Moses wraps up his re-telling of the events at Sinai. He reminds his listeners of what happened immediately after God gave them the Ten Commandments. In so doing he gives us insight into the nature and character of God. We learn more about God by hearing how He was perceived by the people who were close to Him and listened to Him. And we gain insight into His love for His people by hearing what He said about the ones who just received His Law.
God is mysterious, awesome, powerful – and loving. He wants His people to fear Him because it moves them to righteousness and allows Him to bless them. The amazing lesson of these verses is that God wants His children to fear Him because He loves them so much. His awesome and terrible presence is a sign of His love. God is the ultimate Father – an authority to be feared and yet the chief lover of His children who fear Him.
God speaks the Ten Commandments directly to the people from the midst of the fire, of the cloud and of the thick gloom, with a great voice. He speaks the commandments to them and adds no more – nothing else is needed to communicate to them the whole essence of the Law and no other time will God speak directly to them. There is more to the Law than these commands, but no more is necessary for them to understand God’s moral standards. The Ten Commandments stand on their own.
[There is some confusion as to whether God speaks the Ten Commandments directly to the people or if the people simply hear the voice of God like thunder – without hearing the actual words – as He gives the Ten Commandments to Moses. Exodus 20 could be read as if the people stand outside the cloud while Moses goes up the mountain and receives the Law. This passage, however, seems to clearly say they actually hear the commandments directly from God. Either interpretation is valid, but based on what the people say to Moses afterwards it seems to make more sense that they actually heard from God directly.]
God writes the commandments on two tablets of stone and gives them to Moses. The two tablets likely are two copies of all the commandments and are meant to signify the covenant. In a covenant both parties have a copy of what is agreed to. Since God does not need a copy both go with Moses. [Interesting that Moses does not relate the circumstances whereby he received the tablets the first time – when the people worshiped the golden calf at the base of the mountain and he actually destroyed the tablets to signify the breaking of the covenant – Ex 32.]
Notice how Moses describes the scene surrounding God. God speaks to them with a great voice. His voice comes from the midst of fire and cloud and thick gloom. The people are so close to Him that they have to be careful where they step so as not to touch holy ground and die (Ex 19:16-25). And yet they do not behold Him at all. They hear Him and are overawed by His presence and are close to Him – but no one can describe God other than to say His voice is like thunder (Ex 19:19) and He makes one heck of an entrance.
God is close and yet shrouded in thick gloom and clouds. God is close enough to speak with them and yet remains mysterious. This is who our God is. We can be close to Him, we can hear Him, we can commune and walk with Him, we have His word to explain much about Him and we can certainly talk to Him at any time – and yet elements of His nature and ways remain shrouded in cloud and thick gloom. We will spend eternity in His presence learning more and more about Him and never reach the end – our God is transcendent and always mysterious.
This goes a long way to explaining how His ways are not our ways and His time not our time. He does not see things as we see them. He is not as we are. We are His image-bearers but we can never say we are just like Him. No matter how long we live with Him there will always be a part of Him speaking to us from the cloud and the thick gloom. And we should praise Him that this is so. Our Father is ultimate and eternal and above us – and wholly worthy of our worship and faith.
The awesomeness of God is not lost on the people. After witnessing the amazing power of God and hearing His voice like thunder proceeding from the mountain they decide not to chance being in His presence again. They approach Moses and tell him they are amazed to be alive after being in God’s presence – “For who is there of all flesh, who has heard the voice of the living God speaking to them from the fire, as we have, and lived?” And so they implore Moses to never let God speak directly to them again – “Go near and hear all that the Lord our God says; then speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.”
They are thankful to be alive but think they might not be so lucky again. They do not want to hear directly from God and so want Moses to do it for them. But read again what they promise at the end of their request to Moses – “…we will hear and do it.” They promise to uphold their end of the covenant. They will obey what they have heard from God and will obey what God will tell Moses in the future. They are full of the fear of God and so find it easy to promise to obey.
It is interesting to observe the people’s reaction to being in God’s presence. They act as if they have had a near-death experience. They are both relieved to be alive and horrified at being so close to dying. They are shaken to the core. Nothing prepared them for what they just saw and heard. Nothing is like facing God. No one is thinking about a lack of meat or where they will get water or why they are in the wilderness or how much better things were in Egypt – the complaints of the past do not seem very important right now. The only thing that matters is never being in God’s presence again and doing whatever He wants them to do so they do not face His wrath.
This is what the presence of God does. All through the Bible whenever someone is faced with God’s glory they react in fear. And fear brings about a desire to obey. These are the people who complained almost before the waters of the Red Sea had come back together. They have spent the months leading up to Sinai acting like spoiled children who throw tantrums whenever they do not get their way. And yet after facing God they are ready to obey anything He says. Fear brings obedience.
This is why Moses answers their request (as recorded in Ex 20:20) by saying, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.” He says to not be afraid – they are not going to die even though they have been in the presence of God – but remember this fear so they will not sin. God came down the mountain and spoke to them directly so they would fear Him and obey Him. This was His whole intent!
It is easy to exclude literal fear when we think about the fear of God. To be “God-fearing” does not typically mean someone who fears danger as much as someone who is reverent and obedient. We like to focus on fear in terms of reverence and awe – and that is accurate. But this passage seems to indicate that it is more than that – it includes actual fear. And it is okay to actually fear God because of who He is and what He can do. Even Jesus said, “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). [Note how the fear of God pushes out the fear of man.]
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe
God tells Moses later in this chapter that He longs for the people to fear Him (29). Moses will say in 6:2 that God gives the people the Law so they might fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. God desires the fear of His people because it spurs them to obedience.
It is important to understand what this is. This is not the fear a subject has for his harsh ruler. This is not a dog that has been hit too many times cowering whenever his master is around. It is the fear a child has for a righteous father. It is the fear that comes with healthy authority. It is fear with relationship.
A loving parent disciplines his children. And his children fear that discipline and so obey. But the children also know their father loves them and supports them and wants what is best for them. He loves them so much he will not allow them to disobey and make choices that will ultimately hurt them or ruin them. His discipline is to be feared but it stems from His love. And that he is feared is good, because it brings on right behavior that benefits the ones who fear him.
In I Peter 1:17-19 Peter gives us a New Testament view of the fear of God. He says, “And if you address as Father (he is speaking to believers) the One who impartially judges according to each man’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay upon earth; knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.” Peter says we can address God as Father – be intimate with Him – and yet fear Him. We should fear His judgment – fear the loving discipline of our heavenly Father. We should fear what He can do in response to our actions both in this life and the next. Peter points to two motivations for good works – fear of judgment and the cost of our redemption (preaching the gospel to ourselves). To fear God is good – and Peter says we should conduct ourselves in fear throughout our whole life so that it will spur us to good works.
The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14
God tells Moses the people have spoken well. It is good that they understand what it means to be in His presence and it is good that they recognize Moses as their mediator. God will certainly respect their wishes and speak to them through Moses.
He tells Moses to have the people return to their tents but for him to draw close to God so God can tell him the remainder of the Law. From now on Moses will hear from God and pass along what he hears to the people. They will no longer stand in God’s presence and hear His voice.
Commending the people and agreeing to their terms is not all God does in these verses, however. He also says something absolutely amazing. He says in verse 29 – “Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!” God speaks almost wistfully to Moses about the people. He longs for them to obey and to allow Him to bless them. He longs for them to keep the covenant so they can enjoy the fruits of it.
This is the other side of God. Yes, He is awesome and fearful and shrouded in great mystery and terrible and holy – but He also loves His people. He SO LOVES His people. Notice why He wants them to fear and obey Him – so it may be well with them and with their sons forever! He knows obedience is what is best for them and is what will preserve them in the land and bring His blessing. And He wants – oh how He wants! – what is best for His people.
It is His nature to love. He IS love (I Jn 4:8). He loves so much that it causes Him to speak in a way that almost makes it sound like He is not sovereign. He KNOWS they will not obey. He KNOWS they will break the first two commandments literally before Moses gets down Sinai with the first set of stone tablets. They have done nothing but complain since they left Egypt. They are the people who actually had the audacity to say that four centuries of slavery were preferable to being delivered into the wilderness. They questioned God’s motives for bringing them out of Egypt even after witnessing the ten plagues and crossing the Red Sea. Even someone not sovereign and timeless would be skeptical of their future obedience. And yet God loves them so much He exclaims to Moses how He longs for what He absolutely knows will not happen.
Our God is awesome and dangerous but He is also completely and wholly on our side. He truly is our Father – and He longs for His children to do what He knows is best for them. He is the Dad who looks at His kids and hurts because they do not get it – they do not see as He sees. They are young and foolish and refuse to acknowledge that He knows the right way. He knows they will wander off and repeatedly do what is wrong. And He hates that they will miss out on what is best because of their foolish choices. He longs to bless His children and He longs for their obedience. GOD LOVES US AND LONGS FOR US.
We must fear God and we must understand that there are parts of Him that will always be shrouded in mystery and that He transcends us in every way. But we must also never forget that He loves us with a love that is just as awesome and powerful and transcendent. He LOVES us. He loves us to the point of longing for our obedience. He so wants what is best for us and so wants us to enjoy the fruits of His blessing. We do not serve a taskmaster and we do not serve someone waiting to hammer us when we fall. We serve a Father who longs for His children to understand that in His presence is fullness of joy; in His right hand are pleasures forever (Ps 16).
We fear His judgment. We marvel at His transcendence. We revel in His love.