Moses having gone into the thick darkness, where God was, God there spoke in his hearing only, privately and without terror, all that follows hence to the end of Exod. 23:1-32, which is mostly an exposition of the ten commandments; and he was to transmit it by word of mouth first, and afterwards in writing, to the people. The laws in these verses related to God’s worship.
I. They are here forbidden to make images for worship (Exod. 20:22, 23): You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven (such was his wonderful condescension, much more than for some mighty prince to talk familiarly with a company of poor beggars); now you shall not make gods of silver.
1. This repetition of the second commandment comes in here, either (1.) As pointing to that which God had chiefly in view in giving them this law in this manner, that is, their peculiar addictedness to idolatry, and the peculiar sinfulness of that crime. Ten commandments God had given them, but Moses is ordered to inculcate upon them especially the first two. They must not forget any of them, but they must be sure to remember those. Or, (2.) As pointing to that which might properly be inferred from God’s speaking to them as he had done. He had given them sufficient demonstration of his presence among them; they needed not to make images of him, as if he were absent. Besides, they had only seen that he talked with them; they had seen no manner of similitude, so that they could not make any image of God; and his manifesting himself to them only by a voice plainly showed them that they must not make any such image, but keep up their communion with God by his word, and not otherwise.
2. Two arguments are here hinted against image-worship:—(1.) That thereby they would affront God, intimated in that, You shall not make with me gods. Though they pretended to worship them but as representations of God, yet really they made them rivals with God, which he would not endure. (2.) That thereby they would abuse themselves, intimated in that, “You shall not make unto you gods; while you think by them to assist your devotion, you will really corrupt it, and put a cheat upon yourselves.” At first, it should seem, they made their images for worship of gold and silver, pretending, by the richness of those metals, to honour God, and, by the brightness of them, to affect themselves with his glory; but, even in these, they changed the truth of God into a lie, and so, by degrees, were justly given up to such strong delusions as to worship images of wood or stone.
II. They are here directed in making altars for worship: it is meant of occasional altars, such as they reared now in the wilderness, before the tabernacle was erected, and afterwards upon special emergencies, for present use, such as Gideon built (Jdg. 6:24), Manoah (Jdg. 13:19), Samuel (1 Sam. 7:17), and many others. We may suppose, now that the people of Israel were, with this glorious discovery which God had made of himself to them, that many of them would incline, in this pang of devotion, to offer sacrifice to God; and, it being necessary to a sacrifice that there be an alter, they are here appointed,
1. To make their altars very plain, either of earth or of unhewn stone, Exod. 20:24, 25. That they might not be tempted to think of a graven image, they must not so much as hew into shape the stones that they made their altars of, but pile them up as they were, in the rough. This rule being prescribed before the establishment of the ceremonial law, which appointed altars much more costly, intimates that, after the period of that law, plainness should be accepted as the best ornament of the external services of religion, and that gospel-worship should not be performed with external pomp and gaiety. The beauty of holiness needs no paint, nor do those do any service to the spouse of Christ that dress her in the attire of a harlot, as the church of Rome does: an altar of earth does best.
2. To make their altars very low (Exod. 20:26), so that they might not go up by steps to them. That the higher the altar was, and the nearer heaven, the more acceptable the sacrifice was, was a foolish fancy of the heathen, who therefore chose high places; in opposition to this, and to show that it is the elevation of the heart, not of the sacrifice, that God looks at, they were here ordered to make their altars low. We may suppose that the altars they reared in the wilderness, and other occasional altars, were designed only for the sacrifice of one beast at a time; but the altar in Solomon’s temple, which was to be made much longer and broader, that it might contain many sacrifices at once, was made ten cubits high, that the height might bear a decent proportion to the length and breadth; and to that it was requisite they should go up by steps, which yet, no doubt, were so contrived as to prevent the inconvenience here spoken of, the discovering of their nakedness thereon.
III. They are here assured of God’s gracious acceptance of their devotions, wherever they were paid according to his will (Exod. 20:24): In all places where I record my name, or where my name is recorded (that is, where I am worshipped in sincerity), I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee. Afterwards, God chose one particular place wherein to record his name: but that being taken away now under the gospel, when men are encouraged to pray every where, this promise revives in its full extent, that, wherever God’s people meet in his name to worship him, he will be in the midst of them, he will honour them with his presence, and reward them with the gifts of his grace; there he will come unto them, and will bless them, and more than this we need not desire for the beautifying of our solemn assemblies.