By Dr. Mark Scott
We live in a world of contrasts. Light and dark; good and evil; Jerusalem and Babylon; the bride and the harlot; in and out; deep and wide; forward and backward; over and under. In our text today the contrast is between “down and up.” God came down and Moses went up.
Exodus 19 is the account of God preparing Israel to receive the Ten Commandments (the Mosaic covenant). God redeemed Israel out of Egypt and, with not a little frustration, brought the people to Mount Sinai to receive his law. This is clearly a high watermark in the Bible. Therefore it could not be entered into lightly or unadvisedly. Preparation mattered. God announced his rescue, his calling—the whole nation was called a kingdom of priests—and his challenge of being consecrated (the people had to wash themselves, mark out boundaries for approaching God, and even abstain from marital intimacy) to prepare to receive God’s holy law.
God Came Down
Our text begins, “On the morning of the third day.” We must be careful not to give meaning to the text it did not intend. But this might be significant. This becomes one of the many “three-day stories” of the Bible. As John Ortberg reminds us, we never know it is a third-day story until the third day. Fred Thompson Jr. used to say, “If you understand the exodus and the Christ event, then you probably know the Bible.” The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is also a third-day story. So this is big.
All of the classic signs of a theophany (God manifestation) are present in this text: thunder, lightning, clouds, trumpet blasts, smoke, fire, and finally a voice. But notice a phrase that occurs twice in our text: “the Lord descended” (verses 18 and 20). No matter how high humankind attempts to get to God (see Genesis 11:1-9), God still has to come down. The signs of his power indicate his immanence. But the fact that he has to come down indicates his transcendence. He is separate from his creation. Thunder and lightning are symbols of his power. Smoke and fire are indicative of his judgment. Trumpets announce directions. Clouds, mountains, and voices become vehicles of revelation.
No wonder the people and the mountain trembled (to be afraid, to quake, to be discomfited). This is not a lullaby; this is 76 trombones in a marching band. “Fear and trembling” was a phrase used in the ancient world for approaching deity (see Philippians 2:12). All Heaven was breaking loose. Heaven spilled over to earth when God came down. Moses spoke, but God’s powerful voice seemed to cover Moses’ voice (see Psalm 29; Revelation 1:15).
Moses Went Up—and Then Down
God called Moses up to Mount Sinai to give him the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17; Deuteronomy 5:7-21). Moses was perfectly obedient. The text says, “So Moses went up.” But upon climbing to the top of Mount Sinai (no small thing if the mountain is rightly identified as the traditional site of Jebel Musa located near St Catherine’s Monastery in southern Sinai), God told him to go back down.
God had plenty of experience with stiff-necked Israel. He knew their propensity to sin and complain. He wanted them warned (a legal term meaning to “solemnly charge”) so that they did not force their way (break down, overthrow, destroy; the phrase also occurs in verse 24) through to see God. There was even a caution to the priests, who represented the people to God, not to be casual in approaching God. This is, after all, God.
Moses reverently pushed back, perhaps similarly to when he received his call (Exodus 3–4). Moses seemed to have more confidence in the people’s obedience than God did. That confidence would wane as the Book of Deuteronomy shows. Moses reminded God that he had put limits around the mountain (set a boundary). The mountain became holy because God came down.
But the Lord still said, “Go back down.” Up and down; up and down. Preparations mattered for this climatic moment in Israel’s history. God told Moses to bring Aaron with him when he came back up the mountain. So much of what God had to reveal to Moses would later involve Aaron’s work as high priest (Exodus 25–31). So Moses did go up—only to go back down to the people because part of preparing for the covenant was for the people to acquire a respect for God’s majesty.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2013, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.