1 The Lord said to Moses, “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. 2 Be ready by the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain. 3 No one shall come up with you, and let no one be seen throughout all the mountain. Let no flocks or herds graze opposite that mountain.” 4 So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the first. And he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand two tablets of stone. 5 The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. 6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” 8 And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. 9 And he said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” – Exodus 34:1-9 ESV
As Moses stood in the tent of meeting at the outskirts of the camp, God agreed to give Moses a glimpse of His glory. But if Moses wanted to see his request fulfilled, he would first have to replace the tablets of stones he had shattered. The God-inscribed tablets lay in pieces on the valley floor where Moses had thrown them in anger when he discovered the sordid scene taking place among his people. Moses may have broken the tablets, but the law of God remained fully intact and in place. The holiness of God had not diminished and His holy expectations of His chosen people had not been altered by their actions. If anything, God’s righteous laws were more important than ever.
The people of Israel had shown their true colors. Their allegiance to God had been exposed for what it was, weak and vacillating. It had taken no time at all for their faithfulness to Yahweh to wane and their commitment to keeping His laws to disappear like the manna did when the sun came up in the morning. So, God demanded that Moses carve out two more tablets of stone and return to the top of Mount Sinai.
“Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones. I will write on them the same words that were on the tablets you smashed. Be ready in the morning to climb up Mount Sinai and present yourself to me on the top of the mountain.” – Exodus 34:1-2 NLT
And as before, God restricted access to the mountain, warning that no other Israelite was to come anywhere near Sinai. Not even the flocks and herds of Israel were allowed to graze near the base of the mountain. God was going to descend on Mount Sinai, transforming the entire mountain into a sacred place or sanctuary. This warning was intended as a not-so-subtle reminder to the people of Israel that they served a holy and transcendent God who deserved their reverence and whose power should elicit fear and awe. This was the very same God who had promised to dwell among them in the Tabernacle that He had designed and commissioned them to build. At the moment, that sacred structure remained unbuilt but when completed, it too would become a holy place because it contained the glory of God’s presence.
Moses obeyed God’s command and chiseled out two new tablets to replace the ones he had broken. The original set had been hand-carved by God.
The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. – Exodus 32:16 ESV
This time, by having to do the difficult work of crafting the replacement stones, Moses would have skin in the game. Perhaps he would treat God’s laws with greater respect if he had some sweat equity in their creation. But there is something else going on here. When Moses returned to the top of the mountain, he would be carrying stones that he had crafted with his own hands. They would be poor facsimiles of the ones he had broken. There is no way that Moses could craft stone tablets that were equal in quality to those made by the hand of God. Yet, God promised to write His law on the flawed stones made by human hands.
Centuries later, the prophet, Jeremiah would write the following words from God concerning the people of Israel.
“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” – Jeremiah 31:33 NLT
God was speaking of a future day when He would restore His rebellious people to a right relationship with Himself. They had broken His commands time and time again and were subject to His judgment for their disobedience. He was going to punish them for their failure to obey, but He also promised to restore them. But notice what God said. He would write His laws on their hearts. And the author of Hebrews picks up on this idea when he writes:
But when God found fault with the people, he said:
“The day is coming, says the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel and Judah.
This covenant will not be like the one
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
and led them out of the land of Egypt.
They did not remain faithful to my covenant,
so I turned my back on them, says the Lord.
But this is the new covenant I will make
with the people of Israel on that day, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds,
and I will write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.” – Hebrews 8:8-10 NLT
In a sense, those stone tablets carved by Moses’ hands were meant to symbolize the hardened hearts of the people of Israel. When Moses carved those stones out of the mountainside, they proved to be stubbornly resistant to the blows of his chisel and hammer. But when he carried them up the mountain, they would become the receptacles of God’s divine law. God’s intention all along was the change the hearts of His people. Laws without willing hearts to obey them become nothing more than regulations that condemn.
The apostle Paul spoke of this very issue from a personal perspective. As a former Pharisee, he had done his best to try and obey the law, only to discover that it was impossible. His heart wasn’t in it.
I discovered that the law’s commands, which were supposed to bring life, brought spiritual death instead. Sin took advantage of those commands and deceived me; it used the commands to kill me. But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good. – Romans 7:10-12 NLT
He wrote the believers in Galatia: “If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it” (Galatians 3:21 NLT). But the problem was not with the law; it was with the hearts of those who refused to obey the law.
So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. – Romans 7:14 NLT
It’s interesting to note that, until God had given the Decalogue to Moses, there were no prohibitions against having any other gods than Yahweh. But once God had given the Ten Commandments to Moses and the people had agreed to obey them, the law became binding and irrefutable. They were non-optional. Not only that, they made sin indefensible. No Israelite could say he acted out of ignorance. All those who participated in the worship of the golden calf did so in spite of their understanding of God’s law and their verbal commitment to obey that law. They stood justly condemned.
And yet, God was graciously offering to provide them with another copy of His commands. This time, they would be written on hard, cold stones carved by the hands of Moses. But they would be just as binding and unbendable in their scope.
Before God inscribed His law on the new tablets, He kept His promise and revealed His glory to Moses. And His glorious presence was accompanied by the following speech.
“Yahweh! The Lord!
The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty.
I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren;
the entire family is affected—
even children in the third and fourth generations.” – Exodus 34:6-7 NLT
If you recall, God had earlier told Moses, “I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose” (Exodus 33:19 NLT). Now, as He revealed His glory to Moses, God expanded on that statement. He describes His own commitment to show compassion and mercy to His people. He declares His unfailing capacity to show love and to forgive. And yet, He affirms His right to judge the wicked and unrepentant. He declares His intention to hold the guilty accountable for their actions. Not only that, He states that future generations will inherit the guilt of their forefathers. But what is going on here? How do we justify this statement with God’s earlier promise of forgiveness? The key lies in the Ten Commandments themselves. In giving the first two laws, God had added the following condition.
“I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me.” – Exodus 20:5 NLT
There was one sin that God would not forgive, and that was any rejection of Him as the one true God. He knew that this sin was particularly infectious. God knew that when the parents turned their backs on Him, the children would be prone to follow their example. And this hereditary sin would be passed down from generation to generation, with each subsequent generation bearing the guilt of their forefathers.
What had happened in the valley of Sinai was a serious breach of God’s law, but what made it even more dangerous was its potential for spreading a spirit of rebellion among the people of Israel. If it happened once, it could happen again and if it did, God would hold all those who rejected Him guilty and worthy of condemnation.
This foreboding word from God caused Moses to cry out, “Yes, this is a stubborn and rebellious people, but please forgive our iniquity and our sins. Claim us as your own special possession” (Exodus 34:9 NLT). He knew that without God’s presence, the people would be helpless, and without God’s forgiveness, they would be hopeless. So, he begged God to show mercy and extend forgiveness because he understood that the people of Israel were worthy of judgment. According to the law, they stood condemned. Which led Moses to appeal to the Law-giver to extend mercy and grace. It was their only hope.
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.