Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
The Hebrew name which is rendered in our King James Version as the ten commandments occurs in Exo 34:28; Deu 4:13; Deu 10:4. It literally means "the Ten Words." The Ten Commandments are also called the law, even the commandment Exo 24:12, the words of the covenant Exo 34:28, the tables of the covenant Deu 9:9, the covenant Deu 4:13, the two tables Deu 9:10, Deu 9:17, and, most frequently, the testimony (e. g. Exo 16:34; Exo 25:16), or the two tables of the testimony (e. g. Exo 31:18). In the New Testament they are called simply the commandments (e. g. Mat 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 Exo 20:12).
Of the Words of Yahweh engraven on the tables of Stone, we have two distinct statements, one in Exodus Exo. 20:1-17 and one in Deuteronomy Deu 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 Exo. 19 and in Exo 20:18-21 is in accordance with their importance as the recognized basis of the covenant between Yahweh and His ancient people (Exo 34:27-28; Deu 4:13; Kg1 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 Deu 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 Act 7:53; Gal 3:19; Heb 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.
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 Exo 6:6-7; Exo 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 Lev 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 Rom 13:5).
Before me - Literally, "before my face." The meaning is that no god should be worshipped in addition to Yahweh. Compare Exo 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 Sa1 2:25.)
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 Jos 23:7 or one in any way symbolic of Yahweh (see Exo 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 Exo 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 - Deu 6:15; Jos 24:19; Isa 42:8; Isa 48:11; Nah 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 (Exo 34:6-7; see the note).
Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children - (Compare Exo 34:7; Jer 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 Lev 26:39; Lam 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 Deu 24:16, is carried out in spiritual matters by the Supreme Judge.
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 Deu 7:9; Compare Sa2 7:15-16.
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 Lev 19:12 (see Mat 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.
Remember the sabbath day - There is no distinct evidence that the Sabbath, as a formal ordinance, was recognized before the time of Moses (compare Neh 9:14; Eze 20:10-12; Deu 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 Exo 16:22-26.
The sabbath ... - a Sabbath to Yahweh thy God. The proper meaning of "sabbath" is, "rest after labor." Compare Exo 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.
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 Rom 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 Exo 21:15, Exo 21:17; Deu 21:18-21.
That thy days may be long upon the land - Filial respect is the ground of national permanence (compare Jer 35:18-19; Mat 15:4-6; Mar 7:10-11). The divine words were addressed emphatically to Israel, but they set forth a universal principle of national life Eph 6:2.
Mat 5:21-32 is the best comment on these two verses.
The right of property is sanctioned in the eighth commandment by an external rule: its deeper meaning is involved in the tenth commandment.
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 Luk 12:15-21. But it is the root of all sins of word or deed against our neighbor Jam 1:14-15.
Compare Deu 5:22-31. Aaron Exo 19:24 on this occasion accompanied Moses in drawing near to the thick darkness.
Exo 20:22 to Exo 23:33 is a series of laws which we may identify with what was written by Moses in the book called the book of the covenant, and read by him in the audience of the people Exo 24:7.
The document cannot be regarded as a strictly systematic whole. Portions of it were probably traditional rules handed down from the patriarchs, and retained by the Israelites in Egypt.
Nothing could be more appropriate as the commencement of the book of the covenant than these regulations for public worship. The rules for the building of altars must have been old and accepted, and are not inconsistent with the directions for the construction of the altar of the court of the tabernacle, Exo 27:1-8 (compare Jos 22:26-28).