As we watch the final moments of the Exodus unfold at Sinai, we must sit in awe of Jehovah. We must love His power and patience. We must appreciate who Moses was and why God picked him. We must hate the sin of the Israelites as they build that golden idol. We must fearfully strive to not give in to our worst thoughts in the presence of God. We must find hope in the fact that God spared them from the punishment they deserved. We must appreciate how similar Moses was at that moment to what Christ will be on the Day of Judgment. We must remember what happened, teach it to our children, and never let them forget that God came down to deliver His message, His doctrine, and demonstrate His power.
The words of Psalm 68:1-10 seem appropriate:
Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered; let those also who hate Him flee before Him. As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, So let the wicked perish at the presence of God. But let the righteous be glad; let them rejoice before God; yes, let them rejoice exceedingly. Sing to God, sing praises to His name; extol Him who rides on the clouds, by His name YAH, and rejoice before Him. A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy habitation. God sets the solitary in families; He brings out those who are bound into prosperity, but the rebellious dwell in a dry land. O God, when You went out before Your people when You marched through the wilderness, the earth shook; the heavens also dropped rain at the presence of God; Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel. You, O God, sent a plentiful rain, whereby You confirmed Your inheritance when it was weary. Your congregation dwelt in it; You, O God, provided from Your goodness for the poor.
Exodus 19-32 highlights the scene at Mt. Sinai. There is far too much information to cover the details chapter-by-chapter, let alone verse-by-verse. To appreciate how it’s all connected, we must do the opposite and zoom out. Over the course of this lesson, I fully expect each of you to find these moments to be both glorious and frustrating. At these moments, we see the glory of God as the Israelites literally sit at His feet and then we see the frustrating failure of those same people as they shame themselves with the golden calf. There is so much to be learned from these moments, so much right and unfortunately, so much wrong.
I ask you to consider the following details that emerge as these chapters unfold:
(1) In 19:1-9, God speaks to Moses and sheds some light on what’s coming and why it matters. He says, “if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine” in 11:5.
(2) In 19:10-13, Moses prepares the people by consecrating them and warning them. He tells them in 19:12, “take heed to yourselves that you do not go up to the mountain or touch its base. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.”
(3) In 19:14-25, we see God descend upon the mountain. Notice the descriptive words used in these verses: a thick cloud, smoke, the mountain quaked greatly. 19:18-20 is a scene preserved for all time that even Christians should appreciate. It says, “Mount Sinai was completely in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice. Then the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.”
(4) In 20:1-17, God gives the first ten commandments to Moses. While much can be said about these verses, I believe we need to simply appreciate their universal appeal. They transcend time, doctrine, and even covenants. They are eternally true, eternally valuable, and have been God’s expectation of mankind from the beginning. This is not the first time mankind was expected to follow the principles of these commandments, this is merely the first public declaration of them recorded in Scripture. Do we really believe God expected any less of His ancient patriarchs? When we see the lives of Abraham, Noah, and Enoch do we see the fulfillment of these commands?
(5) In 20:18-26, the people respond to these events in an appropriate way. They are righteously afraid of God’s presence. Notice the difference between them and Moses though. He was not afraid of God, instead extremely respectful. The Israelites were afraid of Him and only willing to send Moses into the presence of God. That difference is the impetus for Israel’s greatest failure. While Moses was with God, they abandoned Him.
(6) After Moses went back upon the mountain, God instructed him in the ways of the Law. Notice what God taught:
(a) Chapter 21 addressed their treatment of servants. Of particular interest is 21:5-6 which says, “if a servant plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever.” The ideas surrounding a willful servant which begin here eventually rise to the forefront of Christian teachings (see Luke 16:13; John 12:26; Acts 16:17; First Corinthians 9:19).
(b) Chapter 22 explained the Israelite’s behavior towards their own property. We should highlight 22:9-13 as the overriding principles of these commands. It says there: “For any kind of trespass, whether it concerns an ox, a donkey, a sheep, or clothing, or for any kind of lost thing which another claims to be his, the cause of both parties shall come before the judges; and whoever the judges condemn shall pay double to his neighbor. If a man delivers to his neighbor a donkey, an ox, a sheep, or any animal to keep, and it dies, is hurt, or driven away, no one seeing it, then an oath of the Lord shall be between them both, that he has not put his hand into his neighbor’s goods, and the owner of it shall accept that, and he shall not make it good. But if, in fact, it is stolen from him, he shall make restitution to the owner of it. If it is torn to pieces by a beast, then he shall bring it as evidence, and he shall not make good what was torn.”
(c) Chapter 23:1-19 addressed the need to be wise in their judgments towards others and their respect for God. Surely, these things are connected. It’s about your attitude toward others. Consider Jesus’ response in Matthew 22:36-40 an appropriate parallel. It says there: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
(7) In 23:20-24, the Lord sent “His Angel” to lead the people of Israel to Canaan. Surely, the reason this happened was due to God’s presence no longer leading them from the front by a pillar of smoke or fire. Do not be confused, He remained in their presence. This was not a sign of God abandoning them. He merely switched locations and purposefully pointed them to something bigger than Canaan. Here, God didn’t give them a reason to stop praising Him or being thankful, He merely shifted their focus away from their deliverance towards their relationship.
(8) In chapter 24, Moses and a group of Jewish elders worshipped the Lord on Mt. Sinai. However, only Moses was allowed to come “near to God.” 24:9-15 shows us what happened. It must have been a glorious sight. It says, “they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity” in 24:9-10.
(9) 24:18 sets the stage for Israel’s greatest failure at Sinai. It says Moses went “into the midst of the cloud for 40 days and nights.”
(10) While Moses was in the presence of God, he was given instructions about constructing the Ark of the Testimony, the tabernacle, the altar of burnt offering, and the behavior and attire of priests. He was also educated about the sacrifices, the altar of incense, and the Sabbath. This time spent with God was centered around the Israelites’ future worship of God. Ironically, their mind was somewhere else.
(11) Not much time needs to be spent on the idolatry of the Israelites in chapter 32, only questions need to be asked. Namely, what where they thinking? How did the idea of worshipping a man-made image in the presence of God ever make sense? How did they forget so quickly what God had done for them?
Of all the people in this story, I have to admit that Aaron frustrates me the most. His participation in this fiasco shouldn’t be overlooked. I have no doubt he was scared by the people, perhaps even jealous of his brother, or just flat-out frustrated waiting on Moses. Whatever it was, Aaron failed the people of Israel by not standing up to their ignorance. Had he told them “no,” would they have still built the golden calf? That’s a question worth asking.
(12) If we’re not careful, one thing that can get overlooked is Moses’ intervention in 32:11-14. Moses pleaded with God to “turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self.” We should be aware that God was done with Israel and ready to start over with Moses (see 32:10), but Moses stood between their sin and their Savior with such vigor that God relented. Does that sound familiar? I often wonder, how many of us would have written them off and said “good riddance!” How many of us would’ve agreed with God and punished them? How many of us would have the wherewithal to bestow grace, instead of justice at that moment?
(13) In chapters 33-35, Moses and the people of Israel began to leave Mt. Sinai. Moses went back to the mountain and God gave Him a new set of the 10 commandments following the destruction of the original set. God then made a promise in 34:10 which says, “Behold, I make a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation, and all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord. For it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.” These words are God’s marriage vow to the people of Israel. They are His promise before all mankind to be faithful to them, to love them, and to bless them. It’s a shame they didn’t keep up their end of the deal.
(14) In chapters 36-40, we see the Tabernacle and the Sabbath fully integrated into the life of the Israelites. We finally see the end of their time at Sinai in 40:34-38. In these verses, we see God move His presence among the people (this was hinted at in 23:20-24). No longer did He lead them from a mountain or the front of their column, now He dwelled in the tabernacle and pushed their focus to the ritualistic worship of the Tabernacle. God moved so they’d always know where to find Him in the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies. No longer was the dwelling place of God a fixed location. Now it was with His people, wherever they found themselves.
As the story of the Exodus concluded at Sinai, we see a group of people full of hope. God had led them, fed them, taught them, and committed Himself to them in the land of Egypt and the Wilderness of Sinai. I truly believe they left that mountain with hope, only to find their expectations of Canaan (and God’s wishes) unrealistic. We have seen many lessons arise out of this study, I hope this one that has stuck with you the most – God is awesome, powerful, benevolent, and ultimately fair. His power is unprecedented and our natural response should be one of awe. It’s quite simple, really: “Our God is an awesome God, He reigns from Heaven above, with wisdom, power, and might, our God is an awesome God.”
All Scripture is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.
Originally published on April 4, 2018. Written by Neal Mathis.