Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. They must wash their clothes
Hebrews 12:18). It is interesting to observe that, with the latter part of this chapter, we enter on an entirely new phase in the history of God's revelation of himself to Israel. Terror enough there has been in the previous portions of the book - terror and "a mighty hand" - awful manifestations of God's power and holiness; but towards Israel there has been displayed only benignity and fatherly affection. Their wants have been ungrudgingly supplied; even their murmurings, as we have seen, did not elicit from God more than a passing reproof. But now that Jehovah takes his awful seat on Sinai, and proceeds to give forth his law, he clothes himself, even towards Israel, with a majesty and terror which strike the people with dismay. The fact is obviously one of deep significance, requiring, as it will repay, our close attention. What, meanwhile, we have to note is, that God did not reveal himself in law and terror till he had given the people many practical evidences of his love for them, and so had won their confidence. Without this, the terrors of Sinai could scarcely have been borne by them.
I. THE PREPARATION (vers. 10-16). The revelation at Sinai was distinctively a revelation of the Divine holiness. From this fact, rightly apprehended, we may deduce the necessity for the preparations and precautions referred to in the text. The design of the lawgiving was to bring to light, and impress on men's minds, that holiness and justice which are essential parts of God's character, and which underlie all his dealings with them, even when most veiled by tenderness and grace. The time had come which God judged best for such a revelation being made. Made it had to be at some point or other in the history of the Divine dealings with men; and no time was so suitable for it as this of the constitution of the covenant with Israel. The instructions issued to the people accord with this design, and have as their end the impressing of their minds with a deep sense of the holiness of the Being into whose presence they are approaching, and of their own unholiness and unfitness to draw near to him. Holiness is -
1. Absolute moral purity and perfection. It is sanctity of character. It implies, whether in God or man, the steadfast bent of the will towards all that is good and true and just and pure. In God, it is an inflexible determination to uphold at all costs the interests of righteousness and truth. It is an intensity of nature, a fire of zeal or jealousy, directed to the maintenance of these interests. Hence the requirement that in preparation for their meeting with him at the mount, the people should "sanctify" themselves for two whole days (ver. 10). The sanctification enjoined was mainly external - the washing of clothes, etc.; but this, in itself a symbol of the need of heart purity, was doubtless to be attended with mental and spiritual preparations. Holiness is to be studied by us in all our approaches to God. The unholy will not be spurned by God, if they come to him in penitence, relying on his grace in Christ; but his end in receiving them is that he may make them holy, and holiness is the condition of subsequent fellowship (Romans 6.; 2 Corinthians 5:15; Ephesians 1:4; Ephesians 6:25-27; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; Titus 2:11-15; Hebrews 12:14; 1 John 1:6, 7).
2. The principle which guards the Divine honour. Thus Martensen defines it - " Holiness is the principle that guards the eternal distinction between Creator and creature, between God and man, in the union effected between them: it preserves the Divine dignity and majesty from being infringed upon." Hence the command to Moses to set bounds to the mountain, that the people might be kept back (vers. 12, 13). So stringently was this to be enforced, that if a man, or even a beast, should touch the mountain, the trespasser was to be put to death. The statement - "When the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount" (ver. 13), is probably to be read in the light of ver. 17. The lesson taught is that of reverential awe of God. Even when we have the fullest confidence in approaching God as a Father, we ought not to allow ourselves to forget the infinite distance which still exists between him and us. Our service is to be "with reverence and godly fear" (Hebrews 12:28).
II. GOD'S DESCENT ON SINAI (vers. 16-19). God's descent on Mount Sinai was in fire (ver. 18), and with great terribleness. The scene, as described in these verses, is sufficiently awful. The adjuncts of the descent were -
1. A thick cloud upon the mount.
2. Thunders and lightnings.
3. The voice of a trumpet exceeding loud.
4. A fire "burning unto the midst of heaven" (Deuteronomy 4:11).
5. Smoke as of a furnace - the result of the action of the fire.
6. The mountain quaking.
This awfulness and terror are the more remarkable when we remember -
(1) That what we have here is not God the Judge, arraigning before him trembling and convicted sinners, to pronounce on them sentence of doom; but a God of grace, summoning to his presence a people whom he loves, and has redeemed, and has just declared to be to him a peculiar treasure, above all people.
(2) That the design of this manifestation is to give to Israel a law which shall be the bond of a covenant between him and them, and by which it is intended that they shall order their lives. The facts to be explained are -
(1) That the phenomena alluded to are all of an alarming nature, and
(2) That most of them have a symbolical significance, which enhances the impression of terror. The fire, e.g., is the symbol of holiness. The thick cloud suggests mystery. It tells also of how God must veil his glory from man, if man is not to be consumed by it. The smoke speaks of wrath (Deuteronomy 29:20). To the question thus raised, Why all this awfulness and terror? the following answers may be made: -
1. Law is the revelation of God's holiness. It is the expression of the demand of holiness. This is the one thing it has to do, to declare what are the requirements of holiness, and to enunciate these requirements in the form of commands to be obeyed. But in order that law may serve its ends, it must be given in its proper character as law with all the adjuncts of authority and majesty which rightfully belong to it, and without dilution or weakening of any kind. Time enough, after the law has been given, and the constitution is firmly settled on its bases, to say how grace is to deal with such as fall short of the standard of its requirements. And, as formerly remarked, a revelation of law, at some period or other in the history of God's dealings with mankind, was plainly necessary -
(1) That the full requirements of God's holiness should be made known. Nothing was to be gained by the establishment of a constitution in which the requirements of holiness should be glozed over, veiled, treated as non-existent, kept out of view. Sooner or later they must be brought to light. The relations of God with men could never be placed upon a satisfactory footing, till the fullest recognition had been accorded to them. If the breach between heaven and earth is to be healed - healed thoroughly - it is not to be by ignoring the claims of holiness, but by recognising them to the utmost, and then "devising means" whereby, in consistency with these claims, God's "banished" may still not be "expelled from him" (2 Samuel 14:14). The choice of this time for making the revelation was connected with God's whole design in the calling of Israel.
(2) That men might have the knowledge of sin. The law must be made known that men may understand the number and extent of their transgressions. The lawgiving at Sinai, therefore, marks a distinct stage in the progress of God's revelations. The design was to give Israel just impressions of what the law really was - this law which they were binding themselves to keep - to force upon them the conviction of its great awfulness and sanctity. Fitly, therefore, was it promulgated with every circumstance which could arouse the torpid conscience, and give impressiveness and force to the revelation.
2. Most of those to whom the law was given, while outwardly the people of God, and about to take on them the obligations of a solemn covenant, were really unregenerate. This circumstance, which lay in the truth of their relation to God as distinguished from mere profession, was fitly signified by the manner in which the law was given. The law shows by its form that it was not made for a righteous man (1 Timothy 1:9).
3. For the sin which the law brought to light, no proper expiation was as yet provided. Typical atonements might indeed be offered; but not till the great propitiator came could the guilt be actually removed. God's forgivenesses, under this first covenant, were not remission proper, but praetermission (Romans 3:25). Christ came "for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament" (Hebrews 9:15), which, therefore, were standing over unexpiated. This fact, that the law had claims against the sinner, no proper means of discharging which as yet existed, had also its recognition in the manner in which the law was promulgated.
4. The law, in the peculiar way in which it entered into the Sinaitic covenant, was not a saving and blessing power, but, on the contrary, could only condemn. The law, as it entered into the covenant with Israel, could neither justify nor sanctify. It concluded all under sin, and left them there. It proved itself unequal even to the lower task of restraining outward corruptions. Its curb was ineffectual to keep sin in check. It could give commandments written on stone, but had no power to write them on the fleshly tables of the heart (cf. 2 Corinthians 3.).
III. THE RENEWED WARNING (vers. 19-25). God, probably by a voice audible to the whole congregation (cf. ver. 6), called Moses to the top of the mount. No sooner, however, had he ascended than he was sent back again to renew the warning to the people to keep strictly within their bounds. The reason given was - "Lest they break through unto the Lord to gaze, and many of them perish... lest the Lord break forth upon them" (vers. 21, 22). The passage teaches,
1. That the heart is naturally disobedient. Even under these most solemn circumstances the Israelites could hardly be restrained. The very prohibition was a provocative to their self-will to transgress the boundary. To gratify this impulse they were disposed to risk the consequences. Had the danger not been very real, Moses would not have been sent back so promptly as he was. Cf. what Paul says on the law - "I had not known sin but by the law," etc. (Romans 7:7-14).
2. That temerity in Divine things exposes the trangressor to severe punishment. Cf. the men of Bethshemesh and the ark (1 Samuel 6:19), Uzzah, Uzziah, etc.
3. That it is hard even for good men to credit the extent of the rebelliousness of the human heart. Moses thought it extremely unlikely that the people would do what God told him they were just on the point of doing. He relied upon his "bounds," and on the strict charges he had given them to keep them back (ver. 23). Alas! it was soon to be discovered that even stronger bounds than his would not restrain them. One design of the economy of law was to demonstrate the futility of every attempt to restrain wickedness by the system of mere "bounds." What is needed is not "bounds," but renewal.
4. God's near presence is perilous to the sinner. - J.O.
The third day the Lord will come down.1. The Mediator willingly cometh from God to impart His will to His people.
2. The true Mediator is as ready to sanctify His people as God would have Him.
3. Souls must follow their Mediator's command for sanctification (ver. 14).
4. It is the Mediator's care to prepare a people for God at His time, to whom He is sent.
5. Lawful enjoyments in the flesh sometimes must be denied for better attendance on God.
6. Great is the fitness required in souls for receiving rightly the law from God (ver. 15).
(G. Hughes, B. D.)
(George Breay, B. A.)
Family Treasury.A traveller relates that, when passing through an Austrian town, his attention was directed to a forest on a slope near the road, and he was told that death was the penalty of cutting down one of those trees. He was incredulous until he was further informed that they were the protection of the city, breaking the force of the descending avalanche which, without this natural barrier, would sweep over the homes of thousands. When a Russian army was there and began to cut away the fence for fuel, the inhabitants besought them to take their dwellings instead, which was done. Such, he well thought, are the sanctions of God's moral law. On the integrity and support of that law depends the safety of the universe. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die," is a merciful proclamation. "He that offends in one point is guilty of all," is equally just and benevolent. To transgress once is to lay the axe at the root of the tree which represents the security and peace of every loyal soul in the wide dominions of the Almighty.
(R. W. Dale.)
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