“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”?

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!

“That I may dwell among them”

“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”
(Exodus 25:8)

When we studied Exodus 24 last time together, we read of the seemingly-insurmountable rift of separation between God and the people. In fact in verses 1-2, God even says, “All of you must worship from a distance. Only Moses is allowed to come near to the Lord. The others must not come near, and none of the other people are allowed to climb up the mountain with him” (Exodus 24:1-2, NLT). The situation seems pretty clear cut. God is holy. The people are not. Therefore, both parties will never be able to exist in each other’s presence. But when we move to Exodus 25, we begin to grasp the amazing realization that God actually had a plan this entire time to close that distance and breach that barrier of separation. Before the fall, mankind enjoyed complete, unhindered fellowship with their Creator. Once the rebellion happened, however, we humans created our own veil of sin separating us from our Heavenly Father. “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2, NKJV). Yet, in Exodus 25-31, with the introduction of the plans for the tabernacle, we begin to see the Father start to close that rift. The amazing reality is that God actually wants to dwell among us. He desires to “move in” with His people.

It is nearly impossible to overemphasize the importance of Exodus 25 verse 8 and how it fits into the comprehensive biblical story. From a literary perspective, this verse acts as a “hinge point” in the scriptural narrative. God will once again make His home among His children. What a mind-blowing prospect! And yet, as we continue to read through Exodus and Leviticus and so on, it doesn’t take us long to realize that there are still some serious limitations with this sanctuary business. God’s Presence among the people is limited to a single physical structure. Additionally, the people must rely on the mediatorial ministry of the priests on their behalf. They are still unable to access God directly. And from God’s perspective, this arrangement simply isn’t good enough.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NKJV). And so, in a breathtaking move that would alter the course of history, God executed the next step in His plan: He sent Jesus Christ to BE the tabernacle among us – the living, breathing manifestation of God. “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (The Message). In three and a half years, Jesus with His little band of followers would change the world. Yet, God’s plan was still not complete. The Person of Jesus Christ, while on earth, was still limited to a single physical place at any given point in time. At the end of His ministry, Jesus must tell His tearful disciples why He would need to go away for a while: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7).

The next step, Jesus instructed His followers, would be for the Holy Spirit to come. A special outpouring of God’s Presence into our lives. And where does that leave us now?

So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord. You also are being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22, HCSB)

Unbelievable as it is, God is now able to become more Present in our lives than was ever imagined possible! You see, God’s Tabernacle among us is no longer limited by physical space. WE are His new tabernacle! “And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.” (1 Peter 2:5, NLT). Through the Holy Spirit’s ministry, God dwells within our very hearts and minds. Our Heavenly Father is completely present, totally engaged in each one of our lives, every moment, every breath of every day. And, in turn, we as the church body are to serve as the vessels of God’s Presence–His Shekinah glory–to the perishing world around us.

And yet, we know this can’t be the end of the story. There’s something still desperately wrong with the reality in which we find ourselves: “And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering…” (Romans 8:23). There now remains just one final step in God’s plan of restoration for His people. It’s the event–the moment–we’re all holding out for with everything we’ve got:

And I heard a loud voice, which came from the throne, say, ‘God’s dwelling place is among men and He will dwell among them and they shall be His peoples. Yes, God Himself will be among them’…

I saw no sanctuary in the city, for the Lord God, the Ruler of all, is its Sanctuary, and so is the Lamb (Revelation 21:3, 22, Weymouth New Testament)

The Lord God Himself will be our sanctuary… No more need for a physical tabernacle structure in this coming City. Because our Heavenly Father is at last able to fully and completely dwell among His people. No more sin, no more suffering, no more separation.

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)

Covenant

All along our Exodus journey, the climax has been building and building as the Hebrews approach Mount Sinai to meet with their God. On this mountain, God will finally reveal Himself to His people, and here He will invite His people to enter in to an eternal covenantal relationship with Him: “You know how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation'” (Exodus 19:4-6, NLT).

As we break this interaction in Exodus 19 and 20 down, however, I think it’s fascinating that God keeps emphasizing to Moses, “Don’t let the people break through the boundaries of the mountain; don’t let them see Me, or else they will die” (my paraphrase). God stresses these instructions over and over again. It’s almost as if God anticipates the children of Israel wanting so badly to see Him that they will break through the boundaries just to get a glimpse of His glory. However, the stark irony is, that when God does come to the mountain and invite the people to approach Him, the people “stood at a distance, trembling with fear” (verse 18). In fact, they find God’s Presence and voice so terrifying that they plead with Moses in verse 19, “You speak to us, and we will listen. But don’t let God speak directly to us, or we will die!” They even beg Moses to wear a veil over his face when he returns from speaking with God so they won’t have to look on the residual light of God’s glory. (Make a note of that! We’ll revisit this thought a bit later.) The tragic irony of this story is that the people want nothing to do with God’s Presence. “We promise that we’ll do everything this God wants,” they cry out to Moses, “Just please tell Him to stay away from us!” It all boils down to this: Israel wanted the protection and benefits of God’s covenant, but not the relationship with the Covenant Giver. Here is a people who want to basically get as far away from their God as possible, and yet, in Exodus 19:8, they boldly proclaim, “All that the LORD has spoken WE WILL DO” (NKJV). You really think so, huh? And yet, just a matter of days later, we find the camp in full-blown rebellion against their God… How very, very sad.

mtsinai_covenant

But what does this story mean for us today? Why so much focus on the glory and the veil? What does all of this have to do with the Old and New Covenants? It has everything to do with them! It is from this vantage point that we find the stage brilliantly set for the glorious revelation of God’s New Covenant with us today. We can read about it in Hebrews, chapter 8:

If the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need for a second covenant to replace it. But when God found fault with the people, he said: The day is coming, says the Lord, when I will make new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah…

I will put my laws in their minds,
and I will write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
And they will not need to teach their neighbors,
nor will they need to teach their relatives,
saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’
For everyone, from the least to the greatest,
will know me already.
And I will forgive their wickedness,
and I will never again remember their sins.”
(Hebrews 8:10-13, NLT)

You see, this time around God wants us to get something straight: It’s not about what we do for God. It’s all about what HE does for us! At the end of the day, it can all be summed up like this:

Old Covenant: “All that the LORD has said, WE WILL do” (Exodus 19:8)

vs.

New Covenant: “I WILL put my laws in their minds, and I WILL write them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10)

That is the fundamental difference between the Old Covenant and the New. In actuality, this has always been God’s plan for us. There’s a sense in which God never intended there to be an Old Covenant versus a New Covenant. The problem with the Old Covenant isn’t God’s posture towards us, because that has remained eternally unchanged — it’s ours toward God. The problem is the veil that lies over our hearts and minds. The veil came about because the children of Israel did not want to look at the glory of God. God’s Presence was entirely too disruptive and unsettling for them. Instead, they believed they could keep their end of the covenant in their own strength — without the transforming power of God’s Presence, without the relationship. And this is, in fact, something that we can be just as guilty of today. You see, God’s glory in our lives can be quite an uncomfortable thing. God’s glory unleashed can take us for a pretty wild ride — a ride where we aren’t the ones driving! We simply can’t remain unchanged in the face of it. That’s a pretty terrifying prospect for us. We would often prefer to “obey” on our own strength, in our own way — just like Israel. And so, we look for “veils” to keep God’s Presence at a safe distance from us. As 2 Corinthians 3:14 says, “the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth.” We may go to church, read a daily devotion occasionally, and listen to KLTY during our morning commute, but when it comes to really allowing the transforming power of God’s Presence to be unleashed in our lives… Well, we too often decide that we’re much more comfortable simply “standing at a distance.”

Now, here’s the amazing piece of the picture! Thanks to the life and death of Jesus, “whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Corinthians 3:16). Because of our massive failure to understand and respond to the invitation of relationship offered through the first presentation of the covenant (Hebrews 8:8), it was necessary for Jesus to introduce the second presentation of the covenant. We broke covenantal relationship the first time around, and God responded by allowing Himself to be broken, to be torn apart at the cross. But, praise God, in that sundering of the Godhead, something else was also was also ripped down — that separating veil: “Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 24:51). What fantastic news! The largest veil of all has already been torn apart! What’s left is for us to allow those little veils in our lives to be pulled down, so that we can directly behold God’s glory — the glory that comes from a living, breathing daily relationship with Him, in His abiding Presence. “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NKJV). This glory transforms us from the inside out! All of the sudden, we realize that we don’t have to work to earn anything with our Heavenly Father. We simply accept, in a beautiful Sabbath rest, the unspeakable gift which He has given us. We are then able, as we surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit, to live in complete harmony with God’s breath-taking covenant and His eternal Law which governs it.

Unlike your ancestors, you didn’t come to Mount Sinai-all that volcanic blaze and earthshaking rumble-to hear God speak. The earsplitting words and soul-shaking message terrified them and they begged him to stop…

No, that’s not your experience at all. You’ve come to Mount Zion, the city where the living God resides. The invisible Jerusalem is populated by throngs of festive angels and Christian citizens. It is the city where God is Judge, with judgments that make us just. You’ve come to Jesus, who presents us with a new covenant, a fresh charter from God. He is the Mediator of this covenant…

(Hebrews 12:18-24, The Message)

“Now, you will see what I will do”

As we read through Exodus 4, we see that Moses and God have been going back and forth on this “deliver my people” business for a while now, and finally, Moses runs out of excuses. “But Moses again pleaded, ‘Lord, please! Send anyone else'” (Exodus 4:13, NLT). Finally, the real reason comes out – Moses simply does not want to go. God has been exceedingly patient with Moses up to this point. God has parried every excuse Moses has brought to the table, but finally God gets a little ticked: “Then the Lord became angry with Moses” (verse 14). When God calls us to do something, He is more than willing to patiently work with our weaknesses and even our wavering faith. But when it boils down to sheer unwillingness to obey His call, then that’s what frustrates God and hinders His ability to continue working with us. But God compromises with Moses, I guess you could say. He agrees to send Aaron along with Moses. Of course, this ends up being a less-than-ideal situation since Aaron will end up causing a number of sticky patches along the way. However, under God’s direction, Moses and Aaron do eventually make their way to Egypt to meet up with the Hebrew elders:

Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel… So the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel and that He had looked on their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshiped. (Exodus 4:29-31, NKJV)

Then they bowed their heads and worshiped… I love this. When we learn of God’s amazing love and when we see His revelation in our life, our only proper response is to worship. Worship is a response to what God has done for us. Worship is the glue that holds our relationship with God together.

So things are off to a promising start, right? The people believed! Now it’s just a matter of politely asking Pharaoh to set his slaves free, right? With God on his side, Moses is sure to have the road clearly laid out before him! Except, that’s not exactly how it plays out, is it? Exodus 5 details the disastrous fallout of Moses’ audience with Pharaoh and the painful consequences that the suffering people must bear. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can hardly blame Moses for his agonizing cry:

Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all!” (Exodus 5:22-23, NIV)

I think there’s a lesson in this reminding us that, sometimes when we follow God’s call, things may get worse before they get better. God hadn’t filled Moses in on all the details, but He had given Moses the big picture. Moses must learn to trust God with the big picture, even when the details seem to go the wrong direction. And so must we.

I appreciate Moses’ raw honesty with God. But I love even more how God responds to Moses… In response to Moses’ bitter outcry, God simply says, “Now you will see what I will do…” God isn’t angry with Moses, as we might expect. Instead He simply replies, “Just watch, Moses, and see what I can do.” Let’s remember that! Sometimes, when it seems like we’ve reached the end of our rope in life, when it seems like our backs are against a wall and there’s nowhere else to turn, just remember that those times are often the exact opportunity God has been waiting for to say, “Now, you will see what I will do!”

The LORD gently reminds Moses that He is fully aware of His children’s suffering, and that, with each stinging whip lash, His own heart has reverberated with the pain: “You can be sure that I have heard the groans of the people of Israel, who are now slaves to the Egyptians. And I am well aware of my covenant with them” (Exodus 6:5, NLT). God then wraps everything up in a beautiful restatement of His covenant. In a seven-fold “I will” promise, God reaffirms His covenant with His people:

“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I AM the Lord [YHWH] and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I AM the Lord.‘” (Exodus 6:6-8, NIV)

Notice how this beautiful promise is bookended by a declaration of God’s holy name – a claim of His identity and character. Before we jump head-first into our busy schedules this week, let’s take some time to meditate on God’s seven-fold promise to us today:

  • I will bring you out from under the yoke of the bondage.
  • I will free you from being slaves to this world’s sin and addiction.
  • I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of power.
  • I will take you as my own child.
  • I will be your God.
  • I will bring you to the land, the spacious place (Psalm 18:19), I swore to give you with an uplifted hand. (That is both a promise for this world and the world to come!)
  • I will give it to you as a possession, an inheritance. (“In Christ also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will.” Ephesians 1:11, KJ21.)

May the Father and Son and Holy Spirt richly bless you today!