“Throughout all their journeys”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Set up the Tabernacle on the first day of the new year. (Exodus 40:1-2, NLT).

At last we reach the end of our journey through Exodus together. In the closing chapter of the book, God finally gives Moses the go-ahead to complete the construction of the sacred Tabernacle tent. We have waited so long for this moment. There have been so many unnecessary detours in the Israelites’ spiritual journey up to this point. Yet, finally, here we are! Notice that God instructs Moses to erect the Tabernacle “on the first day of the new year.” This is an echo back to Exodus 12 where the Passover was to mark the beginning of a brand new year and a new calendar system for the Hebrews. It’s as if God was saying, “Forget everything in your sordid past. We’re wiping the slate and starting over again from scratch.” As G. Campbell Morgan puts it, “God is ever the God of new beginnings in the history of failure.”

And now, here we are exactly one year from Israel’s deliverance. Moses and the people are eager to prepare for God’s “move-in day”.

Moses proceeded to do everything just as the Lord had commanded him.So the Tabernacle was set up on the first day of the first month of the second year. Moses erected the Tabernacle… just as the Lord had commanded him. (Verses 18-19, NLT)

This point is emphasized over and over again in the verses that follow. Seven times we read that Moses did everything “just as the Lord had commanded.” This is a beautiful place in Scripture. Finally, we find Israel in the perfect resting place of trusting, relationship-based obedience. Israel is now ready to experience the Presence of God. Not that obedience earns God’s love or favor, but obedience invites God’s Presence to be lived out in our lives. As Professor Steve Rodeheaver writes, “In the Exodus narrative, when we are obedient we are preparing… for a day of Presence. Presence is on the other end of obedience.” (Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

Then the cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could no longer enter the Tabernacle because the cloud had settled down over it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.

Now whenever the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out on their journey, following it. But if the cloud did not rise, they remained where they were until it lifted. The cloud of the Lord hovered over the Tabernacle during the day, and at night fire glowed inside the cloud so the whole family of Israel could see it. This continued throughout all their journeys. (Verses 34-38, NLT)

God’s Presence manifests itself as a cloud over the settlement of the Israelites. The rabbis later referred to this holy manifestation as the Shekinah glory. Here are a couple of thoughts about what it means to experience God’s Presence based on these passages:

1.) “Then the cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.” God’s Shekinah Presence takes up quite a bit of real estate, doesn’t it? When God’s glory enters our lives, it starts to crowd other things out. (The cloud was so all-permeating, so all-consuming that even Moses couldn’t enter the tabernacle because of it!) To really experience God’s Presence, we have to be willing to let His glory claim every square inch of our hearts and lives.

2.) “Now whenever the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out on their journey, following it.” When the cloud of God’s glory takes up residence in our hearts, we have to be willing to follow it wherever it leads. We stop where it settles; we follow when it moves. You know, when we think of what it means to experience God’s Presence, I think sometimes we merely equate it with some sort of emotional worship experience. While I am certainly an advocate of personal quiet time in our secret place with God, these passages remind me that experiencing God’s Presence is also about surrendering, obeying, and following. The true experience of God’s Presence will  eventually result in action.

3.) “This continued throughout all their journeys.” The entire book of Exodus is about journeying – the journey from oppression and slavery under Pharaoh to redemption and freedom under God. “Journey” is an appropriate term for our lives as well, and God is willing to walk with us every step of the way. Even the sanctuary reminds us of this reality. Every detail of the tabernacle was designed for travel. I like what Steve Rodeheaver has to say:

Israel will travel according to the cloud. Life is to be lived around the Presence of Yahweh. Life is not stagnant. It involves a journey. And thus Israel has a Tabernacle with mobility. It is a tent that they can pitch when it is time to settle and pack up when it is time to move.

This mobility is a great thing, something that we surely appreciate in our cell phone society. But I think we need to be careful to recognize the impetus for their mobility. The mobility of the Tabernacle was not so that they could take Yahweh with them, but so that they might be able to follow Yahweh’s leading… I fear that we tend to treat God in His mobility as something packable, something that we can stick in our suitcases and pull out whenever we feel the need for a worship experience or a miracle. We make our life decisions according to where we want to go, generally regarding God as an afterthought. You know, one more item that can be squeezed into the suitcase that would be good to bring along…

Yahweh is to be followed, not merely taken along. Exodus closes with Israel well aware of this truth. How aware of it are we?

(Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

This study series through Exodus has been an amazing journey, and I hope you have been as blessed by it as I have. In our closing thoughts, let’s ask ourselves these self-reflective questions:

  •  What stage are you at in your “journey” with God? Are you fresh out of Egypt? Are you in a place where you’d perhaps even rather be back in Egypt, where at least things were known and to some extent comfortable? (Exodus 14:10-12) Are you at the place of bitter waters? Or are you maybe at the foot of Mount Sinai, eager to take the next step and follow God’s leading into the land of promise?
  • For you personally, what does it mean to experience God’s Presence? How do you feel that experience relates to obedience, the active following of God’s will in your life?
  • If you are really honest with your heart, do you think you are in a place in life where God’s guiding Presence is asking you to “stop and settle” for a while, or to “set out and follow”? Does that direction line up with what you want to do?
  • In your life journey, what practical steps can you take to ensure that God’s Presence is not treated as “just another thing to pack in the suitcase”?

Presence

When we left off in Exodus 32 a few weeks ago, we were confronted with the unbridled, raw emotion of a betrayed God. Moses had begged God to restore the covenant with His people, and yet, the end of chapter 32 left us dismayed with what seemed to be an unequivocal “NO!” I appreciate how Professor Steve Rodeheaver helps us to understand this unsettling place in Scripture: “if we are to know Yahweh’s heart, if we are to know the heart that Christ reveals, that’s where we must be for now: the not-yet-forgiven side of forgiveness” (Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

As we continue reading in Exodus 33, we see God and Moses continue their conversation once again:

The Lord said to Moses, “Get going, you and the people you brought up from the land of Egypt. Go up to the land I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… And I will send an angel before you… But I will not travel among you, for you are a stubborn and rebellious people. If I did, I would surely destroy you along the way.” (Exodus 33:1-3, NLT)

Basically, God is saying that Moses and the people are free to go their own way. God will send an angel before them to clear the way and fulfill the promise to Abraham, but He Himself will not be traveling among the people. The relationship, it seems once again, has been too far damaged. The covenant has been shattered beyond repair. You know, at this point, I think if Moses had any less of a heart for God than he had, this arrangement probably would have seemed good enough. “Okay, God, thanks for at least sparing our lives! I guess we’ll be heading our separate ways now… (At least there will be a lot less rules this way.) Well, see you later!” But, no! Moses knew that this arrangement was completely unacceptable. Without God’s very Presence in their midst, there was simply no point in continuing to exist as a people.

At this point in the narrative, there’s this rather awkward break in the flow. Verses 7 through 11 give this seemingly-random aside about Moses and the “Tent of Meeting” (separate from the sanctuary tent) where he would go to speak with God. I didn’t appreciate the purpose of this side note until just recently, when I finally realized that the reason we have this passage is so that we have context–a backdrop, so to speak–on the unspeakably intimate friendship which God and Moses enjoyed. This passage helps us to understand why Moses will ask what he is about to ask. But before we get to that part, I just love how verse 11 reads: “Inside the Tent of Meeting, the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Afterward Moses would return to the camp, but the young man who assisted him, Joshua son of Nun, would remain behind in the Tent of Meeting” (verse 11, NLT). I especially love the part about Joshua. Joshua wanted so badly to experience God’s Presence that he would stay behind after Moses left – just so that he might experience a glimpse of God’s lingering Presence. Oh, that we would have hearts for God like Joshua!

Now that we have this backdrop to Moses’ and God’s friendship in place, let’s read what Moses asks of God in verses 12 and on:

Then Moses said to the Lord, “See, You say to me, ‘Bring up this people.’ But You have not let me know whom You will send with me. Yet You have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found grace in My sight.’ Now therefore, I pray, if I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You and that I may find grace in Your sight. And consider that this nation is Your people.”

And He said, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (verses 12-14, NKJV)

God’s response to Moses is both gracious and loving. But at this point, God has only promised to personally be with Moses, singularly. Yet Moses’ courage and confidence is bolstered by this response, and he’s ready to probe God’s heart even deeper for the sake of the people:

Then he said to Him, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here. For how then will it be known that Your people and I have found grace in Your sight, except You go with us? So we shall be separate, Your people and I, from all the people who are upon the face of the earth.”

So the Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing that you have spoken; for you have found grace in My sight, and I know you by name.” (verses 15-17, NKJV)

Amazing grace, unfailing love! God’s goodness and graciousness know no bounds. Israel is forgiven and the covenant is renewed. The relationship is restored! I can only imagine Moses’ breathless relief and ecstatic wonder at this response. His heart is so overcome by God’s words that he blurts out the most daring request of all: “Please, show me Your glory” (verse 18). I imagine that God’s heart thrilled at Moses’ request for deeper intimacy! Moses’ request is granted, yet, God must warn Moses that only His back can be seen. God then arranges for Moses to meet with Him again on the mountain.

As we come to Exodus chapter 34, our anticipation as the reader can hardly be contained. This is the first time in the biblical narrative that someone will actually encounter God’s full glory! Even if it is only God’s back, we eagerly wait to see what this experience will be like. What will it look like? What will it feel like? And, yet, when we get to verses 5 through 7, we are left surprised–maybe even a little disappointed at first–at the lack of a physical description of the event. Instead, here’s what we get:

Then the Lord came down in a cloud and stood there with him; and he called out his own name, Yahweh. The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out,

“Yahweh! The Lord!
The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
and filled with unfailing love [hesed] and faithfulness [’emet].
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty… ” (Exodus 34:5-7, NLT)

No description of what God looked like. No description of what the encounter felt like. Instead, what do we get? We get a transcript of God’s character. We get a picture of how God chooses to relate to His people. We are reintroduced to who God really is: the LORD is full of immeasurable compassion, boundless mercy, unfailing love, and eternal faithfulness! I especially love the use of the Hebrew word hesed. Hesed describes a love so deep, so intense, so radical, that we simply don’t have an English word to describe it. It’s a word that is never used to describe the love between a man and women, because that kind of love simply isn’t deep enough. It’s only ever used to describe the self-sacrificing, unfailing love of God for you and me. Likewise, the Hebrew word ‘Emet denotes uncompromising fidelity, unwavering reliability, unchanging faithfulness. Moses wants us to know that this is what God’s glory is like!

As we close out our weeks, my prayer is that we will develop an insatiable thirst for God’s Presence just like Moses and Joshua. Like Moses, let our prayer be that God’s Presence will “go with us” in every step of our daily journey. It’s a prayer God’s heart is yearning to answer.

The Shattered Covenant

Last time, we studied the first half of Exodus 32: the Israelites’ disobedience against God and the making of the golden calf. So far, we’ve read everything from the perspective of the people. Starting in verse 7, however, the focus of the story’s action suddenly shifts back to God and Moses. As the reader, we are confronted with the full, unbridled, raw emotion of a betrayed God:

The Lord told Moses, “Quick! Go down the mountain! Your people whom you brought from the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. How quickly they have turned away from the way I commanded them to live! …I have seen how stubborn and rebellious these people are. Now leave me alone so my fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:7-10, NLT)

In response to God’s anger, Moses immediately throws himself into the position of intercession for the people he loves – the people he knows God loves! Notice, how Moses in his prayer first turns God’s words around and gives the people back to God: “But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, ‘O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt…?” (vs. 11, ESV) Moses then appeals to God on the basis of His reputation: “Why let the Egyptians say…?” (vs. 12) In other words, “Your glory and reputation is at stake among the nations here, God! Don’t turn Your back on Your people!” Finally, in his desperate prayer, Moses ultimately appeals to God on the basis of His covenant promise: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self” (vs. 13, ESV). Moses knows that above all, God is a promise keeper. He knows that when all else seems to fail, he can count on God’s eternal covenantal faithfulness.

The astounding surprise of the story comes in verse 14: “So the LORD changed his mind about the terrible disaster he had threatened to bring on his people” (NLT). This verse has left many confused and frustrated. How can we reconcile the idea of God changing His mind with what we read about God’s unchanging and eternal nature? “God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?” (Numbers 23:19, NLT) What we must recognize here is that God is using “anthropomorphic” (human-like) qualities to express himself in a way that we can understand and relate to. Even more importantly, God is using this interaction to thrust Moses into a Christ-like position of intercession for his people. I like how commentator David Guzik puts it:

God did not destroy Israel, and He knew that He would not destroy Israel. Yet He deliberately put Moses into this crucial place of intercession, so that Moses would display and develop God’s heart for the people, a heart of love and compassion. Moses prayed just as God wanted him to – as if heaven and earth, salvation or destruction, depended on his prayer. This is how God waits for us to pray. (David Guzik, Commentary on Exodus)

Moses prayed the exact prayer that God wanted to hear. “That’s right, Moses! That’s exactly what I hoped you would say. You have proven to me that you have the same heart of love that I have for our people.” As I reflect on this amazing reality, I find theologian R. Alan Cole’s words particularly meaningful: “We are not to think of Moses as altering God’s purpose towards Israel by this prayer, but as carrying it out: Moses was never more like God than in such moments, for he shared God’s mind and loving purpose”(Exodus, p. 227).

But the drama of our story is not over yet. We then read how Moses goes down the mountain to fully realize the extent of the people’s rebellion. It was worse than Moses could have ever imagined. Moses immediately gets down to business and carries out a swift sentence of justice on the leading offenders. But after that, Moses again returns to the mountain to speak with God. This time, Moses isn’t pleading for the people’s lives (that request was granted earlier). The question that now hangs in the balance is: Will God choose to continue His covenantal relationship with Israel? As the reader, we are left wondering, “Can the shattered relationship between God and Israel ever be restored? Will God ever claim the Hebrews as His people again?” The end of chapter 32 leaves us astonished and dismayed with what seems to be a clear and irrevocable “NO!”

And the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book… in the day when I visit for punishment, I will visit punishment upon them for their sin.”

So the Lord plagued the people because of what they did with the calf which Aaron made. (Exodus 32:33-35, NKJV)

In closing for this segment of the study, I would like to leave you with the thoughts of Professor Steve Rodeheaver:

That’s where our text ends for now. Plague. Israel must feel the pain of Yahweh… There was no forgiveness. It was still too soon. Imagine discovering that your spouse only married you as a means to an end. You have been reduced from a covenant partner to a manageable resource. The wound is deep. The rage is strong. Quick, automatic forgiveness? No such thing. Can the counselor coax you into forgiveness? Not a chance, not if it is going to be genuine. No, that forgiveness will have to come, if it comes, from deep within your own heart. And thus we wait to discover what lies deep within the heart of Yahweh.

[At this point], it would be easy, too easy, to jump to the New Testament and Jesus as the atonement for our sins. To make that move would be true enough, but to make it so quickly would distort the nature of forgiveness and shrink both Israel’s sin and Yahweh’s heart. The sin of reduction is huge. Only a huge forgiveness can cover it. Does Yahweh have a huge enough heart to re-covenant with Israel? So far, there is only a whisper of hope. Possibly, just maybe, plague is not the last word.

But we don’t know, not yet. We have to wait amid hushed tones of hope to see what’s in the heart of Yahweh. As a New Testament people it is an awkward place for us to be. But if we are to know Yahweh’s heart, if we are to know the heart that Christ reveals, that’s where we must be for now: the not-yet-forgiven side of forgiveness. (Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

Be sure to watch for our next study over Exodus 33!

Idolatry

“When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain…” (Exodus 32:1)

Before we get into the crux of Exodus 32, I want us to pause for a second on these first few words: “When the people saw how long it was taking…” Isn’t it sad that we so often fall into traps of temptation when we think God is “delayed” in doing something? How we so easily become discouraged and disheartened when we see “how long” things are taking? Even though we have been given an absolute guarantee on the final outcome of God’s good plans for us! Undeniably, these seasons of waiting can be excruciatingly difficult. But unlike the frustrated boredom of the Israelites, Jesus advises us to “actively wait” for His timing – with lamps burning bright and a heart ready for service: “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning, as though you were waiting for your master to return from the wedding feast… He may come in the middle of the night or just before dawn. But whenever he comes, he will reward the servants who are ready.” (Luke 12:35-38, NLT).

Coming back to our story, we now watch as the people clamor around Aaron, fiercely demanding: “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (NKJV). Sadly, it doesn’t take Aaron long to capitulate. Perhaps he thought that by complying with the people’s demands, he could at least remain in control of the situation? Else, maybe he feared he would be killed? “And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!'” Tragically, it seems the Israelites have completely turned their back on God in full-out rebellion…

But then we get to verse 5, and here’s where I think things get really interesting: “So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord'” (verse 5). Literally translated, Aaron is saying: “Tomorrow is a feast to Yahweh.” He’s talking about the actual Creator God here! I used to think that the people had made an idol to a pagan god, that they had completely rejected their Creator and turned to a false religion. But in reality, they were still “worshipping” the true God – Yahweh. You see, the people didn’t actually want to totally get rid the one true Creator God who led them out of Egypt. They liked His power and miracles, but the whole business with the “I AM THAT I AM” invisible kind of God who only seemed to be making more and more demands was getting a little old… If only the people could have some sort of tangible manifestation of God’s presence among them. Something that they could see, feel, hold… Something that they could control. Something that they could carry around to “lead them” to the places they wanted to go (verse 1). Something that they could even put back in the box if they wanted to! “Well,” they reasoned, “then that would be a much nicer, much more manageable arrangement with the divine, wouldn’t it?” The scary thing is, though, how often do we do the exact same thing with God today? Don’t we find ourselves trying to control and manipulate Him in our prayers and decisions? Don’t we try to squeeze God in the tiny boxes of our own desires and plans? Don’t we so often limit God to nothing more than a puny idol when we doubt His ability to work in our own lives and the lives of others? It’s a sobering reality check to recognize that we are perhaps not so very different than the idolatrous Hebrews after all…

“The people got up early the next morning to sacrifice burnt offerings and peace offerings. After this, they celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry” (verse 6, NLT). What began as an attempt to “worship” God (a limited, reduced, cheap version of God, that is) in their own way and with their own rules quickly spiraled out of control into a drunken pagan orgy! What it ultimately comes down to is that Israel was trying to redefine the contract with God. “We know you said that, God–that whole thing about not making idols, etc. But, given the special circumstances, we think we’ll do this instead…” In fact, the Israelites have more or less been trying to renegotiate the terms of the covenant with God this since Day 1. (See our study over Exodus 19, “The Covenant“) The scary part about it all is that we so often do the exact same thing! When we start trying to “rearrange” things with God–when we start trying to redefine who God is in accordance with who we want Him to be–then what we’re ultimately doing is duping ourselves for a puny, vacillating idol of ourselves! Nothing limits God’s power more in our lives than our attempts to mold Him into our own image. Perhaps this is why God responds so intensely (violently, even) to the Israelite’s rebellion at Mount Sinai?

And except for the prayers of one faithful man, Israel would have irrevocably set its course for complete destruction that day… Keep an eye out for the second half of this study on Exodus 32!

The Tabernacle

In Exodus chapters 25 through 30, God outlines to the Hebrews what a holy community in His Presence will look like. In this plan, God will use a very special physical structure, the tabernacle, as the access point for His Presence among His people. To begin with, the entire Israelite family is invited to participate in the preparation of this sacred tent. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the people of Israel to bring me their sacred offerings. Accept the contributions from all whose hearts are moved to offer them'” (Exodus 25:1-2, NLT). A couple of important points here. 1.) The people must offer the very best of what they had. 2.) The people were only to give from a willing heart – no begrudged, obligatory offering was to be accepted. 3.) The needed gifts outlined in verses 2-7 were broad and diverse. Everything from pure gold to common goats hair would be needed for this project! These points should remind us of a few things when it comes to ministry in God’s service, don’t you think?

The chapter goes on to describe the special articles of furniture in the sanctuary. First and foremost, we read about the Ark of the Covenant which was placed in the Most Holy Place. This special case would house the law of God, the Ten Commandments engraved in stone. The box would be covered by an intricately-crafted cover, known as the “atonement cover” or the “mercy seat.” “I will meet with you there,” God says to Moses, “and talk to you from above the atonement cover between the gold cherubim that hover over the Ark of the Covenant. From there I will give you my commands for the people of Israel” (Exodus 25:22, NLT). One commentator points out here how incredibly surprising this arrangement was. You see, the Hebrews were surrounded by pagan cultures which built grand, elaborate temples to their gods. These temples would house massive and impressive statues of the various gods. “Yet, here was Yahweh telling Moses to build a tabernacle and He would meet them in the empty space between the angels above the Ark. No image or idol of Yahweh was to be constructed. Yahweh could not be reduced or reproduced” (Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute). God’s Presence resided in the empty space above–not inside–the ark! Just as Yahweh’s very name (“I AM THAT I AM”) defies any sense of boundary or restriction, so His Presence cannot and will not be contained in our narrow boxes or controlled by our capricious demands.

Three other furniture items lived in the Holy Place of the sanctuary – the Table of the Bread of Presence, the Lampstand (also known as the Menorah), and the Altar of Incense. Each of these represented God’s Presence and relationship with the Hebrew community, and each of these items also symbolize vital aspects of our Christian walk today. The Bread of the Presence, for example, reminded Israel of their constant dependence on God’s provision, and it ultimately pointed forward to Jesus Christ: “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35). I like to compare the Bread of Presence in my own life with time spent reading God’s Word and enjoying His fellowship, remembering that “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, NET).

The Lampstand was to provide continuous light in the Tabernacle tent. It was to be intricately decorated like an almond tree. In Hebrew, the word for “almond” and the word “watchful” sound almost identical. We can observe this clever play on of words in Jeremiah 1:11-12: “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Look, Jeremiah! What do you see?’ And I replied, ‘I see a branch from an almond tree.’ And the Lord said, ‘That’s right, and it means that I am watching, and I will certainly carry out all my plans.'” The Lampstand, then, would remind Israel of the LORD’s ceaseless watchfulness and care. From my own life-application perspective, I feel that the Lampstand of my heart’s sanctuary is lit whenever I share the love of Christ or reflect His character to those around me. (See Matthew 5:13-16, John 8:12, Ephesians 5:7-14, and 2 Corinthians 3:18.) For yourself, what do you compare the Lampstand with in your spiritual walk?

The last piece of furniture was the Altar of Incense. It was to be placed directly outside of the Most Holy Place so that its incense-laden vapors could waft over the curtain into God’s Shekinah Presence. Revelation 8:4 reminds us that incense symbolizes the prayers of God’s people. I like how one commentator expounds upon this:

While the priest could not see through the curtain into Yahweh’s Presence, he could be assured that the fragrance of the incense passed through the curtain and permeated the air that Yahweh was breathing. We like to think of ourselves as becoming filled with the breath or Spirit of God. Here we have God breathing/inhaling the prayers of our lives. Imagine that. God breathing in the prayers and cries of our hearts, and then breathing out His Spirit upon and within us in response to those cries. Often times God seems removed, out of sight, perhaps even beyond reach. But the fragrance of our lives rises before God in prayer, penetrating the curtains of heaven. (Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

The one final point that really struck me about the design of the tabernacle was the fact every piece of it was intended for travel. So much is written about the poles and the specifics of how the articles were to be transported. God really meant it when He said He would dwell–move in–with His people. He was ready to go all the way them, wherever they journeyed! That must also say something about how serious God is when He says to us, “Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). I pray that this powerful reminder will bless your day as much as it has mine.

Exodus 24: Ratification

Exodus 20 outlined the foundation of God’s covenant with the people in ten overarching, all-inclusive principles of relationship. Chapters 21-23 then further explored what living in God’s community would look like, all focused on how the people were to interact and behave toward each other. God essentially had to start from scratch with the Hebrews, teaching a depraved, ignorant slave nation rules for maintaining relationships. And now, in Exodus 24, we find the formal ratification, or bi-party agreement, to this covenant.

Yet, this is not actually a new covenant at all. It is, in fact, the same covenantal promise that God made with Abram back in Genesis 15, where God demonstrated His fanatical commitment to His pledge by acting as the sole party to pass through the sacrifice. Through this dramatic act, God was declaring that He would come through on His promise no matter what, even if it cost Him His own life! (See our Stepping Stones study on “Genesis 15: The Covenant.”) The ratification of the covenant in Exodus 24, therefore, is actually meant to remind the people of the covenant that already exists. They are the people of the promise, in spite of the fact that they have forgotten.

The most important part of ratifying a covenant in the ancient Middle Eastern culture was the covenant meal. Sharing a meal together symbolized the acceptance of the agreement terms by both parties. It’s almost unbelievable that Moses and the elders of Israel are invited into God’s very Presence to partake in this sacred feast:

Then Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel climbed up the mountain. There they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there seemed to be a surface of brilliant blue lapis lazuli, as clear as the sky itself. And though these nobles of Israel gazed upon God, he did not destroy them. In fact, they ate a covenant meal, eating and drinking in his presence! (Exodus 24:9-11, NLT)

This is one of the most climactic moments of Scripture! What an awesome, overwhelming opportunity! And yet, as the reader, we are left frustrated with the limited description of the encounter. Here the elders of Israel are invited to gaze upon God, and the only description we get is of His feet?? What’s up with that? An insightful article helped me realize what is really going on here, however. Bob Deffinbaugh, in “The Magnificent Meal on Mt. Sinai,” points out the relationship between Exodus 24 and two other throne room visions which we find in Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4. In Exodus 24, we are limited to a description of the sapphire foundation of God’s throne and God’s feet. In the next strategically-placed throne room vision in Ezekiel 1, we learn that there is a crystal firmament or expanse that acts as the floor of God’s throne. Therefore, in Exodus, 24, we get the idea that the elders are eating the covenant feast underneath this crystal firmament. Only God’s throne and feet are described because that’s all they could see. But in Ezekiel’s vision, the prophet gets to peer above that crystal floor. He describes more of God, but his view is limited, focusing vaguely on the waist up and the waist down. Finally, in Revelation 4, John who is called up to heaven gets the most complete picture yet! (Just read Revelation 4:2-8 sometime.) What a beautiful progression! You see, just as there is a greater and greater unveiling of God’s plan of salvation throughout Scripture, so there is also an ever-increasing revelation of the throne and the One who sits upon it.

Now, reading about all these visions made me start wondering whether we ever find a description of God’s face as He sits upon the throne. After searching through my handy Bible app, I found that, not surprisingly, we don’t ever get a description of the Father’s actual face. BUT, you know where my very lasts search hit took me? Revelation 22:4-5. The very last chapter of the Bible. It says this: “And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no night there-no need for lamps or sun–for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever” (NLT). Wow, what an amazing realization! You see, in some ways the story of the Bible ends in a cliff-hanger. We read from Genesis to Revelation, and we never get a complete description of what God looks like, what it’s really like to be in His Presence. But then, when we get to Revelation 22:4, we realize that WE in fact are the ones who will get to finish the story someday! It’s a moment, an encounter, that simply cannot be described in words. We will just have to wait and experience it for ourselves.

Getting back to Exodus, we next learn that, after the covenant meal is finished, Moses alone is called up to the top of the mountain to receive the tablets of the covenant from God’s hand: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain.’ …Then Moses climbed up the mountain, and the cloud covered it. And the glory of the Lord settled down on Mount Sinai” (verses 8, 15-16). As the reader, we’re sort of left hanging here again. Moses is finally invited into God’s glorified Presence, and we can’t wait to read what this experience will be like! Disappointingly, however, the perspective of the account suddenly shifts to that of the people: “To the Israelites at the foot of the mountain, the glory of the Lord appeared at the summit like a consuming fire” (verse 17). This is all we’re told: “Then Moses disappeared into the cloud as he climbed higher up the mountain. He remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.” That’s it? But I want to know what Moses did for forty entire days! (Besides writing down the instructions for the sanctuary, of course.) Was He just standing around and camping out? That’s where another very insightful article helped shed some light on this experience. When Exodus 24:15-16 says that the cloud of God’s glory “rested” or “abode” on the mountain, the word used is “shakan.” This word root is where we also find the concept of God’s “Shekinah glory” which would, of course, later abide in the tabernacle. Author Chaim Bentorah shares that the first two Hebrew letters here (Shin and Kap) form a dual root which carries the idea of rest. The third letter (Nun) speaks to the concept of faith, fertility, productivity, and is even used in the context of sexual intimacy (Biblical Hebrew Studies ). This insight gives amazing depth of understanding into what God’s Shekinah Presence is all about. It’s the combined ideas of Sabbath rest and complete emotional and psychological intimacy! So what was Moses doing up on the mountain for forty days? He and God were simply being together, enjoying each other’s company. Moses was able to complete rest in God’s love and bask in the experience of total, unrestricted intimacy–knowing God and being known by God… Completely vulnerable, and yet, completely safe.

But you know what the most amazing part of the story is? At the end of forty days, Moses is told to go back down the mountain. Why? To make a tabernacle so that this same Shekinah Presence of the LORD could dwell among the people! That’s the mind-blowing twist to the story. You see, the chapter starts out by dramatically delineating the distance, the gaping rift, between God and the people. God is holy. The people are not. Therefore, one would logically conclude that they (that is, “we”) simply cannot exist in His Presence. But, all along, God had a master plan–a plan that would finally allow Him to live again among His people.

God called Moses up for the purpose of sending him back down. The top of Mount Sinai had become the most holy place on earth because God had settled there. God called Moses into this holy place and then told him to go down and make a holy place at the bottom of the mountain. God singled Moses out from the people, but then sent him back to the people, that God might not just meet with Moses but dwell among the whole people.

Moses was granted this indescribable mountaintop experience of God, but the whole purpose behind it was to make a valley dwelling place for God. Moses is not supposed to stay on the mountain. Moreover, Yahweh has no intention or desire to stay on the mountain. Yahweh seeks to dwell among the people. Moses was called up to go down to make a place for Yahweh to dwell. Moses was called high to make a low place for Yahweh to be Present.
(Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Devotionals)

The Law, Part 3 – Relationships 101

Each of God’s commandments defines a safeguard to our relationships. Conversely, the breaking of any one of these principles results in the fracturing of a relationship — either with God or with our neighbors. The last six commandments focus specifically on our relationship with others. The fifth commandment, of course, addresses the love and respect which we owe to our own family, our parents in particular. The remaining commandments instruct us not to murder, cheat on our spouse, steal, lie, or covet.

As we explore God’s law and its demands on our lives, we tend to get caught up on the “don’ts” of it all. In his writings, however, Martin Luther makes that fascinating point that whenever there is a negative prohibition in the commandments, then a positive implication is, in fact, assumed. Pastor Stephen Um expands on this and explains that, for example, when we are told not to murder, the inverse application is that we are to radically love others. (This includes our neighbors and our enemies! See Matthew 5:44.) And when the commandment says not to commit adultery, the assumption is that we are supposed to be uncompromisingly faithful to our spouse. (Matthew 5:27-28.) We are to recognize sexuality as something that is a gift from God and, therefore, treat it as a covenantal commitment. And when it says we ought not to steal, we realize that we ought instead to be fanatically generous with what we do have! (Matthew 5:42.) And to not lie, of course, means that we live a life of complete transparency and extreme integrity. As Jesus expounded, “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No'” (Matthew 5:37).

The tenth commandment drives us even deeper into what it means to live in harmony with God’s law. I like how Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile describes the root of coveting: Imagine that your heart had a pair of hands, and, with those hands, it begins reaching, grasping at things that are outside of its fence of proper ownership. That interior grasping for things that do not belong to us consumes our thoughts and desires. It eventually leads to the breaking of the other commandments in God’s law, all to the ultimate injury of our neighbor! See how devastatingly vicious the cycle is? Pastor Anyabwile goes on to point out yet another deeply-rooted transgression that our hearts can lure us into: “In the act of coveting, what we’re actually saying is that God has not apportioned His creation properly; He hasn’t given us everything that we desire.” It all goes back to the first lie of the serpent, doesn’t it? “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?” (Genesis 3:1) In other words, much like the serpent in Eden, our heart begins to accuse God of not giving us everything we need to be happy. We begin to distrust His motives and distort His character.

In closing, I like how Stephen Um summarizes it all: “You cannot break the rest of the commandments without first breaking the first commandment.” In other words, we are led into breaking God’s statutes when we begin to look at something other than God as our primary source of value — when we follow after another “god.” This ultimately takes us down a road to broken trust and fractured relationships.

But God wants to take us down a very different path, doesn’t He? God wants us to find comfort and security in the protection of His law! And so, rather than thinking of God’s law as an arbitrary set of dogmatic rules, let’s start thinking of them as promises! In reality, each of the commandment acts as a beautiful promise reminding us of God’s power to recreate us into new beings who can and will live in harmony with God’s eternal law of relational love. From now on, every time you read a commandment, read it from God’s point of view, like this: “I promise you that I will create you into a person who won’t ever want to injure yourself or others by ____” (You can fill in the blank.) Isn’t it amazing what God is willing and eager to do in our lives if we will just let Him?

As we close up our three-part study on God’s law, I wanted to share a piece of an enlightening article I read entitled “The 10 Commandments, Sayings or Promises?” Let’s spend some time thinking this week about how each of God’s commandments translates into a beautiful promise for our lives today:

  • Promise #1 – You do not have to live in constant disappointment anymore.
  • Promise #2 – You can be free from rituals and religion and trust in a relationship.
  • Promise #3 – You can trust in a Name that is above every Name.
  • Promise #4 – You can rest.
  • Promise #5 – Your family does not have to fall apart.
  • Promise #6 – You do not have to live in a constant state of anger because you will be motivated by love and not hate.
  • Promise #7 – You do not have to live a life dominated by the guilt, pain and shame associated with sexual sin.
  • Promise #8 – I will provide.
  • Promise #9 – You do not have to pretend.
  • Promise #10 – I will be enough.