Exodus 19

The Giving of the Law at Sinai
Exodus 19 – 24
The Giving of the Law. Now we come to one of the single most important events in the journey to Canaan, in the history of Israel, and in God’s dealings with man! Up until Sinai the Lord had been dealing with Israel simply on the ground of His own grace, as their Sustainer, Supplier, and Preserver. At Sinai the Lord puts forth a proposal to deal with them on the ground of their responsibility. This was a test from God for Israel, and they demonstrated that they had not appreciated the continued grace He had shown them. The lessons before Sinai focus on showing what is in God’s hearts, and the lessons after Sinai focus on showing what is in Israel’s heart. The law exposes what is in man’s heart. In fact, Galatians 3:19 explains that the law was given to expose man’s transgressions. The law was never intended to improve man. It was only ever intended to cause man to see his need, and thus to cast himself entirely upon the grace of God. William Kelly said, “Israel, like other natural men, perverted the law to make out a spurious righteousness of their own, and to cloak their sins under the smoke of their sacrifices”.1 A good part of the New Testament is dedicated to the issue of Christian’s putting themselves or others under the law, either for justification or practical holiness. Because of this, the passage before us has profound significance.
¶ 1 In the third month after the departure of the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai: 2 they departed from Rephidim, and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and encamped in the wilderness; and Israel encamped there before the mountain. 3 And Moses went up to God, and Jehovah called to him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: 4 Ye have seen what I have done to the Egyptians, and how I have borne you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 And now, if ye will hearken to my voice indeed and keep my covenant, then shall ye be my own possession out of all the peoples — for all the earth is mine — 6 and ye shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak to the children of Israel. vv.1-6 The Proposal. The place where Israel now came in their journey is uniquely associated with Jehovah, and later with the Law itself. It is called “Mount Sinai”, “Mount Horeb”, or simply “the mountain of God” (Exodus 3:1). Here Jehovah speaks of having brought the children of Israel “to myself”. This is the same place where God had revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush, and He promised Moses “this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). We have a number of things in this initial proposal from Jehovah. First, we have a statement of Jehovah’s grace toward Israel; “Ye have seen what I have done to the Egyptians, and how I have borne you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself”. On eagles’ wings is a symbol of gracious deliverance by God’s own power. The Lord had delivered them from their enemies, and had carried them thus far. It wasn’t their own efforts, military success, etc. but the Lord’s grace. Second, what was always Jehovah’s desire for Israel. He wanted Israel to be a special possession for Himself out of all nations. Jehovah wanted Israel to be “to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation”. A kingdom of priests would mean that Israel would represent and pattern the character of Jehovah to teach the other nations His ways, and then as the nations came up to worship Jehovah, Israel would conduct the worship of the nations. However, Israel never became a nation of priests, as this chapter shows, because of self-confidence. Nevertheless, this original calling for Israel will be made good in the Millennium when the nations will come up to Jerusalem to worship Jehovah (Isaiah 2:2; Zech. 14:16), and under the Melchizedek priest, Israel will indeed be “a kingdom of priests”! But in a spiritual sense, Christians today have a similar privilege, as Peter shows in his first epistle. Each believer in Christianity is a priest, and the character of our worship is far higher than Israel’s with Jehovah (John 4:23; 1 Peter 2:5, 9). Truely, He has saved the best wine until now. But the vital detail to notice is in v.5, where Jehovah proposes the fulfillment of this purposes to be conditional the basis of Israel’s obedience to His covenant; “and now, if ye will hearken to my voice indeed and keep my covenant”
7 And Moses came and called the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which Jehovah had commanded him. 8 And all the people answered together, and said, All that Jehovah has spoken will we do! And Moses brought the words of the people back to Jehovah. vv.7-8 The Words of the People to Jehovah. The people had already demonstrated that the grace of Jehovah had not penetrated their hearts. Their continued murmuring and disobedience along the path from Egypt to Sinai demonstrated this. But now Israel leaves the ground of grace and places themselves on the ground of their own responsibility; “And all the people answered together, and said, All that Jehovah has spoken will we do! And Moses brought the words of the people back to Jehovah”. The lesson of the two trees of Eden is seen here. The tree of responsibility and the tree of grace are mutually exclusive. Our first parents were free to eat of the tree of life but not the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But once they disobeyed and partook of the forbidden fruit, they were barred from the tree of life. So it is with man. He must abide on the ground of God’s grace. To leave it for the ground of human responsibility is inevitable ruin. The people were trying to tell the Lord that they would merit His goodness to them. That is the will of the flesh, and a legal mind, and it needs to be wasted out in the wilderness. They agreed without hearing the terms of the covenant, and so God allows them to hear the terms of the covenant over the next several chapters.  In chapter 24, after hearing the terms of covenant, they still agree to it. What self-confidence and pride, to think they were capable of meriting the blessing of God! Instead they should’ve cast themselves completely on God’s grace. In chapter 24 they double down on their commitment, and the blood is sprinkled, and they are formerly under the law.

Jehovah Comes to Sinai (19:9-25)

¶ 9 And Jehovah said to Moses, Lo, I will come to thee in the cloud’s thick darkness, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee also for ever. And Moses told the words of the people to Jehovah. 10 And Jehovah said to Moses, Go to the people, and hallow them to-day and to-morrow, and let them wash their clothes; 11 and let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day Jehovah will come down before the eyes of all the people on mount Sinai. 12 And set bounds round about the people, saying, Take heed to yourselves, not to go up unto the mountain nor touch the border of it: whatever toucheth the mountain shall certainly be put to death: 13 not a hand shall touch it, but it shall certainly be stoned, or shot through; whether it be a beast or a man, it shall not live. When the long drawn note of the trumpet soundeth, they shall come up to the mountain. 14 And Moses came down from the mountain to the people, and hallowed the people; and they washed their clothes. 15 And he said to the people, Be ready for the third day; do not come near your wives. vv.9-15 Preparation and Warning. The Lord told Moses that He would appear in a cloud of thick darkness, but the people would hear His voice. We find in the following chapter that after the ten commandments were given, the people declined to hear the voice of the Lord any longer, it was so terrible to them. But it would make an impression on the people that they would never forget; they would believe Moses. In preparation for seeing Jehovah in His fiery character of justice, the people must be hallowed, and their clothes washed. Immediately after putting themselves under the law, the barriers between Israel and Jehovah must go up; “set bounds round about the people”. That is what the law does. It sets bounds on the people. The people were not to come near the mountain, even to touch the border of it. There was no room for nearness to the Lord. Nor was spontaneity allowed; they could only come to the mountain when they heard the sound of the trumpet. Any person or animal who touched the mountain would have to be put to death. These verses are alluded to in Hebrews 12:18-21, describing the system of law.
¶ 16 And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunders and lightnings and a heavy cloud on the mountain, and the sound of the trumpet exceeding loud; and the whole people that was in the camp trembled. 17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 And the whole of mount Sinai smoked, because Jehovah descended on it in fire; and its smoke ascended as the smoke of a furnace; and the whole mountain shook greatly. 19 And the sound of the trumpet increased and became exceeding loud; Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice. 20 And Jehovah came down on mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain; and Jehovah called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. vv.16-20 Jehovah Comes Down. At last Jehovah comes down upon the mountain, and the thunder, lightning, earthquake, loud trumpet, fire and smoke showed the character of a holy God in judgment. God as He is revealed in Jesus is the same God that we have here. His holiness has not diminished one iota. But the cross of Christ has satisfied His holy claims and glorified His nature such that God is free to come out to us in love and grace. Here Jehovah comes to the top of the mountain and calls Moses up to Him. In the fulness of times, God would come down to man in the Person of the Son, whom He sent forth “come of woman, come under law”.
21 And Jehovah said to Moses, Go down, testify to the people that they break not through to Jehovah to gaze, and many of them perish. 22 And the priests also, who come near to Jehovah, shall hallow themselves, lest Jehovah break forth on them. 23 And Moses said to Jehovah, The people cannot come up to mount Sinai; for thou hast testified to us, saying, Set bounds about the mountain, and hallow it. 24 And Jehovah said to him, Go, descend, and thou shalt come up, thou, and Aaron with thee; but the priests and the people shall not break through to go up to Jehovah, lest he break forth on them. 25 So Moses went down to the people, and told them. vv.21-25 Warnings Reinforced. In a striking turn, the Lord tells Moses, who had just gotten to the top of the mountain, to go back down and “that they break not through to Jehovah to gaze, and many of them perish”, and that they priests would hallow themselves. Moses replied, telling the Lord that he had already set limits or boundaries around the mountain. He had done as the Lord had asked previously, and now what was the sense going back down the mountain to warn the people again? “Jehovah said to him, Go, descend”. It was necessary for Moses to take this additional step. The holiness of God demanded it. Such is the place of those under law. They are “under guardians and stewards”, kept at a distance, strangers to the liberty of sons (Gal. 4).
  1. Kelly, W. Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews.