Excerpts from Calvin's Commentaries

The purpose of this paper is to present a selection of quotations from John Calvin's commentary on Exodus. These excerpts represent exceptional insights either on the text itself or on Christian living. John Calvin was one of the great theologians of the Protestant Reformation. All excerpts are from the Baker edition in 22 volumes and given with no modification.

"But the midwives feared God" (Ex. 1:17)

Moses does not mean that they were then first affected with the fear of God; but he assigns this reason why they did not obey his [the king of Egypt's] unjust command, viz., because reverence towards God had greater influence with them. And certainly, as all our affections are best directed by this rein, so also it is the surest shield for resisting all temptations, and a firm support to uphold our minds from wavering in seasons of danger. Now, they not only dreaded this crime as being cruel and inhuman; but because purer religion and piety flourished in their hearts; for they knew that the seed of Abraham was chosen of God, and had themselves experienced that it was blessed; and hence it was natural to feel, that it would be an act of very gross impiety to extinguish in it the grace of God. We must also observe the antithesis between the fear of God and the dread of punishment, which might have deterred them from doing right. Although tyrants do not easily allow their commands to be despised, and death was before their eyes, they still keep their hands pure from evil. Thus, sustained and supported by reverential fear of God, they boldly despised the command and the threatenings of Pharaoh.

"And he said, Certainly I will be with thee" (Ex. 3:12)

It is remarkable that God sets his ready help alone against all to overcome every fear, and to take away every scruple; as much as to say, It matters not who Moses is, or what may be his strength, so that God be his leader. In these words we are taught, that he is never regarded by us with due honour, unless when, contented with his assistance alone, we seek for no ground of confidence apart from him; and, although our own weakness may alarm us, think it enough that he is on our side. Hence these celebrated confessions of his saints: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me." (Ps. xxiii. 4.) Again, "In God have I put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me." (Ps. lvi. 4.) Again, "I will not be afraid of ten thousands of the people." (Ps. iii. 6.) Again, "If God be for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. viii. 31.) Therefore, in proportion to our advancement in the faith, when we are exposed to the greatest dangers, do we magnify the power of God, and, exalting ourselves in that, advance boldly against all the world; and this is the ground of firm and unwearied obedience, when the thought that God is with us is deeply rooted in our hearts.

"But every woman shall borrow of her neighbour . . . and ye shall spoil the
Egyptians" (Ex. 3:22)

Those who consider these means of enriching the people to be but little in accordance with the justice of God, themselves reflect but little how widely that justice of which they speak extends. I acknowledge that it is His attribute to defend every one's rights, to prohibit theft, to condemn deceit and rapine; but let us see what every one's property is. Who will boast that he has anything, except what is given him by God? And all is given on this condition, that each one should possess according to His will whatever God pleases, who is free to take away at any moment whatsoever He has given. The Hebrews spoiled the Egyptians; and should the latter complain that an injury is done them, they would argue against God that He had transferred His own free gifts from them to others. Would this complaint be listened to, that God, in whose hands are the ends of the earth, who by His power appoints the bounds of nations, and reduces their kings to poverty, had deprived certain persons of their furniture and jewels? Another defence is set up by some, that the Hebrews took nothing which was not their own, but only the wages which were due to them; because they were iniquitously driven to servile labours, and had subsisted meanly upon what belonged to themselves. And certainly it would have been just that their labour should have been recompensed in some way. But there is no need of weighing the judgment of God by ordinary rules, since we have already seen that all the possessions of the world are His, to distribute them according to His pleasure.

"And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply my signs and wonders" (Ex. 7:3)

As the expression is somewhat harsh, many commentators, as I have before said, take pains to soften it. Hence it is that some take the words in connection, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart by multiplying my signs;" as if God were pointing out the external cause of his obstinacy. But Moses has already declared, and will hereafter repeat it, that the king's mind was hardened by God in other ways besides His working miracles. As to the meaning of the words, I have no doubt that, by the first clause, God armed the heart of His servant with firmness, to resist boldly the perversity of the tyrant; and then reminds him that he has the remedy in his hand. Thus, then, I think this passage must be translated, "I indeed will harden Pharaoh's heart, but I will multiply my signs;" as though He had said, his hardness will be no obstacle to you, for the miracles will be sufficient to overcome it. In the same sense, He adds immediately afterwards, "Although Pharaoh should not hear you, still I will lay on my hand;" for thus, in my opinion, the conjunctions should be resolved adversatively. I do not altogether reject the interpretation of others; "I will harden Pharaoh's heart, that I may multiply my signs;" and "He will not hearken unto you, that I may lay on my hand." And, in fact, God willed that Pharaoh should pertinaciously resist Moses, in order that the deliverance of the people might be more conspicuous. There is, however, no need of discussing at length the manner in which God hardens reprobates, as often as this expression occurs. Let us hold fast to what I have already observed, that they are but poor speculators who refer it to a mere bare permission; because if God, by blinding their minds, or hardening their hearts, inflicts deserved punishment upon the reprobate, He not only permits them to do what they themselves please, but actually executes a judgment which He knows to be just. Whence also it follows, that He not only withdraws the grace of His Spirit, but delivers to Satan those whom he knows to be deserving of blindness of mind and obstinacy of heart. Meanwhile, I admit that the blame of either evil rests with the men themselves, who wilfully blind themselves, and with a wilfulness which is like madness, are driven, or rather rush, into sin. I have also briefly shown what foul calumniators are they, who for the sake of awakening ill-will against us, pretend that God is thus made to be the author of sin; since it would be an act of too great absurdity to estimate His secret and incomprehensible judgments by the little measure of our own apprehension. The opponents of this doctrine foolishly and inconsiderately mix together two different things, since the hardness of heart is the sin of man, but the hardening of the heart is the judgment of God.

"And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured" (Ex. 16:2)

Moses says not that some of the people only murmured, but that they were all gathered into mobs as in a conspiracy, or, at any rate, as they were arranged by hundreds and thousands, that they murmured with one consent. Yet the universal term admits of exception; nor need we suppose that all to a man were comprehended in this impious rebellion. The best remedy for their hunger would have been to pray to God, whom they had found to be in all respects a bountiful Father, and whom they had heard to have wonderfully provided for their parents, when the Egyptians and inhabitants of Canaan were wasting with hunger in such rich and fertile places. If they had only been persuaded that the earth is made fertile by God's blessing, it would at the same time have occurred to them, that it is His peculiar office to feed the hungry, and immediately they would have directed their prayers to Him; now, their unbelief betrays itself in their turbulent clamour. It is indeed astonishing that wretched men, whom their necessity should have humiliated, rose insolently against God, and that their hunger, so far from bending their hearts to gentleness, was the very incentive of their arrogance.

"If men strive, and hurt a woman with child so that her fruit depart" (Ex. 21:22)

This passage at first sight is ambiguous, for if the word death only applies to the pregnant woman, it would not have been a capital crime to put an end to the fetus, which would be a great absurdity; for the fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, (homo,) and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man's house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light. On these grounds I am led to conclude, without hesitation, that the words, "if death should follow," must be applied to the fetus as well as to the mother. Besides, it would be by no means reasonable that a father should sell for a set sum the life of his son or daughter. Wherefore this, in my opinion, is the meaning of the law, that it would be a crime punishable with death, not only when the mother died from the effects of the abortion, but also if the infant should be killed; whether it should die from the wound abortively, or soon after its birth.

"And if a man shall open a pit . . . and an ox or an ass fall therein" (Ex. 21:33)

He enumerates still more cases of damage inflicted, in which restitution is to be demanded of the person who gave occasion for the occurrence. First, it is said, If a man shall open a pit, or cistern, and not cover it, and an animal shall fall into it, he is bound to pay its value; and justly, since his carelessness approaches to actual guilt. Here, again, we see how God would have all men to be anxious for their neighbour's advantage; yet, inasmuch as there was no fraud or malice in the case, he is permitted, after paying its price, to appropriate the carcass to himself. But, if one man's ox should be killed by another's, a most just appointment is made, viz., that, if it happened unexpectedly, and by sudden accident, they should divide the dead ox between them, and, having sold the other, each should take half the price; but if the ox was a savage one, that its owner should undergo a greater penalty by paying its full price; because he ought to have anticipated the mischief, and thus was scarcely so kind as he should have been, giving occasion to the injury.

"If thou meet thine enemy's ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it
back to him again" (Ex. 23:4)

From these two passages it is very clear that he who abstains from evil doing, is not therefore guiltless before God, unless he also studies to do good. For our brethren's advantage ought to be so far our care, that we should be disposed mutually to aid each other as far as our means and opportunities permit. This instruction is greatly needed; because, whilst everybody is more attentive to his own advantage than he ought to be, he is willing to hold back from the assistance of others. But God brings him in guilty of theft who has injured his neighbours by his negligence; and justly, because it depended only upon him that the thing should be safe, which he knowingly and wilfully suffered to perish. This duty, too, is extended even to enemies; wherefore our inhumanity is the more inexcusable, if we have not helped our friends. The sum therefore is, that believers should be kind, that they may imitate their heavenly Father; and should not only bestow their labour upon the good, who are worthy of it, but should treat the unworthy also with kindness: and since many might invent means of subterfuge, God anticipates them, and commands that the beast of a person unknown should be kept until reclaimed by its owner; and lays down the same rule as to all things that may be lost.

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