4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and 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 20:4-11 ESV
God’s sovereignty versus man’s autonomy – that is the battle of the ages and it has been going on ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Their fateful decision was motivated by the desire for self-rule that they believed would give them the freedom to do as they pleased. They had bought into the lies of the enemy, who had convinced them that they could make up their own rules based on their own personal preferences. That is what Satan meant when he claimed “you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5 ESV). He promised them that they would become a law unto themselves, with the power to make their own determination regarding what was right or wrong. And he falsely assured them that the first step to achieving their freedom was to reject the tyranny of God by refusing to abide by His restrictive commands.
But their decision didn’t produce a moral Shangrila, a place where everyone did as they pleased and enjoyed all the supposed perks that self-determination offers. No, the fall produced an atmosphere of moral relativism in which every man did that which was right in his own eyes and all for his own personal benefit.
So, by the time the Israelites left the land of Egypt, they had spent four centuries immersed in a society where moral relativism had been on full display. It’s not that Egypt had been a lawless place where everyone was free to do whatever they wanted. But it was a society that had long ago rejected the God of Noah. The Egyptians were the descendants of Ham, one of the sons of Noah (Psalm 78:51; 105:23). But they did not “walk with God” as Noah had. Instead, they chose a path that, according to the apostle Paul, led to a darkened state, marked by idolatry and wickedness.
But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.
Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began God . As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. – Romans 1:18-23 NLT
What an apt and accurate description of the Egyptian culture in which the Israelites had been immersed for nearly 400 years. There was no shortage of gods in the land of Ham, including the Pharaoh who was believed to be a deity in human form. But for the Israelites, things were to be different. God had chosen them as His own. In fact, He had created them out of nothing, having produced a nation from an elderly man from Ur and his barren wife.
From Abram and Sarai, God had produced the nation of Israel. And now, they stood at the base of Mount Sinai, waiting for their God-appointed leader, Moses, to return from his divine appointment on the summit. And little did they know that Moses was going to return with God’s law in hand. His time on the mountaintop would mark a watershed moment for the people of God. They were His chosen people, and now they were going to learn how God’s chosen people were expected to live their lives. It would begin with the Decalogue, the “ten words” that would encapsulate and summarize all that would follow. God was going to give the people a detailed and lengthy code of conduct that covered virtually every area of human interaction, including their relationship with God and with one another. But the Ten Commandments were intended to provide a memorable and easy-to-follow outline for their behavior as God’s set-apart people.
And it began with their acknowledgment of His one-of-a-kind status as God.
“You must not have any other god but me.” – Exodus 20:3 NLT
Unlike the Egyptians and every other people group on earth, the Israelites were to worship Yahweh alone. He had created them, redeemed them, and blessed them with the privilege of being His “treasured possession among all peoples” (Exodus 19:5 ESV). As such, they were not to live or behave like any of the other nations. Their conduct was to mirror their unique status as God’s chosen people. And those who worshiped the one true God were prohibited from creating substitutes for Him.
“You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods.” – Exodus 20:4-5 NLT
God put this non-negotiable restriction in place because He knew His people would be prone to emulate the ways of Egypt, where false gods were so plentiful and prevalent, it was impossible to know how many there really were. For the Israelites, one God was to be more than enough. Their God had defeated all the false gods of Egypt and was worthy of their unwavering devotion and honor.
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” – Exodus 19:4 NLT
The first four commandments focus on the Israelites’ relationship with God. They are God-centric and call for a sold-out commitment to Him and Him alone. Their acknowledgment of God as their one and only God is to be accompanied by a proper respect for His name.
“You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God. The Lord will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name.” – Exodus 20:7 NLT
God’s name is an extension of His character or identity. To misuse His name is tantamount to questioning His very nature. To treat His name(s) in a flippant or disrespectful manner would be no less egregious than denying His holiness. But there is more to this command than merely treating God’s name with respect. From this point forward, the name of God would be associated with the people of Israel. In fact, the name Israel can be translated, as “let God rule.” As a people, they bore the name of God, and it was their privilege and responsibility to bear that name well. Everything they did, they did in the name of God. They were the sons and daughters of Yahweh and their behavior would reflect either positively or negatively on their Father.
Centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel would record God’s indictment of Israel for having profaned His name among the Gentiles.
“…they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’” – Ezekiel 36:20 ESV
The apostle Paul provides a stunning description of what it meant for the Israelites to misuse God’s name.
You are so proud of knowing the law, but you dishonor God by breaking it. No wonder the Scriptures say, “The Gentiles blaspheme the name of God because of you.” – Romans 2:23-24 NLT
To break God’s law is to dishonor God’s name. To live in disobedience to His commands is to denigrate His holiness through your actions. A child of God who refuses to keep the commands of God brings dishonor to the name of God.
And God provided His people with the Sabbath as a tangible way to display their set-apart status and to prove their commitment to His honor and glory.
“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God.” – Exodus 20:8-10 NLT
God was to be sovereign over every area of their lives. By dedicating that one day to Him alone, they would be acknowledging His role as their provider and protector. The God who created the heavens and the earth would meet all their needs as long as they remembered to honor Him for who He was and all that He had done for them.
For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy. – Exodus 20:11 NLT
The Sabbath was not so much a respite from work as it was a reminder of God’s creating and sustaining power. God did not rest on the seventh day because He was weary; he ceased work because His will had been accomplished. He had done all He had planned to do. The creation was complete and perfect. And in a sense, resting on the Sabbath was a way for the people of Israel to recognize the perfection of God’s plan for them. It was a way of honoring His perfect, providential purposes for their lives. They could rest knowing that God had all things under control and operating according to His sovereign plan.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.