The Pulpit Commentaries
ISRAEL AT SINAI,—PREPARATIONS FOR THE GIVING OF THE LAND.
THE JOURNEY TO MOUNT SINAI. From Rephidim in the Wady Feiran, where they had discomfited Amalek (Exodus 17:8-13), the Israelites moved towards Sinai, probably by the two passes known as Wady Solar and Wady-esh-Sheikh, which gradually converge and meet at the entrance to the plain of Er-Rahah. This plain is generally allowed to be "the Desert of Sinai." It is "two miles long, and half-a-mile broad", nearly flat, and dotted with tamarisk bushes. The mountains which enclose it have for the most part sloping sides, and form a sort of natural amphitheatre. The plain abuts at its south-eastern extremity on abrupt cliffs of granite rock rising from it nearly perpendicularly, and known as the Ras Sufsafeh. "That such a plain should exist at all in front of such a cliff is," as Dean Stanley well remarks, "so remarkable a coincidence with the sacred narrative, as to furnish a strong internal argument, not merely of its identity with the scene, but of the scene itself having been described by an eye-witness". All the surroundings are such as exactly suit the narrative. "The awful and lengthened approach, as to some natural sanctuary, would have been the fittest preparation for the coming scene. The low line of alluvial mounds at the foot of the cliff exactly answers to the 'bounds' which were to keep the people off front 'touching the mount.' The plain itself is not broken and uneven and narrowly shut in, like almost all others in the range, but presents a long retiring sweep, against which the people could 'remove and stand afar off' The cliff, rising like a huge altar, in front of the whole congregation, and visible against the sky in lonely grandeur from end to end of the whole plain, is the very image of the mount that might be touched, and from which the voice of God might be heard far and wide over the plain below, widened at that point to its utmost extent by the confluence of all the contiguous valleys. Here, beyond all other parts of the peninsula, is the adytum, withdrawn as if in the end 'of the world,' from all the stir and confusion of earthly things". As an eminent engineer has observed—"No spot in the world can be pointed out which combines in a more remarkable manner the conditions of a commanding height and of a plain in every part of which the sights and sounds described in Exodus would reach an assembled multitude of more than two million souls." Here then, we may well say, in the words used by the most recent of scientific explorers, "was the scene of the giving of the law. From Ras Sufsafeh the law was proclaimed to the children of Israel, assembled in the plains of Er Rahah".
In the third month. The month Sivan, corresponding nearly with our June. When the children of Israel were gone forth. Rather, "after the children of Israel had gone forth," or "after the departure of the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt." Compare Exodus 16:1, where the expression used is the same. The same day. Literally, "on that day"—which can only mean "on the day that the month began"—on the 1st of Sivan. The wilderness of Sinai. The plain Er-Rahah; as is now generally allowed, since the true character of the Wady Sebaiyeh has been shown by Dean Stanley and others.
They were departed from Rephidim. See the comment on Exodus 17:1, and compare Numbers 33:15. There Israel en-camped before the mountain. The bulk of the tents were no doubt pitched in the plain, Er-Rahah; but this may not have sufficed, and some may have been located in the Wady-ed-Deir, north-east of the Ras Sufsafeh, and others in the Seil-Leja to the west. The Ras Sufsafeh is visible from both these valleys.
Localities shaped to suit God's moral purposes.
It is scarcely possible to read the descriptions of the Sinaitic localities by modern travellers, who pointedly note their exact adaptation to the scenes transacted among them, without the feeling stealing upon us, that God, in the countless ages during which he was shaping and ordering the earth to be a fitting habitation for man was also arranging it in such sort as would best conduce to the exhibition upon it of those supernatural occurrences, which in his counsels were to constitute turning-points in the moral history of man. Take for instance Jerusalem: are we to suppose that the valleys were furrowed and the rocky platform upraised by the elements acting mechanically, as chance might direct, or not rather that God lovingly shaped, age after age, the mountain where he was about to set his name, and which was to be "the joy of the whole earth"? (Psalms 48:2.) Rome again, with its seven hills: was not this remarkable formation brought into existence to constitute the site for that capital which was to be, first and last, the pivot of the world's secular history; for five hundred years the seat of an almost universal empire; for a thousand the western ecclesiastical centre; and having in the future possibilities which the wisest forecast can only dimly indicate, but which transcend those of any other existing city. And, if in these cases Providence contrived and shaped the geographic features with a view to the future history, must it not have been the same at Sinai? Must not that vast granite cluster have been upreared in the place it holds by a series of throes which shook all the regions of the east, in order that from it the law might be given in such a way as to impress men deeply? Must not the plain Er-Rahah have been washed by floods into its present level surface to furnish a convenient place from which the multitudinous host of Israel might at once see and hear? Must not the entire Sinaitic region have been so modelled, that here should be the adytum—here and here alone in the entire district, should be the natural "inmost sanctuary"—penetrale—"holy of holies"—the centre of attraction—the fit spot for supernatural events, on which the future of mankind was to hinge for fourteen centuries? To us it seems, that God did not so much select for his supernatural communications with man the fittest of existing localities, as design the localities themselves with a view to the communications, shaping them to suit his moral purposes.
HOMILIES BY J. ORR
Exodus 19:1, Exodus 19:2
Arrival and encampment at Sinai.
We come now to the consideration of what, next to the exodus, is the greatest event in Israel's history—the ratification at Sinai of the nation's covenant with God, preceded by the giving of the law. We cannot attach too great importance to these Divine acts. The covenant at Sinai placed Israel in a totally unique relation to Jehovah. It conferred on that people an honour the like of which no nation on earth ever had, or ever has since, enjoyed. It gave rise to an economy, the express design of which was to prepare the way for Christ—to shut men up under a conviction of the hopelessness of attaining righteousness by the law, to the faith that should afterwards be revealed (Galatians 3:23). This covenant, as befitted the majesty of God, dealing with a sinful people, was to be ordained "in the hand of a mediator" (Galatians 3:19). Moses, accordingly, is seen in these verses entering on his mediatorial functions. Once, a second, and a third time, in the course of this single chapter, he is seen ascending the mount, to meet with God (Exodus 19:3, Exodus 19:8, Exodus 19:20); and once, a second, and a third time, he is sent back from its awful recesses with a message to the people. Exodus 19:1, Exodus 19:2 relate the arrival at Sinai.
I. THE NOTE OF TIME.—"In the third month," etc. (Exodus 19:1). That is, about six weeks—forty or fifty days—after leaving Egypt. This was close on the date of Pentecost, afterwards traditionally observed as the anniversary of the giving of the law. It was probably with allusion to this fact that, in the new economy, the day of Pentecost was chosen for the gift of the Spirit to the Church (Acts 2:1-47.). Thus was fulfilled the prophecy—"Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah … I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts" (Jeremiah 31:31-33). "Sinai, then, was the Pentecost of the old dispensation. And, conversely, Pentecost is the Sinai of the new." (Gibson.)
II. THE PLACE OF ENCAMPMENT.—"The wilderness of Sinai … before the mount" (Exodus 19:1, Exodus 19:2). A fitter theatre for the awful revelation about to be given could scarcely be imagined. The heart of the desert, it was—
1. A place of absolute solitude. The people were absolutely alone with God—withdrawn from everything which could distract their thoughts from him and from his message. Owen observes—"When God deals with men by the law, he will let them see nothing but himself and their own consciences … For the most part, when the law is preached to sinners, they have innumerable diversions and reliefs at hand to shield them from its terror and efficacy.… They have other things to do than to attend to the voice of the law; at least, it is not yet necessary that they should so do. But when God will bring them to the mount, as he will here or hereafter, all these pretexts will vanish and disappear" (on Hebrews 12:18). For the thorough awakening of conscience, we must get a man alone—must, in some way or other, sever him from his ordinary surroundings.
2. A place of great sublimity. Travellers dwell with awe on its bare, desolate grandeur—on "the lengthened approach" to the mount, "as to some natural sanctuary." The mind, amidst such grandeur, is irresistibly drawn upwards. It is brought into the condition most fit for the reception of thoughts of the everlasting and sublime. How suitable was such a place for the promulgation of that moral law which Kant said affected him with such indescribable awe every time he thought of it! Every circumstance was present which could lend body, vastness, volume, impressiveness, and reduplicated sublimity to the terrors of the revelation. The "sound of the trumpet and the voice of words" would reverberate with strange power amid those rocky heights, and along the echoing valleys. The sternness of the environment was itself a commentary on the law's sanctities.
3. A place of barrenness. "It was a barren and fruitless desert, where there was little water or food, and, answerably thereunto, the law in a state of sin, would bring forth no fruit, nothing acceptable to God, nor useful to the souls of men." (Owen.) So entirely has the spirit of this scene—of this awful desert solitude—passed into the revelation connected with it, that the two can no longer be dissociated. Sinai, unconsciously to ourselves, acts upon us to this hour, in every contact of our minds with the truths of the law.
III. THE DESIGN OF THE STAY. Israel abode at Sinai for eleven months. During this period the nation enjoyed a season of rest, received the law, ratified its covenant with God, constructed a sanctuary, and was otherwise equipped and organised. It was a time of repose, of retired communion with God, of receptivity. Such times are very needful in the spiritual life.
1. Needful for all. The Christian toiler needs seasons of rest (Mark 6:31). His truest rest will be found in communion with God and study of his will. By-and-by the call will come, summoning him to renewed activity—"Ye have dwelt long enough in this mount," etc. (Deuteronomy 1:6).
2. Specially needful in the stage of spiritual history immediately succeeding conversion. Young converts will do well to ponder the example of Paul, who, after God had revealed his Son in him, and before entering on his work as an apostle, "went into Arabia," perhaps revisiting this very spot (Galatians 1:17). They are all the better for some such season of solitary communion with God as is represented by Israel's stay at Sinai. They need repose of mind. Like the Israelites, they have a covenant to ratify with God. Like the Israelites, they stand greatly in need of instruction. They need time for lengthened study of the Divine will. They need equipment and preparation for the trials they are afterwards to encounter. Their coming, it is true, is rather figured as a coming to Mount Sion, than as a coming to Mount Sinai (Hebrews 12:22); but none the less has Sinai important lessons which it will be for their interest not to overlook. The Christian who does not frequently in spirit visit Sinai will not readily understand his privileges at Sion. The following words of Dr. Candlish express important truth:—"Individually, by a separate process in each mind, a distinct spiritual change in every soul, God effects the rescue of his people. There cannot, therefore, be any general gathering together, in a literal sense, such as there was at Sinai. But practically, in a real though spiritual sense, every converted soul has to pass through an analogous spiritual crisis. It is a momentous crisis, as regards both the exodus and the pilgrimage; the escape he has made and the way he has to go. It is, in fact, the settlement, once for all, of the terms upon which he is henceforth to be with his God as his Sovereign Lord. It is his being confronted and brought face to face with God, in a new state and character, as redeemed by his grace, and ready for his work." ("Fatherhood of God.")—J.O.
THE FIRST COVENANT BETWEEN GOD AND ISRAEL. AS Moses, having reached the foot of Sinai, was proceeding to ascend the mountain, where he looked to have special revelations from God, God called to him out of the mountain, and required a positive engagement on the part of the people, before he would condescend to enter into further direct relations with them. If, through gratitude for what had been done for them in the deliverance from Egypt, and since, they would solemnly engage to obey God and keep the covenant that he should make with them (Exodus 19:5), then a fresh revelation should be made, and fresh engagements entered into; but not otherwise. Moses communicated the message to the people through the alders, and received the solemn promise, which he carried back to God. "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do."
Moses went up unto God. From the time of his call Moses had known that Israel was to serve God upon Sinai (Exodus 3:12), and had regarded either one special peak, or the whole range as "the mount of God"—a place dedicated and set apart to Jehovah. It was natural, therefore, that, so soon as he reached the near vicinity of the mount, he should ascend it. The Lord called to him out of the Mount. God often accepts the will for the deed, and spares his saints a needless toil. Here, as Moses was on his way, God anticipated him, and calling to him out of the mountain sent him back to the people with a message. The house of Jacob. This rare expression, familiar to no sacred writer but Isaiah, recalls the promises made to Jacob of a numerous seed, which should grow from a house to a nation (Genesis 28:14; Genesis 35:11).
Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians. God prefaces his appeal to Israel with respect to the future, by reminding them of what he had done for them in the past. In the fewest possible words he recalls to their recollection the whole series of signs and wonders wrought in Egypt, from the turning of the water into blood to the destruction of Pharaoh's host in the Red Sea. These, he implies, ought to have taught them to trust him. I bare you on eagle's wings (compare Deuteronomy 32:11), where the metaphor is expanded at considerable length The strength and might of God's sustaining care, and its loving tenderness, are especially glanced at in the comparison. Brought you unto myself. "Brought you," i.e; "to Sinai, the mount of God, where it pleases me especially to reveal myself to you."
Now therefore. Instead of asking the simple question—"Will ye promise to obey me and keep my covenant.—God graciously entices the Israelites to their own advantage by a most loving promise. If they will agree to obey his voice, and accept and keep his covenant, then they shall be to him a peculiar treasure (segullah)—a precious possession to be esteemed highly and carefully guarded from all that might injure it. (Compare Psalms 135:4; and see also Isaiah 43:1-4.) and this preciousness they shall not share with others on equal terms, but enjoy exclusively—it shall be theirs above all people. No other nation on the earth shall hold the position which they shall hold, or be equally precious in God's sight. All the earth is his: and so all nations are his in a certain sense. But this shall not interfere with the special Israelite prerogative they alone shall be his "peculiar people" (Deuteronomy 14:2).
Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests. Or "a royalty of priests"—at once a royal and a priestly race—all of you at once both priests and kings. (So the LXX. render, βασίλειον ἱεράτευμα; the Targums of Onkelos and Jerusalem, "kings and priests;" that of Jonathan, "crowned kings and ministering priests.") They would be "kings," not only as "lords over death, the devil, hell, and all evil" (Luther), but also partly as having no earthly king set over them, but designed to live under a theocracy (1 Samuel 12:12), and partly as intended to exercise lordship over the heathen. Their unfaithfulness and disobedience soon forfeited both privileges. They would be "priests," as entitled—each one of them—to draw near to God directly in prayer and praise, though not in sacrifice, and also as intermediaries between God and the heathen world, to whom they were to be examples, instructors, prophets. And an holy nation. A nation unlike other nations—a nation consecrated to God's service, outwardly marked as his by the symbol of circumcision, his (if they chose) inwardly by the purity and holiness whereto they could attain. These are the words. Much speaking was not needed. The question was a very simple one. Would they accept the covenant or no, upon the conditions offered? It was not likely that they would reject such gracious proposals.
And Moses came. Moses descended from the point of the mountain which he had reached, and summoned a meeting of the elders of the people. When they were come together, he reported to them totidem verbis the message which he had received from God. He is said to have laid the words "before their faces"—a Hebraism, meaning simply "before them."
And all the people answered together. It would seem that the elders submitted to the whole congregation the question propounded by Moses; or at any rate submitted it to a popular meeting, fairly representing the congregation. No doubt the exact purport of the question was made known by the usual means beforehand, and the assembly was summoned to declare, by acclamation, its assent or dissent. The result was a unanimous shout of approval:—"All that the Lord hath spoken we will do"—i.e; "we will obey his voice indeed, and keep his covenant" (see Exodus 19:5). In this way they accepted the covenant beforehand, not knowing what its exact provisions would be, but assured in their hearts that all would be right, just, and good; and anxious to secure the promised blessings (Exodus 19:5, Exodus 19:6) for themselves and their posterity Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord—i.e; Moses was the mouthpiece both ways. He took the messages of God to the people, and carried back ("returned") their answer.
I came unto thee in a thick cloud. Literally, "in the thickness of a cloud." God must always veil himself when he speaks with man, for man could not bear "the brightness of his presence." If he takes a human form that form is a veil; if he appears in a burning bush, the very. fire is a shroud. On the present occasion it was the more needful that he should cover himself up, as he was about to draw near to the whole congregation, among whom were many-who were impure and impenitent. It was necessary, in order that all might be convinced of the Divine mission of Moses, for all to be so near as to hear him speak out of the cloud; but sinners cannot abide the near presence of God, unless he is carefully hidden away from them. Probably, the cloud out of which he now spoke was that which had accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt, and directed their march (Exodus 13:21, Exodus 13:22), though this is not distinctly stated. That the people may believe thee for ever. In "the people" are included their descendants; and they are to "believe Moses for ever, because the law is in some sense of eternal obligation on all men" (Matthew 5:18). And Moses told the words of the people unto the Lord. It is not easy to assign a reason for the repetition of this clause from Exodus 19:8, in almost identical terms. There were no fresh "words of the people" to report. We can only say that such seemingly needless repetitions are in the manner of archaic writers, who seem to intend in this way to emphasise a fact. The acceptance of the covenant by the people beforehand, completed by Moses reporting it to God, is the necessary basis of all that follows—the required preliminary to the giving of any covenant at all.
Exodus 19:5, Exodus 19:6
God's promises to such as keep his covenant.
Three things are here specially worthy of consideration:—
1. The nature of the promises;
2. The grounds on which they may be believed and trusted; and
3. The conditions attached to them.
I. THE NATURE OF THE PROMISES. God's promises to Israel are threefold—they shall be kings; they shall be priests; they shall be his peculiar treasure.—
(a) Kings. Most men are slaves—servants of Satan, servants of sin, slaves to their evil passions, slaves to opinion, abject slaves to those among their fellow-men on whom they depend for daily bread, or for favour and advancement. The glorious liberty of the children of God shakes off all these yokes. Man, awakened to his true relations with God, at once asserts himself, realises his dignity, feels that he need "call no man, master." He himself is supreme over himself; his conscience is his law, not the will of another. His life, his acts, his words, are under his own control. Within this sphere he is "king," directing and ruling his conduct according to his own views of what is right and fitting; and this kingship is mostly followed by another. Let a man once show himself a true, brave, upright, independent person, and he will soon have subjects enough. The weak place themselves under his protection, the timid under his guidance. He will have a clientele, which will continually grow so long as he remains on earth, and in Heaven he will be a "king" too. The" faithful and true servant" has "authority over ten cities." he "reigns with Christ for ever and ever" (Revelation 20:6; Revelation 22:5).
(b) Priests. A priest is one who is consecrated to God, who has free and ready access to him without an intermediary at all times and seasons, and who acts as an intermediary between God and others. As circumcision consecrated the Israelite, so baptism consecrates the Christian. lie receives "an unction from the Holy One" (1 John 1:1-10 :20), and is thenceforth a "priest to God," bound to his service, brought near to him, entitled to "go boldly to the throne of grace," to offer up his own prayers and intercessions, nay—even to "enter into the holiest" (Hebrews 10:19). He is further not only entitled, but bound to act as intermediary between God and those who do not know God; to teach them; convert them, if he can; intercede for them; under certain circumstances, to baptise them.
(c) His peculiar treasure. The world despises God's servants, sets little store by them, regards them as poor weak creatures, whom it may ill-use at its pleasure. But God holds each servant dear, sets a high value on him, regards him as precious. "They shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels" (Malachi 3:17). Each saint is a jewel in the crown of the Lord Christ, and is estimated accordingly. A king would as soon lose one of his crown jewels as Christ one of those for whom he shed his precious blood. He has "bought them at a price;" they are his; and the value which he sets on them no man can know. They are to him "more precious than rubies."
II. THE GROUNDS ON WHICH THE PROMISES MAY BE BELIEVED AND TRUSTED. As we have found of men in the past, so we look to find of them in the future. God bade the Israelites look back, and consider what he had already done for them—whether in the past he had proved himself faithful and true—whether he had supported and sustained them, "borne them up on eagle's wings," protected them, delivered them from dangers. If this were so, could they not trust him for the future? Would they not believe the promises which he now held out to them? Would they not regard them as certain of accomplishment? The Israelites appear to have believed; and shall not Christians do the like? Have not above three thousand years tested God's faithfulness, since he thus spoke to Israel? In the whole long course of these millennia has he ever been proved unfaithful? Assuredly not. All that he promises, and more than all he promises, does he perform for the sons of men. Never does he disappoint them; never does he fail to make good his word. Each promise of God therefore may be trusted implicitly. "God is not a man that he should lie, or the son of man that he should repent." He is true, and therefore must will to do as he has said; he is omnipotent, and therefore must be able to do as he wills.
III. THE CONDITIONS ON WHICH THE PROMISES ARE GIVEN. "If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant." The precious promises of God to man are conditional upon
(a) his general obedience;
(b) his observance of a certain formal covenant.
The obedience must be "an obedience indeed"—i.e; an obedience from the heart, sincere, loving, complete, so far as human frailty permits—not partial, not grudging, not outward only. The covenant must be kept in all its essentials. To the Jew, circumcision was necessary, after which he had to make offerings, to attend certain festivals year by year, to pay tithes, and to observe numerous minute regulations with regard to "cleanness" and "uncleanness." The Christian covenant has but two essential rites, Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Even these are only "generally necessary to salvation." Still, if we look for covenanted mercies and claim them, we must take care to be within the covenant. We must inquire dispassionately, what the terms are upon which Christ receives us into covenant with him, and not take upon ourselves a dispensing power, absolving us from all such obligations. Christ rejected from the marriage-feast the man who had not on a wedding-garment. No one who neglects either of the two solemn and simple ordinances which alone Christ has ordained in his Church can be sure that he will not in the last day be rejected.
HOMILIES BY J. ORR
The covenant proposed.
A characteristic difference is to be observed between the covenant made at Sinai and that formerly established with Abraham. In both, there is a wonderful act of Divine condescension. In both, God as well as man comes under engagements, ratified by outward formalities. But there is a difference in the design. In Abraham's case, the covenant was obviously intended as an aid to faith, an expedient for strengthening confidence in the Divine word. It is God who, in condescension to man's weakness, binds himself to be faithful to his word. At Sinai, on the other hand, it is the people who bind themselves to be faithful to God. They take the oath of allegiance to their invisible king. They pledge themselves to be obedient. God, on his side, appears as the promiser. He will make this nation a peculiar treasure unto himself, a kingdom of priests, etc. The present passage deals with preliminaries.
I. THE DIVINE PROPOSALS (Exodus 19:3-7). A covenant, from its nature, is an act of freedom. Prior to the formation of this covenant, it was obviously necessary that Jehovah should approach the people, should state his terms to them, and should require them to declare whether they approved of these terms, and were willing to assent to them. This is what is here done. Observe:—
1. The initiative in the covenant was taken by Jehovah. This was inevitable. "The characteristic thing about such" covenants' with God lies here, that the engagement must originate on the side of God himself, springing out of his free favour with a view to ratify some spontaneous promise on his part. Man can exact no terms from Heaven. No creature dare stipulate for conditions with his Creator. It is when the Most High, out of his own mere mercy, volunteers to bind himself by a promise for the future, and having done so, stoops still further to give a pledge for the execution of that promise, that what may fairly be deemed a 'covenant' is established" (Dr. Dykes).
2. The people are reminded of past gracious dealings of God with them (Exodus 19:4). God reminds them, to begin with, of how he had taken them from Egypt, and had borne them on eagle's wings, and had brought them to this desert place unto himself. "Eagle's wings" signify that his help had been strong, sustaining, protecting. In Egypt, at the Red Sea, in the wilderness, they had experienced this help, and had found it all sufficient. The resources of the infinite had been placed at their disposal. The special point, however, is, that all this which had been done for them was the fruit of free, unmerited favour; of a grace which imposed no conditions, and had as yet asked for no return. This was an important point to be reminded of on the eve of a revelation of law. These past actings of God testified that his relation to Israel was fundamentally a gracious one. Law might veil grace, but it could not cancel or annul it. Like primitive rock, underlying whatever strata might subsequently be reared upon it, this gracious relation must abide. With a relation of this kind to fall back upon, the Israelite need not despair, even when he felt that his law condemned him. It was a pledge to him that, not only amidst daily error and shortcoming, but even after grievous falls—falls like David's—mercy would receive the man of contrite spirit (Psalms 51:1-19.). Thus far, we are quite in the element of the Gospel Salvation precedes obedience. Obedience follows, a result of the flee acceptance of the obligations which redemption imposes on us.
3. The condition of the fulfilment of promise is that the people obey God's voice, and keep his covenant (Exodus 19:5). On no other terms could God consent to be their God, and on no other terms would he consent to have them for his people. Grace precedes law, grace accompanies law, grace passes beyond law; nevertheless, grace must conserve law (Romans 3:31). God can propose to man no terms of favour, which do not include the need for an obedient will. He does not do so under the Gospel any more than he did under the law (cf. Matthew 7:21; Romans 2:6, Romans 2:7; Romans 6:1-23.; 1 Corinthians 7:19; 1 John 2:4, etc.). "It is exclusively Christ's righteousness which is of grace imputed to us. Yet this has to be appropriated in an upright heart" (Martensen). When God took Israel out of Egypt, it was implied and intended that the redeemed people should "obey his voice." The covenant but made explicit an implicit obligation.
4. The promises themselves are of the grandest possible description (Exodus 19:5, Exodus 19:6).
5. The promise contains a hint of the catholicity of God's design in the calling of Israel. "For all the earth is mine" (Exodus 19:5). Israel was called with a view to the ultimate benefit of the world. It was but the "first-born" of many sons whom God would lead to glory.
II. THE PEOPLE'S RESPONSE (Exodus 19:7-10). They willingly took upon themselves the obligations indicated in the words, "Now, therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant;" etc. (Exodus 19:5). They said at once "all that the Lord hath spoken we will do." There is a certain nobleness in this reply—a temporary rising of these long-enslaved minds to something like the dignity of their high calling as sons of God. Yet—
1. It was a reply given without much knowledge of the law. They apprehended hut little of its breadth, and of the spirituality of its requirements, else they would not have engaged so readily to do all that it enjoined. One design in placing Israel under law was just that they might grow in this knowledge of the breadth of the commandment, and so might have developed in them the consciousness of sin (Romans 7:7-25).
2. It was a reply given without much knowledge of themselves. The people do not seem to have doubted their ability to keep God's word. They thought, like many more, that they had but to try, in order to do. Accordingly, a second design in placing them under law was to convince them of their mistake—to discover to them their spiritual inability. There is no way of convincing men of their inability to keep the law of God like setting them to try (Romans 7:1-25.).
3. It was a reply given, as respects the mass of the people, without heart-conversion. It was the outcome of a burst of enthusiasm, of an excited state of feeling. There was not the true "heart" in them to do what God commanded (Deuteronomy 5:29). Hence their speedy apostasy (Exodus 32:1-35.) The test of true conversion is perseverance (Hebrews 3:14; 1 John 2:19). Moses, having received the reply of the people, returned it to God, who, on hearing it, declared his purpose of coming in a thick cloud, and of speaking with Moses in the audience of all the people (cf. Exodus 19:19). The design was "that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever" (Exodus 19:9).—J.O.
It may be proper at this stage to indicate briefly the nature of the constitution under which Israel was placed at Sinai, directing attention to some of the resemblances and contrasts between it and the new and better covenant which has since superseded it. The nature of the old covenant, though set in a very clear light in the writings of St. Paul, does not seem to be well understood. Sometimes it is too much assimilated to the New Testament covenant: sometimes it is viewed as totally diverse from it. The truth is, the covenant may be looked at from a number of very different points of view, and according as it is thus regarded, it will present itself under very different aspects. It was a covenant of law; yet under it Israel enjoyed many privileges which more properly belong to a state of grace. We should, e.g; greatly misconceive its nature, if, looking only to the tender, almost caressing words of this text, we did not also take into account the manifestations of terror amidst which the law was given from Sinai (Exodus 19:16-20), with such other facts as the planting of the stones on Mount Ebal (Deuteronomy 27:1-9; Joshua 8:30-35), and the recital of the blessings and curses (Deuteronomy 27:11-26). But we should do the covenant equal injustice if we looked only to the latter class of facts, and did not observe the former. That Israel's standing under the law was modified by grace is shown:
1. From the fact of grace preceding law;
2. From the employment of a mediator;
3. From the "blood of sprinkling" at the ratification of the covenant (Exodus 24:1-18.);
4. From the propitiatory arrangements subsequently introduced;
5. From the revealed scope and design of the economy;
6. From the actual facts of Israel's history. Keeping in view this double aspect of the covenant of Sinai—that on its inner side it was one of grace, on its outer side one of law—we have to consider its relations to the covenant of the Gospel.
I. THE COVENANTS ARE, IN CERTAIN OBVIOUS RESPECTS, STRIKINGLY CONTRASTED. The contrasts in question arise from the particularistic character, the defective spirituality, and the paedagogic design, of the older covenant. That which has succeeded it is more inward and spiritual in its nature; is universal in its scope; and is made primarily with individuals. Special contrasts are these:
1. The older covenant is more preceptive in its character than the later one. "Tutors and governors" (Galatians 4:2).
2. It is more concerned with outward rites and ceremonies (Hebrews 9:10).
3. It relies more on penalty and reward as motives.
4. The blessings promised are largely temporal. In the new covenant, temporal promises hold a very subordinate place. They are overshadowed by spiritual ones.
II. THERE ARE ELEMENTS OF CONTRAST EVEN IN THE RESEMBLANCES BETWEEN THE TWO COVENANTS. The covenants of the law and of the Gospel are alike—
1. In requiring that the people of God shall be "an holy people." But the holiness of Israel was made to consist largely in the observance of outward distinctions. It was largely ceremonial. The holiness of the new covenant is purely spiritual.
2. In requiring obedience as the condition of fulfilment of promise. But
3. The privileges of the older covenant foreshadowed those of the new (1 Peter 2:9). But the contrast is great here also. See above.
III. THESE CONTRASTS ALL DEPEND UPON A FUNDAMENTAL CONTRAST. The deepest contrast between the two covenants is to be sought for in the view which each takes of the direction in which the individual (formerly the nation) is to look for acceptance and happiness—for "life."
1. The law. The law appears in the covenant with Sinai in its original, unqualified severity, as, on the one hand, awarding life to the obedient, and on the other, denouncing penalties against the breakers of even the least of its commandments (Galatians 3:10-13). Doubtless, but for daily pardon of daily offences, the Israelite, under so strict a constitution, would have been totally unable to maintain his footing. These offences, however, appear as so many breaches of the covenant bond, which, in strictness, was the keeping of the whole law. A right apprehension of God's design in placing Israel under this constitution will do away with any appearance of harshness in the arrangement, as if God were purposely mocking the weakness of the people by setting them to work out a problem—the attainment of righteousness—in that way incapable of solution. The moral task given to Israel among the nations was, indeed, to aim at the realisation of righteousness, of righteousness as prescribed by the law. But God's design in this was not, certainly, to make the salvation of any Israelite depend on the fulfilment of impossible conditions, but, primarily, to conduct the seeker after righteousness by the path of honest moral endeavour, to a consciousness of his inability to keep the law, and so to awaken in him the feeling of the need of a better righteousness than the law could give him—to drive him back, in short, from law to faith, from a state of satisfaction with himself to a feeling of his need of redemption—of redemption at once from the guilt of past transgressions, and from the discord in his own nature. The law had thus an end beyond itself. It was a schoolmaster to lead to Christ. The later Jews totally misconceived its nature when they clung to it with unbending tenacity as the sole instrument of justification (Romans 10:1-4).
2. The Gospel. In this is revealed "the righteousness of faith"—the righteousness which is "unto all and upon all them that believe." This is the only righteousness which can make the sinner truly just before God" (Romans 3:21-27). But the law is not thereby made void. It remains, as before, the standard of duty—the norm of holy practice. The design of the Gospel is not to abolish it, but to establish it more firmly than ever (Romans 3:31). Faith includes the obedient will. The end of redemption is holiness.
IV. THE ISRAELITE, WHILE BOUND TO GOD BY A COVENANT OF LAW, YET ENJOYED MANY BENEFITS OF THE STATE OF GRACE. The better part of the Israelites were perfectly aware that had God been strict to mark iniquities, they could not stand before him (Psalms 130:3); that their own law would have condemned them. But they knew, too, that there was forgiveness with God, that he might be feared (Exodus 19:4). Piously availing himself of the expiatory rites provided for the covering of his sin, the godly Jew had confidence towards God. Many in the nation grasped the truth that an obedient will is, in God's sight, the matter of chief importance, and that, where this is found, much else will be forgiven—that he that feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him (Acts 10:35), notwithstanding the special imperfections which may mark his daily life. This was practically to rise from the standpoint of the law, to that of the righteousness of faith. It enabled those who had attained to it, though under the law, to cherish a delight in spiritual righteousness, and even to find joy in the law itself, as the outward expression of that righteousness. It was not, however, the complete joy of salvation. The law still hovered above the consciousness of the Israelite with its unfulfilled demand; and he had not the means of perfectly pacifying his conscience in relation to it. While in those in whom the law had wrought its work most effectually, there was a deep feeling of sin, a painful conscious-hess of frustration in efforts after the highest goodness, which day by day wrung from them such cries as that of St. Paul—"O wretched man," etc. (Romans 7:24). Here, again, the Gospel reveals itself as the termination of the law of Moses (Romans 10:4).—J.O.
HOMILIES BY D. YOUNG
God's first message to the people at Sinai.
The cloud going on before the people from Rephidim, brings them at last to what by pre-eminence is called the mount. The mount, not because it was higher, but because there the burning bush appeared, and there the people were to serve God. Moses goes up to the mount, probably to the very spot where a while ago he had seen the burning bush and received his great commission to Pharaoh. From this scene he had been travelling in a circle, and had now come whence he had started, but not as many travellers in a circle do, returning poor and profitless as they went. Here he is, treading once again the hallowed mountain side; the people whom he has brought are below; God, he knows, is near, for he has just had most gracious experience of him in Rephidim; and now he waits for further revelations and commands. A great deal Moses has to listen to in Sinai from Jehovah; and therefore it is very interesting to notice the words with which Jehovah begins. Consider—
I. THE TERMS BY WHICH GOD INDICATES HIS PEOPLE. "The house of Jacob"—"the children of Israel." Thus Jehovah was ever sending the thoughts of his people far back into the past, and making them feel its important and glorious connection with the present. The house of Jacob was the house of him who had known many changes of circumstances, many disappointments and trials. It was the house of one who, born in Canaan, spent some of the best of his time at a distance with Laban, and died at last in Egypt. If he, the great ancestor, had thus been a man of change, what wonder that trying changes came upon the posterity! Then they were also the children of Israel. This was the name Divinely given; and if Israel forgets its purport and the privilege involved, Jehovah himself assuredly did not. Significant names, that would otherwise get hidden in the past, God takes special care to preserve.
II. THE WAY IN WHICH GOD DESCRIBES HIS RECENT DEALINGS. To the Israelites all had been very confused, tedious, and trying, in spite of all the miraculous exemptions, escapes, and provisions they had enjoyed. They had not very well known what was being done with them. But now, in the compass of a sweeping verse, the whole course of affairs is presented as one rapid and decisive action. As a bird might snatch its offspring out of captivity and bear it far on high to some safe shelter, so Jehovah has done with Israel. He puts before them, as in a vision, these three things to be considered—
1. The liberation.
2. The consequent journey.
3. The destination.
And these three things he describes in a peculiar way.
1. The liberation he indicates by this signification, "what I did unto the Egyptians." He wished the people here to ponder the extent and significance of his terrible dealings in Egypt. The Israelites had gazed on a succession of varied and penetrating calamities coming on the Egyptians. But Jehovah wishes the observers to mark that these things were of his doing. Jehovah's actions are not to be buried in oblivion when once they are past, because they are terrible actions. It is just because they are the terrible acts of a holy and just God that they are to be remembered. There was in them nothing of a tyrant's caprice; they were not wild gusts of power to be ashamed of in calmer moments. There had been due prediction and preparation; there was an orderly, gradual, impressive, instructive mounting to a climax: and if any of the people were inclined to forget the doer in the deeds, the liberator in the liberation, here is a warning that things must not be so thought on. God is ever devising to make us look at events in their connection and continuity. The plagues of Egypt were only the preliminary overturning to carry on the greater plan of God. Egypt had fast hold of Israel; wherefore Israel's God smote Egypt so that he might free his own people and bring them to himself.
2. The journey Jehovah indicates by a peculiarly beautiful and inspiring figure. "I bare you on eagles' wings." This was an appropriate figure for people dwelling in the wilderness. Moses had, doubtless, seen many eagles in his shepherd experiences; and the Israelites would become familiar with them during their wanderings. Thus the eagle's ways would be known; and after this word of Jehovah Moses would study them more and more, and one result of such observation we find in Deuteronomy 32:11. When men exalt themselves as the eagle, and set their nests among the stars, God can bring them down; but when he puts on the eagle's wings, it is to exalt himself into a place which shall be one of perfect safety for his people. One imagines the eaglet thus lying on the parent's wing. It may wriggle about uneasily, wondering at the speed with which it is taken, the shaking it has to undergo and the unfamiliar scenes through which it is passing. But these struggles count for little; they are natural enough, but they do not hinder the eagle in its progress. Patiently, calmly, strongly, it rises towards its secure destination. These unfamiliar scenes are by-and-by to be the frequent path of the now struggling, bewildered eaglet; in due time its own wings will appear in them—
Sailing with supreme dominion
Through the azure deep of air
Paul himself, dazed and shaken to the very depths of his being on his first dealings with Jesus, had known what it was to be borne on eagle's wings, and he lived to render a little of the same sort of ministry to the perplexed and desponding Timothy. The Israelites had been struggling and unbelieving, as at the Red Sea, at Marah, at the time when the manna was given, and at Rephidim; but in spite of all these, the strong eagle wings of God had berne them onward. Our struggles are but a trifle, if only God has us really in charge. Let us think ever of the eagle wings rather than the ignorant offspring carried thereon.
3. The destination. "I brought you unto myself." Just as the eagle brings its young to a place where without distraction or fear of interruption it can attend to their nourishment and growth. How beautifully God thus turns away the thoughts of his people from the desolation of the visible scene! True it was a wilderness; emphasis is laid upon this in Deuteronomy 32:1, Deuteronomy 32:2; but if we are brought to God, this is more than all that may be barren and cheerless in mere circumstances. The place which men do not care about and where they would not come of their own accord, is the place where God reveals himself gloriously and graciously to his own. Israel will now do well to consider, not what carnal comforts they lack, but what dangers they have escaped, and what Divine possessions they are in the way to acquire. To be brought to God in the fullest sense of the word, and to lie comfortably under his protection and nurture, what a great matter! (Romans 8:38, Romans 8:39).
III. So much, then, for what Jehovah has done in the past, and now he turns to the future, making A LARGE PROMISE DEPENDENT ON THE FULFILLING OF STRICT CONDITIONS. He had to bring the people to himself on eagle's wings, because they themselves were helpless to achieve the deliverance and security they needed. And now the time has come for response from them. He has brought them to himself, that being with him they may become his, fully and acceptably. They are put into external conditions such as make it possible for them to obey; therefore Jehovah has a right, and does right, to ask them for obedience. He who speaks about Jacob and Israel, cannot but also speak of the ancient covenant, with respect to which the children of Israel must labour earnestly to fulfil their part. God has already made certain requirements from the people, such as the passover regulations and those concerning the manna. But now his requirements are to flow forth in a great continuing stream. He will go on asking, as if asking were never to be at an end; and therefore it is well to start with a solemn preparatory word. As to the promise itself, we notice that it is a promise to a nation—to a whole people. As we see in the next chapter, the conditions are to be achieved by individual obedience: God comes to the individual with his commandments, and says, "Thou." But the promise is for the nation. It is a promise, too, which seems worded for appreciation in the future rather than in the present, or if in the present, only by a few who had been prepared to understand it. Perhaps it may be most fittingly described as a promise to be the stimulus and stay of truly patriotic hearts. Wherever there is a man who glories in the race from which he sprang and the land where he was born, there is one who may be expected to understand the force of an appeal like this. No nation could really be more to God than another nation, unless it were a better one. Israel had been made free from Egypt that it might then rise into all the fulness of what a nation ought to be; and therefore God sets these great possibilities before the people. All the earth, he said, was his. Be had proved his complete control over one much esteemed tract of territory by the confusions and calamities he had brought into Pharaoh's domains; and there was no nation among men that he could not treat in the same fashion. But, if only men will submit, he can make to himself a peculiar people, testifying to his power, not from among humiliations consequent on despising him, but from the heights of glory and blessedness to which he lifts those who obey him. He mingles in one glorious expression the thought of all those blessings which come from the union of true religion and right government. A kingdom of priests is one where harmony and right dealing will be found running through all relations, because each member is continually serving God with the great, loving, acceptable sacrifice of his own life. God is not really king in any society of men, unless each member of that society is fully a priest towards him.—Y.
HOMILIES BY J. URQUHART
The Lord and his people.
I. WHO THE PEOPLE OF GOD ARE.
1. The children of the promise, "the house of Jacob," etc; the household of faith.
2. They who have experienced deliverance and known God's love: "Ye have seen what I did," etc. The law the picture of the Gospel: those only can enter into the covenant of obedience who have known that God has chosen and blessed them. "We love him because he first loved us."
II. WHAT THE LORD ASKS OF THEM.
1. True obedience: not a profession, but a life.
2. To keep his covenant: to understand his will, and make that will their law. The whole end of both taw and gospel is missed if the life is not laid hold of, if the man is not brought to wear again the image of him who created him.
III. THE GLORY GOD WILL GIVE THEM IN THE EARTH.
1. They will be God's best beloved—a peculiar treasure unto him "above all people." Note the true position of God's people. It is not that God cares for them only. He cares for all: "all the earth is mine." They are the choicest of his earthly treasures.
2. They are to be "a kingdom of priests." They will minister to the nations in the things of God—leading them into his presence, teaching them his will.
3. They will be "a holy nation," a consecrated people. The Spirit's anointing will rest upon them.
4. This threefold glory the portion of God's people to-day: the knowledge that God has chosen us; our priestly service among our brethren; the unction from on high.—U.
HOMILIES BY H. T. ROBJOHNS
Covenant before law.
"Now, therefore, if ye will obey," etc.—Exodus 19:5, Exodus 19:6. This subject might well be introduced by:—
1. Showing how exactly the topography of Sinai (i.e; the plain of Er Rahah, Ras Sufsafeh, and Jebel Musa) agrees with the sacred history. [For material of description see "The Desert of the Exodus."]
2. How suitable mountains were to constitute the scenery of Divine manifestation.
3. An analysis of this section—
In this preparation for the law, we shall see the Gospel. The Gospel antedated law (see Galatians 3:1-29.). Here we have several evangelical principles:—
I. NO COVENANT, NO LIVING OBEDIENCE. Here may be discussed and illustrated the whole question whether God's grace precedes our obedient living unto him, or vice versa.
II. NO OVERTURE FROM GOD, NO COVENANT. The initiative is ever with God (Exodus 19:3, Exodus 19:4). To illustrate:—Suppose the words had run this way: "Ye know what ye did in Egypt, how ye sought me, if haply ye might find me; how all the way through the desert ye have followed hard after me, if peradventure ye might see my face, and hear lay voice in this mountain." Not one word would have been true. God ever first seeks man, not nigh God.
III. NO REDEMPTIVE ACTION, NO OVERTURE POSSIBLE. God's appeal is ever strengthened by his deeds. In the case of Israel, there had been the paschal lamb, the passing over, the passage of the Red Sea, and the constitution of a Church. Thereafter covenant, and anon law! Show the analogies in Christian times—the atonement, pardon, adoption, inclusion in the Church, the establishment of covenantal relations, the coming under the Christian rule of life.
IV. NO CONCURRENCE, NO RESULT (Exodus 19:5). "If," etc.
1. In all God's dealing with us he has respect to our liberty.
2. The condition here is a believing obedience. The Hebrew word for "obey" seems to carry pregnantly within it all these meanings—hearing, listening, heeding, trusting, acting according to what we hear and believe. It might be welt to show that practically in Christian life the believing man is the obedient, and vice versa.
3. And keeping the covenant. Bring out the sentinel idea in the "keeping," and then show that we keep the covenant:
V. WITH CONCURRENCE, THE MOST BLESSED RESULTS. They who believe and keep the covenant become:—
1. The private and peculiar treasure of the King of kings. Amongst earthly potentates there is a distinction between the treasures which they hold in their public capacity and those which are their own private property. When a king abdicates, he leaves behind him the public treasure, but carries with him his own. In an analogous sense we become the priceless jewels of the King of kings, though "all the earth is his" (same Hebrew word in Malachi 3:17).
2. A kingly priesthood (Exodus 19:6). "A royalty of priests," i.e; every king a priest, and every priest a king. Here we have—
3. Separate. Negatively, from the world, but also positively unto God. "A holy nation."—R.
THE PREPARATION OF THE PEOPLE AND OF THE MOUNTAIN FOR THE MANIFESTATION OF GOD UPON IT. The people having accepted God's terms, the time had come for the revelation in all its fulness of the covenant which God designed to make with them. This, it was essential, they should perceive and know to come from God, and not to be the invention of Moses. God, therefore, was about to manifest himself. But ere he could do this with safety, it was requisite that certain preparations should be made. Before man can be fit to approach God, he needs to be sanctified. The essential sanctification is internal; but, as internal purity and holiness cannot be produced at a given moment, Moses was ordered to require its outward symbol, external bodily cleanliness, by ablution and the washing of clothes, as a preliminary to God's descent upon the mountain (Exodus 19:10, Exodus 19:13). It would be generally understood that this external purity was symbolical only, and needed to be accompanied by internal cleanliness. Further, since even the purest of men is impure in God's sight, and since there would be many in the congregation who had attempted no internal cleansing, it was necessary to provide that they should not draw too near, so as to intrude on the holy ground or on God's presence. Moses was therefore required to have a fence erected round the mountain, between it and the people, and to proclaim the penalty of death against all who should pass it and touch the mount (Exodus 19:12, Exodus 19:13). In executing these orders, Moses gave an additional charge to the heads of families, that they should purify themselves by an act of abstinence which he specified (Exodus 19:15)
Go unto the people. Moses had withdrawn himself from the people to report their words to God (Exodus 19:8, Exodus 19:9). He was now commanded to return to them. Sanctify them. Or "purify them." Purification in Egypt was partly by washing, partly, by shaving the hair, either front the head only, or from the entire body (Herod. 2.37), partly perhaps by other rites. The Israelites seem ordinarily to have purified themselves by washing only. To-day and to-morrow. The fourth and fifth of Sivan, according to the Jewish tradition, the Decalogue having been given upon the sixth. The requirement of a two-days' preparation marked the extreme sanctity of the occasion. Let them wash their clothes. Compare Le Exodus 15:5. Rich people could "change their garments" on a sacred occasion (Genesis 35:2); the poorer sort, having no change, could only wash them.
The Lord win come down. Jehovah is regarded as dwelling in the heaven above, not exclusively (Psalms 139:7-10), but especially and therefore, when he appears on earth, he "comes down" (Genesis 11:5-7; Genesis 18:21; Exodus 3:8; etc.). In the sight of all the people. That a visible manifestation of the Divine presence is intended appears, unmistakably, from Exodus 19:16 and Exodus 19:18.
Thou shalt set bounds. The erection of a fence or barrier, between the camp and the mountain—not necessarily all round the mountain—seems to be meant. This barrier may have run along the line of low alluvial mounds at the foot of the cliff of Ras Sufsafeh, mentioned by Dean Stanley, but cannot have been identical with them, since it was an artificial fence. That ye go not up into the mount. Curiosity might have tempted some to ascend the mount, if it had not been positively forbidden under the penalty of death; carelessness might have brought many into contact with it, since the cliff rises abruptly from the plain. Unless the fence had been made, cattle would, naturally, have grazed along its base. To impress the Israelites with a due sense of the awful majesty of God, and the sacredness of everything material that it brought into close relations with him, the mount itself was declared holy—none but Moses and Aaron might go up into it; none might touch it; even the stray beast that approached it must suffer death for its unwitting offence (Exodus 19:13). Whosoever toucheth the mount. The mountain may be "touched" from the plain—it rises so abruptly. Shall be surely put to death. A terrible punishment, and one which, to modern ideas, seems excessive. But it was only by terrible threats, and in some cases by terrible punishments (2 Samuel 6:7), that the Israelites could be taught reverence. A profound reverence lies at the root of all true religious feeling; and for the education of the world, it was requisite, in the early ages, to inculcate the necessity of this frame of mind in some very marked and striking way.
There shall not an hand touch it. Rather, "there shall not an hand touch him." The transgressor shall not be seized and apprehended, for that would involve the repetition of the offence by his arrester, who must overpass the "bounds" set by Moses, in order to make the arrest. Instead of seizing him, they were to kill him with stones or arrows from within the "bounds," and the same was to be done, if any stray beast approached the mountain. When the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount. By translating the same Hebrew phrase differently here and in Exodus 19:12, the A. V. avoids the difficulty which most commentators see in this passage. According to the apparent construction, the people are first told that they may, on no account, ascend the mountain (Exodus 19:12), and then that they may do so, so soon as the trumpet sounds long (Exodus 19:13). But they do not ascend at that time (Exodus 19:19), nor are they allowed to do so—on the contrary, Moses is charged anew to prevent it (Exodus 19:21-25); nor indeed do the people ever ascend, but only Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy eiders (Exodus 24:1, Exodus 24:2). What, then, is the permission here given? When we scrutinise the passage closely, we observe that the pronoun "they" is in the Hebrew, emphatic, and, therefore, unlikely to refer to "the people" of Exodus 19:12. To whom then does it refer? Not, certainly, to "the Elders" of Exodus 19:7, which would be too remote an antecedent, but to those chosen persons who are in the writer's mind, whom God was about to allow to ascend. Even these were not allowed to go up until summoned by the prolonged blast of the trumpet.
In obedience to the commands which he had received (Exodus 19:10), Moses returned to the camp at the foot of Sinai, and issued the order that the people were to purify themselves and wash their garments during that day and the next, and be ready for a great solemnity on the third day. He must also, at the same time, have given directions for the construction of the fence, which was to hedge in the people (Exodus 19:12), and which he speaks of as constructed in Exodus 19:23.
Come not at your wives. Compare 1 Samuel 21:4, 1 Samuel 21:5; 1 Corinthians 7:5. A similar obligation lay on the Egyptian priests (Porphyr. De Abstin. 4.7); and the idea which underlies it was widespread in the ancient world The subject is well treated, from a Christian point of view, by Pope Gregory the First, in his answers to S. Augustine's questions (Bode, Hist. Eccl. 2.).
The awfulness of God's presence, and the preparation needed ere we approach him.
I. THE AWFULNESS OF GOD'S PRESENCE. The presence of God is awful, even to those holy angels who are without spot or stain of sin, having done the holy will of their Maker from their creation. But to sinful man it is far more awful. No man "can see God's face, and live" (Exodus 33:20). Jacob was mistaken when he said, "I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved" (Genesis 32:30). He had really wrestled with an angel (Hosea 12:4). When Moses requested to see the Almighty's glory, he was told, "Thou shalt see my back parts; but my face shall not be seen" (Exodus 33:23). "No man has seen God at any time," says St. John the Evangelist (John 1:18). But, even apart from sight, there is in the very sense of the presence of God an awful terribleness. "I am troubled at his presence," said Job; "when I consider, I am afraid of him" (Job 23:15). "Truly the Lord is in this place," said Jacob, "and I knew it not. How dreadful is this place!" (Genesis 28:16, Genesis 28:17). God is at all times everywhere; but he veils himself, he practically withdraws himself; and, though he is where we are, we do not see him, or perceive him (Job 23:8, Job 23:9). But, let him reveal his presence, and at once all tremble before it. "Mine eye seeth him," says Job again, "wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:5, Job 42:6) "When I heard," says Habakkuk, "my belly trembled, my lips quivered at the voice; rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself" (Job 3:16). In part, no doubt, weakness trembles before strength, littleness before greatness, finiteness before infinity; but, mainly, it is sinfulness that quakes and shrinks before perfect holiness, corruption that shivers before incorruption, rottenness before absolute purity.
II. THE PREPARATION NEEDED ERE WE APPROACH HIM. Only the "pure in heart" can "see God." In all our approaches to him, we must seek first to be made fit for propinquity by separation from sin. Moses was bidden to "sanctify the people' (verse 10), which he could only do outwardly. This true sanctification, the true purification, was heart-felt repentance, deep contrition, and the earnest resolve to forsake sin, and henceforth live righteously. This preparation each man had to make for himself. It was in vain that he should wash himself seven times, or seven times seven, in vain that he should purify his garments, and keep himself free from material pollutions of every sort and kind—something more was needed—he required to be purified in heart and soul. And so it is with Christians—with all men universally. God must be approached with humility—not in the spirit of the Pharisee; with reverence—head bowed down, and voice hushed to a low tone, and heart full of the fear of his holiness; with a pure mind—that is, with a mind averse from sin, and resolved henceforth to do righteously. The publican's approach was better than the Pharisee's. Let men "smite upon their breast," let them be deeply convinced of sin, and own themselves sinners; let them implore the blotting out of their sins, and the cleansing of their entire nature; let them heartily resolve to sin no more, but walk in newness of life, and there is no contact which they need dread, no nearness of approach from which they need shrink. We are not, indeed, to hope in this life for that vision of God, or for that degree of communion, which our souls desire. "Now we see through a glass darkly—now we know in part." The full vision of God, full access to him, complete communion, is reserved for the next world, where it will form our perfect bliss and consummation.
HOMILIES BY J. ORR
The mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire
(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 (Exodus 19:10-16). 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 (Exodus 19:10). 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 6:1-23.; 2 Corinthians 5:15; Ephesians 1:4; Ephesians 6:1-24 :25-27; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; Titus 2:11-15; Hebrews 12:14; 1 John 1:6, 1 John 1:7).
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 (Exodus 19:12, Exodus 19:13). 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" (Exodus 19:13), is probably to be read in the light of Exodus 19:17. 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 (Exodus 19:16-19). God's descent on Mount Sinai was in fire (Exodus 19:18), 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—
The facts to be explained are—
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—
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 3:1-18.).
III. THE RENEWED WARNING (Exodus 19:19-25). God, probably by a voice audible to the whole congregation (cf. Exodus 19:6), 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" (Exodus 19:21, Exodus 19:22). 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 (Exodus 19:23). 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.
HOMILIES BY D. YOUNG
The manifestation of God's glory at Sinai.
I. THE PURPOSE OF THIS MANIFESTATION. God made this purpose known beforehand; and it was that the people who saw and heard these dreadful phenomena might believe Moses for ever, might permanently acknowledge his authority as a messenger and representative of God. When Moses was at Sinai before and then entrusted with a Divine message to Israel, he urged it as one of his difficulties that Israel would not believe him. "They will say, the Lord hath not appeared unto thee" (Exodus 4:1). Now without appeal in any way from Moses, Jehovah provides a sublime demonstration of his presence, which he expressly mentions as being intended to establish the position of Moses. Testimony must always be chosen corresponding with the character and circumstances of those to whom it is presented. There is a time when it will do to change the rod into a serpent; and so there is a time when the same people before whom this was done must be confronted with all the terrors of Sinai. It was a great defect on the part of the people that they had no adequate sense—it may almost be said they had no sense at all—of the holiness of God. Upon the slightest interference with their self-indulgent desires, they broke out into reproach, almost into rebellion. Therefore, in the very midst of gracious and unfailing providences, they must be made to feel that it is a fearful thing as well as a happy thing to fall into the hands of the living God. He is ever loving and desires our good; but he is also supreme in holiness, and in all our thoughts he must be hallowed as one who, when the need appears, can make most terrible manifestations of his power. We must be alive to God's presence in the terrible and destructive phenomena of the natural world as much as in those which are gentle, attractive, and pleasing. By the terrors of Sinai he intimated to his people, once for all, that he was a God not to be trifled with, but one who demanded careful and humble attention at all times when he expressed his will.
II. THE PREPARATION FOR IT WHICH HAD TO BE MADE BY THE PEOPLE. The manifestation was not to come at once; the people had to wait for it; but waiting was not all. The waiting indeed was necessary that they might have sufficient opportunity to prepare. Even already it was being signified to them that in external things, and even in such a slight matter as the washing of the clothes, they were to be a holy people. All the defilements gathered by the way, all the dust of the conflict with Amalek had to be washed off; and short of water as they had lately been, God, we may be sure, provided an abundant supply before giving this command. He required his people through certain symbolic actions to enter into a special state of readiness for himself. Then when they were so far ready by what they did to themselves, they must take further special precautions not to enter on the holy ground. As God took from the dwellers of the earth the house of Jacob to be his holy nation, so he took these steeps of Sinai to be a holy place for himself. Evidently all these preparations being of the character they were, must have produced a state of mind full of expectation and suspense. God fixed the very day of this appearing. This is a thing he can do, sure that the reality will not fall short of the popular notion formed beforehand. But there is another great day of the Lord; and the precise point of this in time no man knoweth. It was in mercy that the date of the visitation on Sinai was made known to Israel; it is in equal mercy that the great day of the Lord yet remaining is veiled, as to its date, from us. Those who live as they ought to live, trusting in Christ and knowing the indwelling of the Spirit, are doing that which secures present profit and blessedness, makes meet for the inheritance of the saints in light, and at the same time adequate preparation for the trials of the last great day. There is no way of being ready for them except to live near to God in prayer and faith and faithfulness in little things. Believe in Christ, and show your faith by your works, and then you are ready whatever comes.
III. THE MANIFESTATION ITSELF AND ITS EFFECTS. Precisely how the manifestation was to take place does not seem to have been indicated beforehand; and even as it stands described by all those terrible terms, thunder, lightning, the smoking and the quaking mount, we feel that the reality must far have transcended the power of human speech to describe. It was truly an unspeakable visitation. The word telling us most is that which says that before this visitation all the people trembled. Evidently it had an overwhelming effect upon them. It is made perfectly plain that when God cannot draw men by love, he can hold them fast by fear. If they will not go like invited children in his way, they are shaken nolentes volentes out of their own. Whatever else men may refuse to God, love, worship, service,—this at all events is ensured, that they shall be terrified before him. They have no choice. The earth cannot but quake when he sets to work the mighty hidden powers underneath. And so the most atheistic life must acknowledge by its disturbed emotions that there is a power it cannot resist. The boasted discipline and sovereignty of human reason count for nothing then. The earthquake without gets its due result from the quaking heart within. Man may set up his will against God's will; but that only means that he refuses obedience; he cannot keep God from shaking him to the very foundations of his being. Though the people in a few months left Sinai, yet Sinai in a very important sense followed them. The fire that went out from the Lord and devoured Nadab and Abihu—the fire that burned at Taberah among the complaining people (Numbers 11:1)—the opening earth and the devouring fire at the time of the conspiracy of Korah (Numbers 16:1-50.)—what are all these but proofs of the God of Sinai travelling in all his terror and glory along with Israel and making sharp visitations in the hour of worldliness, unbelief, and negligence? Those trained in idolatry may well become sceptical and end in utter unbelief, for they never see anything in the way of subduing power save the power of knavish priests over superstitious devotees. There are great pretensions and professions, but never anything done corresponding with them. But here as Jehovah begins to specify his requirements, he first of all shows his power in the most impressive way. As an Israelite looked back on Sinai, whatever other feelings he might have, he could not deny the terrible reality that was there. And one very remarkable thing is, that through all this thunder and lightning, smoking and quaking, there was no actual destruction. If there had been such, it would certainly have been recorded. But so far from this being the case, there were special and very earnest directions in order to avert it (Exodus 19:12,Exodus 19:13, Exodus 19:21, Exodus 19:24.) So long as they kept outside the Divinely appointed barrier and observed the cleansing regulations, neither life nor property was lost. Sinai, with all its undescribed terrors, was not Vesuvius: the people beneath were not gathered in a doomed Herculaneum or Pompeii. The purpose of Jehovah was simply to manifest the reality, extent, and proximity of his destroying power. Men were made to feel what it could do, if they were so presumptuous or negligent as to come within its rightful exercise.—Y.
HOMILIES BY J. URQUHART
The revelation of Jehovah.
I. WHAT IS DEMANDED ERE THE REVELATION CAN BE IMPARTED.
1. The will must be surrendered to God, "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do" (Exodus 19:8).
2. The filthiness of the past must be put away; "Sanctify them" (Exodus 19:10). There must be loathing of, and separation from, sin.
3. There must be a sense of the distance sin has put between the soul and God; "Take heed to yourselves that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it" (Exodus 19:12, Exodus 19:13).
II. HOW THE REVELATION IS IMPARTED.
1. In the awful manifestation of his majesty (Exodus 19:16-19). The first step is the recognition of the livingness and greatness and holiness of God. Hitherto he has been to the soul a name only; now the Creator, the Holy One, against whom and in whose sight all sin has been wrought, the Righteous Judge from whom there is no escape, from whose face death itself affords no covering.
2. In the glorifying of a Mediator, to whom he speaks, and who shall declare him to us. This is reflected in the Christian's experience—
THE MANIFESTATION OF GOD UPON SINAI. All was ready. The fence had been made (Exodus 19:23); the people had purified themselves—at least so far as externals went. The third day was come—there was a breathless hush of expectation. Then suddenly, in the morning, the presence manifested itself. "There were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud" (Exodus 19:16); "and Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace and the whole mount quaked greatly" (Exodus 19:18) Or, as the scene is elsewhere (Deuteronomy 4:11, Deuteronomy 4:12) described by Moses—"Ye came near and stood under the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire unto the midst of heaven, with darkness, clouds, and thick darkness. And the Lord spoke unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice." The phenomena were not a mere "storm of thunder and lightning, whereof Moses took advantage to persuade the people that they had heard God's voice"—not "an earthquake with volcanic eruptions"—not even these two combined—but a real theophany, in which amid the phenomena of storm and tempest, and fire and smoke, and thick darkness, and hearings of the ground as by an earthquake shock, first the loud blast of a trumpet sounded long commanding attention, and then a clear penetrating voice, like that of a man, made itself heard in distinctly articulated words, audible to the whole multitude, and recognised by them as superhuman—as "the voice of God" (Deuteronomy 4:33). It is in vain to seek to minimise, and to rationalise the scene, and tone it down into something not supernatural. The only honest course is either to accept it as a plain record of plain (albeit miraculous) facts, or to reject it altogether as the fiction of a romancer.
There were thunders. Literally, "voices," as in Exodus 9:23; but there can be no doubt that "thunder" is meant. A thick cloud. Compare above, Exodus 9:9, and the comment ad loc. The voice of the trumpet. Literally, "a trumpet's voice." The word used for "trumpet" is not the same as in Exodus 9:13; but the variation does not seem to have any importance.
Moses brought forth the people out of the camp. The camp itself must have been withdrawn to some little distance from the foot of the mount, so that a vacant space intervened between the first tents and the "fence" which Moses had caused to be erected almost close to the mount. Into this vacant space Moses now led "the people"—i.e; the chief of the people—so bringing them as near as they might come to God.
Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke. Literally, smoked, all of it. Kalisch suggests that "the dense clouds from which the thunders broke forth had the appearance of smoke." But the reason assigned—"because the Lord descended on it in fire," seems to imply real smoke; and. the same re-suits from the comparison of it to "the smoke of a furnace." The whole mount quaked greatly. Scarcely "through the vehemence of the thunder" (Kalisch), for thunder does not shake the earth, though it shakes the air—but rather by an actual earthquake. Compare Psalms 18:7; Matthew 27:51-54; Acts 4:31; Acts 16:26.
When the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder. This is a somewhat free translation; but it gives well the real meaning of the Hebrew. We may conclude that the trumpet's blast was not continuous. It sounded when the manifestation began (Exodus 19:16). It sounded again, much louder and with a much more prolonged note, to herald the actual descent of God upon the mount. This time the sound was so piercing, so terrible, so intolerable, that Moses could no longer endure to keep silence, but burst out in speech. Were his words those recorded in Hebrews 12:21—"I exceedingly fear and quake"—words not found now in the Old Testament—or were they others which have been wholly lost to us? It is impossible to say. His speech, however, had the effect of bringing the awful preparations to a close—"Moses spake, and God. answered him by a voice, and the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai."
On the top of the mount. Not, probably, on the highest point of the Sinaitic group, the Jebel Musa, which is out of sight from the plain Er-Rahah, where the Israelites must have been assembled; but on the highest part of the face of Sinai fronting that plain, the Ras Sufsafeh, which would be to the Israelites at the base "the top of the mount." The Lord called Moses up. Perhaps with Aaron, who certainly accompanied him when he next ascended (Exodus 19:24), and who seems to be glanced at in the phrase used at the end of Exodus 19:23
God's various modes of manifesting himself.
It has been well said that "when God reveals himself it is in a manner suitable to the occasion." No revelation that he has made of himself has ever been so terrible in its material accompaniments as that at Sinai; and no occasion can ever be conceived of as more needing the employment of solemn, startling, and impressive circumstances. Here was a people gross of heart, delighting in flesh-pots, debased by slavery, careless of freedom, immoral, inclined to idolatry, which had to be elevated into God's living witness among the nations, the depositary of his truth, the teacher of the rest of mankind for ages. Given the object of impressing such a nation permanently with the conviction that it had received a Divine revelation, and that very dreadful consequences would follow the neglect of it, and the need of the thunders and other terrors of Sinai becomes manifest. At other times and in other places God has pursued quite different methods. To Elijah he revealed himself in the "still small voice;" to Isaiah and St. John in visions; to the apostles generally in the solemn teaching of his Son; to St. Paul in ecstasies, wherein he heard unspeakable words. The contrast between the day of the giving of the law on Sinai and the day of Pentecost has often been noticed.
"When God of old came down from Heaven,
In power and wrath he came;
Before his feet the clouds were riven,
Half darkness and half flame."
"But when he came the second time,
He came in power and love:
Softer than gale at morning prime,
Hovered his holy Dove."
The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost and the coming of Jesus were, both of them, gentle and peaceful Epiphanies, suited to the time when God, having educated the world for four thousand years or more, was about to seek to win men to himself by the preaching of "good tidings"—of the gospel of love. The clouds and terrors of Sinai would here have been out of place—unsuitable anachronisms. In complete harmony with the two occasions were—at Bethlehem, the retired village, the humble stable, the angels singing of peace on earth, the lone shepherds watching their flocks at night—in Jerusalem the voiceless wind, "mighty" yet subdued, the lambent light playing round the heads of holy men, the unseen inward influence shed into their hearts at the same time, impalpable to sense, but with power to revolutionise the world. And as God reveals himself to his Church in manifold ways, each fitting the occasion, so does he reveal himself to individuals. Now he comes clothed in his terrors. He visits with calamity or with sickness, or with that awful dread which from time to time comes over the soul, that it is lost, hopelessly lost, alienated from God for ever. Anon, he shows himself in gentler guise—he whispers hope, he instils faith, he awakens love. In every case he studies the needs of the individual, and adapts his revelation of himself to them. Now he calls by his preachers, now he warns by the "still small voice" of conscience; now he wakes men out of sleep by a sudden danger or a sudden deliverance; anon, he startles them out of a self-complacency worse than sleep by withdrawing himself and allowing them to fall. It is for man to take advantage of every Divine manifestation, to listen when God speaks, to obey when he calls, to make the use of each occasion which it was intended to have, to "receive God's revelations of himself in his own way."
HOMILIES BY J. ORR
Sinai and Sion.
In studying these verses we cannot but be reminded of the picture drawn by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews of the contrast in respect of Church state and privilege between believers of the Old and believers of the New Testament dispensations. "Ye are not come," he says, "unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest … But ye are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem," etc. (Hebrews 12:18-25). Briefly stated, what is set forth here is the contrast of legal with Gospel privilege. The writer is addressing Jews, who were in danger of apostatising from Christ. He seeks to dissuade them from going back to Judaism by showing them the vast superiority of the privileges which they enjoyed as Christians to those enjoyed under the law. We, who are Christians, and axe in no temptation to return to Judaism, approach the subject from a different side. But the verses are still of use as showing us, by contrast, the greatness of our privilege. We have,
1. the negative side of Christian privilege—what we are delivered from, "Ye are not come," etc.;
2. The positive side of Christian privilege—what we have come to, "Ye are come unto Mount Sion," etc. It will better suit our present purpose to view the contrast along different lines.
I. THE CONTRAST IS THE MOUNTAINS. Sinai and Sion.
1. Sinai. Sinai, the mountain of law, stands as the proper representative of the old economy. The Israelites, as seen above, were under a peculiar constitution. Bound to God by a covenant of law, they yet enjoyed many of the benefits of a state of grace. Sinai, however, was the proper representation of their economy. Divest that economy of all that it derived from the new and better covenant which has since superseded it, and it would have been a Sinai economy pure and simple. The law said, Do this and thou shalt live; and if the Israelite did not do it, it could award no blessing to him, could only condemn. This was the formal constitution. As placed under law, the people, in their approaches to God, were constantly coming anew to the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire.
2. Sion. The first thing which strikes us here is—
1. Because the special seat of God's holy abode in the midst of his Church is now literally in heaven, i.e; spiritually removed from, and exalted above the earth.
2. Because the kingdom of God is spiritually the highest thing on earth—founded on the highest order of ideas, on those principles of righteousness and justice which dominate all others.
3. Because it is, in point of fact, the central, commanding, controlling power in history.
4. Because entrance into it, and growth in its spirit and power, involves a spiritual rise—is a true moral ascent. These facts evince the propriety of this figurative representation.
II. THE CONTRAST IN THE ACCESSORIES. Each mountain, in the passage in Hebrews, is made the centre of a scene. We have, accordingly, two groups of attendant circumstances, the details of which are placed studiously in contrast. The series of manifestations at Sinai has already engaged our attention, and we need not dwell upon them further. In contrast to Sinai is placed the picture of the convocation at Mount Sion. The picture is ideal; but the features in it are severally real, and the whole are needed to set forth Christian privilege in its completeness.
1. The mount is represented as crowned by "the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem"—the city denoting that great spiritual polity into which believers are admitted, and in which they have rights of citizenship, but which, like every other polity, has an existence of its own, irrespective of the individuals who at any time compose its membership. The civitas endures, though the elves come and go. The ideas suggested are order, beauty, symmetry. God has founded this city. God defends it. It has salvation for walls and bulwarks. The capital of this great "City of God" is heaven; but believers, even on earth, are enfranchised members of it, and, spiritually, have come to it (Ephesians 2:19; Philippians 3:20).
2. Crowding the mount, thronging its sides, and hovering above, behind, around, is "an innumerable company of angels." Cf. 2 Kings 6:17, where the servant of Elisha saw the mountain "full" of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha; or Daniel 7:10, where thousand thousands minister to the Ancient of Days, and ten thousand times ten thousand stand before him; or Revelation 5:11, where the number of the angels round about the throne was "ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands." The truths figured are these two—
3. The mount is further occupied by "the general assembly and Church of the first-born, which are written in heaven"—this designation including the whole body of Christian believers both those on earth and those in heaven; the Church catholic, spiritual, invisible. "The whole family in heaven and earth"—''one Church, above, below." But why called "first-born"? "They are partakers with Christ in all the privileges of that right of primogeniture, which properly and essentially belongs to him alone." (Candlish.) The truth figured here is, that in Christ we are admitted to the "communion of saints." "I believe in the holy Catholic Church … I believe in the communion of saints." Yet how little, sometimes, does this great privilege mean to us!
4. Another part of the assembly on the mount is denoted by the words—"the spirits of just men made perfect." These are the holy and good of the former dispensation, now admitted to equality of privilege and blessedness with Christians (cf. Hebrews 11:40).
5. God himself sits enthroned in the midst—"Judge of all." The expression reminds us of the writer's design, which is not consolatory, but admonitory. It is still the holy God with whom we have to do, the Judge (cf. Romans 2:6; 1 Peter 1:17) as well as Father; one who will punish disobedience to his voice now with even greater severity than he did of old (Hebrews 12:25, Hebrews 12:29). The God of Sinai and the God of Sion are after all the same God. What, then, makes the difference between Sinai and Sion? The answer is—
6. "Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, and the blood of sprinkling." It is Christ's presence in the scene which has changed all the surroundings. To all these things, if we are indeed in Christ, we come. How?
III. THE CONTRAST IN PRIVILEGE.
1. In the character of the privilege. In Israel's case, the privilege was of so awful a kind, that the sense of privilege was well-nigh swallowed up in the terror which the scene inspired. How different with believers! Their approach to this spiritual mount is solemnising indeed, yet joyful. They have boldness in drawing nigh by the blood of Christ.
2. In the degree of the privilege. The Israelites were not permitted to ascend, or even to come near the mount. Bounds were erected to keep them back. Did they so much as touch it, they would perish. How cliff, refit the privilege of Christians, who not only ascend this spiritual Mount Sion, but are enrolled as citizens in its heavenly city, and have boldness to enter the holiest of all in their approaches to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:14-16; Hebrews 10:19-23).—J.O.
HOMILIES BY G. A. GOODHART
Prepare to meet thy God.
God's revelation of himself to man is gradual, as man can bear it. [Cf. the way in which a parent reveals himself to his child, Isaiah 28:11, with stammering lips and a feigned tongue.] Israel had learnt to know God as a deliverer; must learn to know him further as a lawgiver and ruler.
I. THE SCENE. A long, broad valley. Rocks on each side widening out into a natural amphitheatre. Facing down the valley is a steep, precipitous mountain; grey, streaked with red. The whole scene, not unlike, on a huge scale, that presented by the avenues leading up to the Egyptian temples. It is a place where those accustomed to Egypt might expect to meet with God. "Now" probably the people may have thought, "we shall see for ourselves this mysterious Jehovah; he has brought us to his temple; he will introduce us to his shrine."
II. THE MEDIATOR AND HIS MESSAGE. Israel is encamped. Moses ascends the mountain (Isaiah 28:3). Again God meets with him and sends a message by him to the people. Notice:—
1. Reminder of what he has done for them already (Isaiah 28:4).
2. Obedience the condition of future favour (Isaiah 28:5). Fulfil the condition and the promise is secure. The earth itself is God's temple; if Israel will obey and keep his covenant they shall be "a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation."
3. The answer given (Isaiah 28:8). No hesitation, no expression of doubt. The promised blessing so attractive that they are ready to promise anything, never doubting their ability to fulfil their promise. It is easy enough to say "I will"—the hard thing is to translate it into "I do."
III. THE PROMISED INTERVIEW. The people shall be conscious of the presence of their God. Jehovah will publicly attest the authority of his servant, Notice:—
1. The preparation. God requires it. It is easy for familiarity to breed irreverence; and irreverence soon leads on to low views of the Divine character. Love is degraded into mere kindliness; an easy-going people believe in an easy-going God. See here:—
2. The revelation. The third day comes (Hebrews 10:16). Storm, sound of trumpet, assembly of people without the camp, trembling, earthquake, intense suspense. "Now surely God will show himself. Can we endure the sight and live?" At length (Hebrews 10:19) "a voice"—cf. Deuteronomy 4:12; "no similitude, only a voice." For the present it is enough; reverence is the first lesson those whom God has delivered have to learn; "Hallowed be thy Name" is the first petition they are taught to offer. For effect (cf. Exodus 20:18-22) which also teaches the object of the revelation. "That his fear may be before your faces that ye sin not."
Conclusion. We have learnt many more lessons about God than the Israelites could then learn. Have we not too often slurred over or half-forgotten that first lesson?
"Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make our music as before,
But vaster. We axe fools and slight;
We mock thee when we do not fear;
But help thy foolish ones to bear;
Help thy vain worlds to bear thy light."
Only a voice.
The people were expecting a revelation—a vision of the hitherto unseen Jehovah—it came, but not as they expected; no vision, only a voice (cf. Deuteronomy 4:12). The fact was the law was not a final, only a preparatory revelation; it is related to the Gospel as John Baptist was related to Christ. "A voice crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord. Consider in this view:—
I. THE STRENGTH OF THE LAW.
1. It was a voice—a Divine voice. In spite of the confusion not unmixed with disappointment, none doubted whence it came. It gave a Divine authority to the commandment even when given through a mediator.
2. It was adapted to the condition of those who heard it. A revelation must be fitted for those to whom it is addressed. (Illust. a highly-finished picture is of small value to the half-blind; they can better appreciate a rough sketch in coarse, bold outline.) The animal, or natural man, as exemplified in the character of Israel in the wilderness, could not have understood anything more spiritual; its religion is obedience. The natural man can only be reached by such sensual methods as his nature can respond to. Through them the spiritual nature, which is cradled in the natural, may be educated and fostered, prepared to receive in due course that higher revelation which befits it.
II. THE WEAKNESS OF THE LAW.
1. It was only a voice. As the spiritual nature grows (cf. infants attaining consciousness) it craves for something more than this. It needs not a voice only, but a presence. From the first we find Israel longing after a "similitude.'' Even Moses (Exodus 33:18) beseeches that God will show him his glory. Later the cry grows ever more distinct through psalmists and prophets, itself a continuous preparation for the fulfilment ultimately reserved for it.
2. Evidence in the law itself (cf. second commandment). A fence to guard an empty shrine, but a shrine kept empty only in preparation for some coming inmate. A preparation for the Incarnation. The Pharisee comes to worship the fence; the idolater ignores it; both illustrate the weakness of the merely "vocal" revelation.
III. CONTRAST WITH THE GOSPEL. Christ is "the Word made Flesh;" the express image of God. Not a voice only, but a person. The more perfect revelation indicates a fuller development in those to whom it is addressed, but we must remember that a fuller development implies also a greater responsibility. [The offence which we condone in the child, is unpardonable in the man. Mistakes made by the half-blind are no longer excusable when a man can see.] If Israel fell and was rejected, must not our far greater privileges be followed, if profaned, with deeper ruin? (Cf. Hebrews 12:25, Hebrews 12:26; 1 Corinthians 10:1-12.)—G.
The further warning to the people and the priests. It is very remarkable that, after all the directions given (Exodus 19:10-13), and all the pains taken by Moses and the Israelites themselves (Exodus 19:14, Exodus 19:15, Exodus 19:23), God should still have thought it necessary to interpose with a fresh warning, and to send Moses back from the top of the mount to the bottom, in order to communicate the renewed warning to the people. We can only suppose that, in spite of the instructions previously given and the precautions taken, there were those among the people who were prepared to "break through" the fence, and invade the mount, and who would have done so, to their own destruction (Exodus 19:21), but for this second warning. The special mention of the "priests" (Exodus 19:22, Exodus 19:24) raises the suspicion, that this proud and rebellious spirit was particularly developed among them. Accustomed to the exercise of sacred functions, they may have been inclined to regard their own purity as equal to that of Moses and Aaron; and they may even have resented their exclusion from a sacred spot to which the two sons of Amram were admitted. Apparently, they had conceived that the injunction to go through the recognised ceremonies of purification (Exodus 19:10) did not apply to them, and had neglected to do so, on which account a special command had.to be issued, addressed to them only (Exodus 19:22).
Charge the people lest they break through—i.e; "lest they force a passage through the barrier made by Moses" in accordance with the command given in Exodus 19:12. And many of them perish. Irreverent gazing on holy things was forbidden by the law (Numbers 4:20), and on one occasion (1 Samuel 6:19) was actually punished with death. It did not, however, require a law to make it an offence, natural reason being quite sufficient to teach the duty of reverence.
Let the priests also. It has been objected, that no priests had been as yet appointed, and that we have here therefore an anachronism. But every nation in ancient times had priests, appointed on one principle or another: and the Levitical priesthood must be regarded as having superseded one previously existent, not as the first priesthood known to Israel. We have a second mention of priests, previous to the appointment of Aaron's sons to the office (in Exodus 24:5), which confirms the present passage. Sanctify themselves. The verb used is identical with that which occurs in Exodus 19:10; and there is no reason to believe that any different sanctification was intended. The natural inference is that the priests had neglected to sanctify themselves. (See the introductory paragraph.) Lest the Lord break forth. Compare 2 Samuel 6:8, where we have an instance of such a "breaking forth" upon Uzzah.
The people cannot come up. Moses can only have meant, that the people could not approach the mount unwittingly, since the fence commanded (Exodus 19:12) was made. But to scale the fence, or break through it, was of course possible. (See Exodus 19:13.)
And the Lord said … Away, Get thee down. God wholly rejected the plea of Moses, that there was no need to give an additional warning. He knew best, and would not have issued the order to "go down and charge the people "(Exodus 19:21), unless there had been a need for it. In the abrupt words "Away, get thee down," we may see a rebuke, addressed to Moses, for his folly in thinking that he could change the purposes of God. Thou and Aaron with thee. This is the first express mention of Aaron as called to ascend with Moses. But it is quite possible that he may have accompanied his brother in either or both the previous ascents (Exodus 19:3, Exodus 19:20. Compare Exodus 10:1, Exodus 10:3; Exodus 12:21, Exodus 12:28; etc.) But let not the priests and the people break through. Both the priests and the people were to be again solemnly warned that it would be death to break through the fence. This warning seems to have been sufficient.
So Moses went down. After the sharp rebuke addressed to him in Exodus 19:24, Moses made no further resistance, but returned to the camp, delivered the warning to priests and people, and having so done re-ascended the mount with Aaron.
The priestly office does not dispense a man from personal purity, but obliges him the more to it.
Holiness of office, of profession, of function is too often regarded as if it secured, by some occult power, the personal holiness of the individual, or even of the class, exercising it. The priest castes of Egypt, India, and other countries, assumed to stand on a completely different footing from the rest of the community in respect of nearness, and acceptability to God. And both under the Jewish and the Christian dispensation, there has been in different times and countries a vast amount of sacerdotal pretension, a wide-spread disposition to assume that official covers and includes personal holiness. But Holy Scripture abounds in warnings against any such assumption. "Let the priests sanctify themselves." Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, were chosen among the first of the Levitical priests (Exodus 28:1); yet their priestly office did not prevent them from sinning grievously by offering "strange fire before the Lord," and perishing for their impiety (Numbers 10:1, Numbers 10:2). Eli's sons were "sons of Belial" (1 Samuel 2:12), whose "sin was very great before the Lord" (1 Samuel 2:17). Even among the apostles there was a "son of perdition." Priests have to remember—
I. THAT THE PRIESTLY OFFICE DOES NOT SECURE THEM AGAINST BEING TEMPTED. Even Christ, our great High Priest—the only true priest that the world has ever seen, was "in all points tempted like as we are" (Hebrews 4:15). Eli's sons were tempted by greed and fleshly lusts (1 Samuel 2:16, 1 Samuel 2:22); Nadab and Abihu by pride; Judas by covetousness. All men have the same nature, like passions, similar appetites. The priest, after all, is a man. Satan watches for him no less—or rather much more—than for others. It is a greater triumph for him to lead astray the shepherd than the sheep. And the relations of a priest towards his flock are of such a nature—so close, so private sometimes—as to lay him open to special temptations.
II. THAT THE PRIESTLY OFFICE DOES NOT SECURE THEM AGAINST YIELDING TO TEMPTATION. Jesus alone was "in all points tempted, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). "ALL we the rest, although baptised and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things," yield to the temptations which surround us, transgress the Divine law. Nadab, Abihu, Eli's sons, Judas, were not only tempted, but fell. The priests of Judah, towards the close of the independent kingdom, were among those who provoked God the most (Jeremiah 32:32; Zephaniah 3:4). Christian ministers, even at the present day, too often disgrace their profession, bring shame upon their church, and even upon religion itself, by acts of sin or sometimes by scandalous lives, no better than those of the sons of Eli. These terrible examples should be a warning to all of their danger, and should render the minister distrustful of himself, circumspect, vigilant, and above all prayerful. Only by God's help can he hope to stand upright.
III. THAT SIN IS WORSE IN THE PRIEST THAN IN OTHERS, AND WILL ENTAIL A SORER PUNISHMENT. Ministers of Christ pledge themselves by special vows, over and above their baptismal vows, to lead godly lives. They are bound to be examples to the flock. They have greater opportunities of grace than others. Their offences cause greater scandal than the offences of others, and do greater damage to the cause of religion. There is something shocking, even to the worldly man, in the immorality of one whose business in life is to minister in holy things. The impure minister is a hypocrite; and hypocrisy is hateful to God, and even in the sight of man contemptible.
IV. THAT THE PRIESTLY PROFESSION BINDS TO HOLINESS. Priests are they whose office it is to "come near the Lord" (Exodus 19:22)—to draw closer to him than others—to lead others on to him, by exhortation, by example, by intercessory prayer. Without holiness they are impotent to perform their work—they are of no service either to God or man—they do but help forward the work of the devil. Ministering in a holy place, in holy things, with holy words continually in their mouths, if they have not holiness in their hearts, their lives must be a perpetual contradiction, a continual profanity. Again, as already observed, they take special vows: they profess before God and the congregation to have an inward call; they spontaneously promise to live as examples to others; they enter on their position in life on these conditions: they bind themselves. Not to live holy lives is to fly in the face of these obligations—to break the promises made to man and the vows offered to God—to violate faith—to destroy, so far as lies in their power, the great bond of human society. And what must not the offence be to God which they commit, by continually drawing near to him with their lips, when their hearts are far from him? He is "of purer eyes than to behold iniquity." "Without holiness no one shall see him." "Let the priests sanctify themselves."
Saturday, December 10th, 2016
the Second Week of Advent
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