The laws that are given in this chapter are further expositions upon the fifth and sixth commandments. They give a more detailed explanation of the moral law and the rules of natural justice. By giving attention to the most minute details of that which is pure and right and just, Christianity manifests the evidences of its Divine origin and authority. How gracious, merciful, and compassionate our God is! He is ever-attentive to the happiness of His creation, and so He enjoins upon human beings a system of laws which promote the well-being of all parties involved. May our Lord, by His grace, incline our hearts to perform works of love and tenderness to our fellow human beings. Let us pray that He would enable us, as His holy and beloved people, to be merciful, kind, humble, meek, and patient. If the peace of God is ruling in our hearts, we shall be able to live in peace with those around us as well.
This chapter begins, in the first eleven verses, with laws relating to the treatment of servants. Because of extreme poverty, the Hebrews would sometimes sell themselves or their children into servitude to a fellow Hebrew. This was very different from what we tend to imagine when we think of “slavery.” This was not a harsh and brutal “man-stealing” and forcing into a life of bitter pain and oppression and hard labor. (The sixteenth verse of this chapter references this abominable practice; and in the New Testament, it is ranked with the greatest crimes.) This state of servitude that is under discussion here was more like an “apprenticeship program,” where an impoverished person could clear himself of his debts by binding himself to a six-year period of service in the home of another person. In the seventh year, he was permitted to go free. However, he might choose to remain in the good situation that he had – especially in cases where he had been given a wife by his master, and would rather stay with his family in bondage than go out at liberty without them. In such circumstances, he was to have his ear bored through as a mark of his perpetual servitude forever.
Although Hebrew servitude was very different from the harsh slavery with which we are familiar, the state of servitude still remains as an emblem of our state of bondage to sin and Satan and the law. Mankind is brought into this state by robbing God of His glory, and by the transgression of His precepts. However, on the other hand, the servant being made free is a picture of that liberty wherewith Christ, the Son of God, makes His people free from bondage forever. And they are made free by His grace, without money and without price!
The laws that are spoken of in verses 12-32 show the great regard that God has for human life. By His Providence, He gives and maintains life; and by His law, He protects it. He commanded that a willful murderer must be taken and executed, even if he fled to His holy altar for refuge. However, the Lord did provide cities of refuge to protect those unfortunate persons who became the unintentional cause of another person’s death.
Children ought to hear the sentence of God’s Word upon those among them who are ungrateful and disobedient (verses 15, 17). Let them remember that God will certainly requite it if they have ever cursed their parents, even in their hearts, unless they repent and flee for refuge to the Savior. And parents also ought to be very careful in training up their children, by setting them a good example, and also by praying for them.
From the cases that are mentioned in this chapter, rules of justice were given for deciding certain matters. For example, care was taken that proper satisfaction should be made for hurt done to another person, even if death did not follow as a result. By these laws, we are taught that we must be very careful to do no wrong, either directly or indirectly. If we have done wrong, we must be very willing to make it good, so that nobody suffers needlessly because of us.
As we conclude this chapter, we would do well to consider the grand use of the moral law – the Ten Commandments. They were to be “a schoolmaster, to bring us to Christ” (Gal. 3:24). They were to make helpless sinners feel that Jesus is their only shelter from their curse. They were to teach us that although we had nothing but condemnation to look for from the holy law, since “death is the wages of sin” (Rom. 6:23) – yet God loved us, even when we were His enemies; and He sent His own Son to bear the punishment of our disobedience, and to die in our place, so that we might be free. And now those of us who love Jesus have nothing to fear; the law cannot curse us anymore, for it was laid upon Him instead. In addition, Jesus – as a Man, in our nature – kept God’s commandments perfectly during His life upon earth, so that His obedience might be reckoned to us, His people. The justice of God is fully satisfied, and looks upon us as if we have kept the law entirely – because Jesus did it for us! And “there is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus!” (Rom. 8:1) We are safe forever, because we believe in Him!
Lord Jesus! We bless You for being the voluntary servant of the Father. For the love that You had for Your Bride, who was in bondage to sin, You cheerfully consented to not go out free until You had accomplished all the work of redemption that You graciously undertook. What amazing love! Although You were equal with God, You took upon Yourself the form of a servant. We pray that the same mind may be in us, and that we may say, “I love my Lord and Master; I love His service; I will not go out free, but I will abide in it forever!” Amen.
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