This section connects to Exodus 20:21. The part in between shows the contents of what Moses has been told by the LORD.
1 - 2 Approaching, but at a Distance
1 Then He said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall worship at a distance. 2 Moses alone, however, shall come near to the LORD, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.”
Moses is called by the LORD to come to Him together with Aaron and Nadab and Abihu, his eldest sons, and a representation of the people. But “at a distance”. This distance is characteristic of the relationship between the LORD and His people in the Old Testament. For the New Testament church this distance is no longer there. The letter to the Hebrews shows in detail that the New Testament believers may approach God boldly in the sanctuary. This letter also shows how this is made possible: through Christ and His work.
3 - 8 The Covenant Made
3 Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do!” 4 Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. Then he arose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 He sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the LORD. 6 Moses took half of the blood and put [it] in basins, and the [other] half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. 7 Then he took the book of the covenant and read [it] in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” 8 So Moses took the blood and sprinkled [it] on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
The ordinances communicated in the previous chapters are communicated by Moses to the people. As in Exodus 19 (Exo 19:8), the people promise to do everything the LORD has said (verses 3,7). In Exodus 19 they say this before they have heard what the LORD wants. Now they have heard His ordinances and say the same. Unfortunately, there is no knowledge of oneself. They will gain this knowledge by the ordinances of the LORD. This will show how much they fail in their promise.
Moses writes everything down in writing and in that way records it for the generations to come. As soon as there are a redeemed people, a people who have separated God for Himself, He records His thoughts for and about them in the written Word. The first time an event has to be written in a book, we find in Exodus 17 (Exo 17:14). God makes His thoughts known in the written Word. Everyone can know what God wants. His unchanging Word can be consulted over and over again.
Then Moses built an altar of twelve stones at the foot of the mountain. It is as if he realizes that the people will never be able to fulfil what they have promised and that they can only exist for God on the basis of a sacrifice. The sacrifices speak of the Lord Jesus and of the work He accomplished on the cross. The burnt offering is in its entirety for the LORD (Lev 1:1-17). The peace offering is a communion offering in which the communion between the LORD and his people is expressed (Lev 3:1-17).
He lets young men, probably the first-born, bring burnt offerings and peace offerings. This work will later be taken over by priests and Levites, who will take the place of the firstborn (Num 3:12). Moses takes young men, a new generation, to show, as it were, the new generation that takes the only true foundation for God. The elders are bound by the law, and on that basis it will appear to be impossible to approach God.
Moses reads the contents of the Book to the people (verse 7). He informs them of the terms of the covenant. For the third time, the people declare that they will abide by it. They say it even stronger than in verse 3, because here they not only say that they will “do”, but add that they will also “obey”.
Then Moses takes the people at their word. As solemn as the people have declared to keep the covenant of the LORD, Moses records this covenant. This is done by sprinkling blood on the altar and on the people and the book. The sprinkling of the book is not mentioned here. Yet, according to what we read in Hebrews 9, this has happened (Heb 9:19).
The sprinkling of the people seems to mean that they are reminded of death as punishment for disobedience. The sprinkling of the book shows that death is necessary as the basis of everything. Therefore, even the whole system of the law is not initiated without blood. The book contains the conditions for the covenant, the people are the covenant people, and the altar represents the LORD, the origin of the covenant.
Blood is God’s answer to the people’s repeated promise that they will do what God says. The blood is life poured out into death. This is what will happen to Israel if it violates the words of the LORD. This blood poses a threat.
This blood is opposite the blood of the new covenant. Of that blood issues reconciliation, forgiveness and blessing are all about. With this we, New Testament believers, are sprinkled (1Pet 1:2; Heb 12:24). In the value of that blood, we, who are no better than those who were under the old covenant, can stand before God. That is what the letter to the Hebrews makes clear.
9 - 11 The Representatives of the People See God
9 Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. 11 Yet He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they saw God, and they ate and drank.
Although at a distance, they still see something of God’s glory. Ezekiel saw something similar: “Now above the expanse that was over their heads there was something resembling a throne, like lapis lazuli in appearance; and on that which resembled a throne, high up, [was] a figure with the appearance of a man. Then I noticed from the appearance of His loins and upward something like glowing metal that looked like fire all around within it, and from the appearance of His loins and downward I saw something like fire; and [there was] a radiance around Him” (Eze 1:26-27).
What Moses sees, and later Ezekiel, is not the glory of His grace, but the glory of His holiness. It is not so much the glory of His Person. What Moses and others see of Him is connected with His feet, what speaks of the way He goes in holiness. In it something becomes visible that is “as clear as the sky itself”. The sky in all its brightness is seen in the way He goes. What He does makes visible how it is where He lives.
It is perfect to be seen in the life of the Son of God Who came from heaven to earth. “In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col 2:9; 1:19). God has come to men in a way that they are not consumed by His holiness, but attracted by His grace. Only in this way God, “who … dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1Tim 6:16), could come to men (cf. Jn 1:18).
The fact that God does not send out a consuming fire to this company, but that they may behold this scene while eating and drinking, is a ray of His grace in the midst of the darkness and threat of Sinai. He tempers, as it were, the full glory of His majesty by hiding most of it (cf. Job 26:9).
12 - 14 Moses and Joshua Climb up Higher
12 Now the LORD said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the law and the commandment which I have written for their instruction.” 13 So Moses arose with Joshua his servant, and Moses went up to the mountain of God. 14 But to the elders he said, “Wait here for us until we return to you. And behold, Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a legal matter, let him approach them.”
Moses is called by the LORD to come to Him and also to remain with Him. He will remain there for a longer time. Moses does not come, as it were, only to visit, but takes up residence with the LORD. Not that he will always stay away, because he tells the people left behind to wait until he and Joshua return to them. But even when he is back, he remains in the spirit with the LORD. He lives and acts from his relationship with Him.
It seems that Joshua may accompany him some further. After Exodus 17 (Exo 17:9) we find here the second mention of Joshua, and again in connection with Moses. He may gain the experience of coming closer to the LORD. The others have to stay behind. They may not climb any further up to the LORD.
Moses does not leave the people to their fate during his absence. He arranges substitutes. The people can go to them if they have cases, they cannot arrange among themselves. In the same way, the Lord Jesus gave gifts to the church during His absence, such as those of “administrations” (1Cor 12:28). In certain cases, they can resolve a dispute with the wisdom that has been given to them.
15 - 18 Moses Alone Meets the LORD
15 Then Moses went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the LORD rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; and on the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. 17 And to the eyes of the sons of Israel the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a consuming fire on the mountain top. 18 Moses entered the midst of the cloud as he went up to the mountain; and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
Eventually Joshua has to stay behind and Moses goes on alone. For six days the cloud, the symbol of the residence of the glory of God, covers the mountain. Moses is waiting all this time. He does not become impatient like later Saul, who also has to wait, but acts impatiently and thereby forfeits his kingship (1Sam 13:8-14).
On the seventh day the LORD calls him. Then Moses enters the cloud; he enters the glory of God, to abide there forty days and forty nights. In that time, he gets to hear and see beautiful things from God in view of God’s dwelling among His people.
The glory that Moses enters seems to be a consuming fire for the Israelites. Here we see the big difference with the time we live in. Whoever is made fit for the presence of God will feel at home there. Whoever believes that he can please God on the basis of the law will always think of God’s presence with fear and trembling.