Exodus 20:22-26 Exploring the Passage

Below are some preliminary questions to assist in the study of this passage. For a comprehensive study of the passage, download the Study Guide (PDF download).

1. What warning does the Lord give His people in Exodus 20:23 (printed below?) Contrast what the Lord says about Himself (see Exodus 20:22 printed below) with what He says about the idols (see Psalm 115:4-7 printed below).

You shall not make any other gods to be beside me; you shall not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold. (Exodus 20:23)

Then Jehovah said to Moses, This is what you shall say to the children of Israel: You yourselves have witnessed that I have spoken to you from heaven. (Exodus 20:22)

… their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. (5) They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; (6) they have ears, but they cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; (7) they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound from their throats. (Psalm 115:4-7)

The Lord strictly warns His people not to make any other gods beside Him. They are not to fashion idols for themselves—”gods of silver or gods of gold.” Whereas the Lord as the true and living God personally speaks from heaven (Exodus 20:22), the idols of the world are lifeless frauds—they have the appearance of being persons, but they have no life or being. Furthermore, they are made in the image of man by man (Psalm 115:4), whereas God has created man in His image.

2. What kind of altar were the people to make at those places where the Lord revealed Himself? See Exodus 20:24-25 (printed below)

You shall make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings—your sheep and your oxen. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. (25) If you make an altar of stone for me, you shall not construct it out of hewn stones; for if you use a tool in building it you will defile it. (Exodus 20:24-25)

In the land of Canaan the Lord would come and reveal Himself to Israel; at those places of revelation the people were to erect an altar for the Lord. The altar Israel was to erect on such sites was to be nothing more than a simple mound of earth or a pile of stones. The people are forbidden to construct altars of hewn stone. As the Lord declares in verses 25, if the people use a tool in building the altar they will defile it.

3. What do you think is the reason for the instructions and prohibition concerning the construction of altars given in Exodus 20:24-25 (printed above under question #2?)

The command that Israel was not to contribute to the making of the altar by means of their own craftsmanship or handiwork is emphasizing the fact that we cannot contribute to our salvation. We must approach God based solely on what He has done for us. Expressed in terms of New Testament revelation, the point of the instruction and prohibition is this: a man is received into fellowship with God based upon the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, not the merits offered by the man himself. Note Titus 3:4-5, “…when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, (5) he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”

4. Again with regard to the construction of altars, what does the Lord forbid in Exodus 20:26 (printed below?) Why is this forbidden?

And you shall not ascend my altar by steps, so that your nakedness not be exposed upon it. (Exodus 20:26)

The Lord further forbids the construction of steps ascending up to an elevated altar, the reason: “so that your nakedness not be exposed upon it” (verse 26b). From the time of Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden, nakedness has become associated with the exposure of our sinful being (cp. Genesis 3:9-10). Nakedness is self-exposure. Since the time of mankind’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden, our self-exposure has been the exposure of a sinful being in the presence of a holy God.

5. In light of the prohibition given in Exodus 20:26 (printed above under question #4) with regard to the construction of altars, what must we acknowledge about ourselves before our holy God?

It is essential that we honestly acknowledge our moral uncleanness before our holy God. Consider the testimony of the Lord Jesus: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. (20) These are what make a man ‘unclean’…” (Matthew 15:19-20). Contrary to the contemporary emphasis on self-esteem, self-acceptance, and positive self-image, the God-given truth is this: when we approach the Lord we must acknowledge our moral uncleanness—and trust in the perfect provision of Christ the Savior.