This is an important passage in our understanding of the law of God. By the “law” of God, here I mean the 10 commandments, which are a summary of the moral law of God. God will give Israel the law in the context of what we read here in chapter 19. The vivid images in this passage are intended to make an indelible impression upon us.

In verse 9 God instructs Moses that he will speak to him in a thick cloud, so the people of Israel may hear that God is speaking to Moses and so they will believe him. The cloud represents the presence of God, as well as the mysterious nature of God. The people of Israel are not to look for an image of God in some physical form, but rather base their thoughts of God from what he reveals through Moses.

One of the principles Moses is to teach them is they needed to consecrate themselves in order to come before God. We see this in verses 10-15. They are to wash their clothes (ceremonial cleansing) and get ready for the third day, the day they will appear before God. This setting of a day in order to prepare to meet God is his fatherly care for Israel. He must teach them the nature of his being.

This is an important principle, and one of the reasons you see limits set around the mountain of God (verse 12). People cannot approach God on their own terms. They are judged according to the righteousness of God, and required to meet his standard, rather than their own. He judges according to his law, and if anyone does not meet that standard perfectly then they die (Verse 13). The Lord is warning them away from the folly of approaching him on their own terms.

The prohibition from normal marital relations (verse 15) instructs them that their primary focus was to be on the meeting with God. There is nothing inherently sinful in marital relations (it is a gift of God), but facing God and his law calls for their full attention.

When we look at verses 16-19, we are given sights and sounds of the living God’s presence in order to give sinful men his holy law. There is a loud trumpet blast that keeps getting louder and louder. There are “thunders and lightnings” continuously bombarding the mountain. There is billowing smoke as well as a violent earthquake. No wonder all the people were trembling with fear (verse 16).

In Mississippi, we know what it is like to have severe weather outside our home, hearing the wind and thunder, with a wailing siren making the experience all the more sobering. But that is nothing compared to what Mt. Sinai was like when God gave his law to Israel.

In verses 20-25 we see the repetition of the warning from the Lord that no one is to attempt to come up the mountain. Clearly, this repetition means we are to think about this prohibition. How does it apply to us? Simply put, we are to understand that if we try to approach God in our own righteousness we will meet with an angry God.

God gives these images and the prohibition not to try to approach him, so we will understand he demands perfection in accord with his law and anyone who falls short of it will die. We have need of a Mediator between us and God; a Savoir. 

In 17th century England and Scotland, if someone wanted to have assurance of salvation, ministers would ask them, “Have you been to Sinai?” They meant have you ever been humbled by your sin compared to God’s righteous law in such a way that you have asked “What must I do to be saved?” In other words, you are convinced of your need of grace and forgiveness. You realize that approaching God as you are will mean a deserved judgment.

When Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, and those who mourn,” he is describing those who know their need of his sacrificial death on their behalf and are humbled by their sin. God humbles his people for sin to embitter sin to them and to make them highly prize Jesus Christ, who gave himself for sinners.

This is good news. All those who believe in Christ rather than their own righteousness are judged righteous by God because Christ is righteous. Sinai in all its terror is held out to us that we might prize Christ above all and see that a Savoir must be had.