They Stood Far Off
They Stood Far Off
by William Klock
These last few months we’ve slowed our pace through Exodus as we’ve taken a Sunday apiece to look at each of the ten words of the Decalogue. Today as we look at the end of Exodus 20, we’ll pick-up our pace again. Sometimes it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees when we slow down for a detailed look. Of course, there was no forest in the Sinai wilderness. There wasn’t even food to eat or water do drink. The Lord had to provide both for his people. And that’s just what he’s been doing for them. That’s the big picture here. Exodus is about the Lord’s deliverance of his people and his ongoing care and provision for them. He delivered them from their bondage to the Egyptians, he brought the god-man Pharaoh to his knees, he defeated his army at the sea, while leading Israel through on dry land, he fed his people with miraculous food in the wilderness. And now he’s met them on the mountain, he’s established a covenant with them. He is Israel’s God. Israel is his people. He will lead them to the land he has claimed for himself. They will be the people who live with the Lord in their midst, so that the nations will see and know and submit in faith to the living God who is faithful to his promises.
But what does it look like to be the Lord’s people? The trumpets sounded. Lightening flashed on the mountain. And the voice of the Lord rumbled down to the people as he reminded them who he is and what he had done and then issued these ten commandments. As best we can tell, the Decalogue was spoken directly to the people. In Exodus 20:18-19 we read their response.
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”
Do you ever wonder what it would be like to experience the direct presence of God? To audibly hear his voice? A woman once told me that God comes to her in visions and she audibly hears his voice and that both are comforting and affirming and just generally warm and fuzzy. I’m pretty sceptical that anyone with an experience like that has actually experienced God, because that’s the opposite of every encounter we see in the Bible between God and human beings. God manifests his presence, and mortals tremble. God speaks, and even his own people kneel in fear and awe before him. When God comes to his people, his first words are usually, “Fear not!”, because human beings—even those he has made his own—cannot but quake in the presence of the holy.
When I was in seminary we used the Book of Alternative Services in our daily chapel services. Some of us asked if we could, at least occasionally, use the Book of Common Prayer. One woman stood up and practically shouted, “I will not ever pray the Prayer of Humble Access and ask for crumbs from God. When I meet God, I’ll stand on my two feet, at my full height, and look him in the eye!” And I sat there thinking, “No, you won’t.” When God came to the Old Testament saints, they trembled and covered their faces. Even in the New Testament, when Jesus manifested the power of God, what did people do? They were awestruck. They were afraid. They asked him to go away. And the book of Revelation shows the saints gathered in worship before his throne. No one stands to look Jesus in the eye. No, they cast their crowns before him, kneel humbly, and cry out in worship, “Holy, holy, holy!” Even for the redeemed, the holiness of God is overwhelming.
Back to the Israelites. They’ve experienced God and they’re afraid. They’ve heard his voice, and their response is not, “Wow! That was comforting! Please, God, speak some more!” No, they stand far off and they plead with Moses, “No more! You speak to us. If you speak to us, we will listen, but we can’t bear to hear the voice of the Lord anymore. It might kill us!” People today talk about hearing the voice of God and it being all warm and fuzzy or they couch it in terms of “zen” or “peacefulness”. Friends, Israel, God’s own people, experienced the holiness of God and cried out, “No more, lest we die!”
And, as is the case throughout the Bible when mortals encounter the holy, the Lord’s response is “Fear not.” Look at verses 20 and 21:
Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
Fear is and should be the natural response of a human being to the presence of God. He is the Creator and we’re his creatures. He is holy and we are sinners. But it’s important to understand that there’s more than one kind of fear. We need to grasp that in order to parse out this confusing response given my Moses. He says, “Do not fear.” Here Moses is talking about a kind of debilitating fear, a kind of fear that drives us to escape from the presence of God, a kind of fear that causes us to cover our ears lest we hear him speak. That’s the natural response of sinful men and women to the presence and to the voice of God, but if God’s people are to really be his people, they’re going to have to learn to live in his holy presence. If they’re going to be his people, they’re going to have to obey his word, and that means they’ll first have to hear it. A proper understanding of God and of ourselves, and of God’s gracious and merciful purposes for us should convert unhealthy and debilitating fear into a fear that moves us to reverence and obedience.
Then Moses says that “God has come to test you”. The best sense of the Hebrew word used here is that of experience. “The Lord has manifested his presence in the cloud and the lightning, and he has spoken so that you can know him. It’s interesting that the Hebrew word for lightning used here is only used in one other place in the Pentateuch. It’s used here and it’s used to describe the torch that Abraham saw when the Lord established his covenant with him in Genesis 15:17. This is the God of the covenant. This is the God who has made promises to his people. And now this same God is fulfilling them. It’s a reminder that the one, true God is not like the fickle, capricious, and immoral gods of the pagans. He is not only holy; he is also good and faithful.
And he goes on to say that all of this is so that they will fear him and not sin. So fear not so that you fear and not sin. The same Hebrew word for fear is used in both cases, but each is nuanced differently. A better English translation might be, “Don’t be afraid, but fear the Lord that you might not sin.”
As I was thinking about this an experience I had when I was learning to drive came to mind. I bet many of you have had a similar experience, maybe while learning to drive or maybe doing something else that has the potential to be dangerous.
I’d had my learner’s permit for a few months. I’d driven around our small town. I’d driven on the freeway. Then we moved to a larger city and I found myself in a new situation. Now I was driving at highway speeds on city streets with stop lights. I’d learned how to deal with yellow lights at slower speeds, but had no experience with yellow lights at fifty miles per hour. And so one day I was out with my dad on a major thoroughfare and the light turned yellow. I was almost on top of the intersection. I should have just gone through the yellow light. But I didn’t know better. I hit the brakes hard and slid to a stop with my nose in the crosswalk and just about put my dad’s head through the windshield. But as the car came to a stop I heard a loud screeching of tires. I was confused. It couldn’t be my tires, because I was stopped. And then, as the screeching continued, a bright red 1969 Dodge Charger slid up to the crosswalk next to me in the right lane, wheels locked, and a cloud of smoke behind it. There was a guy in the seat who looked just like “Snake” from the The Simpsons, shaking his fist and shouting profanities. It took me a second to realise what had happened. He had expected me to go through the yellow light—which is what I should have done—and he’d sped up to make it through after me. But instead, I slammed on the brakes and the only reason he didn’t rear-end me, was by braking hard and swerving into the other lane. He was mad at me. Dad was mad at me. I was completely freaked out and shaking. Every detail is still burned into my memory. I refused to drive for a couple of weeks after that. But when I did get in the car again, I had a new and healthy fear of driving. Up to that point, I’d never really thought about the serious side, the potential consequences of driving a car. The responsibility it entailed had never really sunk in. But it did that day.
And that’s something of what’s going on with the Israelites. The Lord has manifested his presence, he has spoken that the Israelites might know what it is to experience the truly holy. They need to have a sense of awe, of reverence, of holy fear in order to be the holy people the Lord has called them to be. There is a sense in which the nations, when they encounter Israel, should have a similar sense of the holy—of the mediated presence of God. Much the same goes for us as God’s people. We are united with Jesus and filled with God’s own Spirit. When we go out into the world, there should be something tangibly different about us. We are holy as God is holy. We should mediate the presence of God.
At this point the people move off to a safe distance, while Moses goes up the mountain and enters the storm, enters the presence of the Lord. What follows in Exodus is something called “The Book of the Covenant”. Scholars disagree on exactly where it starts. Some say that it includes the Decalogue and other argue that it starts here or at the beginning of Chapter 21, but whatever the case, it runs through Chapter 24. Where the Decalogue lays out some foundational and general principles that are to characterise the life of Israel, the Book of the Covenant shows how these principles and holiness in general are to be lived out by Israel in practical ways. It’s not a law code in the modern sense that we think of. It doesn’t cover every situation that the people would encounter. What the torah does is to give examples of what righteous or holy legislation is to look like for Israel. We often translate torah with the word “law”—and that’s because when the Jews translated the Old Testament into Greek, they used the Greek word for “law”—nomos—to translate the Hebrew word torah, but torah is more encompassing then our word (or the Greek word for) “law”. It’s as much wisdom as it is law code and sometimes even more so. And so rather than nail down a law for every possible scenario, the torah lays out principles of righteousness and justice by giving a broad range of examples meant to teach the people and their judges how to live as God’s people.
Whether the Lord had intended to speak all of this to Israel or to mediate the rest through Moses isn’t clear. At any rate, the rest of what the Lord has to say comes via Moses. The Book of the Covenant, just like the Decalogue, begins with the subject of worship. Look now at Exodus 20:22-26.
And the Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it. And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.’
Just as the Decalogue begins with instructions for worship, the Book of the Covenant begins with instructions for worship. The Book of the Covenant focuses mainly on social and economic matters, but the people of God are, first and foremost, a worshipping people and so it begins there. In fact, it really begins a step before that. The Lord has spoken. In verse 22, Moses leads off reminding the people that that have seen—they have experienced—hearing God. The Lord has made himself known to them. He is going to shape them into a people who will make him known to the nations. There will be all sorts of thou shalts and thou shalt nots, but the first response of God’s people to his revelation is worship. Once again Israel is reminded: You shall have no other gods before me and you shall not make carved images for the purpose of worship.
The Lord works alone. He and he alone is worthy of worship. He has defeated the gods of Egypt. He will defeat the gods of the Canaanites. And so he calls his people to faith—to a wholehearted faith in him. The pagans hedged their bets with altars to many gods lest one of them fail to hear or to act. The pagans had pantheons of big gods and little gods. Kings worshipped the gods of creation or the patron deity of the nation. Ordinary people didn’t bother those big gods with their petty concerns. They worshipped the little, local gods of hearth and home, of field and fertility. But the Lord says, “You shall have no other gods before me—no other gods in my presence.” I and I alone have delivered you. I hear the cries of the great and hear the cries of the small. No concern is too big or too small. Worship me and me alone.
But the specifics here also remind the people that the Lord is to be worshipped on his own terms. They knew the practises of the Egyptians. Soon they’ll know the practises of the Canaanites. The Lord is different than the pagan gods and Israel, herself, is here called to be different from the pagans. The Lord is not to be represented with images of silver or gold as the pagan gods were.
The Lord also warns: Your altars are to be made of earth or unhewn, uncarved stone. And there are to be no steps. The reasons for this would have been obvious to the Israelites, but they’re not so clear for us. We can only speculate, but again, the issue here seems to be that the Israelites not adopted the worship practises of the Canaanites. When the Israelites do eventually build a grand altar to the Lord, it will not be built on their initiative. It will be built according to specific plans given by the Lord and it will be built by craftsmen working under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But, again, at this point the Lord warns against Israel building such things on her own initiative.
If there’s a reason for this that we can discern, I think it’s likely that the Lord doesn’t want his people thinking that they can earn his favour, ingratiate themselves to him, or otherwise put him in their debt by building him fancy altars or a great temple on their own initiative. The Lord doesn’t work that way. In fact, the Lord despises such things. And so an altar of heaped earth or a pile of natural stones honours him more than the elaborate craftsmanship of the pagans. It says something about the state of fallen humanity. We think we’ve got to do add our bit to Creation to make it acceptable to God, when the reality is that simple dirt and uncut stone are holier than we are apart from God’s grace. The dirt and the stones are as he created them. Unlike us, they’ve never rebelled against his sovereignty and his goodness. And so the Lord says, “Until I take the initiative, until I give you instructions for building me an altar, until I’ve inspired your craftsmen with my own Spirit, you are to offer your sacrifices and your offerings on simple heaps of earth or stone. The pagans think they can manipulate me with the work of their hands, but you are to honour me by recognising in your worship that there is nothing you can give me that is not already mine.”
To encounter God, to have such a sense of his otherness and of his holiness is for us to be stripped bare. In the presence of his greatness, our smallness is revealed and the reality of our sinfulness is brought to light. Sometimes we get to thinking pretty highly of ourselves, but in the light of God’s glory our righteousness is revealed as filthy rags, as Isaiah wrote.
But, Brothers and Sisters, the remarkable thing is that it’s just at that moment, just when we want to run away, just when we’re willing the earth to open and swallow us up so that we can escape the fearful presence of this holy God, he calls us to worship in his presence. Just at the moment we can no longer bear the sound of his voice, he gives a mediator. Here in Exodus he speaks through Moses. Here he reminds the people as they cower in fear, “I am the God who brought you out of Egypt. You are mine and I am yours. Draw near and worship me. Don’t worry about fancy altars. Just make a pile of earth or stone. It’s the humble, heart-felt worship of my people that I desire.
It points us to the new covenant established by Jesus. In him we have a mediator far better than Moses. In Jesus, God himself has taken up the flesh of his people that he might die in their place—in our place. And then he leads us to his Father, our filthy rags washed clean as snow and made new. And then, the most amazing part of it all, the Spirit gathers us like stones, fits us together, perfectly placed and positioned, and he makes us the altar, the temple and he dwells in our midst.
Brothers and Sisters, think on that this morning as we come to the Lord’s Table. The God we meet here in Jesus is the same God before whom Israel quaked. But this morning we do not cower in fear. We come in awe of the holy God who gave his Son that we might become a holy people. We come in awe as undeserving sinners, as those who were once enemies of God, whom he has, in his mercy and with his grace, redeemed and made his friends. Think this morning on that prayer in the liturgy that we call the Prayer of Humble Access:
We do not presume to come to your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.