth Commandment is God’s final word at the giving of the Mosaic Covenant on Mt. Sinai.

(4) The importance of obeying this commandment is emphatically stressed. Since Sabbath observance is the sign of the covenant, observing the Sabbath was the Israelites’ pledge to keep the whole Law. To break this commandment was to reject all of the Law. Consequently, obedience to this commandment was vitally important. The urgency of obedience is stressed by the word “surely” (“You shall surely observe My Sabbaths”) in verse 13. It is even more urgent in the light of the death penalty which is prescribed for violation of the Sabbath, twice stated (vss. 14, 15).

(5) The Sabbath is said to be profaned by any who work on this sacred day. Are we to say that work is profane? In the sense that work is common, everyday, the answer is clearly yes. What is common or profane is not necessarily evil (after all, God worked 6 days to create the heavens and the earth), but neither is it holy in the sense of being special. That which is holy is set apart, distinct, put to different use. Thus, God distinguished the seventh day by resting, as opposed to working. Israel must do likewise, so that what happened on the Sabbath was to be different, somehow, from what happened on any other day.

(6) The purpose of Israel’s Sabbath observance was to teach them about sanctification—namely their sanctification. God said that Israel was to observe the Sabbath perpetually, “that you might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (v. 13). Just as God had set the seventh day apart from the other six at creation, so He had set Israel apart by His divine calling and their deliverance at the Exodus. The godly Israelite, who wished to observe the Sabbath with his whole heart, would meditate on what God intended him to do in order to keep the Sabbath as a holy day. In so doing, he would also be learning much about what it meant for him to keep himself holy as well. The keeping of the Sabbath thus became an object lesson in sanctification.

The Sabbath in Other Pentateuchal Passages

These four passages provide us with the most extensive teaching on the Sabbath. There are several other passages to which we shall briefly refer, pointing out the unique contribution of each to the Sabbath theology.

Exodus 34:21: Adds “in plowing time and in harvest you shall cease to work”—thus more specifically applying Sabbath instruction to new conditions in land.

Exodus 35:2-3: No fire can be kindled on the Sabbath in Israelite homes. While alluded to in Exodus 16, it is clearly prohibited here. This prevented the women from becoming absorbed in preparation of “hot” meals. In effect, this clarification meant “cold cuts” for dinner on the Sabbath.

Leviticus 23:3: Leviticus provides the Israelites with instruction concerning their worship which included the Sabbath. The various religious Sabbath celebrations for which Israel will gather (convocation) include:

(1) A convocation each Sabbath (23:3).

(2) A celebration of the Passover (23:4-8).

(3) A convocation on the seventh month, including a celebration of the day of atonement and the Feast of Booths (23:23-38).

Leviticus 25 and 26: In Leviticus 25, God adds the requirement that the land must have its Sabbath rests, just as the people and their animals do. On every seventh year, the land must not be worked, as in the other six years.

Every 50 years (7 X 7) there was to be a year of jubilee (25:8-17). The land was again to lie fallow. Property was to be restored to its original owner. Since the land belonged to God, He had every right to require this (25:23).

Failure to give the land its Sabbath rests would lead to Israel’s dispersion and captivity, at which time the land would get its rest (26:32-35).

Numbers 28:9-10: Here, the Sabbath day sacrifice (two male lambs) is prescribed.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15:

‘Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male and your female servant may rest as well as you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath day’ (Deut. 5:12-15).

Essentially, this passage is a reiteration of the Ten Commandments, spoken by Moses in the light of Israel’s upcoming entrance into the land of Canaan. There are, however, a few differences between this text and that of Exodus 20:8-11. These are:

(1) This time, the commandment begins with the word “observe” rather than “remember.”

(2) “Ox” and “ass” are added to those animals which cannot be worked on the Sabbath.

(3) The statement, “that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you,” is added.

(4) The basis for observing the Sabbath is different. In Exodus, the basis for the Sabbath was the creation-rest of God. In Deuteronomy, it is Israel’s slavery and release from Egypt in Deuteronomy. In Exodus, the focus is on creation, while in Deuteronomy it is redemption. In the first giving of the Fourth Commandment, Israel is instructed to imitate God in His rest; in the second, Israel is to imitate God in His redemption, in His compassion on the oppressed. Thus, just as they were given rest from their slavery, so the Israelites must give their slaves rest.249

The Sabbath in the Prophets

The rest of the Old Testament (which I am referring to as the “prophets”) has some important insight for us regarding the observance of the Sabbath.

Psalm 92: Psalm 92, subtitled “A Psalm, a Song for the Sabbath Day,” is one which we often sing. At this time we will only point out that this psalm is suggestive of the kinds of worship activities which are appropriate on the Sabbath day.

Isaiah 56:1-8: In Isaiah chapter 56, the prophet dwells on the blessings which will come to those who keep the Sabbath, “in spirit and in truth” (we might paraphrase). Several new emphases can be found here in regard to the Sabbath:

(1) Sabbath-keeping is no mere external ritual, it must be accompanied by righteousness and justice.

(2) Blessings are promised to two specific groups, who may have been considered ineligible. The foreigner (vss. 3, 6-8) and the eunuch (vss. 3-5) who keep the Sabbath are promised those blessings most significant and encouraging to them. The eunuch will not need to bear children to carry on their name for God will give them an everlasting name (vss. 4-5). The foreigner will no longer be an outsider, but will be joined with God and with His people (vss. 6-8). How great a comfort Gentiles find here.

Isaiah 58:13-14: It would seem that Sabbath-keeping had become tedious and mundane for many of the Israelites. Instead of using the Sabbath as a day of worship, selfish pleasures were pursued. God here promises blessing to those who delight in Him and who forsake the pursuit of pleasure on the Sabbath for the pursuit of God.

Jeremiah 17:21-27: Through the prophet Jeremiah, God speaks of the abuses of the Sabbath, especially as it relates to the city of Jerusalem. Commercial enterprise was being carried on during the Sabbath. Specifically, goods were being transported into and out of the city. The Fourth Commandment is thus applied specifically to the city and to commerce. God promises to bless Jerusalem as a city if the people keep the Sabbath, but to destroy the city if they refuse. We know that Jerusalem will fall and go into captivity from the entire prophecy of Jeremiah. Israel’s refusal to keep the Sabbath (and thus to cast aside her covenant with God) was a substantial part of the reason for her captivity.

Ezekiel 20:12-26; 22:8, 16, 26: Ezekiel’s prophecy in chapters 20 and 22 simply reiterates and reinforces God’s warning that the neglect of God’s covenant and Israel’s failure to keep the Sabbath would result in her judgment and captivity.

Nehemiah 10:28-31; 13:15-22: Nehemiah was one of the Post-exilic writers. The Book of Nehemiah reflects the commitment of Nehemiah and of the godly Israelites who returned to the promised land to observe the Law of God and specifically to keep the Sabbath.

Principles and Practical Implications

We have briefly surveyed the principle texts of the Old Testament which teach the Israelites how and why they should keep the Sabbath holy. Let us now sum up what we have learned, as well as explore some of the principles underlying this instruction and their implications for us.

(1) The Principle of Progressive Revelation. The progressively unfolding teaching on the Sabbath in the Bible is an excellent illustration of the principle of progressive revelation. Essentially, the principle of progressive revelation recognizes that God reveals important doctrines and concepts gradually and sequentially. Major lines of biblical truth (e.g. doctrine, prophecy) are first revealed in broad, general terms, and then filled in with more and more detail. Thus, we would expect that the great doctrines of the Bible would likely occur first in the Old Testament (very often in the Pentateuch), would then be clarified by the Old Testament prophets, interpreted by our Lord, and then finally explained and applied by the New Testament writers. The revelation of truth in the Bible is thus like the blooming of a beautiful flower. First the seed is planted, the plant grows, the flower appears as a bud and finally is seen in full bloom.

The implications of this principle are simple, yet vitally important. If we are to study a particular doctrine in the Bible we must do so consistently with the principle of progressive revelation. We should being at the beginning and study its development to the very end of the New Testament. In order to do this one should make good use of topical Bibles, marginal references in their Bibles, and a complete concordance.

The cultists and false teachers often do great violence to the principle of progressive revelation. They often find their “revelations” in one or a few obscure texts. They hop about the Bible in random fashion to justify their preconceived ideas. They then assign a very high level of importance to their unique (offbeat) interpretation. The principle of progressive revelation should help us to spot such scriptural charlatans. Any important doctrine should be frequently mentioned in Scripture. The development of that doctrine should be clearly evident as one works through the Scriptures from beginning to end. The truth will not be obscure, missed by most (we all want to know something which the less enlightened have missed), but evident to many Christians, throughout the ages of church history.

Let me briefly review what we have learned about the Sabbath from the Old Testament, to show how carefully Sabbath instruction has been given:

Genesis 2:1-3

Sabbath established by deeds and decree of God.

Exodus 16:22-30

Sabbath first commanded. Applied by God to the Israelites in the wilderness, related to the gathering of manna.

Exodus 20:8-11

Sabbath first given as the Fourth Commandment. Application broadened to all work, and to all in Israel, including servants and animals.

Exodus 31:12-18

Sabbath specifically identified as Israel’s sign of the Mosaic Covenant, with death penalty prescribed for violators.

Leviticus and Numbers

Sabbath rest to include the land. Religious celebrations and sacrifice given more detail.


The Fourth Commandment reiterated, but now with emphasis on God’s redemption and Israel’s responsibility toward slaves.

Psalm 92

Description of the kinds of worship appropriate on the Sabbath.

(Jeremiah and Ezekiel)

Israel’s errors in understanding and carrying out the Sabbath exposed (pursuit of own pleasure; ritual without mercy, justice, and Ezekiel righteousness). Blessings promised those who keep Sabbath in spirit and in truth; judgment (captivity) if Sabbath is continually profaned.

Post-exilic books (Nehemiah):

Emphasis on care given to keep the Sabbath.

(2) True religion requires the imitation of God. Idolatry seeks to create imitations of God, by creating man-made idols which represent and reflect God to men. True religion seeks to imitate God by being like Him and by obeying His commands. Israel was set apart by God to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). She was to manifest God to men by being like God in holy conduct, outlined by the Law which God gave at Mt. Sinai. God is made known to men when God’s character and conduct are reflected in and through men.

This principle is true today. Christ came to the earth to reveal God to men in His earthly body. Now that He has ascended to heaven, it is the church which is the manifestation of Christ to the world. We are His body. Just like Israel, we who constitute the church are called to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that we may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called us out of darkness into light” (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). Just as God commanded Israel to be holy because He is holy, so He has given this same command to the church (1 Peter 1:16).

Some would tell us that in this age of grace the Christian need not concern himself with commandment-keeping. I would remind you that just as keeping the commandments guided the Israelites as to how they were to live in a God-like way, so God’s commandments (as clarified and reiterated in the New Testament) inform us about living lives which imitate God’s character and conduct. Our Lord’s final words to His disciples in John 14 and 15 had much to say about keeping His commandments (cf. John 14:15; 15:10).

Keeping God’s commandments reveals God to men in a different way. When we keep God’s commandments it often creates situations in which God is able to manifest His power and provision for His people in a magnificent way. Let me illustrate this truth in a couple of ways. First, suppose that you were an Israelite, and that the weather forecast was for a hailstorm, which would arrive on the first day of the week. Your crops had not been fully harvested and the sixth day of the week was just drawing to a close. To obey the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy would require you not to harvest your crops, knowing full well that the hailstorm might destroy them before you could finish the harvest. All of your pagan neighbors would be watching, I can assure you. They would watch to see the measure of your faith in God to protect your crops and to provide for you. They would also watch to see what your God would do. By obeying this commandment a situation is created in which God can prove Himself to be God.

The same is also true for the New Testament saint who faithfully lives in accordance with God’s word. I once heard a professor say that any businessman who attempted to live by the Sermon on the Mount would go broke doing so. Humanly speaking this may be true. Spiritually speaking, this affords a wonderful opportunity for God’s people to demonstrate their faith, and for God to demonstrate His faithfulness. I have heard similar statements related to our ecclesiology (the biblical principles of running the church). I believe that God gives us commands which test our faith and which give the opportunity for Him to demonstrate His faithfulness.

(3) The relationship between time and godliness: It takes time to be holy. The relationship between the first three commandments and the fourth is becoming increasingly clear. The first three commandments impress upon the saint the necessity, indeed the priority, of worship. The fourth commandment insures the time which is required for worship. When viewed together these commandments inform us that it takes time to be holy. The fourth commandment prohibits preoccupation with the normal activity of work so that men may worship God.

Think through the Old Testament passages which we have studied in this lesson for a moment. There are two related subjects: work (or the absence of it) and worship. The initial teaching on the Sabbath focuses on the absence of normal labor on the seventh day. Eventually the Scriptures begin to develop principles and a structure for Israel’s worship. The two things are directly related: Israel’s cessation of normal work was to facilitate her worship.

I have to smile to myself at this point. If many of the electronic preachers of our day had a voice in the choice of topics to be addressed in the Ten Commandments, one high priority topic would surely be money (some might make most of the commandments money-oriented). While money is dealt with somewhat, I find that time is given a higher order of priority. That is because it is easier to worship God in the absence of money (blessed are the poor) than it is in the absence of time. Isn’t it interesting that some attempt to substitute their money for their time?

I am now better able to understand a statement in the Book of Exodus which has always puzzled me: “‘Let My son go, that he may serve Me’” (Exodus 4:23; cf. 5:1, 3).

What is it, I have long wondered, which made Israel’s freedom essential to her worship? Now I better understand, in the light of the Fourth Commandment. Slaves have no time of their own. The Israelites did not have the necessary time to worship God and to serve Him. In order for them to serve God it was necessary for them to have sufficient freedom to do so. Bondage with regard to time is thus a hindrance to worship.

If this is true (as I believe it is) think of how successful Satan has been in hindering the worship of Christians in 20th century America. We are workaholics, and, in addition, worn out by the time demands of our day. It is no wonder that the quality of our worship is so shoddy. We must have free time to worship, and we must plan our week so that we finish in time to have that time. It does take time to be holy.

Yet we live in a day when everything is supposed to be done quickly and efficiently. We eat fast foods, drive in the fast lane. And thus, when we come to church, we want our worship pre-digested, pre-planned, and quickly served up so we can get on to other (better?) things. God save us from those time eaters which cause us to abbreviate our worship.

One more thing on the subject of time. We seem to think that our priorities are always in direct proportion to our time. The Old Testament teaching on the Sabbath destroys this as a myth, in my opinion. We suppose that those who are the most spiritual spend the most time in “spiritual” activities. Thus, full-time ministry is placed on the highest level, on a kind of spiritual pedestal. Let me remind you that while the seventh day was set apart as a holy day, it constituted only one-seventh of the week’s time. God labored on six days and rested on but one. Experience and Scripture join together to point out that what is most important does not always take the most time.

243 D. A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1982).

244 Some have attempted to discern the meaning of the term “Sabbath” by exploring its etymology (root meaning and development). Frankly, this has brought about many differing opinions, none of which has very compelling evidence. Thus, Dressler seems to conclude that etymology will not be of much profit, as can be seen from his summary of the conclusions of various scholars. Harold H. P. Dressler, “The Sabbath in the Old Testament,” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, pp. 23-24. The Scripture itself best explains the meaning of “Sabbath.”

245 “Their sojourn in Egypt had taught them the ten-day ‘week.’” Ibid, p. 24. Dressler quotes here from Richard Parker, “The Calendars and Chronology,” Legacy of Egypt (Oxford: University Press, 1971), p. 17.

246 “Thus, viewed within the chronological scheme of the narrative, a few months before the actual commandment of the Sabbath (i.e., in the Decalogue), the people of Israel were trained in the keeping of the Sabbath as a day in which there was no need to do the daily chore since the Lord had provided for them a rest.” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 24.

247 It is probably worth mentioning that Moses undoubtedly wrote much of the Pentateuch at the same time. Thus, while the events of the preceding Book of Genesis and the earlier portions of Exodus may have been separated by some considerable period of time, their time of writing was quite confined in time. The point is that what God inspired and directed Moses to write was intended to buttress and undergird Israel’s actions, as prescribed in the Law.

248 The first statement of the Fourth Commandment in Exodus 20 begins with the words, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The restatement of this command in Deuteronomy chapter 5 begins, “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” The change from “remember” to “observe” may be significant and worth further study, but that goes beyond the scope of this message.

249 This is a bit of an aside, but I think we should keep this text in mind whenever (or if we ever) we glibly state that the Bible sanctions slavery. There are many kinds of slavery, and the kind of slavery which God tolerates are vastly superior to the kind we most often observe. For some “freemen” in our world, God’s kind of slavery would be a step up.

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16. The Sabbath Controversy in the Gospels


There are few things I enjoy more than watching a master craftsman at his trade. I delight at watching a football player like Bill Bates on a safety blitz, or like Ed Jones sacking the opposing quarterback. I love to watch John Maurer skillfully fashioning a piece of wood, a master musician playing his instrument, or an artist catching the essence of a segment of life. One my great joys this past week has been to closely observe the skillfulness of our Lord in His handling of the Old Testament Scriptures. Our study this week of the “Sabbath controversy” in the Gospels will enable each of us to look on with amazement at the ease and skill with which our Lord handles the Old Testament text.

In our lesson last week, we saw how the Sabbath was established in principle in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis, when God rested on the seventh day, having finished the work of creation. Because of this, God blessed the Sabbath and sanctified it—set it apart. It is not until Exodus chapter 16 that the seventh day was divinely prescribed as a day of resting from the harvesting of manna. In chapter 20 of Exodus the Sabbath became the focus of the Fourth Commandment. Keeping this day holy required that the Israelites finish their week’s work by the end of the sixth day, so that the seventh could be a day in which men abstained from the normal occupations of the other six. In Exodus chapter 31, the keeping of the Sabbath was declared to be a sign of the Mosaic Covenant, with the death penalty prescribed for any violator of this commandment.

Throughout the rest of the Old Testament further clarification was given regarding the keeping of this commandment. Sabbath rest was further defined in terms of changing conditions. Even the land was to have its rest every seventh year. Further, the emphasis shifts from a cessation of normal activities to the ways in which the Israelite should worship God on the Sabbath. The prophets pointed out abuses of the Sabbath and urged the Israelites to keep the Sabbath “in spirit and truth.” The nation was warned that persistent disregard of the sanctity of the Sabbath would lead to the judgment of being thrust from the land and sent into captivity.

We have seen throughout the Old Testament an ongoing clarification and expansion of the Sabbath commandment. During the 400 “silent years” between the two testaments a great deal of attention was given to the interpretation of the Law (in general) and of the Sabbath (in particular). The detail to which the inspired writers went was nothing compared to the embellishments performed on the Sabbath commandment by the Jewish scholars and religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees. We would not be correct to conclude that all of these efforts to clarify the Law are silly and senseless. While the method of interpretation may be wrong, not to mention the conclusions reached, there was ample motivation for probing the obligation of the individual Israelite to the Fourth Commandment. During the Maccabbean Period (a century or so prior to the coming of Christ) a 1,000 Jews had been slaughtered because they were attacked on the Sabbath and would not break the Sabbath to defend themselves. Little wonder, then, that Jewish scholars sought to clarify the Sabbath commandment.

A large body of teaching regarding the interpretation of the Sabbath thus began to emerge before and after the coming of Christ. These interpretations were first preserved and passed on as oral traditions and then later put into writing. In the third century A. D. a written compilation of the oral traditions of the scribes was completed, which was known as the Mishnah. It contained 63 tractates on various subjects of the Law, requiring about 800 pages in English.250 Later Judaism set itself to the task of interpreting these interpretations. These commentaries on the Mishnah are called Talmuds. “Of the Jerusalem Talmud there are 12 printed volumes; and of the Babylonian Talmud there are 60 printed volumes.”251

The Law lays it down that the Sabbath Day is to be kept holy, and that on it no work is to be done. That is a great principle. But these Jewish legalists had a passion for definition. So they asked: What is work? All kinds of things were classified as work. For instance, to carry a burden on the Sabbath Day is to work. But next a burden has to be defined. So the Scribal Law lays it down that a burden is “food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, paper enough to write a customs house notice upon, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet, reed enough to make a pen”—and so on endlessly. So they spent endless hours arguing whether a man could or could not lift a lamp from one place to another on the Sabbath, whether a tailor committed a sin if he went out with a needle in his robe, whether a woman might wear a brooch or false hair, even if a man might go out on the Sabbath with artificial teeth or an artificial limb, if a man might lift his child on the Sabbath Day. These things to them were the essence of religion. Their religion was a legalism of petty rules and regulations.252

We can hardly be surprised to find a head-on collision between the scribes and Pharisees and our Lord over the issue of the Sabbath. The gospel writers record numerous occasions when the Jewish religious leaders clashed with Jesus over the interpretation of the Sabbath. Almost always this resulted from an incident in which are Lord “violated the Sabbath” according to the legalistic teachings and interpretations of the scribes and Pharisees. Such incidents are helpful to us in our study of the Sabbath, for they allow us to see some of the ways in which the Bible was wrongly interpreted, as well as the true interpretation of the Sabbath as given by our Lord. Let us learn from the errors of the Jewish religious leaders, and especially from the divine interpretation of the Sabbath by our Lord.

Our method in this message will be to consider a few of the key “Sabbath texts” in the gospels, and to attempt to learn how the legalistic interpretation of the scribes and Pharisees was in error. Further, we will compare and contrast the wrong interpretation with the correct interpretation of our Lord. Then, at the end of the lesson we will try to summarize our Lord’s teaching on the Sabbath, and to seek to discover some pertinent principles which are relevant to our lives as Christians. In the next (and final) lesson on the Sabbath we will see how the apostles interpreted the Sabbath and how the New Testament church sought to apply the Sabbath in a new dispensation. For now, let us turn to the gospels of the New Testament to see how our Lord’s view of the Sabbath differed from that of religious leaders of His day.

Matthew 12:1-14

A seemingly innocent act on the part of our Lord’s disciples precipitated an incident in which the Pharisees challenged the Lord Jesus to defend or denounce His disciples: “At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath through the grain fields, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, ‘Behold, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath’” (Matthew 12:1-2).

Let us begin by gaining a sense of the context, gaining an overview of the passage. These verses describe two separate incidents: (1) the protest of the Pharisees that Jesus’ disciples violated the Sabbath by gathering grain and eating it as they walked through the fields; and (2) the issue raised by the synagogue leaders,253 knowing Jesus was about to heal the man with the withered hand. The Savior meets Jewish objections in the first instance by citing two incidents in the Old Testament where people were vindicated for technically breaking the Sabbath: David, when he took the sacred shewbread and shared it with his men, and the Old Testament priests, who regularly violate the Sabbath by working at their priestly jobs on this day.

Undaunted by the challenge of the Pharisees, our Lord catches His opponents completely off guard by referring to an Old Testament text which remarkably paralleled this situation: “But He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did, when he became hungry, he and his companions; how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests alone?’” (Matthew 12:3-4).

Before looking at the response of our Lord, let us make several important observations about what is happening here that is foundational to an accurate interpretation of this text.

(1) Our Lord was not being accused of wrongdoing here. The issue here is the “harvesting” and “threshing” of grain by our Lord’s disciples. Jesus was being challenged to either condemn the deeds of His disciples or to condone them, thereby opposing the authority and the interpretation of the Pharisees.

(2) While the Torah (the Law of Moses) nowhere condemns such an act, the Halakah (the Jewish collection of interpretations) did.

(3) Amazingly, Jesus granted the assumption that the actions of His disciples was “work” and thus a breaking of the Sabbath.

These three facts provided the Lord with a golden opportunity to avoid the issue of the Sabbath, and to concentrate only on the technical questions involved. Often, Jesus did avoid “creating a scene,” whether it be that of performing a miracle publicly, or that of inciting a dispute prematurely between Himself and His adversaries. Here, Jesus could have referred His critics to His disciples, since He had not gathered any heads of grain for Himself, nor had He eaten any. He could have pointed to the fact that the Torah nowhere called such a minimal effort work, and that this was only the fallacious conclusion of some misguided, knit-picking scholars. Instead, Jesus chose to let these technical matters go by the boards. He wanted to discuss the interpretation of the Sabbath and His activities which could be construed to be a breaking of the Fourth Commandment. Here is a matter Jesus did want to discuss, and He sidestepped every peripheral issue to get to the heart of the matter.

Bearing these things in mind, notice how skillfully our Lord answered the challenge of the Pharisees. Knowing full well that He would not change the Pharisees’ minds about the disciples’ actions being viewed as work, Jesus allowed the allegation of Sabbath-breaking to go unchallenged (even though wrong). Our Lord then turned His critics’ attention to an Old Testament event which beautifully paralleled His own situation in critical points. He points to the time when David was fleeing from Saul, accompanied by a few men, and when David and his hungry men took consecrated bread from Ahimelech the priest and ate it (cf. 1 Samuel 21:1-9). Note the common denominators of both incidents, which make the Old Testament case a precedent for our Lord’s actions, along with His followers.

(1) David and the Lord both had followers with them, who participated in their “Sabbath-breaking”.254

(2) Food was eaten to alleviate hunger. Hunger prompted Jesus’ disciples to pluck the grain, just as it necessitated David and his men eating the sacred bread.

(3) Something which was sanctified, set apart for a special use, was profaned by being put to a common use. In David’s case, sanctified bread, set apart for use only by the priests’ was eaten. The Lord’s disciples, too, profaned the Sabbath (which was sanctified) by gathering grain, which was common labor.

(4) There were considerations which justified actions that normally would have been condemned as Law-breaking.

We can see that the similarities in these two situations are similar enough so that the justification for David’s actions (and, of course, his men) might also vindicate our Lord’s disciples from the charge of Law-breaking. Let us pay close attention to the argument which our Lord puts forward here, for it is a master-stroke.

First, our Lord assumes that the actions of David and his men are acceptable to the Judaism of His day,255 and thus, to His adversaries. Nobody wanted to accuse David of wrong-doing here. Second, if this is so, then the Pharisees granted exceptions to the Law. Third, if Law-breaking was allowed in some cases, it must be to some higher reason or consideration. What, then, are the reasons for which David could be acquitted, and for which our Lord and His disciples could be as well?

1 Samuel 21, David did not specifically ask for any of the sacred bread, that is all that was at hand. Ahimelech volunteered to give David some of this bread so long as his men had not been defiled. I think that there were three reasons why Ahimelech gave this bread without reservation: (1) Ahimelech did not find the Law so rigid as to prohibit meeting the needs of men under such special circumstances. (2) He believed that David had come from the king. (3) He believed that David had been sent on an important assignment by the king. These considerations led the priest to the conclusion that the prohibition of the Law could be set aside in the case of David and his men. Note well that Ahimelech did not cast aside his obligation to preserve the sanctity of the bread. He did insist that David’s men must be free from defilement. One must assume that if this condition were not met, the bread would not have been given these men. The sanctified bread was not profaned in the process.

Ahimelech had some good reasons for giving David and his men bread. Nevertheless, these were probably not the same reasons the Jewish scholars and teachers had for justifying this act of David. My opinion is that they focused on who David was. Since David was God’s anointed, Israel’s next king, it was right for he and his men to eat the consecrated bread and thus to save their lives. Their motto might have been, “better fed than dead.” David’s men could well eat the consecrated bread because of whom it was they followed. The implications for Jesus’ followers should not have passed them by. Luke, in his account of the same event, adds this statement of our Lord, which presses home the point: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5).0 If for David’s sake (and thus Israel’s) the Law could be temporarily and technically violated, how much more for the sake of his Lord?

These are all good reasons, and may very well be implied in our Lord’s words to the Pharisees. I think, however, that there was one simple reason which our Lord sought to emphasize above all others—David and his men should have been fed the sacred bread because they were hungry and this was the only food available. The hunger factor is clearly stated by our Lord (Matthew 12:1, 3). Certain things were sanctified, set apart by God, to teach the Israelites about sanctification, not to cause them hardship and suffering. Thus, when Law-keeping would endanger David’s life or the lives of his men, the practice of the Law could be modified (not ignored altogether) to meet the needs of men.

Mark presses this point in his account of the same incident when he records this statement of our Lord: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). If the Sabbath was made for man’s benefit and not man for the benefit of the Sabbath, then when a particular Sabbath practice posed a hardship on man, it may legitimately, in some exceptional cases, be set aside.1 How beautifully Jesus turned the tables on His adversaries. It was not He who was unbiblical, they were out of step with the Scriptures.

If the Pharisees thought they had Jesus at a disadvantage in the matter of His disciples’ actions in the grain fields, they were wrong. After the first argument in verses 3 and 4, the Pharisees’ heads must have been spinning, but rather to stop here, suggesting He had but one text in support of His thesis, Jesus struck a second blow, providing yet another precedent for His actions from the Old Testament Scriptures in verses 5-8:

“Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath, and are innocent? But I say to you, that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:5-8).

Not only was David vindicated in the Scriptures and by the Pharisees for partaking of the consecrated bread, along with his followers, the priests who ministered in the temple on the Sabbath were justified in “breaking the Sabbath Law” as well. The argument in verse 5 is meticulous. It is not the greatness of the priests which justified their violation of the Fourth Commandment—it was the greatness of the temple, the greatness of the cause or the work in which the were engaged. No Jew needed to be convinced of the greatness of the temple, and thus temple service was a readily accepted justification for the priests working on the Sabbath.

These two cases which our Lord has cited might be used as precedents for His own actions and attitude toward the Sabbath, but He is not content to leave the matter at that. Jesus is no mere equal to David and to the priests, to be covered by the precedent they have set. He is their superior, their Sovereign. Thus, in the closing words of this argument, the Lord Jesus uses this occasion to boldly claim His deity, which not only allows Him to technically violate the Sabbath, it gives Him the freedom to set it aside altogether if He pleases.

As great as the temple might be to the Pharisee, our Lord claims to be “greater than the temple” (v. 6). By claiming as well to be “Lord of the Sabbath” He is also claiming to be greater than David, or any other man. Why was Jesus justified in doing what He did? Because He who is God can do as He pleases. If God established the Sabbath, and man was commanded to imitate Him in resting on the seventh day, then Jesus, as God, can do away with it, working on it if He pleases, and commanding others to do likewise. God can declare the Sabbath and He can disregard it, too.

Verse 7 strikes at the heart of the problem of His adversaries: they have focused on the mechanical, ritualistic, aspects of the Sabbath, and in so doing they have failed to meet its essence, which is mercy and compassion. They have lingered long over the letter of the Law, but they have missed its spirit.

When Jesus cites the words of the prophet Hosea, “I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice” (6:6),2 He wields a double-edged sword. In the first place, He stresses the overriding principle of compassion. For David to have fed his men the consecrated bread may have been a technical violation of the Law, but it was an act of compassion, thus complying with the spirit of that Law. The same can be said for the disciples’ eating the grain on that Sabbath day. Second, the context of this quotation serves as a veiled rebuke to the Pharisees, for in Hosea legalism is condemned, and that condemnation is often directed against the leaders of the nation Israel (cf. Hosea 5:1-2; 6:9).

The Healing of the Withered Hand
(Matthew 12:9-14)

And departing from there, He went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man with a withered hand. And they questioned Him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—in order that they might accuse Him. And He said to them, “What man shall there be among you, who shall have one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it, and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:9-14).

The situation is quite different here. It is not the actions of the Lord’s disciples which are at issue, but the anticipated healing of the man with the withered hand. The wickedness of the opponents of our Lord is clearly demonstrated in this text. Jesus departed from the previous debate over the Sabbath and, on the Sabbath, enters the synagogue, apparently the one which His opponents from the last encounter normally attended. This is signaled by the designation “their synagogue” in verse 9.

While we are not told all of the details, it seems relatively clear that Jesus saw the man as he entered the synagogue. That man, if he knew who Jesus was, would have petitioned Him to heal him. Jesus must have stopped at the man’s request and the Pharisees knew that a healing was about to take place. They seized this opportunity to raise a question about the legitimacy of healing on the Sabbath. They did this knowing that Jesus would thus have to take a stand on the Sabbath and also would perform the healing, thus deliberately violating the Law as they interpreted it. Jesus was, in their minds, going to end up “between a rock and a hard place.”

The only “hard place” was that in which our Lord’s adversaries would find themselves by the time His argument was concluded. Jesus took a totally different tack in defending His actions here. He answered their question with one of His own. Here, He did not focus on Himself, nor on the Old Testament Scriptures, but on His adversaries and on His ailing friend nearby. He exposes their hypocrisy by comparing what they justified in themselves with what they condemned in Jesus.

Jesus wished to point out the glaring inconsistency of the Pharisees by showing their double standard in interpreting and applying the Law: one set of standards for themselves; another when judging Him. When it came to a mishap endangering one of their own animals, they had no qualms in “laboring” (thus breaking their interpretation of the Sabbath Law) to rescue it from danger (v. 11). If they valued their cattle so much that they would risk violating the Sabbath, could Jesus be wrong in placing a higher value on an ailing man by healing him on the Sabbath?

The Sabbath Commandment was not to be misinterpreted so as to deprive one of the ability to do good to another in need. The compassion in which the Lord delighted in principle (Hosea 6:6), was the compassion which needed to be applied in particular on this Sabbath day—and was, when Jesus commanded that the man stretch out his hand, so as to be healed (v. 13). While good men would have rejoiced (and some surely did), the adversaries of our Lord went out, counseling together as to how to do away with Him (v. 14). Thus, the Law, if given for man’s good, does not command us to do evil by neglecting to do good to those in need.

John 5:1-18

Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes. … And a certain man was there, who had been thirty-eight years in his sickness. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition He said to him, “Do you wish to get well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Arise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And immediately the man became well, and took up his pallet and began to walk. Now it was the Sabbath on that day. Therefore the Jews were saying to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet.” But he answered them, “He who made me well was the one who said to me, ‘Take up your pallet and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk’?” But he who was healed did not know who it was; for Jesus had slipped away while there was a crowd in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may befall you.” The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. And for this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God” (John 5:2, 5-18).

Time will not permit a thorough study of this text, but we will focus our attention on the highlights of the passage as they relate to the Sabbath controversy. Our Lord not only commanded the man to rise up (thus, to be healed), but also to carry his pallet, his bed (thus, technically violating the Jewish interpretation of the Sabbath Law). Initially, the Jews challenged the healed man for violation of the Sabbath. The man was undaunted, believing that anyone who had the power to heal him also had the authority to tell him to carry his bed. Jesus had silently slipped away from the scene, so that the man had not discovered His name.

Later, Jesus found the man, urging him to sin no more, lest greater evil befall him. It was at this time that the man learned his healer’s name was Jesus, and so he reported this to the Jews. This resulted in the Jews turning their wrath toward the Lord Jesus, persecuting Him for His Sabbath violation. Our Lord’s one sentence response is one of the most profound statements in the gospels: “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (John 5:17). This bold statement indicates a significant change in God’s dealings with Israel, a change so dramatic that it required a response which appeared to be a violation of the Old Testament Law, particularly the Fourth Commandment. Let us consider the nature of this change.

(1) Jesus claimed that the Father is no longer resting, but is at work, even on the Sabbath. The Sabbath rest of God, described in Genesis 2:1-3, was the result of His having finished the work of creation. The work which God was then undertaking in the coming of Christ was the work of redemption. There is thus a change of program, from that of creation (completed) to that of redemption (in process). If Jesus was right (and He surely was) God was also a Sabbath-breaker, when viewed according to the former standard of the Fourth Commandment as interpreted by the Jews. David’s men could break the Law by eating consecrated bread because their leader did. Jesus’ followers could “harvest” grain on the Sabbath, if it was right for their leader to do so. And now, Jesus Himself can break the Sabbath because God the Father was doing it.

(2) The keeping of the Sabbath was a sign of the Mosaic Covenant, but this sign was to be set aside, along with the covenant, due to the new covenant which Christ would institute by His redemptive work on the cross.

(3) While obedience to God was once manifested by imitating God in ceasing from labor, obedience to God now required the imitation of God in labor. Since God was at work up to and including that very moment (which was on the Sabbath), imitating God required working on the Sabbath as well.

(4) Jesus here not only identified Himself with God, He identified Himself as God. This is evident from the reaction of the Jews to Jesus’ words:

For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God (John 5:18).

John 7:21-24

Jesus answered and said to them, “I did one deed, and you all marvel. On this account Moses has given you circumcision (not because it is from Moses, but from the fathers); and on the Sabbath you circumcise a man. If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath that the Law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made an entire man well on the Sabbath? Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:21-24).

The debate which began in John chapter 5 was not finished, and so the charge of a “violation of the Sabbath” which was leveled against the Lord Jesus there is picked up again in chapter 7. Verses 21 and 23 of chapter 7 point back to the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda. Jesus gives one further response in verses 22 and 23 which provides yet another argument in His defense with regard to the charge of breaking the Sabbath by the healing of this man.

When the keeping of the Sabbath is to be practiced according to the interpretation of the Pharisees, there was yet another group of Sabbath-breakers which they must reckon with: those parents who circumcised their sons on the Sabbath. From the legalistic point of view of the Pharisees, it was possible for two of God’s commandments to conflict with each other. The Law of Moses required that a new son must be circumcised on his 8th day (Lev. 12:3). If this day happened to fall on the Sabbath, the Jews who condemned Jesus for healing on this day would themselves circumcise their sons on the same day, and without any sense of guilt. Our Lord’s accusers were once again found to be hypocritical, and superficial in their concept of true obedience.

On the surface, circumcising a son on the Sabbath was an infraction of the letter of the Sabbath Law. In reality, circumcising on the Sabbath was keeping the Sabbath in terms of the spirit of the Law. Righteous judgment must look deeper than just at the outward appearance of an act. The Pharisees were being hypocritical, for they judged Jesus according to a different standard than that by which they judged their own actions.


Our Lord’s commentary on the Fourth Commandment is of great importance and relevance to contemporary Christians. Let us explore some of the implications of His teaching on the Sabbath as we conclude this lesson.

The first lesson which we should learn from the Sabbath controversy in the gospels is that the central and foundational issue underlying the controversy is not Jesus’ interpretation, but Jesus’ identity. The Jews sought to put Jesus to death as a result of His defense. The reason was not only because those who opposed Him were put to shame, but because the Sabbath controversy was but further proof that Jesus was God incarnate.

When you read through the gospels carefully, you will discover that at the outset of His ministry Jesus performed miracles on the Sabbath, but that they were not challenged.3 What caused the change? What made the “violation of the Sabbath” such a heated issue? The answer is this: Jesus had clearly claimed to be God incarnate. The Sabbath controversy was therefore the attempt to prove Jesus a Law-breaker, thus proving that such a “sinner” could not be God: “Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, ‘This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.’ But others were saying, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And there was a division among them” (John 9:16).

The Gospel of Mark illustrates the sequence of events which led to the Sabbath controversy. In 1:21-28 Jesus cast an unclean spirit from a man in a synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath, yet there was no objection raised, only praise. In chapter 2 Jesus first forgave the sins of the paralytic who had been lowered through the roof of the house where Jesus was speaking. The scribes reasoned that only God could forgive sins, and thus that Jesus was making the claim to be God. Thus, in the closing verses of chapter 2 the Sabbath controversy is commenced. The Sabbath issue was but a symptom problem, an attempt to prove Jesus to be a sinner, and not the Son of God. This debate, like countless other debates throughout church history, was not a search for truth but an attempt to squelch the truth.

The identity of Jesus as the Son of God was the heart of the Sabbath issue. Jesus could work on the Sabbath because He was the Son of God (John 5:16-17), One greater than the temple (Matthew 12:6), and greater than David—Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8). Since God the Father was the Sabbath maker, Jesus, as God, can not only break the Sabbath, He can abolish it altogether. As God, Jesus could work on the Sabbath, and more than this, He could offer men true rest, a rest far superior to the Old Testament Sabbath rest, and surely far better than any rest which the Pharisees had to offer. It is no accident that these verses immediately precede the great Sabbath debate in Matthew’s gospel: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

There is only one true rest, my friend, and that is the rest which Jesus Christ gives, the rest of forgiveness of sins, the rest of ceasing from striving to be holy, and of being found holy in Him. I pray that this rest is yours.

Second, we learn that the fundamental difference between the interpretation of Jesus and that of the Pharisees was the difference between the precepts of Scripture and the principles of Scripture. If we are to understand the difference between a precept and a principle, we must first define each of these terms and then differentiate between them.



An example of a precept is: “You cannot go to the store with Sally today.” A principle would be: “I don’t like you spending time with Sally, so don’t associate with her.” In the precept, a specific action is prohibited. In the principle, a general course of action is prescribed.

Our children love rules, not because of their restrictiveness, but because of the ease with which we can overcome them. In the case of the precept “You cannot go to the store with Sally today,” our children can spend time with Sally, just so long as they don’t go to the store. They can even go to the store with her, so long as it is not today. Precepts direct our actions in particular; principles guide our conduct in general.

The difference between the Pharisees and Jesus was the difference between viewing the Old Testament only as precepts and understanding it as teaching principles which guide men’s lives in the application of its precepts, and when there are no precepts which apply to our specific predicament. To the Pharisees, the essence of the Fourth Commandment was this precept: Thou shalt not work. To the Lord Jesus, the essence of this commandment was this principle: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. One could cease from work on the Sabbath (as the Pharisees did) without keeping the Sabbath holy. Contrarily, Jesus (and others, such as the temple priests) could also observe the Sabbath as a holy day by working on it. The Pharisees were so committed to the precept of not working that they neglected—indeed violated—the principle of keeping the Sabbath holy.

The Sermon on the Mount provides us with another example of how our Lord’s method of interpreting the (Old Testament) Scriptures differed from that of the scribes and Pharisees. The Pharisaical method of interpreting the Old Testament commandments looked at them only as precepts, specific rules for specific situations. Where the Old Testament was to general, they added particulars, thus the volumes of Jewish commentaries on the commentaries of the Law.

The Lord did not set aside any of the Old Testament precepts, but He did press beyond the precept to the underlying principle. Thus, the Pharisee could think of himself as a Law-keeper if he did not kill anyone and did not commit adultery. Jesus sought to show these legalists that they did not go far enough. To the Lord Jesus, anger was murder and lust was adultery, in principle, and thus was sin to be avoided.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that we should seek to find only the principles of the Bible and forget the precepts. I am saying that we can only properly understand and keep the precepts of the Bible by following the principles of the Bible. Both principle and precept are necessary, but the former takes precedence over the latter.

In distinguishing precepts from principles we are not engaging in mere scholastic calisthenics. This is a very practical necessity for every Christian. Allow me to show you the practicality of differentiating between precepts and principles in two ways. The first has to do with the interpretation and application of the Bible, both of the Old Testament and the New. The second has to do with the vital link between Christian ethics and biblical principles, as well as that between Christian legalism and biblical precept (without biblical principle).

When we come to the interpretation and application of the Old Testament Scriptures, we must do so on the premise that, “All Scripture [specifically the Old Testament is in view here] is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

How can we apply the precepts of the Old Testament when they are given to a different people (the Jews), in a different dispensation, and with a culture and lifestyle that is foreign to our own? The answer: by determining the principle underlying the precept. Sometimes that principle is readily evident (as in the case with the Sabbath). At other times, the principle is hidden within the precept. That is why meditation is necessary to understand God’s Law.

On the surface, nothing could seem more irrelevant to the North Dallas Christian than the commandment, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” (Deuteronomy 25:4). As a precept, this commandment would only relate to us if we owned oxen and raised grain. As a precept, therefore, this commandment is irrelevant to today’s Christian. As a principle-conveying commandment, it has tremendous implications. The ox and the grain are incidental, illustrative of the principle that the one who works ought to benefit from his labor. Paul therefore appeals to this passage when he claims the right to be supported by those to whom he ministers (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:1-14).

Another Old Testament commandment reads: “You are not to boil a kid in the milk of its mother” (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21). The fact that this command is found three times should suggest it has something important to teach us. Since you and I do not raise (or eat) goats, this command has no relevance to us as a precept. The principle underlying it is most relevant to us, as I will attempt to show.

Now no Jew was to feel guilty about drinking goat’s milk. Neither was it wrong to eat a young kid; even when boiled in the milk of another goat. But when a kid was boiled in the milk of its mother, that was going too far. This is because there is a special relationship between the “kid” and its “mother,” the relationship between mother and child (offspring). The milk is the God-given provision of the mother to sustain and strengthen its offspring. To boil a kid in its mother’s milk is to be insensitive to the relationship of mother, milk, and offspring. The milk which was divinely intended to preserve and promote the life of the kid is being used to destroy that kid (at least from the point of view of the mother goat). How insensitive.

To use that which was designed to preserve life for the purpose of destroying it was forbidden. Every pregnant woman who is considering an abortion should give careful thought to the principle behind this precept about goats, kids, and milk. The uterus of the woman is a place of safety, a means of protecting the child and promoting life and growth, and yet some women go to the abortionist and have them invade their womb and slaughter their child in that place of sanctity and safety. How cruel! How insensitive! How closely this act, in principle, comes to willfully rebelling against God’s commandment.

The distinction between precept and principle is also necessary when we attempt to interpret and apply the teachings of the New Testament to our lives today. The differences between the New Testament world and our own are many, and often we must interpret and apply the precepts of the New Testament in the light of the principle underlying them. For example, this frequently repeated precept is one which few Christians keep: “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14).

Why do we not do this when it is commanded so often, by so many New Testament writers? Unfortunately we may not obey this precept only out of ignorance or apathy. In studying the history of the church we find that there is a better explanation for the reticence of the church to follow this precept to the letter. Unbelievers often misunderstood what was taking place in the agape or “love feast” of the church (communion). They could only think of this in terms of the sexual indulgence common in heathen orgies. The biblical principle “avoid all appearance of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22) was thus applied and thus the church chose to abstain from the practice of greeting one another with a holy kiss. The principle underlying this precept can be understood to be something like this: “visibly express your love for one another.” Since the principle of showing affection for one another can be practiced by other means (e. g. a handshake), Christians have felt no guilt about abstaining from “holy kissing,” especially in our western culture. Once again, distinguishing principle from precept can be of great importance to those who truly wish to be obedient to God in spirit and in truth.

Distinguishing between precept and principle will greatly assist us in avoiding that evil toward which conservative evangelicals are pre-disposed: legalism. Legalism is that tendency to strictly observe the rules, but to forget the reasons, to keep the letter of the Law, but not the spirit of it. Legalism is often related to literalism. While we should take the message of the Bible literally, the principle of a particular commandment may extend beyond the literal words. For example, literalism may view the commandment, “Don’t muzzle the ox …” as applying only to oxen and oxen owners. The principle presses us beyond the literal words without suggesting that they should be ignored. It means that taking God’s word seriously means going beyond the literal words to the principle. Legalism is simply literalism gone bad.

In thinking about my understanding and application of the New Testament, in a number of cases it has been my belief that a “New Testament church” is one which follows the precepts of the apostles and the practices of the churches. By and large this is still true. But my study of the Lord’s interpretation of the Old Testament has cautioned me about priding myself in conforming to the precepts and practices of the New Testament without giving serious thought to its principles. For example, the Scriptures have some very specific statements (precepts) about the role of women in the church. I believe that these must be taken seriously. But it is also possible (perhaps not probable, but possible) that following a particular practice found in the New Testament may violate the principle which underlies it.

Let’s take the troublesome New Testament teaching on women’s head coverings in 1 Corinthians chapter 11. Some churches feel (with great sincerity and conviction) that women should have their heads covered in church. Others are not sure this passage requires head covering at all. The principle underlying the precept (whatever it may be) is clear in the text—it is the principle of headship (of the Father over the Son, of Christ over the church, of the man over the woman cf. v. 3). It is conceivable that the imitation of the practice of the Corinthian church could, in our day and time, actually violate the principle which their practice applied. Thus, a legalistic imitation and repetition of New Testament church practices could, in some situations, be a violation of New Testament principles. Particular practices must therefore always be observed in the light of biblical principle, not on the basis of tradition alone.

To those who resist this thought as heresy, let me warn you that the Pharisees resisted the thought that working on the Sabbath could be the godly thing to do. To those who would love to find in my suggestion an excuse to set aside every New Testament practice which is either bothersome or culturally offensive, let me remind you that exceptions to biblical precepts (Old Testament or New) are few and far between, and based on solid, soul-searching, agonizing, principle-oriented study. The desire to preserve tradition as well as the desire to abolish it, should be critically evaluated.

Finally, while biblical precepts (positive and negative) provide us with the outside parameters for our conduct, biblical principles are the basis for the ethics which must guide us where precepts cannot.4 The legalist wants to believe that life is guided by only two factors: WHAT IS COMMANDED, WHAT IS CONDEMNED. The legalist thinks that all of life can be lived with a kind of code book in hand. In any given situation there must be a specific rule (precept) which tells him what to do or what not to do. There is a broad black line between what one can do and what one cannot. Whenever there is no rule for a given situation, a new rule is made. Thus, the legalism of the Pharisees, and the endless rules and regulations of Judaism.

Christian conduct is not always legislated, but is guided by three essential factors: WHAT IS COMMANDED, ETHICS, WHAT IS CONDEMNED. What I must do. What I should do. What I must not do.

We all have difficulty doing those things we know to be right, and avoiding the things we know to be wrong. Paul’s agony in Romans 7 is familiar to every Christian. But there is another agony which Christians must face: the agony of knowing what is the right thing to do when there is no rule, no precept to tell us what we should do.

Those many things which are neither commanded nor condemned (which included Christian liberties—cf. 1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14) fall into the broad category which many would call ethics. Precepts tell us what we must do or not do; principles guide us in discerning what we should do. Principles are therefore absolutely essential to the development of personal Christian ethics.

Many of the most agonizing issues Christians face today are ethical issues. These include: (1) birth control, (2) belonging to a labor union, (3) going on strike, (4) nuclear weapons and their use, (5) going to war/pacifism, (6) capital punishment. In my opinion these and many other questions are ethical issues, which can only be settled on the basis of principle and by the establishment of strong personal convictions (which means, incidentally, that other Christians may come to different convictions). If we learn from our Lord and other biblical writers how to distinguish biblical precepts from biblical principles we shall have the raw materials necessary for developing a system of personal ethics.

May God enable us to apply the lessons which we have learned from our Lord, by His grace and to His glory.

250 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1963), I, p. 126.

251 Ibid.

252 Ibid, pp. 124-125.

253 The reader will note that the objectors are not precisely identified. Note, however, that Matthew tells us that Jesus went into “their synagogue” (v. 9), and that “they” (v. 10) questioned. In the light of this and of the overall Sabbath debate in the gospels, I think my suggestion that these were the Jewish leaders has some substance.

254 Some may feel that David and his men are not guilty of Sabbath-breaking, but, more generally, Law-breaking. In His own words, Jesus spoke of David’s actions as “not lawful” (v. 4). From the passage in 1 Samuel 21 and the stipulations governing the consecrated bread in Leviticus 24:5-9 it is possible to infer that the particular day David arrived at Nob may have been the Sabbath. In the first place, the Sabbath was the day when the fresh bread replaced the old (Leviticus 24:8). Thus, the priest would have some available to give David. Secondly, in 1 Samuel 21:5 David uses a “much more” argument to show that “today” his men would be even more certain to be undefiled by contact with a woman.

255 This is indeed interesting, for the account of David’s actions in 1 Samuel reveals some rather dubious deeds, including lying to the priest about the true reason for his appearance and request. If the Jews could see fit to justify David’s actions, in spite of some of his questionable actions, how could they possibly fail to approve of our Lord’s deeds?

0 Luke cites our Lord’s words, “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,” after His first defense, while Matthew saves it until the second. The problem (if any existed) is solved by the fact that Luke wants us to see that this statement was underlying our Lord’s whole defense, not just one part of it. Thus, it is introduced in Luke, “And He was saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’” (Luke 6:5). This was thus an on-going, repeated thrust of our Lord’s teaching in this confrontation.

1 I realize that this statement opens a virtual “Pandora’s box” and yet it can hardly be denied that this is what happened in David’s case, cited here by our Lord. Fallen man will of course want to consider an inconvenience a cause for setting God’s commands aside and this is not acceptable. Nevertheless, the fact that God’s laws have exceptions (as in the case of David) means that some circumstances do justify a modification of the application of the Law. This will be even clearer later on in this study.

2 To fail to grasp the spirit of the Law is thus to fail to know God as He is, for the Law is the expression of God’s character. Thus, the error of the Pharisees was a distortion of the character and attributes of God. Thus, the second line of Hosea 6:6 reads: “And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

3 Carson argues that the real issue with our Lord was not the fact that He worked on the Sabbath: “The fact that Jesus does not suffer public outrage for His exorcism [Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37] cannot escape notice; perhaps no Pharisees were present, and he could have opposed Jesus’ Sabbath practices (cf. Luke 13:10-17). In what immediately follows, Jesus performs another miracle, one of healing (Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:[3]8-39), and again there is no adverse reaction, although it may be argued that the miracle occurred in the privacy of a home.

“The absence of opposition may, however, have a more comprehensive explanation. Up to this point Jesus has been scrupulous as far as the Torah is concerned, and has not clashed even with the Sabbath regulation of the Halakah. The Halakah was designed to put a fence around Torah while still leaving the people free to perform necessary tasks and (in the majority view) acts of mercy. It is doubtful that any consideration was given in the early stages to the legitimacy of Sabbath miracles, since the regulations dealt with work on the Sabbath. If the Halakic comments about healing were intended to govern medical practitioners and the ministrations of relatives and the like, it is hard to see how Jesus committed any offense at all. It appears, then, that Jesus’ Sabbath practices were not reviled by anyone at first, until oppostion began to mount and Jesus Himself was reviled. At that point, the Sabbath legislation was used against Him, and attacks against Him were rationalized on the basis of the Halakah.” D. A. Carson, “Jesus and the Sabbath in the Four Gospels,” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, D. A. Carson, ed. (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1982), p. 59.

4 The connection between ethics and principles is one that has been pointed out by R. C. Sproul: “Ethics is a normative science, searching for the principal foundations [principles] that prescribe obligations or ‘oughtness.’ It is concerned primarily with the imperative and with the philosophical premises upon which imperatives [precepts] are based.” R. C. Sproul, Ethics and the Christian (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1983), pp. 9-10 (comments in brackets mine).

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17. The Sabbath in Apostolic Preaching and Practice


When I was growing up my parents owned and operated a small summer resort. Occasionally, there were Christian friends who came to visit and stay with us, and one friend in particular was a minister. When he and his family came and stayed over on a Sunday, I can still remember being puzzled at the fact that his children, who were my age, were restricted from doing many of the “fun” things which were permissible the rest of the week. The motive of this man was undoubtedly pure, but as a child, it still did not make sense to me. I hoped that his conception of the Sabbath was not God’s conception of heaven.

In the light of my study of the Sabbath I find that my childish quandary about our friends and their Sabbath observance was not as childish as I first thought. One of the common misconceptions currently held among Christians is that our observance of Sunday as the “Lord’s day” is the Christian Sabbath, the Sabbath day of the Old Testament saint, revised and tailored to meet the need for Christian worship. A careful study of the Sabbath in the teaching and practice of the apostolic, New Testament, church will prove otherwise. Our final study of the Sabbath will not only reveal what the Sabbath is not, but what it is and how we should understand and apply the Old Testament Sabbath today.

In our first two lessons on the Sabbath we have studied its institution in the Old Testament and its interpretation in the teaching and practice of our Lord. We found that the Sabbath has its roots in Genesis chapter 2, on the seventh day of creation when God rested, after completing His work of creation. The Book of Exodus builds on this foundation, first commanding a Sabbath rest in regard to harvesting the manna in the wilderness (chapter 16), then instituting the Sabbath as the Fourth Commandment, given by God from Mt. Sinai (chapter 20). Finally, the keeping of the Sabbath is declared to be the sign of the Mosaic Covenant, with the death penalty declared for any violators of this commandment (chapter 31).

The nature of the Sabbath rest is outlined in more detail throughout the rest of the Pentateuch. Rest is extended to the days when Israel will possess the land. Even the land is to have its rest every seventh year. The Israelites’ cattle and their slaves are also exempted from labor on the Sabbath. Not only was there further clarification as to the kinds of work prohibited, and the workers exempted, there was also greater detail provided as to worship which should be conducted on the Sabbath. The prophets sought to promote the observance of the Sabbath in the spirit of the Law, not just in the letter, promising blessings to those who kept the Sabbath and warning of the captivity which would result from continued disregard of it.

Our Lord’s interpretation of the Sabbath is given great emphasis in the gospels, thanks to the controversy precipitated by the scribes and Pharisees. The real issue was not what Jesus did, or even what He taught pertaining to the Sabbath, but Who He claimed to be in relationship to the Sabbath. In Luke chapter 4, verses 16-21, Jesus read from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 61. The passage initially seems to have no reference to the Sabbath, but some of the terms of this passage are linked to the Old Testament passages on the year of Jubilee, as sabbatical celebration.

In Matthew chapter 11, verses 25-30 our Lord offered men “rest” in Him, an obvious “Sabbath” illusion, with the added claim to be the source of the rest. These verses immediately precede the “Sabbath controversy” of chapter 12. In chapter 12 Jesus boldly identified Himself with God, and indeed, as God, by claiming to be greater than David, greater than the priests, and greater than the temple. He claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath,5 thus having the authority not only to interpret the Sabbath Law, but even to set it aside altogether. Although our Lord never violated the Torah with regard to the Sabbath, He implied that He would bring about a significant change in this matter.

The final outworkings of our Lord’s coming with regard to the Sabbath were only hinted at in the gospels, due to the fact that our Lord’s work of redemption was still future. The full and final meaning of the Sabbath could only be understood in the light of His cross. Thus, it is the apostles who are privileged to give the final word on the Sabbath. They are the “court of last resort,” whose verdict on the Sabbath we must accept and apply.

The purpose of this lesson is to pursue the meaning of the Sabbath for the New Testament saint. We will attempt to do this by looking first at the practice of the apostles, and of the New Testament churches, as seen primarily in the Book of Acts, but also in some of the epistles. We will then consider the teaching of the apostles regarding the Sabbath. Finally, we will focus on the apostolic teaching of the Sabbath as it applies to the lives of New Testament saints, as it applies to you and me. I believe that we may find new and surprising insights here. We will, once again, gain further insight into the way in which we should interpret and apply the Old Testament to our lives as well. Let us seek to study the Sabbath with open hearts and minds to the truth of God, and to determine to apply what the Spirit of God convinces us is truth.

The Sabbath and the
Practice of the New Testament Church

There is a sparsity of information on the Sabbath practices of saints in the New Testament. Our first surprise comes here, at the sparsity of emphasis or information on the practice of the church with regard to the Sabbath. This lack of detail provided in the biblical text has led to a wide range of interpretations, mostly all inferential. In and of itself, this vagueness is informative. Surely, since the Old Testament went into great detail about the Sabbath and its observance, and since the New is surprisingly silent, the issue must not be all that important. Sabbath keeping should have been given more emphasis if it were a crucial matter for the New Testament saint.

This sparsity of information also signals us to the fact that the issue of keeping the Sabbath must not have been a major controversy in the church, even between Jewish and Gentile Christians, as was, for example, the controversies over circumcision or abstinence from certain foods:

Eight times we hear in Acts of what happened on the seventh day Sabbath, but only once of the day that supposedly eclipsed it in importance, and that single reference concerns a church outside Palestine and tells us virtually nothing about the day. Luke’s description of the church at Jerusalem speaks of the apostles’ teaching, the Lord’s Supper, fellowship of goods, temple worship, the growth of the church in numbers, the miracles that were worked, the praying that was done, and even of the joy that was experienced (2:42-47), but in all this there is not the barest hint of the inauguration of observance of Sunday! If we are to believe Beckwith [that the Old Testament Sabbath was converted to Sunday worship in the New Testament], the most distinctive and highly controversial feature of the earliest church’s practice has simply been totally ignored.6

A variety of practices related to the Sabbath are described in the New Testament. When the New Testament does inform us of the way in which people conducted themselves regarding the Sabbath, we find a variety of responses.

(1) At least initially, the Jewish Christians continued to worship in the temple and in their synagogues, as they had always done (cf. Acts 3:1).7 It may well be that as time went on the Jewish Christians attended the temple or the synagogue on the Sabbath in order to evangelize their unsaved Jewish brethren. This was surely the case with Paul in many instances.

(2) The Gentile proselytes, the “God-fearers,” who continued to worship on the Sabbath must have done so out of habit, more than out of a sense of necessity (as opposed to worshipping on Sunday).8

(3) While the evidence is sparse, it would seem that the Gentile Christians worshipped on Sunday, and not on the Sabbath (cf. Acts 20:7-12; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10).

(4) In the post-apostolic period of the church (second century) there was little emphasis on Sabbath keeping. This is significant in the light of the emphasis at that period of time on the importance of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, of which the Fourth Commandment was a part, and, indeed, the covenant of which Sabbath keeping was the sign.9

All of this indicates to us that there was no uniform, clearly established practice of observing Sabbath worship in the New Testament. While many Jews did so freely, they did not have to do so compulsorily. Thus, it would seem as though Paul could change his pattern (timing) of worship as a matter of expediency:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without Law, as without Law, though not being without the Law of God but under the Law of Christ, that I might win those who are without Law (1 Corinthians 9:19-21).10

The Sabbath and
the Teaching of the Apostles

There were several factors which precipitated the need for teaching on the relationship of the New Testament saint to the Law in general and to the Sabbath commandment in particular.

First, the death of Christ brought about a radical departure from Judaism, which had to be clarified. Paul’s experience illustrates this. As an unbeliever, Paul was considered “blameless under the Law,” and yet he was hopelessly lost, his righteousness was a good as dung, and he was a persecutor of Christ (Philippians 3:1-7).

Second, the offer of the gospel to the Gentiles and the large influx of Gentile Christians precipitated serious problems which required an apostolic solution. Peter’s vision and his consequent commission to preach to those gathered at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10) resulted in his being “called on the carpet” to explain his actions (Acts 11). Even when the Jewish Christians agreed that “God had granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18), they were still reluctant to act on this truth (cf. Acts 11:19).

Third, false teachers came along who sought to distort the gospel and to deceive the saints. Since their heresies often were related to the Old Testament Law, apostolic teaching was necessary. We will briefly survey how these three factors and others led to apostolic clarification and instruction which relates to the Sabbath.

(1) The immaturity of the infant Jewish church necessitated apostolic clarification on the role the Old Testament Law was to play in the lives of the New Testament saint. An excellent illustration of this problem can be seen in the matter of the Old Testament food laws, which declared certain foods unclean (cf. Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14). Judaism had interpreted and extended these laws in such a way as to prohibit a Jew from eating with a Gentile. In His teaching, our Lord had already paved the way for setting aside these laws: “And He said to them, ‘Are you too so uncomprehending? Do you not see that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?’ (Thus He declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:18-19).

The implications of this change were not readily seen, even by the disciples of our Lord, and the application of this change was not easy either. Thus we read in the 10th chapter of Acts that it took a vision from God to convince Peter than he should go to the house of a Gentile and preach the gospel. And when word reached the Jewish church leaders in Jerusalem, Peter had to convince them that he had done the right thing. Even when they agreed that God was doing a new thing, the Jewish Christians were not quick to act on this new truth (cf. Acts 11:17-19). Later on, Peter, under pressure from his Jewish brethren, buckled under pressure and withdrew from eating with the Gentile Christians (Galatians 2:11-21).

The setting aside of the Old Testament food laws was but a preview of other questions related to the application of the Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians. Only as time passed did the apostles come to understand the change which occurred as a result of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The Old Testament Law was given to the Israelites, in order to distinguish this nation from all other nations (cf. Exodus 19:4-6). The Law thus placed barriers between the people of God and the other nations. With the coming of Christ and the new covenant, God broke down the barriers between Israel and the Gentiles, making one people, one church. Thus, those laws which separated Jew from Gentile had to be put aside:

Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity (Ephesians 2:11-16; cf. Colossians 3:11).

The Law, which forbade (or a least restricted) fellowship with the Gentiles had to be set aside, for with the new covenant came a whole new dispensation, a whole new order, one which tore down distinctions and barriers between Israel and the nations and which united all saints into one body—the church. Since it was not Judaism that saved men, Gentiles did not have to become Jewish proselytes, nor did they need to keep the Law. They did, however, have to make certain concessions for the sake of unity and harmony with their Jewish brethren. The Jerusalem Council outlined these concessions (Acts 15).

(2) Whether or not one kept the Sabbath became an issue which created tensions between the strong and the weak. As time went one, more and more Gentiles were converted. The fact that there were Jewish Christians who continued to observe the Law11 and Gentile Christians who did not created certain problems.12 The stronger Christians were those who understood and exercised their Christian liberties, while other weaker Christians were not so inclined. Some of the “strong/weak” issues related to the Old Testament Law, and thus the dividing line was drawn between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul found it necessary, on a couple of occasions, to lay down guidelines of conduct for the “strong” and the “weak,” so that harmony, unity, and fellowship could be insured (cf. Romans 14 and 15; 1 Corinthians 8-10). The bottom line of these guidelines was that no man should defile himself by doing what he doubted to be right, that the strong and the weak should both act on personal convictions, and not seek to impose these on others. The strong should always refrain from the exercise of a liberty which might cause a weaker brother to stumble.

In the Book of Romans the observance of days was one of the “strong/weak” issues Paul specifically addressed:

One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God (Romans 14:5-6).13

Thus in the context of the stronger and the weaker brothers, and in the realm of personal convictions, each is free to observe a certain day as he sees fit before God. Surely, as this regards the keeping of the Sabbath day, there is neither the necessity to observe the Sabbath, nor condemnation for doing so. It is a matter of liberty.

(3) False teaching arose, blending Hellenistic philosophy, speculation, and the Jewish laws. In the Gentile churches mentioned in the New Testament, there was a form of false teaching which had a Jewish flavor, but was a blending of Hellenistic philosophy and Old Testament Law. Thus we read warnings like this: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).14

Initially, this warning seems to have nothing to do with Judaism, but this observation would be inaccurate, for several reasons. In the first place, the expression “elementary principles of the world” is used elsewhere with reference to the Old Testament Law (cf. v. 20; Galatians 4:9). Furthermore, the broader context of the second chapter of Colossians is clearly dealing with the Old Testament Law. The circumcision mentioned in verse 11 is in contrast with the physical circumcision of the Old Testament. Verses 14 and 20-23 deal with the Old Testament Law or perversions of it. Thus, a kind of blend of error is addressed in this chapter, some of which is derived from the Old Testament and distorted by philosophy, speculation, and asceticism.

Paul’s “Pastoral Epistles” abound with references to this kind of error and its dangers:

As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus, in order that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. … For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions (1 Timothy 1:3-4, 6-7).

For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach, for the sake of sordid gain (Titus 1:10-11; cf. also 1 Timothy 4:1-3, 6; 6:3-5, 20-21; 2 Timothy 2:14-18, 23-26; 4:3-4; Titus 3:9-11).

The warnings against the teachings of such men are numerous, but included are instructions directly involving Sabbath observance: “Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day” (Colossians 2:16).

This instruction implies that observing the Sabbath (or other Jewish holy days) would not be wrong. This is a matter of Christian liberty. What is forbidden is not the observance (or non-observance) of the Sabbath, but allowing another (principally the false teachers or one of their followers) to stand as our judge in the keeping of this day. Since the observance of the Sabbath is a matter of freedom, no one should dare to be a judge of another in this matter. Here, no one should allow another to become his judge in this matter. Freedom in this area is thus insured, and the authority of the false teachers is cut out from under them.

(4) The heresy of the Judaizers. During the days of our Lord’s earthly ministry the scribes and Pharisees vehemently resisted the Lord Jesus Christ for what He taught, but mainly for what He claimed. Righteousness according to the scribes and Pharisees was a works righteousness, attained by Law-keeping. The conflict between Jesus and these legalists led to the cross of Calvary. After Christ’s resurrection and ascension the Jews persisted at resisting grace. Unbelieving Jews resented the worship of “fulfilled Jews” in their temple and synagogues. They followed Paul about, seeking to thwart his teaching and even to kill him. Some of these legalists were converted, or at least professed to be saved, and entered the church, attacking it from the inside, seeking to make Law-keeping the means for attaining righteousness. This is the heresy which Paul countered in the Book of Galatians. Paul viewed this teaching as heresy, as a “different gospel” (Galatians 1:6), pronouncing a curse on any who would teach thus (1:8, 9). The essence of this teaching was that a Gentile could only be saved by converting to Judaism (as signified by circumcision) and by the keeping of the Old Testament Law. A part of this Law-keeping would be the observance of the Sabbath: “You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain” (Galatians 4:10-11).

The Judaizers insisted that salvation in Christ could only be attained by conversion to the Old Testament doctrines and practices of Judaism. Of course this involved the keeping of the ceremonial days of worship. It was one thing for men like Paul to observe the Jewish rituals and religious holy days (cf. Acts 18:18; 20:16; 21:17-26), for Paul viewed them in terms of their fulfillment in Christ. The legalists, however, saw them as something which the Law required in addition to the work of Christ (cf. Galatians 3:1-3). Thus, to practice the Law with this mindset was to forsake Christ and to fall from grace (Galatians 5:1-4). It is no wonder that the “observance of day” was so strongly attacked by Paul in the context of this heresy.

In the teaching of the apostles, the observance of much of the Old Testament Law was a matter of personal choice, of Christian liberty. No one should feel guilty about continuing most of their observances, for this was the common practice of Paul and the other (Jewish) apostles. On the other hand, no one needed to do so as a requirement of the Law, or as something imposed on them by others (who thus served as their judges in the matter). When such practice was related to “strong” or “weak” Christians, Christian love should prevail. When Law-keeping was a necessity for salvation and sanctification, it was heresy which had to be avoided at all cost.

Is Sunday, the Lord’s Day, a New Testament Sabbath?

It would seem, then, that both according to apostolic practice and preaching, the keeping of the Sabbath was purely a matter of preference and personal choice. Some, however, have insisted that the “Lord’s Day” of the New Testament (Revelation 1:10), along with the church meeting on the “first day of the week” (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2), are the New Testament “Sabbath,” which Christians are obligated to observe.15 This conclusion is one which contradicts too much evidence. Because this view is so commonly held today among Christians, I will take a moment to defend my conclusion that this view is incorrect.

(1) Our Lord strongly implied in His teaching that there was to be a dramatic change with regard to the observance of the Sabbath as a result of His coming. Our Lord not only vindicated Himself with regard to His practice on the Sabbath, but suggested a decisive change was at hand. He was the One who was working because His Father was at work (John 5:17). He was the One who was greater than David, greater than the priests, greater than the temple—the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8). As Lord of the Sabbath, our Lord could not only technically violate the Sabbath, He could change it altogether. To merely transform Sabbath worship to Sunday worship would not do justice to the change we are led to expect from our Lord’s words.

(2) The old covenant and the Law of the Old Testament are no longer binding on the New Testament saint. The Sabbath commandment is a part of the Old Testament Law which New Testament saints are no longer under. There are two different answers to this objection. The first is that the Sabbath is a “creation ordinance,” established at the outset of creation, before the giving of the Law. The Scripture contradicts this conclusion, however. At creation (Genesis 2:1-3) we are only told that God rested and that He blessed and sanctified the seventh day. No command is given to keep the Sabbath until the time that the Law was given at Sinai (Exodus 16, 20, 31, etc.). Second, there are efforts to differentiate God’s “moral Law”16 (which includes the Ten Commandments) from the “civil” and “ceremonial” Law of the Old Testament. As many have observed, however, these distinctions between “moral,” “civil,” and “ceremonial” Law are arbitrary and highly questionable.

(3) There is really no way in which the Fourth Commandment can be modified so as to make it fit the “Lord’s Day” worship of the New Testament and yet retain the Sabbath distinctives. There is no emphasis on “rest” in the church’s Sunday worship. There is no equating the creation rest of God on the seventh day with the first day worship of the church which may well be related to the resurrection of our Lord. The Sabbath of the Old Testament and the “Lord’s Day” of the New Testament are just too different. It is amazing that if such a transition from Sabbath to Sunday were to be taught in the New Testament the connection between the two would be so obscure in the New Testament. Far from stressing the continuity between Sabbath and Lord’s Day, the New Testament seems to emphasize the contrast between the two. The compulsory Sabbath of the Old Testament (with its death penalty) is a contradiction to the liberty of choosing and observing of days in the New (cf. Romans 14:5; Galatians 4:10; Colossians 2:16).

The Significance of the
Sabbath to the New Testament Saint

If the necessity of keeping the Fourth Commandment is a thing of the past, and is but a matter of Christian liberty, what is the relevance of the Sabbath to the contemporary Christian? Is this but one of the antiques of the Scriptures, something which belongs in a museum, but not to be used any longer? Quite the contrary. There are two texts of Scripture which inform us of the role of the Sabbath for the New Testament saint. Let us briefly consider these texts.

Colossians 2:16-17

Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ (emphasis mine).

We have already learned from this text that Sabbath observance is a matter of Christian liberty, and thus we must not allow others to judge us on whether or not we observe the Sabbath. But in the 17th verse Paul goes on to inform us of the role which the Sabbath played: it was a shadow of that which is to come. Notice Paul’s tenses here. He did not say, “The Sabbath was a shadow of that which was to come,” he said, “The Sabbath was a shadow of that which is to come.” In other words, the Sabbath was given as a type, a prophecy of the future. That which was prophesied (as it were) has not yet come, for it is still viewed as future. The Sabbath is called a “mere shadow,” not because it was insignificant, but because its significance pales in the light of our Lord’s coming. He, indeed, is the substance, the basis for what is yet to come. The Sabbath is a “mere shadow” because it points to what is yet to come; the Lord Jesus is the substance of what is to come because it is He who has procured what is to come.

The same principle, that the Sabbath is a shadow of what is to come, is taught in the Book of Hebrews: “For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near” (Hebrews 10:1).

Hebrews 3 and 4

It is the Book of Hebrews which expounds the meaning of the Old Testament Sabbath for the New Testament saint in chapters 3 and 4. The message of these two chapters is beyond the scope of this message, nevertheless we will attempt to catch the essence of the argument of these two chapters as it develops and concludes the doctrine of the Sabbath in the Scriptures.

In chapter 3 the writer is exhorting his readers to be faithful, even as our Lord (vss. 2, 6) and Moses (vss. 2, 5) were. This requires faith (as opposed to unbelief) and obedience (as opposed to disobedience). The danger which the Christian must be on guard against is that of unbelief. Israel is used as an example of the hardness of heart which the Christian is to avoid. In their day of trial in the wilderness, the Israelites failed to believe God, so they put Him to the test (vss. 7-11). The consequence of this generation’s hardness of heart was that they were not permitted to “enter into God’s rest” (v. 10).

The reader is warned about the possibility of having this same hardness of heart (v. 12). The solution is to daily encourage one another (v. 13). The reader can be assured of becoming a partaker of Christ if he holds fast his assurance to the end (v. 14). The danger of unbelief and disobedience is presented as real and imminent. Those whose hearts are hardened may be those who have experienced the grace of God in a mighty way. After all, the writer argues, were not those who were laid low in the wilderness not recipients and participants in all of God’s gifts associated with the exodus (vss. 15-19)?

In chapter 3 the author looked back in time, focusing on Israel’s unbelief and disobedience, and seeking to show that the danger we face is of the same kind Israel did—and failed. In chapter 4 the writer looks forward, focusing on the rest into which the Israelites were not allowed to enter, showing that this rest is the same rest to which the saints still look forward.

The rest into which the first generation of Israelites failed to enter is presented as that future rest into which New Testament saints should strive to enter. The same promise of rest, the writer assures us, still remains (v. 1). Just as this rest is a goal toward which we should strive, it is also one that can be forfeited by unbelief: “Therefore, let us fear lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it” (10:1). The reader, like the first generation Israelite of chapter 3, may have heard a word from God, but this good word will not be of any profit, unless it is accepted with faith (v. 2), for faith is the means of entering into God’s rest (v. 3).

The writer to the Hebrews now relates the “rest” which the Israelites failed to obtain, and which we still have as a future hope, to that rest which God established at the conclusion of His creation (vss. 3-5). The rest was something already “finished” as Genesis 2:2 indicates. The failure to enter this rest was thus due only to Israel’s unbelief, not to any other failure (certainly not a lack of preparation on God’s part).

The writer stresses that the Israelites’ rest is the same as that rest to which New Testament saints look forward. He does this by highlighting the word “today” from Psalm 95:7. He reasons that as long as the word “today” is still applicable, so is the promise of rest available. Furthermore, the promised rest which that first generation of Israelites failed to enter was not attained by any Israelite up to David’s day (specifically the time of the writing of Psalm 95). If Joshua had given the Israelites rest, David would not still be speaking of this rest as a future, unfulfilled blessing (vss. 8-9). Once one has entered into God’s promised rest, there is no more need to strive to enter it (v. 10).

Since the promise of rest remains, and since it is forfeited by unbelief and obtained through faith, let the reader strive diligently to enter into this rest, fearful of developing a hardened heart do to unbelief and neglect of the word of God. It is this word which is alive and active and able to judge the motives and intentions of the heart, thus exposing sin which hardens it (vss. 12-14).

Just what is the “rest” which is spoken of? Here, Bible students differ greatly. I believe that the emphasis of these two chapters falls on the future rest, rather than on a present rest. We are to labor to enter into our rest (4:11). I believe that just as our Lord was justified in working on the Sabbath to provide our rest (John 5:17), to rest when that work was complete (cf. Hebrews 10:11-12), so we must now labor to enter into God’s promised rest. Thus, the author is not here stressing a present “faith rest” as some would say.

I believe that that promised rest is the future, full and final rest of our eternal salvation; in a word, our eternal, heavenly rest. Some would protest that this cannot be correct since the Israelites of old failed to enter into salvation. This is precisely the point: they have not, as yet, entered into their rest, but they will. Every Old Testament Israelite (including Moses, remember) did not, at that time, enter into their heavenly rest, for which they hoped and to which they looked forward (cf. Hebrews 11:13-16). They will, however, do so in the future, as Hebrews 11 makes very clear. One important reason why Israel did not enter their rest then was their sin, as Hebrews 3 points out. Another reason is given in chapter 11: “And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).

The rest to which Old and New Testament saint alike looks forward is the eternal, heavenly, rest of salvation. God chose not to give this rest to the Jew until He could also give it to Gentile saints as well. Thus, the sins of every Old Testament believer were sufficient cause to delay the blessed rest, until the time that Messiah would come to give every believer, Jew or Gentile, that rest.

How powerfully the point of chapters 3 and 4 undergirds the message of the entire epistle to the Hebrews. The Hebrews were tempted to fall back into Old Testament (legalistic) Judaism, due to the pressure and persecution of their Jewish brethren. Yet this Judaism had not enabled one Israelite to enter into the rest which the Sabbath anticipated and foreshadowed. This rest had been accomplished on the cross of Calvary by the Messiah, and these readers were willing to forsake Him and His rest, in order to avoid the persecution of the Jews. The word of God which these readers had heard (and believed) was the word of Christ, the gospel. To fall from this gospel was to have a hardened heart, and to endanger the rest which it alone provided in Christ.

This text in Hebrews draws together the teaching of the entire Bible, Old Testament and New, with regard to the Sabbath. As both Paul (Colossians 2:17) and the writer to the Hebrews (10:1) taught, the Sabbath was given as a shadow, a preview, of God’s rest which is still future. God’s creation rest was an anticipation of man’s rest, but the fall prevented this from taking place immediately. The rest that Israel looked forward to was far greater than just entrance into and possession of the land of Canaan. Her unbelief caused her to forfeit this rest, at least for the time being. That rest was never attained by any Old Testament saint. No wonder our Lord could present Himself as the One through whom Israel would find rest (e.g. Matthew 11:25-30).17

Thus, from the first Sabbath text (Genesis 2:1-3) to the last, there is foreshadowed a rest which is still future, a rest which our Lord Himself has procured and assured, a rest to which we look forward and into which we must strive to enter, by persevering in our faith and obedience.


The first lesson we learn from the Sabbath teaching of the apostles is that Sabbath rest is salvation rest. How ironic, how tragic, that God had created the world and rested, prepared to share this rest with mankind. Instead, man rebelled in the Garden of Eden, and his curse was toil. When God gave the Law to His people, the covenant sign was that of rest. In the final analysis it was not through his own toil that man would be blessed, but by rest.18 This rest, like the “Sabbath rest” of God in Genesis 2:1-3, foreshadowed that rest which believing men and women would someday experience.

When our Lord came to the earth, He came to give men rest, this rest which had been promised for so long. His task was to labor to provide that rest for men. No task was more difficult, no toil more painful, than that “work” which He accomplished on the cross of Calvary. It is the only work which God finds acceptable for eternal salvation. I pray that you have found rest in Christ and in His finished work.

Another lesson to be learned is in the area of biblical interpretation. Surely we have seen in our study of the Sabbath that God does reveal truth progressively, and thus we must study doctrine from Genesis to Revelation. We dare not derive our doctrine from any one text, to the neglect of many others. So, too, we must carefully note the differences created by the cross of Christ. Whether or not you like the term “dispensation” or not, the cross greatly affects matters that were introduced in the Old Testament. To avoid a dispensational perspective is dangerous and careless, avoiding those distinctions made by our Lord and His apostles.

A dispensational approach to the interpretation of Scripture does not force us to cast our Old Testament aside, as though it is no longer useful. It enables us to look at the Old Testament Law, its institutions, its symbols, and its teaching as those things which foreshadow Christ and the fulfillment of the new covenant. How much richer the Old Testament is in the light of the New. Here, I strongly disagree with those who would have us avoid “reading the New Testament into the Old.” This is what the apostles and our Lord often did, and it is good for us as well, so long as we follow the methodology of the inspired writers of the Scriptures.

Finally, while worshipping on the Sabbath is a matter of Christian liberty, and not a matter of necessity (with death penalty and all), we need to conclude that what we have learned about the Sabbath has new relevance to our Sunday worship. As we have previously stated, it does take time to be holy. Planning to finish our work at a fixed time and setting aside the remaining time for worship is a beautiful (but rare) discipline. Just as God established a weekly pattern for commemorating the Mosaic covenant (by Sabbath keeping) in the Old Testament, so I believe He has established a weekly pattern for commemorating the new covenant, by the Lord’s Table (communion). The more we meditate upon the way Israel was set apart by her Sabbath celebration, the more we will gain insight into our own sanctification. While the precept of Sabbath keeping is not in force today, the principles of the Sabbath have much to commend themselves to us in the hectic pace of our world.

5 “In the Old Testament the Sabbath was said to be ‘a Sabbath to the LORD your God’ (Exod. 20:10; Deut. 5:14; cf. Exod. 31:15; 35:2; Lev. 23:3). It belonged to Yahweh, the covenant Lord. Now here is Jesus as the son of man claiming to be the Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus’ claim to authority over the day is not only a claim to equal authority with the Law given by God in which the Sabbath demand was embedded but can be understood as a claim to the same authority over the day as the covenant Lord Himself, a claim to equality with God every bit as strong as the Johannine saying. … If the Sabbath was made for man, and its regulations are to be employed for that end (a principle foreshadowed in the David incident) then it should not be surprising that one with the special status of Son of Man, who has already been shown to possess God’s prerogative and authority to forgive sins (cf. 2:10), should also be Lord of the Sabbath and determine how those who are with Him may act on this day.” “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective,” A. T. Lincoln, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, D. A. Carson, ed. (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1982), p. 363.

6 Max. M. B. Turner, “The Sabbath, Sunday, and the Law in Luke/Acts,” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 135.

7 “Judaism as a whole considered the Sabbath to be binding on Israel alone. It was not a matter for Gentiles (note its absence from the Noachian laws) and this was sometimes very strongly put.” Ibid, p. 128.

8 “‘God-fearers’ (cf. Acts 13:43; 17:4, 17), and even some Gentiles with remoter connections with Judaism, tended to keep the Sabbath; but here again this commandment, while more commonly followed than many others, was accepted as part of the God-fearer’s general imitation of Judaism, not because it was singled out as a creation ordinance binding even on Gentiles.” Ibid.

9 “The striking thing about the evidence we have from the second century is that it is almost as if the Sabbath commandment were not a part of the Decalogue, because the writers of this period take one attitude towards the Decalogue but a different one towards the Sabbath.” Lincoln, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 378.

“In the light of their views of the Decalogue one might expect early Christian writers to have treated the Sabbath commandment as eternally binding and to have attempted to argue that it was part of natural Law for all people. This, however, was a much later development in Sabbatarian argumentation and in general the Sabbath discussion of the fathers not only rejects the Sabbath as temporary, treating it along with other Mosaic ceremonial regulations, but also fails to notice the issue raised by the Sabbath commandment being in fact part of that Decalogue they treat as ‘natural Law.’… Ignatius rejected Sabbath keeping, seeing it as having become outmoded together with the whole Jewish religion … and expecting Jewish Christians to be ‘strong’ and take the same approach. This was a common attitude among second-century writers. … Judging in terms of what we have seen of the attitude of the New Testament writers, the majority of second-century writers seem to have been sound in their instinct to treat the Sabbath as a temporary Mosaic institution, …” Ibid, pp. 380, 381.

10 I understand that 1 Corinthians 9 does not specify Sabbath worship as that which Paul could “leave or take,” but surely this is one specific instance of his general principle, as Romans 14:1-6 clearly states.

11 “The earliest Jewish Christians, almost without exception, kept the whole Law and were theologically committed to it.” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 134.

12 “The needed inner freedom came when the entry of the Gentiles brought the claims of Christ into sharp conflict with those of the Law and led to a new realization of the total subordination of the whole Law to Christ and to His teaching.” Ibid.

13 “On the other hand, we have evidence from both Paul himself and the Book of Acts that Paul continued his own Sabbath keeping. The balance of probability, then, is in favor of the Sabbath being included in the “days” of Romans 14:5. Paul allows that the keeping of such days is purely a matter of individual conscience.” “The Sabbath/Sunday Question and the Law in the Pauline Corpus”, D. R. Lacey, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 182.

14 “Jewett suggests that Paul’s terminology indicates ‘that the agitators had not made use of the typically Jewish terminology but sought instead to connect the Jewish festivals with ideas and terms generally prevalent in the Hellenistic world. Thus the cultic calendar was presented to the Galatians on a basis which was far from orthodox. But the agitators were not disturbed as long as quick and observable results could be achieved. It was more important to them that the Galatians be circumcised and begin to keep the festivals than that they do so for proper reasons.’” Ibid, p. 180.

I am not sure that I accept Jewett’s conclusions as related to the Book of Galatians, but I do believe that his conclusions fit the false teachers and their teachings as dealt with in Colossians and the Pastoral Epistles.

15 B. B. Warfield holds to this view, and states the matter in strong terms: “I am to speak to you today, not of the usefulness or of the blessedness of the Sabbath, but of its obligation. And I am to speak to you of its obligation, not as that obligation naturally arises out of its usefulness or blessedness, but as it is immediately imposed by God in his Word.” B. B. Warfield, “The Foundations of the Sabbath in the Word of God,” Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, Ed. by John E. Meeter (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970), p. 308.

16 Warfield, for example, writes, “In thus emancipating his readers from the shadow-ordinances of the Old Dispensation, Paul has no intention whatever, however, of impairing for them the obligations of the moral Law, summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments.” Ibid, p. 321.

17 When our Lord read from Isaiah 61:1-2 (Luke 4:16-20), the terminology of this text was sabbatical, and thus it would appear that He was, at this point, making another claim to be the source of Sabbath rest. Cf. “Jesus and the Sabbath in the Four Gospels,” D. A. Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, pp. 71-72.

18 It is noteworthy that in Psalm 127, the blessing of children is described as not the result of toil, but of rest: “It is vain for you to rise up early, To retire late, To eat the bread of painful labors; For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep” (Psalm 127:2).

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18. Between Child and Parent - Honoring Father and Mother (Exodus 20:12)


The subject of honoring our parents is one of great import. One reason for its importance is that both the Old and the New Testament Scriptures command us to honor our parents.19 The Fifth Commandment states, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12). This commandment must be taken seriously, not only because it is a matter of Old Testament revelation, but because the obligation to honor parents is one that is reiterated and reinforced by the New Testament:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth (Ephesians 6:1-3).

Thus, honoring our parents is a command, which we dare not ignore. But there is a second reason for carefully studying the Fifth Commandment. Honoring our parents is one of the highest callings and the greatest tasks we face in life. There are two great tasks in life to which most of us are called. The first is the bearing and raising of children, to bring them from the absolute dependence of the womb, to the independence of adolescence, to the maturity of adulthood. The second is the caring for our own parents in their declining years. Often this involves the deterioration of the physical body, and frequently of the mind. The raising of children has its pains, but it usually is accompanied by the joy of seeing our children grow up, become mature and responsible, and independent. The caring for our parents is seldom as rewarding. The culmination of this process is the grave.

Honoring parents confronts the Christian with numerous problems, most of which are the source of great agony, and frequently of much guilt. We may have to decide whether or not to have an elderly parent live in our homes with us, or to place them in a rest home. We may even be called upon to decide whether or not to “pull the plug” on machines that artificially preserve life (or prolong death). We may have to make decisions which our parents disagree with and for which they (or others) may accuse us of being unloving.

With all of these problems related to honoring our parents, one would expect a great deal of help from Christian literature, but this is not so. Much has been written and said to help Christians raise their children. While I have heard a great deal (sometimes, too much) about the responsibility of parents to their children, I have not seen anything definitive on the responsibility of children to their parents. At best, such teaching pertains almost entirely to the obligation of young children to obey their parents. At worst, the teaching on honoring parents is distorted. Some have taught that parental authority should always be exercised, if not in the form of directive statements, in a poorly defined form of “chain of counsel.” Some would have us think that placing a parent in a rest home is an unpardonable sin.

The third reason for a thorough study of the Fifth Commandment is that our culture most often hinders and opposes our efforts to honor our parents. In the culture of the ancient Near East, there was a much higher regard for those in positions of authority (in general) and for parents in particular. Even today, the Chinese, for example, undergird honoring parents through the unbiblical practice of ancestor worship. This is, needless to say, not a practice I would advocate. It does, however, encourage a deep respect for parents and the elderly which is not present in our country.

In America, several factors tend to undermine honoring parents.

(1) There is the impact of technology. In previous generations fathers were often craftsmen, who had learned their trade from their fathers. It took a son years to match his own father in skills, and he would only gradually pass him up. By this time, the father was advanced in years. Fathers died earlier, and did not have the life support systems available in today’s hospitals. Now, a child in elementary school may be learning things that parents never heard of. Who of us, for example, would want to try to explain some of the math our kids are being taught in school? Thus, each new generation quickly surpasses the preceding generation in the knowledge it possesses. There is much temptation for the younger generation to think of its parents as out of date, antiquated in thinking. In a society where knowledge is prized more than wisdom, the older generation is fortunate to be respected, let alone honored, by the younger generation.

(2) Because of the rapid increase of divorce, children are often called upon to honor one parent and to despise the other. Neither parent can seem to tolerate the thought of the former mate having the respect of their child. If this were not bad enough, Freudian Psychology has provided each generation with an excuse to blame all of its problems on its forebearers. Countless expeditions into the parental past has provided many individuals with an expensive excursion into past history in order to pin the blame for their sins on someone else, often one or both parents.

(3) If it is possible to pin the blame for our problems on someone else, it is also easy to pin the responsibility of caring for aging parents on someone else. Perhaps more than any other time in history, we are looking to the government to carry much of the burden families have borne in providing for the needs of their aging parents. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs are viewed as the means for handling our obligation as children to our parents.

(4) Honor is due to more than just parents.20 The New Testament requires the Christian to honor all men (Romans 12:10; 1 Peter 2:17).21 Learning to honor parents is thus a significant step in the direction of honoring others.

The purpose of this message is to explore the meaning of the Fifth Commandment, not only for the Israelite of old, but for the contemporary Christian. We will begin by defining the term “honor” and then discovering how parents in the Old Testament were honored or dishonored by their children. We will next turn to the New Testament, to see from the teaching and practice of our Lord, how parents were to be honored, especially against the backdrop of the disregard of parents by the scribes and Pharisees. Finally, we will see how the Fifth Commandment was modified and applied by the apostle Paul. To conclude our study we will seek to distill the fundamental principles which should govern us in honoring our parents, and in dealing with some of the difficult problems associated with this obligation.

Honoring Parents in the Old Testament

The term “honor” is one that has a kind of archaic ring to it, one that is seldom used in everyday speech. It is therefore necessary for us to come to terms with what is meant by “honor” as it is used in the Bible.22 We will first look at honor in its broader usage, and then narrow its use down to the honoring of parents as commanded in the Old Testament.

(1) Giving honor is personal. In the Bible, only persons are honored, not things. We do not honor paintings or great works of art, or things of value, we honor only people. We would also say that honor is rendered by people to people. More specifically, honor is bestowed by a person to a person. Honor cannot be self-designated, but must come from another: “And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was” (Hebrews 5:4).

(2) Giving honor is preferential. When we honor someone, we distinguish them above someone else. Honoring someone sets them above others. “… give preference to one another in honor” (Romans 12:10). Honoring parents means to think highly of them, in contrast to esteeming them lightly: “Therefore the Lord God of Israel declares, ‘I did indeed say that your house and the house of your father should walk before Me forever’; but now the Lord declares, ‘Far be it from Me—for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me will be lightly esteemed’” (1 Samuel 2:30).23

(3) Honor is positional. When people are honored in the Bible, they are honored largely because of the position they hold. Those whom we are commanded to honor in the Bible are most often those who hold a certain position of distinction. God is honored because He is the Sovereign God of the Universe. Kings, rulers, elders, and masters are all to be given honor. Parents, too, are to be honored for their position in the family. Thus honor has to do with the position, power, and dignity that a person has above and beyond others.

(4) Giving honor is practical. Honoring another requires more than mere lip service: “Then the Lord said, ‘Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote’” (Isaiah 29:13). That honor which God requires of man is an honor which translates into very practical terms, whether it be directed Godward or manward.

(5) Honor is public.24 The act of honoring parents begins with an attitude of respect for them. Thus we read in the Law, “Every one of you shall reverence his mother and his father, and you shall keep My Sabbaths; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:3). The outflow of the attitude of reverence is the action of honoring, and action which is generally public. Thus, both husband and children are exhorted to give the godly woman praise in a public place:

Her children rise up and bless her; Her husband also, and he praises her, saying: “Many daughters have done nobly, But you excel them all.” Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her the product of her hands, And let her works praise her in the gates (Proverbs 31:28-31).

The evidences of a “dishonorable” child were public, and thus the persistently and willfully rebellious child was to be disciplined (executed) in a public ceremony:

“If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town. And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear” (Deut. 21:18-21).25

The central passage on honoring parents is that found in the Ten Commandments:

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you (Exodus 20:12; also Deuteronomy 5:16).

Since this is really the first occurrence of the command to honor parents it would be well to make several observations about the commandment which is given:

(1) The commandment is given to children, specifying their obligation toward their parents. The terms “father” and “mother” are synonymous with “parents,” thus we have spelled out here the obligation of children to honor their parents.

(2) There are no indications here as to the age of the children who are to honor their parents. We would tend to think that this commandment is given to young children regarding their obligation to their parents, but this is not so. Other passages will apply this general command to specific age groups, but this command is deliberately broad in scope.

(3) There is no particular action required here. Children are not told here to do anything in particular to honor their parents. We should assume, and rightly so, that different actions will be required at different times, of different people. We must therefore look elsewhere in Scripture to determine how we are to honor our parents at any given point in time.

The Old Testament Scriptures fill in many of the details as to what constitutes honor and dishonor, with respect to parents. When parents are dishonored, they are cursed (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9; Proverbs 20:20), or, according to Proverbs, not blessed (30:11). This disregard for parents can result in physically striking them (Exodus 21:15; Proverbs 19:26), and even of robbing them (Proverbs 28:24). The child can dishonor his parents by living a lifestyle which is contradictory to that of his parents and of society, including disobedience, stubbornness, rebelliousness, drunkenness, and gluttony (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

(4) The Fifth Commandment is the first of the commandments which deal with our obligations to men. The first four commandments have dealt with the Israelite’s obligation to God. This commandment introduces those which specify his duty with respect to men. This commandment pertains only to the obligation between child and parents. It is also a positive command, followed by prohibitions.

(5) The Fifth Commandment is the first commandment which is accompanied with a promise. The promise, as I understand it, is two-fold. First, it is a promise of long life. Second, it is the promise of a long life, lived out in the land of Canaan.26 As it stands, the Fifth Commandment is given specifically to the Israelites, with a promise which pertains to them. The New Testament will adapt and modify this commandment to apply to the Gentile Christians and the church, leaving the commandment in nearly the same form as found here in the Old Testament.

The promise of long life in the land of Canaan is given elsewhere, but it is the reward for keeping all of God’s commandments, not just the Fifth Commandment:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it” (Deuteronomy 30:15-16).

Why is obedience to the Fifth Commandment linked with the blessings attached to the keeping of all the commandments? In addition to the fact that one must keep every commandment to keep all commandments, the Fifth Commandment plays a special role with respect to the rest of the commandments. The laws of God are to be conveyed to subsequent generations of Israelites primarily from the parents to their children. Thus, the emphasis of Deuteronomy on the teaching the Law to children. If children are going to listen to their parents and learn to love the Law, they must first respect and honor their teachers—their fathers and mothers. The honoring of parents is thus a prerequisite to the teaching of the Law from one generation to the next.

If children honor their parents they will heed their instruction. If they heed their instruction, they will keep the whole Law of God. If they keep the Law of God they will not do harm to their fellow-Israelites. Viewed negatively, honoring parents causes the child to be inclined to avoid the evils of murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and coveting. Viewed more positively, honoring parents has a high correlation with honoring others and caring for them. This is emphasized in two passages of Proverbs:

There is a kind of man who curses his father, and does not bless his mother. There is a kind who is pure in his own eyes, yet is not washed from his filthiness. There is a kind—oh how lofty are his eyes! And his eyelids are raised in arrogance. There is a kind of man whose teeth are like swords, and his jaw teeth like knives, to devour the afflicted from the earth, and the needy from among men (Proverbs 30:11-14).

The words of King Lemuel, the oracle which his mother taught him. What, O my son? And what, O son of my womb? And what, O son of my vows? Do not give your strength to women, Or your ways to that which destroys kings. It is not for kings, O Lemuel, It is not for kings to drink wine, Or for rulers to desire strong drink. Lest they drink and forget what is decreed, And pervert the rights of all the afflicted. … Open your mouth for the dumb, For the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy (Prov. 31:1-5, 8-9).

In Proverbs 30:11-14 honoring parents is viewed from the negative point of view. The verses are all a part of one piece, one theme. The section begins by informing us about the dishonorable son, who curses his parents. It concludes by describing his oppression of others, particularly his preying upon those who are weak and afflicted. The son who does not hesitate to curse father or mother, will not hesitate to curse any man. The son who strikes or robs his parents will not find it difficult to oppress others. The son who dishonors parents will mistreat others. One’s treatment of his parents is directly related to his treatment of his fellow man.

In Proverbs 31, the matter is viewed from a positive perspective. In this text, king Lemuel’s mother is giving her son wise instruction. While this teaching is specifically related to the righteous reign of a godly king, it applies more generally as well. If the mother’s instruction is heeded, her son will avoid strong drink and “strange women,” and he will use his power to aid the afflicted. The son who honors his parents, then, will come to the aid of the weak, while the dishonorable son will oppress the afflicted. The Fifth Commandment, then, is very much related to those which follow it.

There is also a relationship between honoring parents and honoring God. Not only does the Fifth Commandment relate to and facilitate the keeping of the last commandments, it also is very much related to the keeping of those commandments pertaining to the worship of God. This is especially apparent in Malachi 1:6: “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests who despise My name. But you say, ‘How have we despised Thy name?’”

Those who would honor God must also honor their parents. Those who honor parents have already begun to honor God. Our earthly fathers are, on the one hand, God’s representatives, instructing and discipling their children in His place. On the other hand, parents serve to illustrate the way in which God is at work in the lives of His children, as a Father. This is seen, for example, in Proverbs chapters 2 and 3, where the father’s care for his child is likened to God’s fatherly care for His children.

Honoring parents was a vitally important obligation, signaled by its inclusion in the Ten Commandments, by the death penalty attached to its flagrant violation, and by the detail which we are given about the evidences of honoring parents or its neglect.27 Honoring parents was fundamental for the passing on of Israel’s faith from one generation to another. It was also important because it enhanced and facilitated the honoring of God (commandments 1-4) and others (commandments 6-10).

The Principle of
Honoring Parents in Our Lord’s teaching

Our Lord’s teaching on the honoring of parents is fairly extensive. This passage provides us with great insight into the command as God intended it, and as the scribes and Pharisees sought to circumvent it:

And the Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered together around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’

“Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” He was also saying to them, “You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER’; and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF28 FATHER OR MOTHER, LET HIM BE PUT TO DEATH’; but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, anything of mine you might have been helped by is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that” (Mark 7:1-13; cp. Matt. 15:1-9).

There are several important features of this text which we must observe and appreciate before we are able to see its contribution to the subject of honoring parents:

In dealing with the scribes and Pharisees, our Lord links three Old Testament texts, and from them exposes the hypocrisy of His opponents. The Fifth Commandment of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 is joined with a parallel passage from Exodus 21:17. These are then linked with a citation from Isaiah 29:13. There are four key terms which are the binding force in these passages, which enable the Lord to combine these texts into one response to His questioners: “traditions,” “honor,” “father and mother,” and the terms related to speech (“speaks,” “say,” “lips”).

Of significance to our study is the fact that the Fifth Commandment is applied by our Lord to adult children, regarding their responsibilities to their elderly parents. The principle characters in this incident are the scribes and Pharisees. If in your imagination you conceive of these men as having gray hair and long beards, you are undoubtedly correct. These are not young men, as a rule, but the elders of Jerusalem. Jesus applied the Fifth Commandment to these older men, and condemned them for interfering with those who would care for their aging parents.

The fact that our Lord said, “you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother” (v. 12) is noteworthy. The tradition of pronouncing someone’s goods to be “dedicated to God” is one that was taught by the scribes and Pharisees, one that was imposed on the people, thus prohibiting the people from doing what they apparently wanted to do. It tied up their funds, making them inaccessible for acts of charity at home. And who, do you suppose, had control of this money? The text does not say, but my guess is that it was the Pharisees. The name of this asset holding group might have been something like the “Pharisee’s Investment Corporation.” The point seems to be that the Pharisees, once again, took advantage of the needy, the weak, and the helpless, by keeping children from having control over funds which would help their parents.

In this incident, our Lord taught that men dare not attempt to use “honoring God” (Corban) as an excuse for not honoring their parents. It all sounded so pious, so religious. The money which should have been available to help parents was “devoted to God” with the spoken formula “Corban.” How could anyone fault a child for placing God above parents?

This was a sham, a facade, as Jesus pointed out. This “tradition” of pronouncing something to be “devoted to God” was merely a means of setting aside the Fifth Commandment with pious appearances. True religion does not hurt the helpless, it helps them (cf. James 1:27).

Jesus also taught that “honoring parents” was no excuse for failing to “honor God.” There are those who will go to one extreme, while others go to the opposite extreme. If there were those who used “honoring God” as an excuse for failing to “honor parents” there were those who did just the reverse. Thus, Jesus frequently taught that following Him required putting Him above all others, including fathers and mothers:

And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Permit me first to go and bury my father.” But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” And another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59-62).

“Every one therefore who shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it. He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me” (Matthew 10:32-40).

Peter began to say to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You.” Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he shall receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the world to come, eternal life. But many who are first, will be last; and the last, first” (Mark 10:28-31).

“If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26).

No earthly relationship can have higher priority than that of one’s relationship with God. Putting God first means putting Him ahead of family.

The Practice of Our
Lord of Honoring His Parents

Our Lord’s practice with respect to honoring parents serves as a commentary on His teaching.

And when He became twelve, they went up there [to Jerusalem] according to the custom of the Feast; and as they were returning, after spending the full number of days, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. And His parents were unaware of it, but supposed Him to be in the caravan, and went a day’s journey; and they began looking for Him among their relatives and acquaintances. And when they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for Him. And it came about that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. And when they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.” And He said to them, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” And they did not understand this statement which He had made to them. And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth; and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart (Luke 2:42-51).

I must say that as a parent my first inclination is to identify with the frustration and distress of Mary and Joseph, a frustration which is evident in the text. At first glance, it does look as if it were Jesus who was wrong. Had Jesus not failed to stay with His family and relatives? Instead, He was preoccupied with the Temple and with the religious leaders. At least, one might contend, Jesus could have had the courtesy to tell His parents what He was doing. Jesus appeared to be wrong. How could He have been separated from His family for at least three days, and perhaps more, without doing something about it?

We cannot come to this conclusion for at least two reasons. First, Jesus was God and He never sinned. Thus He could not have sinned here. Second, the Lord’s answer to his mother’s rebuke is, itself, a gentle rebuke directed at them. Mary and Joseph were wrong, here, not Jesus. Let us seek to see why this was so. Jesus’ reply to his parents was, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” If Mary and Joseph had assumed Jesus was with their relatives when they departed, then it was they who were mistaken. Once they had left, what was there for Him to do but remain, and where better than in the Temple? Jesus’ words here were not directed toward the issue of why He had been left, without notice, but as to why it took His parents so long to finally look for Him in the Temple. Why had they looked for Him elsewhere? Did they not know that He would naturally have been drawn to the Temple, His Father’s house? In the absence of His earthly parents, He went to His Father’s house. Where else would they have expected to find Him who was the Son of God than in God’s house?

The final words of this account are especially interesting: “… and He continued in subjection to them …” Matthew, by using the word “continued,” indicates that here, as before, and later, that Jesus was in subjection to Mary and Joseph, His earthly parents. It was their error, not His. He was in subjection to them, but even more so He was intent upon being in His Father’s house.

Still Mary and Joseph did not understand. Nevertheless, Jesus had clearly distinguished between His relationship with His heavenly Father and His earthly parents. This was but a taste of what was yet to come, when Jesus began His earthly ministry.

Years later, apparently after the death of Joseph, another incident took place, which John’s gospel reports, which bears on the honoring of Jesus’ parents. “And when the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what do I have to do with you? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Whatever He says to you, do it’” (John 2:3-5). The fact that Jesus deliberately addressed His mother as “woman,” and used the expression, “what do I have to do with you,” indicates that our Lord’s granting her request was based upon His compassion for her as a woman, and not on His obedience to her as His mother. Now that His public ministry had commenced, His mother has no claim on His supernatural power. Roman Catholicism must look much more carefully at this text in the light of their exalted, exaggerated view of Mary as “the mother of God,” as somehow making her the mediator between man and God.

It is also in John’s gospel that we find one of the last acts of our Lord upon the cross was done in fulfillment of our Lord’s obligation to honor his mother.

When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own household. After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, “I am thirsty” (John 19:26-28).

Mary, the mother of our Lord, is once again referred to as “woman,” rather than as mother. Jesus is about to finish His earthly work, and thus Mary will cease to function as our Lord’s mother. Because Joseph has apparently died and Jesus was the oldest son, a greater obligation for the care of His mother would fall on Him. Thus, in one of His last earthly acts, Jesus appointed John to carry out His earthly obligations. In this final act, Jesus honored His mother.

The Apostles and Honoring Parents

The apostles also spoke to the responsibility of children toward their parents. Particularly, Paul did. In the first place, Paul understood that due to the depravity of man, children would not necessarily be inclined to obey or honor their parents: “For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy … ” (2 Timothy 3:2; cf. also Romans 1:30). Paul’s teaching is also confirmed by Peter and Jude, who speak of those apostates who will disregard authority, thus refusing to give honor to those to whom it is due.

And especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority. Daring, self-willed, they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties (2 Peter 2:10).

Yet in the same manner these men, also by dreaming, defile the flesh, and reject authority, and revile angelic majesties (Jude 8).

It is not without good theological and practical reason that Paul gave this instruction to children:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), That it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth (Ephesians 6:1-3).

In this passage, it is noteworthy that Paul does specifically apply the Fifth Commandment to younger children. While the commandment itself is general, the application of it will be specific. For young children who are believers, one primary way in which they will honor their parents is to obey them. This obedience, as all earthly submission, is only within those parameters of what is pleasing to God, and thus the qualification, “in the Lord.”

Paul does not hesitate to base his instruction on one of the Ten Commandments, and thus, on the Old Testament Law. He does, however, modify the Old Testament text, so as to make the promise attached to this command relevant to a Gentile Christian audience. The statement of Exodus 20:12, “that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you,” has been changed to, “that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:3). Thus, long life and divine blessing is promised, but not life in Canaan, as was promised to the Israelites.

Not only does Paul apply the principle of honoring parents to young children, he also instructs adult believers to assume responsibility for caring for their needy family, including (in the context) parents: “Honor widows who are widows indeed … But if any one does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:3, 8). Here, as in the Old Testament and in the teaching of our Lord, failure to honor parents by caring for their needs is spoken of as a most serious offense. In the Old Testament it was a capital offense. In the New, it is a denial of the faith, making one worse than an unbeliever. Thus, Christianity does not abolish Old Testament obligations to honor parents, it ratifies and further clarifies them.

Beyond this, the same honor which is to be shown to parents, is to be shown to others who are older as well: “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers” (1 Timothy 5:1). This instruction is significant because it suggests that the same honor (or at least respect) shown to one’s father should be shown to the older man. Beyond this, since Timothy is instructed to correct an older man like a father, Paul suggests that a father, too, is not beyond rebuke, but that any rebuke must deal with him in a respectful way.


As we conclude, let me suggest several governing principles which I believe are biblical and relevant to the honoring of parents. These principles will give guidance in the agonizing choices which we children will have to make regarding the form which our honor of parents is to take.

(1) If children must give honor to their parents, then parenting must be an honorable occupation. One should hardly have to make such a statement, but in today’s world it is necessary to do so. The fact that women line up at abortion clinics around the country and in various parts of the world suggests that bearing and raising children is viewed as something far less than a blessing. This rejects the clear teaching of the Bible, such as is found in Psalm 127. Those who would leave the home and seek fulfillment in the working world in order to gain dignity and respect have also turned from the truth of God’s Word. Let those who would seek to avoid parenting be reminded that in God’s Word parenting is a most honorable occupation.

(2) Honoring parents takes different forms for different people, and in different circumstances. Since the Fifth Commandment is very general, we should expect that the application of this command is not the same for everybody. The Old and New Testaments provide us with many positive and negative applications of the command to honor our parents. The young child will honor his parents as he obeys them (e.g. Proverbs, Ephesians 6:1-3).29 The older child will honor his parents as he (or she) is obedient to God. The child whose parents are dependent upon him will honor his parents by providing for them (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13; 1 Timothy 5:3, 8).

It is very important to realize that honoring parents takes many different forms at different times. This means that one cannot honor parents by some kind of “token act.” It means that the way one person honor his parents may differ from the way another person does. It should caution us about those who have a very simplistic formula for honoring our parents. It means that we must carefully and prayerfully come to our own convictions and conclusions as to our personal responsibilities to our parents, based upon the principles of God’s word. The next three principles underscore three of the more dramatic changes in the relationship between children and their parents, which affect the way in which honor to parents may be manifested.

(3) The way in which one relates to parents changes with conversion. When a person comes to Christ as his personal Savior, there are a number of significant changes (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). When a person becomes a child of God by faith, God becomes a Father to them in a new and previously unknown way. From this point on the Christian relates to God as His child (cf. John 1:12; Matthew 6:9). While God was once denied, and His authority rejected (Ephesians 2:1-3), now He is our Heavenly Father, with final authority, authority which has priority over all others, including fathers and mothers. As we have seen from our Lord’s teaching, faith in Christ may alienate children from their parents.

(4) The way in which one relates to parents changes with marriage. Marriage is usually the first of several dramatic changes in the child’s relationship with his parents. In the Book of Genesis, God revealed that marriage was to bring about a change in the way a child relates to his parents: “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

Several important changes are signaled here, as I understand this passage. First, the son leaves the authority structure of his parents home to establish a new home, under his authority. This passage draws the son out from under his parents’ authority, as he had once been. It is my personal opinion that the teaching which modifies the “chain of authority” between parent and child to a so-called “chain of counsel” is not a sufficiently adequate separation from parental authority after marriage. Second, the son is to leave home so that his devotion and affection will be primarily focused upon his wife. Certainly the son’s affection toward his parents is not terminated, but leaving his home lessons the competition between a man’s father and mother and his wife for his devotion and attention. Finally, the instruction in this text suggests to us that the parent-child relationship is temporary, the husband-wife relationship is permanent.

(5) The way in which we honor our parents changes when we become a disciple of Christ. Some Christians seem to think that until or unless a child marries, the strong authoritative role of the parent remains in the older single life of the child. I think this fails to take seriously enough the teaching of our Lord on the change which occurs with a decision to follow Christ as His disciple. In the passages already cited (Matthew 10:32-40; Mark 10:28-31; Luke 14:26), the Lord clearly demanded that disciples choose to follow Him above all others, especially including family. Our Lord will not rival fathers or mothers for the affection and obedience of His disciples. One further passage underscores the change which discipleship has on family relationships: “And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). Thus, children must not only leave father and mother when they marry, they must also do so (while not necessarily literally) when they decide to be a disciple of Christ.

(6) Honoring God as our Father is not an excuse to dishonor our parents. Some, like the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13), had used religious “conviction” and practice as an excuse to avoid their obligation to honor their parents. For those who would wish to do so, the passages about putting God above fathers and mothers can be perverted and distorted to excuse irresponsibility, but let it be remembered that our Lord stripped away the veil of spirituality, showing this to be a most abominable sin.

(7) We honor our parents most when we obey and honor God in our lives. The highest goal of parents is to raise the child God has entrusted to them in such a way as to encourage and promote trust in God and obedience to His Word. Whenever a child trusts in God and obeys His Word, He honors his parents. Even an unbelieving parent is honored by a believing and obedient child.

(8) We honor God when we honor our parents. Not only do we honor our parents when we honor God, but we also honor God when we truly honor our parents. There are two primary reasons why this is true. First, we honor God because we are obeying His command to honor our parents. Honoring our parents, when it is act of obedience to God’s Word, is to honor God. Thus we see that the norm is that honoring parents accomplishes two things at the same time: honoring our parents and honoring God.

But what if a person has parents who are hardly worthy of honor? We know of many children whose parents seem to have done their best to ruin their lives. Children who have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused will have to deal with the effects of this for their entire life? How can such children honor their parents?

The answer to this question is found in the second way in which honoring parents honors God. When we honor our parents, we acknowledge that they have been ordained of God to be our parents and to receive our honor. Honoring parents who are not worthy of honor can only be done as one recognizes that God has appointed them to be parents, and thus they are honored for their God-given position of parent, not for their performance as a parent.

Let me illustrate this principle with another person who is to be honored by us—a king. We are told in the Scriptures that we are to honor kings (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:17). In the context of these commands to honor the king, he is to be honored by virtue of his position as king, not for his performance as king. In Romans chapter 13, Paul makes it clear that kings are to be honored and obeyed because they have been appointed by God. The fact that they hold their office is evidence of God’s appointment (Romans 13:1-2). Thus, honoring a cruel, ruthless, king is done, not because that person is worthy of honor, but because that person holds his position (a position of honor) by the sovereign will of God.

When a child honors an unworthy, unkind, parent and does so because he or she recognizes that God has appointed them to hold this position of authority and honor, they are submitting themselves to the sovereign hand of God. And because they know that God causes all things ultimately to work for good in the believer’s life, they realize that while the parent may do something for an evil purpose, God has allowed it to happen for a good purpose (cf. Genesis 50:20). Honoring an unworthy parent thus opens the door for one to see the good hand of God in giving a poor parent. It is often the weaknesses of the parent, in such a case, that brings about corresponding strengths in the child.

(9) Honoring parents does not always mean that the child does what his parents want. Father and Mother are not to be honored because they are perfect, but because they are parents. They, like their children, are plagued with the fallenness of mankind. They, like their children, sin. They will therefore make many mistakes in the parenting process. They will command that their children do the wrong things, at times. At times they will also forbid their children to do what is right.

A young child must assume his parents are right, because they have more experience and wisdom. If all else fails, they are bigger! As a child begins to mature, he may begin to question some decisions. This must be done very carefully. I can envision a child’s disobedience only when the Bible has spoken very directly to the matter at hand. For example, I would expect a child to refuse to cooperate in any form of sexual abuse by parents or other adults. At some point in time, a child will even find that the parent is sinning, and will find it necessary to rebuke them. In this case, Paul’s instruction to correct an older man as a father (1 Timothy 5:1) instructs us that parents (and older people) need to be rebuked with gentleness and respect.

Those whose parents have aged to the point of becoming confused, disoriented, or even “rebellious” find themselves in the awkward position of having to discipline their parents, much like their parents once disciplined them. The way one honors his parents surely does change.

(10) Honoring parents may someday require parenting parents. It is an irony indeed, but those who were once parented by fathers and mothers often find themselves parenting their parents in their final years of life. The parent that once fed and diapered the child may in the last days of their life be fed and diapered by their children. The new baby that did not recognize its parents may someday look upon his elderly mother or father and not even receive in return a look of recognition. The child who was once parented now becomes his parent’s parent, making decisions for them, sometimes having to make choices against their will, even deciding how long to allow artificial, life preserving devices to maintain some semblance of life. There is no thought less pleasant than this, but for many it has been, is, or will be a reality.

Some parents will become cross and unreasonable. They may make demands of us and of our family which are impossible to fulfill. They may, if allowed to do so, destroy our home life. They sometimes become incoherent or unmanageable. Physically, aging parents may not be able to care for themselves or to live alone. The decisions which we must make at such times are the most painful ones of our life.

When the time for decisions comes, it must be determined whether any clear Scriptural commands are involved, and, if so, how these must be implemented. The impact of various choices on the family as a whole must be taken into account. And, naturally, the best interest of the parent(s) must be carefully thought through. I believe at least three factors are involved in the determination of what course of action will be best for the parent.

First, we have an obligation to preserve life. This does not necessarily mean that we must artificially prolong the death process, but it does mean that the necessities of life are provided. Food (nutrition—it may come from an I.V.), oxygen, and life sustaining fluids must be provided. All too frequently, these necessities are being withheld, with the inevitable result—death. Withholding the necessities of life constitutes murder, in my understanding of Scripture.

Second, we must seek to provide as much physical and emotional comfort as necessary. The setting should be one that is as familiar and as pleasant as possible. This may, or may not, mean keeping the parent in our own home, or placing them in a facility where professional care is available.

Third, I believe that honoring parents requires that we maintain as much dignity for our parents as possible. The terms “honor” and “dignity” have a fair bit of overlap, and it would seem to me that we honor our parents by seeking to preserve as much dignity for them as possible. For example, I am aware of certain situations in which patients are not able to feed themselves and are “force fed” (by literally pushing the food down the throat). In such situations, I would opt, if at all possible, to have “I.V.” feeding as an alternative. The indignity of force feeding is great, and should be avoided, if possible. These three issues, life, comfort, and dignity, may lead some to care for an elderly parent at home, and others to provide care in a well-run institution.

(11) Honor cannot be earned, nor can it be demanded. Since honor is due on the basis of position, and not performance, we should realize that honor is not something which another person can demand of us. A king can demand that we obey him, but not that we honor him, at least in the fullest sense of the term. So, too, a parent cannot really demand honor of their child. In one’s older years there will be a temptation for the parent to prescribe for the child exactly what form their honor will take, but I believe that this is contrary to the nature of honor itself. Honor demanded is not honor at all.

(12) Since we must honor all men, this means that parents must honor their children. Much has been said and written about developing self-esteem in children. I think I would differ with some of this teaching, based upon the fact that much self-esteem is simply renamed pride, and the Book of Proverbs has more to say about the need for humility in a child than self-confidence (and certainly than self-love). We must, however, deal with our children in a way that not only manifests our own dignity (cf. 1 Timothy 3:4), but also reflects the dignity of the child as a creation of God, one for whom Christ died. Thus, we must honor our children, as we must honor all others.

(13) If we must honor all men, then we must prioritize those whom we must honor above others. We have already seen that we must honor God, kings, elders, parents, and so on. When we must honor all men, and cannot do so to all men equally, or at the same time, then choices must be made. For example, as husbands we must honor our wives, and we must honor our parents. I believe that if one or the other must have priority, it is the wife who should be honored above the parent. Making these priority decisions ahead of a time of crisis is best, for surely these priorities will be put to the test.

(14) Honoring parents is so important, and potentially so costly, it is something which we must plan to do in advance. Honoring parents will require much more than an occasional Hallmark card. If honoring parents involves caring for them in their old age, this is a costly matter, and one for which we must prepare ourselves in advance. A friend of mine suggested that this is something which we may need to provide for in our wills. Suppose, for example, that we were to die before our parents. This was the case with our Lord and His mother, and we have already seen how He made provision for her care. In addition to having our children in our wills, we may need to prepare for the possibility of us dying before our parents. This may mean that extra insurance is to be purchased to meet our parents’ needs in our absence.

In some cases, it may be necessary for Christians, or perhaps the broader Christian community, to provide facilities for the elderly, which not only meet their special physical needs, but which also provide them with an environment of beauty and a sense of dignity. We must avoid like the plague, pushing our parents off into a dingy, dismal dwelling where they simply wait to die.

This only scratches the surface, but I hope that it broadens our vision beyond that which Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will afford our parents in their older years. A commandment as forcefully put forward in both Old and New Testaments must not be lightly considered.

19 The following Scriptures are important to our understanding of honoring parents. I highly recommend that you study these passages carefully: Central Passages for Honoring Parents: Exodus 20:12 (Deut. 5:16); 21:15, 17; Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13; Leviticus 19:3; Ephesians 6:1-3; Proverbs 30:11-14; 31:1-9; 1 Timothy 5:1, 3, 8; Isaiah 29:13; Malachi 1:6. Related Passages on Honoring Parents: Genesis 2:24; Matthew 10:32-40; Leviticus 19:32; 20:9; 21:9; Mark 10:28-31; Numbers 22:17, 37; Luke 14:26; Deuteronomy 4:10-12; 6:4-7; 33:8-10; John 5:22-23; 8:48-50; 12:26; Joshua 2:12-13; Romans 1:30; 2:7, 10; 12:10; 13:7; Judges 13:17; 1 Corinthians 12:23-24; 1 Samuel 2:30; 1 Thessalonians 4:4; Proverbs 1:8; 3:9; 4:1-5; 19:26; 20:20; 1 Thessalonians 4:4; 28:7, 24; 1 Timothy 1:17; 5:3, 17; 6:1; Ezekiel 20:30; 2 Timothy 3:2; Hebrews 5:4; 1 Peter 2:17; 3:7; 2 Peter 1:17; Jude 8; Revelation 4:9-11; 5:12-13; 7:12; 21:24-26.

20 In my study of “honor” in the Bible, I discovered the following people (which generally involve a position) are given honor: God, the Father—1 Timothy 1:17; Proverbs 3:9; Revelation 4:9-11; 5:12-13; 7:12; 19:1; 21:24, 26; God, the Son—John 5:22-23; Hebrews 2:7, 9; 2 Peter 1:17. Those in positions of authority over us: Kings—1 Peter 2:17; Higher authorities—Romans 13:7; Elders—1 Timothy 5:17; Masters (by slaves)—1 Timothy 6:1; Those not in a superior status to us—Husbands to honor wives—1 Peter 3:7; 1 Thessalonians 4:4; All men—1 Peter 2:17; One another—Romans 12:10; God will honor us—John 12:26; Romans 2:7, 10.

21 Since honor was required only with respect to those who had a higher status or position in the Old Testament, we may wonder why the change in the New Testament, requiring the Christian to honor all men. The reason why Christians are commanded to honor others who may even have an inferior status in life is due to the fact that the Christian is required to place others above himself:

Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation (Romans 12:16).

Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “For the reproaches of those who reproached Thee fell upon Me” (Romans 15:1-3).

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4).

Thus, the Christian, unlike the worldling, honors all men, even when their earthly status is lower than our own, because the mind of Christ elevates others above self. For the Christian, then, all others have a status higher than our own interest. On this basis, they deserve to be honored.

22 The following is a summary of what is done to honor another in the Bible: By giving money or material things: Balaam—Numbers 22:17, 37; 24:11; Widows—1 Timothy 5:3; Elders—1 Timothy 5:17; Offerings to the Lord—Proverbs 3:9; Sacrifices (shared with the angel)—Judges 13:17; By our Lord giving glory to God—John 8:48-50; By beautifying and giving greater prominence—1 Corinthians 12:23-24; By giving respect, and obedience—Romans 13:7; Ephesians 6:1-3; 1 Peter 2:13-27; By giving God worship, Revelation 4:9-11; 5:12-13; 7:12; 19:1; 21:24, 26.

23 Commenting on Deuteronomy 21:17, Jordan writes, “There are two words for ‘curse’ in Hebrew. One has as its basic meaning ‘to separate from or banish,’ and is used for the curse in Genesis 3:14. The second, which is used in Exodus 21:17, basically means ‘to make light of, or repudiate.’ As Umberto Cassuto has pointed out, this verb ‘to make light of’ is the opposite of the verb which means ‘to make heavy, honor, or glorify.’ For the Hebrew, to glorify or honor someone was to treat them as weighty, just as American slang in the 1970s and 1980s uses the word ‘heavy’ to refer to important or impressive matters.” James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), p. 105.

24 This public dimension of honor helps to explain a great deal. First, it explains why the worship (honoring) of God requires a public expression of praise and adoration. It also explains why a husband is commanded to honor his wife, but the wife is nowhere commanded to honor her husband (cf. 1 Peter 3:7). The woman is to reverence her husband (Ephesians 5:33; 1 Peter 3:2, 5), because this is a matter of her (private) attitude. She cannot honor him publicly because her role is restricted with regard to public speaking, especially in the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:12). The husband, on the other hand, is to publicly honor his wife. He is able to honor his wife because of his more public role. He needs to honor his wife because of her more private role.

25 Jordan comments on Deuteronomy 21:18-21: “The fifth commandment orders sons and daughters to honor their parents, and the verb used is the verb ‘to make heavy, to glorify.’ Thus, to make light of, to despise, is the opposite. An example of this is clearly set out in Deuteronomy 21:18-21. …” Notice that it is an older child who is in view, not a little boy; he is old enough to be a drunkard. Second, notice the sin is a settled disposition to rebel, not a one time act of disobedience. Third, notice that the young man has given public witness to his rebellious heart; the parents can remind the judges that they all know he is a drunkard and a glutton. Note, fourth, that the parents do not have the power to deal with this rebel on their own; they have to bring evidence and testimony to the judges. This shows us how the Law was carried out, and what is involved in making light of one’s parents, ridiculing them, and repudiating them.

In 1 Timothy 5:3, 17, to ‘honor’ someone means to give them money, to care for them financially. In line with this understanding, Jesus applies the death penalty for dishonoring parents directly to those who refuse to care for them in their old age. The Law of the Covenant, pp. 105-106.

26 Similar promises are found in Deut. 4:26, 40; 5:16, 33; 6:2; 11:8, 9; 17:20; 22:7; 30:18; 32:47; Job 6:11; Prov. 28:16; Ecc. 8:12-13; Isa. 53:10.

27 Jordan remarks, “Notice that Jesus sets Exodus 21:17 right next to the fifth commandment in binding force. Notice also that ‘cursing’ father and mother is definitely said to include verbally reviling them. Principally, however, this passage shows us that in the practical legal sense, refusing to care for parents in their old age is a capital offense.” Ibid, p. 107.

28 It is interesting that our Lord modified (or perhaps we should better say clarified) Exodus 21:17, rendering the term “cursing” “speak evil of.” Thus, cursing is more than speaking profanities at or about parents. Furthermore, I am inclined to believe that our Lord used the “of” in “speak evil of” in broader terms than we would expect. Our Lord was applying these two texts to the evil practiced by the scribes and Pharisees. To be more exact, the evil spoken by them. The saying of the word “Corban” in a traditional formula forced (or allowed) the child of elderly parents to disregard and disobey God’s command to honor them by providing for them. The evil thus spoken was not something evil said of (or about) the parents, but something evil spoken with respect to the parents. The evil spoken was the statement, “Anything of mine you might have bveen helped by is Corban” (Mark 7:11). Our Lord has thus broadened considerably the application of the Fifth Commandment.

29 As I have thought about it, I am not at all certain that a young child is really capable of honoring his parents. He is capable of obeying them, but not really of grasping the concept of honor. This is precisely why parents are needed—to care for the child until he is mature enough to live independently from them. As a child grows up, the more he should begin to grasp what honoring parents is all about, and the more he should honor his parents.

Biblical Topics: 

19. The Sanctity of Life (Exodus 20:13)


This is a message on murder. I am curious to know what kind of response this arouses in you. Does it sound boring? Perhaps you might wonder how anyone could make a whole message out of this topic. Or, perhaps you wonder why anyone would think such a message necessary. After all, who isn’t against murder? Some (foolishly) may settle back, feeling a little smug, and even more secure. Now here is a message that ought to make one feel that he has really arrived. If it were a message about anger, self control or self-sacrifice, that might be another matter. But for one who has not committed murder and is not thinking about it, shouldn’t he feel relaxed about this subject?

I must caution you about getting too comfortable. You see, the commandment prohibiting murder goes much farther than this. It condemns any attitude or action which might lead to murder. It also necessitates that we learn the principle which underlies this prohibition. And finally, it requires some positive action on our part, not just the avoidance of a specific evil, but the pursuit of some specific good.

My approach to the Sixth Commandment will be to consider the biblical teaching on murder through the Old Testament, and then through the New. We will attempt to define what murder is, its various types, and what is not murder. We will also determine the punishments for murder, along with the provisions God has made for some murderers. Finally, we will conclude by exploring the implications of the principle which underlies the Sixth Commandment—the sacredness of life, along with the positive actions which this commandment requires of Christians.

Murder in the Old Testament

We must begin our study at the creation of the world, and especially of mankind, for God gave man life in a way which sets him apart from all the rest of God’s living creatures: “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). God was more intimately involved in the process of giving life to man. He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. This is distinct from the way He gave life to every other living creature. I believe that it corresponds to the fact that God created man in His own image (Gen. 1:26). Since man is a reflection of God (created in His image), he is distinct, and thus the way in which man came to life was also different from all other creatures. Just as Genesis 2 set the seventh day apart from the other six days, so it sets man apart from all other creatures. In the passages which will follow, it should come as no surprise that since God gave life to man, man should not feel free to take life from any man (including himself). As Job put it, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away” (Job 1:21).

If what God joined together (Adam and Eve, man and woman, in marriage), man shall not separate (Matt. 19:6), since God gave life to man, man should not be the one to take it away.30

The first taking of life (murder) is described shortly after the fall of man:

And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you cultivate the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you; you shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth.” And Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to bear! Behold, Thou has driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Thy face I shall be hidden, and I shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and it will come about that whoever finds me will kill me.” So the Lord said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord appointed a sign for Cain, lest anyone finding him should slay him. Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden (Genesis 4:8-16).

At this point, I wish to make only a few observations which I think are important to our study of murder:

(1) Cain killed Abel because Abel was righteous and he was not. Cain’s sin manifested itself by his persecution of righteous Abel, whose sacrifice was pleasing to God (cf. 1 John 3:12).

(2) Cain killed Abel in rebellion against God. God had rejected Cain’s offering, but accepted Abel’s. When He saw that Cain was angry, God sought him out, urging him to do what was right, and to master the sin which was threatening to overpower him. When Cain killed Abel, it was a deliberate, willful act of rebellion against God’s encouragement to resist evil and to do what was right.

(3) Cain was punished for murdering his brother, but not by the death penalty, which would only later be instituted. Cain was forced to live in some way which did not require farming, since the ground was cursed so as not to produce for him.31 To keep any man from killing Cain, a sign was given to him and a sevenfold vengeance was promised to any who would slay him. Capital punishment, which was commanded later on, is specifically prohibited here. Neither God nor man took Cain’s life.

(4) It would seem that the shedding of the blood of Abel on the ground was related to the cursing of the soil, which made farming impossible for Cain. Later on, the shedding of blood will be clearly identified as profaning the land. Here, it would seem, this is implied.

(5) It was not long until one of Cain’s descendants became a murderer, and seems almost to boast of it:

And Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, Listen to my voice, You wives of Lamech, Give heed to my speech, For I have killed a man for wounding me; And a boy for striking me; If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen. 4:23-24).

(6) It is not until after the flood that capital punishment is prescribed as the punishment for the sin of murder. After the flood, when God killed most of mankind for their sin, God prescribed the death penalty for those who took the life of another human being:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. And the fear of you and the terror of you shall be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.

Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man. And as for you, be fruitful and multiply; Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:1-7).

The relationship between this text and Genesis 1:27-30 is fascinating,32 but beyond the scope of our study, other than those matters which bear on the subject of murder. The important change to observe is that while murder was at least tacitly understood to be forbidden, here it is clearly condemned, and the death penalty is prescribed. Somehow this is related to some other changes which are indicated in the text. In Genesis 1:27-30, only plants and trees were viewed as food for man and beast. Now, however, it is stated that man can eat meat as well. What is the relationship between the ability of man to eat meat and the institution of the death penalty? What is the reason for capital punishment here? Why was Cain not put to death (nor were others allowed to do so), but now a murderer is to be executed? I have several suggestions, which might help to explain this change:

(1) The fear of man, which God put in the living creatures, now given for food, meant that the animals were given a defense and that man would have to become a hunter. Before, had man been given the right to eat meat, he would have been able to walk up to any creature and kill the defenseless creature. Now, the creatures feared man, and would flee from him. Man could eat meat, but only by becoming a hunter. Domesticated animals could be killed for meat, too, but were most often kept for the wool, milk, or some other product.

(2) Although man is given the right to eat meat, he must never eat the blood, but must pour it out. The blood of all creatures is thus set apart. In order for man’s life to be sustained by eating meat, blood must therefore be shed. Life is sustained by bloodshed. Man must come to have respect for even the blood of animals.

(3) The institution of capital punishment for murder also instructs men to have respect for the blood (that is, the life) of mankind. Man, who was created in the image of God, must not have his life taken by another man, unless, of course, it is as punishment for murder.

(4) Ultimately, God is progressively revealing the concept of blood atonement. What will later be taught more clearly is now revealed in very general and non-specific terms. Nevertheless, the way is being prepared for man to understand the concept of blood sacrifice.

Leaving Genesis (and incidents which may well relate to our study of murder33), let us move on to the Book of Exodus, where the Sixth Commandment is first given. Before turning to the prohibition of murder in the Ten Commandments, however, let us refresh our memory as to the man, Moses, through whom these Scriptures have come to us:

Now it came about in those days, when Moses had grown up, that he went out to his brethren and looked on their hard labors; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren. So he looked this way and that, and when he saw there was no one around, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand (Exodus 2:11-12).

It is ironic that the one through whom the commandment prohibiting murder has come to us is, himself, a murderer. It is likewise ironic that when Cain killed Abel, he rejected any responsibility for being his brother’s keeper; when Moses killed the Egyptian, he did so thinking that he was acting as his brother’s keeper (cf. Acts 7:23-25).

In Exodus chapter 20 we find the prohibition of murder given as the Sixth Commandment: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). Here, there is neither a precise definition of “murder”34 given, nor is any specific punishment prescribed. This is due to the very precise, summary form of the Ten Commandments. Very shortly, however, the particulars pertaining to this commandment will begin to appear. We shall briefly survey the kinds of murder, the penalties prescribed for murder, and the provisions made for some murderers, as prescribed in the Old Testament Law.

Premeditated murder is punishable by death, while murder which was not premeditated (second degree?) was viewed as a lesser offense:

“He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee. If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die” (Exodus 21:12-14).

Negligent homicide can also be as serious a matter as premeditated murder when one knows of a real danger, but willfully avoids doing what is necessary to prevent the death of another:

“And if an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall surely be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall go unpunished. If, however, an ox was previously in the habit of goring, and its owner has been warned, yet he does not confine it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death. If ransom is demanded of him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is demanded of him” (Exodus 21:28-30).35

In this case, while the death penalty is prescribed for the owner of the ox, it would seem that a ransom is possible, if such is the desire of the surviving relatives. The owner of the ox, however, is not in any position to negotiate about the price of the ransom that is demanded.

The Law goes so far as to distinguish between homicide which is justifiable and that which is not:

“If a thief is caught while breaking in, and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft” (Exodus 22:2-3).

By far, the most definitive treatment of murder and of its consequences is found in Numbers 35.36 Here, as elsewhere, there is a distinction drawn between first and second degree murder (first degree, vss. 16-21; second degree, vss. 22-28). The important truth which is emphasized here is the provision of cities of refuge for those who are not guilty of first degree murder (cf. vss. 6ff., esp. v. 15). Several things should be underscored regarding the cities of refuge:

  • These are cities set apart for the Levites (v. 6).
  • These cities are a place of refuge not only for Israelites, but also for the alien and the sojourner (v. 15).
  • There is refuge only for the one who has “stood trial” before the congregation, and who has been found to have unintentionally taken the life of another (vss. 11-12, 24-25).
  • There is refuge only if one remains in a city of refuge (vss. 26-28).
  • There is refuge until the death of the high priest, at which time the one who shed the blood of another may return to his home, without fear of reprisal (vss. 25, 28, 32).37
  • The reason why murder must be dealt with in such meticulous terms is that if it is not rectified in some way, the blood which is shed pollutes the land (vss. 29-34).38

This pollution of the land, along with others, is the reason why God will thrust the nation Israel from the land, into captivity.39 Thus, the Old Testament prophets will condemn the Israelites for violating the Sixth Commandment, along with the rest of God’s commands:

How the faithful city [Jerusalem] has become a harlot, She who was full of justice! Righteousness once lodged in her, But now murderers (Isa. 1:21; cf. Jer. 7:9).

Listen to the word of the Lord, O sons of Israel, For the Lord has a case against the inhabitants of the land, Because there is no faithfulness or kindness Or knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing, and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, And every one who lives in it languishes Along with the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky; And also the fish of the sea disappear (Hosea 4:1-3).

Unbelievable as it may seem, murder is even practiced by the priests:

For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant; There they have dealt treacherously against Me. Gilead is a city of wrongdoers, Tracked with bloody footprints. And as raiders wait for a man, So a band of priests murder on the way to Shechem; Surely they have committed crime (Hosea 6:6-9).

Before leaving the Old Testament teaching on murder and moving to the New, let me remind you that some of the great men of the Bible were murderers. In addition to Moses (the Egyptian), there is David (Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband) and King Ahab (who was great, but not godly), who killed Naboth to obtain his field (1 Kings 21:19).

Murder in the New Testament

The scribes and Pharisees felt that they kept all of the Law of Moses.40 Surely they felt innocent with regard to the Sixth Commandment. Jesus pressed for an obedience to the Law which went far beyond the precept which was stated, beyond the mere letter of the Law, to its spirit. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus extended the Old Testament teaching on murder:

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the hell of fire. If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Make friends quickly with your opponent at Law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent” (Matthew 5:21-26).

From our Lord’s teaching in this text, we can draw the following conclusions:

(1) It is not enough to keep the Sixth Commandment as a precept, we must keep the Sixth Commandment in a broader context. If we are to view murder as so evil that we never wish to be tempted to kill someone, we must deal with those attitudes and actions which incline us toward murder, if not dealt with. Some of these will follow.

(2) Anger harbored against a brother can become a motive for murder. No one will ever know the number of murders which were the result of anger, but the percentage of such cases would be very high. Jesus thus exposes the all too common emotion of anger as a motive for murder which must be dealt with.

(3) Viewing a brother as inferior, as worthless, or as a liability to society is a motive for murder. The terms “Raca” and “fool” are not just evil because they are names which we call another. These names betray an attitude on the part of the name-caller that the world would be a better place without those thus named. Many who have taken the life of another have done so thinking they have done society a favor.

(4) Irreconciled relationships and unresolved conflicts can lead to murder. The Lord applied His teaching on murder by urging His hearers to promote and hasten the process of reconciliation. Unresolved conflicts only intensify, sometimes to the point murder.

James adds one more ingredient which can result in murder: “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:1-2). He informs us that the lust for those things which bring us pleasure often bring us into conflict with our brethren. Worse yet, men sometimes kill others in order to enjoy the pleasures which they possess.

Elsewhere, Jesus taught who the ultimate source and promoter of murder is: “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies” (John 8:44). He said this of His enemies, the scribes and Pharisees, who were sons of the Devil, through whom He, Himself, would be murdered. Thus Peter could say to the Jews in his powerful Pentecost Sermon: “But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses” (Acts 3:14-15).

To those who murdered our Lord, the gospel was proclaimed. Some of these believed. One murderer was to become one of the greatest proclaimers of the gospel of all time: “Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest” (Acts 9:1). It is Saul who, when he was confronted by the Savior on the road to Damascus, became a man who would willingly lay down his life for others. Murder must therefore be regarded as a most serious sin, but not an unpardonable sin.


Thus far, we have seen that murder was prohibited very early in the Old Testament. It was defined so that premeditated and willful murder was distinguished from that which was unintentional. Thus, the fact that a life is taken by another is not always murder, and even when we may call an act murder, there are still different levels of culpability. The Old Testament therefore prescribed differing punishments, depending upon the circumstances of the killing.

It is very significant in the light of the severity of the crime of murder to note the gracious provisions of the Law for those who unintentionally or without “with malice of forethought” took the life of another. The cities of refuge are, I believe, an evidence of the grace of God, and perhaps even a foreshadowing of the release which men would experience when Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest, died.

The Old Testament Law is also instructive in that it helps us to keep the sin of murder in proper perspective. Here is a sin which we place at the top of the list. What could be more evil? Perhaps a better question would be, “What may be just as evil?” If the severity of the punishment is a clue to the seriousness of the sin, then we should remind ourselves of all the sins which are punishable by death. These are:

  • Premeditated murder (Exod. 21:12-14).
  • Kidnapping (Exod. 21:16; Deut. 24:7).
  • Adultery (Lev. 20:10-21; Deut. 22:22).
  • Homosexuality (Lev. 20:13).
  • Incest (Lev. 20:11-12, 14).
  • Bestiality (Exod. 22:19; Lev. 20:15-16).
  • Incorrigible delinquency and persistent disobedience to parents and authorities (Deut. 17:12; 21:18-21).
  • Striking or cursing parents (Exod. 21:15; Lev. 20:9; Prov. 20:20; Matt. 15:4; Mark 7:10).
  • Offering human sacrifice (Lev. 20:2).
  • False prophecy (Deut. 13:1-10).
  • Blasphemy (Lev. 24:11-14, 16, 23).
  • Profaning the Sabbath (Exod. 35:2; Num. 15:32-36).
  • Sacrificing to false gods (Exod. 22:20).
  • Magic and divination (Exod. 22:18).
  • Unchastity (Deut. 22:20-21).
  • Rape of a betrothed virgin (Deut. 22:23-27).41

If we are tempted to feel smug because we have not sinned so greatly as to have committed murder, we must also see if there are any sins listed above which we are guilty of, and for which the death penalty has been prescribed.

To go one step further, in the New Testament, James seems to teach that it really does not matter which of the Ten Commandments we have not violated, for to have violated one makes us guilty of all: For whoever keeps the whole Law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not commit murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the Law” (James 2:10-11).

For this reason, hell will be populated not only by murderers, but also by many other kinds of sinner: “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8). In the final analysis, whether one is sent to hell as a murderer or as a liar, he is a sinner deserving of hell. There will be little status and no satisfaction in hell, knowing that you were not guilty of murder, as though this makes you a better sinner as a liar.

The implications of the Sixth Commandment are broad and significant. Let me suggest how you and I should respond to this commandment on different levels:

First, on the literal level, you and I do not have the right to take a life in any way which constitutes murder, that is, which deprives one of life whom God has intended and indicated should live. Certainly, I believe that this commandment prohibits a mother from abortion on demand, for the God-given life of the child in her womb is taken. Euthanasia, or more bluntly “pulling the plug” is called into question. Sometimes machines are employed to artificially sustain life or to unnecessarily prolong the process of death. To “pull the plug” in such cases is not murder, in my opinion. However, when one deprives an individual of the necessities of life (for example, oxygen or nutrition), this is very likely an act of murder. Outright, cold-blooded, murder or suicide is clearly forbidden by the Sixth Commandment.

Second, murder is forbidden in its seminal or formative stages. Jesus clearly taught that murderous thoughts and attitudes were, in effect, murder in principle, or at least murder in embryonic form. Thus, any attitude or act which could lead to murder is to be dealt with quickly and decisively. Lust, greed, hatred and demeaning prejudice (“you fool”) must be dealt with as murderous attitudes. Unresolved conflict and animosity must be quickly dealt with, so that reconciliation occurs. Prolonged hostility only increases the temptation to destroy one’s enemy.

Third, the principle underlying the prohibition of murder is that of THE SACREDNESS OF LIFE. Murder is sin and thus is forbidden because God has given life to man and has reserved the sole right to take it away. Even in cases where capital punishment is administered, it is done in God’s behalf, with man acting as the agent of God’s wrath (cf. Gen. 9:5-6; Rom. 13:4).

The sacredness of life demands far more of us than merely prohibiting murder. It demands that we seek to save the life of those who are in danger of death, those whose lives we are able to spare. It means, as many Christians have grasped, that we cannot stand idly by without attempting to stop abortion on demand. It means, just as much, that when a person is dying of starvation, disease, or natural disaster, you and I are obligated to do everything in our power to save their lives. It means that those political refugees, whose lives are in danger in foreign countries, may need to be allowed to find sanctuary in America, even though some jobs may be taken in the process and some economic sacrifices may have to be made by Americans to find a place for them.

Fourth, the sacredness of life underscores the urgency and priority of evangelism. Our Lord once said, “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Death is a terrible thing, especially when it plunges one into a Christless eternity in hell. If death is something which we are commanded to prevent if at all possible, then surely the greater evil, to be prevented as a matter of highest urgency, is that of one entering into eternity without Jesus Christ and the salvation He offers to any who will trust in Him. It is not the “first death” (physical death) which is to be most feared, but the “second death” (spiritual death) which we must seek to prevent men from entering into without warning and the message of deliverance—the good news of the gospel.

Fifth, while the Old Testament commands us not to take the life of another, the New Testament calls upon the Christian to lay down his life for another. “Every one who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:15-16).

When Cain killed Abel and was questioned by God about his whereabouts, Cain responded, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In effect, Cain did not seem to think it was his concern, even if his brother were dead. When we follow the precedent set by our Lord, we not only find it necessary to be our “brother’s keeper,” but to be willing to do so at the cost of our own life. We are not only told not to take our brother’s life, but to lay down our own life for our brother.

This attitude, which is also described in Philippians chapter 2 as the “mind of Christ,” is that view of life which turns the Christian’s values upside down and the world’s values inside out. Once we have made the decision to give up our life for our brethren, we find it possible to put the interests of others above our own. We find it therefore necessary to “take up our cross daily,” dying to self, which is what the New Testament tells us the Christian life is all about.

By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God (1 Peter 4:15-16).

  • Self-defense values one’s own life above that of another.
  • Murder values one’s self-interests above the life of another—abortion?
  • Christianity lays down one’s life for others (Phil. 2)

As I conclude, let me suggest several clever ways in which we may try to avoid the application of the Sixth Commandment to our lives.

First, we may seek to apply this commandment as a precept, but not as a principle. If we, like the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, see this only as a command not to kill another, we have generally made it irrelevant to our life, for few will actually consider killing another. If we understand the principle to be the sanctity of human life, the principles are profound and intensely practical. Let us think of this commandment as a principle, then, and not just as a precept.

Second, we may avoid this commandment by narrowing the application. The lawyer who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life was told that he must keep the Law (cf. Luke 10:25-28). Seeking to avoid all that this implied (v. 29), the lawyer asked the question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). This was a very significant question, and our Lord’s answer was very pointed. You see, the Jew was willing to apply the commandments related to men to Jews, but not to Gentiles. He hoped that the kindness which the Law required was only kindness toward fellow-Jews. When our Lord told the story of the Good Samaritan, it was a Levite and a priest who failed to help the victim who was beaten. It was a Samaritan, a despised foreigner (whom the Jews would not want to consider “neighbors,” who was a neighbor. If neighbors included Gentiles, the Ten Commandments were a bitter pill for the Jews to swallow.

It is easy for us to be touched by the murder of innocent, helpless babes, still in need of the refuge and safety of the mother’s womb. But let me ask you, my friend, how do you feel when you hear of the execution of a criminal, or how do you feel when you hear of the death of a homosexual who has died of aids? If life is sacred, then we must seek to save the lives (and the souls) of all men and women, not just those who seem innocent, or helpless, or socially desirable. If we favor capital punishment because we value human life, that is one thing, consistent with the teaching of Genesis chapter 9. If we are delighted with the news of someone’s death because we disdain and despise the person, we are guilty of the very sin which the Sixth Commandment forbids.

Third, we can miss the point of this commandment if we stratify sin so that murder is the greatest sin and that lying or adultery or some other sin is somehow less evil. I do not mean to say that all sins are equally sinful. Surely it is worse to kill a person than it is to think about it. But when we make a sin (like murder) the worst sin, a sin which we will likely never commit, we often are only minimizing our own sins, which may be just as deadly, and are surely just as damning. Let us remember that James has told us the one who breaks one Law has broken the whole Law. Let us remember that men are condemned to hell for lying just as much as they are for murder. Often times the seriousness of a particular sin is merely the measure of its social acceptability. Let us view all sin as deadly and damning. Let us flee from all sin. And let us not deceive ourselves that there is any sin we cannot or could not commit, including murder. We need only remember king David.

May God give us the ability to grasp the sacredness of life, and to have an attitude of being willing to lay down our lives for the benefit of others.

30 Incidentally, at the beginning, it does not seem that man had the right to kill any animal. Then, it would seem, after the fall man could kill an animal for a sacrifice (since God killed an animal to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve). Finally, after the flood, permission was given to shed the blood of animals for food.

31 This is indeed interesting. Adam suffered the curse of the soil too, but only to the degree that he had to work hard to produce a crop (“by the sweat of his brow”). For Cain, the ground was doubly cursed, so that it would appear that he could not farm at all. No wonder he fled from Eden and his offspring built cities. As a friend of mine pointed out, his sentence was poetic justice. The one who would not be his brother’s keeper now becomes dependent upon his brethren, for he cannot grow his own crops.

32 For your further study, let me mention several important features of Genesis 9:1-7 when compared with Genesis 1:27-30. There is a deliberate attempt to show the similarity of the two events. In both passages, there is a new beginning. Also, in both texts God pronounced a blessing closely associated with the command to be fruitful and multiply (or was the blessing that man would be fruitful and would multiply?). In the first passage, God instructed man to subdue the creation, while in the second, God seems to have indicated that every living creature now fears man. Does this suggest that some aspects of nature may have changed after the flood, just as they did after the fall? We assume that it did not rain until the time of the flood; what other changes occurred? Finally, it seems to me that God frequently sets the example, which He then calls upon men to follow. God first sacrificed an animal, so that He could cover Adam and Eve with skins. From this time on, man apparently could kill an animal for sacrifice, as Abel did (but interestingly, not Cain). Now, God has put most of mankind and most of the living animals on the earth to death, in judgment of man’s sin. He then instructs men to put a man to death who sins by the taking of human life. Is there a sense in which every new command which God gives is preceded by an exemplary act of God?

33 Specifically, I am thinking of the slaughter of the Shechemites (Genesis 34) and the near murder of Joseph (Genesis 37, especially v. 18), both by Jacob’s sons.

34 “It does not say, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ but, ‘Thou shalt not commit murder’ (the verb rasah is a specific term for murder, and is never used of executing a criminal or slaying an enemy in battle).” “Crimes and Punishments,” G. L. Archer, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), vol. 1, p. 1032.

Rasah is a purely Hebrew term. It has no clear cognate in any of the contemporary tongues. The root occurs thirty-eight times in the OT, with fourteen occurrences in Num 35. The initial use of the root appears in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:13). … Much has been made of the fact that the root rasah appears in the Mosaic legislation, as though this term bore a special connotation of premeditation, as though the Decalogue only proscribed premeditated crime. This is not the case. The many occurrences in Num 35 deal with the organization of the six cities of refuge to which manslayers who killed a person accidentally could flee. Numbers 35:11 make completely clear that the refuge was for those guilty of unpremeditated, accidental killings. This makes clear that rasah applies equally to both cases of premeditated murder and killings as a result of any other circumstances, what English Common Law has called, ‘man slaughter.’ The root also describes killing for revenge (Num 35:27, 30) and assassination (II Kings 6:32). … In all other cases of the use of rasah [other than Prov. 22:13], it is man’s crime against man and God’s censure of it which is uppermost.” “Rasah,” William White, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. by R. Laird Harris; assoc. editors: Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), vol. 2, p. 860.

35 It is interesting to notice that the blood of the ox, that is, his death, is required, as well as that of his master. If a man’s blood is shed by either man or animal (or, as in this case, both), the blood of the killer is required.

36 Cf. also Deuteronomy 4:41-43; 19:1-13.

37 It seems to me that there is something prophetic here. A man who has unintentionally shed the blood of another finds refuge in a priestly city (that is, one of the cities of the Levites), and upon the death of the high priest, may return to his home with no more guilt or fear. Does this in any way anticipate the death of our Great High Priest?

38 “It is significant that in the case of unsolved murders a public hearing had to be held in which the elders of the community in whose borders the crime had occurred would have to take an oath of innocence and then offer a sacrifice to God with an accompanying prayer for forgiveness, lest their land should remain polluted (Deut 21:1-9).” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, p. 1032.

39 Generally, I hear people speak of the Jews as God’s chosen people, and that they own the land of Palestine because of their chosen status. The Scriptures substantiate some of this, but not all. The land is God’s, not Israel’s (Lev. 25:23; cf. Exod. 19:5). God thrust out the Canaanites because of their iniquity (Gen. 15:16), and He will also thrust out the Israelites if they defile the land by doing the same (Lev. 18:24-28). I understand Jacob’s dream (Jacob’s ladder) in Genesis 28:10-17 was intended to teach him of the sacredness of the promised land. Thus, the holiness of this land, as God’s dwelling place, necessitates that He cast out any nation (including Israel) which defiles it. One way of defiling the land is the shedding of innocent blood on it.

40 Cf. Paul’s words in Philippians 3:4-6.

41 This list is virtually identical with that provided by Walter C. Kaiser in his book, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1983), pp. 91-92.

Biblical Topics: 
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20. The Sanctity of Marriage (Exodus 20:14)


A few months ago, I was talking on the phone to my friend, John Maurer. In the midst of that conversation I said to John, “John you would not have been very happy with me. I did something which would make you cringe. Can you guess what that was?” John did not hesitate, even for a moment. He responded, “I’ll bet you’ve been using that Stanley wood chisel to scrape gaskets off of automobile engines again.”

To understand John’s response, you have to understand John. To John, my Stanley chisel is a wood chisel, only to be used for chiseling wood. He is a purist in that regard—I am not. To me, my Stanley wood chisel is a very fine instrument for scraping old gasket material off an automobile engine. The difference between John and me in this instance is that John believes everything should be used for the purpose it was made.

You may wonder what wood chisels have to do with the Seventh Commandment. As a matter of fact, my differences with John over the proper use of a wood chisel have a great deal to do with the commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” The principle underlying this commandment is that of the sanctity of marriage. The difference between John and myself over the use of a wood chisel is also a matter of sanctification. To John, a wood chisel is to be sanctified—set apart for use only on wood. To me, a wood chisel can be used for any number of things, including, if necessary, automobile engines.

Throughout the Bible, God sets certain things apart; He restricts their use; He sanctifies them. Mount Sinai, from which God spoke to Moses and the Israelites, was sanctified, set apart. Neither man nor beast was allowed to draw too near to it (Exod. 19:12-13, 23-24). The Israelites themselves were set apart from the Egyptians and from all other nations. We will discover in our lesson that marriage and sex were also sanctified by God. The implications of the sanctity of sex and marriage are the subject of this lesson.

Our approach to this study will be to consider the progressively revealed truths of God about sex and marriage, beginning in the Old Testament, and then going to the New Testament. Finally, we shall attempt to distill the biblical teaching into a few guiding and governing principles. Finally, we will attempt to discover how these principles apply to our daily Christian walk.

Adultery in the Old Testament

The foundation for the sanctity of marriage and sex is laid early in the Book of Genesis, where we read of the first marriage.

Then the LORD GOD said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” And out of the ground the LORD GOD formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. So the LORD GOD caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh at the place. And the LORD GOD fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. And the man said,

“This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.” For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh (Gen. 2:18-24).

Just as God gave life to all of His creatures in Genesis chapter 1, now in chapter 2 He gives a woman to Adam as his wife. It is God who brought Adam and Eve together as husband and wife. God not only created man and woman, He also created the institution of marriage. He joined the first man and the first woman together in marriage. This union involved the husband’s leaving of his parents42 and cleaving to his wife. The old dependent and submissive relationship of child to parent had to be set aside so that this unity of husband and wife could be established (v. 24). God has here joined a man and a woman so that they have become a unity. He has also set this unity apart, distinguishing it from the previous parental-child entity. In short, there has been both a leaving and a cleaving, a separation and a union. I believe that the sexual union of Adam and Eve consummated their marital union, and thus there is implied here a sanctity of both the marriage and the sexual relationship of Adam and Eve. From the very beginning of creation, to commit adultery was to violate the sanctity of sex in marriage.

The third chapter of the Book of Genesis is significant to our study as well. When the first sin was committed by partaking of the “forbidden fruit” God pronounced punishments which were appropriate to each party involved, as well as the consequences for all mankind. The important thing to note here is that God also promised salvation through the seed of the woman in the midst of the curse pronounced on Satan: “And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you will bruise him on the heel” (Gen. 3:15).

Satan, to save his skin, would begin to understand that he must begin to wage war on the seed of the woman. We would thus expect him to wage war on the marital union, for it is through marital union that the seed will be preserved and the promised seed will come. We know, of course, that the Lord Jesus was not born of the union of Mary and Joseph, but by a supernatural conception brought about by the Holy Spirit. But the messianic line until Mary was preserved through the union of a man and a woman in marriage. Satan can be expected to attack the sanctity of marriage in order to wage war on the “seed.”

In Genesis chapter 12 further revelation about man’s salvation is given as the benefits brought about by human (and ultimately divine) seed: “And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you; And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). God told Satan, Adam and Eve that the Savior of mankind would be the seed of the woman. Now, he tells Abram that the blessings He will give him and all the nations will come through his seed. Just a few verses away from the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12:1-3, Abram places the “seed” in jeopardy, at least from a human perspective:

Now there was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. And it came about when he came near to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman; and it will come about when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please say that you are my sister so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live on account of you” (Gen. 12:10-13).

Abram’s request was for Sarai to lie, representing herself as an eligible bride, and thus potentially putting her in another man’s bed in order to save his life. In effect, Abram was not only endangering the promises of God and the purity of his wife, but he was paving the way for men to unknowingly commit adultery with his wife. This is not one of the high points in Abram’s life.

There are other instances of sexual immorality in Genesis, but let us turn our attention to the bright light of Joseph’s character, in contrast to that of his close relatives.43 Joseph was a young man, with all of the sexual desires of any other healthy male. Away from his family, perhaps never again to return to his own people, how easy it would have been for him to succumb to the advances of his master’s wife:

And it came about after these events that his master’s wife looked with desire at Joseph, and she said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, with me around, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house, and he has put all that he owns in my charge. There is no one greater in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?” And it came about as she spoke to Joseph day after day, that he did not listen to her to lie beside her, or be with her (Gen. 39:7-10).

This incident reveals several important truths:

(1) Joseph knew he could not lie with this woman because she was the wife of another man. Marriage, in Joseph’s understanding, was an exclusive relationship. Not only did his master not give him authority over his wife, he could not have done so.

(2) We can see by Joseph’s words that adultery was not only wrong, but that he understood it to be sin.

(3) Joseph understood that, more than anything else, adultery was a sin against God.

(4) The immediate results of Joseph’s actions were painful, but the ultimate outcome was the blessing of God.

It is against the backdrop of Israel’s history as described in Genesis that the Seventh Commandment is given to the Israelites: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exod. 20:14; Deut. 5:18).

From what we have already learned in Genesis, it is apparent that the Israelites understood what adultery was and that it was sin. Nevertheless, the rest of the Pentateuch (the Pentateuch is the five books of the Old Testament, written by Moses) provides us with a great deal of detail concerning sexual sins, and the various forms of punishment required by each. Let us briefly summarize this revelation.

Exodus 22:16-17—A man who seduces a virgin must marry her or pay the price of a virgin’s dowry.

Leviticus 18—Israel is to distinguish herself from practices of Egypt and Canaan by maintaining sexual purity (vss. 3, 24-30). Uncovering the nakedness of a relative is prohibited (vss. 6-18), as well as illicit intercourse (vss. 19-23). Sexual sin defiles the people (vss. 24, 30) and the land (vss. 25, 27, 28), thus resulting in expulsion from the land.

Leviticus 20—Israel is not to “play the harlot” by consulting mediums or spiritists, but they are to consecrate themselves to the God of Israel, who sanctifies them (vss. 6-8). Sexual sins and their penalties are spelled out in detail (vss. 10-21). Sanctification is then stressed, so that Israel must not practice the immorality of the Canaanites before them, lest they too be thrust from the land (vss. 22-27).

Numbers 5—A test is given to determine whether or not a wife has been unfaithful to her husband. The consequences of either guilt or innocence are spelled out (vss. 11-31).

Deuteronomy 22—When a man accuses his wife of not being a virgin at the time they were married, the parents can show her (blood-stained) garment as proof of her purity. The consequences of guilt or innocence are spelled out (vss. 13-21).

Taken as a whole, I believe that the above passages convey several vitally important truths, which we must pause to underscore:

(1) Adultery is a more serious sexual sin because it is a violation of a marriage. While the seduction of a virgin entails either marriage to the virgin or the payment of her dowry price to the father, sexual union with a married woman is punishable by death. While illicit sexual union is a sin, those unions which violate a marriage are taken more seriously. The reason seems to be solely because God has sanctified the marriage and the sexual sin has profaned it.

(2) Sexual impurity defiles both the persons involved and the land. Leviticus 18 and 20 emphasize the defiling nature of adultery, and warn that the practice of such sins will defile the land and will result in expulsion from the land, just as the Canaanites were expelled (cf. Lev. 18:24-30; 20:22-26).

(3) Terms referring to adultery and sexual immorality are employed non-literally, referring to Israel’s infidelity to God. “‘As for the person who turns to mediums and to spiritists, to play the harlot after them, I will also set My face against that person and will cut him off from among his people’” (Lev. 20:6). This is a point which the prophets of the Old Testament will take up and greatly expand upon in later times.

The dubious distinction for the most well-known case of adultery would have to go to David, who sinned by committing adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah:

Then it happened in the spring, at the time when kings go out to battle, that David sent Joab and his servants with him and all Israel, and they destroyed the sons of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed at Jerusalem. Now when evening came David arose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king’s house, and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful in appearance. So David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is this not Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” And David sent messengers and took her, and when she came to him, he lay with her; and when she had purified herself from her uncleanness, she returned to her house. And the woman conceived; and she sent and told David, and said, “I am pregnant.” Then David sent to Joab, saying, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” So Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked concerning the welfare of Joab and the people and the state of the war. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” And Uriah went out of the king’s house, and a present from the king was sent out after him. But Uriah slept at the door of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. Now when they told David, saying, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?” And Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in temporary shelters, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? By your life and the life of your soul, I will not do this thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Stay here today also, and tomorrow I will let you go.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. Now David called him, and he ate and drank before him, and he made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his bed with his lord’s servants, but he did not go down to his house” (2 Samuel 11:1-13).

In these verses the sin of David is contrasted against the backdrop of the devotion and discipline of Uriah. Note these points of contrast:

(1) Uriah’s military devotion in the “front lines” of battle is contrasted with David’s complacency, who never even makes it to the battle.

(2) While David enjoys all the luxuries of the palace, Uriah refused to enjoy them, even when urged on him.

(3) While David enjoyed sexual intimacy with Bathsheba, even though forbidden, Uriah refused such pleasure, even when legitimate and encouraged by the king.

(4) While Uriah was willing to lay down his life for the king and the nation, David was willing to take Uriah’s life to save his own reputation and to satisfy his own sexual desires.

(5) Though David had many wives, he was willing to take the one wife that Uriah possessed.

(6) Though David was of the chosen seed, Uriah was but a Hittite. Uriah was a Canaanite, but a godly one, while David, the Israelite, acted like a heathen.

The Scriptures frankly tell us that sexual sin can be the source of other sins. It can dull the mind, like wine, making one insensitive to reality (Hos. 4:11-12). Here, David’s immorality led to the additional sin of murder. Sexual sin is also related to religious apostasy (cf. Num. 25:1-9).

The Old Testament prophets take up the themes already developed in the Pentateuch. The sexual immorality of Israel has defiled the people and the land, and necessitates their expulsion from the land. Spiritual adultery has also become rampant, and is condemned. Judgment awaits this nation, which is likened to a harlot. Her restoration is described as a marriage between God and His bride.

“Why should I pardon you? Your sons have forsaken Me And sworn by those who are not gods. When I had fed them to the full, They committed adultery And trooped to the harlot’s house. They were well-fed lusty horses, Each one neighing after his neighbor’s wife. Shall I not punish these people,” declares the LORD, “And on a nation such as this Shall I not avenge Myself?” (Jer. 5:7-9).

“As for your adulteries and your lustful neighings, The lewdness of your prostitution On the hills in the field, I have seen your abominations. Woe to you, O Jerusalem! How long will you remain unclean?” (Jer. 13:27).

“I will also put an end to all her gaiety, Her feasts, her new moons, her Sabbaths, And all her festal assemblies. And I will destroy her vines and fig trees, Of which she said, ‘These are my wages Which my lovers have given me.’ And I will make them a forest, And the beasts of the field will devour them” (Hos. 2:11-12).

Harlotry, wine, and new wine take away the understanding. My people consult their wooden idol, and the diviner’s wand informs them; For a spirit of harlotry has led them astray, And they have played the harlot, departing from their God (Hos. 4:11-12).

Thus, because Israel practiced the same sins as the Canaanites, who lived in the land before them, they were thrust forth from the land, just as their predecessors, and just as God had warned:

“’Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have visited its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments, and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); so that the land may not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you. For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people. Thus you are to keep My charge, that you do not practice any of the abominable customs which have been practiced before you, so as not to defile yourselves with them; I am the LORD your GOD’” (Lev. 18:24-30).

“’You are therefore to keep all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them, so that the land to which I am bringing you to live will not spew you out. Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I shall drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them. Hence I have said to you, “You are to possess their land, and I Myself will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You are therefore to make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine. As for a man or a woman, if there is a medium or a spiritist among them, they shall surely be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their bloodguiltiness is upon them’” (Lev. 20:22-27).

Adultery in the New Testament

Jesus did not have nearly as much to say about adultery and sexual immorality as did the apostles. Furthermore, He may even appear to be lenient on those guilty of immorality. Such could be the conclusion one would reach from a reading of John chapter 4, where Jesus spoke to the immoral woman at the well, or of John chapter 8, where Jesus refused to cast stones at the woman caught in the very act of adultery. There are several reasons for the difference in the emphasis of our Lord from that of the Old Testament, which condemned adultery and demanded the death penalty.

(1) Jesus had come to bear the penalty for sinners, and thus He did not come to condemn anyone, but to offer salvation to all (cf. John 3:16-17). At His second coming He will bring judgment to the wicked.

(2) Jesus was speaking to a Jewish audience, while most of the apostles addressed Gentiles. Judaism condemned adultery and sexual immorality, as can be seen from John chapter 8. The Gentiles were more like the Canaanites of Old Testament times—they were distinctly pagan in their sexual conduct and values. Thus, it was not necessary for our Lord to dwell on the sinfulness of sexual immorality, since the Jews of His day agreed with Him on this point.

(3) The Jewish religious leaders felt smugly self-righteous because they did not practice this form of sin, but they were guilty of other, more subtle, sins, which were more socially acceptable. The sexually immoral, such as the woman caught in the act of adultery, honestly acknowledged their sin, but the scribes and Pharisees were hypocritical, refusing to acknowledge their own self-righteousness. Thus Jesus majored on those sins which were more subtle, and which were more characteristic of the religious leadership of Israel.

If these Jewish leaders condemned sins which were overtly wrong actions, Jesus chose to focus on those hidden sins which were attitudes. Thus, in the gospels we see how our Lord pressed beyond the actual act of adultery to the attitudinal sins of adultery:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you, that every one who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if you right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell. And it was said, ‘WHOEVER DIVORCES HIS WIFE, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DISMISSAL’; but I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:27-32).

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matt. 15:19).

“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9).

These three texts provide us with the essence of our Lord’s teaching on adultery and sexual immorality. Let us briefly consider the important truths our Lord taught on sex and marriage.

(1) Jesus teaches here that it is not enough to keep the Law in its letter, but must also keep it in spirit. We must begin by taking the Bible literally, and thus we acknowledge that any act of adultery must be avoided. But this does not take the Law far enough, as our Lord must continually point out to His listeners, and to His literalistic opponents, the scribes and Pharisees.

(2) Jesus thus teaches here that attitudinal sins precede sins of action (cf. James 1:13-15). He does not necessarily teach that attitudinal sins are as bad as action sins. From the standpoint of the harm done to men, action sins are more serious. (It is better for society that a man only think of murder than it is for him to take a life.) From the standpoint of our sin against God, attitudinal sins and action sins are both rebellion against God.

(3) The way to fully keep the Seventh Commandment is to view sexual sin as so serious (damning) that we are willing to take any measure required to prevent it. We must begin by understanding that plucking out eyes and cutting off hands will not cure sin or assure us of keeping the Seventh (or any other) Commandment. Hands and eyes are involved as precipitating causes of immorality, however. Visual and sensory (touch) stimulation are often the prelude to immorality. Having said this, let us note that eyes and hands are very precious body members. To remove either is a drastic action (as, for example, one would do in the case of cancer). If one were so serious as to be willing to pluck out an eye or cut off a hand then that person’s attitude is what it should be with regard to adultery. Our Lord is teaching us that we must, unlike our culture, take sexual sin most seriously. When we are willing to do whatever it takes to avoid a sin, we will likely take the steps necessary to avoid it.

(4) Adultery is a violation of the union of marriage. It is significant that our Lord began by talking about adultery, but that He almost immediately came to the subject of divorce. It is also significant that He taught divorce causes adultery, except in the case where the divorce was based upon previous adultery. The inference is quite clear: since sexual union joins a man and woman in marriage, adultery violates that union. Thus, when a divorce is granted due to adultery, a later marriage on the part of the innocent (that is, not guilty of adultery) party is not viewed to be adulterous.

It is very important for me to be precise in what I say here. First, I believe that a Christian has the right to divorce a spouse for adultery, but that this is never one’s duty, and seldom one’s highest calling. I do not think that it is correct to conclude that adultery terminates a marriage, any more than it is correct to conclude that sin terminates our salvation. Thus, one should be careful not to think or say that since adultery is a sin against a marriage, it has also, de facto, terminated the marriage.

(5) Divorce causes adultery. How many times have we heard that adultery breaks the marriage union, that is, that adultery (legitimately) causes divorce? Our culture believes that the obtaining of a certificate of divorce legitimizes adultery. Our Lord teaches us here that divorce causes adultery. According to Matthew 19:9, if one divorces and marries another (except for the divorce based on the immorality of the other partner) that person commits adultery. The assumption here is that the divorce is obtained in order to marry another, or that it will ultimately result in marriage to another. Furthermore, the one who divorces their spouse also causes them to commit adultery, since a remarriage is assumed. Let those who would consider divorce an option carefully ponder the implications of their actions in accordance with our Lord’s words here. Let those who have already divorced and remarried remember that divorce and immorality (as all other sins save unbelief) is not an unpardonable sin. Let those who think this is an occasion or an excuse for sin read Romans chapter 6 very carefully.

When we leave the gospels of the New Testament and come to the epistles, there is a change which we should recognize and appreciate. First, we move from a Jewish to a Gentile culture. Pagan religion often intermingled sexual immorality with its “worship.” We therefore would expect to find some very specific revelation on the subject of adultery and sexual sin in the epistles. Second, we move from an Old Testament dispensation (centered around the nation Israel) to a New Testament dispensation (centered around a predominantly Gentile church). Israel’s sexual conduct set them apart from the Egyptians and the Canaanites. It also assured the integrity of the home and a righteous seed, through whom the Redeemer would come. This was now accomplished. What is it that makes sexual purity so important to the New Testament saint, who is not an Israelite, but a member of the church, the body of Christ? This is what we shall seek to learn from the writings of the apostles in the New Testament.

The apostle Paul has the most to say of the apostles on the subject of sexual purity. In the Book of 1 Corinthians he focuses on illicit sexual union and its relationship to the believer’s union with Christ:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a harlot is one body with her? For He says, “the two will become one flesh.” But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body (1 Cor. 6:15-20).

Throughout the Scriptures, both Old Testament (cf. Gen. 39:9; 2 Sam. 12:13; Ps. 51:4) and New, adultery is, first and foremost, a sin against God. From the Old Testament perspective, adultery was a violation of the sanctity of marriage, which God established, and which the Law sought to maintain. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians chapter 6 go much farther, showing the implications of a Christian’s sexual union with a harlot. When one comes to faith in Christ, when he is born again, that person becomes one with Christ. Thus, whatever one does, he does in union with Christ.

Sexual intercourse with a harlot, contrary to popular thought, is no casual matter, it is a union as well. Indeed, in verse 16 Paul makes a statement of monumental importance. He equates sexual union with marital union. When one enters into a sexual union, Paul reasons, one enters into marital union. For a Christian to engage in sexual intercourse with a harlot puts two unions in conflict: his union with Christ and his union with a harlot. Just as no man can have two masters, neither can one have two unions—one with Christ, and another with a harlot. Sexual sin has very serious theological implications.

In Ephesians chapter 5 Paul focuses on the relationship between the Christian husband and wife, and the way it portrays an important spiritual truth to the world:

So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church (Eph. 5:28-32).

While I have cited only a portion of this important paragraph (vss. 22-33), the important point to recognize here is that the relationship of a Christian husband and wife is to be a reflection of the relationship of Jesus Christ to His church.

Finally, sexual purity is vitally important to the Christian life because it is directly related to one’s sanctification:

For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3-8).

Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness.” Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if a man cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. Now flee from youthful lusts, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart (2 Tim. 2:19-22).

In 1 Thessalonians chapter 4 Paul says that the will of God is for us to be sanctified. He then immediately turns to our sanctification as it relates to our sexual conduct. Our sanctification cannot be expressed or realized apart from a radical change in our sexual conduct—that is, a radical change in the way we conduct ourselves sexually, as contrasted with our former conduct and that of the pagan world around us.

In 2 Timothy chapter 2 Paul’s instruction is more general, but still very much to the point of sexual morality. Sanctification involves setting something apart for a special use. Sanctification involves purity, the absence of what is unclean. And, Paul says, it involves for Timothy the fleeing of youthful lusts, which surely include illicit sexual passions and conduct.

When we come to our last text, we come full circle: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. 13:4). The marriage union which God established, God also sanctified. Sexual purity begins with highly esteeming that which God has given—marriage, and the one whom God has given—our mate. When we thus honor marriage, we will see to it that the marriage bed, the blessing of sexual union, remains undefiled by sexual union outside of that marriage, which profanes.


We can see, then, that throughout the Bible, the enjoyment of sex is restricted to marriage, and to that which is consistent with our position and calling in Christ. Let us conclude by seeking to isolate the principles which underlie and govern sexual purity, and then some of the practical outworkings of these principles.

(1) The principle of sanctification. Sanctification is one of the great principles of the Bible, whether in the Old or the New Testament. Sanctification was, for example, the first great test which man failed in the Garden of Eden. Some have attempted to show that the sin committed in the Garden of Eden was a sexual sin. I think there is little evidence for this conclusion. I do, however, believe that the first sin is similar to that of adultery, and thus very instructive. Consider, for a moment, how that “forbidden fruit” (whatever it might have been) is similar to the “forbidden fruit” of illicit sex.

In both cases, the “forbidden fruit” is very desirable. I find it interesting that the fruit of this tree of knowledge of good and evil was good, like everything else God created (cf. Gen. 1:11-12, 31). More than this, it was very desirable: “And out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:9). It is no wonder, then, that Eve was attracted to the “forbidden fruit”: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6).

In both cases, the “forbidden fruit” is available. Just as God placed the “forbidden fruit” in sight and within the reach of Adam and Eve, so the “forbidden fruit” of sexual immorality is visible and available.

In both cases, the “forbidden fruit” is forbidden. Just as God had clearly forbidden the partaking of the “forbidden fruit” in the garden, so He has clearly forbidden the “fruit” of sexual impurity.

In both cases, partaking of the “forbidden fruit” brings disastrous results. Satan made great promises about the benefits of partaking of the fruit of that tree, but he failed to tell all. Great were the consequences. Sin entered the human race and human history, and the consequences are evident all about us. So, too, the pleasures of sexual sin are prominently proclaimed, but the price for immorality is exceedingly high (cf. Prov. 2:16-22).

The “forbidden fruit was not forbidden because is was intrinsically bad. It did not look bad, it did not taste bad. In fact, it wasn’t bad, in and of itself. Remember that God made it, and that all He made was good. The forbidden fruit was forbidden, not because of any evil characteristic of the fruit itself, but because God “sanctified” or set it apart. He did not permit man to use it.

Sanctification, therefore, was the first test which God gave mankind, and it was this test which man failed. It is little wonder, then, that God has so much to teach man about sanctification in the Bible.

Abraham, and his seed, is set apart from the rest of mankind, and through Him Messiah will come and will bring blessing and salvation to all nations. The nation Israel is kept apart from other nations by her time in Egypt, and in the plagues, the Israelites are distinguished from the Egyptians. The covenant which God made with Israel on Mt. Sinai was a further means of sanctifying His people, to be a priestly nation:

“‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’” (Exod. 19:4-6a).

To play out her role as God’s priestly nation, Israel had to be separate, sanctified, different from the surrounding nations. Those distinctions are spelled out in the Law, one of which is that of the maintenance of sexual and marital sanctity.

The New Testament portrays a very similar picture. Here, the church is the “bride of Christ,” with the responsibility of exemplifying the relationship of Christ to His church (Eph. 5:22-33). In order to do this, Christians must be holy, sanctified, just as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16). The Christian life therefore involves making many distinctions and then living them out. We must distinguish between truth and error, between good and evil, between holiness and unrighteousness. We must even distinguish between what is personally permissible and what is personally beneficial (1 Cor. 6:12). Furthermore, there must be a distinction drawn between what is personally permissible and what is detrimental to others (cf. 1 Cor. 8-10).

The differences between holy and unholy, clean and unclean are crucial. In a divine vision, God said to Peter, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 10:15). At times we are tempted to think that what God has called clean is really unclean (as was the case with Peter; cf. also 1 Tim. 4:1-5). At other times, we are tempted to call “clean” what God has called “unclean.” One of the most important decisions the Christian can make is to rightly distinguish between the holy and the unholy—the see what God has sanctified and what He has not. Sanctification is therefore one of the great, governing and guiding principles of the Word of God.

(2) The sanctity of marriage. If we have accepted the principle of sanctification in general, we must then see it in the particulars of our Christian experience. One of these particulars is that of marriage. Marriage, by God’s decree, is sanctified, it is a relationship that is set apart and restricted. The sin of adultery is dealt with so severely because it is a violation of the sanctity of the marriage which God has ordained and set apart.

The sanctity of marriage is indicated by the statement in Genesis 2:24, that a man must leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. This union is set apart, it is to be distinct from the previous relationship of parent and child. When our Lord commented on this text He said, “Consequently they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6). The Law pertaining to adultery also confirms the sanctity of marriage.

Just what is it that distinguishes a man’s relationship with his wife from other relationships? In other words, what is it that makes a marriage distinct, unique, sanctified? I believe that there are several ways in which marriage is sanctified:

Unity. The relationship between a husband and his wife is a union. The husband and wife become one. They become one in spirit, and sexually they become one in physical union. This sexual union consummates and symbolizes the union of marriage. Our Lord says that this union of husband and wife must not be severed (Matt. 19:6). The Bible seems to teach that this union is not severed by anything but death, anything including divorce. The union of husband and wife is one of the unique elements of marriage. This union is violated and defiled by adultery. Adultery mocks the union of a man and his wife, and the God who joined them together.

Intimacy. Closely related to the union of a husband and his wife is the intimacy which they experience in marriage. Physical intimacy is the most obvious, but there is also a spiritual and emotional intimacy. This intimacy can be both constructive and destructive. One can build up the other in those intimate areas of one’s heart and life, but one can also do great damage in the intimate areas as well. Who knows better how to hurt his mate than the one who has the most intimate knowledge of her?

Reproduction. When God brought man and woman together as husband and wife, He commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:27-28). The reproduction of life is that function which is carried out within the marriage union, according to God’s design and decree. It marks out yet another way in which the marriage is sanctified.

Fellowship. When God had created a mate for all of His other creatures, He looked upon Adam in his solitude and said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18). God created Eve and brought her to Adam for fellowship, to be his helper and his companion. Marriage is sanctified in the degree to which a man and his wife have fellowship with one another.

There are two specific applications which I would suggest emerge from the observation of these unique areas in which marriage is sanctified, unique. The first is that the sanctity of marriage not only demands that we not defile the union in any way, including adultery, but that we actively seek to enhance the marriage. I would suggest that the categories of unity, intimacy, reproduction, and fellowship are four specific benchmarks of the quality of our marriages, and thus four specific areas for concentrated effort. I would further suggest that these four areas (there are probably others, too) provide the “glue” which holds a marriage together. Let us work at growth in each of these areas.

The second layer of application relates to the church. I would suggest that the four things which set a marriage apart from other relationships are the very four things which distinguish a Christian’s relationship with his Lord and with His body, the church. Time will not permit further exploration, but take note of how often unity (e.g. Eph. 4:1ff.,), intimacy and fellowship, and reproduction (evangelism, fruit bearing) are discussed in the context of one’s personal walk with the Lord or with the corporate union of believers in the body of Christ.

(3) The sanctity of sex. If the Seventh Commandment teaches the sanctity of marriage, it also teaches the sanctity of sex, for it is only in marriage that the pleasure and product (children) are to be experienced. Our culture is adamantly opposed to the sanctity of sex. Most Americans seem to think that human sexuality is to be used in the same way I use my Stanley chisel—the more uses to which it can be put, the better. Viewed from a contemporary secular perspective, sexual pleasure restricted only to marriage is a tragic waste, a failure to make full use of one’s sexual potential, and thus to deprive oneself of a great deal of sexual pleasure. Virginity is thus looked upon as a stigma, from which one should rid oneself as quickly as possible.

In my opinion, the rampant sexual immorality of our day is not primarily the result of greater temptation, of increased sexual desire, of greater opportunity, or even of the availability of the pill and abortion. The epidemic of sexual immorality is, I believe, the result of a failure to understand or appreciate the sanctity of sex and of marriage. For this and other reasons, the Seventh Commandment is of vital importance, not only to a pagan world, but to a carnal and permissive church.

Here we come to one of the very crucial implications of the sanctity of sex. When we sanctify sex, it is because we value it highly, not because we disdain it as something of little worth. We sanctify those things to which we attach great value. Our culture protests that Christians disdain and demean sex, that we have little appreciation for it. The opposite is true. We sanctify sex because we value it highly, as a good gift from the hand of a gracious God.

Think about this carefully, for it is of the greatest importance. Women, why do keep your silver in a special place, bringing it out only for “special” occasions? The same could be asked about your best china, or that very special dress (maybe even your wedding dress). Men, what about that special car, or gun, or golf club? If you owned a Mercedes Benz, would you loan it to a neighbor to go hunting in, or to haul firewood? We all restrict the use of (we sanctify) those things which we most highly prize.

Teenagers, culture is lying to you. Our culture does not value sex, it thinks of it as very common, so common that virtual strangers will share life’s most intimate treasure. How tragic it is to see young people seduced (philosophically and physically), so that they will share that most treasured gift with those who cannot even be named or numbered. The sanctity of sex in marriage clearly calls for the sanctity of sex before marriage. May God grant you the conviction to stand against the flood of cultural and peer pressure.

In conclusion, let me suggest three additional ways in which the sanctity of sex is to be applied in a practical way. First, since the sanctity of sex reflects its value, its beauty, its goodness, let us never think of sex as something dirty and defiling. Some people seem to disdain sex in marriage as much as the Bible disdains it outside of marriage. The Bible speaks otherwise. In both the New and Old Testaments we are urged to let the pleasure and enjoyment of sex within marriage serve as a godly defense against sexual immorality:44

Drink water from your own cistern, And fresh water from your own well. Should your springs be dispersed abroad, Streams of water in the streets? Let them be yours alone, And not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, And rejoice in the wife of your youth. As a loving hind and a graceful doe, Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; Be exhilarated always with her love. For why should you, my son, be exhilarated with an adulteress, And embrace the bosom of a foreigner? (Prov. 5:15-20).

Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Cor. 7:3-5).

Second, in order to avoid the evils of sex, we need to minimize our exposure to those things which only stimulate lustful thoughts and sexual temptations. Specifically, I am referring to what Paul has written in the Book of Ephesians, which especially relates to sexual impurity:

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph. 5:1-14).

Third, we must beware of that teaching (either by direct statement or by inference, or by silence) which holds that any and every sexual pleasure can be enjoyed by a married couple behind closed doors. I understand that “possessing one’s vessel in sanctification and honor” (1 Thes. 4:4), and “holding the marriage bed in honor,” “keeping the marriage bed undefiled” (Heb. 13:4) implies that not every sexual practice of the pagan world is permissible or beneficial for the Christian. This may be a matter of personal conviction, over which there is some disagreement, but marriage does not make every sexual practice holy.

May God grant that we hold sex and marriage to be sacred, and may God enable each of us, by His grace and through His Spirit, to move ahead in the process of sanctification, to the praise of the glory of His grace.

42 One may wonder why only the husband is to leave his father and mother, and not the wife. Some of this may be cultural, but I think the primary reason is that in those days especially (and in other cultures still today) the woman is under the authority of her parents, and her parents authority over her is simply transferred to her husband. The man, on the other hand, is under his parents’ authority as a child, but when he “leaves” them he terminates that “chain of command” and establishes a new “chain of command,” being the head of his wife and the family which may follow.

43 In Genesis chapter 34, Dinah is apparently forcibly raped by Shechem, a deed to which Jacob’s sons violently reacted as an abomination (cf. 34:7). In chapter 35, Ruben lay with one of his father’s concubines (35:22). In chapter 38, Judah engaged in sexual union with his daughter-in-law, whom he thought to be a Canaanite cult prostitute (38:14-23). His indignation at discovering his daughter-in-law was pregnant out of wedlock (not knowing yet it was by him), reveals that sexual immorality was clearly condemned (cf. v. 24). The incidents in chapters 34 and 38 indicate that the Law of Moses only codified what was already understood to be wrong.

44 In saying that sexual pleasure in marriage is one of God’s safeguards against immorality, I am not saying that the husband or wife who gives freely of themselves in a sexual way thereby guarantees the sexual purity of their partner. I have heard it cruelly stated or implied that had a mate satisfied his or her partner in marriage, adultery would have been prevented. While depriving a partner tempts them, fulfilling a partner does not necessarily keep them from sexual sin. We need only look at men like David and Solomon, who had so many wives they couldn’t keep up with them, but still sought after more (such as David sought Bathsheba).

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21. The Sin of Stealing (Exodus 20:15)


Stealing is a subject well worth our attention for several reasons. First, stealing has become a national problem of epidemic proportions. For example, consider the impact of “time theft” on our economy:

The Robert Half Personnel Agencies has calculated that time-theft will cost the American economy as much as $70 billion a year. Time-theft is defined as those deliberate employee actions which result in the massive, growing misuse and waste of time. Estimated time-theft are: arriving to work late, leaving early, taking unjustified ‘sick’ days, extensive socializing with co-workers, turning the water cooler into a conversation pit, inattention to the job at hand, reading novels and magazines on the job, operating a business on the side during working hours, eating lunch at the desk and then going out for the ‘lunch hour,’ excessive personal phone calls, on-the-job daydreaming and fanticizing, long, frequent coffee and snack breaks, etc.53

Second, our culture sends us “mixed signals” as to how serious a problem stealing is. On the one hand, stealing is taken very seriously, when compared with some other evils. An adulterer is not even punished by the Law enforcement agencies any longer, even though there may be laws against it. A person may be given a lengthy sentence for misappropriating money (e.g. banking violations) while another may serve less time for murder. On the other hand, stealing is often romanticized in the media. Television programs portray police officers as either inept or bound by the Law from apprehending the villains, and so the private eyes always get their man, often by the use of a “pick” to break into locked quarters, where they steal incriminating evidence.

Third, stealing is a much more complex problem in our society than it was in the days of ancient Israel. In the ancient world, very tangible objects were stolen: cattle, property, wives, and the like. One could hardly argue that he had not taken anything if it were found in his possession. On the other hand, we now live in an age of sophisticated technology. For example, we have ideas which are patented and materials which are printed, both of which can be stolen. Credit cards and electronic banking have made matters even more complicated. And then there are the electronic gadgets. Satellite dishes are available to “steal” electronic signals from the sender, electronic recordings may be duplicated, so that the owner does not get any remuneration for his labor. And now there is computer software, much of which can be copied in seconds, making it possible for thousands of dollars worth of programming to be obtained for the few pennies it costs for a diskette.

Fourth, stealing is often viewed as an evil for the wrong reasons. Usually we think of stealing as a violation of the right of private property. While this may be true, I believe that there are much more serious problems than this, which we shall explore in this sermon.

Finally, stealing is a serious sin because it is included in the Ten Commandments, which identifies the “ultimate evils” of Israel’s day, and of our own as well. I have come to view the evils prohibited by the Ten Commandments as the “ultimate evils” which God prohibits. There are other evils, but they are condemned under one of the “ultimate evils.” For example, if it is wrong to kill our neighbor, it is also wrong to do bodily harm to him, or to destroy his reputation (as taken up in the Sermon on the Mount). If it is wrong to commit adultery, it is also wrong to practice other sexual sins. In our society, since first degree murder is wrong, then so is second degree murder or manslaughter. (Thus, one charged with first degree murder may be charged with any lesser offense. But one charged with a lesser offense cannot be charged with a greater, of the same kind.) The greater offense thus includes the lesser.

My approach in this lesson will differ somewhat from that of the study of previous commandments. Rather than to follow the development of the commandment (or the evil condemned) progressively through the Bible, I will seek to explore the nature of stealing, ending up with a concise definition. This will enable us to explore some of the ways in which we steal today. Finally, we will conclude by focusing on the biblical solution for stealing, as prescribed in the Scriptures.

Stealing—Its Categories

Broadly speaking, stealing falls into two categories: active stealing and passive stealing. Active stealing aggressively, willfully, maliciously takes what belongs to someone else, through a variety of means. In Leviticus chapter 6 we find several forms of active theft identified:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “When a person sins and acts unfaithfully against the LORD, and deceives his companion in regard to a deposit or a security entrusted to him, or through robbery, or if he has extorted from his companion, or has found what was lost and lied about it and sworn falsely, so that he sins in regard to any one of the things a man may do; then it shall be, when he sins and becomes guilty, that he shall restore what he took by robbery, or what he got by extortion, or the deposit which was entrusted to him, or the lost thing which he found, or anything about which he swore falsely; he shall make restitution for it in full, and add to it one-fifth more. He shall give it to the one to whom it belongs on the day he presents his guilt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD; and he shall be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to incur guilt” (Lev. 6:1-7).

(1) Embezzlement. Embezzlement is the misuse or misappropriation of something that has been entrusted to us (Lev. 6:2). Embezzlement is a violation of trust, for what has been placed in a person’s keeping has been appropriated for selfish purposes. Embezzlement is frequently an offense of a bank employee or of a comptroller of a corporation.

(2) Robbery. Robbery is the act of taking what belongs to another (Lev. 6:2). Robbery, I believe, is a broad definition, covering several kinds of stealing. Robbery generally takes things directly, often by the use of superior force (frequently involving a weapon). Stealing suggests stealth. A pick-pocket for example, uses stealth, as does a burglar. Fraud may also be included here. If so, fraud involves getting what belongs to another by deception. Here, the victim often gives what is stolen to the thief, thinking that doing so will be profitable. The only one who profits, however, is the thief.

(3) Extortion. Extortion gains possession of another person’s property by the illicit use of authority or of force (not a weapon, however).54 Sometimes, charging an excessive price is included here, if one feels compelled to buy the product. For example, if your child was seriously ill and there was only one medicine which would cure the child, you would be willing to pay almost anything to obtain it, even if the cost were excessive. In many parts of the world, Law enforcement officers use their position of authority to extort funds from those who are vulnerable. If a policeman could, by his false testimony alone, convict you of a crime that would imprison you, you would gladly pay his extortion fee to avoid the threatened punishment. Thus, John the Baptist told the tax gatherers and soldiers of his day:

“Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:13-14).

(4) Kidnapping. In the ancient Near East, kidnapping was considered a form of theft (Deut. 24:7), probably because the individual would be kept as a slave, rather than because he or she would be ransomed.

In addition to these “active” forms of stealing, there are a variety of “passive” forms of stealing. While the thefts previously described wrongly took something from the possession of another, passive theft is the failure to give to another what belongs to them or is due them. For a variety of reasons, we may have in our possession what rightfully belongs to another, and yet fail or refuse to give it to them. While a more passive act, it is nevertheless stealing. The following forms of passive stealing are forbidden in the Bible:

(1) A man’s negligence which results in a loss to his neighbor. Exodus chapter 22 (verses 1-15) describes several acts of negligence which deprive a neighbor of his property, and which thus require restitution. For example, if a man’s pasture land has been grazed bare, and he therefore lets his animal loose, so that it grazes on his neighbor’s pasture, consuming it, the negligent man is guilty of passive stealing (Exod. 22:5).

(2) A man’s failure to return something lost to its owner is stealing. In Leviticus 6:3, the old adage, “finders keepers, losers weepers,” is shown to be an excuse for theft. To find what belongs to another, and not to return it, is to steal it, by one’s negligence or refusal to return it.55 Clear instructions regarding the returning of lost items is given in the Book of Deuteronomy:

“You shall not see your countryman’s ox or his sheep straying away, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly bring them back to your countryman. And if your countryman is not near you, or if you do not know him, then you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall remain with you until your countryman looks for it; then you shall restore it to him. And thus you shall do with his donkey, and you shall do the same with his garment, and you shall do likewise with anything lost by your countryman, which he has lost and you have found. You are not allowed to neglect them. You shall not see your countryman’s donkey or his ox fallen down on the way, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly help him to raise them up (Deut. 22:1-4).

(3) Failure to give what belongs to another is stealing. A day laborer is to be paid at the end of the day (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14-15). For an employer to keep a laborer’s wages, which at the end of his work day rightfully belonged to the worker, was to rob him. So, too, to keep back the tithes, by which the Levites were supported, would have been robbery (cf. Deut. 18:1-8; 26:9-13). Withholding the charity which was to be shown to the poor, the alien, and the stranger, was also stealing. God instructed the Israelites to make certain provisions for the poor, such as leaving the corners of their fields unharvested (Deut. 24:19-22). Whenever an Israelite became greedy and did not leave something behind for the poor, he was stealing from them, for God had given the gleanings to them.

Stealing—Its Characteristics and Its Culpability

Theft, whether actively or passively perpetrated, has certain characteristics, so that stealing can be positively identified as an evil act. For each of these characteristics, there is a corresponding principle or precept of God which is thereby violated, identifying the act as sin. Several of the tell-tale ear marks of stealing are:

(1) Stealing involves an unauthorized change of possession. When one steals, he takes possession of something which does not belong to him. Obviously, ownership of the stolen property belongs to the one from whom the property was stolen. Ultimately, all things belong to God: “The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me” (Lev. 25:23). “The earth is the LORD’S, and all it contains, The world, and those who dwell in it” (Ps. 24:1). God not only owns all things, He also possesses all people. When a person steals, he disregards both divine and private ownership of that property.

God is so concerned that property not accumulate in the hands of a few that He gave Israel regulations which would assure a relatively equal distribution. In Deuteronomy chapter 15, for example, a number of measures are prescribed to prevent the concentration of Israel’s wealth into the hands of a few. Debts were be canceled and slaves were to be liberated every seven years. The land was to revert to its original owner at the end of 70 years. The thief resists God’s distribution of property and seeks to concentrate and control it.

(2) Stealing does harm to one’s neighbor by taking what rightfully belonged to him. Stealing is always detrimental to the victim. Indeed, stealing is often accompanied by other evils, which are harmful to one’s neighbor (cf. Prov. 1:10-19). The man who was robbed in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) was also beaten. Stealing therefore is a violation of one’s obligation to love his neighbor, and to do good to him (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19).

(3) Stealing takes unfair advantage of one’s neighbor. Stealing is always accomplished by gaining some advantage over the neighbor who is the victim. The advantage may be that of strength (including the use of a weapon), subtlety (deception or stealth), or power. For example, a person who has wealth may take advantage of a neighbor who is in dire economic straits, loaning him money at a high rate of interest (cf. Exod. 22:25-27; Lev. 25:35-38; Neh. 5:1-14; Hab. 2:6-11). This is to take advantage of a neighbor’s adversity and vulnerability, often preying upon the most vulnerable members of society:

For the wicked boasts of his heart’s desire, And the greedy man curses and spurns the Lord. The wicked, in the haughtiness of his countenance, does not seek Him. All his thoughts are, “There is no God.” His ways prosper at all times; Thy judgments are on high, out of his sight; As for all his adversaries, he snorts at them. He says to himself, “I shall not be moved; Throughout all generations I shall not be in adversity.” His mouth is full of curses and deceit and oppression; Under his tongue is mischief and wickedness. He sits in the lurking places of the villages; In the hiding places he kills the innocent; His eyes stealthily watch for the unfortunate. He lurks in a hiding place as a lion in his lair; He lurks to catch the afflicted; He catches the afflicted when he draws him into his net. He crouches, he bows down, And the unfortunate fall by his mighty ones. He says to himself, “God has forgotten; He has hidden His face; He will never see it” (Ps. 10:3-11).

Your rulers are rebels, And companions of thieves; Every one loves a bribe, And chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, Nor does the widow’s plea come before them (Isa. 1:23).

The Israelite was not to capitalize on such tragedies and hard times, but was to help without expectation of profit, or even of getting back what was given. The biblical principle, both in the Old and the New Testaments is that the strong are to support the weak (Deut. 15; Rom. 15:1). One steals when he is strong and he gains from the adversity of the weak. Thus, the scribes and Pharisees wrongly used their power to oppress the widows, and to “devour their houses” (cf. Matt. 23:14), rather than to help them in their distress (James 1:27).

(4) Stealing sins against God by wrongly possessing the property of another. Stealing is a sin against God (Lev. 6:1-2, 6-7), profaning His name:

Two things I asked of Thee, Do not refuse me before I die: Keep deception and lies far from me, Give me neither poverty nor riches; Feed me with the food that is my portion; Lest I be full and deny Thee and say, “Who is the Lord?” Or lest I be in want and steal, And profane the name of my God (Prov. 30:7-9).

(5) One who steals sins against himself, thereby bringing calamity upon himself. The folly of stealing is that while the victim of the theft is harmed, the thief is not benefited. Both the thief and his victim will suffer due to the theft. The thief will suffer because he will not gain from stolen goods and God will bring divine judgment upon him. In fact, the thief destroys himself by his crime.

Do not trust in oppression. And do not vainly hope in robbery; If riches increase, do not set your heart upon them (Psalm 62:10).

My son, if sinners entice you, Do not consent. If they say, “Come with us, Let us lie in wait for blood, Let us ambush the innocent without cause; Let us swallow them alive like Sheol, Even whole, as those who go down to the pit; We shall fill our houses with spoil; Throw in your lot with us, We shall all have one purse,” My son, do not walk in the way with them. Keep your feet from their path, For their feet run to evil, And they hasten to shed blood. Indeed, it is useless to spread the net In the eyes of any bird; But they lie in wait for their own blood; They ambush their own lives. So are the ways of everyone who gains by violence; It takes away the life of its possessors (Prov. 1:10-19).

Ill-gotten gains do not profit, But righteousness delivers from death (Prov. 10:2).

Then I lifted up my eyes again and looked, and behold, there was a flying scroll. And he said to me, “What do you see?” And I answered, “I see a flying scroll; its length is twenty cubits and its width ten cubits.” Then he said to me, “This is the curse that is going forth over the face of the whole land; surely everyone who steals will be purged away according to the writing on one side, and everyone who swears will be purged away according to the writing on the other side. I will make it go forth,” declares the LORD of hosts, “and it will enter the house of the thief and the house of the one who swears falsely by My name; and it will spend the night within that house and consume it with timber and stones” (Zech. 5:1-4).

(6) Robbery corrupts the nation and the land:

Listen to the word of the LORD, O sons of Israel, For the LORD has a case against the inhabitants of the land, Because there is no faithfulness or kindness Or knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing, and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, And every one who lives in it languishes Along with the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky; And also the fish of the sea disappear (Hosea 4:1-3).

When I would heal Israel, The iniquity of Ephraim is uncovered, And the evil deeds of Samaria, For they deal falsely; The thief enters in, Bandits raid outside, And they do not consider in their hearts That I remember all their wickedness. Now their deeds are all around them; They are before My face. With their wickedness they make the king glad, And the princes with their lies (Hosea 7:1-3).

(7) Stealing is destructive to the community, to the unity of the people of God. A friend observed that few things adversely affect the sense of unity within a community more than a theft. When the thief is not known, everyone tends to look at one another as a possible thief. Thus, the sense of trust which binds a group together is destroyed. Stealing is therefore referred to as a “breach of trust” (Exod. 22:9).

(8) Stealing seeks to set aside the consequences of man’s sin. Because of man’s sin, God decreed that man would live “by the sweat of his brow” (Gen. 3:19). Stealing is man’s effort to make a living by the sweat of another man’s brow. Often, stealing is obtaining those things which one is not willing to work for. Stealing therefore is an attempt to set aside the curse. It is a sin which endeavors to avoid the consequence of sin.

(9) Stealing seeks to set aside the covenant of God with Israel. The commandments, of which the prohibition of stealing is one, are a part of the covenant God made with Israel. The purpose of the covenant was to set Israel apart from the surrounding nations, to be a holy people, so that they might be a priestly nation, representing God to men. Stealing was one of the evils of that day, as it is today. To refrain from stealing would set Israel apart. To practice stealing would be to fail to live up to the high calling of God. Stealing would thwart the intent of the covenant.

Furthermore, the terms of the covenant were that God would prosper Israel as she kept His commandments and pursued His purposes. On the other hand, God’s judgment was promised if the covenant was violated (cf. Deut. 28). For an Israelite to seek to prosper on account of sin was to disregard, indeed, to disdain, the terms of the covenant which God had made with Israel. The thief sought to prosper by sin, rather than by obedience.

But to the wicked God says, “What right have you to tell of My statutes, And to take My covenant in your mouth? For you hate discipline, And you cast My words behind you. When you see a thief, you are pleased with him, And you associate with adulterers” (Psalm 50:16-18).

For I, the LORD, love justice, I hate robbery in the burnt offering; And I will faithfully give them their recompense, And I will make an everlasting covenant with them (Isa. 61:8).

“You also say, ‘My, how tiresome it is!’ And you disdainfully sniff at it,” says the LORD of hosts, “and you bring what was taken by robbery, and what is lame or sick; so you bring the offering! Should I receive that from your hand?” says the LORD (Malachi 1:13).

(10) Stealing disregards God’s laws, because of the distrust of God and His promises. In the final analysis, stealing evidences a man’s lack of faith in God, and in His promises to provide for His people, who keep His commandments. Men trust in stealing because they refuse to trust in God. In the final analysis, the thief trusts himself more than God:

Do not trust in oppression, And do not vainly hope in robbery; If riches increase, do not set your heart upon them (Ps. 62:10).

Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel, “Since you have rejected this word, And have put your trust in oppression and guile, and have relied on them, Therefore this iniquity will be to you Like a breach about to fall, A bulge in a high wall, Whose collapse comes suddenly in an instant” (Isa. 30:12-13).

(11) Stealing was sometimes an effort to avoid genuine sacrifice. God gave, as a part of the covenant, a sacrificial system, by which men were able to approach God and worship Him. As an expression of worship and gratitude, the Israelites were to offer a part of their crops and cattle as a sacrifice. In time, they refused to do this:

“From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from My statutes, and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD of hosts. “But you say, ‘How shall we return?’ Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed Thee?’ In tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven, and pour out for you a blessing until there is no more need. Then I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it may not destroy the fruits of the ground; nor will your vine in the field cast its grapes,” says the LORD of hosts. “And all the nations will call you blessed, for you shall be a delightful land,” says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 3:7-12).

In some cases, the Israelites would sacrifice to God, but rather than give of their own goods, they stole from their neighbors and sacrificed stolen goods:

For I, the LORD, love justice, I hate robbery in the burnt offering; And I will faithfully give them their recompense, And I will make an everlasting covenant with them (Isa. 61:8).

“You also say, ‘My, how tiresome it is!’ And you disdainfully sniff at it,” says the LORD of hosts, “and you bring what was taken by robbery, and what is lame or sick; so you bring the offering! Should I receive that from your hand?” says the LORD (Malachi 1:13).

The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination, How much more when he brings it with evil intent! (Prov. 21:27).

In effect, the offering of stolen sacrifices enabled men to give to God without really sacrificing at all. It was the victim who made the sacrifice, not the thief. How blatant was the sin of the thief, which actually had the audacity to give to God what he had stolen.

(12) Stealing is an act that is completely contrary to the character of God. Perhaps the reason why God hates stealing so much is that it is a crime which completely contradicts His character. God is gracious; the thief is greedy. God gives; the thief takes. God responds to the cries of the needy; the thief callously creates needs and tragedy. Nothing could be more contrary to the graciousness of God than the cruelty of the thief.

Stealing, then, is a sin against God, against one’s neighbor, against one’s nation, and ultimately against one’s self.

Stealing—Its Contemporary Forms

Before we attempt to expose some of the popular forms stealing takes in contemporary society, let us seek to arrive at a simple, working definition of stealing. Originally, I thought that a good definition would be: Stealing is getting ahead at another person’s expense. I think this definition has some merit. But upon more reflection, I have decided on this definition: STEALING IS TAKING FROM OTHERS WITHOUT GIVING IN RETURN.

Stealing is, in its essence, an unfair exchange. When we steal, we take something from another person, but we do not adequately compensate them for what we have gained. In this sense, we gain, but our neighbor loses. Let’s consider some of the ways in which men seek to take from others, without giving adequately in return. Here, I believe, is where the “rubber meets the road,” where stealing can be seen for what it is—sin. (I am going to assume here that the most blatant forms of stealing—armed robbery, extortion, and embezzlement, those for which one can be sent to prison, need not be described in detail here.)

(1) We must beware not to steal on the job. Petty theft is one of the most costly losses of American business. Tools mysteriously disappear, along with supplies ranging from paper and pencils to much more costly items. Services can also be stolen. We may ask others (our secretaries, for example) to do personal work for us. We can also use the copy machine for personal copying, without permission. Then there is the stealing of time, which was mentioned in the introduction to this message. Padded expense accounts are another tempting way to steal from our employer.

It has been my observation that we often attempt to justify theft at work by the use of some rather questionable reasoning. One of the popular excuses is, “I’ve put in a lot of extra time.” If such is the case, turn it in as overtime, or at least be sure that your boss is willing to exchange a given amount of services for your extra time. Another justification is that “I’m worth a whole lot more than they pay me.” If that is so, ask for a raise, and then pay for the things you take from the office (if this is permitted).

(2) Stealing from others by depriving them of the fruit of their labor. The stealing of software (“bootlegged” copies) deprives the author and the dealer of the fruit of their labor, and is nothing less than stealing. The same is true of duped copies of audio and video recordings. Taking credit for the ideas or the labor of another is also stealing. It deprives the individual of the reward they should obtain for their labor. Also included in this area would be failing to pay those we owe promptly.56 From a biblical perspective, withholding our giving to those who minister to us is also a failure to let the Lord’s servants benefit from their labor (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1-14).

(3) Stealing may also involve the abuse of legal rights. The Law provides certain legal remedies for particular evils, but these remedies may be abused so as to rob another. The Law thus becomes the advantage one has over another. For example, bankruptcy can be a means for structuring the payback of debts, and as such is honorable, but as a legal pretext for non-payment of debts it is robbery. Insurance claims can also be abused, so that claims are paid based on false information. Lawsuits provide another means of forcibly taking (excess) money from another. Let us be on guard concerning the use of these legal remedies for evil, so that the remedy itself does not become an evil.

(4) Stealing by negligence or neglect. Our negligence can be costly to others. For example, littering and polluting is an act of negligence which makes life easy for us, while others pay the price. We avoid the inconvenience of disposing of our trash or pollutants, but someone else has to pay for cleaning up our mess. And lest you think this is something that doesn’t relate to you, how many of you turn your pet loose in the neighborhood to “pollute” someone else’s yard, so that you don’t have to clean up the mess in your own yard?

(5) Stealing in the name of getting a “good deal.” This kind of stealing is far more subtle. Indeed, one can actually be praised for this kind of deal. It is getting a “great deal” at the expense of the other party. For example, suppose that you went to a garage sale and found a widow selling some of her husband’s tools, at far below their real value. We could buy them all up and walk away feeling that we really got a great deal. But is this really honest? Is this not stealing, gaining at the expense of this woman, having the advantage over her, due to her ignorance of the value of what she possessed? I have had people tell me in the past that I “stole” something at a sale. At the time I was flattered. Now, I might be embarrassed. Good deals should not be occasions when we got the better deal because of another person’s vulnerability.

Incidentally, modern advertising has taken note of our greed here. Have you noticed how many advertisements include statements like, “getting divorce, must sell,” or, “going out of business,” or “lost our lease,” or “fire sale.” All of these statements (often untrue) cause us to think that the seller is in desperate straits, and thus vulnerable. Rather than having feelings of sympathy and compassion, we leap at the chance to get the upper hand.

(6) Corporate or collective stealing. There are ways in which we can participate in a theft that is perpetrated by a group. For example, some large business can steal, either by fixing prices, or manipulating the market, or by using their power to pay inadequate wages. They can also provide unsafe working environments, which can certainly produce profits at the expense of their employees. The child labor abuses of the last century are an example of corporate theft. The existence of labor unions can be attributed, to a large degree, to industry’s gains made at labor’s expense.

Labor unions quickly learned from the carnality and greed of big business. They, too, have stolen by the misuse of their power. By threatening a strike (or worse), which could economically destroy a company, unions have been able to demand wages and benefits for workers which they have not earned. In other words, labor has gained at the cost of big business.

Governments, too, can steal. It is possible for the majority of a country’s citizens to impose unfair taxes on the rich, so that by a “legal” governmental function (taxation) the poor rob the rich. In other countries, the rich use their influence and power to oppress and rob the poor, by manipulating and misusing governmental power. Communism appeals to the greed of the masses, encouraging revolution and the formation of a new government which will disenfranchise (take the property away from) the rich, and give it to the poor. Functionally, this is stealing.

Governments can also employ tariffs to steal from people. Tariffs can be levied on foreign goods, so that higher prices must be paid to purchase American goods. This could mean that Americans are “forced” to pay higher prices for inferior goods, or that foreign peoples are deprived of the ability to sell their goods and to make a living. On the other hand, some foreign manufacturers have no qualms about copying (stealing) U. S. designs, manufacturing the products with “slave” or “cheap” labor, and then selling their product below the U. S. market price, thus stealing from American business.

(7) Religious robbery. Religious robbery is one of the most serious forms of stealing, in my opinion. The reason is that we are either robbing God, robbing in the name of God, or robbing in a way that suggests God is our partner in crime. Let us consider “robbing God” first.

We rob God whenever we withhold from Him what is due Him, or what belongs to Him. We rob God when we withhold our offerings from Him. Now I would be the first to point out that the Old Testament tithe is not binding on the New Testament saint