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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable
Exodus 19

 

 

Verses 1-6

The Israelites arrived at the base of the mountain where God gave them the law about three months after they had left Egypt, in May-June ( Exodus 19:1). The mountain in the Sinai range that most scholars have regarded as the mountain peak referred to in this chapter stands in the southeastern part of the Sinai Peninsula. Its name in Arabic is Jebel Musa, mountain of Moses. [Note: See Israel Finkelstein, "Raider of the Lost Mountain-An Israeli Looks at the Most Recent Attempt to Locate Mt. Sinai," Biblical Archaeology Review15:4 (July-August1988):46-50.] There is a natural slope to the land to the southeast of this peak, and another plain to the north, which would have afforded Israel a good view of the mountain if the people camped there. However the location of biblical Mt. Sinai continues to be uncertain. The nation stayed at Mt. Sinai11months ( Numbers 10:11). The record of their experiences here continues through Numbers 10:10.

Many reliable scholars have considered Exodus 19:3-6 the very heart of the Pentateuch because they contain the classic expression of the nature and purpose of the theocratic covenant that God made with Israel, the Mosaic Covenant.

God gave the Mosaic Law specifically "to the house of Jacob ... the sons of Israel" ( Exodus 19:3). [Note: For an illustration of the confusion that failure to observe this fact can create in teaching on the Christian"s relationship to the Law, see Sakae Kubo, "Why then the Law?" Ministry (March1980), pp12-14.]

"The image of the eagle [ Exodus 19:4] is based on the fact that the eagle, when its offspring learns [sic] to fly, will catch them on its wings when they fall." [Note: Gispen, p179.]

"Without doubt Exodus 19:4-6 is the most theologically significant text in the book of Exodus , for it is the linchpin between the patriarchal promises of the sonship of Israel and the Sinaitic Covenant whereby Israel became the servant nation of Yahweh." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," p32. Cf. William J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, pp80-81.]

God"s promise to Israel here ( Exodus 19:5-6) went beyond what He had promised Abraham. If Israel would be obedient to God, He would do three things for the nation (cf. Joshua 24:15).

1. Israel would become God"s special treasure ( Exodus 19:5). This means that Israel would enjoy a unique relationship with God compared with all other nations. This was not due to any special goodness in Israel but strictly to the sovereign choice of God.

2. Israel would become a kingdom of priests ( Exodus 19:6). This is the first occurrence in Scripture of the word "kingdom" as referring to God"s rule through men on earth. A priest stands between God and people. Israel could become a nation of mediators standing between God and the other nations, responsible for bringing them to God and God to them. Israel would not be a kingdom run by politicians depending on strength and wit but by priests depending on faith in Yahweh: a servant nation rather than a ruling nation. [Note: Durham, p263.]

3. Israel would become a holy nation ( Exodus 19:6). "Holy" means set apart and therefore different. The Israelites would become different from other peoples because they would devote themselves to God and separate from sin and defilement as they obeyed the law of God. In these notes I have capitalized "Law" when referring to the Pentateuch, the Law of Moses, or the Ten Commandments and have used the lowercase "law" for all other references to law.

In short, Israel could have become a testimony to the whole world of how glorious it can be to live under the government of God. The people experienced these blessings only partially because their obedience was partial. Israel"s disobedience to the Mosaic Covenant did not invalidate any of God"s promises to Abraham, however. Those promises did not rest on Israel"s obedience, as these did (cf. Genesis 15:17-21 and Exodus 19:5-6). [Note: See Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, "Israel and the Church," in Issues in Dispensationalism, pp113-15 , for a good discussion of Israel"s national election and how this relates to the individual election of Israelites.]


Verses 1-11

B. The establishment of the Mosaic Covenant19:1-24:11

The Lord had liberated Israel from bondage in Egypt, but now He adopted the nation into a special relationship with Himself.

"Now begins the most sublime section in the whole Book. The theme of this section is supremely significant, playing a role of decisive importance in the history of Israel and of humanity as a whole." [Note: Cassuto, p223.]

At Sinai, Israel received the law and the tabernacle. The law facilitated the obedience of God"s redeemed people, and the tabernacle facilitated their worship. Thus the law and the tabernacle deal with the two major expressions of the faith of the people redeemed by the grace and power of God: obedience and worship.

Here begins the fifth dispensation, the dispensation of the law. It ended with the death of Christ, who alone fulfilled all its requirements and, as a second Moses, superceded it with His own teaching. God gave the Israelites the law "because of [their] transgressions" ( Galatians 3:19), which we have seen they committed after their redemption. The law taught the wayward Israelites, and teaches all readers of this history, the awesome holiness of God ( Exodus 19:10-25) and the exceeding sinfulness of man ( Romans 7:13; 1 Timothy 1:8-10). It also taught and teaches the necessity of obedience ( Jeremiah 7:23-24), the universality of human failure ( Romans 3:19-20; Romans 3:23), and the marvel of God"s grace that provided a way whereby redeemed sinners could have ongoing relationship with God ( Romans 3:21-22).

The law did not change the provisions or abrogate the promises that God gave in the Abrahamic Covenant. God did not give it as a means of justification for unbelievers ( Acts 15:10-11; Galatians 2:16; Galatians 2:21; Galatians 3:3-9; Galatians 3:14; Galatians 3:17; Galatians 3:24-25) but as a means of sanctification, rules for living, for a redeemed people. It clarified for them that purity and holiness should characterize their lives as the people of God. It was "child training" through disciplinary restriction and correction designed to prepare them for the coming of Christ when they as a people would "come of age" ( Deuteronomy 6:24; Galatians 3:24; Galatians 3:26; Galatians 4:1-7; Titus 2:11-13). The Israelites, however, misinterpreted the purpose of the law and sought to obtain righteousness by their good deeds and ceremonial ordinances ( Acts 15:1; Romans 9:31 to Romans 10:3; 1 Timothy 1:8-10). Israel"s history was one long record of violating the law, even to rejecting their own Messiah whom Moses told them to heed ( Deuteronomy 18:15).

The Mosaic Covenant is an outgrowth of the Abrahamic Covenant in the sense that it was a significant, intimate agreement between God and Abraham"s descendants. By observing it the Israelites could achieve their purpose as a nation. This purpose was to experience God"s blessing and to be a blessing to all nations of the earth ( Genesis 12:2). In contrast to the Abrahamic Covenant, Israel had responsibilities to fulfill to obtain God"s promised blessings ( Exodus 19:5). It was, therefore, a conditional covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant-as well as the Davidic and New Covenants that contain expansions of the promises in the Abrahamic Covenant-was unconditional.

A further contrast is this.

"Whereas the Sinaitic covenant was based on an already accomplished act of grace and issued in stringent stipulations, the patriarchal covenant rested only on the divine promise and demanded of the worshipper only his trust (e.g, ch. Exodus 15:6)." [Note: Bright, pp91-92.]

"The covenant with Israel at Sinai is to bring Israel into a position of mediatorial service." [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, "The Mosaic Covenant: A Proposal for Its Theological Significance," Exegesis and Exposition3:1 (Fall1988):29.]

"The major difference between the Mosaic covenant and the Abrahamic covenant is that the former was conditional and also was ad interim, that Isaiah , it was a covenant for a limited period, beginning with Moses and ending with Christ....

"In contrast to the other covenants, the Mosaic covenant, though it had provisions for grace and forgiveness, nevertheless builds on the idea that obedience to God is necessary for blessing. While this to some extent is true in every dispensation, the Mosaic covenant was basically a works covenant rather than a grace covenant. The works principle, however, was limited to the matter of blessing in this life and was not related at all to the question of salvation for eternity." [Note: John F. Walvoord, "The New Covenant," in Integrity of Heart, Skillfulness of Hands, pp191-92.]

The Mosaic Covenant is the heart of the Pentateuch.

"First, it should be pointed out that the most prominent event and the most far-reaching theme in the Pentateuch, viewed entirely on its own, is the covenant between Yahweh and Israel established at Mount Sinai....

"1) The author of the Pentateuch wants to draw a connecting link between God"s original plan of blessing for mankind and his establishment of the covenant with Israel at Sinai. Put simply, the author sees the covenant at Sinai as God"s plan to restore his blessing to mankind through the descendants of Abraham ( Genesis 12:1-3; Exodus 2:24).

"2) The author of the Pentateuch wants to show that the Covenant at Sinai failed to restore God"s blessing to mankind because Israel failed to trust God and obey his will.

"3) The author of the Pentateuch wants to show that God"s promise to restore the blessing would ultimately succeed because God himself would one day give to Israel a heart to trust and obey God ( Deuteronomy 30:1-10)." [Note: John H. Sailhamer, "Exegetical Notes: Genesis 1:1-2:4a," Trinity Journal5 NS (Spring1984):75 , 76.]

The writer interrupted the narrative sections of Exodus with blocks of other explanatory, qualifying, and cultic material in the chapters that follow. [Note: Durham, p258.]

Narrative
Exodus 19:1-3 a

Other
Exodus 19:3-9

Narrative
Exodus 19:10-19 a

Other
Exodus 19:19-25

Narrative
Exodus 20:1-21

Other
Exodus 20:22 to Exodus 23:33

Narrative
Exodus 24:1-18

Other
Exodus 25-31

Narrative
Exodus 32-34

Another scholar observed the following chiastic structure in chapters19-24. [Note: Joe M. Sprinkle, "Law and Narrative in Exodus 19-24 ," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 47:2 (June2004):242.]

A Narrative: the covenant offered ( Exodus 19:3-25)

B Law: the Decalogue ( Exodus 20:1-17)

C Narrative: the people"s fear ( Exodus 20:18-21)

B" Law: the Book of the Covenant ( Exodus 20:22 to Exodus 23:33)

A" Narrative: the covenant accepted ( Exodus 24:1-11)


Verses 7-15

The reaction of the Israelites to God"s promises was understandably positive, and God approved it ( Deuteronomy 5:27-28). They wanted what God offered them. However, they overestimated their own ability to keep the covenant, and they underestimated God"s standards for them. This twin error is traceable to a failure to appreciate their own sinfulness and God"s holiness. The Mosaic Law would teach them to appreciate both more realistically (cf. Deuteronomy 5:29).

God designed the procedures He specified in Exodus 19:10-15 to help the people realize the difference between their holy God and their sinful selves. Notice that God separated Himself from the Israelites spatially and temporally.

The temporary prohibition against normal sexual relations ( Exodus 19:15) seems intended to impress the importance of this occasion on the Israelites and to help them concentrate on it. We should not infer from this command that normal sexual relations are sinful (cf. Genesis 1:28; Genesis 9:1; Genesis 9:7). Abstention was for ritual cleanness, not moral cleanness.


Verses 16-25

God again used the symbol of fire to reveal Himself on this mountain ( Exodus 3:2-5). Fire is a symbol of His holiness that enlightens, purges, and refines. The smoke and quaking that accompanied the fire further impressed this awesome revelation on the people.

The priests referred to ( Exodus 19:22; Exodus 19:24) were evidently young men (first-born?) that offered sacrifices before God appointed the Aaronic priests to this service (cf. Exodus 24:5).

Comparative ancient Near Eastern studies have revealed that the covenant form and terminology that God used to communicate His agreement with Israel were common in Moses" day. There were two basic types of formal covenants in the ancient Near East: parity (between equals) and suzerainty (between a sovereign and his subjects). The Mosaic Covenant was a suzerainty treaty. Such agreements characteristically contained a preamble ( Exodus 19:3), historical prologue ( Exodus 19:4), statement of general principles ( Exodus 19:5 a), consequences of obedience ( Exodus 19:5-6 a), and consequences of disobedience (omitted here). In1977 , Kenneth Kitchen wrote the following.

"Some forty different [suzerainty] treaties ... are known to us, covering seventeen centuries from the late third millennium BC well into the first millennium BC, excluding broken fragments, and now additional ones still to be published from Ebla." [Note: Kenneth Kitchen, The Bible In Its World, p79.]

Thus the form in which God communicated His covenant to Moses and Israel was undoubtedly familiar to them. It enabled them to perceive better the nature of the relationship into which they were entering. [Note: See George E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Near East; Meredith Kline, The Treaty of the Great King; and F. C. Fensham, "Extra-biblical Material and the Hermeneutics of the Old Testament with Special Reference to the Legal Material of the Covenant Code," OTWSA20 & 21 (1977 & 78):53-65.]

The Mosaic Law consisted of three classes of requirements: those governing moral life (the Ten Commandments), those governing religious life (the ceremonial ordinances), and those governing civil life (the civil statutes). The commandments expressed the righteous will of God ( Exodus 20), the judgments governed Israel"s social life ( Exodus 21:1 to Exodus 24:11), and the ordinances determined Israel"s religious life ( Exodus 24:12 to Exodus 31:18). God gave the whole Law specifically for the nation of Israel ( Exodus 19:3). It is very important to recognize how comprehensive the Mosaic Law was and not limit it to the Ten Commandments. The rabbis, after Maimonides, counted613commands, 248 positive and365 negative, in the law. Maimonides was a Jewish philosopher and exegete who lived in the twelfth century A.D. and wrote Sepher Mitzvoth ("Book of the Commandments"), the definitive Jewish list of laws in the Penteateuch. [Note: For a summary of Maimonides" list, see the Appendix in Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., pp481-516.]

There were three categories of law in Israel.

1. Crimes were actions that the community prohibited under the will of God and punished in its name. Murder ( Exodus 21:12), adultery ( Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22), and the kidnapping of persons for sale outside Israel ( Exodus 21:16) are examples of crimes. These offenses resulted in the punishment of the guilty party by the community as a community ( Exodus 21:12-16).

2. Torts were civil wrongs that resulted in an action by the injured party against the party who had wronged him. Assault ( Exodus 21:18-27), the seduction of an unmarried or betrothed girl ( Exodus 22:16-17), and theft of animals or other property ( Exodus 22:1-4) are examples of torts. Conviction resulted in the guilty party paying damages to the injured party ( Exodus 21:18-27).

3. Family law did not involve the courts, but the head of the household administered it in the home. Divorce ( Deuteronomy 24:1-4), the making of slavery permanent ( Exodus 21:1-6), and adoption (cf. Genesis 15:2; Genesis 30:3; Genesis 48:5; Genesis 48:12; 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7) are examples. In these cases the head of the household acted unilaterally. He did not, however, have the power of life or death. [Note: See Anthony Phillips, Ancient Israel"s Criminal Law; and idem, "Some Aspects of Family Law in Pre-Exilic Israel," Vetus Testamentum23 (1973):349-361 , for further discussion of these categories.]

God gave the Mosaic Law to the Israelites for several purposes:

1. To reveal the holiness of God ( 1 Peter 1:15)

2. To reveal the sinfulness of man ( Galatians 3:19)

3. To reveal the standard of holiness required of those in fellowship with God ( Psalm 24:3-5)

4. To supervise physical, mental, and spiritual development of redeemed Israelites until they should come to maturity in Christ ( Galatians 3:24; Psalm 119:71-72)

5. To be the unifying principle that made the establishment of the nation possible ( Exodus 19:5-8; Deuteronomy 5:27-28)

6. To separate Israel from the nations to become a kingdom of priests ( Exodus 19:5-6; Exodus 31:13)

7. To make provision for forgiveness of sins and restoration to fellowship ( Leviticus 1-7)

8. To make provision for a redeemed people to worship by observing and participating in the yearly festivals ( Leviticus 23)

9. To provide a test whether one was in the kingdom (theocracy) over which God ruled ( Deuteronomy 28)

10. To reveal Jesus Christ.

J. Dwight Pentecost concluded his article on the purpose of the Law, from which I took the preceding10 points, by pointing out the following.

". . . there was in the Law that which was revelatory of the holiness of God...." There was also "... that in the Law which was regulatory." [Note: J. Dwight Pentecost, "The Purpose of the Law," Bibliotheca Sacra128:511 (July-September1971):233. See also idem, Thy Kingdom ..., pp88-93.]

"It is extremely important to remember that the Law of Moses was given to a redeemed people, not to redeem a people." [Note: Ibid, p87. Cf. Johnson, p68.]

". . . it is also possible that the Pentateuch has intentionally included this selection of laws for another purpose, that Isaiah , to give the reader an understanding of the nature of the Mosaic Law and God"s purpose in giving it to Israel. Thus it is possible to argue that the laws in the Pentateuch are not there to tell the reader how to live but rather to tell the reader how Moses was to live under the law.

"This understanding of the purpose of the laws in the Pentateuch is supported by the observation that the collections of laws in the Pentateuch appear to be incomplete and selective. The Pentateuch as such is not designed as a source of legal action. That the laws in the Pentateuch are incomplete is suggested by the fact that many aspects of ordinary community life are not covered in these laws." [Note: Sailhamer, "The Mosaic . . .," pp244 , 245.]

A movement that has gained some followers, especially in the United States, is the Christian Reconstruction movement, also known as the theonomy movement, and the Chalcedon school. Its central thesis is that God intended the Mosaic Law to be normative for all people for all time. Its advocates look forward to a day when Christians will govern everyone using the Old Testament as the law book. Reconstructionism rests on three foundational points: presuppositional apologetics, theonomy (lit. the rule of God), and postmillennialism. The main flaw in this system, from my perspective, is failure to distinguish God"s purposes for Israel from His purposes for the church. [Note: For a popular introduction to this movement, see Rodney Clapp, "Democracy as Heresy," Christianity Today (February20 , 1987), pp17-23. See also Robert Lightner, "Theological Perspectives on Theonomy," Bibliotheca Sacra143:569 (January-March1986):26-36; 143:570 (April-June1986):134-45; and143:571 (July-September1986):228-45 , for a scholarly dispensational critique; and Meredith Kline, "Comments on an Old-New Error," Westminster Theological Journal41:1 (Fall1978):172-89 , for a scholarly reformed evaluation of the movement. The essay by Douglas Chismar and David Raush, "Regarding Theonomy: An Essay of Concern," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society27:3 (September1984):315-23 , is also helpful.]

"Theonomy used to be an attractive lens through which to read Scripture for many Christians, particularly in Reformed and Pentecostal circles in the1970s and into the1990s, among those who looked with horror at the secularization of society and longed for a more powerful Christian influence. Fortunately, as we begin the twenty-first century this movement has lost significant influence." [Note: Longman and Dillard, p76.]

 


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Bibliography Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Exodus 19:4". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/exodus-19.html. 2012.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 14th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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