Summary: Learn about God’s basis for character, worship, relationships, and society.
This may be the most famous portion of the Old Testament to most people. Even today this portion of Exodus is in the news - recently the Supreme Court issued contradictory rulings one upholding one striking down the display of the Ten Commandments.
For many people, these commandments represent the basis for all behavior - and the basis for whether God is pleased or not of His people. The Ten Commandments are just the beginning, but from that framework, for the next 12 chapters - God speaks to Moses about character, behavior, society, and worship.
For the first time, God sets down expectations for the people. They might not have realized that when God brought them out of Egypt He was purchasing them as a people. Now He begins to reveal to them the kind of character that He expects them to live by.
The Commandments - verses 3 - 17 are broken up into three groups: verses 3 - 6 involve who God is and how to and how not to worship Him. Verses 7 - 11 involve how they were to relate to this God personally, and verses 12 - 17 involve how to relate to one another as family and society.
Verses 1 - 3
God is not saying "you owe me for saving you from Egypt" even though that is true. He is simply stating a fact - simply there are no other Gods "before" or "besides" the Lord. But they were coming from and going to a land filled with "other gods."
Interestingly, the Hebrew construction here suggests a covenant making or marriage ceremony. God is telling them that they must give their lives and allegiance to Him alone. It is true that there is only one God - but it will take time for them to really see and understand that. Right now - in their infancy, they need to know that no matter what they saw or will see about other gods - Yahweh is their one and only God.
So Commandment #1: I am your only God
Verses 4 - 6
God says "don’t make any physical representation or worship any likeness of me (in heaven) or anything I have created (on earth)." To do that would instantly demean the Lord who is completely over and above the creation. Today, of course, people worship the earth and the trees and all sorts of created things. The peoples back then made all kinds of idols - of frogs and cattle and women and all sorts of things. God is telling them not to do that - nor should they worship Yahweh in that way either.
This is important because by Chapter 32 they will do just that. God, it says, is jealous. God does not want to share you with anyone. It’s not that you have something that God needs and He is selfish - but He knows that He has something you need and wants to keep you from losing it by trying to find life from any other "god."
Verses 5-6 can be confusing - what He is saying is that what parents do, children will do - those who hate God will beget those that hate Him as well - but those that love God will see His love - not to the 3rd or 4th generation - but to the "thousandth" (which is what "thousands" can mean.) It’s amazing how far the love of God will go!
Verses 7 - 11 Relating to God
The third commandment involves taking the Lord’s name in vain.
1. Saying something false about God (a rendering for the Hebrew saw "vain")
2. Using the name of Yahweh to bring harm to others (cursing)
3. Taking upon yourself the name of God without really meaning it (like being a Christian in name only, but not in practice).
In order not to break this commandment, the Jews to this day will not pronounce the name Yahweh, and recorded it only as YHWH.
The fourth commandment - the Sabbath
Remembering something is more than just calling it to mind - you have to do something. In this case, it is remember what God did - rescuing the Israelites - by doing nothing. God did it all. It harkens back to the creation - where God created for six days then finished the work - rested. It foreshadows what Jesus did in creating new life for us:
Colossians 2:16-18 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath . 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. ESV
The Sabbath was twisted over the years by the Jews - instead of a celebration it turned into a way to please God by self discipline.