A Kingdom of Priests | Exodus 19:1-8

Licentiousness is not liberty. Much infernal schemes have made that statement quite difficult to believe, but it is true nonetheless. Freedom is not the ability to do whatever pleases you because a life dictated by pleasure is a life of slavery, a life dominated by momentary desires. Such a life is nothing more than being a perpetual toddler, for as any parent knows toddlers’ actions are almost entirely based upon impulse. Children must be taught how to control their desires of the moment in order to have a more desirable outcome in the future. We call that behavior discipline, and it is taught through discipline. A disciplined life, lived in the right direction, leads to maturity, leaving the childishness behind.

The reason it feels like we live in a society of grown-up toddlers is because we do. Western culture has largely adopted the belief that licentiousness is freedom; childishness was bound to follow sooner rather later. The result is that our society now does its best imitation of the fool from Proverbs while still claiming to be wise. It now makes love and happiness into the only virtues that matter and fails ask why so many antidepressants are needed. They claim to be free while liturgically taking their paycheck to the casino or the dispensary. It’s all quite like a man compulsively banging his head against a brick wall and then genuinely confused about why he has a headache.

Through the exodus, Yahweh brought Israel out of their slavery in Egypt and into true freedom. In our present text, as Israel arrives at the base of Mount Sinai, we are given a glimpse of what true freedom looks like.


On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel:

Three months after leaving Egypt, the Israelites arrived at the Mount Sinai, which we should remember is also called Horeb. It feels strange that the time of our study through these wilderness chapters pretty closely reflects their actual time in the wilderness. Perhaps Israel’s eventual forty-year wandering through the wilderness is so familiar that I keep subconsciously wanting to think of these chapters as spanning over the course of several years at least. Yet everything we have studied in chapters 14-18 took place over the span of three months.

Now they came to the Sinai. Recall that when Yahweh first appeared to Moses at Horeb/Sinai He gave Moses this promises: “He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). God’s word proved true. The fearful Moses who begged the LORD to send someone else (4:13) was now back at that very mountain with the liberated nation of Israel encamped in the wilderness all around him and with the body of Pharaoh, whom Moses so greatly feared, lying at the bottom of the sea.

This is a fine place to remind ourselves once more that what God promises always comes to pass. The timing and circumstances are very rarely what expected them to be, yet the LORD always fulfills His Word. He can do no less, for His Word is truth. We ought to particularly take this to heart when considering Christ’s second coming. Two thousand years feels like an eternity in comparison to our vaporous lives. However, specifically speaking of Christ’s return, 2 Peter 3:8-9 gives us this reminder:

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

Thus, two thousand years is only like the passing of two days in the eyes of the LORD. Therefore, we should not lose heart. Just as surely as God brought Moses back to Sinai with all of Israel with him, Christ will surely return for His bride to make all things new.

All of this must have been rather overwhelming for Moses, who only wanted to keep shepherding his father-in-law’s flocks. Now he was the leader of a vast number of former slaves that did not yet know how to be their own nation. Yet surely the most staggering task of all was to ascend the mountain and speak to God. Yes, much courage was required from Moses to stand before Pharaoh on Yahweh’s behalf, but God was gracious enough to provide Moses a mediator by way of Aaron, who acted as Moses’ prophet and did all the speaking. This, however, begins the greatest mission of Moses by far: to be the mediator between Yahweh and Israel as the law is given and the covenant is made.


Douglas Stuart makes a fascinating comment on the synonymous parallelism within verse 3 that hinges upon the word saying, but the point of the poetic structure of that verse is to emphasize the importance of what follows, namely, Yahweh’s words to Israel in verses 4-6. And these verses certainly are important. Stuart rightly notes that they summarize the entire covenant that will be expounded upon for the remainder of Exodus and the rest of the Torah. Philip Ryken writes about them:

The words that follow are sometimes described as the heart of the Old Testament. In them God described what he had done to save his people. He also told them what he expected from them, revealing his deepest desires for their ultimate destiny… In this speech—which spanned the past, the present, and the future—God reminded Israel what he had done to deliver them. He also told them why he had done it and what plans he had for their future. Really everything else in the Old Testament—indeed, everything else in human history—can be explained in terms of the covenant relationship described in these verses.[1]

Here are those monumental words:

‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.

Verse 4 begins with God summarizing the previous events that we have studied in Exodus and then framing what their arrival at Sinai truly means. First, all the plagues, the exodus, and their passage through the wilderness is described concisely by God saying, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings…” God poured out His judgment upon the Egyptians and upon their gods through the plagues, and after leaving Egypt practically in ruins, Yahweh swallowed Pharaoh and his chariots in the sea. In other words, God methodically and systematically defeated and humiliated those who held Israel in bondage.

Yet with the Israelites themselves, the LORD bore them on eagles’ wings, which is obviously a beautifully poetic way of saying that He carried them out of Egypt like a mother eagle carries her hatchlings. Again, this is a statement that God unilaterally rescued and delivered the Israelites. Yes, obedience was required on their part throughout, but fundamentally apart from God, they could do nothing. Before the might of Egypt and the unforgiving destitution of the wilderness, the Israelites were as helpless as newborns. Yahweh defeated the Egyptians. Yahweh gave them food and water in the wilderness. And Yahweh strengthened them to defeat the Amalekites. Yahweh is their Redeemer and their Shepherd.

This twofold pattern is, of course, true of our own salvation as well. Just as the Israelites were rescued from their slavery in Egypt, we have been rescued in Christ from our slavery to sin. And just as the Israelites were carried by the LORD, our salvation is also all of God’s grace. Indeed, John was given a vision in Revelation 12 that uses the eagles’ wings image. A woman, who likely represents God’s people, is on the run from the great dragon who has been thrown down from heaven, and verse 14 reads, “But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.” I think the ESV Study Bible’s note is correct in saying of this: “A metaphor of the exodus (see Ex. 19:4) becomes an image of God’s care for his church, exposed in the wilderness yet guarded and nourished in its pilgrimage.” Jesus, who is Yahweh made flesh, is our Redeemer from the slavery of our sin and our Shepherd throughout the wilderness of this world.

Pay particular attention to the final phrase of verse 4: and brought you to myself. We have previously stressed that God’s revelation of Himself as Yahweh was the supreme purpose behind the exodus. He performed each mighty sign and wonder so that Israel, Egypt, and particularly Pharaoh would know that He is the LORD. This phrase further clarifies God’s particular purpose in making Himself known to Israel. He did not want them merely to know about Him as if they were studying for a test. No, He wanted them to know Him experientially. We might say He wanted them to get to know Him. Philip Ryken writes:

He led them to his holy mountain, where they would worship him in all his majesty. The exodus was not just about getting Israel out of Egypt; it was about getting Israel close to God. This is always true in salvation. Salvation is never an end in itself. There is always something greater, and that is God himself, and our fellowship with him.[2]

This was the nature of their liberation from Egypt’s slavery. The LORD did not set them free so that they could do whatever they wanted. He did not even chiefly rescue them in order to bring them into the land of Canaan. Yahweh freed Israel to bring them to Himself, which is true freedom. As the eternal Creator, God is most free because He is self-sufficient. All He needs is Himself. The burning bush, of course, was a marvelous picture of this. The bush was not consumed because that divine Flame did not need it to burn. We, however, are contingent beings. We are certainly granted freedom, but we are inherently limited. For instance, we each have the freedom to choose not to breath, but we do not have the freedom to live at the same time. Or, we have the freedom to gather together for worship, but we do not have the freedom to stay home as the same moment. Being the Maker of both time and space, Yahweh is free of such limitations, and it is the marvel of all marvels that He invites to know Him, to be joined with Him. We are saved for that same purpose: to know our Creator, our Redeemer, our great Shepherd. Salvation is never an end unto itself but always a means to an end, and that end is knowing God.

Verses 5-6 explore that invitation through three glorious offers to Israel. First, God offers them a place as His treasured possession. Take note that He follows this offer by saying, for all the earth is mine. In other words, Creator owns creation. Israel, Egypt, Amalek, and all other nations already belong to the LORD. That is not a point to be argued; it is a reality to be acknowledged. Yahweh is not, therefore, offering to make Israel His possession but His treasured possession. He is offering them a special placement, to make them a vessel of His mercy rather than a vessel of His wrath like the Egyptians were. 

The designation a holy nation essentially means the same thing. Because holy means being set apart or unique, God alone is truly and fully holy. Even the mightiest archangel is still a creature, while God alone is the Creator. Yet throughout Scripture, people, places, and even objects are called holy. That sort of holiness is a kind of secondhand holiness. For any aspect of creation to be called holy, it must be set apart exclusively for the Holy One Himself. That is God’s intent with Israel. He would set them apart from all other nations as His own, as His treasure possession.

What then about the other nations? Was God leaving them to be damned and to their own destruction? No, Yahweh would also establish Israel as a kingdom of priests. The task of a priest is essentially the opposite of a prophet. A prophet speaks to a people on God’s behalf, while a priest speaks to God on behalf of a person or people. Aaron and his fellow Levites will serve as Israel’s priests, being the only ones set apart for offering sacrifices within the tabernacle. Yet here the LORD is calling the entire nation a kingdom of priests, meaning that Israel as a whole was meant to represent all the nations of earth before the LORD. While this priestly service of Israel toward the other nations is not explained explicitly here, Stuart notes that would surely have taken place in at least four ways:

(1) Israel would be an example of to the people of other nations, who would see its holy beliefs and actions and be impressed enough to want to know personally the same God the Israelites knew. (2) Israel would proclaim the truth of God and invite people from other nations to accept him in faith as shown by confession of belief in him and acceptance of his covenant, as Jethro had already done. (3) Israel would intercede for the rest of the world by offering acceptable offerings to God (both sacrifices and right behavior) and thus ameliorate the general distance between God and humanity. (4) Israel would keep the promises of God, preserving his word already spoken and recording his word as it was revealed to them so that once the fullness of time had come, anyone in the whole world could promptly benefit from that great body of divinely revealed truth, that is, the Scriptures.[3]


After being given all these words, Moses was sent to tell the people. Verses 7-8 record what followed:

So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD.

If verses 4-6 are the heart of the Mosaic Covenant, then this is the official making of that covenant between Yahweh and Israel. Of course, it will be clarified, further explained, and reaffirmed even within that same generation, yet this is the inauguration of that covenant. The LORD has brought His people to Himself upon His holy mountain, and He has entered into a covenant with them.

Israel’s response (All that the LORD has spoken we will do) is to the stipulation clause from verse 5 that we did not yet address: Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant… Again, we should note that God’s statements in verse 4 are not dependent upon Israel’s obedience. Yahweh already defeated the Egyptians, and He already carried them through the wilderness to Himself. Those mighty works of salvation were already accomplished. The great designations of verses 5-6, however, were very much dependent upon Israel’s obedience to God’s commands. They would only become God’s treasured possession through their following of His law. They would only become a nation holy unto the LORD through their walking according to His precepts. They would only become a kingdom of priests through their obedience to God’s Word.

But as the rest of the Old Testament (and even the rest of Exodus!) makes clear, Israel could not fulfill this promise. They could not do all that God commanded of them, and instead of being a light of revelation to all the other nations, Israel would very often imitate their idolatry. As glorious as this covenant at Sinai was, it was ultimately insufficient. The giving of God’s law certainly revealed the depths of Israel’s sin, but it was incapable of overcoming it. Israel had been delivered from Egypt, but a far more insidious Egypt still lurked within each of their hearts.

This is why prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel promised that God would one day make a new covenant with His people, and in this new covenant, Yahweh would not give a new set of laws but would give His people new hearts that actually wanted to obey His commands. This is, of course, the new covenant that we have today in Jesus Christ, who worked the greater exodus by delivering us from our slavery to sin through His death in our place. Indeed, notice how 1 Peter 2:9 adapts verses 5-6 of our text to describe our salvation in Christ:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

A priesthood, a holy nation, and special possession are all designations that stem from Exodus 19:5-6. The phrase a chosen race is a monumental one because in Christ there is no longer Jew nor Gentile but all who are in Christ are members of the new creation that He is bringing. Yet have you noticed the great difference between 1 Peter and our text in Exodus? In our text, all those designations are prefaced by the words shall be, but in 1 Peter, the apostle says but you are. In Exodus, Israel’s obedience is the precondition for them becoming all that God desired to make of them. The precondition of our salvation today is the obedience and atoning sacrifice of Christ. We do not bring bulls and goats to slaughter in hope that God will pass over our sins one more day. Instead, we come to the throne of Yahweh with the reverent boldness of children approaching our Father, and we do so because of the new covenant that we have with God in Christ.

Each week we hear Christ saying the words again, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24). Through that once-for-all offering of His blood upon the heavenly altar for our sins, we have a greater covenant than even the Israelite’s had. We have a better word than “if you will obey, then you shall be…” As we come to Christ in faith, receiving with empty hands the grace that He so vastly gives, we are told: “But you are…”

Brothers and sisters, as we taste and see the goodness of our God through the bread and cup upon the Lord’s Table, let us rejoice in the finished work of Christ upon the cross and proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light.

[1] Philip Ryken, Exodus, 454-455.

[2] Ryken, Exodus, 456.

[3] Douglas Stuart, Exodus, 423.


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