And he said, The LORD came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; he shined forth from mount Paran, and he came with ten thousands of saints: from his right hand went a fiery law for them.
~ Deuteronomy 33:2
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. And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled. And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice.
~ Exodus 19:13, Exodus 19:16, Exodus 19:19
Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.
~ Romans 3:19-20, Galatians 2:19, Galatians 3:10
My flesh trembleth for fear of thee; and I am afraid of thy judgments. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. Therefore I was left alone, and saw this great vision, and there remained no strength in me: for my comeliness was turned in me into corruption, and I retained no strength. For how can the servant of this my lord talk with this my lord? for as for me, straightway there remained no strength in me, neither is there breath left in me.
~ Psalm 119:120, Isaiah 6:3-5, Daniel 10:8, Daniel 10:17
And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.
~ Revelation 1:17-18
An Exposition of Hebrews 12:20-21, by Arthur Pink.
For they could not endure that which was commanded, And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart: And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake:
~ Hebrews 12:20-21
The Divine law was, for the substance of it, originally written in the hearts of mankind by God Himself, when their federal head and father was created in His own image and likeness. But through the fall it was considerably marred, as to its efficacious motions in the human heart. The entrance of sin and the corruption of our nature largely silenced its authoritative voice in the soul. Nevertheless, its unchanging demand and dread penalty were secured in the consciences of Adam’s depraved posterity. The law is so inlaid with the principles of our moral nature, so engrafted on all the faculties of our souls, that none has been able to completely get from under its power. Though the wicked find it utterly contrary to their desires and designs, and continually threatening their everlasting ruin, yet they cannot utterly cast off its yoke: see Romans 2:14, 15. Hence it is that, even among the most degraded and savage tribes, a knowledge of right and wrong, with some standard of conduct, is preserved.
Not only was the impression of the Divine law upon the human heart largely—though not totally—defaced by Adam’s apostasy, but from Cain unto the Exodus succeeding generations more and more flouted its authority, and disregarded its requirements in their common practice. Therefore, when God took Israel into covenant relationship with Himself and established them into a national Church, He restored to them His law, in all its purity, majesty, and terror. This He did, not only to renew it as a guide unto all righteousness and holiness, as the only rule of obedience unto Himself and of right and equity amongst men, and also to be a check unto sin by its commands and threatenings, but principally to declare in the Church the eternal establishment of it, that no alteration should be made in it, but that all must be fulfilled to the uttermost before any sinner can have any acceptance with Him.
As the Law was the original rule of obedience between God and mankind, and as it had failed of its end through the entrance of sin, the Lord had never revived and proclaimed it in so solemn a manner at Sinai, had it been capable of any abrogation and alteration at any time. Nay, He then gave many additional evidences of its perpetuity and abiding authority. It was solely for the promulgation of His law that the presence of God appeared on the mount, attended with such dreadful solemnity. The Ten Commandments were the only communication which God then gave directly unto the people themselves—those institutions which were to be repealed at a later date (the ceremonial laws) were given through Moses! Those ten commandments were spoken directly unto the whole nation with a Voice that was great and terrible. Later, they were written by His own finger on tables of stone. Thus did God confirm His law and evidence that it was incapable of dissolution. How it has been established and fulfilled the Epistle to the Romans makes known.
The different forms which the Lord’s appearances took in O.T. times were always in accord with each distinct revelation of His mind and will. He appeared to Abraham in the shape of a man (Gen. 18:1, 2), because He came to give promise of the Seed of blessing and to vouchsafe a representation of the future incarnation. To Moses, He appeared as a flame in a bush which was not consumed (Ex. 3), because He would intimate that all the fiery trials through which the Church should pass would not consume it, and that because He was in it. To Joshua He appeared as a man of war, with drawn sword in His hand (Josh. 5:13), because He would assure him of victory over all his enemies. But at Sinai His appearing was surrounded by terrors, because He would represent the severity of His law, with the inevitable and awful destruction of all those who lay not hold of the promise for deliverance.
The place of this glorious and solemn appearing of the Lord was also full of significance. It was neither in Egypt not yet in Canaan, but in the midst of a great howling desert. Only those who have actually seen the place, can form any adequate conception of the abject dreariness and desolation of the scene. It was an absolute solitude, far removed from the habitation and converse of man. Here the people could neither see nor hear anything but God and themselves. There was no shelter or place of retirement: they were brought out into the open, face to face with God. Therein He gave a type and representation of the Great Judgment at the last day, when all who are out of Christ will be brought face to face with their Judge, and will behold nothing but the tokens of His wrath, and hear only the Law’s dread sentence announcing their irrevocable doom.
Sinai was surrounded by a barren and fruitless wilderness, wherein there was neither food nor water. Accurately does that depict the unregenerate in a state of sin: the Law brings forth nothing in their lives which is acceptable to God or really beneficial to the souls of men. The Mount itself produced nothing but bushes and brambles, from which some scholars say its name is derived. From a distance that vegetation makes an appearance of some fruitfulness in the place, but when it be more closely examined it is found that there is nothing except that which is fit for the fire. Thus it is with sinners under the law. They seem to perform many works of obedience, yea, such as they trust in and make their boast of; but when they are weighed in the Divine balance, they are found to be but thorns and briars, the dead works of those whose minds are enmity against God. Nothing else can the law bring forth from those who are out of Christ: “From Me is thy fruit found” (Hos. 14:8) is His own avowal.
Nor was there any water in the desert of Horeb to make it fruitful. Pause, my reader, and admire the “wondrous works” (Ps. 145:5) of God. When we are given eyes to see, we may discern the Creator’s handiwork as plainly in the desolate wastes of Nature as in the fertile fields and gardens, as truly in the barren and forbidding mountains as in the fruitful and attractive valleys. He whose fingers had shaped the place where His Son was crucified as “a place of a skull” (Matthew 27:33), had diverted from the desert of Horeb all rivers and streams. That water upon which the people of God then lived, issued from the smitten rock (Ex. 17:6), for it is only through Christ that the Holy Spirit is given: see John 7:28, 39, Acts 2:33, Titus 3:5, 6. They who reject Christ have not the Spirit: see Romans 8:9, Jude 19.
We may further observe that, the appearing of the Lord God at the giving of the Law was on the top of a high mountain, and not in a plain: this added to both the glory and the terror of it. This gave a striking adumbration of the Throne of His majesty, high over the people, who were far below at its base. As they looked up, they saw the mount above them full of fire and smoke, the ground on which they stood quaking beneath their feet, the air filled with thunderings and lightnings, with the piercing blasts of the trumpet and the voice of the Lord Himself falling on their ears. What other thought could fill their minds than that it was “a fearful thing” to be summoned to judgment before the ineffably Holy One? O that the preachers of our day could say with him who had experienced the reality of Sinai in his own soul, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11).
The Lord’s appearing on mount Sinai was only a temporary one—in contrast with His “dwelling” in Zion (Isa. 8:18). This shadowed-forth the fact that the economy there instituted was but a transient one—though the Law there promulgated is eternal. Those, then, who turn unto Sinai for salvation are left entirely unto themselves. “God dwells no more on Sinai. Those who abide under the law (as a covenant) shall neither have His presence nor any gracious pledge of it. And all these things are spoken to stir us up to seek for an interest in that blessed Gospel-state which is here proposed to us. And thus much we have seen already, that without it there is neither relief from the cure of the law, nor acceptable fruit of obedience, nor pledge of Divine favour to be obtained” (John Owen, whom we have again followed closely in the above paragraphs).
Before turning to the final lines in the graphic picture which the apostle gave of the appearing of the Lord at Sinai, let us again remind ourselves of his principal design in the same. The immediate end which the apostle had before him, was to persuade the Hebrews to adhere closely to the Gospel, his appeal being drawn from the evident fact of the superlative excellency of it to the law. In particular, he was here enforcing his former exhortations unto steadfastness under afflictions, to an upright walk in the ways of God, to the following of peace with all men, and to persevere diligently that they failed not of the grace of God. This he does by pointing out that ancient order of things from which they had been delivered, for such is the force of his opening words “ye are not come unto” etc. (verse 18).
“For they could not endure that which was commanded” (verse 20). Having mentioned in the preceding verses seven things which their fathers came unto at Sinai, the apostle now describes the effects which those startling phenomena produced upon them. The first was, the people “entreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more” (verse 19), the reason being “for they could not endure” it. The display of God’s terrible majesty, the distance from Him they were required to maintain, and the high spirituality of the Law then promulgated, with its fearful penalty attending the least infraction of it, completely overwhelmed them. So it is still: a view of God as a Judge, represented in fire and blackness, will fill the souls of convicted sinners with dread and terror. No matter how boldly and blatantly they have carried themselves, when the Spirit brings a transgressor to that Mount, the stoutest heart will quake.
When God deals with men by the Law, He shuts them up to Himself and their own conscience. As we pointed out in an earlier paragraph, God gave the Law to Israel neither in Egypt nor in Canaan, but in a desert, a place of absolute solitude, remote from the commerce of men. There the people could neither see nor hear anything but God and themselves. There was no shelter or place or retirement: they were brought out into the open, face to face with Him with whom they had to do. So it is now: when God has designs of mercy toward a sinner, when He takes him in hand, He brings him out of all his retreats and refuges, and compels him to face the just demands of His Law, and the unspeakable dreadful manner in which he has hitherto disregarded its requirements and sought to hear not its accusations.
When the Law is preached to sinners—alas in so many places today that which gives “the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20) is entirely omitted—it usually falls upon the ears of those who promptly betake themselves to various retreats and reliefs for evading its searching and terror-producing message. They seek refuge in the concerns and amusements of this life in order to crowd out serious and solemn thoughts of the life to come. They listen to the bewitching promises of self-pleasing, “the pleasures of sin for a season.” Or, they put far forward in their minds the “evil day,” and take security in resolutions of repentance and reformation before death shall come upon them. They have many other things to engage their attention than to listen to the voice of the Law; at least, they persuade themselves it is not yet necessary that they should seriously hearken thereto.
But when God brings the sinner to the Mount, as He most certainly will, either here or hereafter, all these pretences and false comforts vanish, every prop is knocked from under him: to hide away from his Judge is now impossible. “Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet: and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding place” (Isa. 28:17). Then it is that the sinner discovers that “the bed is shorter than a man can stretch himself on it: the covering narrower than he can wrap himself in it” (Isa. 28:20). He is forced out into the open: he is brought face to face with his Maker; he is compelled to attend unto the voice of the Law. There is neither escape nor relief for him. His conscience is now held to that which he can neither endure nor avoid. He is made to come out from behind the trees, to find his fig-leaves provide no covering (Gen. 3:9-11).
As the stern and inexorable voice of the Law enters into his innermost being, “piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12), the poor sinner is paralysed with fear. The sight of the Divine Majesty on His throne, overwhelms him: the terms and curse of the Law slay his every hope. Now he experiences the truth of Romans 7:9, 10, “For I was alive (in my own estimation) without the law once; but when the commandment came (applied in power to the conscience by the Spirit) sin revived (became a living, raging, cursed reality) and I died (to all expectation of winning God’s approval). And the commandment, which was unto life, I found unto death.” Like Israel before Sinai, the sinner cannot endure the voice of the Law. The Law commands him, but provides no strength to meet its requirements. It shows him his sins, but it reveals no Saviour. He is encompassed with terror and sees no way of escape from eternal death.
That is the very office of the Law in the hands of the Holy Spirit: to shatter the sinner’s unconcern, to make him conscious of the claims of the holy God, to convict him of his lifelong rebellion against Him, to strip him of the rags of his self-righteousness, to slay all hope of self-help and self-deliverance, to bring him to the realisation that he is lost, utterly undone, sentenced to death. “Which voice they that heard entreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more; for they could not endure that which was commanded” (Heb. 12:19, 20). When the Holy Spirit applies the Law in power, the sinner’s own conscience is obliged to acknowledge that his condemnation is just. And there the Law leaves him: wretched, hopeless, terror-stricken. Unless he flies for refuge to Christ he is lost forever.
Reader, suffer us please to make this a personal issue. Have you ever experienced anything which corresponds, in substance, to what we have said above? Have you ever heard the thunderings and felt the lightnings of Sinai in your own soul? Have you, in your conscience, been brought face to face with your Judge, and heard Him read the fearful record of your transgressions? Have you received by the Law such a knowledge of sin that you are painfully conscious that every faculty of your soul and every member of your body is defiled and corrupt? Have you been driven out of every refuge, and relief and brought into the presence of Him who is ineffably holy and inflexibly just, who “will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:7)? Have you heard that dread sentence “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10)? Has it brought you down into the dust to cry, “I am lost: utterly, hopelessly lost; there is nothing I can do to deliver myself”? The ground must be ploughed before it can receive seed, and the heart must be broken up by the Law before it is ready for the Gospel.
In addition to the other terror-producing elements connected with the institution of Judaism, the apostle mentions two other features. “And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart” (verse 20). To increase the reverence which was due to the appearing of Jehovah on Sinai, the people were required to keep their distance at the base of the mount, and were strictly forbidden an approach beyond the bounds fixed to them. This command was confirmed by a penalty, that every one who transgressed it should be put to death, as a disobedient rebel, devoted to utter destruction. This restriction and its sanction was also designed to produce in the people awe and terror of God in His giving of the Law.
That to which the apostle referred is recorded in Exodus 19:12, 13, “Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever touchest the mount shall be surely put to death: There shall not a hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live.” As Owen well suggested, the prohibition respecting the cattle of the Israelites not only made the more manifest the absolute inaccessibleness of God in and by the Law, but also seemed to intimate the uncleanness of all things which sinners possess, by virtue of their relation to them. Everything that fallen man touches is defiled by him, and even “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 15:8).
The punishment of the man who defiantly touched the Mount was death by stoning, that of a beast by stoning or being thrust through with a dart. In either ease they were slain at a distance: no hand touched the one who had offended. This emphasised the heinousness of the offence and the execrableness of the offender: others must not be defiled by coming into immediate contact with them—at what a distance ought we to keep ourselves from everything which falls under the curse of the Law! How the whole of this brings out the stern severity of the Law! “If even an irrational animal was to be put to death in a manner which marked it as un-clean—as something not to be touched—what might rational offenders expect as the punishment of their sins? and if the violation of a positive institution of this kind involved consequences so fearful, what must be the result of transgressing the moral requirements of the great Lawgiver?” (John Brown).
“And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake” (verse 21). The apostle now turns from the people themselves, and describes the effect upon their leader of the terror-producing phenomena that attended the institution of Judaism. Here was the very man who had dared, again and again, to confront the powerful monarch of Egypt and make known to him the demand of God, and later announced to his face the coming of plague after plague. Here was the commander-in-chief of Israel’s hosts, who had boldly led them through the Red Sea. He was a holy person, more eminent in grace than all others of his time, for he was “very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). Now if such a man was overcome with dread, how terrible must be the severity and curse of the Divine Law!
Furthermore, let it be carefully borne in mind that Moses was no stranger to the Lord Himself: not only was he accustomed to receive Divine revelations, but he had previously beheld a representation of the Lord’s presence at the bush. Moreover, he was the Divinely-appointed intermediary, the mediator between God and the people at that time. Yet none of these privileges exempted him from an overwhelming dread of the terror of the Lord in the giving the Law. What a proof is this that the very best of men cannot stand before God on the ground of their own righteousness! How utterly vain are the hopes of those who think to be saved by Moses (John 9:28)! Surely if there be anything in all the Scriptures which should turn us from resting on the Law for salvation, it is the horror and terror of Moses on mount Sinai.
“And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake.” The fact that there is no record given in the O.T. of this particular item, occasions no difficulty whatever unto those who believe in the full inspiration of Holy Writ. Nor is there any need for us to have recourse unto the Romish theory of “unwritten tradition,” and suppose that a knowledge of the terror of Moses had been orally preserved among the Jews. That which had not been chronicled in the book of Exodus, was here revealed to the apostle by the Holy Spirit Himself, and was now recorded by him for the purpose of accentuating the awfulness of what occurred at Sinai; and this, that the Hebrews should be increasingly thankful that Divine grace had connected them with so different an order of things.
The scope and design of the whole of our passage should now be obvious to the reader. The purpose of the apostle was to show again how inferior Judaism was to Christianity. This he here does by taking us back to Sinai, where Judaism was formally instituted by the appearing of Jehovah at the giving of the law, and where the Mosaic economy was established by a covenant based thereon. All the circumstances connected with its institution were in most striking accord with the leading features and characteristics of that dispensation. At that time the nation of Israel was in a waste, howling wilderness, standing in speechless terror at the foot of the Mount. There Jehovah manifested Himself in His awful holiness and majesty, as Lawgiver and Judge; the people at a distance fenced off from Him. How profoundly thankful should Christians be that they belong to a much more mild and gracious order of things!
Sinai was “the mount that might be touched”—a symbol of that order of things which was addressed to the outward senses. The “blackness and darkness” which covered it was emblematic of the obscurity of spiritual things under the Mosaic economy, a thick veil of types and shadows hiding the substance and reality now revealed by the Gospel. The people being fenced off at the base of the mount denoted that under Judaism they had no way of approach and no access into the immediate presence of God. The thunderings, lightnings and fire, expressed the wrath of God against all who transgress His righteous Law. The “tempest” was a sign of the instability and temporariness of that dispensation, in contrast with the peace which Christ has made and the permanent and eternal order of things which He has brought in. The utter consternation of Moses gave clear proof that he was not the perfect and ultimate Mediator between God and men. All of which plainly intimated the need for something else, something better, something more suited unto lost sinners.