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19. At Mount Sinai

In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai. 2For they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the desert of Sinai, and had pitched in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount. 3And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel; 4Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. 5Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: 6And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.

7And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord commanded him. 8And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord. 9And the Lord said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever. And Moses told the words of the people unto the Lord.

10And the Lord said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them to day and to morrow, and let them wash their clothes, 11And be ready against the third day: for the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai. 12And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death: 13There shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live: when the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount.

14And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their clothes. 15And he said unto the people, Be ready against the third day: come not at your wives.

16And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled. 17And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. 18And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. 19And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice. 20And the Lord came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the Lord called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up. 21And the Lord said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the Lord to gaze, and many of them perish. 22And let the priests also, which come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break forth upon them. 23And Moses said unto the Lord, The people cannot come up to mount Sinai: for thou chargedst us, saying, Set bounds about the mount, and sanctify it. 24And the Lord said unto him, Away, get thee down, and thou shalt come up, thou, and Aaron with thee: but let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto the Lord, lest he break forth upon them. 25So Moses went down unto the people, and spake unto them.

1. In the third month. This chapter informs us by what means God rendered the people attentive and teachable when He would promulgate His laws. He had, indeed, previously delivered the rule of a just and pious life, but by writing the Law on tables, and by then adding its exposition, He not only embraced the perfect doctrine of piety and righteousness, but ratified it by a solemn rite, so that the recognition of it might remain and flourish in future times. And this is the main and principal thing which the prophets celebrate in the redemption of the people; and in this, as in a mirror, propose for consideration the image of the renewed Church, that God made known His testimonies to His redeemed, and bound the people, whom He had purchased, to Himself by a new covenant. He had indeed made with Abraham an eternal, and inviolable covenant; but because it had grown into disregard from the lapse of time, and the carelessness of mankind, it became needful that it should be again renewed. To this end, then, it was engraved upon the tables of stone, and written in a book, that the marvelous grace, which God had conferred on the race of Abraham, should never sink into oblivion. But in the first place we must observe that, although the Law is a testimony of God’s gratuitous adoption, and teaches that salvation is based upon His mercy, and invites men to call upon God with sure confidence, yet it has this peculiar property, that it; covenants conditionally. Therefore it is worth while to distinguish between the general doctrine, which was delivered by Moses, and the special command which he received. Moses everywhere exhorts men, by holding forth the hope of pardon, to reconcile themselves to God; and, whenever he prescribes expiatory rites, he doubtless encourages miserable sinners to have a good hope, and bears witness that God will be merciful to them. Meanwhile this office was separately imposed upon him, to demand perfect; righteousness of the people, and to promise them a reward, as if by compact, upon no other condition than that they should fulfill whatever was enjoined them, but to threaten and to denounce vengeance against them if ever they wandered from the way. It is certain indeed that the same covenant, of which Abraham had been the minister and keeper, was repeated to his descendants by the instrumentality of Moses; and yet Paul declares, that the Law “was added because of transgressions,” (Galatians 3:19,) and opposes it to the promise given to Abraham; because, as he is treating of the peculiar office, power, and end of the Law, he separates it from the promises of grace. With the same import, he elsewhere calls it “the ministration of death,” and “the letter that killeth.” (2 Corinthians 3:6, 7.) Again, in another place, he states that it “worketh wrath,” (Romans 4:15;) as if by its arraignment it inflicted a deadly wound on the human race, and left them no hope of salvation. In this preparation, then, wherein God instructed the people to reverence and fear, a twofold object may be perceived; for, since men’s minds are partly swollen with pride and haughtiness, and partly stupified by indifference, they must needs be either humbled or awakened, in order to their reception of divine teaching with the attention it deserves; nor can any be prepared to obey God, except he be bowed down and subdued by fear. Moreover, they then begin to be afraid when God’s majesty is displayed to inspire them with terror. Thus, therefore, let the fact that the authority of the Law was ratified by many signs and wonders, teach us that this is the beginning of piety and faith in God’s children. To this end also did God shake the earth, to arouse men’s hearts from their slumber, or to correct them by taming their pride. This object is common to the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel, and to the whole sum of divine teaching, to which due honor is never paid, unless God’s majesty first shines forth, whereby He casts down all the haughtiness of the world. But we must not pass over what I lately asserted to be peculiar to the Law, via, to fill men’s minds with fear, and by setting forth its terrible curse, to cut off the hope of salvation; for, whilst it consists of three parts, each of them tends to the same end, that all should acknowledge themselves deserving of the judgment of eternal death, because in it God sustains no other character than that of a Judge, who, after having rigidly exacted what is due to Him, promises only a just reward, and threatens the transgressors with vengeance. But who will be found to be a perfect keeper of the Law? Nay, it is certain that all, from the least to the greatest, are guilty of transgression, wherefore God’s wrath overhangs them all This is what Paul means, when he writes that believers

“have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but the spirit of adoption, whereby they cry, Abba, Father,”
(Romans 8:15;)

showing how much better is our condition than that of the old fathers, because the Law kept them enslaved in its bondage, whilst the Gospel delivers us from anxiety, and frees us from the stings of conscience; for all must necessarily tremble, and finally be overwhelmed by despair, who seek for salvation by works; but peace and rest only exist in the mercy of God. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews pursues this idea at greater length, where he says,

“Ye are not come unto the mount that must be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words: which voice they that heard entreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more, etc., (whence Moses said I exceedingly fear and quake:) but ye are come unto Mount Sion,” etc.
(Hebrews 12:18-22.)

The antithesis here proves, that what was entrusted to Moses is separate and distinct from the Gospel; because God, who appeared in the Law as an avenger, now with fatherly kindness gently invites us unto salvation, and soothes our troubled minds by offering us the forgiveness of our sins. Now, Paul shows us that there is no contradiction in this diversity, because the people were taught by the Law not to seek for salvation anywhere but in the grace of Christ, and being convinced of the horrible condemnation under which they lay, were driven by fear to implore God’s mercy; for, as men are apt to207207     Se pardonnent et dispensent aisement. — Fr. allow themselves in sin, “sin (as Paul says, Romans 5:13) is not imputed, where there is no law;” but those, who delight themselves in darkness, are by the teaching of the Law brought before God’s tribunal, that they may fully perceive their filthiness and be ashamed. Thus is Paul’s saying fulfilled, that the life of the Law is man’s death. (Romans 7:9.) Now we understand why the promulgation of the Law was ratified by so many miracles; viz., because, in general, the authority of the divine teaching was to be established among the dull and careless, or the proud and rebellious; and, secondly, because the Law was propounded to men, who sought the means of flattering themselves, as the mirror of the curse, so that, in themselves lost, they might fly to the refuge of pardon. I have thought it advisable to say thus much by way of preface, for the purpose of directing my readers to the proper object of the history, which is here related. But Moses first recounts that the people came, at a single march, from Rephidim into the region of Sinai; for so I interpret it, that there was no intervening station; for their interpretation is forced and unnatural, who take “the same day” for the beginning of the month.


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