As God was introducing Himself to the Israelites during the Exile through various encounters, in which Moses was the intermediary, an interesting dynamic comes into focus. The passage in Exodus 20:18-21 gives us an indication of this interplay:
“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.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.”
The narrative likely isn’t chronological. The events of this passage probably occurred prior to Moses going up on the mountain and receiving the Ten Commandments. God wanted the people to know of His might and power, and to impress upon them that He was God above every other god they knew. This display of thunder, lightning, and the shaking of the mountain would certainly have gotten their attention.
Moses warned them not to approach the mountain of God lest they die. These natural phenomena reinforced that command.
There are a couple of things happening here. God told the people not to approach Him because they would die. Why? Because they remained in a sinful condition. How could this be? They had washed their garments as an act of consecration (Exodus 19:10). Despite this, there appears to be an issue. God told Moses not to let the people break through to look at Him (Exodus 19:21). It’s as though they’ll try to get close so as to gawk at Him like He’s an object of curiosity. If that’s the case, they were treating Yahweh as any other god; they had no reverence or honor of Him.
With that mindset, their hearts weren’t right. In that condition, the impure must be burned up by the pure. By coming into God’s presence in the continuing filthy rags of their sin, it was an impossibility that they could live.
By controlling nature and displaying the physical effects that God did, it reminded the people of how small they were before Him, and it caused them to want nothing to do with His presence. They backed away and were more than happy to let Moses encounter God.
Thus, Moses went up onto the mountain. He remained forty days and was given the Ten Commandments. During this time, he surely enjoyed the presence of the Living God. However, the people, relieved at not having to face God, quickly forgot about Him. Off the hook, they will quickly revert to the pagan ways they learned in Egypt.
The moral of the story with the children of God is that when they were near to Him, they trembled. They were fearful because they surely knew they would die in their sin. As they drew away and God became distant, so did any faith they had. The farther from God they were, the easier it was for them to forget and direct their attention onto themselves and the things of the world.
Isn’t this the same with Christians today? When we maintain a reverent fear of God by honoring Him through reading the Word daily, praying without ceasing, coming into His presence clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and by living in obedience to His commands, we have no need to be concerned. He assures us of His love through the favor of His blessings.
However, a Christian who ignores the things of God soon falls away. What is it that keeps him close? If Christ isn’t at the center of his life, He’s somewhere off to the side and certainly not near. When that happens, it’s easy to slip into a life of sin, because justifying ungodly actions becomes easier. For this person, the voice of the Holy Spirit’s counsel and guidance can no longer be heard; his own thoughts dominate, perhaps aided by the whisperings of Satan.
It’s not easy to maintain the discipline necessary for our personal relationship with God to flourish. Yet, we must. Is Jesus simply another shiny object in our lives that grows dull? Or is He the reason we live?