The LORD Descends—Exodus 19:9-25
The task of Moses was to bring the whole nation to stand at the foot of the mountain, like a bride prepared for the coming of the bridegroom. They were to meet with this great God…Moses ascended to the top of the mountain, while God descended upon the top of the mountain. This is the meeting of heaven and earth.
In their album based on the epistle of Hebrews, Psallos has a song about the tabernacle and the old covenant that was made with Israel at Sinai. In that song, they call it a come-but-stay-away covenant, and our present text will display how true that description is. At the very heart of our passage is the reality that Israel was coming “to meet God” (v. 17); however, that is flanked by repeated warnings of the deadly consequences of coming too close. Come, but stay away.
Consecrate Them Today—Verses 9-15
Our text picks up where we previously left off. The Israelites are now encamped in the wilderness all around Mount Sinai, and God summoned Moses up to receive words for all the people. Yahweh then gave Israel a three-verse summary of the covenant that He was making with them, and all the people of Israel responded that they would be faithful to do all that God commanded them. After this, we read:
And the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.”
When Moses told the words of the people to the LORD, the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people, and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, “Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot, whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments. And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.”
Verse 9 is the context for the remainder of this chapter. Although Moses has already spoken a summary of the covenant to Israel on God’s behalf, Yahweh was going to descend upon the mountain in an especially glorious manner so that the people of Israel would hear Him speaking audibly to Moses. Of course, Moses would continue to be the mediator between them and God; the LORD was only going to pull back the veil of His glory that they may see the outward manifestations of God’s glory with their own eyes and hear God’s voice with their own ears and then believe Moses as God’s prophet forever.
The words that God would actually speak for all of Israel to hear are the Ten Commandments in 20:1-17, and after hearing the voice of Yahweh and seeing the storm of His glory, the people cried out to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (20:19). Thus, they ended up begging for Moses to be their mediator permanently.
In preparation for the LORD’s mighty descent, He commanded Moses to consecrate the people for two days, and He was speak to them on the third day. Notice that the counting of days is like Christ’s resurrection on the third day. We would probably tend today not to include today if we made plans three days out. Our thinking would be tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that is the third day. Yet God told Moses to “consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day.” Again, the counting is like the three days that Christ spent in the grave being the very end of Friday, all of Saturday, and the beginning of Sunday.
Regarding consecration, we should remember that it means to set apart someone or something for God, to make it holy. After the Passover, God gave Israel a perpetual command to consecrate their firstborn sons to Him, which was a symbol of His possession of each household in Israel. This, however, was a special consecration of the entire nation. Indeed, just as God told them that they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, these two days of consecrating themselves for that role.
The text gives three main actions that Israel needed to take: wash their garments, set a limit around the mountain, and abstain from sexual relations. The washing of their garments was a physical picture of their need to be cleansed of their sin before encountering the presence of the Holy One.
The command “do not go near a woman” does not mean that women are themselves unclean and men could not be in their presence for three days. No, this was a command to abstain from marital relations. Of course, this was not God condemning sex as sinful; it was His design, after all. Instead, this was essentially a corporate fast in which the entire nation set aside otherwise proper earthly pleasures in order to set their minds and hearts upon God.
Finally, the boundary that was to be set around the mountain was for the purpose of preventing the people from touching the mountain, in which case they would need to be put to death. Here is that come-but-stay-away element. The LORD was coming down to speak to Israel; however, they still needed to keep their distance from Him. Anyone who went past the designated limit would be guilty of trespassing against God’s holiness and would be sentenced to death. In order to distance themselves from the offender, no one would be allowed to touch the condemned man or animal; rather, the execution would need to be carried out by stoning or by bow and arrow.
If our response to all of this is to ask why such a big deal, then we reveal both the callousness of our own hearts as well as our ignorance of God. Back in 2015, President Obama came to give a speech in our town, and though our city is very solidly conservative and most of its residents fundamentally disagreed with every one of his policies, his visit was still a big deal. For a few hours surrounding his speech, main roads were blocked off and traffic of about half the city was rerouted. And that was all for a president, not a king, in a town where he had few active supporters.
Now consider the weight of coming into the presence of a king in the ancient world. One of the most suspenseful moments in the book of Esther is when she must go into the king’s presence unrequested. As she tells Mordecai:
All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s providences know that if any man or woman goes to the inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law–to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live. But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days.
If entering a king’s presence was a fearful thing, how much more the presence of the King of kings, the Maker of heaven and earth? Establishing the reality of God’s awesome presence is precisely the point of the next few verses.