Reader: “I will come to you in a thick cloud, Moses,”
Response: “so the people themselves can hear me.”
Scripture: Exodus 19:9b-15
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, Moses, so the people themselves can hear me when I speak with you. Then they will always trust you.”
Moses told the Lord what the people had said. Then the Lord told Moses, “Go down and prepare the people for my arrival. Consecrate them today and tomorrow, and have them wash their clothing. Be sure they are ready on the third day, for on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai as all the people watch. Mark off a boundary all around the mountain. Warn the people, ‘Be careful! Do not go up on the mountain or even touch its boundaries. Anyone who touches the mountain will certainly be put to death. No hand may touch the person or animal that crosses the boundary; instead, stone them or shoot them with arrows. They must be put to death.’ However, when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, then the people may go up on the mountain.”
So Moses went down to the people. He consecrated them for worship, and they washed their clothes. He told them, “Get ready for the third day, and until then abstain from having sexual intercourse.”
Reader: “The Word of the Lord.”
Response: “Thanks be to God.”
I want you for a moment to pretend you know nothing of God, virtually nothing. Think about it. What did the Israelites know about God up to this point? A million plus people heard something about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their sacrifices on piles of stones as they worshiped God. But this group of people, who had just escaped 400 years, the last many years in horrible slavery in a very pagan Egypt, had memories of cobras, charms, divination, magic and multitudes of Egyptian gods. There were no synagogues, tabernacles or temples for Jewish worship. They were a persecuted people. They were in the process of learning more about their God, now that they were a free people, away from Egyptian influence. They experienced God’s power in their crossing the Red Sea, bringing water from a rock and providing daily manna.
At this point they are about to enter into a suzerain-vassal treaty with God. (This is a treaty made between a great king and a conquered people. “In such a treaty, the conquered people would declare their absolute loyalty to the king and obedience to his demands. The king, for his part, would promise to care for the conquered people and protect them from any enemies who might attack them.”―NLT Study Bible notes, p.157) This meeting is to be the people’s first direct encounter with God and they are going to learn more about this God firsthand! God is going to speak in a cloud, though they will not see him. They will only hear him. Though not appearing in a physical form, the people conclude God is very much alive! He tells the people to “stay pure” for the next three days.
The Israelite’s clothes were to be clean for the occasion of hearing the Lord speak. Why did God want them to wash their clothes? Seems like an odd request to us. What difference does it make? In the words of Dennis Prager, “The clothing people wear reflects their level of respect for the situation and the people involved.” (Dennis Prager, The Rational Bible, Exodus, p.214) Think about it. Do you dress up in your best when you go to a wedding? You don’t show up in your backyard work clothes. (President Reagan never took off his coat and tie when he was in the Oval Office, even when he was alone out of respect for the Office of President.)
God is impressing upon his people that they are meeting with their Creator. When I was growing up, we had our Sunday clothes and Sunday shoes. They were our best clothes, wearing them only on Sunday. We were going to meet with the Lord. In general, our clothes often reflect our attitude toward any given situation. Is it possible that our lack of concern regarding our dress at worship is more an indication of our theology of God? Just asking! Apparently, God does care. Along the same lines, the Israelites were to refrain from having sexual intercourse in the days leading up to their worship of God. Why? Again, their minds and hearts were to be focused on their encounter with the living God. Back to our passage. Remember, the Israelites are learning for the firsthand about their God and what he requires of them. Maybe we can pick up some pointers too.
Why did crossing the boundary on the mountain mean certain death? God was impressing “holiness” upon his people. The people were learning first hand that “holiness” was a very serious matter from God’s perspective and YHWH was not someone to be toyed with. Notice, enforcing death upon the offender does not involve touching them in bringing about their death. In effect, holiness has killed them. In that sense the victim is sacred, a kind of burnt sacrifice. In this passage, God’s children were learning about their heavenly Father and we are as well. Remember, the New Testament interprets the First Testament, but it does not invalidate it. We live in a world, including a Christian world, that is very “me and my comfort” oriented, all too often including our approach to worship. Some things to think about.
Music: “Holy, Holy, Holy is God the Lord” No. 35 from Elijah Oratorio Mendelssohn
“Holy, holy, holy is God the Lord,
The Lord God of Sabaoth!
Now his glory has filled all the earth.”
Almighty God, forgive my doubt, my anger, my complaining, my pride, my greed, my selfishness, my sinful thoughts, my impatience, my laziness . . . my, my, my, my . . . Lord, I’m so full of me. I am a self-absorbed sinner through and through. Lord Jesus, I am realizing how little I pursue you to know you beyond my own perception of you. By your grace and nourishment I will endeavor to pursue you through the desert of this world until I cross the Jordan into the Promised Land and see your glorious face where no sin abounds and where all is perfectly holy. In the name of the One who was, is, and is to come, even Jesus, my Savior. Amen. ―Daniel Sharp