The Israelites had largely forgotten God. In the hundreds of years since they had settled in Egypt and eventually became slaves, they had slowly lost their knowledge of him.
We can understand why earlier, when God sent Moses to the Israelites, that he was hesitant. “If I go to the Israelites and tell them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘’What is his name?’ – what should I say to them?…And if they do not believe me or pay attention to me, but say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you’?” (Exodus 3:13 & 4:1 NET). Moses’ fears were real – the Israelites no longer knew who God was.
We can see this even more vividly as the Pharaoh increased their work as slaves. Rather than being thankful Moses was there to deliver them, they blamed Moses for making them look bad to their Egyptian oppressors (see Exodus 5:20-23). Even after they were free, time and again they doubted that God could take care of them (Exodus 14:11-12; 15:24; 16:2-3; 17:2-3).
When they finally arrived at Mount Sinai, it was time for them to meet God, to meet the one they doubted time and again.
What do we do when we meet someone important? If we were summoned to meet the Queen, whether to receive an honour or to be recognised at her tea party, there is a certain protocol we would need to meet. We would obviously bathe so as to be as clean as possible. We couldn’t wear just any old clothes – to meet the Queen would require not only nice clothes, but the best: a tuxedo or other formal wear. And we wouldn’t get to approach her – we would be brought to see her.
We see it was very similar as Israel prepared to meet God. They were given three days to clean themselves up and also wash their clothing (Exodus 19:10-11). When God came down onto the mountain, they were to remain a distance from it. They were also to refrain from anything that would make them ritually unclean (19:12-15).
What would it be like to meet God, to come face to face with him? In our politically correct society, God is more often depicted as a “pal” or a doting grandfather rather than the fearful, all-powerful Creator. Here is what the Israelites experienced: “On the third day in the morning there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud on the mountain, and the sound of a very loud horn; all the people who were in the camp trembled” (Exodus 19:16). Then God spoke to all the Israelites what we call the Ten Commandments. That was too much for them!
“All the people were seeing the thundering and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and saw the mountain smoking – and when the people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance. They said to Moses, ‘You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you so that you do not sin.’ The people kept their distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:18-21).
Hearing the voice of God was too much for them. They decided that Moses should pass on God’s message to them, but they had heard enough!
One day we, too, will hear the voice of God in the form of his son. We will stand before him and receive our sentence. Jesus will either say to us, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” or he will say, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:34, 41). The message we receive will depend on whether we have been faithful in how we have lived our lives.
What is it that God will say to us?
Readings for next week:
7 December – Exodus 23
8 December – Exodus 24
9 December – Exodus 25
10 December – Exodus 26
11 December – Exodus 27