22 “These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me. 23 And as soon as you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders. 24 And you said, ‘Behold, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27 Go near and hear all that the Lord our God will say, and speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’
28 “And the Lord heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. 29 Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever! 30 Go and say to them, “Return to your tents.” 31 But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you the whole commandment and the statutes and the rules that you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.’ 32 You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 33 You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.” – Deuteronomy 5:22-33 ESV
What a spectacular sight that must have been. As the people stood at the base of Mount Sinai, they had seen the peak covered in what appeared to be fire and smoke, and out of the darkness of the cloud had come bolts of lightning and peals of thunder. But they had also heard the unmistakable voice of God Almighty. The book of Exodus tells us that God had told Moses to prepare the people for this amazing encounter. Their invisible God was going to make Himself known.
“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.” – Exodus 19:9 ESV
God was going to allow the people of Israel to overhear His conversation with Moses. And, while they would not actually see God, they would hear His voice and witness the amazing display of His glory. But the people were not to take this one-of-a-kind opportunity lightly. Moses was commanded by God to have the people prepared because they would be encountering the holiness of God. This was not to be treated like some kind of Fourth of July fireworks spectacular.
“Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” – Exodus 19:10-13 ESV
The people did as Moses instructed them. They came, they saw, and they heard.
All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently. – Exodus 19:18 NLT
And this remarkable display of God’s glory had its intended effect. The people were blown away by all that they had seen and heard and expressed their amazement to Moses.
“Look, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice from the heart of the fire. Today we have seen that God can speak to us humans, and yet we live!” – Deuteronomy 5:24 NLT
They were amazed and petrified at the same time. Their exposure to the might and majesty of God created within them a fear that bordered on paranoia. They wanted nothing more to do with Him and preferred that Moses do the dirty and obviously dangerous work of receiving any further instructions from God. But they committed themselves to obey whatever it was that God told them to do.
“But now, why should we risk death again? If the Lord our God speaks to us again, we will certainly die and be consumed by this awesome fire. Can any living thing hear the voice of the living God from the heart of the fire as we did and yet survive? Go yourself and listen to what the Lord our God says. Then come and tell us everything he tells you, and we will listen and obey.” – Deuteronomy 5:25-27 NLT
Once again, the book of Exodus provides us with additional details regarding this historical event. After Moses had returned from the mountaintop, having received all of God’s commands, he had shared them with the people. And this time, the law had expanded beyond the initial Ten Commandments and included a wider range of rules and regulations, covering everything from the proper construction of altars to the treatment of slaves. There were laws concerning restitution and the practice of social justice. God even included commands regarding the feasts and festivals they were to celebrate and rules concerning their keeping of the Sabbath. And when the people heard all that God had commanded, they responded affirmatively.
Then Moses went down to the people and repeated all the instructions and regulations the Lord had given him. All the people answered with one voice, “We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” – Exodus 24:3 NLT
But their enthusiastic commitment to keep God’s commands was driven more by fear than by a heartfelt desire to live in obedience to Him. They had committed to keeping His law because they feared His judgment. But fear alone would prove to be an insufficient motivation to foster long-term obedience. And God saw through their exuberant verbal affirmation.
“I have heard what the people said to you, and they are right. Oh, that they would always have hearts like this, that they might fear me and obey all my commands! If they did, they and their descendants would prosper forever.” – Deuteronomy 5:28-29 NLT
He knew what was going to happen. Eventually, the fire on the mountain would go out, and the smoke would dissipate. The thunder and lightning would fade away like a distant memory, and the fear the people felt would evaporate along with them. God knew that their commitment to obey His commands would be short-lived. And yet, He longed to bless and prosper them.
God had tied His blessing of them directly to their obedience to Him. Later on, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses would articulate the vital link between blessing and obedience.
If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. You will experience all these blessings if you obey the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 NLT
But failure to obey had its consequences. Disobedience would result in curses.
But if you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and do not obey all the commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overwhelm you… – Deuteronomy 28:15 NLT
God longed to bless His people. But His covenant with them was conditional. He had given them His law and required that it be obeyed. If they wanted to live long and prosper, they had to live in obedience to His commands. This wasn’t just a case of blind obedience to an arbitrary set of rules. Every single command given by God had inherent benefits associated with it because it came from a holy and just God. The laws provided by God were meant to protect and prosper the people of Israel. If obeyed, they would set the people of Israel apart and bestow on them blessings beyond belief. Walking submissively and obediently within the will of God always brings the blessings of God. Living according to His standards and submitting to His will always results in a guarantee of His blessings. Which is why Moses pleaded with the people of Israel to do all that God had commanded them to do.
“You must be careful to obey all the commands of the Lord your God, following his instructions in every detail. Stay on the path that the Lord your God has commanded you to follow. Then you will live long and prosperous lives in the land you are about to enter and occupy.” – Deuteronomy 5:32-33 NLT
But God desires obedience from the heart, not a robotic, going-through-the-motions adherence to a set of rules. The law was never intended to be a set of live-sucking regulations that require mindless obedience. God desires obedience that flows from the heart and is motivated by love, not fear.
“What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.” – 1 Samuel 15:22 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.