You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” Hebrews 12, verses 18-21.
Are you seeing as I am that it takes effort and study to understand the Bible? A few nights ago, a pastor I know said that he thought simply turning to the Bible and picking a random verse for advice was dangerous. If you randomly pick a verse and expect it to give you life-altering advice, you’re subjecting God to a game of Russian Roulette where you hold the gun against the other guy’s head. I understand his point, because context matters, background matters. You may not have a degree in hermaneutics or have a bookshelf full of commentaries, but knowing a little bit about the verses you read might just help you to understand them (and what they’re saying) better. A good website for this is http://thetorah.com/what-happened-at-mount-sinai/.
The background of these verses is, as you’ve guessed, from the time of the Ten Commandments. God led the people of Israel to Sinai, His holy place. There He would minister to them and give them His commandments for how to live in the world. To protect them, He ordered Moses to set up boundaries so that no one would set foot onto God’s holy mountain in some disrespectful way. It was for them, not Him. Why wouldn’t God want His people to flock to Him? The answer is in the millennial joke: “it’s you, not me.” Putting it simply, it was the people’s sins.
God can’t be unholy. Un-holiness is against His nature. He can’t tolerate it. Specifically, it seems like the sin of disrespect would be one He would not tolerate. For the people to accept His holy law, God wanted to ready them. So He gave them instructions to follow. “Stay off the mountain.” Listen to God and He teaches. God would speak to them through Moses, and in doing so He would affirm Moses’ leadership over them. That’s a practical as well as spiritual matter, you know. 2 million souls wandering hungrily in unfamiliar territory needed a leader. They didn’t need another pharaoh or some strongman: they needed an authority. God speaks to them directly from the mountain, but at a distance to gather their attention and to set up some ground rules. By acting through Moses and by requiring the Israelites to follow directions, God installs Moses as leader and affirms that authority. What’s more, when God speaks directly from Sinai, He has Moses stand above the people, in-between them and Himself. He couldn’t have told them any clearer: “This guy Moses is my spokesman here. Listen to him.”
Then why would He allow un-holy Moses to stand in His presence? There wasn’t anything special about Moses regarding his sinful nature. Moses was a sinner just like the rest of the Israelites. Perhaps it was that God knew how Israel would rebel in Moses’ absence. Don’t forget that Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights, fasting and being made ready to receive God’s direct commandments. During that time, Israel defied God and made itself an idol for worship, then they partied like a one-hit wonder on Grammy night. Moses wasn’t a part of that (reaffirming again his status as above this sin). Can you imagine the terror of seeing Moses descending from the mountain that first time, carrying two stone tablets, his anger burning stronger with each step down? Can you imagine the thunder and shaking earth and the fire spewing from the mountain in front of you when God’s wrath was poured out on the rebellious deserters?
It must have been a fearful thing to have been one of the thousands freed from Egypt and then wandering to this strange place in Midian. It must have been frightening to journey to a mountain where fire, smoke, thunder, and earthquakes were common indicators of the uncommon God occupying it. It must have been terrifying to see God’s representative coming down to find that you’ve been unfaithful. And it is always humbling to have to submit to someone’s authority when you know they have every right to rebuke you.
There is a better way. The better way is to follow as soon as you hear you should. God never leads people in unjust ways. His path is always good and for good. If you want to avoid the stern teaching of a harsh rebuke, or if you fear the fire and brimstone, then live your life in such a way as to make them un-threatening to you. It really is that simple. As Billy Currington might have said, thank God for good directions.
For further reading: Exodus 19:12-22, Deuteronomy 4:11-12, Exodus 20:18, Deuteronomy 5:5 & 25, Deuteronomy 9:19.
Lord, thank You for Your fire, Your high standards, Your good directions, and the hard lessons You taught our ancestors..