By Edward Dennett
A NEW dispensation is inaugurated in these chapters. Up to the close of chapter 18, as before indicated, grace reigned, and hence characterized all God's dealings with His people; but from this point they were put, with their own consent, under the rigid requirements of law. Sinai is the expression of this dispensation, and is thus associated with it for all time. The apostle contrasts it with Zion as the seat of royal grace, when he says, in writing to the Hebrews, "Ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard, entreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more. . . . But ye are come unto mount Sion." (Heb. 12: 18-22.) He shows that Sinai had then passed away, and had been succeeded by another dispensation the expression of which was mount Sion. It is with the former that our chapters deal. The time and place are both distinctly marked. "In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai. For they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the desert of Sinai, and had pitched in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount." (vv. 1, 2.) The Lord thus fulfilled the word which He gave to Moses: "Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain." (Ex. 3: 12.) They were to hold a feast unto the Lord (see Ex. 5: 1; Ex. 10: 9); and they might have done so had they but known themselves, and also Jehovah's heart. But they were about to be tested in a new way. Grace had already searched them, and discovered nothing but disobedience, rebellion, and sin; and now they were to be tried by law. This has been the object of God in all His dispensations — to test, and thereby to reveal, what man is; but blessed be His name, if He has disclosed the incurable corruption of our nature, He has revealed at the same time what He is — each revelation of Himself being according to the character of the relationship into which He entered with His people. Thereby He taught that, if man were completely ruined and lost, help and salvation were to be found in Him, and in Him alone. The giving of the law from mount Sinai has, on this account, a peculiar importance and interest. All its circumstances therefore are worthy of our attention.
"And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: Ye have seen what I did unto 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 a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people: for all the earth is mine. And ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
"And Moses came, and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord. And the Lord said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever. And Moses told the words of the people unto the Lord." (vv. 3-9.)
There are two things in the message which the Lord commissioned Moses to carry to the people. First, He reminds them of what He had done for them and in a way which should have taught them their own utter impotence, and that all their resources were in God. "Ye have seen," He says, "what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto Myself." He had delivered them from Pharaoh, destroyed him and his armies; He had borne His people by His might, had brought them to Himself, and given them a place of nearness and relationship. He had done everything for them, and He appeals to their own knowledge in proof of it; and such an appeal was calculated to touch their hearts with gratitude, as it recalled to their minds the source of all the blessing which they now enjoyed. Then, secondly, He makes a proposal. "Now, therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people: for all the earth is Mine," etc. The bearing of this proposal must be distinctly marked. God had redeemed Israel by His own power: in pursuance of His purposes of grace and love He had made them His own people, and He had engaged to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3: 7, 8); and all this was founded upon the pure grace of His own heart, and was governed by no conditions whatsoever from the people. He reminds them of this in pointing them back to the work He had wrought on their behalf. But now to test them He says, "I will make your position and blessing dependent on your obedience. Hitherto I have done everything for you; but now I propose to make the continuance of My favour contingent upon your own works. Are you willing to promise absolute obedience to My word and covenant on these terms?" This in substance was the proposition Moses was charged to carry to the children of Israel.
And Moses faithfully fulfilled his mission. He "called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord commanded him." (v. 7.) Surely such a message would produce deep exercises of heart. It might be expected, at least, that they would need time to consider it in all its significance. They could not have forgotten that already, even in the short three months that had elapsed since they crossed the Red Sea, they had sinned again and again; that every fresh difficulty had but witnessed their failure and sin. If therefore they had gone over their past experience, they would have seen that if they accepted these new terms everything would be lost. They would surely say one to the other, "We have disobeyed time after time, and we fear that the same thing might happen again, and then we forfeit all. No; we must throw ourselves unreservedly upon that same grace which has saved, led, and preserved us in our journey through the wilderness. If grace does not still reign we are a lost people." So far from this, however, they instantly accept the proposed condition, and said, "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do." Their past experiences had gone for nothing. They thus betrayed the most utter ignorance, both of the character of God, and of their own hearts. It was in fact a most fatal mistake. Instead of clinging with tenacity, because of their own felt impotence, to what God was for them, which is grace, they foolishly offered to make everything depend upon what they could be for God, which is the principle of law. It is ever the same. Man in his folly and blindness ever seeks to obtain blessing upon the ground of his own works, and rejects a salvation which is offered to him in pure grace; for he is unwilling to be nothing, and grace makes everything, of God, and nothing of man. Hence it is that race wounds the pride and self-importance of the sinner, and thereby provokes the resistance of his depraved heart.
Moses carried back the message of the people, and the Lord prepares to establish His new relationship with His people on the ground of law. First of all, He puts Moses in the place of a mediator. "Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever." He gives him a position that the people should be compelled to acknowledge. After this, directions for the people are given in connection with the promulgation of the code by which they were to be governed, and which sets forth the standard of God's requirements. Everything commanded betokened the change of dispensation. Before they had to do with a God of grace; now they have to do with a God of righteousness. This necessitated distance on the part of God (for He had to do with sinners), and separation and cleansing on the part of the people. The first was signified by the "thick cloud," in which He said He would come to Moses, and the second by the various prescriptions for the people.
"And the Lord said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes, and be ready against the third day: for the third day the Lord 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: there shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through whether it be beast or man, it 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 clothes. And he said unto the people, Be ready against the third day: come not at your wives." (vv. 10-15.)
The people were thus to be "sanctified" for two days. The meaning to be attached to this term is always determined by the connection in which it is found. Here it will signify the separation of the people — setting them apart unto God on the ground of their promised obedience. This would doubtless involve their separation externally from everything unsuited to the presence of a holy God. They were likewise to wash their clothes. Everything, it will be remarked, has now to be done from their side. Moses was to sanctify them and they were to wash their clothes; for the moment they undertook to obey, as the condition of blessing, they in reality accepted the responsibility of fitting themselves for God's presence. No doubt they acquired thus a kind of ceremonial qualification to meet with God., but the very distance at which they were kept, proved at once how inadequate were their efforts. They might wash their clothes never so scrupulously, and make them so clean that no human eye could detect defilement, but the question for their consciences, if they had but understood, was, Could they so cleanse themselves as to be able to bear the inspection of a holy God? Let Job answer the question. "If," says he, "I wash myself with snow water, and make my hands never so clean; yet shalt Thou plunge me in the ditch, and mine own clothes shall abhor me." (Job 9: 30, 31.) The Lord Himself has answered it for us. Speaking to Israel, by the prophet, He says, "Though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before Me." (Jeremiah 2: 22.) MAN CANNOT CLEANSE HIMSELF FOR GOD. This is the lesson of the whole Scripture.
Why, then, it will be replied, did the Lord give this commandment to Israel? For the same reason that He gave them the law to prove what was in their hearts, to bring out fully to view what was lurking there, to expose indeed the corruption of their nature, and thereby to teach them their ruined and guilty condition. In measure they learnt the futility of their own efforts; for spite of all their "sanctifying" and "washing" they could not draw near to God, and they were terrified at His voice. It is so oftentimes in the experience of sinners. Awakened to some sense of their condition, they begin to try to improve themselves, to purify their own hearts, and to qualify themselves in this way for the favour of God. But they soon discover that the only effect of all their efforts is to bring to light their own sin and vileness. Or if they succeed in weaving a robe of self-righteousness, and in thus concealing for a time their deformities, the moment they are brought into the presence of God, the robe itself appears in the light of His holiness as nothing but filthy rags. Man indeed is utterly helpless, and until he learns this he can never understand that the only way to cleanse his robes from every spot and stain — so white as to satisfy even the requirements of God's holiness — is in the blood of the Lamb. (See Rev. 1: 5, Rev. 7: 14.)
The people were then sanctified, and they washed their clothes, and fasted in preparation for "the third day." The third day is often significant and typical; and so here it would seem to speak in figure of death. It was, then, on the morning of the third day that the Lord descended upon mount Sinai, with all the accompaniments of His awful and terrible majesty. There were thunders and lightnings — expressive of judicial power, the necessary attitude of God in His holiness, when coming into contact with sinners. There was also a thick cloud upon the mount (see verse 9) setting forth His distance and concealment. As the Psalmist says, "Clouds and darkness are round about Him: righteousness and judgment are the habitation of His throne." (Ps. 97: 2.) Moreover the voice of the trumpet, both the herald of the approach of God, and the summons for the assembling of the people, was exceeding loud. Every possible solemnity surrounded the divine steps, and all the people that were in the camp, spite of the preparations they had undergone, trembled. If they had confidence in themselves before, it must now have been rudely shaken, if not dispelled; for if prepared to meet God, why should they fear? Was it not He who had borne them on eagles' wings, and brought them to Himself whom they were to meet? Was He not their Saviour and Lord? Why then did they tremble at the signs of His presence? Because they in their folly had undertaken to meet Him on the ground of what they were in themselves, of their own doings, instead of casting themselves on His mercy, His grace, and love. Fatal mistake! and now they were made to feel it. But their word was irrevocable, and they cannot yet be released from its obligations. Moses therefore brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. 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." (vv. 17, 18.) As we read in the Psalms, "The earth shook, the heavens also dropped at the presence of God: even Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel." (Ps. 68: 8.) Fire was thus the characteristic of the Lord's presence upon Sinai — fire and smoke, fire being the symbol of His holiness, but of His holiness in the aspect of judgment against sin. "Our God is a consuming fire." Hence meeting with Israel on the ground of law, fire was the most significant expression of the fact that righteousness and judgment are the habitation of His throne. Moses therefore speaks of the "fiery law" that went forth from God's right hand, fiery because being "holy, and just, and good," it could only judge and consume those who did not answer to its requirements. It is of this effect that he speaks when he says, "We are consumed by Thine anger, and by Thy wrath are we troubled." (Ps. 90: 7.)
Moses spake to God when the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, and God answered him by a voice. He was then called up to the mount, and what was the nature of the first communication he received? Already bounds had been set round about the mount; for the place whereon God stood was holy ground, and the penalty of death was attached to any one, man or beast, who should even touch the mount. But even this was not enough. "Go down" said the Lord unto Moses, "charge the people, lest they break through unto the Lord to gaze, and many of them perish." (v. 21.) All alike, priests and people, were to be kept at a distance, Moses and Aaron excepted — lest the Lord should break forth upon them (v. 24.)
All these details are most solemnly interesting, as showing man's utter incapacity to stand on his own merits before God, and as teaching at the same time, that if the sinner ventures on such a foundation to come into contact with Him it can only be to his own destruction. God moreover apart from atonement, cannot meet the sinner on the ground of righteousness without destroying him. When will men learn that there is, and must be for ever, the most irreconcilable antagonism between holiness and sin; that God must be against the sinner, unless the claims of His holiness are met; and that these claims can never be met except in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ? In this light it is a touching scene. God in all the awful majesty of His holiness upon Sinai; the people in all their distance and guilt, trembling at what they saw and heard, shut off from the mount, but brought out of the camp to meet with God, and to receive the requirements of His righteous law which they had undertaken to obey.
"And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me, and keep My commandments. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain. Remember the sabbath-day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath-day, and hallowed it.
"Honour thy father and thy mother; that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbour's." (Ex. 20: 1-17.)
There are several points in connection with the giving of the law which demand distinct and especial attention. The first is the nature of the law itself. The commandments are ten in number, and they are based upon, or rather flow out from, the relationship into which God had entered with His people in redemption. "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." Looking at the commandments together it will be seen that the first four relate to God, and the last six to man; i.e. they define responsibility towards God and towards man. Hence they were summed up by our blessed Lord, in answer to the question, Which is the great commandment in the law? as follows: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matt. 22: 35-40; see Deut. 10: 12; and Lev. 19: 18.) Love to God — perfect love to God, perfect according to their capacity — and love to their neighbour, according to the standard of self-love, were thus enjoined upon Israel.
But remark that in the details of the commandments the characteristic is prohibition. "Thou shalt not" — if we except the fourth, and even in that "keeping the sabbath" means the abstinence from all work — is the essence of the whole. This fact has an important bearing upon the second point to be considered — the object of the law. These ten commandments were the standard of God's requirements from Israel. They had voluntarily undertaken obedience to His voice, and to keep His covenant as the condition of blessing. In response to this the Lord revealed through Moses what He required. A standard therefore was erected by which it could be easily ascertained, even by themselves, whether or not they were obedient to God's word. By these commandments therefore He came to prove them, that His fear might be before their faces that they might not sin. (v. 20.) But He knew what was in their hearts, though they might be ignorant, and hence the giving of the law really had for its object the bringing to light what was in His people's hearts. This accounts for the prohibitive form of the commandment. For why should it be said, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not covet, unless the tendency to all these forms of sins was found within them? The apostle Paul explains this in Rom. 7. "I had not known sin," he says, "but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law, sin was dead." (vv. 7, 8.) The lust was in the heart before the law came, but not being forbidden he could not know it as lust; but immediately the commandment said, Thou shalt not lust, it sprang into the light, and the opposition of the heart to God was made manifest. The law therefore entered, as the apostle elsewhere says, that the offence might abound (Rom. 5: 20); i.e. to make the offences known. They were committed before; but they were not seen as offences until they were forbidden. Then their nature could no longer be concealed, and all might understand that they were transgressions of the law of God.
This point is of the utmost importance, inasmuch as it is contended even now, although the gospel of the grace of God is fully revealed and widely proclaimed, that obedience to the law is the way of life. How many thousands indeed are deluded by this fatal snare. Let such ponder the words of the apostle, "If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law." (Gal. 3: 21.) True it was said, Ye shall keep my statutes, and my judgments; which if a man do, he shall live in them (Lev. 18: 5); but how could sinners, by nature and by practice, keep the commandments of God? Hear indeed the Holy Spirit's own reasoning, through Paul, upon this matter: "As many as are of the works of the law, are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them." (Gal. 3: 10-12.) This removes every difficulty, and places beyond a doubt the true object of the law, which was, as we have said, to erect a standard of God's requirements, and so to convict man of sin. The law entered that the offence might abound. And the law can be very blessedly used now for the same purpose. If a man, strong in the confidence of his self-righteousness, be encountered, he can be probed and tested by it: he can be asked if he loves God with all his heart, and his neighbour as himself, and thereby the deceitful character of his own works be exposed.
If this point is understood, and if there be simple subjection to the word of God, there will be no difficulty in apprehending that the law is not given as a full revelation of the mind and heart of God. The way in which it is often spoken of would lead souls to suppose that there could not be a further and fuller revelation. But if so, where, as another has asked, shall we find His mercy, His compassion and love? No; "the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good;" for it is a revelation of God, as every word and act of His must necessarily be, but to maintain that it is a full and perfect revelation is to ignore the need of atonement, to be blind to the true character of the person and work of our blessed Lord and Saviour — to forget, in a word, the difference between Sinai and Calvary. Until the cross, it was impossible that God could perfectly reveal Himself. But immediately that the work wrought there was completed, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom — to signify that God was now free — free in righteousness — to come out in grace to the sinner, and that the sinner, who believed His testimony to the efficacy of the blood of Christ, was free to go into the immediate presence of God. The law unfolds His righteous character, and consequently His requirements from Israel; but God Himself still dwelt in the thick darkness — unrevealed.
One other point demands a passing notice. Granting that the law is not the means of life, it is sometimes said, Yet is it not the rule of Christian conduct? Look at it well, and then ask if this is possible. Take for example the prohibitions as to one's neighbour. Would God be satisfied with a Christian who abstained from the sins there specified? Nay, would a Christian be satisfied himself that, in abstaining from these things he answered to God's mind as to his walk? Suppose now, that he even did love his neighbour as himself, would this rise to the height of the example of Christ? What does the apostle John say? Hereby perceive we love, because He laid down His life for us. That is, the true expression of love is seen in the death of Christ for us. Hence the apostle adds, "And we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." (1 John 3: 16.) To do this would surely be loving the brethren better than ourselves — going therefore marvellously beyond the scope of law. The truth is, as Paul has taught us, we are "dead to the law by the body of Christ; that we should be married to another, even to Him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God." (Rom. 7: 4.) The law was a rule for Israel; but Christ, and Christ alone, is the standard of the believer. "He that saith he abideth in Him, ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked." (1 John 2: 6.) It is therefore an infinitely higher standard, involving far greater responsibility, than that of the law. This contention, indeed, that we are still under the law, notwithstanding the statement, "Ye are not under the law, but under grace" (Rom. 6: 14), springs from ignorance of what redemption is. When it is seen that believers are brought through the death and resurrection of Christ out of their old condition, and have a new place and standing altogether; that they are not in the flesh but in the Spirit (Rom. 8: 9), it is easily perceived that they belong to a sphere into which the law cannot enter; and that as Christ is the only object of their souls, so the expression of Christ in their walk and conversation, as they pass through this scene, is their only responsibility. We commend these points to the careful attention of every child of God.
The effect of the giving of the law is now seen. As in the previous chapter, the people are filled with terror, and "they removed, and stood afar off." (v. 18.) They might have thus learned that sinners cannot stand in the presence of God. "And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die." (v. 19.) A sad confession of what they were, and a significant indication of what would come of their promised obedience. Ah! if the sinner would but learn the lesson, that if God speaks with him when in his sins he must die! For holiness and sin cannot co-exist, and if brought into contact, apart from atonement, there could be but one result. These trembling children of Israel, therefore, do but express the simple truth. God had drawn near in His holiness, and they shrink abashed from His presence, lest they should die; and thereby they proclaimed that they were sinners in their guilt, and as such unable to listen to His voice. Moses thereon exhorted them not to fear, telling them that God was come to prove them, and that His fear might be before their faces that they should not sin. The way indeed was plainly marked for them in the ten commandments, and it would soon be seen if they would walk in it or not. The position is now clearly shown. The people are at a distance, actually and morally. God was in the thick darkness, significant of the fact that He must remain concealed as long as He was on the ground of law. Moses occupies, in the election and grace of God, the place of mediator. He thus can draw near to the thick darkness where God was. He is thus a type of the "one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." (1 Timothy 2: 5.)
The chapter concludes with directions concerning worship. For as soon as the formal relationship is established between God and His people, though on the ground of law, provision for worship must be made. Three things need only be noticed in this connection. First, that God could not be approached except through sacrifices. Secondly, He could come and bless them in all places where He would record His name — notwithstanding what they were, on the ground of the sweet savour of their offerings.1 Thirdly, the character of the altar is specified. It might be an altar of earth. If of stone, it must not be of hewn stone, "for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto Mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon." (vv. 24-26.) Man's work and man's order are prohibited. Thus in worship everything must be according to God; and if there be but the introduction of a single thing for beauty, or convenience, it is polluted, and man's nakedness is discovered. How jealous, therefore, Christians should be against the admission of anything in worship which is not stamped with the authority of the word of God.
1) The sin-offering was not yet prescribed. These, therefore, were all sweet savour offerings.