Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 4: Harmony of the Law, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
8. Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth:
8. Non facies tibi sculptile, vel ullam imaginem eorum quae sunt in coelo sursum, nec eorum quae sunt in terra deorsum, nec eorum quae sunt in aquis sub terra.
9. Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me,
9. Non adorabis ea, neque coles: ego enim Jehova Deus tuus, Deus zelotes, visitans iniquitatem patrum super filios, in tertiam et quartam generationem in his qui me oderunt.
10. And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
10. Faciens autem misericordiam in millia diligentibus me, et custodientibus praecepta mea.
9 Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them. Idolaters in vain endeavor to elude this second point by their foolish cavils; as amongst the Papists that trifling distinction is commonly advanced, that only λατρέια, 81 and not δελέια is prohibited. For Moses, first of all, comprehends generally all the Forms And Ceremonies Of Worship; and then adds immediately afterwards the word עבד, gnabad, which means properly to serve. Hence we conclude that they make a childish endeavor at evasion, when they pay only the honor of service to pictures and statues. But if we grant them what they desire, not even so will they escape; because the prohibition is equivalent to God’s declaring that He will not be worshipped in wood and stone, or in any other likeness. For unbelievers have never been carried away to such an extent of folly as to adore mere statues or pictures; they have always alleged the same pretext which now-a-days is rife in the mouths of the Papists, viz., that not the image itself was actually worshipped, but that which it represented. But the Spirit everywhere reproves them for worshipping gods of wood and stone, since God rejects that carnal worship which unbelievers offer before stocks and stones. If any one should ask them, whom they have it in their mind to worship, they will immediately reply, that they offer to God that honor which they pay to pictures and statues. But this frivolous excuse comes to nothing; because to erect the idol before which they prostrate themselves, is really to deny the true God; and, therefore, no wonder that He should declare that unbelievers worship wood and stone, when they worship in that wood and stone phantoms of their own imagination. And we have already said, that all rites which do not accord with the spiritual worship of God, are here forbidden: and this is enough, and more than enough to put to flight all such misty notions, (nebulas.)
For I the Lord thy God. He partly terrifies them by threats, and partly attracts them by sweet promises, in order to keep them in the way of duty. In the earlier expressions He convicts them of ingratitude, if they prostitute themselves to idolatry, when they had been chosen to be a peculiar and holy people. He afterwards inspires them with terror, by the denunciation of punishment; and, finally, allures them with the hope of reward, if they obediently abide in the pure worship of God. Nor does He affirm that He will be severe or kind to individuals only, but extends both to their posterity, although, as we shall afterwards see, not equally. I have indeed assigned another place to the promises and threatenings, whereby the authority of the whole Law is sanctioned; but since this clause is annexed to a particular Commandment, it could not be conveniently separated from it. The word אל, el, some translate appellatively, mighty; but since God is so called from His might, I have preferred following this meaning, 82 which is more suitable here. Yet I do not think that Moses used various names without reason; for when he had first employed the name אלהים, elohim, he soon afterwards honors God by another title, and magnifies His power, that He may be feared. And for this reason he also calls Him the Rival, 83 or, as some not inaptly translate it, the jealous; for to give the name of “the envious” (obtrectatoris) to God, as somebody has done, is not only silly, but monstrous. This is the word by which Cicero renders ζηλοτυπίαν, 84 expressing by it the sin of guilty rivalry, when one person envies the superiority of another. But God is here set before us in the character of a husband, who suffers no rival; or if it be preferred to extend the meaning of the word, He is called the assertor of His rights; since His rivalry is nothing more than retaining what is His own, and thus excluding all the rivals of His honor. Because mention has lately been made of His sacred covenant with the Jews, Moses seems to allude to the violation of this spiritual marriage. But although he begins with threatening, still, far preferring mercy to His severity, He rather gently allures them, than compels them by fear, to allegiance; for He declares that He will be merciful even to a thousand generations; whilst He only denounces punishment on the thirds and fourths, (for thus it is literally expressed,) i.e., on their grandsons and great-grandsons. In order, therefore, to encourage His worshippers to earnest piety, He declares that He will be kind, not only to themselves, but to their posterity, even for a thousand generations. But this is the proof of His inestimable kindness, and even indulgence, that He deigns to bind Himself to His servants, to whom He owes nothing, so far as to acknowledge, in His favor towards them, their seed also for His people. For hence it appears, that it is wrong to infer merit from the promised reward, because He does not say that He will be faithful or just towards the keepers of His Law, but merciful. Let then the most perfect come forward, and he can require nothing better of God than that He should be favorable to him on the grounds of His gratuitous liberality. For חסד, chesed, is equivalent to kindness, or beneficence; but when it is applied to God, it generally signifies mercy, or paternal favor, and the blessings which flow from it.
Since, then, He here promises that He will shew mercy, it is as much as to say that He will be beneficent, or will deal with clemency. Hence it follows, that the main source of reward is that. gratuitous beneficence wherewith He liberally blesses His people. Now, when it is said, “unto them that love me,” 85 the fountain and origin of true righteousness is expressed; for the external observation of the Law would be of no avail unless it flowed from hence. And praise is given to love rather than to fear, because God is delighted with none but voluntary obedience, but He rejects that which is forced and servile, as we shall again see elsewhere. But because hypocrites also boast that they love God, whilst their life corresponds not with the profession of their lips, the two things are here distinctly connected; viz., that the true servants of God love Him, and keep His commandments, i.e., make effectual proof of their piety. But here a difficult question arises, for the history of all ages shews that a great proportion of the progeny of the holy have been rejected and condemned; and that God has inflicted upon them weightier manifestations of His curse and vengeance, than upon strangers. We must, however, observe, that in these words grace is not promised severally to all the posterity of the saints, as if God were bound to each individual who may derive their race and original from them. There were many degenerate children of Abraham, to whom it profited nothing that they were called the offspring of the holy patriarch; nor indeed is the promise restricted to individuals, for many who are children after the flesh, are not counted for the seed — but God in His free election adopts whom He will, yet so governs His judgments, as that His paternal favor should always abide with the race of believers. Besides, the fruits of this promised grace are manifested in temporal blessings; and thus although God severely avenged the sins of the children of Abraham, and at length when their impiety shewed itself to be desperate, renounced them, yet did He not fail to be kind to them for a thousand generations. For again, God fulfills and performs what He here promised by the outward testimonies of His favor, although they turn to the destruction of the reprobate. Thus He was merciful to the race of Abraham, as long as he saw fit to leave them the Law, the Prophets, the Temple, and other exercises of religion. 86 Now, again, it will be well for us to consider how far even the holiest fall short of the perfect keeping of the Law, and perfect love of God; and therefore we need not wonder if they experience in many respects the failure of this grace, and only enjoy some slight taste of it. In any case, the goodness of God ever superabounds, so that His grace, if it does not shine with full splendor, still appears in bright sparks unto a thousand generations. As to the opposite clause, wherein God limits His vengeance to the third or fourth generation, we see how He prefers to attract men to duty by gentle invitations, than by terrifying threatenings to extort from them more than they are willing to do; inasmuch as He extends His mercy further than the severity of His judgment. We must also observe that the transgressors of the Law are called the enemies and haters of God. It is surely horrible, and almost monstrous impiety to hate God; and scarcely would any one be found so wicked as openly to declare Him to be his enemy; yet it is not without a cause that God pronounces thus harshly respecting their impiety; for since He cannot be separated from His justice, a contempt of the Law convicts men of this hatred; for it is impossible that they should not wish to deprive Him of His dominion, who endure Him not as a Lawgiver and a Judge.
"To visit iniquities,” is equivalent to inquiring into them, or taking cognizance of them, in order that punishment should be inflicted in proportion to the crime; for as long as God spares men and suspends His judgment, He seems to connive at them, or to pay no attention to them. Therefore, when men shall think that their sin is buried, He declares that He will bear it in memory. But it may be asked, how it is consistent for God to exact punishment from the children or grandchildren on account of the sins of their fathers? for nothing is more unreasonable than that the innocent and guilty should be involved in the same punishment; and the declaration of the Prophet is well known,
"The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; but the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” (Eze 18:20.)
The difficulty, which arises from the words of the Prophet, is easily solved, for God therein refutes the wicked expostulation of the people, that their children, who were not in fault, were unjustly and cruelly exposed to punishment. The proverb was generally rife, that “the fathers had eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth were set on edge;” but God replies, that not one of those with whom He was angry and severe was free from crime; and, therefore, that their complaint was false, since each of them received the recompense of his own iniquity. And this is most true, that God’s severity never assails the innocent; and however the world may murmur against His judgments, that He will always be clear in condemning this person or that 87
But when God declares that He will cast back the iniquity of the fathers into the bosom of the children, He does not mean that He will take vengeance on poor wretches who have never deserved anything of the sort; but that He is at liberty to punish the crimes of the fathers upon their children and descendants, with the proviso that they too may be justly punished, as being the imitators of their fathers. If any should object, that this is nothing more than to repay every one according to his works, we must remember that, — whenever God blinds the children of the ungodly, casts them into a state of reprobation, (conjicit in sesum reprobum), and smites them with a spirit of madness or folly, so that they give themselves up to foul desires, and hasten to their final destruction, — in this way the iniquity of the fathers is visited on their children. But suppose other punishments are added, all are under condemnation (convicti,) so that they have no ground for murmuring against God; and even then also God still proceeds to execute the vengeance which He here denounces; for, when He would direct one work to various objects, He uses wonderful and secret expedients. When He commanded the people of Canaan to be destroyed, it is certain that those, who then were living, were worthy of this punishment; yet, inasmuch as God foretold 88 that their iniquities were not yet full, we infer that He then inflicted the punishment upon them which He had deferred for 400 years. On this ground, Christ declares that the Jews of His time were guilty of all the blood that had been shed from that of Abel to the blood of Zacharias, the son of Barachias, (Mt 23:35.) But if it be not agreeable to our judgment that God should repay every one according to his deserts, and yet that He at the same time requires the sins of their fathers of the children, we should remember that His judgments are a great depth; and, therefore, if anything in His dealings is incomprehensible to us, we must bow to it with sobriety and reverence. But since this doctrine will recur elsewhere, I have thought fit only to touch upon it lightly here. One question remains, how we can reconcile the statement of Paul, that the fifth commandment is the first with promise, (Eph 6:2,) whereas a promise is annexed to this second. The solution of this is easy; for if you duly consider, this promise, which we have now explained, is not peculiarly annexed to any single commandment, but is common to the whole first Table of the Law, and these refer to the whole service of God; but when it is said, “honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long,” the keeping of that commandment is particularly and specially sanctioned.
The Fr. will sufficiently explain this distinction in: “Que l’honneur est bien defendu, mais non pas le service ” See C.’s Institutes, book i. chap. xii. sec. 2 and 3; and C. on the Psalms: — (Calvin Society’s Translation) Vol. 2, pp. 272-273.
i.e., as the Fr. explains it, “De le prendre pour un nomme propre;” to take it as a proper name.
קנא AEmulator, says C. after S.M., who explains himself as meaning thereby, Qui aequo animo ferre non potest, ut ab eo divellamur, et alium quaeramus amatorem. The L.V. has Zelotes. The perplexity of the translation into the Latin tongue does not seem to have arisen from any ambiguity in the Hebrew, but from the want of an equivalent in classical Latin. — W
“Obtrectatio autem est ea, quam intelligi zelotypiam volo, aegritudo ex eo, quod alter quoque potiatur eo, quod ipse concupiverit."— Tusc. Quaest. iv.
La source de toute vertu, et de toutes bonnes oeuvres. — Fr.
Addition in Fr., “Combien qu’ils n’en fissent point leur profit;” although they did not profit by them.
The Latin is “fore victorem quoties hunc vel illum damnaverit,” with evident allusion to Ps 61:4, which the V. renders “et vincas cum judicaris;” to which passage there is a reference in the Fr.
Vide Ge 15:16.