Exodus 19: Lessons from the Prelude to The Ten Commandments

Introduction: Exodus Chapter 19 is set on the edge of Mount Sinai / Horeb. After 50 days of hard travel from Egypt, the Jews would remain in the same location for a year. Here, they would receive both God’s Commandments and His statutes. This includes more than 57 Bible chapters, including all of Leviticus and the first ten chapters in Numbers. Yet, as joyful as it must have been to camp near God, they could not be in God’s direct presence without dying. Thus, God appointed Moses to act as a mediator for His people. From this chapter, God reveals seven important messages that confirm the promise of Christ as the Messiah.

First, God loves His people. Using the image of an eagle willing to die for its young, God so loved His people that He was willing to die for them. Second, He loves His people for a purpose. He calls upon them to be a nation of priests and a light to the lost. Third, He wants His people to make a public confession of their faith. He also wants a faith so strong that leads to obedience out of love. Fourth, He wants His people to live their lives holy and consecrated in preparation for being in His presence. Fifth, although His people may try to prepare themselves through acts of righteousness to be in His presence, their sin has created a barrier to being with God. Sixth, also because of sin, every human is in need of a mediator to be reconciled to God. Finally, God promised that His mediator would go down to the people and then up again. This was a direct foreshadow of Christ. He would go down to earth in human form, die for our sins and then rise again to heaven where He now serves as our mediator and advocate.

1. God Loves His People. Ex. 19:1-4.

  • God’s willing to sacrifice Himself for His people. After completing their 50-day march from Egypt to Mount Sinai / Horeb, God brought the Jews to the place where He revealed Himself to Moses through the burning bush. At this place, before revealing His Covenant or His laws, He directed Moses to remind His people of His intense love for them: “In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped in front of the mountain. Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself.’” (Ex. 19:1-4). God states that He “bore” the Jews on eagles’ wings (Ex. 19:4). To understand this phrase, we must understand both Hebrew and the habits of mother eagles.

The route God’s people most likely took to get to Mount Sinai1

God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai2

  • God used the imagery of a mother eagle to show His love. There are two Hebrew words to know in Exodus 19:4. The first is “va'esa eschem”. It can mean either “carried”, “bore”, or “elevated.” The second is “nesharim.” Most believe this is an eagle. Others believe that it is the griffon vulture. God uses this bird one other place to describe His protection for His people: “Like a [nesher] that stirs up its nest, that hovers over its young, He spread His wings and caught them, He carried them on His pinions. The LORD alone guided him, and there was no foreign god with him.” (Dt. 32:11-12). Many consider it a myth that an eagle would carry its young. Normally, the young stay in the nest until they are ready to fly. But they can become fat and flabby as they eat and grow large. Prominent ornithologists have observed that mother eagles sometimes put their young through exercise programs to teach them to fly. In some cases, the mothers will drop their young from high locations and then swoop down and catch them and carry them on their backs to teach them to fly. Arthur Cleveland Bent, a well-known America ornithologist, has documented this process: “The mother started from the nest in the crags and, roughly handling the youngster, she allowed him to drop, I should say, about ninety feet; then she would swoop down under him, wings spread, and he would alight on her back. She would soar to the top of the range with him and repeat the process. Once perhaps she waited fifteen minutes between flights. I should say the farthest she let him fall was a hundred and fifty feet. My father and I watched him, spellbound, for over an hour.” (A. C. Bent, Bulletin of the Smithsonian Institution CLXVII [1937], 302) (See also, V.C. Holmgren, Bird Walk Through The Bible [New York: Dover Publications 1988] p. 98 & W.B. Thomas, Yeoman's England [1934], pp. 135-6; Bible Plants and Animals: Vol. 2: Birds by Harry J. Baerg [Herald Publishing Ass. 1989). From this analogy, God provides two lessons. First, like a mother eagle, He will sacrifice Himself by placing Himself between His people and any harm that might come to them. Any arrow from a hunter would hit the mother before hitting its young. Second, He will lift you up and allow you to fulfill a potential that you cannot reach on your own. This is also the soaring peace that “surpasses all understanding” no matter what happens to you (Phil. 4:7).

  • God loved the world enough to give up His only son for us. Like a mother eagle, God’s love for His people is so strong that He sacrificed Himself so that anyone who believed in faith could be saved: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (Jo. 3:16). Christ so loved us that He gave up His life for us (Phil. 2:8). He died a brutal death as an innocent man so that you might have eternal life. His Holy Spirit will also uplift, comfort, and guide you (Jo. 14:26; 16:13). What will you do to thank Him for what He has done for you?

2. God Has Called His People to Serve Him as His Priests. Ex. 19:5-6.

  • God called the Jews to be a nation of priests and a light to others. God reveals that He loved His people and lifted them up so that they could become a nation of priests to serve Him: ‘“Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.’” (Ex. 19:5-6). As a nation of priests, God meant for the Jews to be a light of His righteousness to the rest of the world: “I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you, and I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations,” (Is. 42:6). “He says, ‘It is too small a thing that you should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make you a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”’ (Is. 49:6). “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (Is. 60:3). The Jews, however, failed to fulfill God’s calling to be a light to others.

  • God has called all believers to be both part of His royal priesthood and a light. After Jesus’ death, God called upon all Christians to be part of His royal priesthood: “you . . . are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood . . .” (1 Pet. 2:5). “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (1 Pet. 2:9). Christ “has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve His God and Father--to Him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.” (Rev. 1:6). As part of God’s nation of priests, you are also to be a light to the lost: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matt. 5:14). If you fail to accept that you are part of God’s “nation of priests”, you have not fulfilled your calling. Are you living your life as a role model and as a light for others who are weary and in need of hope? Or, are you hiding God’s light?

3. God Wants All Believers to Make a Public Confession of Faith. Ex. 19:7-9.

  • The Jews’ vow of obedience to their wedding Covenant with God. Once the people understood the purpose for their calling, God called upon them to publicly confess their faith and obedience to the Covenant that God would soon give to Moses: “ So Moses came and called the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do!’ And Moses brought back the words of the people to the Lord. The Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you and may also believe in you forever.’ Then Moses told the words of the people to the Lord.” (Ex. 19:7-9). The Jews’ public promise to obey God’s Covenant was similar to the promise of a bride and a groom to be faithful to each other as part of a wedding covenant. God was betrothed to Israel (Jer. 2:2). He was faithful to His bride (Ps. 18:25). The Ten Commandments were the wedding contract. Yet, a wedding contract must be signed by a witness. Moses was a friend of the bride, Israel. But God did not allow him to sign the contract. Instead, Moses later broke the Ten Commandments (Ex. 32:19). The sin that caused the people to break the wedding contract was spiritual adultery and idolatry. Rather than accepting their bridegroom and waiting on Him, they made for themselves a new bridegroom out of a golden calf (Ex. 32:24). Adultery is the one sin that Jesus said would justify divorce (Matt. 5:32). God later implored the Jews to return to their husband: ‘“Return faithless people,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I am your husband.’” (Jer. 3:14). Jesus will one day complete His marriage with His Church (Rev. 19:7-14). The bridegroom (Jesus) and the bride (His Church) then are able to dwell together (Rev. 20:4). Like the Jews, you must first confess your faith to marry Him.

Moses summoned the elders to instruct them3

The elders swore a vow of obedience to God4

  • Make a public confession of your faith and be accountable to others. Like the Jews, God also wants you to publicly confess your faith and agreement to the New Covenant as your wedding contract with Him: “[I]f you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved;” (Ro. 10:9). If you confess Jesus to be Lord and Savior before others, He in turn will confess you in heaven: “And I say to you, everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man will confess him also before the angels of God;” (Lk. 12:8; Matt. 10:32). A baptism is an example of a public confession of faith. Standing up and coming forward to accept Christ at an altar call is another example. Jesus said that our light should not be hidden (Matt. 5:14-15). Making a public confession serves three purposes. First, you show that you are not ashamed of the Gospel or what others think of you (Rom. 1:16). Second, your public profession may inspire others to step forward. Third, your public confession also makes you accountable to others. Are you sharing the good news of the Gospel with others? (Matt. 28:16-20).

  • Show your love for God through a faith that leads to obedience. Obedience was the guiding principle for keeping God’s Covenant (e.g., Dt. 4:1; 6:3-4; 9:1; 20:3). Obedience is also important for God’s people because they are His “ambassadors” on earth (2 Cor. 5:20). Today, Christians are no longer “under the Law” in the sense that they must comply with the Law to be saved (Gal. 5:18; Ro. 7:6; 8:3). By “fulfilling” the Law, Christ freed us from the impossible task of trying to obtain salvation through the Law (Matt. 5:17). But Jesus also says that, if you love Him, you will keep His Commandments: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (Jo. 14:15). “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” (John 14:21; see also, 15:10; 1 Jo. 5:3; 2 Jo. 1:6). His “disciples” were the “disciplined ones” in keeping His Commandments. As bondservants or freed slaves, they were obedient out of love, not obligation. Whether you follow the Ten Commandments out of love instead of obligation is also a test for whether you really know God: “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” (1 John 2:3). “[B]ut what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.” (1 Cor. 7:19(b)). The “commandments” that Jesus spoke of were the Ten Commandments. He was the great “I AM” who gave Moses the Ten Commandments (Jo. 8:58; Ex. 3:14). Although He wants your obedience, it is meaningless if is done out of compulsion, ritual, or habit. Will you faithfully obey and trust His Ten Commandments out of love, not obligation?

4. God Wants All Believers to Be Ready For His Return by Being Holy. Ex. 19:10-13.

  • Always be vigilant and ready for the Lord’s return. God wanted the people to be ready for His arrival at any moment. The consecration process involved washing themselves of their sins. “10 The Lord also said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments; 11 and let them 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 You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, ‘Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. 13 No hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot through; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’” (Ex. 19:10-13(a)). At the blowing of the ram’s horn, the shofar, God would then appear to the Jews: “When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” (Ex. 19:13(b)). The prophets later implored the people to be ready at all times to be in God’s presence: “Prepare to meet your God, O Israel” (Amos 4:12(b)). ‘“Do you not fear Me?’ declares the LORD. ‘Do you not tremble in My presence? For I have placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, an eternal decree, so it cannot cross over it. Though the waves toss, yet they cannot prevail; though they roar, yet they cannot cross over it.”’ (Jer. 5:22). “Tremble, you women who are at ease; be troubled, you complacent daughters; strip, undress and put sackcloth on your waist,” (Is. 32:11).

  • Christ will return with the sound of the ram’s horn. In Psalm 89:15, it says that those who hear the blast of the shofar will be blessed. The shofar blast will also herald the good news of the rapture and the Church’s wedding to Christ. In Psalm 47:5, it is written, “God has ascended with a shout, the Lord, with the sound of a trumpet.” In Isaiah 26:19, the word “awake” is also associated with the dead rising in a resurrection. In the New Testament, Paul tells us that “[i]n the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” (1 Cor. 15:52). “…awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Eph. 5:14). The wedding following the Rapture is foretold in Psalm 47:59. Psalm 47:5 begins with the shout and the ram’s shofar blast. In verses 6-7, the King of all the Earth is praised. In verse 9, the believers (“the princes of the people”) are gathered in the King’s presence. After the coronation of our King, He will wed His church (Rev. 4:1-2 (coronation); 19:7; 21:2, 9 (the wedding)). This is our good news. The next time the trumpet blows, Christ will return (Matt. 24:31; 1 Thes. 4:16-17). Yet, people who try to wait until the trumpet blast to accept Him will miss Him (Matt. 24:40). Are you living your life prepared for His return?

  • The date and the hour of Christ’s return are unknown. As stated above, the Rapture will also be preceded by the blowing of a loud trumpet heard only by God’s people (Matt. 24:31; 1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Thess. 4:16-17). Yet, Jesus is also clear that no one knows the day or hour of His return (Matt. 24:36; Mark 13:32). If Jesus had told you the exact hour of His return, you would put off until that moment purifying your heart and preparing for His return. God wants you to always be prepared at all times for His return (Matt. 25:13). If you ignore the promise of His return, you are like one of the virgins who missed the bridegroom (Jesus) because they failed to fill their flasks with oil (symbolizing the Holy Spirit) (Matt 25:1-13).

  • Be holy and consecrated for God at all times. To be ready for God, the people had to “consecrate” themselves (Ex. 19:6-10). God’s call to be holy is repeated throughout the Bible: ‘“For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.”’ (Lev. 11:44). ‘“Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.”’ (Lev. 19:2). “You are to be my holy people.” (Ex. 22:31). These instructions also apply to Christians: “for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Pet. 1:16). “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” (2 Cor. 7:1). “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48). “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” (Ja. 4:17). God will not withhold any good thing when you walk with Him (Ps. 84:11). Is there any part of your walk that you need to clean up?

5. Sin Has Separated Mankind’s Ability to Be in God’s Presence. Ex. 19:14-16.

  • Even the most righteous acts cannot breach the barrier to God created by sin. Even though the Jews may have wanted to prepare themselves through acts of righteousness to be in God’s presence, their sin created a barrier to being in His presence. “14 So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people, and they washed their garments. 15 He said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman. 16 So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.” (Ex. 19:16). No acts of righteousness could breach this barrier of sin: “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Is. 64:6). Thus, in both the Tabernacle and the Temple, God restricted access to only the High Priest. The High Priest was to go alone into the Tent of Meeting to intercede on behalf of the people (Lev. 16:17-18). But he could only enter the Holy of Holies once per year on Yom Kippur and only after he purified himself of his sins (Lev. 16:29). According to the Midrash, the High Priest had to wear a rope to be pulled out in case he died inside the Holy of Holies for failing to properly follow God’s procedures.

  • Sin has also separated you from God. Sin has also separated you from God: “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God . . .” (Is. 59:2(a)). God has looked down from heaven and observed that not one person is holy and without sin: “[I]t is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.”’ (Ro. 3:10-11). “[T]here is no one who does good.” (Ps. 14:1; 53:1). “Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you.” (Ps. 143:2). “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jo. 1:8). Thus, if you say that you are going to heaven because you are a good person, the truth is not within you. If you could get to heaven because of your good works, Christ’s death on the cross was unnecessary (Gal. 2:21).

6. Without a Mediator with God, Mankind Will Perish. Ex. 19:17-23.

  • Moses was God’s appointed mediator for His people. Because the people could not be in God’s presence, He selected Moses to be a mediator between Himself and His people: “17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently. 19 When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with 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 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, ‘Go down, warn the people, so that they do not break through to the Lord to gaze, and many of them perish. 22 Also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, or else the Lord will break out against them.’ 23 Moses said to the Lord, ‘The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for You warned us, saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and consecrate it.’” (Ex. 19:17-23). Moses later revealed that “[a]t His right hand there was flashing lightning for them.” (Dt. 33:2). God is a “consuming fire”  (Dt. 4:11-12; 4:24; 9:3; Heb. 12:29; 10:27; Ps. 97:3; Is. 33:14; 2 Th. 1:7). Without Christ, no one can be in His presence and live (Ex. 19:13). For this reason, Isaiah cried out in fear that he would die after appearing before God in the throne room: “Then I said, ‘Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.’” (Is. 6:5).

Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire...” (Ex. 19:18)5

God’s holy presence at Mount Sinai6

  • The penalty for sin is death. Believers should not take God’s warnings about sin lightly (Ro. 6:26). The New Testament reveals that “ . . . the wages of sin is death, . .” (Ro. 6:23). “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling;” (Phil. 2:12). “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.” (Matt. 12:36). Even though Christians will be saved by their faith, they will still be forced to give an account of their actions while on Earth (2 Cor. 5:10; Ro. 14:10-12). The Bible also reveals that “[t]he fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;” (Prov. 1:7(b); 9:10; Ps. 111:10; Job 28:28). What does it mean to fear the Lord? The Bible defines this as “hating” evil: “The fear of the LORD is to hate evil;” (Prov. 8:13(a)). Unless you accept that you were destined for judgment, you will feel no need to repent. If you continue to sin, how grateful are you for what Christ did for you?

  • Sin can also “hinder” your prayers to God. In the Old Testament, God warned that He will not hear the prayers of sinners as a consequence of the separation caused by their sins: “So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.” (Is. 1:15; 59:2-3(b); Jo. 9:31; Prov. 15:29; 8:9 Ps. 66:18). In the New Testament, God warns that sin can “hinder” a believer’s prayers (1 Pet. 3:7). Are you doing anything that might hinder your prayers? If so, repent so that your prayers can be clearly heard and acted upon.

  • Sin separated Moses from God. Sin also separated Moses from God. “And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, ‘I am full of fear and trembling.’” (Heb. 12:21). It was only by God’s grace that Moses could appear in His presence. Thus, Moses could not continue to serve the role of mediator between mankind and God.

  • Christ is the one and only mediator with mankind. Jesus taught that worship should be directed to only God alone (Matt. 4:10). There is also only one mediator between man and God, Jesus Christ: “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim. 2:5). There is no other way to bridge the divide between God and man besides our mediator Jesus. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”’ (Jo. 14:6). He is also the Word that became flesh (Jo. 1:1,14). Thus, praying or petitioning to saints or any other person usurps the role that God the Father has appointed exclusively to Christ.

7. God’s Mediator Will Go Down and Come Up Again. Ex. 19:24-25.

  • The promise of a mediator who would go down to the people and up again. Finally, God directed Moses as His mediator to go down to the people and then up again to be in His presence: “24 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go down and come up again, you and Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, or He will break forth upon them.’ 25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.” (Ex. 19:24-25). This was a direct foreshadow of what Christ did for us. He came down from heaven and emptied His divine form to become a human servant (Phil. 2:7). He then died for mankind’s sins and descended into the abyss (Matt. 12:40). He then rose from the grave and ascended into heaven (Acts 1:9-12). He sits in the throne room acting as a defense advocate or lawyer for believers daily (Heb. 9:1-10). Christ’s death also tore from top to bottom the “veil” of the Holy of Holies that separate believers from God (Matt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38). Thanks to Christ, you do not need to fear God when you enter the Holy of Holies. Instead, you can enter with “boldness.” (Heb. 10:19-22). Are you taking advantage of your access to God to boldly petition Him to help those in need?

  • The foreshadow of Jesus’ second descent and ascension to heaven. The events in Exodus not only foreshadow Jesus’ first descent and ascension into heaven, they also foreshadow His second trip. After Moses received the Ten Commandments, He descended to bring God’s judgment because the Jews engaged in spiritual idolatry by building the golden calf (Ex. 32:15-19). Moses then had to ascend a second time to receive God’s Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:1, 4, 28). Jesus also promises to return a second time to bring judgment (Matt. 12:36; 25:31-46; Jo. 12:48; Rev. 20:11-13). He will also ascend again with believers, and He will dwell together forever with His bride (Rev. 19:7-8; 21:1-4).