All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain in smoke. And when the people saw this, they trembled and stood at a distance.
- their design and their effects
I. THEIR DESIGN.
1. Not to slay the people. The people dreaded that if God spoke to them again, they would die (ver. 19). But Moses said - No; this was not the design of the manifestation. "Fear not" (ver. 20). The voice of the law in Scripture, though it is felt in the conscience to be a voice of death (Romans 7:9-11), is not intended to be really so. It is meant to lead to Christ.
2. To prove the people (ver. 20). God gave this awful manifestation, that his fear might ever after be before their faces. They had heard with their own ears the proclamation of the law, and they had seen these terrors. If anything could awaken fear in them - a salutary fear - and keep them from apostasy, these things should. But, alas! terror is a very ineffective instrument of conversion. These Israelites soon forgot their terrors, and within forty days were dancing in mat[ glee round their golden calf (ch. 32.).
II. THEIR EFFECTS.
1. They inspired the keenest alarm. This is the invariable result in the sinful breast of any near approach of God. A fear akin to that of the Israelites has often been manifested -
(1) In presence of unusual appearances of nature (comets, eclipses, etc.).
(2) Under the powerful preaching of the realities of judgment.
(3) In prospect of death.
2. They awakened the cry for a mediator (ver. 19). However much, under ordinary circumstances, the unbeliever may scout the idea of being indebted to a mediator, it will be strange if there do not come times in his life when he feels that he needs one. Three principles in our nature give birth to this feeling -
(1) The sense of weakness and finitude.
(2) The sense of sin.
(3) The feeling of need.
The longing for fellowship with God gives rise to the desire for one to mediate that fellowship, to bring it about by making peace.
3. They impelled the self-convicted Israelites to flee from God's presence (vers. 18, 21). This is what will take place at the last judgment. How different with Moses, who had "boldness" to enter even into the thick darkness! The good man need not fear to be anywhere with God - J.O.
The Hebrews had come up out of Egypt, and were standing in front of Sinai. They turn to Moses and beg him to stand between them and God. At first it seems as if their feeling were a strange one. This is their God who is speaking to them. Would it not seem as if they would be glad to have Him come to them directly, to have Him almost look on them with eyes that they could see? That is the first question, but very speedily we feel how natural that is which actually did take place. The Hebrews had delighted in God's mercy. They had come singing up out of the Red Sea. They had followed the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud. But now they were called on to face God Himself. In behind all the superficial aspects of their life they were called on to get at its centre and its heart. There they recoiled. We are willing to know that God is there. We are willing, we are glad, that Moses should go into His presence and bring us His messages. But we will not come in sight of Him ourselves. Life would be awful. "Let not God speak with us, lest we die!" I want to bid you think how natural and how common such a temper is. There are a few people among us who are always full of fear that life will become too trivial and petty. There are always a great many people who live in perpetual anxiety lest life should become too awful and serious and deep and solemn. There is something in all of us which feels that fear. We are always hiding behind effects to keep out of sight of their causes, behind events to keep out of sight of their meanings, behind facts to keep out of sight of principles, behind men to keep out of the sight of God. We have all known men from whom it seemed as if it would be good to lift away some of the burden of life, to make the world seem easier and less serious. Some such people perhaps we know to-day; but as we look abroad generally do we not feel sure that such people are the exceptions? The great mass of people are stunted and starved with superficialness. They never touch the real reasons and meanings of living. They turn and hide their faces, or else run away, when those profoundest things present themselves. They will not let God speak with them. So all their lives lack tone; nothing brave, enterprising, or aspiring is in them. For we may lay it down as a first principle that he who uses superficially any power or any person which he is capable of using profoundly gets harm out of that unaccepted opportunity which he lets slip. You talk with some slight acquaintance, some man of small capacity and little depth, about ordinary things in very ordinary fashion; and you do not suffer for it. You get all that he has to give. But you hold constant intercourse with some deep nature, some man of great thoughts and true spiritual standards, and you insist on dealing merely with the surface of him, touching him only at the most trivial points of living, and you do get harm. The unused capacity of the man — all which he might be to you, but which you are refusing to let him be — is always there demoralizing you. But — here is the point — for this man with his capacities to live in this world with its opportunities and yet to live on its surface and to refuse its depths, to turn away from its problems, to reject the voice of God that speaks out of it, is a demoralizing and degrading thing. It mortifies the unused powers, and keeps the man always a traitor to his privileges and his duties. Take one part of life and you can see it very plainly. Take the part with which we are familiar here in church. Take the religious life of man. True religion is, at its soul, spiritual sympathy with, spiritual obedience to, God. But religion has its superficial aspects — first of truth to be proved and accepted, and then, still more superficial, of forms to be practised and obeyed. Now suppose that a man setting out to be religious confines himself to these superficial regions and refuses to go further down. He learns his creed and says it. He rehearses his ceremony and practises it. The deeper voice of his religion cries to him from its unsounded depths, "Come, understand your soul! Come, through repentance enter into holiness! Come, hear the voice of God." But he draws back; he piles between himself and that importunate invitation the cushions of his dogma and his ceremony. "Let God's voice come to me deadened and softened through these," he says. "Let not God speak to me, lest I die. Speak thou to me, and I will hear." So he cries to his priest, to his sacrament, which is his Moses. Is he not harmed by that? Is it only that he loses the deeper spiritual power which he might have had? Is it not also that the fact of its being there and of his refusing to take it makes his life unreal, fills it with a suspicion of cowardice, and puts it on its guard lest at any time this ocean of spiritual life which has been shut out should burst through the barriers which exclude it and come pouring in? Suppose the opposite. Suppose the soul so summoned accepts the fulness of its life. It opens its ears and cries, "Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth." It invites the infinite and eternal aspects of life to show themselves. Thankful to Moses for his faithful leadership, it is always pressing through him to the God for whom he speaks. Thankful to priest and church and dogma, it will always live in the truth of its direct, immediate relationship to God, and make them minister to that. What a consciousness of thoroughness and safety; what a certain, strong sense of resting on the foundation of all things is there then! Oh! do not let your religion satisfy itself with anything less than God. Insist on having your soul get at Him and hear His voice. Never, because of the mystery, the awe, perhaps the perplexity and doubt which come with the great experiences, let yourself take refuge in the superficial things of faith. It is better to be lost on the ocean than to be tied to the shore. Therefore seek great experiences of the soul, and never turn your back on them when God sends them, as He surely will! The whole world of thought is full of the same necessity and the same danger. A man sets himself to think of this world we live in. He discovers facts. He arranges facts into what he calls laws. Behind his laws he feels and owns the powers to which he gives the name of force. He will go no further. He dimly hears the depth below, of final causes, of personal purposes, roaring as the great ocean roars under the steamship which, with its clamorous machineries and its precious freight of life, goes sailing on the ocean's bosom. You say to him, "Take this into your account. Your laws are beautiful, your force is gracious and sublime. But neither is ultimate. You have not reached the end and source of things in these. Go further. Let God speak to you." Can you not hear the answer? "Nay, that perplexes all things. That throws confusion into what we have made plain and orderly and clear. Let not God speak to us, lest we die!" You think what the study of Nature might become if, keeping every accurate and careful method of investigation of the way in which the universe is governed and arranged, it yet was always hearing, always rejoicing to hear, behind all methods and governments and machineries, the sacred movement of the personal will and nature which is the soul of all. The same is true about all motive. How men shrink from the profoundest motives! I ask you why you toil at your business day in and day out, year after year. I beg you to tell me why you devote yourself to study, and you reply with certain statements about the attractiveness of study and the way in which every extension or increase of knowledge makes the world more rich. All that is true, but it is slight. This refusal to trace any act back more than an inch into that world of motive out of which all acts spring, this refusal especially to let acts root themselves in Him who is the one only really worthy cause why anything should be done at all — this is what makes life grow so thin to the feeling of men who live it; this is what makes men wonder sometimes that their brethren can find it worth while to keep on working and living, even while they themselves keep on at their life and work in the same way. "Let us be quiet and natural," men say, "and all will be well" But the truth is that to be natural is to feel the seriousness and depth of life, and that no man does come to any worthy quietness who does not find God and rest on Him and talk with Him continually. The whole trouble comes from a wilful or a blind under-estimate of man. "Let not God speak to me, lest I die," the man exclaims. Is it not almost as if the fish cried, "Cast me not into the water, lest I drown"? or as if the eagle said, "Let not the sun shine on me, lest I be blind"? It is man fearing his native element. He was made to talk with God. It is not death, but his true life, to come into the Divine society and to take his thoughts, his standards, and his motives directly out of the hand of the eternal perfectness. We find a revelation of this in all the deepest and highest moments of our lives. Have you not often been surprised by seeing how men who seemed to have no capacity for such experiences passed into a sense of Divine companionship when anything disturbed their lives with supreme joy or sorrow? Once or twice, at least, in his own life, almost every one of us has found himself face to face with God, and felt how natural it was to be there. And often the question has come, "What possible reason is there why this should not be the habit and fixed condition of our life? Why should we ever go back from it?" And then, as we felt ourselves going back from it, we have been aware that we were growing unnatural again. And as this is the revelation of the highest moments of every life, so it is the revelation of the highest lives; especially it is the revelation of the highest of all lives, the life of Christ. Men had been saying, "Let not God speak to us, lest we die"; and here came Christ, the man — Jesus, the man; and God spoke with Him constantly, and yet He lived with the most complete vitality. And every now and then a great man or woman comes who is like Christ in this. There comes a man who naturally drinks of the fountain and eats of the essential bread of life. Where you deal with the mere borders of things, he gets at their hearts; where you ask counsel of expediencies, he talks with first principles; where you say, "This will be profitable," he says, "This is right." And in religion, may I not beg you to be vastly more radical and thorough? Do not avoid, but seek, the great, deep, simple things of faith.
They removed, and stood afar off.
THAT ALL MEN AS SINNERS MUST BE BROUGHT INTO CONSCIOUS CONTACT WITH MORAL LAW. The guarantees of this conscious contact are found —
1. In the law of our spiritual nature.
2. In the special Providence that is over us.
3. In the provisions of the gospel.
4. In the transactions of the final retribution.
II. THAT THIS CONSCIOUS CONTACT IS EVER ASSOCIATED WITH FEELINGS OF THE MOST TERRIBLE ALARM.
III. THAT UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF THIS MOST TERRIBLE ALARM THERE WILL ARISE A CONSCIOUS NECESSITY FOR A MEDIATOR.
IV. THAT HEAVEN HAS GRACIOUSLY PROVIDED SUCH A MEDIATOR, WHO IS EQUAL TO THE EMERGENCY.
SUPERFICIAL VIEWS OF DIVINE PROCEEDINGS INDUCE FEAR.
II. PROFOUND VIEWS OF DIVINE PROCEEDINGS ENCOURAGE CONFIDENCE.
III. PROFOUND VIEWS OF DIVINE PROCEEDINGS LEAD TO A CORRECT UNDERSTANDING OF DIVINE PURPOSES.
IV. THE UNENLIGHTENED AND THE FEARING STAND AFAR OFF. "And the people stood afar off." There is no reason to keep away from God. Why should we shut out the light of a Father's compassion?
V. BUT THE HEAVEN-TAUGHT ARE TAKEN INTO THE THICK DARKNESS WHERE THE TRUE LIGHT APPEARS. Moses drew near, or more correctly, was made to draw near, unto the thick darkness where God was.
THE MODE OF THIS REVELATION WAS STRIKING (ver. 18).
1. Such a mode was necessary.(1) To reveal God's majesty — to men familiar with the puerilities of heathen worship;(2) to show that God was not to be trifled with, and His laws broken with impunity;(3) to meet the case of those open only to impressions made on their fear.
2. Such a mode served some of the most important functions of the old dispensation.
3. Such a mode was appropriate, as accompanying judicial proceedings.
II. THE RECEPTION OF THIS REVELATION WAS WHAT GOD INTENDED IT SHOULD BE.
III. THE COMFORT OF THIS REVELATION DISARMED IT OF ALL ITS TERRORS.
1. The God of their fathers had spoken.
2. God had spoken for their encouragement.
3. God had spoken but to prove their loyalty to Him. If they could stand the test, what could harm them? (Romans 8:39).
4. God had spoken for their moral elevation.
(1)"That His fear may be before your faces."
(2)"That ye sin not" (1 John 2:1, 2).Learn —
1. Not to dread God's revelation.
2. To approach God through the one new and living way which is ever open.
3. To keep all God's laws in the strength of the comfort which His presence brings.
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