Laws of Justice and Mercy (23:1–9)
1–9 The laws listed in this section deal mainly with justice and equality under the law. All the principles listed here apply to Christians today.
The laws in verses 1–3 are an amplification of the ninth commandment (see Exodus 20:16 and comment). Our words, both in court and outside of court, must always be truthful. We must not spread false reports (verse 1); we must not even spread true reports hurtful to our neighbor, because this also is slander83 (Leviticus 19:16). We must not twist or bend the truth in favor of the majority (verse 2), or even in favor of the poor (verse 3). There is to be no favoritism; all classes of people must be treated impartially under the law (Leviticus 19:15). This is why all bribery is forbidden (verse 8): bribery is giving a reward to someone to pervert justice—that is, to favor one side, usually by unfair or untruthful means (Deuteronomy 16:19).
In verses 4 and 5, we are taught to deal justly not only with our neighbor (Deuteronomy 22:1–4) but also with our enemy, the one who hates us. If we are taught in these verses to prevent our enemy’s loss, how much more should we avoid doing him actual harm! Here we see the “spirit” of the law: we must extend kindness and mercy even to our enemies84 (Proverbs 25:21; Matthew 5:43–44). These laws give us principles to live by; we must interpret them generously, not just literally. Instead of fighting evil with evil, we must overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17–21).
Judges and other law officers need to pay special heed to verses 1–9. Their judgments must not be influenced by the crowd (verse 2), by personal feelings (verses 4–5), by money (verse 8), or by social status (verses 3,9). It is good to remind ourselves that the protections and principles of our modern legal system are derived from these ancient laws of the Old Testament.
Sabbath Laws (23:10–13)
10–13 These laws amplify the fourth commandment (see Exodus 8–11 and comment). Even the land is to have a sabbath year (verses 10–11), a sabbath of rest (Leviticus 25:1–7). By instituting this law, God further demonstrated His concern for the poor and even for wild animals. In verse 12, where the Lord restates the weekly sabbath law, He adds that the law is to benefit not just the family but the household servants and domestic animals as well. This concern for the well-being of the entire household reminds us of Jesus’ statement that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). When we observe the Sabbath, we are not doing God a “favor”; we are doing ourselves a favor!
The Three Annual Festivals (23:14–19)
14 All the men of Israel (usually accompanied by their families) were to celebrate three feasts each year. In instituting these feasts, the Lord was anticipating the arrival of the Israelites in the land of Canaan and the beginning of their settled agricultural life there. For a nation of fugitive slaves, the thought of one day celebrating these three feasts in the promised land must have brought the people great hope and joy.
15 The first feast was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which commemorated the Passover and Exodus (see Exodus 12:14–20 and comment). The Feast of Unleavened Bread is further discussed in Leviticus 23:4–8.
No one was to come empty-handed to this feast or to the other two feasts mentioned in this section. An offering of some kind was always to be brought. It can be added that if one should not come to the Lord “empty-handed,” neither should he come to the Lord empty-hearted. All worship and all God-ordained celebrations must be engaged in not only outwardly but also inwardly, from the heart.
According to Deuteronomy 16:17, the people were to bring gifts and offerings in proportion to the way the Lord had blessed them (see 2 Corinthians 8:12). Jesus said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). And yet we must not do our giving in a calculating manner: Jesus and the apostles commended those who gave more than their “fair share” (see Mark 12:41–44; 2 Corinthians 8:1–5).
16–17 The second feast was the Feast of Harvest, which commemorated the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. This feast was also called the Feast of Weeks (Exodus 34:22), because it was held seven weeks after the Feast of Unleavened Bread.85 The Feast of Weeks is further discussed in Leviticus 23:15–22.
The third feast was the Feast of Ingathering, which commemorated the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the Sinai Desert. This feast was also called the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:34). It was also called the “Feast of Booths,” because during the forty years in the desert the Israelites lived in temporary shelters, or “booths.” The Feast of Tabernacles is further discussed in Leviticus 23:33–36.
18–19 These verses provide some final instructions regarding the offerings to be presented at these feasts. Nothing containing yeast could be offered (verse 18); this was to commemorate the fact that on the night of the Passover the Israelites ate unleavened bread (Exodus 12:8,15). Furthermore, the uneaten fatty remains of the sacrificed animals had to be burnt by morning (Exodus 12:9–10).
In verse 19, the “law of firstfruits” is restated (see Exodus 22:29–30 and comment). A prohibition is then added that one must not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk. This practice may have been part of a pagan ritual and therefore forbidden to God’s people. The prohibition may also have reflected the idea that what was meant to give life (milk) should not be used to destroy life.
God’s Angel to Prepare the Way (23:20–33)
20–22 In this conclusion to the Book of the Covenant, God reassures the Israelites that He will guide them and guard them and bring them into the promised land. As always, God lays down a condition for His continued blessing: the Israelites must pay attention, listen, and do all that God says (see Exodus 19:5).
The land itself was a gift of God’s grace, but the Israelites’ enjoyment of the land would depend on their obedience. God warned them: “Do not rebel” (verse 21). Of course, we know that they did rebel, and as a result none of their generation (except two) ever entered the promised land (Numbers 14:26–32).
God promised that an angel would go with the Israelites (see Exodus 13:20–22 and comment). This angel almost certainly was more than just a “manifestation” of God, more than a pillar of cloud and fire; many believe this angel was Jesus Christ. The angel had the authority to grant or to withhold forgiveness (verse 21); only God—Christ—has that authority (Mark 2:1–12). Furthermore, the very Name86 of God was in him (in the angel). He was the One who would bring the Israelites to the place God had prepared for them. For us, Jesus also has prepared a place, a heavenly Canaan (John 14:2–3).
23–24 The earthly Canaan, the promised land, was inhabited by ungodly nations (see Exodus 3:7–9 and comment). God promised to wipe them out—that is, He would destroy the nations as a whole, not necessarily every individual in those nations. God’s main concern was that the Israelites not be influenced or enticed by the ungodly practices of these nations; they must reject the worship of all idols and false gods. They must not try to coexist with the Canaanites, or make treaties with them (verse 32); rather, they must drive them out of the land. And they must destroy all their sacred stones—their altars and idols (verse 24). It is a true saying: Those who would keep from bad ways must keep from bad company.
25–26 God said: Worship the LORD (verse 25)—not the gods of the Canaanites. “Worship” means more than just praying and singing and praising God with one’s lips. It is more than just an emotional feeling of adoration and love for God. It is more than just an intellectual belief in God. True worship means putting one’s faith into practice; it means committing oneself to God and obeying Him in everything. Worship, then, is the expression both of our faith and of our obedience; this is the worship which is pleasing to God. If we worship God in this way, He will bless us not only spiritually but physically as well—just as He promised to do for the Israelites. It is generally true—though with exceptions87—that if we obey the Lord, we will enjoy good health, material prosperity, and long life.
Many Christians today associate “worship” with that time of prayer and singing that usually comes at the beginning of a meeting or church service—and indeed that is one part of worship. And we often have quite strong feelings about how that worship should be conducted and about the style of music that should be adopted. We often act as if the worship period was for ourselves, for our own pleasure. But that is totally wrong; our worship is for God’s pleasure. The next time we get into a dispute about the worship period, let us focus on what God might prefer rather than on what we prefer. The one certain thing is that God does not prefer our disputing!
27–30 Just as it was God Himself who overcame the Egyptians, so it was God who would drive the ungodly nations out of Israel’s way. He would send His terror ahead of the Israelites; it would be like a hornet (a terrifying agent), from which the ungodly nations would seek to escape. But God would drive out the nations gradually and deliberately, so that the wild animals would not become too numerous and make it difficult for the Israelites to settle the land (verse 29). And although it was by God’s power that all this would happen, it was the Israelites who would have to do the actual fighting necessary to drive the nations out (verse 31).
31–33 Here God describes the limits of the promised land: the Red Sea (Gulf of Aqaba) on the east; the Sea of the Philistines (Mediterranean Sea) on the west; the desert on the south; and the River (Euphrates River) on the north (see Genesis 15:18). Only during one part of Israel’s history as a nation—during the reign of Solomon—did Israel control this entire area.
Finally God reminds the Israelites of the danger of living side by side with the Canaanites: “. . . they will cause you to sin against me” (verse 33). And how true that proved to be! Throughout their history, the Israelites intermarried with the Canaanites and worshiped their gods. This was the snare, the trap that centuries later caused the Israelites themselves to be driven out of the promised land and into exile.
Today we Christians may be tempted to criticize the ancient Israelites for mingling with the nations and worshiping their gods. But before we judge them too harshly, we need to ask ourselves to what extent we too are “mingling” with the world and worshiping the “gods” of materialism, pleasure, and success.