Most parents, at some point, experience giving clear instructions to their children, and then, as soon as they’ve left the room, hearing the children misbehave. The apparent absence of the parent revealed the rascals for who they are. Whatever is in a tea bag comes out only when it’s put in boiling water. The hot water revealed what had always been there.
These words the LORD spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: and he added no more. And he wrote them in two tables of stone, and delivered them unto me. And it came to pass, when ye heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, (for the mountain did burn with fire,) that ye came near unto me, even all the heads of your tribes, and your elders; And ye said, Behold, the LORD our God hath shewed us his glory and his greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire: we have seen this day that God doth talk with man, and he liveth. Now therefore why should we die? for this great fire will consume us: if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, then we shall die. For who is there of all flesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? Go thou near, and hear all that the LORD our God shall say: and speak thou unto us all that the LORD our God shall speak unto thee; and we will hear it, and do it. And the LORD heard the voice of your words, when ye spake unto me; and the LORD said unto me, I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken unto thee: they have well said all that they have spoken. O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever! Go say to them, Get you into your tents again. But as for thee, stand thou here by me, and I will speak unto thee all the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments, which thou shalt teach them, that they may do them in the land which I give them to possess it. Ye shall observe to do therefore as the LORD your God hath commanded you: ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. Ye shall walk in all the ways which the LORD your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess.
Summary of the Text
The “second giving” of the Law took place in territory east of the Jordan river; this land had previously been inhabited by the giant kings: Og & Sihon (Deut. 4:44-49). Moses summons the congregation to not only hear the Law, but in hearing it, be compelled to obey it (5:1). The covenant the Lord made with them applied equally to this generation (5:2-3); Moses reminds them that the Lord made this covenant “face-to-face” with them, and they requested that Moses function as their mediator (Deut. 5:4-5). He then repeats the Ten Commandments (5:6-21).
Moses then returns to an expanded narration of how the Lord spoke personally to the congregation at Horeb, and how this elicited their request for a mediator. Moses describes the awful scene of darkness & fire descending on Sinai when God wrote the Ten Commandments, and spoke them to the elders of the people (5:22-23). After hearing the Lord’s voice, the congregation declared their reverence for the glory of the Lord (5:24); but, fearing for their lives, they request that Moses become a mediator for them, promising to listen & obey what God spoke to them through him (5:25-27). The Lord says they have spoken well, and expresses––in human terminology––a longing that they would live with such reverence at all times (5:28-29).
God grants their request, sending the people back to their tents; but Moses is commanded to stand by God to hear His commandments, in order to then instruct the people (5:30-31). Moses then comes to the application part of his sermon: obey the Lord––no veering to the right or left––and thus enjoy the blessing of life which God promised (5:32-33).
The Fear of the Lord
You’ll never find a section of the local Christian bookstore devoted to the fear of the Lord. But Solomon tells his son, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom & instruction (Pro. 1:7).” The reason foolishness abounds in the modern church is that we have minimized the holy terror which God’s Law is intended to strike within us. Spurgeon points out that “If the giving of the law, while it was yet unbroken, was attended with such a display of awe-inspiring power, what will that day be when the Lord shall, with flaming fire, take vengeance on those who have willfully broken His law?”
The Israelites beheld the mere outskirts of the Lord’s infinite holiness, and they feared for their lives. Modern believers can often drift into a sort of chumminess with God, never reflecting on the great power, grandeur, holiness, and sheer “otherliness” of the Lord. If we would be wise we must learn the lesson which thunders from Sinai: fear God.
This is what the Law is intended to teach us. First, the Law is a restraint on evil; in this way the Law functions as God’s border patrol for mankind. Secondly, the bright holiness of the Law functions to reflect back to mankind his deadness & depravity; it is like a mirror which shows us the truth about ourselves.
Reverence in Lip & Life
God approves of the Israelite’s request for a mediator. But He goes on to express in visceral terms, that He longs for the people to have such a heart at all times. We know that while Moses is on Mt. Sinai for forty days––fulfilling the mediatorial role the people requested––they turn to worship a golden calf (Cf. Ex. 32). The reverence they expressed with their lips was entirely disconnected from reverence in their life.
Jesus once rebuked the Pharisees for exactly the same inconsistency, “Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me (Mk. 7:6).” The requirement of worshipping God with reverence is not somehow “lifted” in the New Testament; it is heightened! We are receiving an unshakeable & eternal kingdom, and we are adjured to “have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:28-29, Cf. Heb. 4:1).”
The Mediator of a Better Covenant
The outer rind of the Law is, in one sense, passive; it simply is intended to restrain evildoers. The inner shell is a hard husk which reveals our unrighteousness; it’s supposed to make you feel miserable. But the pith of the Law is that it reveals the life found in Christ.
The glory displayed on Sinai preceded the Israelites’ cry for a mediator. Indeed, we all shall one day stand naked before the pure light of God. All of our excuses, justifications, and lies we told ourselves and others laid bare. The horror of seeing the dingy gray of your sinfulness in light of the white holiness of God should compel you to cry out for a Mediator. As John Newton’s hymn puts it:
Let us love and sing and wonder. Let us praise the Saviors name.
He has hushed the Law’s loud thunder, He has quenched Mount Sinai’s flame.
He has washed us with His blood. He has brought us nigh to God
The Law was always about giving life to dead sinners (Lev. 18:5). But God intends to give you that life, not through your paltry attempts to fulfill His Law, but all on the basis of a perfect Mediator. One who stands in your stead, and when He speaks to God the Father it is this, “This one is mine.” Moses mediated a temporal covenant which was a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ, who would fulfill all the righteous demands of the Law, and offer justification on the basis of His obedience. The Law threatens, “Obey or die.” The Gospel replies, “Believe and live.” Sinai’s Law was glorious indeed; it showed the depth of your infinite need. Calvary’s Law is simply this: by grace you are saved through faith.