DIG: What link do you see between 20:1-17 and 18-21? In what sense were the people tested? How was the fear of God to motivate them?
REFLECT: At the end of his life King Solomon wrote these words. After looking back on my whole life, here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13). How are those words true for you?
The prologue describes Israel’s reaction to the scene at Mount Sinai. God had appeared to them in a cloud and fire on top of the mountain, and He had delivered the basis of the Book of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments, to them. Now, how will they respond to it? Earlier they had proclaimed: We will do everything ADONAI has said (19:8). Was that still true?
When the people heard the voice of God they perceived it as thunder and lightning, the sound of a trumpet getting louder and smoke around Mount Sinai. As a result, they were shook to the very core and trembled with fear (20:18a). They were so afraid that they fled from the mountain. When the commandments were given to the Israelites they stood at the foot of the mountain (19:17). But now we find them standing at a distance. The Hebrew for at a distance normally means far away (First Samuel 26:13; Isaiah 22:3 and 23:7). But why did they run away? Like Isaiah when confronted with a holy and perfect God, they realized their sin before Him. It was as if they also said, “Woe to us. We are ruined. For we are a people of unclean lips, and our eyes have seen the King (Isaiah 6:5). Their guilt overwhelmed them.
They were so afraid that they said to Moses, who was their mediator: Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die (20:18b-19). They simply could not bear it (Hebrews 12:19). It was too difficult to face the Accuser and the accusation; the Judge and the judgment all at the same instant.399
Therefore, Moses responded and said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning” (20:20). The Torah presented an impossible standard because the Torah of ADONAI is perfect. If you were trying to be saved by keeping the Torah you would have to be perfect. If you are not perfect, it cannot save you. I thank the LORD that under grace He can save a poor sinner like me. Grace reveals something of the goodness and wonder of our God.400
What kind of test is Moses talking about? The Hebrew verb nsb, often translated to test, should not be understood in the sense of finding out how the Israelites will perform or react to something. God is not revealing himself in thunder and lightening to see how they will react. It is much more convincing to translate the word here as experience. In other words, it is as if the LORD was saying, “Do not be afraid. I am giving you a taste of Myself so that this memory will stick with you to keep you from sinning.” The people’s fear was to be tempered by the fact that God is giving them that experience for a reason. A debilitating fear would eventually give way to a healthy fear, one that would result in faithfulness on their part and the part of other nations as well.401
The word fear used here does not mean a sense of terror or dread, but rather a reverence that leads to obedience (Deuteronomy 4:10). Their fear of God should have caused them to bow down before Him in reverence and awe. Sadly, Israel would soon lose their fear of Him. This would be a recurrent theme in her history.
The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was (20:21). From this point on God would communicate only with Moses, and then Moses would relate all that God had said to him, to the people. Once through the thick darkness of smoke, which represented the presence of God, Moses would see the Shekinah glory. Then he would make another trip up Mount Sinai for a longer visit, to receive the commandments that would be called the Book of the Covenant.
In our natural state, we all stand quaking at the foot of Mount Sinai. Although we were not there with the Israelites (and we need to be careful not to allegorize), the fact is, that each of us stands condemned of living and being disobedient to the Creator. In our unregenerate state we stand guilty as charged. This is the verdict: “Guilty, guilty, guilty!” And that ought to make us tremble and fear for our lives. However, those who have new life in Christ do not approach Mount Sinai with condemnation, but they come to Mount Zion under the blood of Jesus. The Messiah took His people’s debt in the Torah and nailed it to the cross (Hebrews 12:18-24).402
The Teaching Ministry of Jay Mack 2006-2013