God Provides a Mediator (20:18-21)
His Voice Loud and Terrifying (vv. 18-19)
The people of Israel heard the Ten Words or Commandments. They saw the blinding flashes of light, as the Hebrew signifies. But God’s voice – like a trumpet – was what terrified them. God’s voice is loud and terrifying. Even of our resurrected Savior, John relates that his voice was great and loud, like the sound of many waters (Rev. 1:10,15). We are not to think that God has suddenly changed in the new covenant, so that the fear and terror were for dramatic effect. Too many big talkers have tried to tame God like this. The way they talk and “preach,” God is nothing but an expert therapist, a smooth talker and “communicator” like they are, always looking for ways to make his word more acceptable to sinners, almost begging men to hear him out. No wonder the church has practically turned atheist in its views of God, in not being held in the grip of his fear and love, and above all thinking that we can control him in the boxes of our demands and circumstances. And then, by all these taming efforts, he is practically pulled off the throne of his majesty, denuded of his power by which he created all things out of nothing by the word of his power – which is not a creation myth but absolute historical reality – and now governs all things by his wisdom, by his incarnate and resurrected Son, Jesus Christ.
Against all these dangerous fools who do not understand what they say and lead many into blind alleys, God is terrifying. His voice is loud and terrifying. The glory of the new covenant is not that God has ended the fire and light show, as some disrespectfully speak of the older covenant, but that we have been brought to a place through Jesus Christ where we can draw near to the consuming fire of God’s majestic holiness with confidence of his acceptance (Heb. 10:22; 12:28-29). This is what was terrible in the old covenant: to hear God’s voice and not possess the mediation of Jesus Christ. As godly as Moses was, and he certainly saw by faith the coming Savior, he said, “I exceedingly fear and tremble” (Heb. 12:21). Thus, the people were wise to back away. The majority had no faith in God, and thus all the terrors of the law pierced their hearts and pronounced their doom. They clamored for Moses to mediate for them. “You go hear God, Moses, and then come back and tell us what he says.” This was an absolute truth that remains in full effect to this day. We cannot hear the unmediated voice of God and live. And this is so much the glory of the new covenant, that we have this mediator, Jesus Christ, constantly interceding for us that we tend to forget it. In him, we see God’s friendly face of love and grace. He remains a consuming fire, but our Savior enters there for us, has made satisfaction for our sins, entered the heavenly temple, and sits there at God’s right hand to testify to a reconciled God – not a less majestic God, a less holy God, a less terrifying God, a God with a meeker voice – but to a reconciled God. Let us utterly adore our blessed Savior, stand in awe of a sacrifice perfect and effectual beyond our ability to conceive, and the truth that his intercession has torn the veil between sinners and the MOST HOLY GOD.
God Drew Near to Prove (v. 20)
Certainly God had vital purposes to accomplish in terrifying his people at Sinai. They needed to recover some sense of his majesty and holiness – not simply in their heads but in fact and experience. He is holy and terrible. And then his law comes and reveals his holy anger against sin – there is none who have kept his law or can keep it, and therefore we must stand condemned before him. This is some of what is meant by “prove,” which means that God revealed his majesty in order to test them. Would they humble themselves before him? Would they receive his law with meekness? Would they testify to their thankfulness for his many mercies by resolving to talk in obedience to him? Would his terror and their guiltiness lead them back to the promise of a Savior, the seed of Abraham? The law does all these things. It continues to test us in these very ways. Remember that the law was never given as a path to justification. The preface to the Ten Commandments drips with heavenly grace and love. The law does expose the sinner’s heart, our heart. It proves us, whether we shall tremble before God’s holiness and turn from our sins, or whether we shall try to run away and hide, or practice an external or formal religion, where we keep up the trappings of faith but never allow our hearts to be exposed before him. For in this way we are led to Jesus Christ as our only Surety and Righteousness. When we feel the searching, condemning finger of the law – and what earnest, sincere believer has not felt it? – we then fall into the arms of our Savior and wash ourselves in his wounds.
And this is exactly why it is so dangerous for men who do not understand the purpose of the law and the Mosaic covenant – to lead us by the hand to Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:24) – to preach at all. Their declaiming against the law serves not to elevate grace and rescue their hearers from the legalists, as they are so fond of saying. Quite the opposite – their preaching actually inoculates the hearts of their hearers against ever being confronted with their true sinfulness and danger before a holy God, so that they may be driven into the arms of Jesus Christ to seek refuge from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10). The Jesus of which many hear in American churches is not his name, Yahweh is Salvation, Yahweh saves from sin, but the Jesus of psychotherapy, the Jesus who makes you able to live with your sins and overcome the psychoses/symptoms associated with them, the Jesus who makes it all better and lets you live as you please, but still having a religious sense of purposes. Granted, these may be more extreme cases, but a lively sense of the holiness of God revealed in his law, a conviction of his majestic voice and glory, then seeing ourselves as we really are before him, an unclean, damned sinner, this is what drives us to Jesus Christ, and continues to drive us, so that we would rather lose our lives than lose him.
Moses (Christ) our Mediator (v. 21)
Moses, like Jesus Christ his Master (Matt. 17:3; John 5:47; Heb. 3:1-6), went forward to speak with God for the people. Was he not terrified? Of course he was (Heb. 12:21), but he also loved his wayward flock, obeyed God’s commission to intercede for them, and accepted God’s invitation to draw near. In this, he was so beautifully like our Savior, that if for no other reason, we should study Moses’ life and ministry with utmost care. He did for Israel what our Savior did for the new Israel (Gal. 6:16), for all God’s children. Can you or I draw near to God? I know that our science and technology and medicine has deceived us into thinking that we are little gods walking around on the earth, but death will shatter our delusions in one moment. Let us plead with God to shatter them before then, for death will be too late to see things as they really are.
The reality is that we cannot endure God’s voice. His law judges us; his justice must be satisfied. There is no escape, for when we stand before him, if we are without a mediator then, he will draw near to pronounce our eternal doom. Our sweat will be blood; our hearts will be unhinged and horrified as we then, finally, when it is too late, see the cup of wrath that stood before us all the time but that we would not look at. No, men told us, God is not holy, vengeful against sinners. No, there is no hell, no judgment. Ah, at that moment, our folly will crush our souls as eternal woe and misery begin at that moment. If only we had looked to Jesus. Some told us the truth about him, that he is the satisfaction for our sins and that his cross satisfied the death sentence against us, but we would not believe. Our sins were too precious to us to forsake. Please look at Moses and turn to Jesus. Only the Son of God in our flesh can make us draw near to the consuming fire safely, make intercession for us, clothe us with acceptable righteousness, wash away our pollution, and then invite us to draw near with him to that very fire that would have destroyed us, but now in fact is our place of refuge, peace, and joy.
Sacrifice Before Obedience (20:22-26)
I Speak; No Mute Idols (vv. 22-23)
Here begins God’s extended explanation of his will for his people, sometimes called “the Book of the Covenant.” The Lord began to speak to Moses immediately. Only Moses heard these words directly. The people’s deep-seated rebellion will be evident within the month, when they make a golden calf. It may seem strange that the Lord’s first words to Moses are a repetition of the first commandment, but a moment’s reflection will show us how necessary and relevant this was. Why are we not to make gods of silver and gold? Why are we not to worship the works of our hands? All the gods we might make are mute; God speaks. Had any of the gods of Egypt spoken? Said or done anything to prevent God’s crushing judgments? No, he is the speaking God. Will any of our modern gods – technology or statism – save us? No, for the only voice they have is the one we give them. Therefore, they are only sophisticated idols. We have discovered different ways to veil the fact that it is only our voice after all – like the ancient mechanical ways to make the Oracle’s mouth move, with someone hidden inside to speak. Nothing, absolutely nothing has changed. Do not be afraid of these times. The emperors of idolatry have no clothes, whether he is wearing the ancient priestly garb of Baal, Osiris, or Artemis, or the modern priestly garb of the white-coated lab technician, the computer programmer, or the slick politician. God alone is God; he is the only Speaker of meaning and power in the universe. We must not, therefore, make other gods, for they are mute and deadly deceptions. And we must not use them in our worship of God, for they will deceive our hearts further into thinking that combining the true God with our imaginations and vanities is pleasing to him.
Build Low and Plain Altars (vv. 24-26)
We must not miss the order in which God gave his word. Before revealing the social and religious laws by which his people could be organized into a truly holy, happy, and righteous commonwealth, he laid all upon the foundation of sacrifice. What else was this but another way of teaching us that before our obedience is pleasing to him, we must be washed with blood. This should silence those who so boldly affirm what they do not understand – that the Ten Commandments and the other holy laws were given as a slippery path to legalistic religion and self-atonement. About these altars, however, we should note that the tabernacle service was not yet revealed. Even after, there were occasional altars built, as circumstance required. And in the wilderness, the people were still very much wild and unbroken so that they needed explicit instruction. Two things, therefore, are emphasized. First, earthen altars or rock altars should be used, but without human ornamentation or carvings. The sacrifice is not more acceptable because we add to it, but less so. All that we touch, devise, or image in worship pollutes our worship. This is humbling but necessary for us to learn. Only God can tell us how to worship him; otherwise, his holiness, grace, and nearness unite to say, HANDS OFF MY WORSHIP! All that will help us is a sacrifice that God accepts; our only cleansing is the blood of the lamb. And second, the altars should be low, near to the earth, not on raised platforms. This is for a simple reason (v. 26). Pagan religions turned their altars into centers of orgiastic frenzy. Pomp and perversion pollute God’s sacrifices. True worship is never a show.
We should take these as indications that God wants our worship to be spiritual – plain and simple, according to his nature (John 4:24), without imitating the vanities of pagan worship or looking to the world to see what will attract it. The church today has been abysmally conformed to the world, rather than transformed by the Lord’s word (Rom. 12:1-2). Yet, if we do not honor him in the kind of spiritual and sincere worship that pleases him, we shall not honor him elsewhere. Notice that his worship through sacrifice was the foundation of the laws that governed their lives. Worship is the heart of life! Worship – the way we worship God, the spirit with which we worship him – is the highest expression of our allegiance to him, love for him, and desire to please him. Remember that worship has nothing to do with personal taste; it is service to God, as the word itself makes clear. Worship is not the time we get our spiritual batteries recharged, or have spiritual highs, or anything of this nature. The church has again allowed herself to be deceived. Worship is about offering to God the sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving that please him. It is his service. Thus, our chief concern about worship should be, “Is this pleasing to the Lord?” And once this be admitted, then we shall all flock to his word, for we shall want to offer worthy and acceptable praise and service to our great God and Savior! For the world knows nothing about what pleases the Lord (Rom. 8:5-6); therefore, to consult its tastes and preferences is to kiss the devil in God’s holy worship.
God Protects the Most Vulnerable (21:1-11)
Voluntary Servitude in Israel
Further evidence of the graciousness of God’s law in its scope and intent is that his very first provisions were for the weakest and most unprotected elements of Israel’s nation. Before considering these two laws about slaves and servitude, we should notice that slavery in Jewish society was not at all parallel to the Caribbean and African versions of slavery that plagued western societies. In Israel among God’s people, all slavery was voluntary. Man-stealing was a capital crime (Ex. 21:16). Members of foreign nations might be held involuntarily, but these were war captives, and even they might be gradually incorporated as freemen into Israel’s nation and covenant. Slavery in Israel was not ethnic or based upon depraved notions of the inherent inferiority of certain peoples. Thus, looking for justification for American slavery from the laws God gave to Israel is a dangerous pursuit. What passed for slavery in Israel was indentured servitude, contractually governed by laws that were as binding upon masters as upon slaves. There was no absolute ownership of another man permitted or envisioned. There was ownership of his labor, for a specific time and purpose, but not his life. Nor should we cringe under the influence of today’s soldiers of radical egalitarianism, for they hate any notion of “master” or “servant” as being intrinsically oppressive. God says otherwise, and this should be enough for us. And as Christians, we should rather cringe and be horrified by those who are filled with such rabid hatred for God and his law. We have come before Christ and consider it our privilege to serve one Master, to view one another as brothers, and to take upon ourselves the mantle of servant to all men (1 Cor. 9:19).
Limited Terms of Service (vv. 1-6)
However unwise or tragic it may be thought, an Israelite might for economic reasons indenture himself to a master. In some instances, he might be remanded to a master, as a thief who was unable to make restitution for his crime or economic insolvency (Ex. 22:3). The maximum term service was six years. On the 7th year of his service, he was to be set free. Thus, lifetime slavery, while it might be chosen in some instances, was never allowed as a judicial sentence. God decreed that six years was sufficiently long and that a Sabbath must come to the even the most difficult circumstances and poorest of men. What a gracious Master he is! Upon his release, the servant leaves as he came. If married, he must take his wife with him. They have worked together to pay off their debt or improve their circumstances, and their master must let the family leave together. This is yet another important difference between Jewish and other forms of slavery, which regularly and violently split up families – such an enormity of evil that no amount of amelioration and excuse-making can wipe away its stain! If the servant took a wife from his master’s household, the wife, assumedly a servant herself, could not leave with her husband. The master’s interest in her labor took precedence over the marriage bond. But it was not likely that they would take precedence over the heart of a husband and father, and he might choose one of two courses. Either he could permanently indenture himself to his master, which was a legal transaction before the local magistrate, or, which is not stated but assumed, he might simply wait out the terms of her servitude, either laboring where he was or nearby. Thus, in God’s wisdom, the interests of the master and of the servant were held in loving tension, with each having clearly defined duties, imposed limitations, and all governed by the higher considerations of love and righteousness in our social and economic relations.
Female Servants and Arranged Marriages (vv. 7-11)
In more difficult circumstances, a poor man might sell his daughter – not absolutely or perversely but out of intense need and a desire to provide for her and her family – to be a servant in a local household, with the agreement that either the master or one of his children would eventually marry his daughter. It would seem that the provision of these verses is really an arranged marriage. This is the reason that the maidservant was not to go out in the field to work with the hired help. She was different. She might serve in the household or do other light work, but she had been purchased to be the master’s wife. But if she did not please him, she could be redeemed. Her father might buy her back, if he was able, or another man might purchase her – pay the price of her freedom and then marry her. Remember, however, that she was not being purchased as a sex-slave or treated as a piece of property. Since these were poorer individuals who would resort to such things to feed their bodies, that there were laws protecting these young girls was evidence of the Lord’s great concern for the most vulnerable. If the master betrothed the girl to his son, the master must treat her as his daughter. If another wife is taken, her position and rights cannot be taken away. She remains a wife, with all the rights and privileges that pertain to her position.
In legislating servitude of this kind, the Lord did not require it. He was not saying that this was desirable, any more than the legislation pertaining to divorce. He dealt with sin and need as they exist in a fallen world. We see his great wisdom and mercy in caring for male and female servants. A man’s circumstances need not be permanently crushing. Legally, a servant’s service is contractually limited. A servant-wife is a real wife and must be treated accordingly. A person’s lower status does not give masters the right to abuse or to deny the obligations of law and love. Ungodly men cannot see how this is possible, and therefore they speak evil of God’s law. But with what do they replace it, for the same social situations exist today: debt that men cannot pay, often leading them to a life of crime, then long-term imprisonment, which only makes them worse, or in the case of women, prostitution or worse.
Men scoff that God’s law is inferior, impractical, and primitive? By allowing for legally defined servitude, the poor kept their dignity, repaid their debts, and learned how to govern themselves wisely. The rich and powerful were not allowed to abuse their weaker brethren. A young woman’s virtue was far safer than in our day, where she is sometimes bought and sold to the highest internet bidder, or passed around between suitors that are not obligated to fulfill any duty other than personal gratification. Whose society was better regulated? In ours, justice is very discriminatory along racial and economic lines, with none to intercede, and lifetime incarceration meted out to those who would be far better served by some form of indentured servitude to pay their debts, remove themselves from very unwholesome influences, and learn again the grace of God’s law through Jesus Christ. As for a woman’s purity, reputation, and dignity, there is little left in this land. Without the fear of God in a land, women we ruined. They will eventually succumb to these influences and disrobe accordingly. They will call it liberation.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. What is terrible about God’s voice?
2. How can men hear God’s voice and still live?
3. Why must the law terrify sinners?
4. What is the practical effect of preaching without God’s law?
5. How was Moses like Christ?
6. Why the repetition of the 1st commandment in 20:22-23?
7. What are the two main points of 20:24-26?
8. How do the servitude laws reveal God’s graciousness?
9. In what ways are these laws preferable to the ways we deal with debt and insolvency, crime and restitution?