16 And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled. 17 And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. 18 And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.
19 And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice. 20 And the LORD came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the LORD called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up. 21 And the LORD said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish. 22 And let the priests also, which come near to the LORD, sanctify themselves, lest the LORD break forth upon them.
23 And Moses said unto the LORD, The people cannot come up to mount Sinai: for thou chargedst us, saying, Set bounds about the mount, and sanctify it. 24 And the LORD said unto him, Away, get thee down, and thou shalt come up, thou, and Aaron with thee: but let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto the LORD, lest he break forth upon them. 25 So Moses went down unto the people, and spake unto them. (Exodus 19:16–25)
The Israelites had spent two days preparing to meet with the Lord. They had washed their clothes as a symbol of their inward purity.
They had abstained—fasted—from marital relations to help them focus less on themselves and more on God himself.
In addition to all that, a border had been marked off that the people were not to cross lest they got too close to Mount Sinai. They were to take God seriously.
I. THUNDER AND LIGHTNING
Exodus 19:16 And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.
Exodus 19:17 And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.
Exodus 19:18 And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.
As you might imagine, some scholars have suggested what actually happened here was that Mount Sinai was an active volcano. They like to seek naturalistic explanations for what God does.
Of course, God could have used the natural phenomena of a volcano to make his point, but you cannot explain away what happened here as a volcano that scared the Israelites so much that they made a god out of it.
What we have here is a theophany—an appearance of God on earth. It’s a terrifying thing for mankind to see the glory of God manifested. That was the point that the Lord was making here. He is not to be trifled with.
God has not diminished in his glory—the glory that we see recorded in these verses is the same glory that he possesses today. If he were to come down on a mountain now, we would tremble as the Israelites did.
Isaiah was whisked into his presence in a vision—
1 In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. 2 Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. 3 And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: The whole earth is full of his glory. 4 And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. (Isaiah 6:1–5)
Why does God present himself in this way? Why not just always come as a good, gentle shepherd or a small, still voice?
Because it is who God is when the veil is stripped away. He is glorious and holy and powerful. Our response should be like Isaiah, or as those in Heaven—
10 The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 11 Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. (Revelation 4:10–11)
We live at a time when even those who call themselves Christians are prone to think of God in ways that are unworthy of his majesty. They call him the “man upstairs” or some fool thing like that.
It’s true that, right now, we don’t see God manifesting his glory in ways that make everyone tremble. But there is a day coming when his glory will cause those who don’t believe to especially shake in their boots.
It will again be a day of earthquakes and fire—
10 But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. (2 Peter 3:10)
11 And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. (Revelation 20:11)
Please, please, be ready for that day. Be certain of your salvation. Treat God with the awesome respect that he deserves. Fall on your face in repentance. Run to Jesus for your salvation.
II. GOD SPEAKS
Exodus 19:19 And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice.
Exodus 19:20 And the LORD came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the LORD called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up.
While it was Moses alone who went up the mountain to speak with God, we learn from Deuteronomy that all the people heard the voice of God—
22 These words the LORD spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: and he added no more. And he wrote them in two tables of stone, and delivered them unto me. 23 And it came to pass, when ye heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, (for the mountain did burn with fire,) that ye came near unto me, even all the heads of your tribes, and your elders; 24 And ye said, Behold, the LORD our God hath shewed us his glory and his greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire: we have seen this day that God doth talk with man, and he liveth. (Deuteronomy 5:22–24)
Some scholars claim that Moses created the Mosaic Law himself. They say that he used his experience as a prince of Egypt and his education to create a law for Israel.
There certainly are times that God spoke privately to individuals and they wrote or spoke his word later to people. But that is not the case here. This was the first time God spoke and had his words put down in writing. This was the start of the Bible!
Moses would say—
33 Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live? (Deuteronomy 4:33)
It’s important for us that they heard God’s voice because the voice that they heard is the voice that we hear today in the pages of scripture.
Our Bible is not the ramblings of one man like Muhammed or Joseph Smith. Our Bible is not the educated writing of a man named Moses. Our Bible is the speech of God himself.
20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. (2 Peter 1:20–21)
III. STAY BACK!
Back in verse twelve, the Lord warned that the people should not come near the mount lest they be put to death. In the next verses, he repeats the warning twice more.
Exodus 19:21 And the LORD said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish.
Exodus 19:22 And let the priests also, which come near to the LORD, sanctify themselves, lest the LORD break forth upon them.
Exodus 19:23 And Moses said unto the LORD, The people cannot come up to mount Sinai: for thou chargedst us, saying, Set bounds about the mount, and sanctify it.
Notice how Moses is a little irritated? He’s saying, “I know we’re supposed to keep back, you already told us!” How does the Lord respond?
Exodus 19:24 And the LORD said unto him, Away, get thee down, and thou shalt come up, thou, and Aaron with thee: but let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto the LORD, lest he break forth upon them.
Exodus 19:25 So Moses went down unto the people, and spake unto them.
Why is the Lord insistent on warning the Israelites to stay back from the mountain?
One reason might have been because the Israelites were so forgetful. Remember, these people were complaining about a lack of food and water mere days after seeing the Red Sea parted.
Just as a child needs repeated, insistent warnings about boundaries like streets, so people need to have repeated warnings about God’s glory and holiness.
Streets are dangerous for children; God is dangerous to everyone if we disrespect him, for “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
Mount Sinai was a singular event. God doesn’t do fire on the mountain all the time. We might wish that we could have been there, to have our faith bolstered by hearing the voice of God come from a mountain on fire.
But, if you look at Hebrews 12, you’ll see that we have another mountain that is much better.
18 For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, 19 And the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard intreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more: 20 (For they could not endure that which was commanded, And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart: 21 And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake:)
Here the Bible reminds us that the Israelite’s experience on that day is not for us to have. Yes, we have learned about the holiness of God from it, but it will not be repeated for us—nor does it need to be repeated.
Why? We find out in the next verses—
22 But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, 23 To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, 24 And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel. 25 See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven: (Hebrews 12:18–25)
What is the difference between the two mountains? It isn’t that the God of Mount Sinai is hard and mean and the God of Mount Zion is nice and cuddly. God is the same.
The New Testament has the same God who judges as the Old Testament, or did everyone forget about the Great White Throne and the Lake of Fire?
The difference between the passages is that when we come to Mount Zion we are on the side of God’s justice. Jesus is, through the sprinkling of his blood, our meditator.
Through Jesus we can approach God without fearing eternal death. But we need to decide—are we going to meet God on Mount Sinai, where his holiness will surely destroy us in judgment?
Or, are we going to meet him on Mount Zion, where, on the basis of what Jesus has done, we can approach God?