We have considered the two narrative sections that surround the encounter between Yahweh and Moses – each of which emphasized the Lord’s drawing back from Israel because of her unbelief and disobedience – and, last Lord’s Day, the encounter itself as the Lord gave Moses to see his glory as much as that was possible and declared his moral nature to Moses. Now we proceed with the declarations that Yahweh made to Moses on that occasion.
That this is not a new covenant, but rather the renewal of the one already made is indicated by the fact that the Ten Words, or Ten Commandments still have pride of place, as we will read later, and that all of the stipulations the Lord will mention, have already been mentioned. Not a one is new. What follows is a representative selection of stipulations from both the Ten Words and the Book of the Covenant in chapters 21-23. No one has yet satisfactorily explained why this particular selection and not another.
The wonders – literally “a thing before which men will stand in awe” – are at one and the same time judgment for the Canaanites and mercy and salvation for Israel. So it was in Egypt when the Lord unleashed his wonders. And so it will be at the Cross: salvation and condemnation in the same event. It is the cause of both the falling and the rising of many in Israel, as Simeon told Jesus’ parents when they brought him as an infant to the temple.
Yahweh is making this covenant with Moses, but as is clear in the context, the covenant is with Israel, with Moses as mediator.
You’ll find this at 23:32-33 God’s promised grace comes with the obligation that Israel live according to God’s covenant and that she keep his commandments.
23:24 Asherah poles, or Asherim, were wooden poles that symbolized the Canaanite goddess Asherah and stood by Baal’s altars. Typically of ANE cultic practice the name can refer to the goddess or the image made to represent her. We might refer to Asherah as the Canaanites “Lady-Luck.” [Cole, 230] In any case, after the episode with the golden calf, it is not surprising that this list of stipulations should begin with a stern warning to keep free from the influence of the pagans around about, especially with regard to their worship.
Again, 23:32-33 The expression “play the harlot with their gods” or “commit adultery with their gods” is appropriate both because this behavior amounts to unfaithfulness to the Lord, the husband of his people, and because Canaanite worship with its strong fertility character, was sexually immoral in itself.
20:4, 23 It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why this particular commandment should be repeated here!
13:2, 11-16 As at 13:13, “breaking its neck” would deprive the owner of its use.
20:8-11; 23:12; 31:12-17 To be required to rest even during plowing and harvest was no minor obligation in an agricultural community. Another day’s work might very well seem to a farmer to make the difference between success or failure. So this serves to enforce the sacred obligation of the Lord’s Day.
23:14-17 Driving Israel’s enemies out of the land and giving her secure borders would mean that Israel would have little to fear from marauders. [Alter, 511] But the Lord seems also to be reassuring the Israelites that even his neighbor will not desire a man’s land and, for example, seek to move his boundary stone while he is away. This is a very important reassurance to the man who is planning to leave his home for days at a time to obey God’s commandment to appear before the Lord on each of three occasions during the year. The NT form of this reassurance is given in Matt. 6:31: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these other things shall be given to you.”
As we said last week, comparing this statement with the Lord’s statement in v. 1, we have a doctrine of Holy Scripture in a nutshell. The Lord says that he will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, but, Moses does the actual writing as it turns out. The Word of God by the hand of man.
This was a second forty days and forty nights atop the mountain, as Deut. 10:10 makes clear. The circumstances of the first giving of the law are exactly reproduced. The new covenant has the same authority as the last one as it is borne in the same encounter of God w/Moses.
We may wonder why we should have so much repetition, here and in so many places in this covenant material. Repetitions, as you may know, have been the basis for many fanciful theories about the composition of the Bible, but it is all really quite simple. As the Jewish scholar, Umberto Cassuto, puts it:
“Such repetitions are customary in the literatures of the ancient East, and there is no room for all the complicated theories that have been advanced, to the effect that there were various redactions [that is, editions] of these parallel paragraphs in different stages, times, and circles. The renewal of the covenant requires here, according to the principles of literary composition obtaining in the ancient East, a restatement of the covenant’s terms.” [Exodus, 442]
And, in this case, a representative selection of covenantal stipulations stands for the entire body of laws so far given. They are still in force. That is the point of all of this. The same covenant from before is the covenant that the Lord is now renewing with his people. It has not been changed. The requirements are the same.
And perhaps our response is “Here we go again. I don’t need to hear these same commandments again and again.” Well apparently you do, because the Bible repeats them many times. And, in particular, every time the covenant is broken, as Israel broke it with the golden calf, the covenant needs to be renewed and the stipulations need to be repeated. That, by the way, is what happens every Lord’s Day in this church. For you and I, in a lesser way, have broken the covenant in many ways throughout the week. We need to have the covenant renewed and we need to hear again what it is that the Lord requires of us.
In terms of this biblical phenomenon of repeating the covenantal stipulations, the commandments of God, we are only beginning. We have more to come in Leviticus and then the entire shebang again in Deuteronomy. And, all of that is still only the beginning. This covenant, understood as a set of obligations to be undertaken in faith that Yahweh, who is our God and Savior, will bless that faithfulness, will be the foundation of the narrative of the OT historians, the preaching of the prophets, and the hymns of the psalm-writers. And these same obligations, necessary changes being made, will be repeated over and over again in the Gospels and the Epistles of the New Testament. It is the theme of the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. Not for nothing did Luther describe Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, as Mosissimus Moses, or a modern scholar as Moses quadrupled. [J. Jeremias] Alexander Whyte even referred to the Sermon on the Mount as Moses’ last sermon that has come down to us. [Bible Characters, ii, 441ff.] These are all simply different ways of acknowledging that obedience to God’s covenant is as much required of believers in the new epoch as ever it was in the old. It wasn’t only Jesus who said that if we love him we will keep his commandments. It is the Apostle Paul, for example, who reminds us that “circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” [1 Cor. 9:19] And it is John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, who tells us in his first letter [3:24] that “those who obey his commands” are the ones who live in Jesus.
Fact is, this passage in Exodus 34, that repeats the covenantal stipulations or commandments, is typical of vast tracts of Holy Scripture, from its beginning to its end. And that these are covenantal stipulations, that is, that obedience to them is the condition of God’s blessing, is also the Bible’s universal viewpoint. Obedience is key to the believing life and key to the blessing of God. How many times is that said in Holy Scripture?
You remember the covenant that Yahweh made with Abraham. Gen. 12 “Through you all nations of the earth will be blessed.” Gen. 15 “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be.” And later God tested Abraham’s faithfulness by requiring him to sacrifice his son Isaac, the son of his old age, the promised heir for whom Abraham and Sarah had waited so long. And Abraham passed that test, proving himself willing to obey the Lord even in that – though, of course, God did not actually require him to kill Isaac. And immediately after that test the Lord said to Abraham,
“I swear by myself” declares the Lord, “that becauseyouhavedonethis and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore…and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
Did you hear that? The precise promises of the covenant God made with Abraham will be fulfilled because Abraham obeyed the Lord. And so it is here in Exodus, and so it will be in Deuteronomy. And again and again the prophets set before the people of God the promise of the Lord’s blessing and then say, as we read in Zech. 6:15: “This will happen if you diligently obey the Lord your God.” The point is put many times and as strongly in the New Testament, as when the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…” or when Christians are described in Rev. 12:17 as “those who obey God’s commandments.”
There have been Christians who have sought to eliminate the principle and practice of obedience from the Christian life, or to argue that while obedience may be a feature of Christian living and is a preferred feature of Christian living, it doesn’t have to be part of a Christian’s life, but the Bible is against them at every turn. Obedience is the lifeblood of a Christian. It is the life of anyone who will keep and not break the covenant God has made with his people; it is the requirement laid upon those who wish the blessings of God’s covenant and not its curses.
Now, it is absolutely true that obedience is not the way in which one becomes a sharer in God’s covenant. Obedience is not the way anyone enters the covenant. Obedience does not earn or win a place in the covenant community. Obedience does not even earn one’s remaining in the covenant community. After all, even the most faithful Christian disobeys much more than he obeys the stipulations of the covenant. But obedience is the condition according to which the blessings of the covenant are dispensed by the Lord. Obedience is the Christian’s way of life: first by aspiration and then, really, however imperfectly, in behavior.
Keeping the stipulations of the covenant didn’t get Israel out of Egypt. The stipulations were laid down after she had been delivered from bondage in Egypt by God’s mighty works of power. She was redeemed before she was given commandments to keep. God saved her life before he ordered her to give her life back to him in obedience. But, once redeemed, once carried out of bondage in Egypt on eagles’ wings, Israel was called to obey her Savior by keeping the commandments that he gave her. And that is always the Bible’s order: redemption first, holiness second; faith first, obedience second. As the Puritan Walter Marshall put it in the greatest of all the Puritan works on sanctification, or the living of an obedient life: “We must first receive the comforts of the Gospel in order that we may be able to perform sincerely the duties of the law.” Or as George Whitefield, the Great Awakening evangelist, was always saying of a man, “his problem is that he is working for life, not from life.” We obey from life, not to life. But obey we do and must!
And from this point forward we will see that when Israel disobeys she falls under God’s wrath and displeasure, she forfeits the promises of the covenant, and falls out of God’s favor. When she obeys she rides in triumph over her enemies, enjoys God’s smile, and receives the promised blessings of the covenant God made with her.
There should be nothing surprising in any of this. Are we not the Lord’s kingdom? And if there is a kingdom, is there not a king? And if there is a kingdom and a king, is there not going to be a law? We may be God’s friends, even his children. We may have God’s mind about things. We may love him and be eternally grateful to him. But none of that changes the fact that we are his subjects! Even loving children have to obey their father, however much they love him. They must keep his commandments. And they come to realize that doing so is not a burden but a privilege; obedience is not their loss but their gain. Is infinite goodness to be questioned by us, as if we believed that God would publish bad or unmerciful or unloving laws? In an interesting passage in Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis points out that
“God is such that if (per impossible) his power could vanish and his other attributes remain, so that supreme right were forever robbed of the supreme might, we should still owe him precisely the same kind and degree of allegiance as we do now.” 
What Lewis is saying is that God’s own nature is “the real sanction of his commands.” Nothing makes obedience more necessary, more right, or more full of happy promise than simply that it is the Lord himself who demands it of us. He would never demand anything that was not good and wise and life-giving.
It is also true, a point very explicitly made here in our text, that this covenantal obedience, this covenant loyalty to God, is an act of faith and the product of faith. Faith lies at the bottom of obedience. It is the cause of it and when it is absent obedience must be as well. Faith is the life-blood of obedience and there can be no true obedience without faith. When the rest of the Bible finds fault with Israel in the wilderness it is usually – not always but usually – primarily Israel’s lack of faith that is identified as her failure. Her disobedience, as we argued several Sunday nights ago, was first and foremost a failure of faith, a point the narrative of the golden calf is at pains to stress. That is why elsewhere in the Bible and so often in the NT obedience becomes a test of faith and the evidence of faith.
It is this fact, this relationship between faith and obedience, that underlies the stern words of vv. 12-13 and 15-16. It is Israel’s relationship to Yahweh, her faith in him as the only true and living God, that is the prerequisite of her faithfulness to God’s covenant with her. If she embraces to any extent the idolatry of her neighbors, if she betrays to any extent her exclusive loyalty to Yahweh, she must be doomed. Her disobedience will follow in lock step and she will be undone.
And it is faith, it is trust and confidence in the Lord, in his Word and his promise, that motivates Israel’s obedience. We see that in v. 21 with respect to the Sabbath commandment. Can we really risk resting on one of the harvest days? What if it rains before the harvest is in? What if someone else works in our field when we are enjoying the Sabbath rest? No, we are counting not first on our hard work but on the Lord to bless and provide for us according to his Word. It is more important to trust the Lord and honor him than to tend our fields. Dr. Waltke tells of a Christian man he met who had a job a Christian shouldn’t have. “I’ve got to eat,” the man replied. “No,” said Dr. Waltke, “you’ve got to obey.” The Lord will provide the food.
If Daniel had been home in bed instead of in the lion’s den, the plaster probably would have fallen from the ceiling and killed him. He was safest among the lions, picking a nice soft one for a pillow. That is obedience from the perspective of faith. Or as F.W. Krummacher says in one of his sermons on the life of Elijah,
“Whenever the Lord says to any of his children, ‘Get thee hence, and hide thyself,’ he also adds, either expressly or by implication, ‘and the ravens shall feed thee there.’ Every duty which he commands has its promise appended to it; and we need be under no concern except to know that the Lord has directed our way.”
And the same point is made in v. 24. The Lord will keep our property safe while we go to the sanctuary for the three pilgrimage feasts of the year. It is more important to honor the Lord than to guard our fields. That is faith and that is obedience that comes from faith. That is faith leading to obedience. But the Bible can speak of either one, so interconnected they are. They can be distinguished, but they cannot be separated. The one leads to the other; the one flows from the other. They are never without the other. Remember, faith is means to an end in the Bible. It is not an end in itself. Christ does not save us simply to deliver us from the peril we find ourselves in because of our sins. He saves us to remake us, to change our lives, to make us profitable servants; to make us like himself. Obedience, the godly life is what he is after. It is the goal, the purpose of his grace. That is why the Bible so often pursues this relentless logic: “if the ‘grace’ you have received does not help you to keep God’s law, you have not received grace.”
Now you have heard all of this many times before. But the fact that the subject is raised so many times in Holy Scripture, that such large tracts of the Bible are devoted to the Lord’s commandments and to promises of blessing if we obey and the curses that will befall us if we do not reminds us that we are never far removed in life from the need to face our obligation to be the Lord’s obedient servants. If we trust in him as our Savior we will know why we must obey him; if we know what he has done to deliver us from sin and death, we will know why we must obey him; if we remember the blessings and the curses published in the Lord’s covenant, we will remember why we must obey him. But even faith forgets and too often even we, who should know better, take our faith for granted and let our obedience flag.
It is very easy to slip into a way of thinking that takes faith and salvation for granted and treats obedience as a matter of lesser importance, a kind of higher level of Christian attainment which only the very religious reach. Christian young adults, just as Christians of any and every age, can fall into this way of thinking very easily as they adjust to their independent lives in the world. To be obedient to the Lord’s commandments seems too difficult. The Christian life is a difficult way of life. It is too glorious to be easy! No sinner can possibly really imagine that seeking to be Christ like in this world, with this soul, this nature, could be easy. That was the galactic error of the 1960s: the notion that virtue would be so easy. “Make love, not war,” we were told. But making love is easy; it’s a physical act. Loving one’s neighbor is a different thing entirely. It takes sacrifice. It is an obligation very difficult to fulfill. But, somehow, it was thought that virtually every really good thing was, in fact, an easy and pleasant thing. They went to marches and expected the university not to penalize them for absenting class. They began experimenting with drugs with no thought to the possible consequences. Something that feels this good should not be wrong. But it was all a lie. “Never in history had there been such a marvelous correspondence between the good and the pleasant.” But, over time, we discovered, as anyone should have known, the good was never going to be that easy and what was supposed to be pleasant turned out to be a personal and social nightmare. [Cf. Allen Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, 328-335] No, the Christian life is difficult. Obedience is difficult. There are powerful temptations ranged against the obedient life at every turn. When Israel entered the Promised Land, they were warned time and again, that all that God had done for them notwithstanding, and all that had happened to them because of their unbelief and disobedience notwithstanding, they would be sorely tempted to take up the idolatry of Canaan and make it their own. They would find God’s ways difficult and even tiresome. No matter the exodus from Egypt, no matter the crossing of the Yam Suph, no matter the manna. And we find it so ourselves, do we not.
We think, “I can’t keep the Lord’s Day holy; I can’t submit my working life to Christ; I can’t maintain Christ’s standards at work, among those people. I won’t fit in. I won’t get ahead. They will despise me or mock me. I am afraid what will happen if I live strictly according to the Lord’s covenant.” Or we say that it is too hard to live a holy life; it requires too many sacrifices; the giving up of too much pleasure. I can’t do this.
Oh, yes you can, and you must! Some of you, at this moment, are quite aware of the test you are facing. The Lord is calling you to some particular obedience and you are being tempted to refuse, to disobey. And here is the Word of God once again saying that your relationship with the living God depends upon your obedience to him. Once again, you are being reminded that you cannot remain in covenant with the Lord if you refuse to obey his commandments. I don’t mean the stumble of one who wants to obey and strives to obey but sometimes fails. I mean the disobedience of one who is choosing the world’s way instead of the Lord’s and either hopes that God won’t know or that he won’t mind.
You must obey. You can obey. The Lord will help you. Think of all the reasons why you ought to obey the Lord. Consider the encouragements he has given you to believe that he will reward your obedience to him. Square your shoulders, turn into the wind, and keep his commandments.
Take his easy yoke and wear it.
Love will make obedience sweet.