The people are afraid
18The people trembled with fear when they heard the thunder and the trumpet and saw the lightning and the smoke coming from the mountain. They stood a long way off19and said to Moses, “If you speak to us, we will listen. But don't let God speak to us, or we will die!”
20“Don't be afraid!” Moses replied. “God has come only to test you, so that by obeying him you won't sin.”21But when Moses went near the thick cloud where God was, the people stayed a long way off.
Idols and altars
22The LORD told Moses to say to the people of Israel:
With your own eyes, you saw me speak to you from heaven.23So you must never make idols of silver or gold to worship in place of me.
24Build an altar out of earth, and offer on it your sacrifices of sheep, goats, and cattle. Wherever I choose to be worshipped, I will come down to bless you.25If you ever build an altar for me out of stones, do not use any tools to chisel the stones, because that would make the altar unfit.26And don't build an altar that requires steps; you might expose yourself when you climb up.
When God reveals himself he often prepares the way by telling his people what he will do, then he does it, and then he explains what he has done. We get an excellent example of this in the passage before us. In chapter 19 the Lord told Israel that he would come and speak with them, in chapter 20 he gave Israel his law, in following chapters he will expound his law and its implications for their lives.
Between giving and expounding his law, God does and says things that speak of his awesome holiness. Why? Because this is something we must know about God – he is holy! We see this in the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the thick smoke that enveloped the mountain. It is so overwhelming that the people stay at a distance and ask Moses to intercede for them.
This revelation of God and his holiness is intended to keep the people from sinning and to remind them that they must serve and worship God alone and refuse to worship anyone or anything else. Because they are sinful, and he is holy, their worship must include an earthen altar where they can sacrifice their burnt offerings and sacrifices – their sheep, goats and cattle. And if they make an altar of stones it must not be shaped by a tool or human skill because as sinful human beings our very best efforts are defiled. Even our approach to God must be on his terms otherwise it is unacceptable.
While these events took place long ago, what they reveal about God has not changed. He is holy and he has the right to say how he will be approached and worshipped by his people. We would do well to remember this vital lesson today.
Our Holy God, You are holy in the highest sense of the word. Help us to begin to grasp your transcendent glory and purity in order that we may know you better, serve you more faithfully, and love you more deeply. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.