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Exodus 20:4

Adam Clarke
Bible Commentary

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image - As the word פסל pasal signifies to hew, carve, grave, etc., פסל pesel may here signify any kind of image, either of wood, stone, or metal, on which the axe, the chisel, or the graving tool has been employed. This commandment includes in its prohibitions every species of idolatry known to have been practiced among the Egyptians. The reader will see this the more plainly by consulting the notes on the ten plagues, particularly those on Exodus 12.

Or any likeness, etc. - To know the full spirit and extent of this commandment, this place must be collated with Deuteronomy 4:15, etc.: Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves - lest ye corrupt yourselves - and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of Male or Female. All who have even the slightest acquaintance with the ancient history of Egypt, know that Osiris and his wife Isis were supreme divinities among that people.

The likeness of any Beast - בהמה behemah, such as the ox and the heifer. Among the Egyptians the ox was not only sacred but adored, because they supposed that in one of these animals Osiris took up his residence: hence they always had a living ox, which they supposed to be the habitation of this deity; and they imagined that on the death of one he entered into the body of another, and so on successively. This famous ox-god they called Apis and Mnevis.

The likeness of any winged Fowl - The ibis, or stork, or crane, and hawk, may be here intended, for all these were objects of Egyptian idolatry.

The likeness of any thing that Creepeth - The crocodile, serpents, the scarabeus or beetle, were all objects of their adoration; and Mr. Bryant has rendered it very probable that even the frog itself was a sacred animal, as from its inflation it was emblematic of the prophetic influence, for they supposed that the god inflated or distended the body of the person by whom he gave oracular answers.

The likeness of any Fish - All fish were esteemed sacred animals among the Egyptians. One called Oxurunchus had, according to Strabo, lib. xvii., a temple, and divine honors paid to it. Another fish, called Phagrus, was worshipped at Syene, according to Clemens Alexandrinus in his Cohortatio. And the Lepidotus and eel were objects of their adoration, as we find from Herodotus, lib. ii., cap. 72. In short, oxen, heifers, sheep, goats, lions, dogs, monkeys, and cats; the ibis, the crane, and the hawk; the crocodile, serpents, frogs, flies, and the scarabeus or beetle; the Nile and its fish; the sun, moon, planets, and stars; fire, light, air, darkness, and night, were all objects of Egyptian idolatry, and all included in this very circumstantial prohibition as detailed in Deuteronomy, and very forcibly in the general terms of the text: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the Heavens above, or that is in the Earth beneath, or that is in the Water under the earth. And the reason of this becomes self-evident, when the various objects of Egyptian idolatry are considered.

To countenance its image worship, the Roman Catholic Church has left the whole of this second commandment out of the decalogue, and thus lost one whole commandment out of the ten; but to keep up the number they have divided the tenth into two. This is totally contrary to the faith of God's elect and to the acknowledgment of that truth which is according to godliness. The verse is found in every MS. of the Hebrew Pentateuch that has ever yet been discovered. It is in all the ancient versions, Samaritan, Chaldee, Syriac, Septuagint, Vulgate, Coptic, and Arabic; also in the Persian, and in all modern versions. There is not one word of the whole verse wanting in the many hundreds of MSS. collected by Kennicott and De Rossi. This corruption of the word of God by the Roman Catholic Church stamps it, as a false and heretical Church, with the deepest brand of ever-during infamy! This commandment also prohibits every species of external idolatry, as the first does all idolatry that may be called internal or mental. All false worship may be considered of this kind, together with all image worship, and all other superstitious rites and ceremonies. See Clarke's note on Exodus 20:23.

Albert Barnes
Notes on the Whole Bible
Verses 1-17

The Hebrew name which is rendered in our King James Version as the ten commandments occurs in Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; Deuteronomy 10:4. It literally means “the Ten Words.” The Ten Commandments are also called the law, even the commandment Exodus 24:12, the words of the covenant Exodus 34:28, the tables of the covenant Deuteronomy 9:9, the covenant Deuteronomy 4:13, the two tables Deuteronomy 9:10, Deuteronomy 9:17, and, most frequently, the testimony (e. g. Exodus 16:34; Exodus 25:16), or the two tables of the testimony (e. g. Exodus 31:18). In the New Testament they are called simply the commandments (e. g. Matthew 19:17). The name decalogue is found first in Clement of Alexandria, and was commonly used by the Fathers who followed him.

Thus we know that the tables were two, and that the commandments were ten, in number. But the Scriptures do not, by any direct statements, enable us to determine with precision how the Ten Commandments are severally to be made out, nor how they are to be allotted to the Two tables. On each of these points various opinions have been held (see Exodus 20:12).

Of the Words of Yahweh engraven on the tables of Stone, we have two distinct statements, one in Exodus Deuteronomy 5:7-21, apparently of equal authority, but differing principally from each other in the fourth, the fifth, and the tenth commandments.

It has been supposed that the original commandments were all in the same terse and simple form of expression as appears (both in Exodus and Deuteronomy) in the first, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth, such as would be most suitable for recollection, and that the passages in each copy in which the most important variations are found were comments added when the books were written.

The account of the delivery of them in Exodus 20:18-21 is in accordance with their importance as the recognized basis of the covenant between Yahweh and His ancient people (Exodus 34:27-28; Deuteronomy 4:13; 1 Kings 8:21, etc.), and as the divine testimony against the sinful tendencies in man for all ages. While it is here said that “God spake all these words,” and in Deuteronomy 5:4, that He “talked face to face,” in the New Testament the giving of the law is spoken of as having been through the ministration of Angels Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2. We can reconcile these contrasts of language by keeping in mind that God is a Spirit, and that He is essentially present in the agents who are performing His will.

Exodus 20:2

Which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage - It has been asked: Why, on this occasion, was not the Lord rather proclaimed as “the Creator of Heaven and Earth”? The answer is, Because the Ten Commandments were at this time addressed by Yahweh not merely to human creatures, but to the people whom He had redeemed, to those who had been in bondage, but were now free men Exodus 6:6-7; Exodus 19:5. The commandments are expressed in absolute terms. They are not sanctioned by outward penalties, as if for slaves, but are addressed at once to the conscience, as for free men. The well-being of the nation called for the infliction of penalties, and therefore statutes were passed to punish offenders who blasphemed the name of Yahweh, who profaned the Sabbath, or who committed murder or adultery. (See Leviticus 18:24-30 note.) But these penal statutes were not to be the ground of obedience for the true Israelite according to the covenant. He was to know Yahweh as his Redeemer, and was to obey him as such (Compare Romans 13:5).

Exodus 20:3

Before me - Literally, “before my face.” The meaning is that no god should be worshipped in addition to Yahweh. Compare Exodus 20:23. The polytheism which was the besetting sin of the Israelites did not in later times exclude Yahweh, but associated Him with false deities. (Compare the original of 1 Samuel 2:25.)

Exodus 20:4

Graven image - Any sort of image is here intended.

As the first commandment forbids the worship of any false god, seen or unseen, it is here forbidden to worship an image of any sort, whether the figure of a false deity Joshua 23:7 or one in any way symbolic of Yahweh (see Exodus 32:4). The spiritual acts of worship were symbolized in the furniture and ritual of the tabernacle and the altar, and for this end the forms of living things might be employed as in the case of the Cherubim (see Exodus 25:18 note): but the presence of the invisible God was to be marked by no symbol of Himself, but by His words written on stones, preserved in the ark in the holy of holies and covered by the mercy-seat. The ancient Persians and the earliest legislators of Rome also agreed in repudiating images of the Deity.

A jealous God - Deuteronomy 6:15; Joshua 24:19; Isaiah 42:8; Isaiah 48:11; Nahum 1:2. This reason applies to the First, as well as to the second commandment. The truth expressed in it was declared more fully to Moses when the name of Yahweh was proclaimed to him after he had interceded for Israel on account of the golden calf (Exodus 34:6-7; see the note).

Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children - (Compare Exodus 34:7; Jeremiah 32:18). Sons and remote descendants inherit the consequences of their fathers‘ sins, in disease, poverty, captivity, with all the influences of bad example and evil communications. (See Leviticus 26:39; Lamentations 5:7 following) The “inherited curse” seems to fall often most heavily on the least guilty persons; but such suffering must always be free from the sting of conscience; it is not like the visitation for sin on the individual by whom the sin has been committed. The suffering, or loss of advantages, entailed on the unoffending son, is a condition under which he has to carry on the struggle of life, and, like all other inevitable conditions imposed upon men, it cannot tend to his ultimate disadvantage, if he struggles well and perseveres to the end. The principle regulating the administration of justice by earthly tribunals Deuteronomy 24:16, is carried out in spiritual matters by the Supreme Judge.

Exodus 20:6

Unto thousands - unto the thousandth generation. Yahweh‘s visitations of chastisement extend to the third and fourth generation, his visitations of mercy to the thousandth; that is, forever. That this is the true rendering seems to follow from Deuteronomy 7:9; Compare 2 Samuel 7:15-16.

Exodus 20:7

Our translators make the Third commandment bear upon any profane and idle utterance of the name of God. Others give it the sense, “Thou shalt not swear falsely by the name of Jehovah thy God.” The Hebrew word which answers to “in vain” may be rendered either way. The two abuses of the sacred name seem to be distinguished in Leviticus 19:12 (see Matthew 5:33). Our King James Version is probably right in giving the rendering which is more inclusive. The caution that a breach of this commandment incurs guilt in the eyes of Yahweh is especially appropriate, in consequence of the ease with which the temptation to take God‘s name “in vain” besets people in their common conversation with each other.

Exodus 20:8

Remember the sabbath day - There is no distinct evidence that the Sabbath, as a formal ordinance, was recognized before the time of Moses (compare Nehemiah 9:14; Ezekiel 20:10-12; Deuteronomy 5:15). The word “remember” may either be used in the sense of “keep in mind” what is here enjoined for the first time, or it may refer back to what is related in Exodus 16:22-26.

Exodus 20:10

The sabbath … - a Sabbath to Yahweh thy God. The proper meaning of “sabbath” is, “rest after labor.” Compare Exodus 16:26.

Thy stranger that is within thy gates - Not a “stranger,” as is an unknown person, but a “lodger,” or “sojourner.” In this place it denotes one who had come from another people to take up his permanent abode among the Israelites, and who might have been well known to his neighbors. That the word did not primarily refer to foreign domestic servants (though all such were included under it) is to be inferred from the term used for “gates,” signifying not the doors of a private dwelling, but the gates of a town or camp.

Exodus 20:12

Honour thy father and thy mother - According to our usage, the fifth commandment is placed as the first in the second table; and this is necessarily involved in the common division of the commandments into our duty toward God and our duty toward men. But the more ancient, and probably the better, division allots five commandments to each table (compare Romans 13:9), proceeding on the distinction that the First table relates to the duties which arise from our filial relations, the second to those which arise from our fraternal relations. The connection between the first four commandments and the fifth exists in the truth that all faith in God centers in the filial feeling. Our parents stand between us and God in a way in which no other beings can. On the maintenance of parental authority, see Exodus 21:15, Exodus 21:17; Deuteronomy 21:18-21.

That thy days may be long upon the land - Filial respect is the ground of national permanence (compare Jeremiah 35:18-19; Matthew 15:4-6; Mark 7:10-11). The divine words were addressed emphatically to Israel, but they set forth a universal principle of national life Ephesians 6:2.

Exodus 20:13-14

Matthew 5:21-32 is the best comment on these two verses.

Exodus 20:15

The right of property is sanctioned in the eighth commandment by an external rule: its deeper meaning is involved in the tenth commandment.

Exodus 20:17

As the sixth, seventh, and eighth commandments forbid us to injure our neighbor in deed, the ninth forbids us to injure him in word, and the tenth, in thought. No human eye can see the coveting heart; it is witnessed only by him who possesses it and by Him to whom all things are naked and open Luke 12:15-21. But it is the root of all sins of word or deed against our neighbor James 1:14-15.

Matthew Henry
Concise Bible Commentary
The first four of the ten commandments, commonly called the FIRST table, tell our duty to God. It was fit that those should be put first, because man had a Maker to love, before he had a neighbour to love. It cannot be expected that he should be true to his brother, who is false to his God. The first commandment concerns the object of worship, JEHOVAH, and him only. The worship of creatures is here forbidden. Whatever comes short of perfect love, gratitude, reverence, or worship, breaks this commandment. Whatsoever ye do, do all the glory of God. The second commandment refers to the worship we are to render to the Lord our God. It is forbidden to make any image or picture of the Deity, in any form, or for any purpose; or to worship any creature, image, or picture. But the spiritual import of this command extends much further. All kinds of superstition are here forbidden, and the using of mere human inventions in the worship of God. The third commandment concerns the manner of worship, that it be with all possible reverence and seriousness. All false oaths are forbidden. All light appealing to God, all profane cursing, is a horrid breach of this command. It matters not whether the word of God, or sacred things, all such-like things break this commandment, and there is no profit, honour, or pleasure in them. The Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. The form of the fourth commandment, "Remember," shows that it was not now first given, but was known by the people before. One day in seven is to be kept holy. Six days are allotted to worldly business, but not so as to neglect the service of God, and the care of our souls. On those days we must do all our work, and leave none to be done on the sabbath day. Christ allowed works of necessity, charity, and piety; for the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath, Mr 2:27; but all works of luxury, vanity, or self-indulgence in any form, are forbidden. Trading, paying wages, settling accounts, writing letters of business, worldly studies, trifling visits, journeys, or light conversation, are not keeping this day holy to the Lord. Sloth and indolence may be a carnal, but not a holy rest. The sabbath of the Lord should be a day of rest from worldly labour, and a rest in the service of God. The advantages from the due keeping of this holy day, were it only to the health and happiness of mankind, with the time it affords for taking care of the soul, show the excellency of this commandment. The day is blessed; men are blessed by it, and in it. The blessing and direction to keep holy are not limited to the seventh day, but are spoken of the sabbath day.
Ellen G. White
Temperance, 164

Abstain strictly from all stimulating food or drink. You are God's property. You are not to abuse any organ of the body. You are to care wisely for your body, that there may be a perfect development of the whole man. Is it not an act of ingratitude on your part to do anything so to weaken your vital forces that you are unable properly to represent Him or to do the work He has for you to do?—Letter 236, 1903. Te 164.1

Temperance Principles Stem From God's Law—If men strictly and conscientiously kept the law of God, there would be no drunkards, no tobacco inebriates, no distress, penury, and crime. Liquor saloons would be closed for want of patronage, and nine tenths of all misery existing in the world would come to an end. Young men would walk forth with erect and noble forms, free and elastic step, clear eye, and healthy complexions. Te 164.2

When ministers, from their pulpits, make loyalty to the law of God disreputable; when they join with the world in making it unpopular; when these teachers of the people indulge in the social glass, and the defiling narcotic, tobacco, what depth of vice may not be expected from the youth of this generation? You have heard much in regard to the authority and sanctity of the law of the Ten Commandments. God is the author of that law, which is the foundation of His government in heaven and on earth. All enlightened nations have based their laws upon this grand foundation of all law; yet the legislators and ministers, who are recognized as the leaders and teachers of the people, live in open violation of the principles inculcated in those holy statutes. Te 164.3

Many ministers preach Christ from the pulpit, and then do not hesitate to benumb their senses by wine tippling, or even indulging in brandy and other liquors. The Christian standard says, “Touch not; taste not; handle not;” and the laws of our physical being repeat the solemn injunction with emphasis. It is the duty of every Christian minister to lay this truth plainly before his people, teaching it both by precept and example.... Te 164.4

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Ellen G. White
The Desire of Ages, 308

God has given us His holy precepts, because He loves mankind. To shield us from the results of transgression, He reveals the principles of righteousness. The law is an expression of the thought of God; when received in Christ, it becomes our thought. It lifts us above the power of natural desires and tendencies, above temptations that lead to sin. God desires us to be happy, and He gave us the precepts of the law that in obeying them we might have joy. When at Jesus’ birth the angels sang,— “Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14),
they were declaring the principles of the law which He had come to magnify and make honorable.
DA 308.1

When the law was proclaimed from Sinai, God made known to men the holiness of His character, that by contrast they might see the sinfulness of their own. The law was given to convict them of sin, and reveal their need of a Saviour. It would do this as its principles were applied to the heart by the Holy Spirit. This work it is still to do. In the life of Christ the principles of the law are made plain; and as the Holy Spirit of God touches the heart, as the light of Christ reveals to men their need of His cleansing blood and His justifying righteousness, the law is still an agent in bringing us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith. “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.” Psalm 19:7. DA 308.2

“Till heaven and earth pass,” said Jesus, “one jot or one tittle shall in nowise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” The sun shining in the heavens, the solid earth upon which you dwell, are God's witnesses that His law is changeless and eternal. Though they may pass away, the divine precepts shall endure. “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.” Luke 16:17. The system of types that pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God was to be abolished at His death; but the precepts of the Decalogue are as immutable as the throne of God. DA 308.3

Since “the law of the Lord is perfect,” every variation from it must be evil. Those who disobey the commandments of God, and teach others to do so, are condemned by Christ. The Saviour's life of obedience maintained the claims of the law; it proved that the law could be kept in humanity, and showed the excellence of character that obedience would develop. All who obey as He did are likewise declaring that the law is “holy, and just, and good.” Romans 7:12. On the other hand, all who break God's commandments are sustaining Satan's claim that the law is unjust, and cannot be obeyed. Thus they second the deceptions of the great adversary, and cast dishonor upon God. They are the children of the wicked one, who was the first rebel against God's law. To admit them into heaven would again bring in the elements of discord and rebellion, and imperil the well-being of the universe. No man who willfully disregards one principle of the law shall enter the kingdom of heaven. DA 308.4

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Ellen G. White
Selected Messages Book 1, 216-20

David says: “The law of the Lord is perfect” (Psalm 19:7). “Concerning thy testimonies, I have known of old that thou hast founded them for ever” (Psalm 119:152). And Paul testifies: “The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (Romans 7:12). 1SM 216.1

As the Supreme Ruler of the universe, God has ordained laws for the government not only of all living beings, but of all the operations of nature. Everything, whether great or small, animate or inanimate, is under fixed laws which cannot be disregarded. There are no exceptions to this rule; for nothing that the divine hand has made has been forgotten by the divine mind. But while everything in nature is governed by natural law, man alone, as an intelligent being, capable of understanding its requirements, is amenable to moral law. To man alone, the crowning work of His creation, God has given a conscience to realize the sacred claims of the divine law, and a heart capable of loving it as holy, just, and good; and of man prompt and perfect obedience is required. Yet God does not compel him to obey; he is left a free moral agent. 1SM 216.2

The subject of man's personal responsibility is understood by but few; and yet it is a matter of the greatest importance. We may each obey and live, or we may transgress God's law, defy His authority, and receive the punishment that is meet. Then to every soul the question comes home with force, Shall I obey the voice from heaven, the ten words spoken from Sinai, or shall I go with the multitude who trample on that fiery law? To those who love God it will be the highest delight to keep His commandments, and to do those things that are pleasing in His sight. But the natural heart hates the law of God, and wars against its holy claims. Men shut their souls from the divine light, refusing to walk in it as it shines upon them. They sacrifice purity of heart, the favor of God, and their hope of heaven, for selfish gratification or worldly gain. 1SM 216.3

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Ellen G. White
Prophets and Kings, 678

In words of unmistakable meaning the prophet points out the specific work of this remnant people who build the wall. “If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on My holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honorable; and shalt honor Him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” Isaiah 58:13, 14. PK 678.1

In the time of the end every divine institution is to be restored. The breach made in the law at the time the Sabbath was changed by man, is to be repaired. God's remnant people, standing before the world as reformers, are to show that the law of God is the foundation of all enduring reform and that the Sabbath of the fourth commandment is to stand as a memorial of creation, a constant reminder of the power of God. In clear, distinct lines they are to present the necessity of obedience to all the precepts of the Decalogue. Constrained by the love of Christ, they are to co-operate with Him in building up the waste places. They are to be repairers of the breach, restorers of paths to dwell in. See verse 12. PK 678.2

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