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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 19

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter may be called, "Getting Ready for the Covenant," for that is the theme of it throughout. The children of Israel come to Sinai, and Moses ascends the mountain (Exodus 19:1-3); Israel called to be a holy nation of royal priests unto God (Exodus 19:4-6); Israel makes a solemn promise of faithfulness to God (Exodus 19:7-10); the three-day period of sanctification (Exodus 19:11-15); great wonders that occurred at Sinai (Exodus 19:16-20); the people again warned, only Moses and Aaron called to go up into the mountain (Exodus 19:21-25) - these are the subdivisions of the chapter.

Verses 1-3

"In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai. And when they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the wilderness of Sinai, they encamped in the wilderness; and there Israel encamped before the mount. And Moses went up unto God, and Jehovah called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel."

"In the third month ... the same day of the month ..." Scholars are uncertain as to the meaning of this last phrase; and, as a result of this, it is impossible to pinpoint accurately the exact time of their coming to Sinai. However, the traditional way of understanding this appears to us to be absolutely accurate. Jamieson fixed the time of their arrival at 45 days after the Passover,[1] basing this upon the meaning ascribed by the Jews to the phrase, "the same day of the month, the first day of the month. If that is the case, then two days elapsed in: (1) making the encampment; and (2) returning the people's answers to God; and three more days elapsed during the three-day period of their sanctification, making five more days in all before the giving of the Law! The principal thing that commends this calculation to us is that this understanding makes the giving of God's Law to have occurred on "The Fiftieth Day," the Pentecost, which corresponds exactly to the N.T. revelation that the giving of the Gospel to mankind also occurred on the Pentecost (Acts 2).

Despite the fact that many scholars deny this understanding of the place, and in spite of the observation of Keil that, "The Jewish tradition that assigns the giving of the law to the fiftieth day after the Passover is of far too recent date to pass for historical,"[2] we still adhere to the view expressed by Jamieson. First, there is nothing in the text that denies this possibility; and second, we have here, in all probability, another example of light shed by one of the Testaments upon the other. It is the N.T. truth that explains this passage.

Some translations, such as the New English Bible, and the new translation of the Torah, render "the new moon" instead of month here, but as Keil said, "The Hebrew word here is never rendered `new moon' in the Pentateuch."[3] This is merely another case of "Reed Sea" speculation - erroneous, of course.

So much for WHEN all this happened. The place of WHERE is also disputed and argued about almost endlessly. However, the traditional site assigned to Sinai is amply supported by all of the evidence that is needed. The preponderant opinion of all segments of faith, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant, with near unanimity, accepts the traditional identification as Jebel Musa. Dummelow's presentation of this is:

"The prodigious mountain block of Ras es Sufsafeh, is identified by Dean Stanley and others as the mount on which the Law was given. It rises some 7,000 feet, sheer from the plain like a huge altar. Some, however (in fact the majority) believe that the actual mount of the Law was another peak of the same range, southward, called Jebel Musa, the traditional site. The whole district has been described as one of the most awe-inspiring regions on the face of the earth."[4]

There is really no good reason to set aside the Monastery of St. Catherine's at the foot of Mount Sinai being quite near the actual place. In the general sense, Mount Sinai is located near the southern apex of the Sinaitic peninsula. As Huey expressed it: "For hundreds of years Jebul Musa (Mountain of Moses), some 7,647 feet high in the southern Sinai peninsula has found the greatest number of supporters as the actual place."[5] The whole question of exactly WHERE the Law was given is of much less importance than WHAT was done there!

"And Moses went up unto God ..." We should have expected Moses to do this, for God had told him that Moses and the children of Israel would worship God "upon this mountain" (Exodus 3:12). Moses and the people had now indeed come to that "mountain", and Moses promptly went up into the mountain to procure the instructions on just how that was to be done.

"The house of Jacob ..." "This expression does not occur anywhere else in the Pentateuch."[6] This is an important fact because of the identication it makes certain as to what "covenant" is meant in Jeremiah's reference to the "house of Judah" (Jeremiah 31:31). Judah was "of Jacob" and no other. Furthermore, the apostasy of the other tribes made it inappropriate to use "Jacob" without a delimitation.

Verses 4-6

"Ye have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be mine own possession from among all peoples: for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel."

These verses, along with the first three, are a single paragraph, in fact constituting a summary of Exodus 19-24. Honeycutt outlined these chapters thus: "Meeting God ... Exodus 19; the Law of God ... Exodus 20-23; and Sealing the Covenant ... Exodus 24."[7] This organization of these chapters is exceedingly important, for as Fields observed, the order of the procedures here follows the pattern of covenants dating well into the 2millennium B.C. (1,500 B.C.), and not the pattern of covenants after 1,000 B.C.[8] The distinctive earmarks of the older type of covenant in evidence here are: (1) there is a historical prologue (Exodus 19:4); and (2) the divine witness appears between the stipulations and the curses. Thus, we have here another solid proof that Exodus is a document dating from the second millennium B.C., and not a period of about 900 B.C. or later.[9]

"I have brought you on eagles' wings ..." This is a tender and beautiful metaphor attached to the historical prologue of the divine covenant (Exodus 19:4), in which the illustration is drawn from nature. When the young eaglets have reached a time when they should fly, the old eagle stirs up their nest and forces them to begin the experience, supporting their first attempts by flying under them when they are about to fail, thus bearing them upward and enabling their first flight! What a beautiful picture of the way God supported and helped Israel during those terrible days of their infancy as a nation!

"Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice ..." This is another step in the making of ancient covenants; there must first be a promise to abide by the terms of it. Here, God, "entices Israel to their own advantage by his loving promises."[10]

"Ye shall be mine own possession from among all peoples ..." God's choice of Israel from all the peoples of the earth has been a difficult pill to swallow for some rationalists who can find nothing in it except a capricious and arbitrary blessing of one nation at the expense of others, but that is altogether false as an adequate understanding of this. We should not believe that there was anything unfair, capricious, or arbitrary in this choice of Israel.

  1. God chose Israel because, as events proved, and as God knew when He chose them, that Israel would be able, in time, to deliver the promised Messiah. They did this. As Dummelow put it:
  2. "The Jewish nation fulfilled its destiny ... Through its rejection of the Messiah, however, the sacred function of Israel passed over to the Christian church, to which St. Peter transferred the titles given to Israel in these two verses (Exodus 19:5-6). See 1 Peter 2:9 and Revelation 1:6."[11]
  3. Another primary reason why God chose Israel was the peculiar and amazing ability of Abraham to "command his children after him" (Genesis 18:19), an ability which no Gentile people had in those days, nor in the present days either!

  4. The choice of Abraham had, as its purpose the evangelizing of "all the families of the earth" (Genesis 12:3), a reason made known upon the occasion of Abram's call, and reiterated again here in Exodus 19:6. Huey commented on God's choice of Israel thus: "In response to a frequently heard comment, `How odd of God to choose the Jews?' any Christian could add, `How odd of God to choose me'"[12]

  5. "And ye shall be unto me a kingdom and priests ..." Kingdom meant that God would rule over them. Priests indicated what Israel was to do. "The priest is a mediator between God and man, so Israel is called to be the vehicle through whom the knowledge and salvation of God would come to the nations."[13] That profound reason for the choice of Israel is next recorded in the words, "for all the earth is mine (Exodus 19:6)."


Unqualifiedly, the answer is NO! They simply refused to fulfill that vital function of theirs to be the teachers of all mankind regarding the way of salvation. They were commanded here to be a holy nation, but as Fields put it:

"The `fly in the ointment' (Ecclesiastes 10:1) in this glorious honor for Israel was that Israel was as sinful and as far from God as the nations to whom they were to be priests and lights (Romans 2:19).[14] Israel, in fact, became worse than Sodom (Ezekiel 16:47)."

All of these glorious promises to Israel were conditioned upon the Gargantuan "IF ye will obey" (Exodus 19:5). They did NOT obey; they did NOT keep the covenant; and the unanimous testimony of all the prophets of God is that Israel FORFEITED every one of these promises through repeated, stubborn and rebellious disobediences. In fact, the entire O.T. is primarily an account of the frequent rebellions of Israel against God. As Rawlinson expressed it, "Their unfaithfulness soon forfeited both privileges."[15]

The testimony of the inspired writers of the N.T. removes all doubt regarding this question:

  1. There is now no distinction between Jews and Gentiles (Romans 10:12).

  2. There is no distinction (Romans 3:22).

  3. Is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? (Romans 3:29).

  4. "God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation, he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is acceptable to God." (Acts 10:34).

  5. Peter explained his going to see the Gentile Cornelius by saying, "The Spirit bade me go with them, making no distinction" (between Jews and Gentiles) (Acts 15:12).

The tragedy of all ages is the gross misunderstanding of God's gracious and magnificent honors heaped upon the nation of Israel in these verses. The obligations incumbent upon them as the recipient of so great blessings were totally withheld from their vision. A glimpse of the inordinate conceit that possessed their minds is seen in this passage from a Jewish publication of the present day:

"(God said) You (the children of Israel) will not be `Mine own treasure' (Exodus 19:5) only as long as all the other nations worship idols. That would be no great distinction. Your distinction lies in that even when the time will come when `all the earth is mine,' when all the world will turn to Me and all the nations will acknowledge the sovereignty of God, you, the Children, of Israel will still be My favorite people from among all the nations."[16]

"A kingdom of priests ..." This says in tones of thunder that the Jewish priesthood which the Lord later gave to Israel was NOT the original intention. God's purpose for Israel, as indicated here, was exactly that which was later fulfilled in the church. The magnificent doctrine of the priesthood of EVERY believer, as unfolded in the N.T., has its beginning right here. Before that week was out, the people would reject the responsibilities incumbent in such a promise. And, in this connection, it is absolutely certain that a group of 9th century B.C. priests could never in a million years have put together such a devastating downgrading of their own office as that which appears here. "There is an increasing readiness to accept the Mosaic authorship of the Decalogue (and, by inference, all of Exodus 19-24)."[17] This "readiness" should be extended to every word of the Pentateuch. Only Moses was present for the great scenes recorded. Only Moses knew the things related here. The true evaluation of the Jewish priesthood, as glimpsed in this passage, is an illuminating comment on Malachi 2:1-9, where God finally repudiated and cursed the priesthood. "I have cursed them ... the priests shall be taken away ... ye are turned aside out of the way ... I have made you contemptible ... ye have wearied Jehovah with your words" (Malachi 2:2-16). (For a fuller discussion of this issue, see my commentary on the minor prophets.)

Verses 7-9

"And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which Jehovah commanded him. And all the people answered and said, All that Jehovah hath spoken we will do. And Moses reported the words of the people unto Jehovah. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and also believe thee forever. And Moses told the words of the people unto Jehovah."

One clear purpose of God was to surround the giving of the Law with such circumstances of glory and wonder that there could never afterward be any doubt whatever that God did indeed speak to them on that occasion. One need not be perplexed by the repetition of certain phrases in this account. This was not only after the custom of ancient writings, but this record of the giving of the First Covenant was presented in a form following the pattern of ancient covenant's in the period around 1500 B.C. This also accounts for Israel's acceptance in advance of all the terms of the covenant and their pledge to obey them. "This was a required preliminary to the giving of any covenant at all."[18]

Verses 10-14

"And Jehovah said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments, and be ready against the third day; for the third day Jehovah will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai. And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death: no hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, he shall not live: when the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount. And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their garments."

"Let them wash their garments ..." A customary element of consecration or sanctification was that of changing to clean clothes, as when Jacob ordered his family so to do in Genesis 35:2. Since changing clothes might have been in the circumstances of Israel at that time very difficult or impossible, they were commanded to wash their garments. Why? They were scheduled to stand in the presence of God. But is not God everywhere, ubiquitous, always seeing all and knowing all? Yes. However, there was to be a SPECIAL NEARNESS TO GOD there at Sinai, hence, the order regarding apparel. We shall not leave this without stressing the fact that Christians also have an appointment in which there is a SPECIAL NEARNESS TO OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, when believers come together in solemn assembly to partake of the Lord's Supper "in his name," that is, by his commandment. And did not Christ say, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20)? Throughout the long millenniums of the Christian era, Christians have accepted the desirability, if indeed not the necessity, of wearing washed, clean, or special clothes to church. "Sunday clothes" is an idiom of our mother tongue that recognizes this, and the calendar of the historical church has Whitsunday, the day that only white is worn. In the light of all the facts, what must we think of the slipshod, casual, disheveled, common, or even torn and dirty clothes that one sees these days even waiting on the Lord's table? Why? Has the conviction that worshippers are "in His presence" weakened? If that is not the reason, what is the reason? Oh, but people cannot afford to clean up and dress up! If one thinks so, let him attend the wedding of any of the sloppy dressers at church, and he will get his eyes opened, if indeed not popped! "A profound reverence lies at the root of all true religious feeling."[19]

"Stoned, or shot through ..." Any violators of the "touch not" order, whether man or beast, were to be executed, but with the special proviso that "no hand should touch" the condemned. Why? Because evil was considered contagious, whereas righteousness was not considered contagious. See discussion of this under Haggai 2:11 in the minor prophets series of these commentaries. In the execution of a violator either by stoning or shooting with arrows, it was not necessary for the executioner to touch the victim. The extensive preparation of the people to "meet Jehovah" must have been a very dramatic and impressive occasion.

"When the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mountain ..." This appears to be ambiguous, raising the question of just who was to go up into the mountain. This was not an invitation for all the people to go up when the trumpet sounded, but for those to ascend whom the Lord would indicate. Regarding the trumpet, see under Exodus 19:16,19.

Verse 15

"And he said unto the people, Be ready against the third day: come not near a woman."

This verse concluded the special instructions on sanctification in anticipation of meeting Jehovah, and some have expressed surprise that an order like this was included. Sexual intercourse within the Scriptural authorization for it is not sinful, as Paul said, "Marriage is honorable in all and the bed undefiled" (Hebrews 13:4). What then, does this have to do with consecration to God?

First of all, the flesh is antithetical to the Spirit of God. "For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary the one to the other" (Galatians 5:17). Thus, it was considered to be desirable among Christians that husbands and wives should refrain from their usual relations, upon occasion, to "give themselves unto prayer" (1 Peter 3:7; 1 Corinthians 7:5). Back of scriptures such as these lies the fact that bodily appetites must not dominate and control Christians, but must be dominated and controlled by Christians. Thus, this admonition was proper in its own right. However, in the culture of those days, there was a special reason for this injunction. Throughout Canaan and among all the surrounding nations the usual religious service was an orgy in which sexual indulgence was a normal part.

"They thought that sexual intercourse between men and special prostitutes could influence their gods and persuade them to make the land fertile. Some Israelites were tempted to share in such worship, and they needed to be reminded that that was not what God wanted."[20]

Verses 16-20

"And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a trumpet exceeding loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. And mount Sinai, the whole of it, smoked, because Jehovah descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the trumpet waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice. And Jehovah came down upon mount Sinai, to the top of the mount; and Moses went up."

Repeatedly, the word here is that God came down or descended to the top of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:18,20). There is no way to prove such a thing, but our Lord Jesus Christ, whom we believe to be "God of very God" spoke of the Pentateuch as "the Word of God," assuring us that not a jot or a tittle of it shall pass away until all shall be fulfilled, and we accept this as the truth of God. There was actually no other way for God to reveal himself to mankind except in this appearance, along with the events leading up to it. The thunders, lightnings, and an earthquake, the mighty mountain smoking all over like a furnace, and the exceedingly loud voice of a trumpet, growing louder and louder - all those things were the result of God's will to impress the people with the absolutely unique nature of the experience engaging them. We have no need to suppose that Sinai was volcanic (as a matter of fact, it is not), or that some unusual electric storm was utilized by Moses as the occasion for arranging this theophany. As a matter of truth, Moses did not arrange it. God did it. The earthquake, etc., were not natural occurrences at all but witnesses of the theophany taking place. This earthquake was echoed and answered by the one at Calvary, the thick cloud was answered by the darkened sky that shrouded the Cross, and the exceedingly loud trumpet-sound shall once again be heard in the Second Advent of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:52).

This very paragraph is the heart of the O.T. God speaking to man! This contradicts, frontally and effectively, the idea that anybody, much less the Jews, developed, discovered, and evolved monotheism and true religion. Faith in God was not evolved from the alleged animism that is falsely supposed to have preceded it. The whole Bible, Genesis, Exodus, all of it, teaches that, "Monotheism was the original faith of man, and that all other beliefs are a departure from it."[21] The vast and comprehensive teachings of the Judaeo-Christian religion are revealed from Almighty God, not discovered or developed by ignorant and fallible men groping through the superstitious darkness of the remote past. Fundamental to any true understanding of Christianity is this basic proposition that God Spoke to Men. (See also Hebrews 1:1ff).

"The voice of the trumpet waxed louder and louder ..." The word here for trumpet is "ram's horn," but it was used only because there was no other word to describe it. Two million people heard it and "trembled." How preposterous it is to suppose that an ordinary "trumpet" could have produced a result like that! Men shall hear it again, "when the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall arise." Hywel R. Jones caught the unique significance of this passage thus:

"Here is an external voice to Moses (Exodus 19:19), and not the process of inner conscience and internal reflection on his part. The theophany is not a poetic accessory. This is important for our understanding of the fact of revelation. "God spoke ... to our fathers" (Hebrews 1:1)."[22]

Verses 21-25

"And Jehovah said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto Jehovah to gaze, and many of them perish. And let the priests also, that come near to Jehovah, sanctify themselves, lest Jehovah break forth upon them. And Moses said unto Jehovah, The people cannot come up to mount Sinai; for thou didst charge us, saying, Set bounds about the mount, and sanctify it. And Jehovah said unto him, Go, get thee down; and thou shalt come up, thou, and Aaron with thee, but let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto Jehovah, lest he break forth upon them. So Moses went down unto the people, and told them."

Back of the instructions regarding the people breaking through to gaze is the fact that no man could see the face of God and live. Also, it should be noted that Moses said in effect in Exodus 19:23, "Look, God, what you suggest is not necessary, for we have already obeyed your order to sanctify the mountains." However, God did not allow Moses' evaluation of the situation, and ordered him to "Go." "Get with it, and do what I commanded." Whereupon, Moses did so. It is certain that God had a better understanding of what men will do out of curiosity than did Moses. The idea of the people "breaking through to gaze" is confirmed as valid every time there is a traffic accident, and the "lookers" (rubberneckers) tie up the roads in all directions for an hour!

"Let the priests ... sanctify themselves ..." Who were these priests? Certainly not the Levitical order, for they had not come into existence at this time. Furthermore, if this marvelous passage had been "an editorial creation,"[23] fabricated by 9th century B.C. priests, we could rest assured that "the priests" would have had a lot more to do with this than what is indicated here!

Well, who were they? The priests mentioned here were, "either the first-born or heads of families."[24] "Every nation in ancient times had priests, and the Levitical priesthood must be regarded as superseding one that previously existed."[25] Fields refused the idea that these were "the first-born." "Their exact identity is not made clear. We can only say that they were the ones who had been discharging the office previously."[26]

One thing that stands out in this entire chapter is the absolute HOLINESS of God and the necessity of those who worship him maintaining to the very best of their ability the holiness to which they were called. Note that the whole of Israel were to be a "holy nation" (Exodus 19:6).

The Jews placed an inordinate amount of importance on holiness with reference to its necessity in the observance of ritual and ceremonial ordinances, but there is no indication that holiness of life in the ordinary pursuits of life was so stressed. We have, from a former Jewish Rabbi, this example of the former:

"When the high priest entered into the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement, if he was not right with the Lord, he would die instantly. Since nobody could enter the Holy of Holies to take him out, he had a rope tied around his ankles when he entered in. That way, he could be dragged out if necessary."[27]

The reiterated command of God concerning their not touching the mountain was designed, not only to impress the people with God's holiness, but, as Keil suggested, "also to awaken in the people a consciousness of their own unholiness."[28] All who ever were truly conscious of the presence of God, at once confessed their sin, as when Peter, on the occasion of the great catch of fishes, said, "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (Luke 5:8).

Exodus 19:24 settles the question of who went up into the mountain with Moses, only Aaron being mentioned; and even Moses and Aaron could not go up until the trumpet sounded exceedingly loud.

All was then in readiness for God to speak to the people. It was not to Moses and Aaron alone that the words came, but they were spoken in the hearing of the whole multitude. There promptly ensued the giving of the sacred Decalogue.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Exodus 19". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/exodus-19.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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