9 When Moses told the words of the people to the Lord, 10 the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments 11 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. 12 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. 13 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.” 14 So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments. 15 And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.”
16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
21 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish. 22 Also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out against them.” 23 And Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.’” 24 And the Lord said to him, “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest he break out against them.” 25 So Moses went down to the people and told them. – Exodus 19:9-25 ESV
When Moses informed the people that they were going to be God’s treasured possession and “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6 ESV) they were thrilled. They were even willing to give their enthusiastic and heartfelt affirmation of God’s command to obey His voice and keep His covenant.
“All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” – Exodus 19:8 ESV
This must have sounded like music to the ears of the man who had repeatedly felt the brunt of their anger as they complained about everything from the lack of water to the scarcity of bread. That they would so readily agree to obey God must have thrilled Moses, so he was anxious to report this good news back up the food chain.
But it seems that God had a few doubts concerning the people’s commitment to keeping their word. So, He gave Moses instructions to prepare the people for an up-close and personal encounter with their God.
“Go down and prepare the people for my arrival. Consecrate them today and tomorrow, and have them wash their clothing. Be sure they are ready on the third day, for on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai as all the people watch.” – Exodus 19:10-11 NLT
Four separate times in this passage, some version of the word, “consecrate” is used. In Hebrew, it is the word קָדַשׁ (qāḏaš), which means “to sanctify, set apart, separate, or make holy.” God gave Moses instructions to prepare the people to meet with Him. This conveys the idea that they were not ready to come into God’s presence. While God had promised to set them apart as His own, they needed to know that they were not in a proper moral state to come before a holy and sinless God. In a sense, they were too poorly clothed to come into the presence of the King. So, God had Moses tell them to clean up their act, even ordering that they wash their clothes and abstain from sexual intercourse for the next three days.
This entire episode was designed to teach the people a valuable lesson concerning the holiness of God. He was the transcendent God of the universe, the creator of heaven and earth. They could not treat Him as they had Moses. He would not tolerate the disrespectful and disobedient ways in which they had approached His servant. He was God Almighty and worthy of honor and reverence. And just so the people understood the danger of dismissing His holiness, God had Moses create a boundary around the base of Mount Sinai, designed to prevent the people from getting too close to His glory.
“Mark off a boundary all around the mountain. Warn the people, ‘Be careful! Do not go up on the mountain or even touch its boundaries. Anyone who touches the mountain will certainly be put to death.’” – Exodus 19:12 NLT
Up until this point, the only interaction the people had with God was through the voice of Moses or through the presence of the pillar of cloud. Their knowledge of Him was limited. In their experience, God was a disembodied entity who chose to speak through a human surrogate and manifest Himself through a cloud-like apparition. They had never heard His voice or seen Him face to face. But that was about to change.
For three days, the people prepared and, during that time, they avoided going anywhere near the mountain for fear of death. Then the bid day arrived when the ram’s horn was blown and the people made their way to Mount Sinai. There before them stood the mountain of God, covered by a dark storm cloud from which came flashes of lightning and the deafening sound of thunder.
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 ESV
The scene left the people in a state of abject fear. They had never seen anything like this before. The majesty and might of God were on full display and had their intended effect – “all the people in the camp trembled” (Exodus 19:16 ESV). They were left in a state of fearful awe and wonder at the power of God’s presence. This was not the innocent-looking cloud that had led them through the wilderness. It was not the light-giving pillar of fire that had illuminated their camp at night. This was the earth-shaking, ear-splitting presence of the transcendent, all-powerful God of the universe. He had come down to earth and was demonstrating His glory and greatness for all to see and hear.
And the people watched in wonder as Moses made his way up the mountain and into the midst of the storm cloud of God’s presence. At that moment, no one wanted to switch places with Moses. They were all too glad to remain safely ensconced in the valley and allow Moses to take all the risks.
But when Moses entered God’s presence, he was surprised to hear what the Almighty had to say.
“Go back down and warn the people not to break through the boundaries to see the Lord, or they will die. Even the priests who regularly come near to the Lord must purify themselves so that the Lord does not break out and destroy them.” – Exodus 19:21-22 NLT
To Moses, this all sounded redundant and unnecessary. God had already commanded him to create a boundary around the base of the mountain and, in their current state of fear, it was highly unlikely that anyone was going to attempt to breach that barrier.
But the omniscient God knew something Moses was ignorant of – the people would always be tempted to treat His holiness with disrespect and disregard. Their fear would eventually turn to familiarity that bordered on complacency. In time, they would lose their fear of God and learn to take Him for granted. But God wanted them to know that He was unapproachable and off-limits for any who attempted to come into His presence in an unworthy or impure state.
God knew that the boundary Moses had placed around the base of the mountain would not hold back the people forever. Eventually, they would become curious and want to venture into God’s presence uninvited and in an unworthy state. But because of His holiness, that would prove to be an unwise and unhealthy decision.
God wanted His people to know that their status as His treasured possession did not give them the right to come into His presence flippantly or arrogantly. While He had set them apart as His own, they remained impure and unworthy of entering His presence. Their sinful state would keep them separated from God. Without proper cleansing, they could not expect to enter into the joy of God’s presence.
With the rules fully established, God commanded Moses to go back down the mountain and return with Aaron. But no one else was allowed to approach God’s presence without facing the penalty of death.
“Go down and bring Aaron back up with you. In the meantime, do not let the priests or the people break through to approach the Lord, or he will break out and destroy them.” – Exodus 19:24 NLT
What happens next is critical. Aaron and Moses will return to the top of the mountain, where they will receive the commandments of God. Years earlier, on this very same mountain, Moses heard the voice of God coming out of the burning bush. On that occasion, God had given him instructions concerning the deliverance of the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. Now, God was going to provide Moses with instructions regarding their conduct as His treasured possession. Now that they were free, how were they to live? What were the rules of conduct that would guide their behavior and set them apart as God’s chosen people?
God was not going to leave their actions up to them. He was going to make it perfectly and painfully clear how they were to behave as His kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Nothing would be left up to the imagination. They had readily agreed to obey His commands. Now, they were going to discover the demanding code of conduct they had signed up to keep.
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.