1 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. 2 They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, 3 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: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 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; 6 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.”
7 So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. 8 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. 9 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.” – Exodus 19:1-9 ESV
Three months after leaving the land of Egypt, the people of Israel arrived at “the mountain of God” in the wilderness of Sinai. This event marks a major turning point in the story of God’s people. For them, it was just another trip from one obscure place in the wilderness to another. As they continued their long journey from Egypt to Canaan they made several stops along the way, and each had been marked by its own unique and memorable moment of divine intervention.
Three days into their journey, the people became anxious because their provision of water was running low. At Marah, in the middle of the wilderness of Shur, they discovered a water source, but it was unfit for consumption. So, frustrated by this unacceptable situation, they turned their anger on Moses. But God intervened and miraculously transformed the bitter water at Marah into a refreshing, life-giving source of sustenance. And it was there that God gave them a command:
“If you will diligently obey the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and pay attention to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, then all the diseases that I brought on the Egyptians I will not bring on you, for I, the Lord, am your healer.” – Exodus 15:26 NLT
At this point in their relationship with Yahweh, He had given them no written commands to obey. They had simply been instructed to follow His lead as the pillar of cloud guided them through the wilderness. But the bitter water at Marah had been a test to see if they would trust God. Their fear and frustration at finding the water to be undrinkable gave evidence that they didn’t trust God to provide for all their needs.
And their tendency to doubt God’s capacity to provide continued as they entered the wilderness of Sin. There they angrily vocalized their concern over their diminishing bread supply, and God had responded by providing “bread from heaven” (Exodus 16:4 ESV) along with a daily diet of quail. And that miracle was accompanied by a strict set of rules from God.
“This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat. You shall each take an omer, according to the number of the persons that each of you has in his tent.’” And the people of Israel did so. They gathered, some more, some less. – Exodus 16:16-17 ESV
And the people were forbidden from hoarding any of the bread. God would provide exactly what they needed for each day – nothing more, nothing less. But on the sixth day, they were commanded to gather twice as much so that they would have enough for the seventh day, a day that God had deemed as “a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord” (Exodus 16:23 ESV). But when that seventh day arrived, some of the people disobeyed God’s command and went out in search of manna, only to find that none was available. And God expressed His anger in no uncertain terms.
“How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? See! The Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.” – Exodus 16:28-29 ESV
Not long after this, at a place called Rephidim, the people’s lack of faith got exposed again. Unable to find a source of water in this arid region, the Israelites expressed their dissatisfaction with Moses, even accusing him of trying to kill them. But God graciously intervened again, providing them with life-giving water from a rock.
Now, the people find themselves encamped at the base of a mountain in the middle of the Sinai wilderness. To them, this was just another mountain in the middle of nowhere. But for Moses, it was a return to a very familiar place and a reminder of the promise he had received from God. It was at this very spot that Moses had seen the burning bush and heard the voice of God. That divine encounter had been a game-changer for Moses, transforming him from a reclusive shepherd of sheep to God’s divine agent of deliverance. There, at Mount Sinai, Moses had received his commission to deliver the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt and lead them to the land of promise. And God had assured Moses that he would one day return to that very spot with the people of Israel in tow.
“I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” – Exodus 3:12 ESV
Now that promise was being fulfilled. Upon their arrival at Sinai, the people set up camp at the base of the mountain, while Moses made his way to the top. He somehow knew that he had another divine appointment with God Almighty. And, as before, Moses heard the voice of God calling to him.
“Thus you will tell the house of Jacob, and declare to the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I lifted you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. And now, if you will diligently listen to me and keep my covenant, then you will be my special possession out of all the nations, for all the earth is mine, and you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you will speak to the Israelites.” – Exodus 19:3-6 NLT
God gave Moses a message for the people of Israel. He wanted them to understand the significance of what He had done for them. It was essential that they grasp the greatness of the gift they had received. Their deliverance had not been their own doing. The plagues that had come upon their captors were manifestations of God’s divine judgment. The people of Israel were now free people but they owed that freedom to God. And they also owed Him their allegiance and obedience.
God was preparing to set them apart as His kingdom of priests and a holy nation. But that lofty position came with conditions. Any hope they had of enjoying status as His special possession was tied directly to their willingness to live according to His will. This entire message from God is a conditional statement that communicates God’s uncompromising expectation of the people of Israel. The if-then nature of God’s message is meant to communicate that their special status as His chosen people will come with non-negotiable conditions.
God was setting the people of Israel apart. From this point forward, they would be distinctively different than all the other nations of the earth. They were to become God’s people, living according to God’s will and in keeping with His commands. God refers to them as “a holy nation.”
The word “holy” is קָדוֹשׁ (qāḏôš) in Hebrew, and it can mean “sacred, separate, or set apart.” God was letting the Israelites know that their deliverance from Egypt had a purpose. There was a reason why God had set them free and its significance was far greater than they currently realized. God had great things in store for them, but it was going to require that they embrace their distinctiveness and readily adopt God’s standards of behavior. Moral purity and conformity to His will would be mandatory.
Little did they know that God was about to give them His non-negotiable rules of conduct. They loved the idea of becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation but had no way of understanding the burden that would accompany that lofty status. So, when Moses returned from the mountaintop and delivered God’s message to the people, they eagerly and enthusiastically replied, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8 ESV).
What would happen next would be a game-changing moment for the people of Israel. Nothing they had witnessed up to this point had prepared them for what they were about to experience at Mount Sinai. The plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, manna, water from a rock, the defeat of the Amalekites – nothing would come close to the spectacle they were about to witness from their vantage point in the valley of Sinai. God was about to reveal Himself in all His terrifying and jaw-dropping glory. The familiar pillar of cloud that had led them through the wilderness was going to transform itself into a dense and foreboding storm cloud, accompanied by flashing lightning and loud thunder. God was about to make Himself known and it would be an unforgettable experience.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
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.