Exodus 18:1 - 20:11
The eighteenth chapter is somewhat parenthetical in its nature, inasmuch as it recounts an episode in which Moses' father-in-law played a considerable part. To get the more direct dealings of God with the people we have to read straight on from the end of Exodus 17 to the beginning of Exodus 19.
Jethro must have known the full story of Israel's sufferings in Egypt for Moses had dwelt with him for forty years. Now he had heard the wonderful story of their deliverance, and he came to rejoice with them, bringing Zipporah and her two sons. Only now do we learn that Moses had sent her back to her father, and what was the name of the second son.
The episode related in Exodus 4 had shown us that Zipporah was not prepared for circumcision, the sign of the covenant with Abraham, and the type of the cutting off of the flesh. And, in that chapter it is "son," in the singular, which we take as applying to Gershom, previously mentioned in Exodus 2. In naming his elder son Gershom, Moses revealed his consciousness of strangership in the world where he sojourned, and the cutting off of circumcision was very appropriate in regard to that. Now the second son is mentioned, and we pass from what is negative to what is positive, since Eliezer signifies, "My God is an help." This had now been made very plain, and in these two names we find Moses saying in principle what Joseph before him had said in the names of his two sons, which meant, "Forgetting," and "Fruitful."
Many see in this chapter a picture, though perhaps a faint one, of what will take place at the end of Israel's history. It is given to us before we turn from God's dealings with the people in grace, under the old covenant with Abraham, to the fresh covenant of law, with which Exodus 19 is occupied. Let us consider this picture in its broad outlines.
In the language of Deuteronomy 33: 5, Moses was, "king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people and the tribes of Israel were gathered together." In our chapter we find the heads of the people being selected, as Jethro counselled under God; for he only advised it, if "God command thee so." So it seems that here we have a little sample of the coming kingdom. Moses is king; the people are subject to him; the Gentile, in the person of Jethro, comes to rejoice with him and his people. Moreover his Gentile wife is there, though she had disappeared during the time when God was redeeming His people by powerful judgments, and in her we see a faint type of the church.
Further, in the men appointed as rulers under Moses we see a type of those who will reign with Christ in the day of the kingdom. This is in keeping with Daniel 7: 14 and 18, where we are told that while the Son of Man will take the kingdom as the supreme authority, the saints also will take the kingdom in that day. The men who took authority under Moses were to be, "able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness." This reminds us that the places of authority in the coming kingdom of Christ will be given to those who have approved themselves as worthy during the present time of responsibility here.
Exodus 19 opens with the people camping at the foot of Sinai in the third month after their deliverance from Egypt; and, reaching that spot, Moses was called by God to go up into the mount in order that he might receive from God and convey to the people a fresh proposal.
The people were reminded what God had done on their behalf, bringing them to Himself in His grace. They however had not responded aright. They lacked faith in God, and did not really know themselves. Would they now have their footing with God established on a legal basis? Should God's attitude towards them be governed by their attitude towards Him, so that, if they obeyed they should be in favour, and if they disobeyed they should be rejected?
In order more fully to grasp the difference between law and grace we may note the contrast between verses 4 and 5 of our chapter and 1 Peter 2: 9. In Exodus the people were to be "a peculiar treasure," "a kingdom of priests," "an holy nation," but only if they obeyed God's voice indeed. In Peter the Christians of Jewish nationality are reminded what they are, without any "if." They are not only "a royal priesthood," "an holy nation," "a peculiar people,"—three things almost identical with the three things of Exodus—but they are a fourth thing, which does not appear in Exodus. They are "a chosen generation," and that made a difference of immense import. They were a new generation of God's choice—a born-again people.
As a result of this, grace had set them in a new and wonderful position, and being this they were to show forth the praises of the One who had called them into it. In Exodus, the position of privilege before God was only to be theirs if their conduct merited it—if they obeyed. And, as we see in other Scriptures, they had to obey in everything and all the time. Hence the position was forfeited. They never had it, and on that basis they never will. Law can only say, "Do and live," whereas grace says, "Live and do."
This legal proposal was laid by Moses before the people, and their reply was promptly given, "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do." Evidently it never occurred to their minds that they lacked both inclination and power to do what the law of God would enjoin. It is just this that both they and we have to learn. But did not God know it? That, He most certainly did.
We may wish then to ask why did God propose the law, if He knew from the outset what the result would be? This is virtually the question that Paul raises in Galatians 3: 19. He answers it by saying, "It was added because of transgressions," while they were waiting for the advent of Christ, the promised Seed. The force of this becomes clearer if we read Romans 5: 13; and Romans 7: 7-13. God gave the law to Israel that by it they might have their sinful state brought home to them. Sin is lawlessness, and it was filling the earth from the days of the fall; but, immediately the law was given, a clear line was drawn, and stepping over that line a man became a definite transgressor. His sin could now be imputed to him in a way not possible before. God intended that in Israel definite proof should be given of the fallen and sinful state in which men were found.
Let us not forget that Israel was chosen, not only to be the central nation in God's scheme for the government of the earth under Christ, but also to be the sample nation, in whom was to be made the test as to the real state of fallen humanity. They are a nation that has sprung from the finest human specimen— Abraham, who was "the friend of God." Moreover they came into being by a miracle—the birth of Isaac. They were specially separated from the idolatrous nations and divinely educated by the voices of the prophets. Nothing could be fairer than this test of humanity in this people, who were the finest obtainable sample. We Gentiles were never put under the law, but we must never forget that, when we speak of how the law brought condemnation on Israel, we are thereby condemning ourselves.
In our chapter then, we see the people accepting the law as the determining factor in their relations with God, and doing so in the confidence that they would be able to keep it all. Had they had any true knowledge of themselves they would never have done this. Having accepted it, however, a complete change came over the scene. God veiled Himself and came to Moses in a thick cloud, as verse 8 tells us, and from thence He would speak with Moses and make him His mouthpiece to the people.
Moreover, there would have to be special preparations on the part of the people. For two days they were to be set apart; they were to wash even their clothes, and bounds were to be set, preventing any from touching the mountain, under pain of death. The law was now to be given, and it was important that the people to whom it was given should be impressed with the holiness of the One who gave it.
From verse 16 to the end of the chapter we have a vivid description of the tremendous scene that took place on the third day when the law was given. The people were marshalled at the foot of the mount that they might meet with God, as far as it was possible for them to do so. On the crest of the mountain Jehovah descended in fire, heralded by thunders, lightnings, cloud and smoke, and also the loud sound of a trumpet and quakings in the earth. It must indeed have been a scene to strike terror into every heart. If we turn to Hebrews 12: 21, we discover a detail which is not mentioned in Exodus—"So terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake." Exodus tells us that the people trembled, but that Moses, accompanied by Aaron, went up into the mount. Hebrews tells us how he quaked as he did so.
Verse 22 shows us that there were already in Israel men who were acknowledged as priests, and in chapter 24: 5, we read of certain young men who were sent to sacrifice unto the Lord. Who these were is not disclosed, and not until we reach chapter 28 do we find Aaron and his sons named, as to be set apart for the priest's office. What does appear clearly in our chapter is that the special privilege connected with priesthood is that of drawing "near to the Lord," and that such nearness demands sanctification in no ordinary degree.
Verses 1-17 of Exodus 20 put on record the ten commandments which specially summarized the demands made by the holy law of God. The next chapter opens with the "judgments," which were to be set before them. If we turn to Malachi 4: 4, we find both "statutes" and "judgments" mentioned as well as the "law." The three words evidently cover all the legislation that reached Israel through Moses, and as we begin to consider the legislation we shall do well to note that in the days of Malachi, nearly a thousand years after it was first given, it was still as binding as at the beginning. It was for "all Israel," and valid all through that dispensation. What God originates at the beginning of any dispensation stands good, and He never swerves from it however much His people may do so.
In giving the commandments God presented Himself to Israel as Jehovah, who had become in a special sense their God by having delivered them from Egypt, the house of their bondage. He addressed Himself therefore at the outset directly to the people, as verse 19 indicates.
In the first three commandments God demanded that His rights as Creator, and their Redeemer from bondage, should be respected. He alone is God, so they were in the first place to recognize no other "god."
In the second place they were to make no attempt to have an image or material representation of any unseen power. God is "in heaven above," and anything purporting to be an image of Him is forbidden. Many other powers there are both invisible and visible, and no representations of such are to be made. All the idols of the heathen are strictly forbidden, and in this connection the warning is issued as to the sins of the fathers descending in retribution on the children. God knew how terribly infectious such idolatrous practices are; and, that if the fathers start them the epidemic rages with tenfold virulence in the children, and brings down the judgment upon their heads.
On the other hand the government of God would be in favour of those who are obedient because they love Him. Thus at the outset was it indicated that love is what is really enjoined in the law. Love is the fulfilling of the law, as we know very well.
In the third place the name of the Lord is safeguarded. Though Jehovah Himself was unseen, His Name had been manifested, and His supreme place in their midst would soon be disregarded if His Name were to be used in an unworthy way.
It is remarkable that the commandments given with the object of asserting and safeguarding the glory and the rights of God should be three, and this long before the reality of the three Persons in the Godhead was brought to light. We cannot but see in the second the clearing away of all that would be calculated to confuse the issue when our blessed Lord Jesus appeared as "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1: 15). In Him, and in Him alone, is found the true and perfect representation of all that God is.
Similarly it is remarkable that when the Holy Spirit—who is not incarnate, but invisible—was sent forth He was sent by the Father in the name of the Son (see, John 14: 26). That name has to be safeguarded, and it is further to be noted that it is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, who has come in that name, which is the unpardonable sin.
The fourth commandment concerns the due observance of the sabbath day, which was to be the sign of the covenant which was just being established. The first three commandments lay down man's duty in regard to God; the last six his duty in regard to his fellows. Between these two divisions stands 'the sign of the covenant, for it of necessity drew a clear line of demarcation between Israel, who as God's people were to observe this weekly day of complete rest, and the rest of the nations, who did not observe it.
The Gentile nations had by this time lost all knowledge of the true God and of His work in creation. Israel alone had the knowledge of this and of the fact that God had rested on the seventh day. In the law God was enforcing His creatorial rights over man, and by Sabbath observance Israel was to have His creatorial work in constant remembrance.
We Christians are not under the law but under grace. The Sabbath, as the sign of the law covenant, has therefore lost its significance for us, as we see in such a Scripture as Colossians 2: 16. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that a rest of one day in every seven is the wise and beneficent intention of God for man. The resurrection of Christ is the seal of our faith, and hence the first day of the week, on which He rose from the dead, became the day that Christians have from the very beginning devoted to His worship and service, and it has become the day on which we cease from our ordinary toil. Israel's week worked up to the day of rest. The Christian's week starts from the day of rest, based upon the resurrection of Christ.
The world around us has turned it into a day of amusement, sport and sin. Let us take good care to use it aright for the glory of God and our own blessing.
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