The giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai was accompanied by a spectacular display of the power of God that was so dramatic the people of Israel feared for their lives:
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:18-19)
You don’t see this kind of awe at the majesty of God often today. The people were legitimately afraid that they would die if God spoke directly to them, because they had been warned that death could result from them getting too close. (Exodus 19:12-13) It is hard to imagine what this scene must have looked like, but I picture a louder, more spectacular fireworks display than any I have ever witnessed, the top of the mountain covered in smoke and fire, and punctuated by these ear-splitting trumpet blasts. (Exodus 19:13, 19:19, 20:18) Whatever the scene was really like, it obviously made an impact on the people. I sometimes wonder if my own reverence for the Lord would be impacted if I were able to witness His mighty power displayed in this way a little more often. But unfortunately, the nation of Israel has answered that question for us. They were worshipping and making sacrifices to a golden calf before Moses even came down from the mountain! (Exodus 32)
In a previous blog on Job, called The Christian Man’s Response to Suffering, I mentioned “the fear of the Lord” that Scripture talks about often, and attempted to define it. That term, “the fear of the Lord”, or other similar terms, appear often in the Bible. Notice what Moses says to the people in Exodus 20:20: “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” There are obviously two kinds of fear going on here. Moses says, essentially, “Do not fear what can happen to you physically by being in close proximity to God and His power, but have a kind of fear that causes you not to sin.” The people were concerned about what God could do to them physically, but not concerned about what rebellion against Him can do to them spiritually. This is the kind of fear of the Lord that we are to have. Go back and read what I said in that post on Job if you need more clarity on this, because you’ll see that term “the fear of the Lord” often in Scripture. In every case, it is talking about a type of awe, wonder and worship of God and His character that leads His people to conviction of sin and the desire to turn from their sin and live godly lives.
Immediately after the Ten Commandments, the Lord gives more laws that are intended to guide His people Israel as a nation. These laws are bookended by laws regarding altars (Exodus 20:22-26) and the sabbath and festivals (Exodus 23:10-19). I think this is significant and intentional. While the laws (and still are) necessary to govern conduct, God is acknowledging that He is aware of man’s inability to keep the laws. When we come face-to-face with our inability to keep God’s laws, we immediately realize our need for two things – provision for sin and the presence and power of God. The laws regarding sacrifice and worship are provided because God knew before he gave the law that man would be unable to keep it. Even the nature of some of the laws given in Exodus 21-23 reflects the depravity and wickedness of the heart of man. They also reveal the seriousness with which God treats sin and disobedience to His law. For example, the law given in Exodus 21:17 regarding what should happen to a child who curses his parents highlights the importance that God placed on the fifth commandment.
For God’s people Israel, the law was given to remind them of their insufficiency and Yahweh’s all-sufficiency. The law pointed out their need for provision for sin (the altar, the sacrificial system and, ultimately, a Redeemer) and for God’s presence and power (the feasts, the tabernacle, the temple, and ultimately Immanuel, “God with us”).