Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Exodus 20:1-11
“I am the Lord your God...”

As we resume the story, Moses and the liberated slaves have arrived at the place where Moses first heard God speak—Mt. Horeb. God has a word for the freed slaves. In fact, God has ten words—the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. (Ten commandments means "ten words.") With these words God outlines the nature of a covenant: how Israel is to live in relationship with God and with each other. A covenant is like a contract: I promise to do this and you promise to do that. The commandments also reveal more about the nature of the God who calls a people to spiritual fidelity.

The four commandments in Ex. 20:3-11 define the covenantal relationship between God and God's people, whereas the remaining six (vs. 12-17) concern family and community relationships. This week's study focuses on the first four commandments, which further define the divine name (Yahweh, "I AM") by recalling God's actions and character: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. . .; I am a jealous God, punishing . . . but showing steadfast love ....."
God reveals a bit more about His divine name and character: I, Yahweh, am your God, I am your liberator. This is the central tenet of the faith of Israel: The Lord saved us. In response, we owe God our allegiance and grateful devotion. God has freed Israel; God gives the Ten Commandments as Israel's means of remaining free. Let's examine the first four commandments.

Worship Yahweh alone. Why? Because God brought us out of the house of slavery.

The first thing Israel learns is the connection between freedom and worship. Exodus 8:1 echoes several other passages when it insists that Israel's freedom leads to Israel's worship of Yahweh: "Go to Pharaoh and say to him, Thus says the LORD: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.' " Scripture testifies to the importance of our worship of God. Deuteronomy 6:5 says: "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." Proverbs 9:10 offers: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight." Worship of God requires the entire substance of our lives, our hearts, our souls, and our minds. The fear of the Lord conveys the requirement of a respectful distance between Creator and creation. We approach God in worship with trepidation, never in a cavalier manner. We are free; that freedom is expressed in our devoted self-offering to God. Although we Americans today weren't ourselves freed from “the house of slavery,” we remember that many of the founders of our nation were motivated to uproot their lives in “the old country” and undertake dangerous journeys to be free to worship God.

The second thing the Israelites learn is that they will worship one God. Exodus 20:2-3 says, "I am the LORD your God . . . ; you shall have no other gods before me." The biblical record tells us that Israel struggled with the temptation to worship the gods of Canaan and other neighboring peoples. In those days, most people of the world worshiped a lot of different gods; there was a god for every human need. Yahweh tells Israel (and us) that He is the only God.

If someone asks, “Who is your Lord?” we answer, maybe too quickly, "Jesus Christ." We need to take stock of our lives before answering that question. When we look carefully, can we say that our financial decisions honor Jesus Christ? Or do we worship money or possessions? As Matt. 6:24 says: "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." Do our relationships honor Jesus Christ? Or do we put loved ones on pedestals and devote our lives to them before all others? Matthew 10:37 says: "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me."

Do not make idols. Why? Because God brought us out of the house of slavery.

Idolatry means to worship something or someone who is not God, or to worship something God has made. Idolaters confuse creation and creator, giving divinity to things such as the sun, the moon, and the wind. Primitive people often made idols from wood or stone and literally worshiped them. As Paul says, idolatry is foolishness: Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles (Rom. 1:22-23).

Idols cannot liberate us from the sin; only God can do that. If we worship such "gods" we are truly enslaved. The Israelites are told not to make or worship idols of other gods. But they are also not to make idols or graven images of their God. Yahweh is known through His words and mighty acts, not objects made by human hands. God is with Israel on God's terms.

When God gave the commandments to Israel, people really did “worship” idols. But what does this mean for us today? We know better than to worship hunks of wood or piles of stones. The idols of today are much more subtle and seductive: power, possessions, popularity. Isn't it ironic that one of the mainstays of our popular culture is “American Idol?” As if we needed another idol to distract us. If I make idols of my own interests, I'm saying that they are more important than anything else. My interests represent myself. If I make an idol of my interests, I worship my interests. In reality, then, I am worshiping myself.

From this commandment against idolatry, we learn of another key attribute of God: jealousy. The Hebrew word for "jealousy" can also be translated "passionate love" or "ardent zeal." God's jealousy is perhaps best understood within the context of marriage. (See Hosea.) God is passionately committed to the "marriage" covenant with us. God tolerates no rivals for our devotion.

Do not take the Lord's name in vain. Why? Because God brought us out of the house of slavery.

I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast
love and your faithfulness; for you have exalted your name and your word above everything (Ps. 138:2).

"Great and amazing are your deeds,
Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear
and glorify your name?" (Rev. 15:3-4)

A name stands for the person, representing an individual's identity and character. We saw this in Ex. 3. Moses asked for the name of God in order to signify the authority of the One demanding Israel's freedom. In subsequent encounters with the pharaoh, Moses spoke in the name of—according to the authority and character of—Yahweh. It follows then that misuse of the Lord's name misrepresents the identity, character, and authority of God. If we know God is an impassioned, jealous God, then we will not speak God's name to swear falsely when under oath. If we know God's name ("I am" or "I will be") serves both to reveal and hide God's identity, then we will speak God's name fearfully with humility and reverence.


Keep the Sabbath. Why? Because God brought us out of the house of slavery.

The connection between the escape from Egypt and Sabbath observance is more clearly presented in Deut. 5:
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day (Deut. 5:15).
Slaves work seven days a week. They are at the mercy of their masters. Only free people rest. If God has freed us, then we should live as free people. Also, Sabbath is a great test of our faith in God. If we work seven days a week, we show that we do not trust God's design for the world. If we rest from our work as God commanded, we witness to the God who promises to watch over and care for all of creation.

What does this encounter reveal about the identity and character of God?
As Moses learned (Ex. 5), God's call is inescapable. The Ten Commandments add that God's claim on our lives is also inescapable. When we shape our lives by the commandments in a spirit of gratitude, we show to the world the nature of the God we serve. The One who freed Israel also frees us from the power of sin and death in Jesus Christ. Let us echo the response of Israel: "All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do" (Ex. 24:3).

What things might be idols in your life? How do you know when something has become an idol in your life?
How can the commandments be helpful to you in maintaining a healthy relationship with God?
Nowadays, we sometimes see debates about whether or not the Ten Commandments should be posted in public places like courthouses. Many people hope that by placing God's law in public places, people will be reminded to live by it. Others see it as trying to impose religion on everyone. God says a day will come when His laws will be “written on our hearts” (Jer.__). What might the world be like if God's laws really were written on our hearts?

Thank you for your Law, O Lord; it is perfect, it revives the
soul. We revel in your decrees; they are sure, they make the
simple wise. You give us your precepts; they are right and bring joy to
the heart.
Your commandment is clear; it enlightens the eyes. Amen.
—based on Ps. 19:7-8

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2011 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

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