And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death: There shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live: when the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount.
~ Exodus 19:12-13
And ye came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire unto the midst of heaven, with darkness, clouds, and thick darkness.
~ Deuteronomy 4:11
For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.
~ Romans 6:14
For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
~ Romans 8:15
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
~ 2 Timothy 1:7
A Commentary of Hebrews 12:18-19, by John Owen.
Hebrews 12:18-19. For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, (or the fire that burned), nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of the trumpet, and the voice of words, which (voice) they that heard entreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more.
The general scope of the words must be first opened, and then the particular expressions contained in them.
The principal design in hand is a description of that evangelical state whereinto the Hebrews were called, which they were come and entered into; for from thence the apostle infers his ensuing exhortation. But this their coming he expresseth negatively, to introduce a description of the church-state under the old testament, and the manner of the people’s entrance into it; whence he confirms both his argument and his exhortation: “Ye are not come.” And two things are included in that negative expression:
1. What their fathers did. They came, as we shall see, unto the things here mentioned. 2. What they were delivered from by their call unto the gospel. They were no more concerned in all that dread and terror. And the consideration of this deliverance was to be of moment with them, with respect unto their perseverance in the faith of the gospel; for this is the fundamental privilege which we receive thereby, namely, a deliverance from the terror and curse of the law.
And we may observe some few general things, in this proposal of the way of the people’s approach unto God at Sinai, before we open the several passages contained in the words; as,
1. The apostle in this comparison, between their coming of old into the legal church-state, and our admission into the state of the gospel, includes a supposition of the way and manner whereby they approached unto God in the giving of the law. This was by the sanctification of themselves, the washing of their clothes, (as an outward sign thereof,) with other reverential preparations, Exodus 19:10-11. Whence it will follow, that, the gospel church-state being so much more excellent than that of old, God himself being in it in a more glorious and excellent manner, we ought to endeavor a more eminent sanctification and preparation, in all our approaches unto God therein. And therefore he closeth his discourse with an exhortation thereunto: “Let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear,” verse 28. This therefore he teacheth us in the whole, namely, that the grace, love, and mercy of God, in the dispensation of the gospel, requires an internal sanctification and due preparation, with holy fear and reverence, in all our approaches unto him in his worship; answerable unto the type of it in the people’s preparation for the receiving of the law, and the fear that was wrought in them by the terror of God therein Our fear is of another kind than theirs was; yet ought it to be no less real and effectual in us, unto its proper end.
2. As unto the appearance of the divine Majesty here declared, we may observe, that all such apparitions were still suited unto the subject-matter, or what was to be declared of the mind of God in them. So he appeared unto Abraham in the shape of a man, Genesis 18:1-2; because he came to give the promise of the blessing Seed, and to give a representation of the future incarnation. In the like shape he appeared unto Jacob, Genesis 32:24; which was also a representation of the Son of God as incarnate, blessing the church. Unto Moses he appeared as a fire in a bush which was not consumed, Exodus 3:2-6; because he would let him know that the fire of affliction in the church should not consume it, because of his presence in it. “He dwelt in the bush.” Unto Joshua he appeared as an armed man, with his sword drawn in his hand, Joshua 5:13; to assure him of victory over all his enemies. But here he appears encompassed with all the dread and terror described; and this was to represent the holiness and severity of the law, with the inevitable and dreadful destruction of sinners who betake not themselves unto the promise for relief.
3. These appearances of God were the glory of the old testament, the great fundamental security of the faith of believers, the most eminent privilege of the church. Yet were they all but types and obscure resemblances of that which was granted in the foundation of the gospel church-state: and this was, that “God was manifest in the flesh;” “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us;” or the incarnation of the Son of God. For therein “the fullness of the Godhead dwelt in him bodily,” Colossians 2:9; that is, really and substantially, whereof all other appearances were but shadows.
4. We may also observe some things in general concerning this appearance of the divine Majesty, which intimate the glory and terror of it; as,
(1.) It was on the top of a high mountain, not in a plain. As this had a great appearance of the throne of majesty, so, it being above the people, as it were over them, it was meet to fill them with dread and fear. They looked up, and saw the mountain above them full of fire and smoke; the whole mount quaking greatly, thunders and terrible voices being heard in the air, Exodus 19:18; Exodus 20:18; Deuteronomy 4:11. They could have no other thoughts hereon, but that it was a fearful thing to come to judgment before this holy God. And one view of that terror of the Lord’s holiness and severity, which were here represented, is enough to make the stoutest sinner to quake and tremble.
(2.) To increase the reverence due to this appearance, the people were commanded their distance, and straitly forbidden an approach beyond the bounds fixed unto them.
(3.) This prohibition was confirmed with a sanction, that every one who transgressed it should be stoned, as detestable and devoted unto utter destruction. These things, accompanied with the dreadful spectacles here mentioned by the apostle, did all lead to ingenerate an awful fear and reverence of God, in his giving of the law. This was the way whereby those under the old testament entered into their church-state; which begot in them a spirit of bondage unto fear, during its continuance.
That expression, “They came,” included in this, “Ye are not come,” compriseth all the sacred preparation which, by God’s direction, the people made use of when they approached unto the mount; concerning which the reader may see our Exercitations in the first volume of the Exposition, Exercitations 19.
There are two things in the remaining words: first, What the people so came unto; secondly, What effect it had upon them, especially as unto one instance.
1. The things that they came unto, as recorded by the apostle, are seven:
(1.) The mount that might be touched.
(2.) The fire that burned.
(6.) The sound of the trumpet.
(7.) The voice of words.
2. The event was, that they entreated that the words might be spoken to them no more.
FIRST, They came to,
1. “The mount that might be touched.” This mount was Sinai, in the wilderness of Horeb, which was in the deserts of Arabia So saith our apostle, “mount Sinai in Arabia,” Galatians 4:25. And the apostle mentions this in the first place, because with respect unto this mountain all the laws and directions of the people’s approach unto God were given, Exodus 19:0.
Of this mount it is said, “It might be touched.” Ψηλαφάω is “to feel, to touch, to handle,” Luke 24:39; 1 John 1:1; and it is sometimes applied to any means of attempting the knowledge of what we inquire after, Acts 17:27. And the apostle observes this concerning the mountain, that “it might be touched,” felt, or handled, that it was a sensible, carnal thing, exposed to the outward senses, to the most earthly of them, namely, feeling, from the prohibition given, that none should touch it: for unless it might have been touched naturally, none could have been morally prohibited to touch it. And he makes this observation for two ends:
(1.) To manifest how low and inferior the giving of the law was, in comparison of the promulgation of the gospel, which was from heaven; as we shall see afterwards, verse 25. It was that which might be touched with the hands of men, or by beasts themselves.
(2.) To intimate the bondage and fear the people were then in, who might not so much as touch the mountain where were the signs of God’s presence, though it was in itself a thing exposed to the sense of all creatures.
And there is much of divine wisdom, that manifests itself in the choice of this place for the giving of the law. For,
(1.) It was an absolute solitude, a place remote from the habitation and converse of men. Here the people could neither see nor hear any thing but God and themselves. There was no appearance of any relief, or place of retreat; but there they must abide the will of God. And this teacheth us, that when God deals with men by the law, he will let them see nothing but himself and their own consciences: he takes them out of their reliefs, reserves, and retreats. For the most part, when the law is preached unto sinners, they have innumerable diversions and reliefs at hand, to shield themselves from its terror and efficacy. The promises of sin itself are so, and so are the promises of future amendment; so also are all the businesses and occasions of life which they betake themselves unto. They have other things to do than to attend unto the voice of the law; at least it is not yet necessary that they should so do. But when God will bring them to the mount, as he will here or hereafter, all these pretences will vanish and disappear. Not one of them shall be able to suggest the least relief unto a poor guilty sinner. His conscience shall be kept to that which he can neither abide nor avoid. Unless he can make the great plea of an interest in the blood of Christ, he is gone for ever. And God gave herein a type and representation of the great judgment at the last day. The terror of it consists much in this, that sinners shall be able to see nothing but God and the tokens of his wrath. Nor doth the law represent any thing else unto us. (2.) It was a barren and fruitless desert, where there was neither water nor food. And, answerably thereunto, the law in a state of sin, would bring forth no fruit, nothing acceptable unto God nor useful unto the souls of men. For there was nothing on Sinai but bushes and brambles; whence it had its name. These made an appearance at a distance of some fruitfulness in the place; but when it came to be tried, there was nothing but what was fit for the fire. And so is it with all that are under the law. They may seem to perform many duties of obedience, yea, such as they may trust unto, and make their boast of: but when they are brought unto the trial, they are no other but such as God speaks of, Isaiah 27:4:
“Who would set the briers and thorns against me in battle? I would go through them, I would burn them together.”
Other fruit the law will not bring forth. Nor was there any water in that desert of Horeb, to make it fruitful. That which the people lived on was brought out of the rock; and “that rock was Christ.” From him alone are all refreshments to them that are under the law.
(3.) No place in the habitable world hath been ever since more desolate and forsaken; and such it continueth unto this day.
And thereby we are taught,
(1.) That although there was a necessity for the renovation of the law at that season, to give bounds unto sin, yet that that dispensation should not be continued, but be left for ever as it is under the gospel.
(2.) That those who will abide under the law, shall never have any token of God’s presence with them, but shall be left to desolation and horror. God dwells no more on Sinai. Those who abide under the law, shall neither have his presence nor any gracious pledge of it. And all those things are spoken, to stir us up to seek for an interest in that blessed gospel-state which is here proposed unto us. And thus much we have seen already, that without it there is neither relief from the curse of the law, nor acceptable fruit of obedience, nor pledge of divine favor, to be obtained.
(3.) It manifests that the holiness of things and places is confined unto their use; which when it ceaseth, they become common. What more holy place than Sinai, during the presence of God on it? What now more desolate, forlorn, and despised? For although the superstition of latter ages hath built a house or monastery on the top of this hill, for a mere superstitious devotion, yet God in his providence hath sufficiently manifested his regardlessness of it, and the casting it out of his care. And he denounceth sentence herein on all that superstition and idolatry which are in the church of Rome, in their veneration of relics, and pilgrimages to places of a supposed holiness, though utterly forsaken of all pledges of the divine presence.
2. The second thing they came unto was “the fire that burned;” for so I rather read the words, than “the mount that burned with fire.” For the fire was of itself a distinct token of God’s presence, and a distinct means of filling the people with dread and fear. This fire is mentioned, Exodus 19:18, “The LORD descended on the mount in fire;” and Deuteronomy 4:12, “The LORD spake out of the midst of the fire.” It is said, indeed, that “the mountain burned with fire;” that is, fire burned on the mountain. And this fire had a double appearance:
(1.) That which represented the descent of God on the mount: “The LORD descended in fire.” The people saw the token of God’s presence in the descent of fire on the mount.
(2.) Of the continuance of his presence there, for it continued burning all the while God spake: “He spake out of the fire.” And it was a flaming fire, which raised a smoke, like the smoke of a furnace, Exodus 19:18; which our apostle seems to express by “blackness,” in the next word. Yea, this fire flamed, and “burned unto the midst of heaven,” Deuteronomy 4:11. This fire was an emblem of the presence of God; and of all the appearances on the mount, it was of the greatest terror unto the people. And therefore, in their request to be freed from the dread of the presence of God, they three times mention this fire as the cause of their fear, Deuteronomy 5:24-26. And God is often in the Scripture represented by fire, Deuteronomy 4:24; Isaiah 30:33; Isaiah 33:14. And his severity in the execution of his judgments is so called, Isaiah 66:15; Amos 7:4; Ezekiel 1:4. And although here the light, purity, and holiness of the nature of God, may also be represented by it, yet we shall confine it unto the interpretation given of it in the Scripture itself. And first, as unto God himself, it signified his jealousy. So Moses expounds it, Deuteronomy 4:24, for he closeth his discourse hereof with these words, “For the LORD thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.” And the jealousy of God is his holy severity against sin, not to leave it unpunished. And with respect unto the law which he then gave, “From his right hand went a fiery law for them,” Deuteronomy 33:2, it signified its inexorable severity and efficacy to destroy its transgressors. And we may add hereunto, that it declared the terror of his majesty, as the great legislator. Hence in the Scripture he is often said to be accompanied with fire. See Psalms 18:9-12. Psalms 1:3, “A fire shall devour before him.” Psalms 97:3. “A fire goeth before him.” Daniel 7:10, “A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him.” For there is nothing more apt to fill the hearts of men with a majestic awe than a fire absolutely prevalent above the power of all creatures.
This is the first thing which the people beheld when they came to the mount. And when men under the law have to deal with God, their first apprehensions of him are his holiness and severity against sinners, with his anger and displeasure against sin. There the law leaves them; and thence they must be consumed, without relief by Jesus Christ. These things are hid from sinners, until they are brought to the law, or the law to them. They have no views, no notices of them in a due manner. Hence, until the law comes, they are alive; that is, at peace and in security, well satisfied with their own condition. They see not, they think not of the fire, that is ready to consume them; yea, for the most part they have quite other notions of God, Psalms 50:21, or none at all. But this is the second work of the law: when it hath by its convictions brought the sinner into a condition of a sense of guilt which he cannot avoid, nor will any thing tender him relief, which way soever he looks, for he is in a desert, it represents unto him the holiness and severity of God, with his indignation and wrath against sin; which have a resemblance of a consuming fire. This fills his heart with dread and terror, and makes him see his miserable, undone condition. Infinite holiness, inexorable justice, and fiery indignation, are all in this representation of God. Hence the cry of those who find not the way of relief wilt one day be, ‘Who among us shall dwell with that devouring fire? Who shall inhabit with those everlasting burnings?’
This is the way and progress of the work of the law on the consciences of sinners: First, when they are brought unto it, “it stops their mouths,” makes them “guilty before God,” or subject to his judgment, Romans 3:19; it “shuts them all up in unbelief,” Romans 11:32; it “concludes,” or shuts them up, “under sin,” Galatians 3:22, gives them to see their lost condition, without help, without relief. They are in a wilderness, where is none but God and themselves. And, secondly, in this condition they see the fire: God is represented unto them therein in his jealousy and severity against sin; which fills their hearts with dread and terror. O this fire will consume them! If they continue to hear the voice out of the fire, they shall die! Somewhat hereof, in some degree, is found in all on whom the law hath its proper and effectual work, in order unto the bringing of them unto Christ, the deliverer. And all others shall find it in the highest degree, when it will be too late to think of a remedy.
3. Unto “fire” the apostle adds “blackness,” as we render the word; whereto follow “darkness and tempest.” Before we speak unto the words and things signified in particular, we must consider the consistency of the things that are spoken. For, whereas fire is light in itself, and giveth light, how is it said that together with it there was blackness and darkness?
Some distinguish the times, and say there was an appearance of fire at first, and afterwards of blackness and darkness. But this is directly contrary to the text, which frequently assigns the continuance of the fire unto the end of God’s speaking unto the people. Others would have respect to be had unto several distinct parts of the mountain; so as that the fire appeared in one part, and the darkness in another. But it is evident, in the description given by Moses, that they were mingled all together. For he affirms sometimes, that God spake in and out of the fire; sometimes out of the thick darkness, Deuteronomy 5:22-24. “The LORD spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness,” Deuteronomy 5:22. “The voice out of the midst of the thick darkness,” Deuteronomy 5:23. “The voice out of the midst of the fire,” Deuteronomy 5:24. And the same is fully expressed, Deuteronomy 4:11-12. So that it is evident there was a mixture of them all together; and so it is described by David, Psalms 18:8-13. And nothing can be conceived of greater dread and terror, than such a mixture of fire, and darkness, and tempest, which left nothing of light unto the fire but its dread and terror. For by reason of this blackness and darkness, the people had no useful light by the fire. This filled them with confusion and perplexity.
The word γνόφος , here used by the apostle, is intended by some “turbo;” Syr., חְשׁוּכָא , “tenebrae,” “darkness;” but that is σκότος , the word following. “Turbo” is a “storm or tempest.” The apostle by these words expresseth those of Moses, חשֶׁךְ עָנָז וַעֲרָפֶל , Deuteronomy 4:11, which we render, “darkness, clouds, and thick darkness;” the LXX. using the same words with the apostle, but not in the same order, Γνόφος , saith Eustathius, is from νέφος ; νόφος , “a cloud,” in the AEolic dialect. Wherefore the apostle in this word might have respect unto that blackness which was caused by the thick cloud wherein God descended, Exodus 19:9, “Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud;” which cloud abode upon the mount, verse 16, the blackness of it being not taken away by the fire that was in it, every part of the appearance reserving its own terror. Or he might have respect unto the smoke caused by the fire, which was “as the smoke of a furnace,” verse 18; for he doth not mention it in particular. But the Syriac and Arabic, with other translations, put the words in construction, and render them, “the blackness” or obscurity “of the cloud;” which probably is intended in this word and that following.
But this γνόφος , “blackness” or obscurity, had evidently three things in it:
(1.) As it was mixed with fire, it increased the dread of the appearance.
(2.) It hindered the people from clear views of the glory of God in this dispensation. With respect hereunto, it is often said that “clouds and darkness are round about him, Psalms 98:2.
(3.) It declared the dread of the sentence of the law, in fire and utter darkness.
And this is a third thing in the progress of the work of the law on the consciences of sinners: When they are shut up under guilt, and begin to be terrified with the representation of God’s severity against sin, they cannot but look to see if there be any thing in the manifestation of God and his will by the law that will yield them relief. But here they find all things covered with blackness, or obscurity. The glory of God, in his design in bringing them unto the law, or the law to them, is hid and covered under the veil of this blackness. The design of God herein is not death, though the law in itself be “the ministration of death;” but he deals thus with them to drive them to Christ, to constrain them to flee for refuge unto him. But this design, as unto the law, is covered with blackness; the sinner can see nothing of it, and so knows not how to order his speech towards God by reason of darkness, Job 37:19. It is the gospel alone that reveals this design of God in the law. But instead hereof, this blackness insinuates into the mind a dread of worse things than yet it can discern. When men see blackness in a cloud, they are apt to expect that thunder will break out of it every moment. So is it with sinners; finding all things covered with blackness, in the view they would take of God by the law, it increaseth their dread, and lets them into the things that follow. Wherefore,
Obs. 1. A view of God as a judge, represented in fire and blackness, will fill the souls of convinced sinners with dread and terror. How secure soever they may be at present, when God calls them forth unto the mount their hearts cannot endure, nor can their hands be strong.
4. Unto this “blackness” the apostle adds “darkness.” Blackness is a property of a thing in itself; darkness is its effect towards others. This blackness was such as withal caused darkness, with respect unto them unto whom it was presented. So we may distinguish between the blackness and darkness of a thunder cloud. It is black in itself, and causeth darkness unto us. But this darkness is mentioned distinctly, as a part of the appearance: Exodus 20:21, “Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was;” and Deuteronomy 4:11, “Darkness, clouds, and thick darkness.” What this darkness was, we cannot well apprehend. But this it teacheth us, that notwithstanding the revelation that God made of himself in this dispensation of the law, he was, as unto his glory in the purposes of his grace and mercy, in thick darkness unto the people; they could not see him nor discern him. Sinners can see nothing thereof, in or by the law. How this darkness was removed by the ministry of Christ and the gospel, how this cloud of darkness was scattered, and the face of God as a father, as a reconciled God, uncovered, revealed, and made known, is the subject of the writings of the New Testament. Hence the execution of the law is called “blackness of darkness,” Jude 1:13.
5. Hereunto the apostle adds, “and tempest.” And in this word he compriseth the thundering, lightning, and earthquake, that were then on and in the mount, Exodus 19:16; Exodus 19:18; Exodus 20:18. These increased the terror of the darkness, and made it עֲרָפֶל , “a thick darkness,’as it is in Moses.
As it was without in the giving of the law, so it is within in the work of the law; it fills the minds of men with a storm, accompanied with darkness and perplexity. This is the issue that the law brings things unto in the minds and consciences of sinners. Its work ends in darkness and tempest. It hath these two effects: First, it brings the soul into darkness, that it knows not what to do, nor how to take one step towards its own relief. It can see no light, either for its direction or consolation. And hereon it either tires and wearies itself with vain endeavors for relief by its own works and duties, or else sinks into heartless despondencies and complaints; as is the manner of men in darkness. And secondly, it raiseth a tempest in the mind, of disquieting, perplexing thoughts; ofttimes accompanied with dread and terror. In this state the law leaves poor sinners; it will not accompany them one step towards deliverance; it will neither reveal nor encourage them to look after any relief. Yea, it declares that here the sinner must die and perish, for any thing that the law knows or can do. This, therefore, is the place and season wherein Christ interposeth, and cries unto sinners, “Behold me! behold me!”
Now, though all these things tend unto death, yet God was, and God is, exceedingly glorious in them. Yea, this administration of them was so. “The ministration of death” and condemnation “was glorious;” though “it had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth,” namely, in the dispensation of the gospel, 2 Corinthians 3:7; 2 Corinthians 3:10-11. Howbeit in itself it did, and it doth, manifest the glory of the holiness, justice, and severity of God; wherein he will be glorified, and that unto eternity.
These things, with all their dreadful effects, the apostle minds the Hebrews of their deliverance from by Jesus Christ and his gospel, to oblige them unto constancy and perseverance in the profession of the faith; which we shall speak somewhat unto afterwards.