Act II of Exodus exposed the people’s great need for God’s law. We now begin Act III, where God rebuilds his house—first by setting up a covenant (treaty) with his people.
Observation of Exodus 19
Most repeated words: people (21 times), Lord (18x), Moses (14), mountain (12), all (8), up (8), come (7), said (7), out (6), Sinai (6).
- The relationship between the people and the Lord takes center stage.
The setting remains at the mountain through the whole chapter, but Moses keeps going up and down. Almost every time God speaks, it is from the mountain top.
- Moses goes up, and God speaks to him (Ex 19:3).
- Moses goes down and speaks to the people (Ex 19:7).
- Presumably, Moses goes up to relay the people’s words (Ex 19:8), and God speaks again (Ex 19:9).
- Moses goes back down (Ex 19:14).
- God comes down to the mountain and calls Moses up (Ex 19:20).
- Moses goes back down with a final warning (Ex 19:25).
The only exception is in Ex 19:19, where Moses speaks from the foot of the mountain (Ex 19:17), and God answers with thunder.
Notice what God has to say each time Moses ascends the mountain. The mood of the first speech is warm and intimate; the second and third get increasingly severe:
- First trip: Tell the people that, if they keep my covenant, they will be my treasured possession.
- Second trip: The people will hear me speak to you (Moses) from the cloud, so they may believe you forever. Prepare, and stay away!
- Third trip: Warn everyone to stay away, so Yahweh won’t break out against them.
The logic of God’s promise is worth noting (Ex 19:4-6):
- You’ve seen how I delivered you from Egypt.
- Therefore, obey my voice.
- And you will be my treasured possession.
- That is, you will be a kingdom of priests to me, and a holy (i.e. special) nation among all peoples.
Obedience does not earn their deliverance; it follows from it.
Interpretation of Exodus 19
Some possible questions:
- Why does Moses go up and down the mountain so many times?
- Why does the tone of God’s speeches shift so drastically?
- What does it mean to be a kingdom of priests?
My answers (numbers correspond to the questions):
- The only thing clear in the text is that the top of the mountain is where God is (Ex 19:16-18). God, who led them in a pillar of cloud and fire (Ex 13:21-22), now resides on this mountain. In other words, heaven has come to earth, but only at this one spot, Mt. Sinai.
- The three sets of speeches communicate a tension between two poles: God wants his people to be close, but not too close. If they stay far away, they can’t be his treasured possession. And if they come too close, he must break out against them so that they die. The covenant being established here takes great pains to expose this tension.
- The only priest we’ve seen in Exodus so far is Jethro, priest of Midian (Ex 3:1, 18:1). Ex 19:22, 24 mention a group of Israelite priests, distinct from the rest of the people, but they’ve never come up before now. But, judging from how God has used Moses so far, we can guess that a “kingdom of priests” is a group of people who, in service to Yahweh, mediate between God and the nations of the earth.
Train of thought: Now that I’ve rescued you, I want you to be special mediators between me and the nations. But don’t assume this means you can come too close or take my place!
Main point: The purpose of God’s deliverance is to make something special out of an utterly undeserving people.
Connection to Christ: Even Jesus at times had to hold himself back from breaking out against his utterly undeserving people (Matt 16:23, 17:17, 26:40-41). Yet his incarnation, death, and resurrection brought heaven to earth, and he created a space (the church) where we could draw near to God without fear of judgment.
My Application of Exodus 19
I am not in my church, in leadership, or in ministry (or whatever) because I’ve done great things. Nor because I’m a great person. I’m here only because the Lord decided to do great things and to invite me in.
As I teach others, I must not shy away from the majestic glory of God. The threat of “close, but not too close,” would stand—were it not for Jesus Christ, who invites us to draw near to God’s throne with confidence to find mercy and grace (Heb 4:16).
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