GOD’S PEOPLE PREPARE FOR INTIMATE COVENANT RELATIONSHIP BY A PROCESS OF CONSECRATION AND MAINTAINING BOUNDARIES THAT RESPECT GOD’S AWESOME TRANSCENDENCE
God has finally fulfilled His promise to bring His people out of Egypt and all of the way to the base of Mt. Sinai in order to meet with them and communicate His covenant. He wants them to appreciate the privileges of their covenant relationship as the people of His own possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation that will carry His name and reputation to the watching world. He wants them to commit to obey the stipulations of the covenant. He wants them to prepare for the initiation of this covenant relationship by a process of consecration and observing boundaries which He has established. He wants them to respect the balance between approaching God by faith and yet responding in awe and holy fear to His majestic transcendence.
John Mackay: Here we come to the heart of the Old Testament revelation of the Lord. He has intervened in history to overthrow the oppressors of his people; he has exhibited his power in leading Israel through the Red Sea and the wilderness; and now he formalizes the relationship he has with them by setting before them the nature of the bond that exists between himself and them, and by enunciating the response that is required from them.
John Oswalt: Chapters 19 and 24 provide “bookends” for the giving of the covenant. Chapter 19 provides preparation for the giving, while chapter 24 tells the story of the consummation. This enclosure of the covenant stipulations in these narrative portions is very significant. Above all, this structure roots obedience in life and in the context of a relationship with God. Too often, we view the Old Testament “law” as simply arbitrary demands dropped from heaven by an immutable divine tyrant, with a kind of “do or die” mentality. That is not the case, as the immediate structure, as well as the larger book structure, shows. God gave his people his covenant in the midst of their saving experience with him. Thus, the “Torah” (“Instruction”) is not merely the 613 commandments that can be extracted from Exodus 19 through Deuteronomy 33. Rather, it is the entire story, from Genesis 1 to Deuteronomy 34. God’s “instruction” for life is to be found in the context of life, and we are intended to live out God’s will for us in the context of life.
I. (:1-9) PREPARING GOD’S PEOPLE FOR COVENANT RELATIONSHIP
A. (:1-2) Fulfillment of the Promise to Bring Israel to Sinai
“In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. 2 When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped in front of the mountain.”
John Davis: The area to which they were taken can only be characterized as majestic and inspiring. The granite mountains provide an awesome background for the events which would take place. For more than eleven months Israel remained at this place receiving the Law, ratifying the covenant and preparing the sanctuary.
Youngblood: All the events recorded in Exodus 19:1 through Numbers 10:10 took place there, where the Israelites spent almost a year before setting out on the next stage of their journey to Canaan (Num. 10:11-12).
J. Ligon Duncan: They will wander in the wilderness for 38 years or so. Isn’t it interesting, friends, that of those 38 years, we are only told about a very small amount in the books of Moses, but of these eleven months, you know what we get? Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers through chapter 10. These eleven months are less than one fortieth of the time that Israel would be in the wilderness, but these eleven months occupy the focus of….from Exodus 19 on through Leviticus, and Numbers 10….Why are long stretches of the history of Israel in the wilderness skipped over and there is all this focus on this meeting? Because the giving of the law is the great distinctive of God’s covenant with Moses.
B. (:3-8) Features of the Treaty Preparing God’s People for Covenant Relationship
1. (:3) Summons by God
“And Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel:’”
Walter Kaiser Jr.: The six verses (vv. 3-8) of this eagles’ wings speech and its response are cast in the familiar Near Eastern suzerainty treaty form (Mendenhall). . . a literary pattern to write their treaties imposed by strong kings on their vassals.
Youngblood: God’s covenants with His people are always suzerainty covenants, unilaterally established by Him alone. He is the divine King, and we are His human subjects.
John Hannah: Moses made three trips to the mountaintop and back (19:3, 7; vv. 8-9; vv. 20, 25).
Walter Kaiser Jr.: A twofold title is used for the people of God (v. 3): “house of Jacob” (a reminder of their humble beginnings; cf. Gen 28:13; 35:11; 49:7) and “the people of Israel” (a statement as to what they had become: a nation).
2. (:4) Historical Prologue – Reminding Them of Their Redemption
“You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians,
and how I bore you on eagles’ wings,
and brought you to Myself.”
John Hannah: When young eagles are learning to fly, the mother eagle flies under them with her sings spread out to catch them.
Wiersbe: The eaglets illustrate three aspects of freedom: freedom from (they are out of the nest, which to us is redemption); freedom in (they are at home in the air, which to us is maturity), and freedom to (they can fulfill their purpose in life, which to us is ministry). True freedom means that we’re delivered from doing the bad, we’re able to do the good, and we’re accomplishing god’s will on the earth.
Walter Kaiser Jr.: This metaphor is developed most extensively in Deuteronomy 32:11, where the loving compassion, protection, strength, and watchfulness of God is compared to the majestic bird’s attributes. As the young eagles were carried on the adult wings and brought out of their nests and taught to fly, so Yahweh had lovingly carried and safely delivered Israel.
Douglas Stuart: The words “and brought you to myself” express not merely the arrival at Sinai but the entering into covenant relationship (which is ultimately a family relationship) with the only true God.
John Mackay: He reminds them of how he brought you to myself. They might have thought that they were travelling to Sinai, but the Lord was more concerned with the spiritual aspect of their journey than the geographical. The spiritual pollution of Egypt had militated against entering into a close relationship with the Lord. As they had travelled, they had repeatedly been made to realise their utter dependence on him. Now at Sinai, they are removed from the corrupting environment of Egypt; they are living from day to day on the bounty of his provision; and they can focus on developing an intimate and obedient relationship with their benefactor.
John Oswalt: Specifically, Yahweh called upon the people to remember what had happened in Egypt (19:4). He pointed out two diametrically opposite results. The Egyptians had sought to thwart God’s will and Israel had “seen” (19:4) what had happened. By contrast, the Israelites had believed God and, however fearfully, had done what he told them to do. The result? God had carried them “on eagles’ wings and brought” them to himself (19:4). As opposed to the frightful cataclysms of nature that may well have destroyed nearly a whole Egyptian generation, Yahweh had made nature care for his people as he brought them through the wilderness. What kind of conclusion should one draw from these facts? Only fools refuse to trust, believe, and obey Yahweh! So the people were called on to reflect on the lessons of history.
3. (:5a) Stipulations – Requiring Obedience and Faithfulness
“Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant,”
John Davis: Since God was responsible for Israel’s freedom and liberty, they were therefore obligated to respond in obedience to the covenant which God was about to establish.
Philip Ryken: Even before getting specific, God revealed to Moses the essence of what he required, which was full obedience. This is the main thing. Anyone who wants to enjoy fellowship with God must make a basic commitment to do everything God says. Once this commitment has been made, the rest is “just details.” The decision to do what God demands has already been made; now it is simply a matter of learning what God demands. So God began with the basic commitment to do what he says: “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant …” (Exod. 19:5a).
Realize that this statement was made to people who were already saved. The Israelites had been delivered from bondage and redeemed by the blood of the Passover lamb. This is crucial for understanding how God’s law works in the Christian life. The order of the exodus is important: First God delivered his people from bondage; then he gave them his law. Imagine what would have happened if it had been the other way around. Suppose God had said to Moses, “Tell my people: ‘If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, I will carry you away from Egypt on eagle’s wings.’ ” In that case, there never would have been an exodus at all. God’s people would still be in bondage due to their failure to keep covenant with God. But God is a God of grace. So he saved his people first; then he called them to obey his law. The history of the exodus thus helps us understand the function of the law in the Christian life. First God rescues us from our sin; then he teaches us how to live for his glory. If personal obedience had to come first, we would never be saved. But as it is, God saves us in Christ before he calls us to live for Christ.
4. (:5b-6) Blessings – Revealing 3 Distinct Privileges of the Believing Community
a. (:5b) God’s Treasured Possession
“then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples,
for all the earth is Mine;”
cf. 1 Pet. 2:9
Bruce Hurt: But what is Yahweh explaining? He owns everything. But His special possession was to be Israel! Jehovah has chosen Israel to be His own special, peculiar, treasured possession not because of Israel’s merits, because they had none (Dt. 26:5–11), but because of God’s love and sovereign grace (Dt 7:6–8), the same reason He has chosen you dear believer in Christ! Like Israel we have nothing to boast about, but let him who boasts, boast in the LORD (1 Cor 1:31). Israel’s assignment from God involved intermediation. They were not to be a people unto themselves, enjoying their special relationship with God and paying no attention to the rest of the world. Rather, they were to represent him to the rest of the world and attempt to bring the rest of the world to him.
b. (:6a) Kingdom of priests
“and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests”
Wiersbe: It was God’s intent that all Israel live as priests, manifesting His truth and sharing His blessings with the world. Israel was to be God’s “showcase” to the Gentiles, proving to them that there is but one true and living God and that serving Him is the way to fullness of blessing (Isa. 42:6; 49:6). Unfortunately, instead of Israel influencing the nations to worship Jehovah, the nations influenced Israel to worship idols!
Douglas Stuart: Israel’s assignment from God involved intermediation. They were not to be a people unto themselves, enjoying their special relationship with God and paying no attention to the rest of the world. Rather, they were to represent him to the rest of the world and attempt to bring the rest of the world to him. . .
Priests stand between God and humans to help bring the humans closer to God and to help dispense God’s truth, justice, favor, discipline, and holiness to humans. Israel was called to such a function. How? The answer is not spelled out in the present context, but it surely was to take place in four ways:
(1) Israel would be an example to the people of other nations, who would see its holy beliefs and actions and be impressed enough to want to know personally the same God the Israelites knew.
(2) Israel would proclaim the truth of God and invite people from other nations to accept him in faith as shown by confession of belief in him and acceptance of his covenant, as Jethro had already done.
(3) Israel would intercede for the rest of the world by offering acceptable offerings to God (both sacrifices and right behavior) and thus ameliorate the general distance between God and humankind.
(4) Israel would keep the promises of God, preserving his word already spoken and recording his word as it was revealed to them so that once the fullness of time had come, anyone in the whole world could promptly benefit from that great body of divinely revealed truth, that is, the Scriptures.
c. (:6b) Holy Nation
“and a holy nation.’
These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”
5. (:7-8) Acceptance in a Solemn Assembly
a. (:7) Presentation of God’s Words
“So Moses came and called the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the LORD had commanded him.”
Bruce Hurt: With 2 million people Moses could not announce Jehovah’s words to all of them and perhaps learning from the advice of Jethro in Exodus 18, he calls in the elders who can then be his emissaries throughout the populace of Israel.
b. (:8) Commitment to Obey
“And all the people answered together and said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do!’ And Moses brought back the words of the people to the LORD.”
Douglas Stuart: The formality of the process kept the people reminded that they were not dealing only with their elders or Moses or both but with the universe’s only God, who was not approachable by just anyone, who was greater and more dangerous than any force they had ever otherwise known, and who was requiring of them in a patient, cadenced process their assent to the most important commitment they could make. Yahweh would hear their words of agreement only from his officially appointed spokesperson, Moses, so Moses brought those words to Yahweh.
C. (:9) Fear-Inspiring Mode of Communication that Will Validate the Leadership of Moses
“And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Behold, I shall come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe in you forever.’ Then Moses told the words of the people to the LORD.”
Gispen: The Lord would come to Moses in “a dense cloud.” Clouds frequently accompanied His appearance (cf. 13:21; Pss. 87:2; 104:3; Ezek. 1:4; Dan. 7:13; Matt. 17:5; 26:64; Mark 14:62; Rev. 1:7). They covered His glory (cf. 16:10), so that the people could come close enough to be able to hear His voice when He spoke with Moses on the mountain. The purpose of the Lord’s speaking within earshot of the people was that the people would always trust in Moses (cf. 14:31; and 4:1). The Lord thus did not need to speak audibly, either here or in the giving of the Ten Commandments; He did it to support Moses’ authority, especially after the repeated grumblings and the assaults on his authority, and also to lend divine authority to the laws that were given through Moses.
II. (:10-15) PRESCRIBING CONSECRATION AND BOUDARIES
A. (:10-11) Consecration
“The LORD also said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments; 11 and let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.’”
John Davis: Before the children of Israel could approach God and receive the laws which He had for them, there had to be a period of preparation both inward and outward.
Wiersbe: The emphasis in this chapter is on the sanctity of the nation as the holy people of God, and three images stand out: the changing of their clothes, the distance set between the people and God, and the storm on Mount Sinai.
John Hannah: In anticipation of the covenant God ordered the people to separate themselves from impurity and to consecrate themselves to God. The three-day purification ritual included washing their garments and abstaining from sexual intercourse. Also during the three days no person or animal was to contact the mountain or he or it would be put to death. Such careful preparation underscored the significance of the event that was about to transpire. The God of the heavens was about to make a covenant with His people.
B. (:12-13) Boundaries
“And you shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, ‘Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. 13 ‘No hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot through; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.”
Douglas Stuart: He has chosen to restrict his presence, manifesting it to a degree but not fully. One way to teach this to the Israelites so they would not foolishly think he was a human-conceived god like an idol—who could be handled or kissed or otherwise manipulated physically or approached casually—was to restrict access even to the mountain that God would touch in his theophany and to the “contagion” of touching anyone who had in fact touched the mountain. If a king required approaching with the greatest of care, should not the King of Kings be honored even more carefully and respectfully? The boundary markers (“limits”) placed around the base of the mountain served to prevent people in their daily course of grazing flocks and gathering manna and the like from straying thoughtlessly onto the actual edge (“foot”) of the mountain.
C. (:14) Consecration
“So Moses went down from the mountain to the people
and consecrated the people, and they washed their garments.”
D. (:15) Boundaries
“And he said to the people, ‘Be ready for the third day;
do not go near a woman.’”
Philip Ryken: The people also refrained from sexual intercourse (Exod. 19:15b)—not because there is something wrong with sex, but as a form of fasting. Here Calvin makes the helpful comment that “although there is nothing polluting or contaminating in the marriage bed, yet the Israelites were to be reminded that all earthly cares were, as much as possible, to be renounced, and all carnal affections to be put away, that they might give their entire attention to the hearing of the Law.” According to the New Testament, the only reason to abstain from marital relations is for a spiritual purpose, and then only temporarily (see 1 Cor. 7:5). What the Israelites did was in keeping with this principle: They abstained from intercourse for three days in order to give their undivided attention to their King and to his law.
III. (:16-25) PRODUCING HOLY FEAR AND REVERENCE FOR GOD’S TRANSCENDENCE
A. (:16-17) Demonstration of Divine Majesty
1. (:16) Creating Fear
“So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.”
Wiersbe: In Scripture, a storm is often a symbol of the awesome presence and power of God (Pss. 18:1-15; 29; Hab. 3:1-16). The cloud and darkness, the thunder and lightning, and the earthquake and fire, all manifested the greatness of God (Deut. 5:22-23, 27) and produced a holy fear in the hearts of the people. Even Moses trembled with fear and admitted it!
Philip Ryken: Each of the natural phenomena revealed a different aspect of God’s character. The thunder and the earthquake were signs of his power. The dark cloud was a sign of his mystery, showing that there are aspects of his being that we cannot penetrate. The fire was a sign of God’s holiness, his bright and burning purity. Fire both attracts and repels. We are drawn to its warmth and beauty, but at the same time we are kept away by the danger of its burning. So, too, we are attracted to the beauty of God’s holiness but at the same time repelled by its power to destroy us. The trumpet signified his sovereignty, for a trumpet signals the coming of a king. When God descended on Mount Sinai, he was given a royal fanfare to signify his kingly majesty. Together these spectacular signs displayed the glory of God, the sum total of his divine attributes. It must have been an amazing sight. The people who saw it could never forget that they had been in the presence of the living God in all his holiness and majesty.
Walter Kaiser Jr.: A deep moral impression was made on the people, for they were in the presence of the glorious majesty of the Holy God who was about to reveal his person and character in his law. This magnificent event will be unexcelled until the Lord Jesus returns again in blazing fire (2 Thess 1:7-12).
John Davis: The purpose of this dramatic visual presentation was to impress upon the people that majestic power of this sovereign God. It helped to highlight the tremendous importance of this occasion and call to their attention that the commitment which they had made (v. 8) was not to be taken lightly.
Philip Ryken: The truth is that God is both transcendent and immanent. He is exalted above all that he has made. At the same time he is intimately involved with everything that happens in his universe. Both of these things are true about God. The trouble is that the church usually tends to emphasize one at the expense of the other.
2. (:17) Creating Expectation
“And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God,
and they stood at the foot of the mountain.”
B. (:18-25) Warning to Maintain Distance – Don’t Get Too Close
1. (:18) Visual Display
“Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently.”
2. (:19-20) Vocal Demonstration
a. (:19) Divine Dialogue with Moses
“When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder,
Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder.”
b. (:20) Mountaintop Meeting with Moses
“And the LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.”
3. (:21-22) Violent Danger
a. (:21) Death if the People Get Too Close
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, ‘Go down, warn the people, lest they break through to the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish.’”
b. (:22) Death if the Priests Fail to Consecrate Themselves
“And also let the priests who come near to the LORD consecrate themselves, lest the LORD break out against them.”
John Oswalt: But the final verses of the chapter (19:21–25) tell us that with all the cognitive, volitional, and affective preparation that had taken place, Yahweh was still not satisfied that everyone had gotten the picture. This is entirely understandable. These people had demonstrated an incredible obtuseness in a variety of ways. It was worth one more effort (despite Moses’s rejoinder, 19:23) to drive the point home again: Yahweh is not this world; he is terrifyingly and awe-fully other. And if he gives himself in a binding commitment to humans, no one must ever think even once that this means that he has become a rabbit’s foot or a four-leafed clover that humans can control or manipulate for their own selfish purposes. If Moses would drive that point home once more, then perhaps the people would be truly prepared to receive God’s offer of such momentous dimensions.
4. (:23-25) Vouching Dialogue
a. (:23) We Get It
“And Moses said to the LORD, ‘The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for Thou didst warn us, saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and consecrate it.’”
b. (:24) Make Sure You Get It
“Then the LORD said to him, ‘Go down and come up again, you and Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest He break forth upon them.’”
c. (:25) Repeating the Warning to the People
“So Moses went down to the people and told them.”
Douglas Stuart: The wording of v. 25, “So Moses went down to the people and told them,” is a simple, direct way to end the prelaw narrative portion of the book of Exodus on two themes: the awesomeness of God (since what he told them related to that awesomeness, to wit, the danger of trying to breach God’s holiness) and the readiness of Moses and the people together at the bottom of Mount Sinai to hear God’s Ten Words of covenant thundered at them from the top of the mountain—God’s very words audible comprehensibly to all from the great height of the Mountain of God.