Commentary on Hebrews 12:18-21
AW Pink (1886-1952)
Copyright: Public Domain
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A The Inferiority of Judaism
(Hebrews 12:18, 19)
As there are certain parts of a country which offer less attraction than others unto tourists and sight-seers, so there are some portions of Scripture which are of less interest to most readers and writers. As there are some scenes in Nature which can be taken in at a glance while others invite a repeated survey, so there are verses in each Epistle which afford less scope than others unto the teacher. That is why almost every preacher has a sermon on certain favorite texts, whereas other verses are neglected by nearly all pulpits. But the expositor has not the same freedom to follow his inclinations as the textual sermonizer: unless he shirks his duty, he must go through a passage verse by verse, and clause by clause. Still more so is this the case with one who essays to write a commentary upon a whole book of the Bible: he is not free to pick and choose, nor yield to his personal preferences, but must give the same attention and enlargement to one part as to another.
The above reflections have occurred to the editor as he has pondered the verses which next claim our consideration in Hebrews 12. Their contents are not likely to make much appeal unto the ordinary reader, for there seems little in them which would be relished either by those who have an appetite for “strong meat” or by those preferring the “milk” of babes. Our passage neither sets forth any of the “doctrine of grace” nor presents any practical exhortation for the Christian life. Instead, it alludes to an historical incident which was chiefly of interest to the Jews, and multiplies details from the same which would be tedious unto the average churchgoer of this untoward generation. Nevertheless, it is a part of God’s Word, and as it lies in our immediate path through this Epistle we shall not ignore or turn from it. As the Lord enables, we shall endeavor to give it the same attention and space as what has preceded it.
The passage upon which we are about to enter (which reaches from Hebrews 12:18 to the end of the chapter) has been variously interpreted by different commentators. One class of more recent writers have, it seems to us, been far more anxious to read into it their own pet theory regarding the future, than to interpret these verses in accord with the theme of the Epistle in which they are found. It would indeed be strange for the apostle to introduce here a reference to some future “millennium:” the more so in view of the fact that he has studiously avoided the use of the future tense—note the emphatic “ye are come” (verse 22) and “but now” (verse 26). If due attention be paid unto the main line of the apostle’s argument in this treatise, then there should be no difficulty in arriving at a correct understanding—of the substance of it, at least—of this portion of it.
As we pointed out so frequently in the earlier articles of this series, the immediate and principal design of the apostle in this Epistle, was to prevail with the Hebrews in persuading them unto a perseverance in their profession of the Gospel, for therein they appear at that time to have been greatly shaken. Therefore does he warn them, again and again, of the various causes and occasions of backsliding. Principal among these were, first, an evil heart of unbelief, the sin which did so easily beset them. Second, an undue valuation of the excellency of Judaism and the Mosaical church-state. Third, wavering under the afflictions and persecutions which fidelity to the Gospel entailed. Fourth, prevalent lusts, such as profaneness and fornication. Each of these we have considered in the preceding sections.
The principal argument which the apostle had urged unto their constancy in Christianity, was the superlative excellency, glory, and benefit of the Gospel-state into which the Hebrews had been called. This he has accomplished and proved by setting forth the person and office of its Author, His priesthood and sacrifice, with all the spiritual worship and privileges belonging thereto. Each of these he compared and contrasted with the things that corresponded unto the same during the O.T. dispensation. Thereby he set over against each other the type and the antitype, the shadow and the substance, and by so doing made it unmistakably evident that the new economy was immeasurably superior to the old, that all the ordinances and institutions of the law were but prefigurations of those spiritual realities which are now revealed by the Gospel.
Having insisted so largely and so particularly on these things in the preceding chapters and brought his arguments from them to a plain issue, he now recapitulates them as a whole. In the passage which is now to engage our attention the apostle presents a brief scheme of the two states or economies (designated as “testaments” or “covenants”), balancing them one against another, and thereby demonstrating the conclusive force of his central argument and the exhortations which he had based upon it, unto constancy and perseverance in the faith of the Gospel. It is no new argument which he here proceeds with, nor is it a special amplification of the warning pointed by the example of Esau; still less is it a departure from his great theme by a sudden excursus into the realm of eschatology. Instead, it is a forcible summary, under a new dress, of all he had previously advanced.
The central design, then, of our passage as a whole, was to present one more and final antithesis of Judaism and Christianity. The contrast here drawn is virtually parallel with the one instituted in Galatians 4 between Hagar and Sarah, the figure of two “mounts” being used instead of the two women. The great honor and chief privilege of the Judaical Church-state whereon all particular advantages did depend, was their coming to and station in mount Sinai at the giving of the Law. It was there that Jehovah revealed Himself with all the insignia of His awe-inspiring majesty. It was there that they were taken into covenant with the Lord (Ex. 24), to be His peculiar people above all the world. It was there that Israel was formed into a national Church (Acts 7:38). It was there that they had committed unto them all the privileges of Divine worship. It is that very glory which the Jews boast of to this day, and whereon they rest in their rejection of the Gospel.
It was necessary, then, for the apostle to make direct reference unto that upon which the unbelieving Hebrews based all their hopes, and to which they were appealing in their efforts to get their believing brethren to apostatize from Christ. His argument had neither been complete nor conclusive unless he could undermine their confidence in the foundational glory of Judaism, take off their hearts from unduly admiring, and show that it had been succeeded by that which “excelleth.” He therefore directs attention to those features in connection with the giving of the Law, which so far from being calculated to win the affections, inspired with dread and terror. He points out a number of items which by their very nature intimated that the Divine communications vouchsafed at Sinai were not the full and final unveiling of the Divine character, such as the souls of awakening sinners longed for.
Our introduction has been a somewhat lengthy one, though briefer than that of J. Owen, which we have closely followed in the last paragraphs; yet we deemed it necessary. The details of our present passage cannot be viewed in their true perspective until they are rightly focused in the light of our Epistle as a whole. The scope of the passage must first be determined, before we are ready to examine its several members. This calls for time and real study, yet only as this preliminary work is properly executed will we be preserved from those errors which are inevitably fallen into when a passage is treated hurriedly and superficially. This is only another way of saying that, the foundation must be well and securely laid, if it is to bear successfully the superstructure which is raised upon it. Alas that such foundation-labor is so little appreciated today.
“For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire” (v. 18). The apostle here returns to his central theme by an easy and natural transition. He had just been dehorting from back-sliding, pointed out by the solemn case of Esau. Now he urges unto constancy by appealing to the privileges they enjoyed. As Calvin well put it, “The higher the excellency of Christ’s kingdom than the dispensation of Moses, and the more glorious our calling than that of the ancient people, the more disgraceful and the less excusable is our ingratitude, unless we embrace in a becoming manner the great favor offered to us, and humbly adore the majesty of Christ which is here made evident. And then, as God does not present Himself to us clothed in terrors as He did formerly to the Jews, but lovingly and kindly invites us to Himself, so the sin of ingratitude will be thus doubled, except we willingly and in earnest respond to His gracious invitation.”
“For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched.” The principal design which the apostle here had in hand was to set forth, in its most attractive form (see verses 22-24), that evangelical state where-unto the Hebrews had been called and into which they had entered. This he first does negatively, by describing the Church-state under the O.T., from which they had been delivered. Thus, before the “Ye are come” of verse 22, he introduces this “For ye are not come.” Two things were thereby noted: that order or system to which their fathers belonged, but from which they had been freed by their responding to the Gospel call. They were no more concerned in all that dread and terror, and their consideration of that fact supplied a powerful motive to their perseverance in the Christian faith.
Freely granting that a great privilege was conferred on their fathers at Sinai, the apostle observes “that it was done in such a way of dread and terror, as that sundry things are manifest therein: as, 1. That there was no evidence in all that was done of God’s being reconciled to them, in and by those things. The whole representation of Him was of an absolute Sovereign and a severe Judge. Nothing declared Him as a Father, gracious and merciful. 2. There was no intimation of any condescension from the exact severity of what was required in the law or of any relief or pardon in case of transgression. 3. There was no promise of grace in a way of aid or assistance for the performance of what was required. Thunders, voices, earthquakes and fire gave no signification of these things. 4. The whole was hereby nothing but a glorious ministration of death and condemnation (as the apostle speaks: 2 Corinthians 3:7) whence the conscience of sinners were forced to subscribe to their own condemnation, as just and equal.
“5. God was here represented in all outward demonstrations of infinite holiness, justice, severity and terrible majesty on the one hand; and on the other, men in their lowest condition of sin, misery, guilt and death. If there be not therefore something else to interpose between God and men, somewhat to fill up the space between infinite severity and inexpressible guilt, all this glorious preparation was nothing but a theater set up for the pronouncing of judgment and the sentence of eternal condemnation against sinners. And on this consideration depends the force of the apostle’s argument; and the due apprehension and declaration of, is a better explanation of vv. 18-21 than the opening of the particular expressions will amount to; yet they also must be explained.
“It is hence evident, that the Israelites in the station of Sinai, did bear the persons of convicted sinners under the sentence of the law. There might be many of them justified in their own persons by faith in the promise; but as they stood and heard and received the law, they represented sinners under the sentence of it, not yet relieved by the Gospel. And this we may have respect to in our exposition, as that which is that final intention of the apostle to declare, as is manifest from the description which he gives of the Gospel-state, and of those that are interested therein” (John Owen).
“For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched.” It is both pathetic and amusing to read the various shifts made by some of the commentators to “harmonize” the opening words of our text with what is said in Exodus 19:12, “Thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall surely be put to death.” Some have pleaded that the little “not be touched” was inadvertantly dropped by a copyist of the Greek manuscript. Others insist our verse should be rendered, “Ye are come to a mount not to be touched.” But the only “discrepancy” here is in the understanding of the expositors. The apostle was not making a quotation from Exodus. but rather describing, negatively, that order of things unto which the Gospel had brought the believing Hebrews. In so doing, he shows the striking contrast between it and the order of things connected with the giving of the Law.
“For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched.” The simple and evident meaning of this is: The Gospel has not brought you unto that which is material and visible, palpable and touchable by the physical senses, but only what is spiritual and can only be apprehended by faith. A “mount” is a thing of the earth; whereas the glory of Christianity is entirely celestial. The passage which most clearly interprets this clause is found in our Lord’s discourse with the woman at the well: “Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe Me, the hour cometh, when you shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father… But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21, 23). Judaism was the Church’s kindergarten, in which its infantile members were instructed, mainly, through their bodily senses. Christianity has introduced a far superior order of things.
“For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched,” then, is a figurative way of saying that Christ has opened a way into something infinitely superior to a system which, as such, had nothing better than “a worldly sanctuary” and “carnal ordinances” (Heb. 9:1, 10). The Greek word for “come” in our text is that technical or religious term which had been used repeatedly by the apostle in this Epistle to express a sacred access or coming to God in His worship: see Hebrews 4:16, 7:25, 10:1—last clause “comers thereunto.” Mount Sinai was a material thing, exposed to the outward senses, and was an emblem of the entire order of things connected with Judaism. As such, it was in complete contrast from that order of things brought in by Christ, which is wholly spiritually, invisible, and celestial. The one was addressed to the bodily senses; the other to the higher faculties of the soul. Spiritually speaking, Romanists and all other Ritualists are occupied with “the mount that might be touched”!
“And that burned with fire.” In their most literal sense those words allude to what transpired at Sinai. In Exodus 19:18 we read, “And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire.” But it is with their figurative purport we are more concerned. In Scripture “fire” is the symbol of Divine wrath and judgment. As we are told in Deuteronomy 4:24, “The Lord thy God is a consuming fire, a jealous God,” and the “jealousy” of God is, His holy severity against sin, not to leave it unpunished. With respect unto the law which He there gave—for Deuteronomy 33:2 declares “from His right hand went a fiery law”—it signified its inexorable sternness and efficacy to destroy its transgressors. Thus, the “fire” denoted the awful majesty of God as an inflexible Judge, and the terror which His law strikes into the minds of its violators with expectations of fiery indignation.
This was the first thing which the people beheld when they came to Sinai: God as a “consuming fire” presented to their view! Thus it is in the experience of those whom God saves. For many years, it may be, they lived in a state of unconcern: they had no heart-affecting views of the majesty and authority of God, and no pride-withering apprehensions of the fearfulness of their guilt. But when the Spirit awakens them from the sleep of death, gives them to realize Who it is with whom they have to do, and whose anger burns against sin; when the Law is applied to their conscience, convicting them of their innumerable offenses, their hearts are filled with dread and misery as they perceive their undone condition. There the law leaves them, and thence they must be consumed, unless they obtain deliverance by Jesus Christ.
And that was exactly what, by Divine grace, these believing Hebrews had obtained. The Redeemer had “delivered them from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10). They were now as secure in Him as Noah was in the ark. The fire of God’s wrath had spent itself on the person of their Substitute. God was now reconciled to them, and henceforth they had an inalienable standing before Him—not as trembling criminals, but as accepted sons. To them the word was “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). No, as Christians, we have nothing more to do with the mount “that burned with fire,” but only with “the Throne of Grace.” Hallelujah! Alas that so many Christians are being robbed of their birthright. If Romanists and Ritualists are guilty of being occupied with “the mount that might be touched,” then those who are constantly presenting God before His people in His dread majesty—instead of as a loving Father—are taking them back to the mount “that burned with fire.”
“Nor unto blackness and darkness.” Here again the literal allusion is unto the awe-inspiring phenomena which attended the giving of the law. There was “a thick cloud upon the mount, . . . mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke” (Ex. 19:16, 18). Different commentators have resorted to various conjectures in their efforts to “harmonize” the “blackness and darkness” with the “fire:” some suggesting the one was followed by the other after an interval of time, others supposing the “darkness” was over the camp and the “fire” at the summit of the mount. But such theorizings are worthless in the face of Deuteronomy 5:22-23, “The Lord spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness . . . ye heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, for the mountain did burn with fire.” The fact is this “fire” was supernatural: as that of Babylon’s furnace burned not while the three Hebrews were in it (Dan. 3), this glowed not—increasing the terror of its beholders because it emitted no light!
If the above explanation be deemed “far fetched,” we would appeal to the corroborating correspondency in the experience of those who have been saved. Was it not a fact that when we were shut up under guilt and terrified by the representation of God’s severity against sin, we looked in vain for anything in the Law which could yield relief? When the glory of God’s holiness shined into your conscience and His law was applied in convicting and condemning power, did you perceive His merciful design in the same? No, indeed; at that time, His gracious purpose was covered with “blackness,” and “darkness” filled your soul. You perceived not that the law was His instrument for flaying your self-righteous hopes (Rom. 7:10) and “a schoolmaster unto Christ” (Gal. 3:24). Your case appeared hopeless; and despite the fiery power of the law, you knew not how to “order your speech (before God) by reason of darkness” (Job 37:19).
“And tempest:” under this term the apostle comprises the thundering, lightnings, the earthquake which were on and in mount Sinai (Ex. 19:16, 18) all of which symbolized the disquieting character of so much that marked the Mosaic economy—in contrast from the peace and assurance which the Gospel imparts to those who believingly appropriate it. The order here agrees with the experience of those whom God saves. First, there is an application of the “fiery law,” which burns and terrifies the conscience. Second, there is the blackness and darkness of despair which follows the discovery of our lost condition. Third, there is the agitation of mind and turmoil of heart in seeking help by self-efforts and finding none. The soul has no light and knows not what to do. The mind is in a tumult, for no escape from the law’s just course seems possible. Not yet has Christ appeared to the distressed one.
“And the sound of a trumpet.” This too, we believe, was a supernatural one, emitting ear-splitting tones, shrill and loud, designed to inspire both awe and fear. It signified the near approach of God. It was to summon the people before Him as their lawgiver and Judge (Ex. 19:17). It was the outward sign of the promulgation of the Law, for immediately upon the sound of it, God spoke unto them. It was a pledge of the final judgment, when all flesh shall be summoned before God to answer the terms of His law. Experimentally, it is the imperative summons of the Word for the soul to answer to God’s call. Those who neglect it, will have to answer for the whole when they receive the final summons at the last day. Those who answer it now, are brought into God’s presence in fear and trembling, who then reveals to them Christ as an all-sufficient Savior.
“And the voice of words.” This is the seventh and final detail which the apostle here noticed. The “voice of words” was articulate and intelligible, in contrast from the dull roar of the thunder and the shrill tones of the trumpet. Those “words” were the ten commandments, written afterward on the two tables of stone: see Deuteronomy 5:22 and the preceding verses. Those “words” were uttered by the voice of the Lord God Almighty (Ex. 20:1), concerning which we are told, “The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty; the voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars” (Ps. 29:4,5) etc. It was God declaring unto His Church the eternal establishment of His Law, that no alteration should be made in its commands or penalties, but that all must be fulfilled.
“Which voice they that heard entreated that the words should not be spoken to them any more.” This reveals the terror-stricken state of those who were encamped before Sinai. There was that on every side which inspired awe and dread: Nature itself convulsed and supernatural phenomena attending the same. This was intended to show the people that God had ascended His awful tribunal as a strict Judge. But that which filled them with intolerable consternation was the voice of God Himself speaking immediately to them. It was not that they refused to hear Him, but that they desired Him to speak to them through Moses, the typical Mediator. Experimentally, the sinner is overwhelmed when the voice of God in the law comes in power to his conscience.
The Inferiority of Judaism
(Hebrews 12:20, 21)
The Divine law was, for the substance of it, originally written in the hearts of mankind by God Himself, when their federal head and father was created in His own image and likeness. But through the fall it was considerably marred, as to its efficacious motions in the human heart. The entrance of sin and the corruption of our nature largely silenced its authoritative voice in the soul. Nevertheless, its unchanging demand and dread penalty were secured in the consciences of Adam’s depraved posterity. The law is so inlaid with the principles of our moral nature, so engrafted on all the faculties of our souls, that none has been able to completely get from under its power. Though the wicked find it utterly contrary to their desires and designs, and continually threatening their everlasting ruin, yet they cannot utterly cast off its yoke: see Romans 2:14, 15. Hence it is that, even among the most degraded and savage tribes, a knowledge of right and wrong, with some standard of conduct, is preserved.
Not only was the impression of the Divine law upon the human heart largely—though not totally—defaced by Adam’s apostasy, but from Cain unto the Exodus succeeding generations more and more flouted its authority, and disregarded its requirements in their common practice. Therefore, when God took Israel into covenant relationship with Himself and established them into a national Church, He restored to them His law, in all its purity, majesty, and terror. This He did, not only to renew it as a guide unto all righteousness and holiness, as the only rule of obedience unto Himself and of right and equity amongst men, and also to be a check unto sin by its commands and threatenings, but principally to declare in the Church the eternal establishment of it, that no alteration should be made in it, but that all must be fulfilled to the uttermost before any sinner can have any acceptance with Him.
As the Law was the original rule of obedience between God and mankind, and as it had failed of its end through the entrance of sin, the Lord had never revived and proclaimed it in so solemn a manner at Sinai, had it been capable of any abrogation and alteration at any time. Nay, He then gave many additional evidences of its perpetuity and abiding authority. It was solely for the promulgation of His law that the presence of God appeared on the mount, attended with such dreadful solemnity. The Ten Commandments were the only communication which God then gave directly unto the people themselves—those institutions which were to be repealed at a later date (the ceremonial laws) were given through Moses! Those ten commandments were spoken directly unto the whole nation with a Voice that was great and terrible. Later, they were written by His own finger on tables of stone. Thus did God confirm His law and evidence that it was incapable of dissolution. How it has been established and fulfilled the Epistle to the Romans makes known.
The different forms which the Lord’s appearances took in O.T. times were always in accord with each distinct revelation of His mind and will. He appeared to Abraham in the shape of a man (Gen. 18:1, 2), because He came to give promise of the Seed of blessing and to vouchsafe a representation of the future incarnation. To Moses He appeared as a flame in a bush which was not consumed (Ex. 3), because He would intimate that all the fiery trials through which the Church should pass would not consume it, and that because He was in it. To Joshua He appeared as a man of war, with drawn sword in His hand (Josh. 5:13), because He would assure him of victory over all his enemies. But at Sinai His appearing was surrounded by terrors, because He would represent the severity of His law, with the inevitable and awful destruction of all those who lay not hold of the promise for deliverance.
The place of this glorious and solemn appearing of the Lord was also full of significance. It was neither in Egypt not yet in Canaan, but in the midst of a great howling desert. Only those who have actually seen the place, can form any adequate conception of the abject dreariness and desolation of the scene. It was an absolute solitude, far removed from the habitation and converse of man. Here the people could neither see nor hear anything but God and themselves. There was no shelter or place of retirement: they were brought out into the open, face to face with God. Therein He gave a type and representation of the Great Judgment at the last day, when all who are out of Christ will be brought face to face with their Judge, and will behold nothing but the tokens of His wrath, and hear only the Law’s dread sentence announcing their irrevocable doom.
Sinai was surrounded by a barren and fruitless wilderness, wherein there was neither food nor water. Accurately does that depict the unregenerate in a state of sin: the Law brings forth nothing in their lives which is acceptable to God or really beneficial to the souls of men. The Mount itself produced nothing but bushes and brambles, from which some scholars say its name is derived. From a distance that vegetation makes an appearance of some fruitfulness in the place, but when it be more closely examined it is found that there is nothing except that which is fit for the fire. Thus it is with sinners under the law. They seem to perform many works of obedience, yea, such as they trust in and make their boast of; but when they are weighed in the Divine balance, they are found to be but thorns and briars, the dead works of those whose minds are enmity against God. Nothing else can the law bring forth from those who are out of Christ: “From Me is thy fruit found” (Hos. 14:8) is His own avowal.
Nor was there any water in the desert of Horeb to make it fruitful. Pause, my reader, and admire the “wondrous works” (Ps. 145:5) of God. When we are given eyes to see, we may discern the Creator’s handiwork as plainly in the desolate wastes of Nature as in the fertile fields and gardens, as truly in the barren and forbidding mountains as in the fruitful and attractive valleys. He whose fingers had shaped the place where His Son was crucified as “a place of a skull” (Matthew 27:33), had diverted from the desert of Horeb all rivers and streams. That water upon which the people of God then lived, issued from the smitten rock (Ex. 17:6), for it is only through Christ that the Holy Spirit is given: see John 7:28, 39, Acts 2:33, Titus 3:5, 6. They who reject Christ have not the Spirit: see Romans 8:9, Jude 19.
We may further observe that, the appearing of the Lord God at the giving of the Law was on the top of a high mountain, and not in a plain: this added to both the glory and the terror of it. This gave a striking adumbration of the Throne of His majesty, high over the people, who were far below at its base. As they looked up, they saw the mount above them full of fire and smoke, the ground on which they stood quaking beneath their feet, the air filled with thunderings and lightnings, with the piercing blasts of the trumpet and the voice of the Lord Himself falling on their ears. What other thought could fill their minds than that it was “a fearful thing” to be summoned to judgment before the ineffably Holy One? O that the preachers of our day could say with him who had experienced the reality of Sinai in his own soul, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11).
The Lord’s appearing on mount Sinai was only a temporary one—in contrast with His “dwelling” in Zion (Isa. 8:18). This shadowed-forth the fact that the economy there instituted was but a transient one—though the Law there promulgated is eternal. Those, then, who turn unto Sinai for salvation are left entirely unto themselves. “God dwells no more on Sinai. Those who abide under the law (as a covenant, A.W.P.) shall neither have His presence nor any gracious pledge of it. And all these things are spoken to stir us up to seek for an interest in that blessed Gospel-state which is here proposed to us. And thus much we have seen already, that without it there is neither relief from the cure of the law, nor acceptable fruit of obedience, nor pledge of Divine favor to be obtained” (John Owen, whom we have again followed closely in the above paragraphs).
Before turning to the final lines in the graphic picture which the apostle gave of the appearing of the Lord at Sinai, let us again remind ourselves of his principal design in the same. The immediate end which the apostle had before him, was to persuade the Hebrews to adhere closely to the Gospel, his appeal being drawn from the evident fact of the superlative excellency of it to the law. In particular, he was here enforcing his former exhortations unto steadfastness under afflictions, to an upright walk in the ways of God, to the following of peace with all men, and to persevere diligently that they failed not of the grace of God. This he does by pointing out that ancient order of things from which they had been delivered, for such is the force of his opening words “ye are not come unto” etc. (verse 18).
“For they could not endure that which was commanded” (verse 20). Having mentioned in the preceding verses seven things which their fathers came unto at Sinai, the apostle now describes the effects which those startling phenomena produced upon them. The first was, the people “entreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more” (verse 19), the reason being “for they could not endure” it. The display of God’s terrible majesty, the distance from Him they were required to maintain, and the high spirituality of the Law then promulgated, with its fearful penalty attending the least infraction of it, completely overwhelmed them. So it is still: a view of God as a Judge, represented in fire and blackness, will fill the souls of convicted sinners with dread and terror. No matter how boldly and blatantly they have carried themselves, when the Spirit brings a transgressor to that Mount, the stoutest heart will quake.
When God deals with men by the Law, He shuts them up to Himself and their own conscience. As we pointed out in an earlier paragraph, God gave the Law to Israel neither in Egypt nor in Canaan, but in a desert, a place of absolute solitude, remote from the commerce of men. There the people could neither see nor hear anything but God and themselves. There was no shelter or place or retirement: they were brought out into the open, face to face with Him with whom they had to do. So it is now: when God has designs of mercy toward a sinner, when He takes him in hand, He brings him out of all his retreats and refuges, and compels him to face the just demands of His Law, and the unspeakable dreadful manner in which he has hitherto disregarded its requirements and sought to hear not its accusations.
When the Law is preached to sinners—alas in so many places today that which gives “the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20) is entirely omitted—it usually falls upon the ears of those who promptly betake themselves to various retreats and reliefs for evading its searching and terror-producing message. They seek refuge in the concerns and amusements of this life in order to crowd out serious and solemn thoughts of the life to come. They listen to the bewitching promises of self-pleasing, “the pleasures of sin for a season.” Or, they put far forward in their minds the “evil day,” and take security in resolutions of repentance and reformation before death shall come upon them. They have many other things to engage their attention than to listen to the voice of the Law; at least, they persuade themselves it is not yet necessary that they should seriously hearken thereto.
But when God brings the sinner to the Mount, as He most certainly will, either here or hereafter, all these pretenses and false comforts vanish, every prop is knocked from under him: to hide away from his Judge is now impossible. “Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet: and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding place” (Isa. 28:17). Then it is that the sinner discovers that “the bed is shorter than a man can stretch himself on it: the covering narrower than he can wrap himself in it” (Isa. 28:20). He is forced out into the open: he is brought face to face with his Maker; he is compelled to attend unto the voice of the Law. There is neither escape nor relief for him. His conscience is now held to that which he can neither endure nor avoid. He is made to come out from behind the trees, to find his fig-leaves provide no covering (Gen. 3:9-11).
As the stern and inexorable voice of the Law enters into his innermost being, “piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12), the poor sinner is paralyzed with fear. The sight of the Divine Majesty on His throne, overwhelms him: the terms and curse of the Law slay his every hope. Now he experiences the truth of Romans 7:9, 10, “For I was alive (in my own estimation) without the law once; but when the commandment came (applied in power to the conscience by the Spirit) sin revived (became a living, raging, cursed reality) and I died (to all expectation of winning God’s approval). And the commandment, which was unto life, I found unto death.” Like Israel before Sinai, the sinner cannot endure the voice of the Law. The Law commands him, but provides no strength to meet its requirements. It shows him his sins, but it reveals no Savior. He is encompassed with terror and sees no way of escape from eternal death.
That is the very office of the Law in the hands of the Holy Spirit: to shatter the sinner’s unconcern, to make him conscious of the claims of the holy God, to convict him of his lifelong rebellion against Him, to strip him of the rags of his self-righteousness, to slay all hope of self-help and self-deliverance, to bring him to the realization that he is lost, utterly undone, sentenced to death. “Which voice they that heard entreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more; for they could not endure that which was commanded” (Heb. 12:19, 20). When the Holy Spirit applies the Law in power, the sinner’s own conscience is obliged to acknowledge that his condemnation is just. And there the Law leaves him: wretched, hopeless, terror-stricken. Unless he flies for refuge to Christ he is lost forever.
Reader, suffer us please to make this a personal issue. Have you ever experienced anything which corresponds, in substance, to what we have said above? Have you ever heard the thunderings and felt the lightnings of Sinai in your own soul? Have you, in your conscience, been brought face to face with your Judge, and heard Him read the fearful record of your transgressions? Have you received by the Law such a knowledge of sin that you are painfully conscious that every faculty of your soul and every member of your body is defiled and corrupt? Have you been driven out of every refuge, and relief and brought into the presence of Him who is ineffably holy and inflexibly just, who “will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:7)? Have you heard that dread sentence “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10)? Has it brought you down into the dust to cry, “I am lost: utterly, hopelessly lost; there is nothing I can do to deliver myself”? The ground must be ploughed before it can receive seed, and the heart must be broken up by the Law before it is ready for the Gospel.
In addition to the other terror-producing elements connected with the institution of Judaism, the apostle mentions two other features. “And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart” (verse 20). To increase the reverence which was due to the appearing of Jehovah on Sinai, the people were required to keep their distance at the base of the mount, and were strictly forbidden an approach beyond the bounds fixed to them. This command was confirmed by a penalty, that every one who transgressed it should be put to death, as a disobedient rebel, devoted to utter destruction. This restriction and its sanction was also designed to produce in the people awe and terror of God in His giving of the Law.
That to which the apostle referred is recorded in Exodus 19:12, 13, “Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever touchest the mount shall be surely put to death: There shall not a hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live.” As Owen well suggested, the prohibition respecting the cattle of the Israelites not only made the more manifest the absolute inaccessibleness of God in and by the Law, but also seemed to intimate the uncleanness of all things which sinners possess, by virtue of their relation to them. Everything that fallen man touches is defiled by him, and even “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 15:8).
The punishment of the man who defiantly touched the Mount was death by stoning, that of a beast by stoning or being thrust through with a dart. In either ease they were slain at a distance: no hand touched the one who had offended. This emphasized the heinousness of the offense and the execrableness of the offender: others must not be defiled by coming into immediate contact with them—at what a distance ought we to keep ourselves from everything which falls under the curse of the Law! How the whole of this brings out the stern severity of the Law! “If even an irrational animal was to be put to death in a manner which marked it as un-clean—as something not to be touched—what might rational offenders expect as the punishment of their sins? and if the violation of a positive institution of this kind involved consequences so fearful, what must be the result of transgressing the moral requirements of the great Lawgiver?” (John Brown).
“And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake” (verse 21). The apostle now turns from the people themselves, and describes the effect upon their leader of the terror-producing phenomena that attended the institution of Judaism. Here was the very man who had dared, again and again, to confront the powerful monarch of Egypt and make known to him the demand of God, and later announced to his face the coming of plague after plague. Here was the commander-in-chief of Israel’s hosts, who had boldly led them through the Red Sea. He was a holy person, more eminent in grace than all others of his time, for he was “very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). Now if such a man was overcome with dread, how terrible must be the severity and curse of the Divine Law!
Furthermore, let it be carefully borne in mind that Moses was no stranger to the Lord Himself: not only was he accustomed to receive Divine revelations, but he had previously beheld a representation of the Lord’s presence at the bush. Moreover, he was the Divinely-appointed intermediary, the mediator between God and the people at that time. Yet none of these privileges exempted him from an overwhelming dread of the terror of the Lord in the giving the Law. What a proof is this that the very best of men cannot stand before God on the ground of their own righteousness! How utterly vain are the hopes of those who think to be saved by Moses (John 9:28)! Surely if there be anything in all the Scriptures which should turn us from resting on the Law for salvation, it is the horror and terror of Moses on mount Sinai.
“And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake.” The fact that there is no record given in the O.T. of this particular item, occasions no difficulty whatever unto those who believe in the full inspiration of Holy Writ. Nor is there any need for us to have recourse unto the Romish theory of “unwritten tradition,” and suppose that a knowledge of the terror of Moses had been orally preserved among the Jews. That which had not been chronicled in the book of Exodus, was here revealed to the apostle by the Holy Spirit Himself, and was now recorded by him for the purpose of accentuating the awfulness of what occurred at Sinai; and this, that the Hebrews should be increasingly thankful that Divine grace had connected them with so different an order of things.
The scope and design of the whole of our passage should now be obvious to the reader. The purpose of the apostle was to show again how inferior Judaism was to Christianity. This he here does by taking us back to Sinai, where Judaism was formally instituted by the appearing of Jehovah at the giving of the law, and where the Mosaic economy was established by a covenant based thereon. All the circumstances connected with its institution were in most striking accord with the leading features and characteristics of that dispensation. At that time the nation of Israel was in a waste, howling wilderness, standing in speechless terror at the foot of the Mount. There Jehovah manifested Himself in His awful holiness and majesty, as Lawgiver and Judge; the people at a distance fenced off from Him. How profoundly thankful should Christians be that they belong to a much more mild and gracious order of things!
Sinai was “the mount that might be touched”—a symbol of that order of things which was addressed to the outward senses. The “blackness and darkness” which covered it was emblematic of the obscurity of spiritual things under the Mosaic economy, a thick veil of types and shadows hiding the substance and reality now revealed by the Gospel. The people being fenced off at the base of the mount denoted that under Judaism they had no way of approach and no access into the immediate presence of God. The thunderings, lightnings and fire, expressed the wrath of God against all who transgress His righteous Law. The “tempest” was a sign of the instability and temporariness of that dispensation, in contrast with the peace which Christ has made and the permanent and eternal order of things which He has brought in. The utter consternation of Moses gave clear proof that he was not the perfect and ultimate Mediator between God and men. All of which plainly intimated the need for something else, something better, something more suited unto lost sinners.