Before meeting the Lord at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Law, the children of Israel had collectively affirmed, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do”(Exodus 19:8). Now the vital preparations that God required would be made before they met, since God is holy and we must approach Him on His terms. We meet with others to worship and serve God and seek to obey Him in all that we do. If the children of Israel made preparations before they met the Lord, how much more should we prepare ourselves before we worship God in fellowship with others?
Moses was instructed to consecrate the Israelites by ensuring that they washed their garments and that they would be ready for the third day when they would meet. Boundaries were set in place and if anyone touched the mountain they would die. They were to temporarily abstain from sexual intercourse. Only when the trumpet blasted would they then be able to come to the foot of the mountain.
Much has been written and considered concerning the number of days required, the washing, boundaries set in place and temporary abstinence from sexual intercourse was required. It is essential to bear in mind the immediate context in that the careful preparation pointed to the tremendous significance of what was about to transpire; God was about to establish a covenant with His people.[i]
Sadly we live in a day and an era where many people take meeting with God for granted or lightly. We might meet with others on particular days or times and go through the motions rather than considering how we can and should approach a holy God and prepare our hearts and minds. If someone were to play an important match or perform in an orchestra they would be wise to prepare themselves before doing so, at the least so that they would be in the right frame of mind and focussed on the task. If we were to meet a member of royalty, preparations would be made in advance and their requirements or protocol of conduct would be set in order. If we meet to worship and serve God, how much more would it be prudent to confess our sins to Him, ensure that we are not distracted and meditate upon Him and His word?
The holiness of God is pivotal to this chapter. Isaiah recognised our inadequacy to make ourselves holy or cleanse ourselves. “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousness are like filthy rags;” (Isaiah 64:6). It is the Lord who clothes us in righteousness and is able to remove our sin through the shed blood of Jesus the Messiah who made atonement for sin. “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The people could not go up to Mount Sinai lest they perish. Later, at the cleft of the rock, Moses was not allowed to see God’s face, lest he die (Exodus 33:20) though how did Moses survive when he spoke to the Lord at the burning bush and when he was noted for being an exceptional prophet since the Lord spoke to him face to face (Numbers 12:6)? John writes that No one has seen God at any time, although the only begotten Son has beheld Him (John 1:18). Hence, Yeshua said to Philip, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father;”(John 14:9).
Thunder and lightning and a thick cloud were on Mount Sinai bolstered by a particularly loud trumpet blast. Previously at Mount Sinai in Exodus 3, the Lord had appeared to Moses in the form of a theophany, the Messiah in preincarnate form as the Angel of the Lord. Interestingly He appeared in a flame of fire from the midst of the bush (Exodus 3:2). Other instances involving fire theophanies include the Angel of the Lord ascending in the flame of Manoah’s altar (Judges 13:20) and the fourth Man in the fiery furnace accompanying Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, like the Son of God (Daniel 3:25). Unger writes, “The appearance of God in theophanic form from Mount Sinai was to give them an audiovisual lesson of His infinite holiness and their abysmal sinfulness”.[ii]
We must remember how the Lord and His character are described in Scripture. “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24; cf. Hebrews 12:29). Sin separates us from God and boundaries had to be put in place because God is holy. With reference to preventing people from coming up to Mount Sinai and setting limits around the mountain and consecrating it in verse 23, Sforno noticed the parallel between preparations before the giving of the Law and when Moses met the Lord at the burning bush. “וקדשתו, the term is used here as in Exodus 3,5 when Moses was warned not to step on “holy” ground with his sandals as this might prove fatal. Similarly, here; the people had been told that neither man nor beast would survive touching the mountain. [during this period. Ed.]”[iii]
Priests were also Consecrated and Limited
Although the Levitical priesthood had not been established it was evident that some were serving as priests (Exodus 19:22). We would do well to remember that the priests had to be consecrated and were not permitted to go up Mount Sinai because a holy God must be approached on His terms. Moses went down to them. Those involved in leadership or teaching the Scriptures do not have a special exemption from commandments or holiness, because of their status. Whilst we should always respect our elders who officiate where we collectively worship, we should always check and consider carefully that what they teach aligns with the Scriptures.
So how can we approach a holy God on His terms? The writer to the Hebrews speaks of a greater High Priest, who is sinless, able to provide us with access to the Father and who enables us to draw near. “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
[i] John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck The Bible Knowledge Commentary An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty Old Testament (Victor, 1989; USA), p138
[ii] Merrill F. Unger Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament (AMG, 2002; Chattanooga), p124
[iii] Sforno on Exodus 19 https://www.sefaria.org/Sforno_on_Exodus.19.23.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en