Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
J. Paterson Smyth

Lesson XII

At Mount Sinai

Read Exodus XIX. and XX. 1-17.
Deuteronomy V. 6-21.

§ 1. Scenes in the Desert Life

A NEW scene again, entirely different from the last. Is it not like magic-lantern changes, the continual rapid altering of the scenes in Moses' life—the palace, the slave huts, the lonely Midian, the night of the dead firstborn, the hurricane on the Red Sea, the joyful Te Deum,  the starving crowds receiving the manna, etc., etc.

Now a complete change again. We pass to the sixth chapter of Exodus. But in so doing, we have had to pass over a number of other most interesting scenes in chapters xvii. and xviii. After the famine fright and the giving of the manna they came to Rephidim, where there was another fright and murmuring for want of water, and God miraculously supplied their need. Then the famous battle scene, where the tribes of Amalek attacked Israel, and Moses being too old, perhaps, for active fighting, sent Joshua to lead the army, and went up into the hill overlooking the battle-field to pray to God and to hold up his rod. And when he held up his hands Israel prevailed, and when his tired hands dropped Amalek prevailed. So Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands till evening, till Israel had driven off the attacking hosts.

And then we have another most interesting scene (ch.  xviii.), a picture of Moses' ordinary everyday life when the camp was at rest and there were no battles or expeditions. Such a hard, tiring life. From early morning until late at night he sat to judge and decide and arbitrate and heal disputes and bring the troubles of the people before God, till old Jethro, his father-in-law, coming to visit him and bring back Zipporah, saw that he was likely to break down under the severe nerve-strain. Don't you think that Jethro was right? All the anxiety and responsibility, all the hard work and nervous strain, all the fret and trouble that would come from the continual grumbling and almost rebelling of that ungrateful crowd whenever anything went wrong. "Why did not you leave us alone in Egypt, where we had food enough and water enough and no battles to fight?"  "O Lord God," cries the poor tormented leader, "wherefore hast Thou afflicted Thy servant, that Thou layest all the burden of this people upon me?" (Numbers xi. 11.) How one's sympathy goes forth to that brave, true heart, bearing all so bravely, sacrificing himself utterly for God and his people!

§ 2. Waiting at Sinai

But to Moses, just now, all these troubles are but minor matters, swallowed up in the far greater things to which he was looking forward, the greatest event in the whole history of the Jews, one of the great events in the whole history of the world. What? Yes; he is leading them to Mount Sinai through the vast mountain ranges that he knew so well in his lonely Midian days. How long now out of Egypt? (xix. 1). All these three months of their training they have been learning God's CARE, God's LOVE, God's POWER. Is that all that is needed to learn about God? What is the supreme lesson? God's HOLINESS AND SIN'S SINFULNESS. That is the lesson now before them.

And all the surroundings seem chosen to impress them with their solemnity. The most impressive, solemnizing scenes on earth are great towering mountain ranges and vast lonely valleys. One cannot help feeling solemn there. The writer vividly recalls one special night in his life, a night in the mountains, in the vast solitudes of the grandest of the Alps. The moon was lighting up the black crags and the great snow-peaks that rose into the sky and the mysterious valleys that stretched away dim and vast at his feet. The solemn impressiveness he can never forget. It was impossible to be thoughtless or trivial there. It seemed just the place where one might expect at any moment to hear God's voice or to see God's glory manifested. It seemed so exactly the fitting place for it. Such was the ground where the Israelites were led. Day after day they penetrated deeper and deeper into those strange, lonely passes. They knew that they were being led there for some solemn purpose, for some great sacrifice or solemn revelation of God. Daily they struggled on under the huge cliffs, over the rugged passes, some by one path, some by another, until at last one day, three months after leaving Egypt, they found themselves all assembled in a sort of great natural temple of the mountains. The huge cliffs of Sinai like an altar in front, the great mountain-peaks everywhere around so solemn and still. God had taken them "aside from the multitude," away from the noise and hurry of life, to be alone with Him for a while in His great temple.

Do you think the people knew exactly what they had come for as they encamped that night? I daresay they had some notion of it. But as they lay there at the foot of the mountain Moses came forth to them from the presence of God with a grand, wonderful message. What message? (xix. 4-7). "If ye will obey My voice, ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people; ye shall be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation," etc. What a glorious message for that poor slave race! Don't you think it should touch their hearts in those vast, lonely mountains? Don't you think it touched and lifted up Moses' heart as he received it? What a strange, wonderful life Moses must have been living all this time, with the sense of God's presence and God's purpose so borne in upon him that he must have felt almost like a man in another world!

He told them what they were to do. How long to wait? What directions given as to their preparation? Why the bounds set round the mountain? Why must they stand so far off? Why all this washing and cleansing of themselves? What was the lesson to be taught by all this? GOD'S UNUTTERABLE HOLINESS. Sinful men must not make too free with God. Nothing impure or unholy must come into His presence. You see they might know all about God's power and love and yet think He was but like the gods whom the heathen told of, who did not much care about the purity of men's lives. They must learn that God was of awful holiness. They knew how far from being holy they themselves were, and so this strange teaching seemed to be making them shrink back farther and farther from Him with a new fear, a new shrinking. Was it good thus to shrink back from God? Yes, a very good thing for any man to feel a deep shrinking as he thinks of God's pure holiness and his own deep sinfulness. Some people in our day, who talk rather freely and familiarly about God, and write rather free and familiar hymns, would be the better of feeling more awe and reverence. Some boys and girls would be the better of feeling it when ill-tempered, or greedy, or deceitful, or selfish. Best that they should not feel quite so free and careless as they sometimes do when the evening comes and they kneel down to say their prayers after times of this kind. They should first of all come to Him shrinkingly and sorrowfully, and tell Him sadly about that sin and beseech His forgiveness and His help to keep from such again. Only then can they speak happily and confidently to God in prayer. If people can kneel down lightly or say prayers glibly to God after such days, it shows something very wrong in their ideas of God. We ought to love and trust God—but we should be deeply reverent.

§ 3. How God Came

Three days they waited. What solemn days, washing their clothes clean, trying to keep their souls clean in preparation for God's appearance. Ah! I think it must have done them much good. And all the time their eyes would be on the great cliffs in front, covered with thick clouds, and I suppose they would be wondering in their hearts about—what do you think? What would you be wondering at in such a case? Wondering how God would appear. Would it be as the Hawk or Black Bull in the temples of Egypt? Would it be in the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female? What would this All-powerful, All-holy God be like? Thus passed the first night, the second night. Thus the darkness of the third night fell upon the camp, with their expectation wound up to the highest pitch. What a solemn, exciting night! as much so, surely, as that when the firstborn died in Egypt. Do you think they slept much that night?

At last the morning broke in intense excitement, and I can imagine how, in the dim dawn, every eye was strained to see the summit. What is that in the grey twilight dimness? Is it any earthly form, any distinct shape that is unveiling itself? If it were, their passion for idolatry would soon have laid hold of it. Was it? No. There was no form. There were thunders and lightnings and voices, so that all the people in the camp trembled (xix. 16). Long years afterward Moses described the whole scene to the assembled camp. (Read Deuteronomy iv. 11, 12.) "The mountain burned with fire into the midst of heaven, with darkness, clouds, and thick darkness; ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude, only ye heard a voice." That was all they knew, all the impression they were intended to receive. They could not see God; yet they could not help believing that He was there. They were to make no image of the Almighty; yet they were to believe that He was close to them, their Lord and their God.

§ 4. The Ten Commandments

And then a very wonderful thing happened. It would seem from the narrative that a clear voice, as of a trumpet ringing through the mountains, pronounced the "Ten Words," or Ten Commandments. We don't quite understand it. It is said (xx. 1) that God spake them. Yet it is said also that through angels it was given (Acts vii. 53;  Galatians iii. 19;  Hebrews ii. 2).

Of course it would mean much the same if God sent a great angel to utter His commands. At any rate, we cannot speak more positively on the matter. In either case, we may think of the angels as present. What an interest they must take in us! Do you remember at what great times in our history they were present? At the Creation, at the Fall, at the Law-giving, at the chief events of the Old Testament, at the Birth of Christ, the Temptation, the Agony, the Resurrection, the Ascension—all that God was doing for man. And our Lord says they are so intensely interested in us that "there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth."

Tell me again what God wanted His people to be? (xix. 5, 6). Therefore He began to make them so by giving these laws of right. Why were they to obey them? Was it in order that they should be delivered? No. It was after their deliverance.  God made no bargain with the poor wretches in their misery. He delivered them freely and lovingly. And then in gratitude to Him for what He had done  (xx. 2), He asked them to try to be good, to try to do His holy will. Did God greatly care that they should do so? Long years afterwards Moses is telling the people the whole story of the law-giving, and he tells a most touching word of God which is not mentioned here. (See Deuteronomy v. 28, 29.) "Oh, that there were such a heart in them," said God, "that they would fear Me and keep My commandments always, that it might be well with them  and with their children for ever." Don't you think God cared greatly that they should be good? Was it for His gain or for theirs, "that it might be well with them"? Point out that all this is true for us, too. It "is for our good always" that God wants us to obey Him, and He did not wait until we had obeyed before He laid down His life for us, and received us in infancy into His holy Church. Point out also that these Ten Commandments were very simple, but very deep and full of meaning. Just in their bare literal meaning, they were all that the poor Israelites in their degradation could aim at. But long centuries afterwards, that God who gave them showed His Church how their meaning must be explained and expanded so as to go down into the very thoughts and intents of the heart (Matthew v. 21, 27, 33). In this deeper sense we must understand them.


(1) It should be noticed that this Decalogue has in it nothing local, or temporary, or peculiar to one nation. It is a universal law for all mankind. And it is not enforced like other laws, by rewards and punishments. No. It simply makes its appeal to the universal human Conscience. God has made man with a Conscience within him. The great authority of the Decalogue lay in its appeal to this Conscience. People felt bound to obey who did not know or believe anything about the story of Sinai.

(2) With regard to the slight variation in substance of the Commandments as given in Exodus and Deuteronomy, it has been suggested that perhaps all the ten were given originally in the brief form of the 1st, 6th, 7th, and 8th, e.g.—

"Thou shalt honour thy father and mother";

"Thou shalt not covet";

and the passages in the longer Commandments in which the variations occur were comments added when the Books were written.—See Speaker's Commentary.

Questions for Lesson XII

Do you remember Jethro at Midian? Did he ever meet Moses again?

Where had the Israelites come to when the Ten Commandments were given? Show on map.

What lessons had God been teaching them up to this time? Answer:  His care, His love, His power. Explain.

Now what great lesson was to be taught? Answer:  Man's sinfulness and God's holiness.

Try to picture in words the days of waiting at Sinai.

Why does God give these commandments? For His own good or for ours? Explain.