Meditations in Exodus: 62. Safety Measures
Ex 19:16,17 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.
In the previous study we started to observe the warnings that have come through the Lord’s instructions to Israel to not be casual when meeting Him. These are sobering passages. The Lord has delivered Israel out of Egypt and has led them through the desert to Sinai providing for them along the way and now He prepares them to have an encounter that is unique in history. This entire people are going to have an encounter with the Lord. It is something they should pass on to their grandchildren and to all future generations; this is what makes them a unique people.
The Lord has given instructions as to how the people are to prepare themselves and so “After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them, and they washed their clothes. Then he said to the people, “Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations.” (v.14,15) The additional instruction about sexual relations is not because sex is wrong but because in the days to come the law will suggest various ways that you can prepare yourself to be ‘special’ if you want a special encounter with the Lord and holding back in this area is a token sign of that.
So the third day comes and they are ready. They have done all they can do and now it is for the Lord to make His move. “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled.” (v.16) They are still in their camp a little way off from the foothills of the mountain and suddenly it begins. Thunder, lighting, thick cloud and the divine trumpet call. It is time to come close.
“Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder.” (v.17-19) I don’t know if you have seen such films as ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or ‘Independence Day’. There the film makers use clouds and sound to create this awesome sense of ‘the coming’. This wasn’t just a cloud but it was smoke, it was like a volcano erupting but with no lava present. As it grew and grew, what made it even more eerie was the sound of the trumpet on the mountain getting louder and louder. But this isn’t just theatrical effects, this is a personal encounter: “Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.” (v.19b) What follows must indicate what He said: “The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain.” (v.20) It is presumably a voice that all the people can hear and “So Moses went up” (v.20b)
What now follows seems rather strange: “the LORD said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish. Even the priests, who approach the LORD, must consecrate themselves, or the LORD will break out against them.” (v.21,22) It is strange because the Lord has already told Moses to instruct the people like this (see v.10-13) but the Lord adds two things here. First, the people are not to ‘see’ God and second there is a reference to priests although so far there is no mention of a priesthood. Let’s consider both these things.
First, not ‘seeing’ the Lord. There are two things that come out of scripture. First, whenever there are heavenly revelations (e.g. Ezek 1, Rev 4,5) what is seen is beyond human understanding and so the most commonly used word is ‘like’ as the observers try to grasp something of what is before them. Second, there is also the suggestion that the glory of the Lord is so bright that it would simply burn up the observer. Thus distance and obscurity are required to protect the human observers.
Next, the reference to priests. The only people who are going to get close to the Lord in the chapters that follow are the key leaders and in that they then take on the role of priest, as representing the people to the Lord. The word here, I suggest, speaks of those leaders.
So why does the Lord repeat this when He has already instructed Moses? Possibly to add in the two above bits of information but also possibly to see if Moses himself has taken it in and so we find, “Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, `Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.’” (v.23) i.e. I have told the people. We then find, “The LORD replied, “Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the LORD, or he will break out against them.” So Moses went down to the people and told them.” (v.24,25) There again the reference to the ‘priests’ but they haven’t got any yet, just elders. Sounds like the New Testament church where the Bible calls local leaders ‘elders’ but some parts of the church call them ‘priests’. Interesting! Those elders will have their turn but for the moment the ‘leadership encounter’ is to be extended from just Moses to include Aaron who, after all, has played a significant part in the Exodus – but no one else. So Moses goes and tells the people.
We have already suggested that the limitation on not being able to ‘see’ the Lord was given to protect Israel from being destroyed by the incredible glory of God. Moses himself has never ‘seen’ the Lord only heard Him a number of times. Prohibiting the people from coming up on the mountain does the same thing. It is not so much that God is not to be seen as a tourist attraction but the coming together of the divine and the human is potentially very risky – risky at least from the human side. I suspect that the holiness or glory of God is one of the things we know least about even though the word holy is often used to designate the presence of God (for He alone is holy).
The apostle Paul speaks of us seeing through a glass darkly (old versions) or “as in a mirror” in modern versions. Think how people try to observe an eclipse of the sun – either through dark glasses or even using a mirror. Now imagine something a million more times powerful than our sun and the incredible marvel is that somehow the Lord manages to communicate with mankind without destroying us. Later the Lord was to say to Moses, “no one may see me and live.” (Ex 33:20) It’s not that the Lord doesn’t want us to see Him but that if we did as mere human flesh we would be instantly burnt up by the glory of the Lord. Don’t see these instructions as legalistic but expressions of God’s mercy and grace. What a miracle of His grace and mercy it is that we make it through even one day! Ponder on that and thank Him.