1 - 2 In the Wilderness of Sinai
1 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.
Here a new section in Exodus begins. After the wilderness of Sur (Exo 15:22) and the wilderness of Sin (Exo 16:1), they come “into the wilderness of Sinai”. There the people set up their camp “in front of the mountain” to meet the LORD. This will be a meeting with consequences into the distant future. Every meeting we have with the Lord has consequences for the future, either in blessing or in judgment, depending on our attitude.
At the place where they have now arrived, all events described from Exodus 19:1 to Numbers 10:10 take place. Here the people receive the law with its numerous directions for the service to the LORD. Their stay here is slightly less than a year. They arrive “in the third month” of the first year of their exodus. They depart “in the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth of the month” (Num 10:11).
3 - 6 The LORD Wants Israel as His Own People
3 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: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. 5 Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; 6 and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”
God calls His people both by the name of Jacob and by the name of Israel. He sees them in their weakness (Jacob), but also in what He has made of them (Israel). He has a message for this people. Moses must tell the people something they already know. They have seen it themselves. Yet they must be reminded: what the LORD has done to the Egyptians and what He has done to His people.
This should impress them with their own powerlessness against the power of the enemy and with the power of the LORD who has defeated the enemy. It did not stop there. He did not leave them to their fate after their liberation. If He had done that, they would have died hopelessly in the wilderness. He has taken care of them (Acts 13:18). “Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that hovers over its young, He spread His wings and caught them, He carried them on His pinions. The LORD alone guided him, and there was no foreign god with him” (Deu 32:11-12). Just as the eagle makes sure his young do not fall down and dies, so the LORD has made sure for his people that they have not perished. And where did He bring them? To Himself, in His presence, here by the mountain. What a care!
In that close connection, this covenant, with Him they will be able to remain if they listen to Him. All blessings which the LORD connects to His covenant are made dependent on obedience (Jer 7:23; 11:4,7). He can’t connect Himself to the own will of man, of His people. Only if His people do what He says, they will be able to enjoy his covenant.
All the earth belongs to Him, but if they obey, they will be His property in a very special way. They will be the only people on earth that is allowed to approach Him as priests in His dwelling place and to represent Him as a kingdom on earth. This great privilege is the true part of every member of the church of God (1Pet 2:5,9; Rev 1:6).
7 - 8 The Answer of the People
7 So Moses came and called the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the LORD had commanded him. 8 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.
When Moses comes back, he sets the words of God before the people. He thus places them before their conscience. Without hesitation the people agree with the conditions (verse 8). They promise to do what the LORD has said. They will repeat this promise two times more (Exo 24:3,7). We may be tempted to welcome their response. Their answer, however, bears witness to an overestimation of their own abilities. It shows that in recent months they have not yet got to know their own rebellious heart. The LORD knows that.
Therefore, from now on the tone of the book changes. What should have become the feast of the meeting with God (Exo 5:1) becomes an event to which thunder and lightning, anxiety and fear are connected. There is a distance between God and the people. There is a threat going out from approaching God. Have the people said that they will do all that the LORD has commanded? Then will He make His commandments known to them.
9 - 20 The LORD Descends upon the Mountain
9 The LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so 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. 10 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. 12 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.” 14 So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people, and they washed their garments. 15 He said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.” 16 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. 17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 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. 19 When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder. 20 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.
The LORD announces Moses that He will come to him in a way that the people can be present. But in order to be present, the people must meet strict conditions. They must be holy, there must be nothing that does not fit the holiness of God. On the third day they shall see the LORD descending upon the mountain.
A respectful distance must be observed around the mountain. Anyone, human or animal, who touches the mountain while God appears on it, must be killed. The ab-solute holiness of God does not allow a living being, who is a sinner or connected to sin, to even come in Him neighborhood. Only when a signal is given that is determined by Him, the mountain is released.
The people act in accordance with God’s precepts. Moses sanctifies the people and they make their clothes suitable for the appearance of God. Three days they have to live like this, looking forward to that appearance. Sexual intercourse between man and woman is not allowed either during that time. Everything must be concentrated on the appearance of the LORD.
This does contain a lesson for us. Do we sanctify our lives with a view to our meeting with Him when He comes (1Jn 3:3)? His coming is not the only thing. If we may call upon God as Father, the command is to be holy, as He is holy (1Pet 1:15-16). Is it our desire to live a holy life because of our daily relationship with Him? Can we also omit the things that are lawful in themselves for a certain period of time in order to concentrate fully on Him and the search for His will during that particular period of time (cf. 1Cor 7:5)?
There is a big difference in the motive of action between a member of God’s people then and a member of God’s people now. Israel is acting out of fear of retaliation. We may act out of love for the Father.
When the LORD appears, this happens under the guidance of phenomena that cause fear and tremors. To this revelation of God, the people are brought by Moses. In Hebrews 12, the writer sets this approach to God with fear and trembling, approaching on the basis of the law, opposite to approaching God through the work of the Lord Jesus which is now the part of the believer, approaching on the basis of grace. The contrast is enormous: “For you have not come to [a mountain] that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which [sound was such that] those who heard begged that no further word be spoken to them. For they could not bear the command, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it will be stoned.” And so terrible was the sight, [that] Moses said, “I am full of fear and trembling.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of [the] righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than [the blood] of Abel” (Heb 12:18-24).
21 - 25 Approaching the LORD
21 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, “Go down, warn the people, so that they do not break through to the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish. 22 Also let the priests who come near to the LORD consecrate themselves, or else the LORD will break out against them.” 23 Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for You warned us, saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and consecrate it.’” 24 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, or He will break forth upon them.” 25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.
Moses is the only one who may come to the LORD. It seems that he is only on the way to meet the LORD when the LORD sends him back because the people in their boldness try to penetrate the LORD to see Him. He must stop them from doing so by warning them that no one should try to see anything of God. Seeing Him, is dying. The priests receive a separate warning. Those who are allowed to approach as the only class of the people must behave in an appropriate manner. Moses believes that sufficient precautions have been taken, but the LORD knows the heart of the people and Moses must go.
After Moses has passed on the warning of God to the people, Moses and Aaron may ascend to God. Together they are a picture of the Lord Jesus. Moses is a picture of Him as the One who speaks to the people on behalf of God, and Aaron is a picture of Him as the One who represents the people to God. The Lord Jesus is called “the Apostle [Moses] and High Priest [Aaron] of our confession” (Acts 3:1).