This is an amazing chapter. God has led His people away from a slave state and into the wilderness where He continues to care for them. It has been three months since God delivered them from Egypt. They have now traveled to the wilderness of Sinai and camped near the mountain there.
Moses goes to God and God is now ready to make a covenant with the people. This covenant will be different from the Abrahamic covenant, which is larger in scope. The Mosaic covenant’s specific terms are revealed in chapters 20 through 24 of Exodus. Included in this covenant are the Ten Commandments, laws about property, violence, and animals, the sabbath, feasts, and other guidance on living a peaceful and orderly lifestyle. This preamble in chapter 19 lays out the necessary and intense fear of the Lord that is part of the covenant. The Israelites have had firsthand experience with the power of the Lord and their fear of His power is a good part of the relationship. Not unlike a parent/child relationship, there is tender love but also fear at the other’s power to punish. The people are told to draw near to the Lord, but not too near, lest they perish by gazing at Him.
The Lord tells Moses to tell the people, “…if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for the earth is Mine.” The people said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.”
The people are to be consecrated, or made holy for a specific purpose, to God, for three days before the Lord comes down upon Mt. Sinai. Being sanctified for God meant that the people would wash their clothes and abstain from sex. The people were not to touch the mountain; if they did, they would die. This commandment, or condition, of God’s coming to the people on Mt. Sinai is representative of His absolute holiness and power.
If the people were to be made holy simply so that they could be near the mountain, their purest holiness still would not allow them to even touch the large mountain, the top of which the Lord would come down on. If they did touch it, they were to be put to death, and that too, without any other Israelite touching them. Such was the strength of God’s presence and power.
On the third day, there was thunder, lightning and a thick cloud on the mountain. The loud trumpet frightened the people and the fear of the Lord was within them. Moses brought the people to the foot of the mountain. The entire mountain quaked and was enveloped in smoke as the Lord descended upon it in fire. The fire was exceedingly hot.
Verses 20-25 relate an exchange between Moses and the Lord where it is again stressed how important it is for the people to be consecrated before being close to the Lord, particularly priests.
This chapter is intense and dramatic, but does not include the theistic revelations that the following chapters will. If anything, it helps us to understand the extreme weight of God’s presence and power. There are of course other instances in the Bible where the strength of God is evident, but the proximity of so many people to the greatest source of power in the universe is eye-opening. Envision yourself as one of the Israelites in the crowd, looking up at the mountain, shrouded in smoke with thunder and lightning bombarding your senses as the sound of a trumpet mysteriously announces the presence of the one and only Almighty God.