Meditations in Exodus: 63. The Fear of the Lord
Ex 20:18,19 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
My own feeling is that these verses in chapters 19 and now 20, about Israel’s responses to the Lord, are not exactly dramatic or life-bringing and it is difficult to apply lessons apart from the obvious one, but as we ponder on and reflect on what is going on there is something significant here to be noted.
At the end of chapter 19 we saw Israel camped near the base of Mount Sinai and they see lightning, clouds and smoke and hear crashes of lightning and the sound of unearthly trumpets. They are called to approach the mountain but not go up on it, on pain of death. As they saw and heard all these things they trembled (19:16)
Moving into chapter 20 we find the giving of the Ten Commandments and it is worth noting the opening words: “And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (20:1,2) The foundation of all the Law is the Lord who delivered them from Egypt. Every time there is reference to Egypt we are reminded of God’s power and authority as He brought the plagues to discipline Egypt. This is the God who is still with them. On one side there is the reminder of the terrible things God did, which must bring with it a sense of awe if not fear, but the big overarching truth is that God did those things to deliver His people and He has led them every day since and provided for them. This, surely, should bring comfort and reassurance. Everything God has done He has done for them and yet He has a land ready for them to take after they leave Sinai.
The point to be made is that there is with God, always a balance between fear, reverence and respect on one hand (because of His power, greatness and holiness) and grateful thankfulness because of His wonderful grace and mercy shown to us. The former may be unnerving and be used to keep us in right attitude towards Him, but the latter should bring reassurance and security to us. I say there needs to be a balance because we have a tendency to swing towards one or the other. A weak sense of the fear of the Lord brings a casual, sloppy form of Christianity. An over-strong sense of the fear of the Lord brings a legalistic fear that inhibits growth of relationship. A weak sense of the awareness of God’s grace brings uncertainty, doubts and even wrong fear. An over-strong sense of God’s grace can bring licentiousness and casualness in moral behavior. A balance need to be brought in both, and both need to be held in balance.
Following the Ten Commandments and before the bulk of the law is given, we have a short description of how Israel are handling this situation. To be fair, it is perhaps understandable that Israel react as they do for this is still early days in their life with the Lord: “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” (v.18,19) The present manifestations are so dramatic that it means they tend to forget all the good God has done for them. Their fear of dying is irrational when you think about it because if means they completely forget all the trouble God has gone to, to bring them here. Indeed, there is going to come a time when Moses is going to have to make that point to the Lord
So, “Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.” (v.19,20) Any talk of being put to death for going onto the mountain is simply a form of test for Israel and, as we have seen in the past, when God tests us it is simply to prove us, to bring us through into a good place where we know we have done the will of God and overcome.
If you read the following chapters you will see we have come to a place where the Lord shares laws with Moses for Israel, to constitute them a nation. The laws will form the basis of the covenant with God, the things they need to obey as their side of it. They are laws for maintaining law and order in the community and in that sense there is nothing onerous about them, they are simply for their well-being. As we said previously, we will not deal with the laws, but with the incidents involving the people.
The lessons we need to hold onto as we move more into the Sinai experience must be about how we hold that balance both within and between the fear of the Lord and the grace of the Lord. There will always be a sense where the fear of the Lord is to be part of our lives, simply because of His holiness, His utter difference from us in so many ways, and yet the Lord has gone to great trouble to reassure us and show that it is possible for us to have a loving, intimate relationship with Him. An illustration: I have known scary preachers, held in awe by their congregations, and yet I have seen them with their small children. Those little children come rushing into the room when he returns home and leap into his arms with no inhibitions. They have no fears of ‘the great man’ because all they know is his loving responses to them. May I suggest the more we genuinely know and experience the Lord, the more we will be more overcome by His love rather than His fear. May it be so.