In their album based on the epistle of Hebrews, Psallos has a song about the tabernacle and the old covenant that was made with Israel at Sinai. In that song, they call it a come-but-stay-away covenant, and our present text will display how true that description is. At the very heart of our passage is the reality that Israel was coming “to meet God” (v. 17); however, that is flanked by repeated warnings of the deadly consequences of coming too close. Come, but stay away.
CONSECRATE THEM TODAY // VERSES 9-15
Our text picks up where we previously left off. The Israelites are now encamped in the wilderness all around Mount Sinai, and God summoned Moses up to receive words for all the people. Yahweh then gave Israel a three-verse summary of the covenant that He was making with them, and all the people of Israel responded that they would be faithful to do all that God commanded them. After this, we read:
And the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.”
When Moses told the words of the people to the LORD, the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people, and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, “Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot, whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments. And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.”
Verse 9 is the context for the remainder of this chapter. Although Moses has already spoken a summary of the covenant to Israel on God’s behalf, Yahweh was going to descend upon the mountain in an especially glorious manner so that the people of Israel would hear Him speaking audibly to Moses. Of course, Moses would continue to be the mediator between them and God; the LORD was only going to pull back the veil of His glory that they may see the outward manifestations of God’s glory with their own eyes and hear God’s voice with their own ears and then believe Moses as God’s prophet forever.
The words that God would actually speak for all of Israel to hear are the Ten Commandments in 20:1-17, and after hearing the voice of Yahweh and seeing the storm of His glory, the people cried out to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (20:19). Thus, they ended up begging for Moses to be their mediator permanently.
In preparation for the LORD’s mighty descent, He commanded Moses to consecrate the people for two days, and He was speak to them on the third day. Notice that the counting of days is like Christ’s resurrection on the third day. We would probably tend today not to include today if we made plans three days out. Our thinking would be tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that is the third day. Yet God told Moses to “consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day.” Again, the counting is like the three days that Christ spent in the grave being the very end of Friday, all of Saturday, and the beginning of Sunday.
Regarding consecration, we should remember that it means to set apart someone or something for God, to make it holy. After the Passover, God gave Israel a perpetual command to consecrate their firstborn sons to Him, which was a symbol of His possession of each household in Israel. This, however, was a special consecration of the entire nation. Indeed, just as God told them that they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, these two days of consecrating themselves for that role.
The text gives three main actions that Israel needed to take: wash their garments, set a limit around the mountain, and abstain from sexual relations. The washing of their garments was a physical picture of their need to be cleansed of their sin before encountering the presence of the Holy One.
The command “do not go near a woman” does not mean that women are themselves unclean and men could not be in their presence for three days. No, this was a command to abstain from marital relations. Of course, this was not God condemning sex as sinful; it was His design, after all. Instead, this was essentially a corporate fast in which the entire nation set aside otherwise proper earthly pleasures in order to set their minds and hearts upon God.
Finally, the boundary that was to be set around the mountain was for the purpose of preventing the people from touching the mountain, in which case they would need to be put to death. Here is that come-but-stay-away element. The LORD was coming down to speak to Israel; however, they still needed to keep their distance from Him. Anyone who went past the designated limit would be guilty of trespassing against God’s holiness and would be sentenced to death. In order to distance themselves from the offender, no one would be allowed to touch the condemned man or animal; rather, the execution would need to be carried out by stoning or by bow and arrow.
If our response to all of this is to ask why such a big deal, then we reveal both the callousness of our own hearts as well as our ignorance of God. Back in 2015, President Obama came to give a speech in our town, and though our city is very solidly conservative and most of its residents fundamentally disagreed with every one of his policies, his visit was still a big deal. For a few hours surrounding his speech, main roads were blocked off and traffic of about half the city was rerouted. And that was all for a president, not a king, in a town where he had few active supporters.
Now consider the weight of coming into the presence of a king in the ancient world. One of the most suspenseful moments in the book of Esther is when she must go into the king’s presence unrequested. As she tells Mordecai:
All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s providences know that if any man or woman goes to the inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law–to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live. But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days.Esther 4:11
If entering a king’s presence was a fearful thing, how much more the presence of the King of kings, the Maker of heaven and earth? Establishing the reality of God’s awesome presence is precisely the point of the next few verses.
MEETING GOD // VERSES 16-20
After preparations are made and the people are consecrated, these verses describe God’s glorious descent upon the mountain:
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
The most striking point in these verses is clearly the awesome majesty of the LORD. His descent is heralded by a supernatural trumpet blast that grows louder and louder. Smoke and fire shroud His presence in a thick darkness. Thunder and lightning resound in the heavens and the earth trembles greatly as the Creator came down. Indeed, that is the purpose of these phenomena. These violent tumults of creation reveal the strain that God’s presence places upon them. Here is the Author of time and space placing His toe within them, and they begin to unravel under the weight of His glory.
The task of Moses was to bring the whole nation to stand at the foot of the mountain, like a bride prepared for the coming of the bridegroom. They were to meet with this great God. The significance of this meeting is seen in the structure of verse 20: Moses ascended to the top of the mountain, while God descended upon the top of the mountain. This is the meeting of heaven and earth.
Indeed, this is a positive spin on the tower of Babel. In their pride, the people of Babel thought that they could ascend to the heavens and become gods, but as great as their tower was, God still needed to descend from heaven in order to take a look at it. The reverse plays out here in Exodus. The LORD first descends upon the mountain and then calls Moses to ascend up the mountain to meet with Him. Thus, the theme of “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5) continues to be present. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but God will exalted those who humble themselves. It is no mistake that Moses is called the meekest man in all the earth (Numbers 12:3) and that he was given the highest of privileges in the Old Testament.
Of course, as meek as Moses was, he was still as in need of grace as the rest of the Israelites, which made him an imperfect mediator. By God’s abundant grace, Moses was able to step where no other human was permitted to step; however, Moses could not remain indefinitely in the LORD’s presence nor could he bring the people into God’s presence. The best that Moses could do was to bring the people near to God upon the mountain so that they could hear Him speak. In all of this, the author of Hebrews testifies that “Moses was faithful in all of God’s house as a servant” (3:5). Yet a greater mediator was still needed, and that mediator is Christ, who “is faithful over God’s house as a son” (3:5). “For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of the house has more honor than the house itself” (3:3).
Jesus is a greater mediator than Moses in every way. Indeed, He is the only true mediator between God and man because He is Himself both God and man. Jesus is God descending to us, not merely upon another mountain but in human form, becoming one of us. Jesus is also sinless man ascending to God, bringing the many that He has made righteous with Him. Indeed, the consecration of the people that Moses performed was sufficient for this one-time meeting with God, as long as Israel still kept their distance. They could come near but not too near. However, the consecration that Jesus performed enables us to boldly approach God’s very throne in prayer, for He has spiritually seated us with Himself in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). Moreover, Jesus purchased our adoption as God’s sons and daughters, making Yahweh our Father and building us into God’s own household.
Interestingly, our consecration was also made over the span of three days, but during those three days, there was no self-cleansing or fasting that needed to be done. From Good Friday to Resurrection Sunday, God’s people only needed to be silent and see the salvation that God was doing. Upon the cross, Christ took upon Himself the just punishment of our sin, and rising from the grave, He conquered death and is able to grant His own perfect righteousness to His people. By His sacrifice, we are cleansed of sin and justified before God, meaning that the LORD could now dwell in His people, not simply with them.
The greatness of this new covenant in Christ can be seen whenever we compare the events of Acts 2 with our present passage. Indeed, there is some Jewish tradition that connects Pentecost (the fiftieth day after Passover) with the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai. Regardless, we ought to note the tremendous difference between the two similar moments. Here at Sinai the LORD descended in fire upon the mountain, but in Acts 2, God the Spirit descended in fire upon Jesus’ disciples, and, like the burning bush, they were not consumed. The LORD would no longer be with His people; He would now dwell in His people.
LEST THE LORD BREAK OUT AGAINST THEM // VERSES 21-25
In the final verses, we find this dialogue between Moses and the LORD.
And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the LORD to look and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near to the LORD consecrate themselves, lest the LORD break out against them.” And Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.’” And the LORD said to him, “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest he break out against them.” So Moses went down to the people and told them.
Fundamentally, this is God ordering Moses to remind the people two more times not to break passed the barriers. In the first warning, the LORD warns that even the priests must be wary. Since the Levitical priesthood had not been established, who were these priests? Ryken answers:
It is somewhat unclear who these priests were. Eventually Aaron and his descendants were anointed as Israel’s priests, but that did not happen until chapter 28. Here in Exodus 19 the priesthood was not yet established. But perhaps at this time the firstborn in each family had a priestly function. Support for this suggestion comes from chapter 24: When the covenant was confirmed, the young men of Israel fulfilled the priestly function of offering sacrifices (v. 5).
Moses’ response almost seems to question the need for God to repeat the same command a second time, yet from what we have already witnessed of Israel, they were more than capable of treating the LORD’s warnings lightly. Whether through blatant disobedience or simple negligence, it was fully plausible for many of the Israelites to break through the barrier and be put to death. God’s third warning in verse 24 shows us that the LORD certainly knew what the Israelites were capable of doing and that He did not desire any of their deaths. Indeed, that is the great paradox of this encounter all over again. It is grace for the people to be brought near to hear the LORD speak to them, but their drawing near is perilous and must be strictly regulated, lest they die.
Here again we can see the goodness and glory of the new covenant in Christ. The come-but-stay-away nature of the old covenant is perfectly captured by this meeting with God upon Sinai. Come close but not too close. Come near but only look from afar. The descent of the Spirit as fire upon the disciples tells a more marvelous story. Because God’s presence now resides in His people, we no longer come to a particular mountain or a temple to worship the LORD; instead, we are God’s temple.
This truth became more beautiful to me when walking through Buddhist temples in East Asia. All of them were placed upon high mountains so that they could be seen from great distances and so that the worshipers would have the experience of ascending up to pray to the gods. The great height of those mountains was intended to reflect the great effort that people displayed in their worship, for their worship was wholly based upon merit. The greater effort they put into their worship, the great merit they would earn before the gods. How much merit did they need? No one knew. So they kept climbing and kept praying, hoping that some god somewhere might see and hear.
And there we stood, living temples of the Most High God, interceding in prayer for them. Reverse temples. Temples that go out rather than force the worshiper to come up. That is the glorious grace of the new covenant. We could not ascend to God, so He descended down to us. He became one of us to bring us back to Himself. Now He dwells within us and sends us out to bring others in. The good news that we declare is not “come worship God at His temple” but “come become a part of God’s living temple.”
Douglas Stuart writes:
The wording of v. 25, “So Moses went down to the people and told them,” is a simple, direct way to end the prelaw narrative portion of the book of Exodus on two themes: the awesomeness of God (since what he told them related to that awesomeness, to wit, the danger of trying to breach God’s holiness) and the readiness of Moses and the people together at the bottom of Mount Sinai to hear God’s Ten Words of covenant thundered at them from the top of the mountain—God’s very words audible comprehensibly to all from the great height of the Mountain of God.
That is a fitting reminder for us as well as we come to our King’s Table. In the bread and cup, we not only taste and see the goodness of God but His glory and majesty through the giving of Christ’s life for His bride. And just as Moses was given a message to proclaim to the people, we are also proclaiming Christ’s death through this eating and drinking. It is a proclamation to come and be satisfied fully in Christ.
 Philip Ryken, Exodus, 478.