Part 7: The Divine Encounter at Sinai
Meditations in Exodus: 61. Covenant Commitment
Ex 19:7,8 So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD.
And so we now come to a new phase in the life of Israel. They have been delivered out of Egypt and they have traversed the desert, down through the Sinai Peninsular until they have reached that same mountain where the Lord first revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush. I would pause at this point and have to ask a question or two. This series is about the Exodus; how far do we go? We have seen the actual Exodus and their desert travels out of Egypt and down to Sinai. Might we say this is the end of the Exodus?
No, I believe we need to go on and see the big picture that will conclude when they actually go to enter the Land. The Lord’s intent was declared right at the beginning of His encounter with Moses: “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey–the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.” (Ex 3:8) That was the Lord’s goal, the end play, if you like, of the Exodus. Now I am also aware that we are about to plow into large swathes of Law but I am going to restrict our studies to the historical incidents, having dealt with the Law in a completely different set of studies (see ‘Lessons from the Law’)
So they have arrived at the mountain and, as we saw in the previous study, Moses instinctively(?) goes up on the mountain, perhaps to the place where he had previously met the Lord and the Lord declared His intentions about the future of Israel – a covenant or agreement between Himself and Israel. He would bless them and make them a special people if they will obey Him. It is really that simple. So now we pick up the story.
“So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak.” (v.7) Now be very clear about this; Moses conveys to the elders exactly what the Lord had said. There can be no mistaking it, it is very clear. Now observe the response: “The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” (v.8a) The people were very positive, which is excellent, and we will go on to see that a number of times they reiterated their commitment to the Lord. “So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD.” (v.8b)
So Moses goes back up the mountain a second time to meet with the Lord. The Lord could have spoken with Moses at the bottom of the mountain in front of the people but by this constant going back up on the mountain there is a sense of the Lord being divided off from the people and we are going to see how that feeling is about to be accentuated. So Moses goes to tell the Lord what has happened (as if the Lord didn’t know!!!) but before he can speak, “The LORD said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” (v.9a) This is the Lord doing all He can for Moses and his people to make very clear what is going on – this is a close encounter of the divine kind, a real encounter that the people will be able to hear; they will hear God’s words spoken out loud.
I believe the Lord only speaks out loud on very special occasions – and this is clearly the most special of occasions. “Then Moses told the LORD what the people had said.” (v.9b) Yes, the Lord would have known that the people had said, but there is this expression of personal interactive communication so that Moses is seen as the mediator between God and His people. Some of the things that are going on here almost appear staged so that a point will be made and remembered. If Israel had any doubt before, it should be quite clear now that Moses has a very personal relationship with the Lord.
So now the Lord gives Moses some instructions to pass on to Moses that are clearly designed to lay down a new understanding about the Lord: “And the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, `Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. He shall surely be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on him. Whether man or animal, he shall not be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they go up to the mountain.” (v.10-13)
Now what is going on here. Well, we have just seen the elders of Israel agree to the covenant that the Lord proposes but it almost seems to come too easily. Perhaps it is the same feeling that it seems that many (young) Christians have, that God is ‘their friend’ or ‘their buddy’, i.e. well, God has made Himself known to us and we are clearly a special people, He’s for us, we’re for Him and everything is at peace in the world. So in some senses I believe that is healthier than the opposite extreme that God is a ‘hard man’ who is only looking for an excuse to punish us. Both extremes are wrong.
Yes, we do have an intimate relationship with the Lord but we should never be casual about it and it is that, I would suggest that is behind these instructions to Israel now. For us today it needs to be more of an attitude than a series of actions as seen here. But what do we see here? First, there is a call to personal preparation to meet God; see the language – ‘consecrate, wash’ i.e. cleanse yourself as far as you are able. Do what you can to be in a right attitude when you approach the Lord. Second, there is a warning to keep a respectful distance. This is almighty and all-powerful and all-wise and all-knowing holy God that we are talking about. Never ever reduce Him to buddy status.
In respect of God we have no rights, we cannot demand anything, but the truth is that He has initiated the possibility of relationship and so, third, there will be times of intimate closeness but they will be when God decrees. When a divine ‘ram’s horn’ is blown we may draw close. For us today it is when the Holy Spirit comes. Then is the time to know the wonder of divine intimacy, but not before. Jesus died to bring this possibility about; let’s not be casual about it. Reverence and respect, yes, but amazingly the New Testament tells us that we can now call him ‘daddy’. Amazing! Wonderful! Hallelujah!