“On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel. So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD. 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.’”
The Israelites had finally arrived. After three months of traveling, they came to the foot of Mount Sinai. Although this was not their ultimate destination, it was the first stop on the itinerary. Remember back in the beginning? What was Moses’ first request to Pharaoh? “Let my people go so that they may serve me in the wilderness.” The original request to leave Egypt was for the Israelites to go a three days journey and worship their God. Of course, God wanted the Israelites to be free completely, but it is interesting to note that the reason given to Pharaoh for their request to leave was to worship God in the wilderness.
Now, three months later, they had arrived. Arrived to the place where the LORD first revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush. Arrived to the place where God gave His personal and covenant name YHWH and promised to bring His people to this mountain as a free nation. Sinai was where it all began. God’s holy mountain. And it is here that God would reveal Himself to the nation of Israel, reestablishing the covenant He made with Abraham many years ago.
The Israelites will stay around this mountain for nearly a year as God gives them laws, decrees, and festivals, shaping and forming them into a nation set apart unto Him. But before all that can begin, it was time for the freed Israelites to behold their God. It was time for the LORD to make Himself known to His children in such a powerful way that they would never forget.
“On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.”
Imagine for a moment what this must have been like for the Israelites! After over four hundred years in Egypt of being surrounded by the idols and silent gods of Pharaoh, Moses shows up claiming to have heard and met with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,. Next, he brings ten supernatural plagues upon the Egyptians in the name of YHWH which brings deliverance for the people. I’m sure the Israelites were starting to believe that the God of their fathers did exist, but they had not seen Him. They had not personally experienced His power and glory. They witnessed it in the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and started to learn His nature and character through the names He revealed to them: the LORD your Healer, the LORD your Provider, the LORD your Banner. But had the reality and authority of their God truly sunk into their hearts?
I think not. Notice what the LORD tells Moses back in Exodus 19:9. What is the reason for this meeting between God and the Israelites? To prove to the people that God does indeed speak to Moses so that they might believe beyond shadow of doubt the authority and majesty of the LORD their God. Obviously, there were some doubters in the camp. Some people who just couldn’t really believe that God was real, even after all they had seen and partaken of.
How often are we like the children of Israel? How often do doubts about the existence or power of God enter our minds even though we’ve already seen Him move in amazing ways?
For the Israelites, God said that it was time for them to see Him and witness firsthand His power and majesty. Before the giving of the Law and the building of the Israelites as a nation, the people needed to behold their God. So they gathered, and the LORD descended in a cloud on the mountain and the people trembled. It wasn’t an awe-inspiring moment, or something super special that one would remember with sweet memories. It was a scary moment. There was fire, smoke, loud trumpet blasts, and earthquakes. The living, eternal, Creator God was making Himself known, and Mount Sinai had a hard time containing His presence. Then, when things may have seemed like they couldn’t get any more frightening, Moses spoke and the LORD answered him in thunder.
Thunder. Have you ever been in a really big lightning storm? While the lightning can be beautiful, the thunder is overwhelming. It booms and roars so loudly that you not only hear it, but you can feel it. The vibrations of sound pass through your body so powerfully that you feel it deep within you.
So imagine what this moment must have been like: God speaking in thunder. No wonder the Israelites were terrified! It was probably one of the most frightening experiences of their life! But that was the whole point. They needed to understand what it meant to fear the LORD. To hold a healthy respect for the God they served. He wasn’t just a genie in the sky who gave them whatever they wanted or needed. He was a living, breathing, powerful, and majestic God whose very voice was like thunder. And the Israelites trembled.
Do we tremble before the LORD? Do we have a healthy respect and fear for the God we serve?
I wonder if sometimes we get too chummy with God. Jesus in my heart, oh how wonderful it is. But the God of Exodus, the God of thunder who descended on Mount Sinai in smoke and fire, is the same God we serve today. Have we lost sight of how awesome and terrifying He is? Have we lost our fear of God?
While the Israelites’ experience with God was completely different than our position as sons and daughters of the King, we would do well to learn from them. God is powerful and mighty and deserves our respect. But He is also our Father. As redeemed children under the New Covenant of the blood of Jesus, we don’t have to approach Him in terror, because of love. However, we do need to know what He’s capable of and have a healthy respect for who He is.
So to close, let’s remember what the Israelites experienced and know that the God of the Old Testament—the God of fire, smoke, and thunder—is the same God of the New Testament. We just don’t see His majestic, awesome power in the same terrifying way because of love. But He’s still holy and awe-inspiring. We do not serve a God who is powerless and far off, but a God who is alive and is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Therefore, let us never lose our respect and healthy fear for the God we serve.
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
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