Exodus 23
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
In pursuance of its great requirement of love to one's neighbour, the law next prohibits the raising of a false report, the bearing of false witness in a court of justice, and the wresting of judgment. Recognising however, that "out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies" (Matthew 15:19), the taw, in addition to forbidding the outward acts, is at pains to warn against the motives and influences which most commonly lead to these acts. This section naturally follows the catalogue of "rights' in previous chapters, as dealing with cases of litigation arising on the basis of these "rights." Notice: -


1. The raising of a false report. This also is a species of false witness, though of a less formal character than the bearing of false witness in a court of justice. The forms it may assume are innumerable. The three principal are: -

(1) Deliberate invention and circulation of falsehoods.

(2) Innuendo, or malicious suggestion.

(3) Distortion or deceitful colouring of actual facts.

In God's sight slander ranks as one of the worst of off, aces. It indicates great malevolence. It is grievously unjust and injurious to the person traduced. It is certain to be taken up, and industriously propagated. For a calumny is never wholly wiped out. There are always some evil-speaking persons disposed to believe and repeat it. It affixes a mark on the injured party which may remain on him through life. Everyone is interested in the suppression of such an offence - the parties immediately concerned, the Church, society at large, the magistracy, God himself - of one of whose commandments (the 9th) it is a daring violation. It is a form of vice which should incur the emphatic reprobation of society, and which, where possible, should be visited with heavy legal penalties.

2. False witness in court. This, as a deliberate attempt to poison the stream of public justice, is a crime which admits of no palliation. It is a form of vice which, so far as we know, has never found a defender. All ages and all societies have united in condemning it as an offence deserving of severe punishment. Yet many a privately-circulated slander may do more harm than a falsehood uttered in the witness-box. God judges of these matters, not by their legal but by their moral turpitude.

3. Wresting of judgment. The corruption of public justice here reaches the fountain head. The judge who gives dishonest decisions betrays the cause of righteousness. He misrepresents the mind of God. He inflicts irremediable injury on the innocent. He opens a floodgate to iniquity. Few men, therefore, are guiltier than he. God will not spare him in the day of his judgment. Even in private life, however, we need to beware of judging rashly, of judging with bias and prejudice, of judging so as to do wrong to individuals, of judging so as to injure truth and retard progress and- improvement. This also is "wresting judgment."


1. The influence of the crowd (ver. 2). There is an infectiousness in the example of a crowd which only a firm back-bone of principle, and some independence of mind, will enable us to resist. The tendency is to follow the multitude, even when it is to do evil.

(1) Men like to be on the side that is popular. They dread the reproach of singularity. There are those who would almost rather die than be out of the fashion.

(2) A crowd can ridicule, and a crowd can intimidate. It may put pressure upon us which we have not the moral courage to resist.

(3) A thing, besides, does not look so evil, when many are engaged in doing it. They do not, of course, call it evil. They put new names upon it, and. laugh at us for our scruples. This may lead us to think that the course in which we are asked to join is not so very bad after all. So we belie or dissemble our real convictions, and do what the crowd bids us. To such influences we are certain to fall a prey, if we are governed by the fear of man more than by the fear of God (Acts 4:19, 20), or if we seek the praise of man more than the honour which comes from God (John 5:44; John 12:4:3). As counteractives to the influence of the crowd we do well to remember that the "vox populi is not always vox Dei;" that the fashion of the clay can never make that right which the law of God declares to be wrong; that the voice of the multitude is one thing to-day, and another thing to-morrow, while truth and duty remain one and the same; that whatever others think, it can never be lawful for us to act contrary to our own convictions; that if the multitude are bent on doing evil, it is our duty, not to go with them, but to be witnesses for the truth in opposition to their courses; that great guilt attaches to us if we do wrong simply in deference to popular sentiment; finally, that there is one who judges us, that is, God, and that he will surely call us to account for all such unfaithfulness to conviction (ver. 7).

2. False sympathy. Judgment was not to be wrested, nor false witness given, out of any quasi-benevolent wish to do a good turn to the poor (ver. 3). The poor man is not to be unjustly dealt with (ver. 6), but neither is he to receive favour. A court of law is not the place for sentiment. Equal measure is to be meted out to all. Judgment is to be given impartially as between brother and brother; rich and poor; citizen and foreigner (ver. 9); applying the same principles to each case, and keeping in view the essential merits as the sole thing to be regarded.

3. Enmity. Emnity to another, or the consideration of another's enmity to us, is not to be allowed to sway us in giving judgment in his cause, or in any other matter in which his rights are affected. This seems to be the connection of vers. 4, 5, with what precedes and follows; but the duty is taught somewhat indirectly by laying down the principle that enmity is not to be allowed to influence us at all, in any of our dealings with our neighbours. The illustrations taken are very striking, and fairly anticipate the gospel inculcation of love to enemies (cf. Deuteronomy 22:1, 4). If an enemy's ox or ass was seen going astray, the Israelite was not to hide himself, and let it go, but was "surely" to take it back again. Or if his enemy's ass fell under a burden, he was not to yield to the temptation to forbear help, but was "surely" to help him to lift it up. A fortiori, he was not to allow himself to be in any way influenced by enmity in giving evidence before the judges, or in pronouncing judgment on a cause brought before him.

4. Covetenseness. (Ver. 8.) This forbids bribery. It is impossible for a judge to take a bribe, whether given directly or indirectly, and yet retain his integrity. Despite of himself, the gift will blind his eyes, and pervert his words. For the same reason a man can never be an impartial judge in his own cause. - J.O.

The illustrations adduced in these nine verses show the various ways in which men may be tempted to injustice in judicial procedure. Those who believe themselves wronged have to appeal to their fellow men to settle the matter so far as human capacity can settle it. Hence the positions indicated in this passage. We see plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses, judges, and supporters and sympathisers, and the great aim set before all of them is the attainment of just conclusions. Men feel nothing more bitterly than unjust treatment; and yet just treatment is one of the most difficult of all things to get. Even he who himself has been unjustly treated cannot be induced to treat others justly. Thus there are put before the individual Israelite here illustrations of all the ways in which it is possible for him either to help or to hinder justice.

I. THE ISRAELITE IS CAUTIONED LEST BY YIELDING TO UNWORTHY MOTIVES, HE SHOULD HELP OTHERS TO GAIN VICTORIES OF UNRIGHTEOUSNESS. It is only too easy to send abroad an empty story which may end in the ruin of an innocent man. We may become afflicted with a spirit of partisanship which, even if it lead not to downright lying, may prompt to exaggerations and distortions, just as valuable for the attainment of malicious purposes, lie who would not deliberately fabricate a lie will nevertheless be well disposed to believe it when fabricated by another, and will then utter it for truth. We easily believe what we want to believe. It is so pleasant to be with the multitude; to go against it requires a great deal of courage, and a deep devotion to what is just, as the paramount thing to be considered in all judicial enquiries. Let us feel that justice is not a matter of majorities, but of great principles honestly and ably applied to particular cases, the nature of these cases being determined by evidence which has been carefully sifted and arranged so as to get at the truth. He who comes into a court of justice comes there in the simple and sufficient claims of his humanity; all considerations of popular applause, all sympathy with a poor man, merely as a poor man, are entirely out of place. We must guard against all cheap sentiment; we must be just before we are generous. Adroit appeals to the feelings of a jury are part of the stock-in-trade of a practised advocate; and witnesses themselves understand how to profit by the prejudices and weaknesses of sensitive minds. The poor, the sick, the maimed only too often think that they may gain by their poverty, their feebleness, their mutilation, what is not to be gained by the righteousness of their cause. Everyone, therefore, who has to do with a court of justice needs great circumspection to keep himself clear of all words and actions such as might lend themselves to injustice. The effort of one may not secure a just judgment, but each individual must do his part. Then the stain of injustice is not on his garments.

II. AN INJURED PERSON MUST KEEP CLEAR OF PERSONAL ANIMOSITY IN THE PURSUIT OF HIS RIGHTS. An illustration is given from the misfortune which may happen to his enemy's ox or ass (vers. 4, 5). We must never forget that our enemy is also our neighbour. If a man wrongs us, it does not cancel that wrong to do him wrong in return. There is a certain appointed way of getting all such wrong put right, and if it cannot be put right in that way there is no other to be found, - no other at least so far as human aid avails. For a man to see his enemy in this position, with ox or ass gone astray or in any way needing help, is a capital chance for showing that no petty grudge actuates him in legal proceedings. He who is treated wrongly must seek for justice, but he will gladly hail the opportunity of showing that it is justice only that he seeks. It is often those who are most unyielding in the matter of right who are also most tender and assiduous in the matter of compassion. It is an easier thing through sentimental weakness to countenance a poor man in his cause than to take the trouble of driving home a lost ox or ass to its owner. The very same considerations of right which make a man feel that he cannot sit down tamely under injustice, should also make him feel that he cannot allow the property of others to go to ruin, when his timely intervention will save it.

III. THERE ARE DIRECTIONS IN PARTICULAR FOR THOSE WHO HAVE TO JUDGE. The instructions in vers. 6-9 seem specially to concern the judge. Plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses are only occasionally in courts of justice, but the judge is always there. It is his daily work to settle right as between man and man. Those who have to come before him are instructed and cautioned to come in a just spirit; but inasmuch as many of them will not attend to the instructions, it is the business of the judge to neutralise as far as he can their unrighteous approaches; and it seems to be particularly implied that he must keep himself from all temptations such as come so fascinatingly through the rich and the powerful. He with whom judicial decisions rest will have many to tempt him if he shows himself at all open to temptation. Let the judge remember that his judgment, though it may gain a cause, does not effect a final settlement. Through prejudice or bribery he may justify the wicked; but that does not hold them justified. He must not say of anyone who comes before him, that he is only a poor man or a foreigner and therefore his interests cannot matter. It should be his joy to feel and his pride to say that no one went away from him with wrongs unredressed, so far as any searching of his could discover the doer of the wrong. A judge has great opportunities. Every upright, discerning and scrupulous judge does much in the circle of his own influence to keep a high standard of right and wrong before the minds of his fellow men. - Y.


1. The Sabbatic year (vers. 10, 11). Every seventh year the land was to lie fallow, and what it spontaneously produced was to be a provision for the poor, and for the beasts of the field. There was connected with the ordinance a special promise of unusual fertility in the sixth year - of such plenty as would make the nation independent of a harvest in the seventh (Leviticus 25:21, 22). The Sabbatic year was

(1) A period of rest for the land. Even nature requires her seasons of rest. Only thus will she yield to man the best of her produce. The seventh year's rest was an agricultural benefit.

(2) A period of rest for the labourer. It gave him time for higher employment. Moses enjoined that the whole law should be read on this year at the feast of Tabernacles (Deuteronomy 31:10, 14). This may have been designed to teach, "that the year, as a whole, should be much devoted to the meditation of the law, and engaging in services of devotion" (Fairbairn).

(3) A merciful provision for the poor. It laid an arrest on man's natural selfishness, and taught beneficence and consideration for the needy. It showed that if man cared not for the poor, God did.

(4) It was a test of obedience. It would test conclusively whether the people were disposed to obey God, or would be ruled only by their own wills. In point of fact, the ordinance was not kept. It proved to be too high and Divine a thing for covetous and selfish dispositions. The neglect of it commenced very early, and lasted till the period of the captivity (2 Chronicles 36:21).

(5) A periodical reminder that the land, and everything that grew upon it, belonged to God. Had the Israelites observed the ordinance, the recurrent plenty of the sixth year would, like the double supply of manna on the sixth day in the wilderness, have been a visible witness to them of the supernatural presence of Jehovah in their midst.

2. The weekly Sabbath (ver. 12). The invaluable seventh day's rest was also to be sacredly observed by the nation. Well-kept Sabbaths have much to do with national prosperity.

II. FEASTS. The stated festivals were three (vers. 14 17). The design in their appointment was to commemorate mercies, to keep alive the memory of national events, to foster a sense of unity in the people, to quicken religious life, to furnish opportunities of public worship. They afforded a means of strengthening the bond between the people and Jehovah, promoted brotherly intercourse, infused warmth and gladness into religious service, and were connected with a ritual which taught the worshippers solemn and impressive lessons. The feasts were: -

1. The Passover - here called "the feast of unleavened bread" (vers. 15-18). It commemorated the great National Deliverance (see on Exodus 12.). The use of unleavened bread was a call to spiritual purity (1 Corinthians 5:8). The blood was offered (ver. 18) as an ever-renewed atonement for sin. The "fat" of the sacrifice betokened the consecration of the best.

2. Pentecost - here called "the feast of harvest, the first-fruits of thy labours" (ver. 16). Its primary reference was agricultural. It was a recognition of God in the gift of the harvest. It besought his blessing upon the labours of the field. It consecrated to him the first-fruits (ver. 19) of what he had given (two wave-loaves, Leviticus 23:17). In the dedication of the wave-loaves, as in the weekly presentation of the shewbread in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:30), there was further symbolised the dedication to God of the life which the bread nourished. Fitly, therefore, was this day chosen for the presentation to God of the first-fruits of his Church (Acts 2.).

3. The feast of Tabernacles - "the feast of ingathering" (ver. 16). This was the feast of the completed harvest, when the corn, the wine, and the oil, had all been gathered in. During the seven days of the feast the people dwelt in booths, in commemoration of their wanderings in the wilderness. The dwelling in booths was a symbol also of their present pilgrim condition on earth, as "strangers and sojourners" (Psalm 39:12). The precept in ver. 19, which seems related to this feast, - "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk," had probably reference to some harvest superstition. On its moral lessons, see Deuteronomy 14:21. - J.O.

To forget is far easier than to remember. Festivals are like posts to which we can fasten the cords of memory, so that, securely fastened, we may not drift down the stream of Lethe. To forget facts is to ignore the duties to which facts prompt us. We must leave undone what we ought to do, unless we take measures to keep us in remembrance. The great fact which the Israelites needed to remember was the relation of dependence in which they stood to God. He had freed them from slavery, he had provided them with food, he had given them, besides, the means of enjoyment - wine and oil - above all that they could ask or think. By means of the three great annual festivals threefold security was given against forgetfulness of this fact. To keep the festivals was to realise the relation, and to strengthen it by practical acknowledgment. Consider -

I. THE FEAST OF FREEDOM. In this connection (ver. 15) the unleavened bread is the point emphasised - to be eaten for seven days, a full week, at the commencement of the sacred year. As a reminder it suggested -

1. Past slavery. The tyrannous oppression of Egypt; hopeless condition ere God looked upon them; life but a synonym for bare existence; even sustenance depending upon the caprice of others.

2. Past deliverance. The paschal night; unleavened bread the accompaniment of the first paschal feast; food a very secondary consideration when freedom was in question.

3. Present duties. God had delivered them from slavery that they might serve him as his free people; an inner slavery worse than the outer; a purification needed in the heart even more important than that in the home. The leaven of malice and wickedness must be sought out and put away; so long as they retained that, freedom was but a nominal privilege.

II. THE FEAST OF FIRST-FRUITS. Linked on to the second day of unleavened bread. God would have his children look forward; and so he makes the first blessing a seed in which are enwrapped others. Freed by God, the people could appropriate, as his children, the promise made to children (Genesis 1:29, as modified by the fall, Genesis 3:19). The gift of food was God's gift, but their cooperation was needed for its fruition; it was to be the fruit, not the creation of their labours. Familiarity breeds forgetfulness as often as it breeds contempt. A reminder needed that human labour can, at most, work up God's raw material. [The cerealia, or corn plants, well called "a standing miracle." Apparently a cultivated grass, yet no known grass can be improved into corn by cultivation. Corn can be degraded by artificial means into a worthless perennial; as it is, it is an annual, exhausting itself in seeding, needing man's labour to its perfection and preservation.] To get his food, man is constantly reminded that he must be a fellow-worker with God.

III. THE FEAST OF INGATHERING. As the year rolls on, it exhibits more and more of God's goodness and bounty. It calls for ever fresh acknowledgment of that love which gives "liberally and upbraideth not." Freedom a great gift, the capacity to work for one's own livelihood; so, too, food, the means through which that capacity may find exercise; further, God gives all the fruits of the earth in their season, so that man through his labour may find not merely health but happiness. Naturally this was the most joyful of all the festivals - the blossoms which glorified the stem springing from the root of freedom. To rejoice in the Lord is the final outcome of that faith which enables us to realise our sonship. Conclusion. - These festivals have more than an historical interest. They teach the same truths as of old, but for Christians their meaning is intensified. Unleavened bread is associated with Calvary, freedom from the tyranny of sin (1 Corinthians 5:7, 8). Linked to this is our first-fruits festival; Christ, the first-fruits (1 Corinthians 15:20), made our food through the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. The feast of ingathering is not yet, but we may rejoice in it by anticipation (1 Peter 1:6). The final festival is described for us by St. John in the Revelation (Revelation 7:9-17). Blessed are they who, with robes washed white, shall share the joy of that feast of Ingathering. - G.

These conclude the Book of the Covenant.


1. An angel guide (vers. 20-23). But this angel was no ordinary or created angel. He is repeatedly identified with Jehovah himself. God's "name" - his essential nature - was in him. He is one with Jehovah, yet distinct from him - no mere personification, but a real hypostasis. See the careful treatment of "the doctrine of the Angel of the Lord," in Oehler's "Old Testament Theology," vol. 1. pp. 188-196 (Eng. trans.). We view the "angel" as the pro-incarnate Logos - Christ in the Old Testament. Israel's guide was the Son of God - the same Divine Person who is now conducting "many sons unto glory," and who is become" the author of eternal salvation to all them that obey him" (Hebrews 2:10; Hebrews 5:9).

2. Defence against enemies (ver. 22). If Israel obeyed God's voice, and did all that God spake, their enemies would be reckoned his enemies, and their adversaries his adversaries. And "if God be for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31).

3. Aid in the conquest of Canaan (vers. 23, 27-31). Apply throughout to the spiritual warfare of the individual and of the Church.

(1) The way for the conquest would be prepared. God would send his fear before the Israelites (ver. 27) - would, as stated in Deuteronomy, put the dread of them, and the fear of them, upon the nations that were under the whole heaven (Deuteronomy 2:25; Deuteronomy 11:25; cf. Exodus 15:15, 16). There is a presentiment of defeat in the hearts of the enemies of God, especially when the Church is energetic and fearless in her work, which goes far to secure the victory for the latter. Something whispers to them that their "time is short" (1 Corinthians 7:29; Revelation 12:12; cf. Matthew 8:29). Moral forces are all on the side of the kingdom of God. They assist its friends, and operate to enervate and discourage its enemies. The Christian worker may rely on numerous invisible allies in men's own hearts. Workings of conscience, stings of fear, dread of God, etc. God would also send hornets before the Israelites, to drive out the Canaanites from their strong castles (ver. 28). To us there seems no good reason for taking this declaration otherwise than literally. If taken symbolically, the "hornets" are equivalent to the stings of fear, etc., above referred to. A veritable hornet warfare this, and one of great value to the Gospel cause. Taken literally, the "hornets" may be regarded as types of secret providential allies - of the co-operation of God in his providence, often by means of things insignificant in themselves, but working, under his secret direction, for the furtherance of his kingdom, and the defeat of those opposed to it. In a million unseen ways - how encouraging the reflection! - Providence is thus aiding the work of those who fight under Christ's captaincy.

(2) They would be prospered in battle (ver. 27). The individual, in his warfare with the evil of his own heart - the Church, in her conflict with the evil of the world - enjoy a similar promise. If Christ inspires, if he, the captain of the Lord's host, gives the signal to advance, victories are certain. However numerous and powerful our spiritual enemies, greater is he that is with us than they that are against us (1 John 4:4).

(3) The conquest would be given by degrees. God would drive out their enemies before them, "little by little" (ver. 30). The reason given is, "lest the land become desolate, and the beast of the field multiply against thee" (ver. 27). The method was a wise one. It doubtless had its dangers. Remaining idolatry would tend to become a snare. The delay in the extirpation of the Canaanites had thus its side of trial - it would act as a moral test. In other respects it was attended with advantage. It would make the conquest more thorough. It would enable the Israelites to consolidate, organise, and secure their possessions as they went along. It would prevent the multiplying of the beasts of the field. And quite analogous to this is God's method of conducting us unto our spiritual inheritance. The law of "little by little" obtains here also. "Little by little" the believer gains the victory over evil in self, and the heart is sanctified. "Little by little" the world is conquered for Christ. In no other way is thorough conquest possible. Suppose, e.g., that, as the result of extraordinary shakings of the nations, a multitude of uninstructed tribes, peoples, communities, were suddenly thrown into the arms of Christendom - even supposing the conversions real, how difficult would it be to prevent mischiefs from arising! Compare the troubles of the Reformation Churches. Make the yet more extravagant supposition that by some supreme moral effort - the evil of our own hearts being suddenly aroused to intense activity - it pleased God to give us the victory over the whole of this evil at once. How little could we do with such a victory when we had it! Thrown at once upon our own hands, how difficult it would be to know what to do with ourselves! Would not new foes - fantastic conceits - speedily arise from the ground of our yet undisciplined natures, to give us new troubles? The surest method is "little by little." It is not good for any man to have more than he needs - to have a greater victory than he can rightly use; e.g., a man who reads more books than he can mentally digest and assimilate; who has a larger estate than he can manage; who has more money than he can make a good use of. And yet the fact of evil still lurking in our hearts, and continuing in the world around us, exposes us to many perils. It acts as a moral test, and so indirectly conduces to the growth of holiness.

4. Material blessings (vers. 25, 26). In the land to which he was conducting them, God would give the people of Israel abundance of food and water; would take away all sickness from their midst (cf. "I am the Lord that healeth thee." Exodus 15:26); would greatly bless their flocks and herds; and would lengthen out their days to the full term (cf. Deuteronomy 28:1-14). The blessings of the new covenant are predominantly spiritual (Ephesians 1:3). Yet even under it, "godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come" (1 Timothy 4:8). Godliness has a natural tendency to promote temporal well-being. So ample a measure of prosperity as that promised in the text could, however, only accrue from direct Divine blessing. The absolute form of the expression answers to the absoluteness of the requirement - "Obey my voice, and do all that I speak" (ver. 31). Falling short of the ideal obedience, Israel fell short also of the ideal fulness of the blessing.

5. Expansion of bounds (ver. 31). Only once or twice was this maximum of possession touched by Israel. Failure in the fulfilment of the condition kept back fulfilment of the promise. The Church's destiny is to possess the whole earth (Psalm 2:8).

II. WARNINGS. If these glorious promises are to be fulfilled to Israel, they must obey the voice of God and of his angel. Let them beware, therefore, -

1. Of provoking the angel (ver. 21). God's name was in him, and he would not pardon their transgressions. That is, he would not take a light view of their sins, but would strictly mark them, and severely punish them. He was not a Being to be trifled with. If his wrath against them were kindled but a little, they would perish from the way (Psalm 2:12). He was one with Jehovah in his burning zeal for holiness, and in his determination not to clear the guilty. See below. The Gospel is not wanting in its similar side of sternness. There is a "wrath of the Lamb" (Revelation 6:17). There is a "judgment" which "begins at the house of God" (1 Peter 4:17). There is the stem word - "It shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people" (Acts 3:23). Cf. also Hebrews 2:2, 3; Hebrews 10:26-39; Hebrews 12:25.

2. They must not serve other gods (ver. 24). Conversely, they were utterly to overthrow the idol gods, and to break down their images. "Where Jesus comes, he comes to reign." No rival will be tolerated alongside of him. We cannot serve

(1) God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24).

(2) God and fashion (1 John 2:15-18).

(3) God and our own lusts (2 Peter 1:4; 2 Peter 2:20, 21).

(4) God and human glory (John 5:44).

The worship of Jehovah and that of any of the world's idols will not amalgamate. See reflected in these commands the principles which are to regulate the relation of God's servants at this hour to the world and to its evil -

(1) No toleration of it (Matthew 5:29, 30).

(2) No communion with it (2 Corinthians 6:14-18; Ephesians 5:3, 11).

(3) Unceasing war against it (2 Corinthians 10:4; Colossians 3:5).

3. They must make no league with the Canaanites (ver. 32). The lesson taught is, that believers are to seek their friendships, their alliances, their consorts, etc., elsewhere than among the ungodly. We are not only to keep out of harm's way, and avoid occasions of sin, but we are to labour to remove from our midst entirely what experience proves to be an incurable snare. - J.O.

Certain of the matters on which Jehovah had been speaking immediately before the promise of the angel, assumed that the people would assuredly come to dwell in a land very different from that in which they were now sojourning. God had done so much to call forth faith that, in spite of all ugly symptoms of unbelief and murmuring, he could only go on speaking as if the faith would become a regular habit steadily finding deeper root in the Israelite heart. Thus we find him giving rules for the cultivation of cornlands, vineyards and oliveyards into which they had not yet come; rules for the harvest feast and a feast of ingathering of all the fruits, when as yet there was no indication of such an ingathering being possible. It was fitting, therefore, that Jehovah should follow up his statement of regulations by speaking confidently of the people's entrance into the land where the regulations were to be observed. That land was not yet in sight. So far, indeed, they had been travelling away from it rather than towards it, and the district in which they now were was suggestive of anything but cornlands, oliveyards and vineyards.

I. THERE IS THE DISTINCT ASSURANCE OF SUffiCIENT GUIDANCE. The reference here is presumably to that glory-cloud in which God was to manifest his presence right onward till Canaan was reached. That cloud was to be unintermitting and unmistakable in its guiding efficiency. Whatever perplexities might come to a devout and attentive Israelite because of other things, no perplexities were possible as to the way in which he should go. He might wonder why God led him in such a way; but that it was really God's way he need not have any doubt whatever. Thus we see how lovingly God ever deals with the ignorance of his people. What is necessary for them to know is made as plain as the necessity demands. They did not need any discussions and counsels among themselves, any balancing of the pros and cons which might determine them to one path rather than another. God perfectly knew the way and the needs and dangers of the way. He himself is never in doubt as to what his people should do. He is no blind leader of the blind. He was taking Israel into the land which he bad prepared, and the way was prepared as much as the destination. Whatever uncertainty and vacillation there may be about the Christian life comes not from him who leads, but from those who follow. Indeed, our very vacillation becomes more conspicuous as we contrast it with the steady undeviating path marked out by our leader. Compare the announcement that is made concerning the angel here with the demand of Jesus upon his disciples - "Follow me."

II. THERE IS THE INDICATED PERIL OF NEGLECTING THAT GUIDANCE, Not to follow the true guide, of course, means all the loss, pain and destruction that come from getting into false ways. But such consequences are not dwelt upon here. The thoughts of the people are rather directed to the sin they would commit by neglecting the intimations of the angel. "My name is in him." It was not a mere creature of Jehovah, which he used for an index. There was in the guiding-cloud a peculiar manifestation of Jehovah himself, whom the people would neglect if in a fit of self-will they were to turn away and follow the superficial intimations of their earthly surroundings. The great peril was that of coming under the wrath of God because of disobedience. It was only too easy to become used even to the presence of a miraculous cloud. The after conduct of the people shows that the tone of warning here adopted was a wise tone. They were likely to forget how much the presence of the angel demanded from them. That angel was there not only in mercy but in authority. To neglect him was to offend him. And because the cloud, in the ordinary circumstances of it, had nothing to terrify, because the penal consequences of neglecting it did not lie on the surface, it was needful to remind the people how much of holy wrath with unbelief and self-reliance lay within this messenger from God. The negligent Israelite needed to be solemnly assured that there was something even worse than mere failure to attain the earthly Canaan. The foreshadowing is here given of that dreadful doom which fell upon Israel shortly after and kept them in the wilderness for forty years. God can turn all the wanderings of the disobedient into a species of imprisomnent and punishment from himself.

III. THERE IS A MOST INSTRUCTIVE INTIMATION AS TO THE RESULTS OF ACCEPTING THAT GUIDANCE. The very results show how indispensable the guidance is. Enemies and adversaries are in front, and God makes no concealment of the fact. If Israel has had already to deal with Amalekites in the comparative barrenness of the Sinaitic peninsula, what may not be expected when the confines of the fertile promised land are reached? That which is to be a good land to Israel, has long been a good land to the nations at present dwelling in it. But though these enemies lie in front, - enemies fighting with all the valour of desperation for their homes and their property, - yet all will prove victorious for Israel, if only Israel acts obediently towards God's angel. The enemies of God's people are not great or little in themselves. That which is great at one time may become little at another, and that which is little, great; and all because of the fluctuations in the spirit of faith. In Exodus 17. we read of Amalekites discomfited and Jehovah threatening utterly to put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. But turn to Numbers 14. and a very different story has to be told of how the Amalekites smote and discomfited the children of Israel. If we would be strong for every conflict and assured of every victory, it must be by a calm looking towards the will of God. The will of God tells the way of God; and when we meet our enemies in that way all their preparations avail them nothing. - Y.

A prepared people have to be led into a prepared place (ver. 20). To lead them a guide is necessary, and God provides a guide.


1. His nature and character.

(1) An angel, i.e., a Divine messenger; not merely a messenger of God's appointment, but a messenger from God's presence. Men may be empowered to act as angels; but naturally during his time of probation man is made "lower than the angels." The angel guide is superhuman; he helps to direct affairs in this world, but his home is in another. The history certainly implies so much as this; and no theory save that which assumes the fact of such superhuman guidance can adequately account for the marvellous coincidences through which progress was ensured. The enthusiasm of Moses might fire a people, but it is not enough to fire them; they must be fired at the right moment, and with a definite aim. Some superhuman agent, who could view time from the standpoint of eternity and direct men's actions in accordance with the real necessities of the position, there must have been. [Cf. a game of chess played, as sometimes in India, with living pieces. Success does not depend so much on the strength of the armies on the board as on the skill of the players off the board, who view the whole position from above.] History cannot be explained if we ignore the unseen hand which directs and controls the movements of the actors.

(2) "My name is in him." The Divine guide must share the Divine character. God's deputy must be God-like. As viewing things from the standpoint of eternity, he is able to guide through the maze of time; but to view things from the standpoint of eternity he must be a sharer in the life of eternity, the eternal name must be so written on his heart that his guidance may be free from all suspicion of caprice.

2. His office.

(1) To keep in the way. The guide must be a guardian as well. Guides who forget the dangers of the way, intent only on reaching their destination, may push on to the goal themselves, yet lose their charge before they reach it. God-commissioned guides are empowered also to keep and guard those who are given into their care (John 17:12).

(2) To bring to the prepared place. If the guide must be a guardian, the guardian must also be a guide. He must protect during the advance, but he must not protect at the expense of progress; his charge has to be brought through the wilderness, not to be maintained there behind barricades and bulwarks. The people of Jehovah are led by the minister of Jehovah, who secures their entrance into the place prepared, if only they will accept his guidance. A place is prepared for us, as for Israel (John 14:2). A guide also is given us (John 14:16-18). We must not forget his twofold office, to keep in the way and to insist upon our moving forward.

II. THOSE GUIDED AND THEIR DUTIES. The angel guide has to direct men; that he may direct them, they must acknowledge his authority. Two things necessary: -

1. Reverence. The disposition of the heart which cannot but show itself in the conduct. Assured that the angel bore the Divine name, men must beware of him, assured that he had the right to speak with authority. A command from such a guide needed no reasons to enforce it.

2. Obedience.

(1) Positive. His commands must be obeyed. There must be no delay, no shrinking back.

(2) Negative. There must be no attempt to evade their real fulfilment by a merely apparent and formal compliance. True obedience is obedience of the spirit as well as of the letter; mere literal obedience may consist with actual provocation. Remembering who our guide is, we must remember also that the like duties are required of us in relation to him. To resist the Spirit is to grieve him, and grieving may eventually quench his power with us; one more step seals our destruction - "He that blasphemeth the Spirit of God" sins the unpardonable sin.

III. BLESSINGS CONSEQUENT ON FULFILMENT OF DUTIES. We may call them temporal and eternal; blessings of the pilgrimage and blessings of the home. By the way, guarded by our guide, no enemy has power to hurt us; at the last we reach our home, to find there eternal health and happiness. Concluding question. - What is our relation towards the guide whom God has given us? (Hebrews 2:2-3.) - G.

Behold I send an angel before thee, etc. (Exodus 23:20). [We omit from homiletic treatment Exodus 20:22-23:19, containing a large amount of minute legislation; but if any one for special reason wishes to deal with any of these laws, he will find a careful and exhaustive analysis in Lunge on "Exodus." Most of them have strict and sole reference to the Hebrew Commonwealth, and are obsolete for the Christian.] This passage contains a series of promises, which all centre in an august personage, called here an "angel." That this is so will determine the character of our exposition, and the Christian uses of it.

I. THE ANGEL. None other than the "Angel of Jehovah," the Angel-God of the Old Testament, i.e., the Lord Jesus Christ. Reference is here made to those many epiphanies, which preceded the Great Epiphany of the incarnation. That these were appearances of the Lord Jesus may be argued: -

1. It seems reasonable that there should be anticipations of the incarnation. True, we could not prophesy them beforehand; but when they do take place, they commend themselves to our reason. It seems in a sense natural, that He, who was coming to dwell here, should once and again "come town to deliver."

2. The history of the appearance of the angel shows: -

(1) That he was Divine.

(i.) Perfection implied in the authority he wields, and the promises he gives.

(ii.) Swears by himself.

(iii.) The object of worship.

(iv.) Subject of Divine names and attributes.

(2) And yet there is that which differentiates Him from the Eternal Father. All this accords with the doctrine of the Trinity; and that the angel was Christ the Lord.

II. HIS OFFICE. We assume now that the angel was the Lord Jesus; that what he was to the ancient Church he is now. He is ever present - sometimes unseen - often recognised. His office as here set forth is that of: -

1. A Leader. He led Israel, mainly by the pillar of cloud; but not in such a way as to dispense with Israel's action. The Lord acts, but never so as to swamp our individuality. It was for Israel:

(1) To watch the cloud:

(2) To exercise their own judgment on minor matters. See Numbers 10:31. Our danger is to rely exclusively on our own judgment, and not to look for the waving of That Hand.

2. A Sentinel. "To keep in the way" in the double sense; -

(1) To hold us in the path, and

(2) to defend us on that path. The practical truth here is, that Christ's keeping is not absolute or independent of our will and action. He watches, that we may watch. This vital practical truth seems to us to be well illustrated by Swedenborg's doctrine of the "Proprium;" which is well exhibited in "Outlines of the Religion and Philosophy of Swedenborg" by Dr. Parsons. Ch. 8:3. Moral magistracy. "He will not pardon your transgressions, for my name is in Him" - what can this mean? There is reference here to the moral magistracy exercised over us, on our pilgrim way, noting transgression, visiting for it, chastising, Chastening, with a view to ultimate removal. Appeal to life for evidence of the reality of that corrective jurisdiction.


1. Loyalty to God, ver. 25.

2. Recognition of his representative; i.e., the angel; i.e., the Lord Jesus.

3. Obedience; i.e., to the leader, etc. (vers. 21, 22.) N.B. "If thou shalt indeed obey His voice, and do all that I speak." Mark how God identifies himself with the angel.

4. Avoidance of fellowship and complicity with evil (vers. 32, 33). Any intercourse for the Jew with the heathen was full of peril. It seems now to be assumed that no companionship for the Christian has any danger. This assumption false, as the tendency to worldliness and open sin shows.

5. Active antagonism to all Anti-theisms (v. 24). It will not do to be content with standing on the defensive. Has not the time now come to carry the war into the enemy's camp?

IV. THE PROMISES. These cover really all the blessings consequent on a life of practical godliness. Thinking rather of our own position than of the literal meaning of the promises in relation to the life of Israel, they may be classified as follow: -

1. God on our side (vers. 22, 23).

2. Our daily provision blessed (ver. 25). There shall be enough; but whatever there is shall have gladness with it.

3. Health (ver. 25).

4. Wealth (ver. 26).

5. Long life (ver. 26).

6. Influence, before which even adversaries shall bend (ver. 27).

7. Enlargement of power and of room for its exercise (v. 31).

8. In the bestowal of these blessings, our Father in heaven will show to us great considerateness (vers. 29, 30).

9. Safe conduct to the promised rest (ver. 20). Those who know the argument of Binney: - "Is it possible to make the best of Both Worlds?" will well understand how, under what conditions, and with what limitations, blessings of this sort - mainly secular in character - fall to the lot of the Lord's redeemed. - R

The language in this passage is very strong, and may occasion difficulty. "Provoke him not, for he will not pardon your transgressions; for my name is in him." If this angel is the Son of God, he who afterwards became incarnate for man's salvation, and who died to procure forgiveness for us, it startles us to hear of him - "he will not pardon your transgressions." When we think, too, on what God's name imports - on the revelation subsequently made of it, - "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin," etc., it astonishes us to learn that this angel, in whom the name is, will not pardon Israel's sin. The history, also, may be thought to create difficulties. For, undeniably, the Israelites were often pardoned. They were, in truth, continually being pardoned; for, "stiff-necked" as they were, they could not have stood for a day in their covenant, had not God's mercy been constantly extended to them. It is plain, therefore, from the nature of the case, that the expression is not to be taken absolutely; the sense in which it is to be understood well deserves investigation.

I. IN WHAT SENSE TRUE OF ISRAEL. The general meaning is, as stated above, that the angel would not look lightly on their offences, would not pass them over, but would severely punish them. This accorded with the constitution under which they were placed, to which it belonged, that "every transgression and disobedience" should "receive a just recompense of reward" (Hebrews 2:2). The context suggests, or admits of, the following qualifications -

1. The statement refers, it will be observed, to what the angel will do when "provoked" - to what will happen when his wrath is "kindled" against Israel (cf. Psalm 78:21, 49, 50, 59, etc.). But how long did this Divine conductor bear with Israel before permitting his wrath to be thus kindled against them! He was "slow to anger." What pardon was implied in his very long-suffering!

2. The transgressions alluded to are not ordinary offences - not the sins of infirmity and short-coming which mark the lives even of the best - but such outstanding acts of transgression as are mentioned in the context - fundamental breaches of the covenant. These were the sins which would specially provoke the angel (cf. Deuteronomy 32:5, 15-28). They would be "surely" punished.

3. The general assertion that transgressions will not be pardoned does not imply that there is no room left for intercession and repentance; that, e.g., an alteration in the spiritual conditions might not procure, if not remission, at least a sensible alleviation of the penalty; that prayer, proceeding from a contrite heart, might not obtain the removal of affliction, or the restoration of the penitent to Divine favour. Great severity, nevertheless, attaches to this announcement. The history is the best commentary upon it. It is literally true that, after the ratification of the covenant at Sinai, no serious transgression of Israel was allowed to go unpunished. In no case did even repentance avail wholly to avert chastisement. At most, the penalty was lightened, or shortened in duration. Thus, on the occasion of the sin of the golden calf, the earnest intercession of Moses availed to save the people from destruction, and obtained from God the promise that he would still go with them; but it did not save the idolaters from being smitten with the sword of Levi (Exodus 32:28), or prevent the Lord from still "plaguing" the people "because they made the calf, which Aaron made" (Exodus 32:35). Cf. later instances, e.g., Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-8); the murmuring at Taberah (Numbers 11:1-3); the lusting at Kibroth-hattaavah (Numbers 11:4-35); the rebellion at Kadesh, punished by the rejection of that whole generation (Numbers 13., 14.); the revolt of Korah (Numbers 16., 17.); the sin at Meribah, when even Moses forfeited his right to enter the land of promise (Numbers 20:1-13); the later murmuring, when the people were punished by fiery serpents (Numbers 21:7-9); the idolatry and fornication of Baal-peor (Numbers 25.). This severity is the more remarkable when we remember how leniently God dealt with the people before the ratification of the covenant with Sinai. "All murmurings before they came to Sinai were passed over, or merely rebuked; all murmurings and rebellions after Sinai bring down punishment and death" (Kitto). We trace the same principle of dealing through the whole history of the Old Testament. David, e.g., is personally forgiven for his sin of adultery; but the temporal penalty is not remitted (2 Samuel 12.). He is punished on a later occasion for numbering the people, and has the choice given him of three evils; and this, notwithstanding his sincere repentance (2 Samuel 24.). So Manasseh is said to have "filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, which the Lord would not pardon" (2 Kings 24:5). The congruity of this strict dealing with a dispensation of law is sufficiently obvious; and, in the light of the examples quoted, the language of the text will not be felt to be too strong.

II. HOW FAR TRUE UNDER THE GOSPEL. The Gospel, as befits its nature, places in the forefront, not the declaration that God will not pardon sin, but the announcement of the terms on which he will pardon. It is a declaration of mercy to those who are viewed as already under wrath - the law having accomplished its design of convincing men of sin. The terms, however, on which the Gospel proposes to grant forgiveness are of such a nature as fully to establish the truth underlying this text; viz., that God, as a God of holiness, will not clear the guilty (cf. Exodus 34:7).

1. This truth is the presupposition of the Gospel Else whence its demand for atonement? Why is sin not simply condoned - not simply waived aside as something admitting of unconditional pardon? In view of the fact that the Gospel absolutely refuses pardon save on the ground of "the shedding of blood," it certainly cannot be accused of making light of guilt, or of ignoring its relations to justice. God remains the just God, even while he is the Saviour (Romans 3:26). Stated otherwise, it is on the ground of the principle in the text, that a Gospel is needed. "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" (Romans 1:18). No clearing of the guilty here. The principle in question is the general principle of God's moral administration (Romans 2:6-12).

2. This truth still applies in its rigour to those who "disobey" the Gospel. For these there is no pardon. There remains for them only judgment and fiery indignation (Hebrews 10:27). So solemn is the truth that "there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

3. Even believers, notwithstanding that they receive spiritual pardon, must not expect to escape temporal chastisements, appropriate to their offences. So far as sin's penalties are bound up with natural law it is certain that they will not escape them. They may be spiritually pardoned, yet, as respects the temporal penalty, may, like Esau, find no place for repentance, though they seek it carefully with tears (Hebrews 12:17). God alone is judge of how far, and with what measure of benefit to the individual, and of glory to himself, he can remit temporal chastisements (Exodus 33:19). Respect will doubtless be had to the circumstances under which the sin was committed, to the depth and sincerity of the repentance, to the publicity of the scandal (cf. 2 Samuel 12:14), to the moral benefit likely to accrue, etc.

4. Hypocritical professors of Christ's name will be dealt with according to this rule. They will be punished with special severity (Matthew 24:51).

III. HOW RECONCILABLE WITH GOD'S REVEALED ATTRIBUTE OF MERCY. Our thoughts revert to the revelation of God's name in ch. 34:6, 7. The attributes of mercy occupy the foreground, yet not to the denial of the sternness of holiness, which, in the latter clauses, finds distinct expression. "Forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers," etc. God's mercy to Israel was exhibited compatibly with what has been seen to be the meaning of the text -

(1) In his great long-suffering in bearing with their provocations.

(2) In his turning aside the fierceness of his anger, in answer to earnest intercession, or when signs were shown of repentance.

(3) In limiting the measure of his wrath - either by exchanging a severer penalty for a lighter one, or by shortening the time of infliction. Cf. Psalm 78:38 - "But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not, yea, many a time turned he his anger away and did not stir up all his wrath. For he remembered that they were but flesh," etc.

(4) In granting spiritual pardons, even when temporal penalties were not revoked.

(5) In restoring the penitent to favour, after punishment had taken effect in inducing contrition.

(6) In keeping covenant with the children, even when rejecting the fathers.

(7) The full reconciliation is seen in the Gospel, in the fact of the atonement. - J.O.


1. The avoidance of their idolatries. God cautions us against those dangers which we are most likely to overlook. When once the Israelites entered the promised land and were fairly settled there, they would show no lack of energy and discrimination in doing their best to guard their temporal possessions. But the most serious dangers are those against which walled cities and great armies are no defence. God could easily cut off the idolaters and put Israel in their place; but what about the idolatries? Whether these should also be expelled would depend upon the guard which God's people kept over their own hearts. It is very noticeable that as God takes the thoughts of his people forward to their future habitation, he begins with a solemn caution against idolatry and closes with the same. There is thus a kind of correspondence with the order occupied in the Ten Commandments by those against polytheism and image-worship. It was not possible to make mention too often of the subtle perils which lay in the Canaanitish gods.

2. Jehovah's complete defeat and expulsion of the former inhabitants. This is indicated in a variety of impressive ways. Only let his people be faithful to him, and Jehovah will go before them as a dread to all who come in contact with them. Evidently God would have his people understand that nothing was to be feared from the very greatest external resources available against them. Let enemies threaten and unite and seek allies far and wide. The greater their efforts, the more signal will be their defeat. We must ever believe that our true strength is in God. It was never intended that Israel should be looked on as a mighty military power. Rather it should be a cause of astonishment among the nations that it was able to stand against all the resources gathered against it. Whenever the Israelites began to trust in themselves and think they were able to awe their enemies, then they were lost. God only can terrify with the terror that lasts. We may confidently leave him to scatter confusion among those whom we, with all our demonstrations, are unable to impress.

3. The injunction to enter into no covenant with the former inhabitants. He who had been expelled by nothing less than an awful Divine force was not to be allowed to return under pretence of a peaceful submission. Peace, concord, mutual help - we may say God would ever have these between man and man, nation and nation - but at the same time we constantly get the warning against crying, peace! peace! when there is no peace. If a foreigner came forsaking his idolatries, there was an appointed way for him into Israel, and a welcome to be cordially given. But by no stretching of charity could it be made attainable for the idolater to settle down side by side with the worshipper and servant of Jehovah.

II. THE LARGE POSITIVE BLESSINGS TO COME UPON ISRAEL. Tile expulsion and permanent exclusion of the former inhabitants, much as they are insisted on, were but the negative condition, the clearing of the ground, so as to bless Israel with something positive. Very fittingly does God blend together the mention of these positive blessings with cautions and warnings as to the treatment of the former occupants. As the blessings were considered, the wisdom of the cautions would appear; and as the cautions were considered, so earnest and express, the greatness of the blessings would appear. God presents himself here as one very solicitous to make the land not only a good land for his people, but one cherished so as to make the best of its advantages. For this purpose he begins with a kind of graduated expulsion of the former inhabitants. Instead of expelling them by a sudden overwhelming blow, he rather does it little by little. The enemies of Israel were not to be multiplied needlessly by exposing their land to wild beasts; and the human enemies, contrary to their own designs and desires, were to leave for Israel the fruit of their own industries. If the Israelites had been asked which would be better, - to cast out their enemies at once or by a gradual process, they would probably have replied, "at once." God will ever adopt the right plan to secure the most of blessing for his people. Thus we may learn a lesson with regard to the expulsion of evil still. God is still driving out evil little by little, and in so doing he is building up good little by little. Thus the Israelites were to get a gradual and secure settlement in the land; and then that settlement was to prove eminently profitable. Four great elements of prosperity are mentioned.

1. The blessing of the bread and the water. All that was connected with the obtaining of food and drink would be under God's watchful providence. What are the bread and the water unless he blesses them? God can turn the most fertile of lands into a very proverb of barrenness. Why, this very Canaan had been afflicted with famine. It was because for some reason the blessing of God had been withheld from the bread and the water that the fathers of Israel had found their way into Egypt.

2. The maintenance of health. This is put in the most expressive way by indicating it in the aspect of banished sickness. Disease is such a common sight to us, and presents itself in such varied forms, that in no way can God's blessing of health be more emphatically revealed than by describing him as the one who healeth all our diseases. To a large extent this health was to be the consequence of blessing the bread and the water, giving by them, thus blessed, abundant and nutritious food.

3. The productiveness of animal life. In a perfectly obedient Israel there were to be no abortions, no barren wombs. It was just because there was disobedience in Israel that such cries as those of Hannah were heard (1 Samuel 1:11). Evidently all this normal generative efficacy largely depended on the blessing of the bread and water and the blessing of health. That any animal whatever, either human, or lower than human, should cast its young or be barren, was in itself a sort of disease.

4. The fulfilling of the days. The hoary head, with its crown of glory is the appointed possession of God's people. That so few obtained it only showed how much there was of imperfection in Israelite national life. These purposed blessings did not find their way into reality. The people were disobedient, unbelieving, self-regarding; and hence the seeds of blessing which assuredly God sowed among them either remained dead or struggled forth into a very imperfect life. - Y.

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