Smoke on the Mountain

Ten Commandments - Introduction

Smoke on the Mountain:
the Revelation of God’s Holiness

(Exodus 19:1-19)

Today we are witnessing a widespread deterioration of moral standards and cheapening of human life throughout the world. This message, introducing the ancient Jewish moral code known as the Ten Commandments, was given at a morning service in St. Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 2 August 1998. In it, Rob Yule, Minister of St Albans, argues that a revival of morality today requires a fresh vision of God’s holiness, like that which originally produced the Ten Commandments.

Today we are seeing an alarming - one might even say a catastrophic - deterioration of morality in New Zealand. When I was a child in Southland in the fifties, we never used to lock our house or our car, and it was headline news if there was one murder a year. Now we are witnessing rapes, murders, domestic violence, violent robberies, gratuitous violence, violence just for kicks, almost every day. There is an appalling cheapening of life.

When I was a child whole farms would change ownership with the shake of a hand. Now people in public office are being found guilty of fraud, deceit and broken promises on an unprecedented scale. Formerly unmentionable and even unimaginable indecencies are purveyed in glossy magazines and on the internet where even the innocent can hardly avoid stumbling across them. Things that St Paul said shouldn’t even be mentioned among us are now campaigning for acceptance in the very leadership of God’s church. We are in a desperate state, and it is time to cry ‘Enough’.

Till the 1920s the Ten Commandments used to be written in the chancel above the communion table of every Anglican Church; then they came to be regarded as too negative, and were removed in one church after another in renovation projects, so that today you never see them in any Anglican sanctuary. Once upon a time every Presbyterian or Reformed theologian of any note used to write commentaries on the Apostles Creed - the basis of our faith - and the Ten Commandments - the basis of our conduct; but this practice has all but dropped out of our modern Christian education. Judging from what is happening today in our society, you can’t say we’re any better for this neglect of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are the foundation of Western civilisation, the fountainhead of civilised life, and we neglect them at our peril.

1. Deliverance from Slavery

The Ten Commandments are introduced by the prologue, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery’ (Exodus 20:2). The Ten Commandments are the rule of life given to Israel by God, who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. They outline the way of life this nation of former slaves, freed by God, were to live. This is the way of life God still expects his liberated people to live today.

The story of Israel’s deliverance is told in the preceding chapters of the book of Exodus. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush and told him that he would be the leader to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, where they had been slaves for four hundred and fifty years. There in the desert God revealed his personal name to Moses, the name Yahweh, ‘I am who I am’ (3:14). On the basis of this covenant name God promised that he would rescue the Israelites from Egypt and bring them to this same place in the desert to worship him (3:12).

The book of Exodus tells how Moses went with his brother Aaron to the court of the Egyptian king, Pharaoh, asking him in God’s name, ‘Let my people go’ (5:1). Pharaoh refused - not just once, but ten times; hardening his heart, refusing God’s request, making conditions more and more oppressive for the Israelites, racking up their work norms and making their life intolerable. Finally, after ten appeals by Moses, ten refusals by Pharaoh, and ten judgments by God, the Egyptians expelled them in a fury of grief and rage after the death of all their firstborn. Then the Egyptians changed their minds and pursued the fleeing Israelites, only to be destroyed when the waters of the Red Sea closed over their pursuing army.

It was a great deliverance by God, an awesome display of signs and wonders. It marked the birth of the Jewish nation - a unique nation, a nation of oppressed slaves miraculously set free by God from their captivity, a nation uniquely set apart by God for himself:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. (19:4-6).

Three months later, the Israelites reached the foot of the very mountain where Moses had received his original call at the burning bush. They were ready to worship the God who had delivered them from the hands of their oppressors. But they had no idea how awesome and all-transforming this encounter with God would be.

This then is the setting of the Ten Commandments. First came redemption from slavery. Then came revelation of the Law. First God’s deliverance; then the people’s duty. We need to note this important pattern in God’s dealings with us. First God’s action, then our response. Salvation precedes service. Salvation is by grace, not by works. We are saved by what God has done, not by any achievements of our own. First of all God delivered Israel from Egypt and entered into a covenant relationship with them - on his own initiative, out of his concern for their plight, by his majestic power. Then God revealed the Law, setting out the way he expected his redeemed people to live, now they had been freed from slavery.

This is an exact parallel to the New Testament understanding of grace and works. We are saved by God’s grace alone. God saved us through his Son Jesus Christ, when we were enslaved to sin and powerless to help ourselves. But once we are saved we are called to forsake our former sinful life and live a new life pleasing to God, a life of good works, in accordance with God’s law. We are saved by grace. But we are saved for good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). Deliverance comes first, then duty flows from it. First salvation, then service.

2. Encounter with God

The historical background to the giving of the Law was Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. The immediate context was the awesome appearance of God on Mount Sinai. Scholars call such an appearance of God a ‘theophany’ - a manifestation of God in visible form. Even today, flying over the Sinai Peninsula, this whole area looks as if it has been scorched by some searing fireball. Stark red rock, devoid of vegetation. Truly our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).

The majesty of this event is underlined by the elaborate preparations they had to make for it. They had never met God like this before. They had no idea of the danger they were in. So they were instructed to make careful preparation for this dangerous encounter. They were to wash their clothes and purify themselves. They were to seal off an area of prohibited access, like a zone of nuclear contamination, a sacred precinct not only people but even animals were forbidden to enter on pain of death. They were not to have sexual relations; abstaining even ‘from those things which are normally permitted and good in themselves’ (Brevard Childs, Exodus [London, SCM Press, 1974], p. 369). Even the priests, who normally had access to God’s presence, were not allowed to approach, but only Moses and Aaron.

God’s majesty is even more dramatically conveyed by the awesome phenomena which accompanied his appearance. His approach was marked by thunder, lightning, dense cloud, darkness, a deafening blast of the trumpet (the shofar or ram’s horn); even the mountain quaked and shook. So awesome was this encounter that the memory of it reverberates throughout the subsequent history of God’s people, in the psalms (‘you make the clouds your chariot . . ., fire and flame your ministers’, Psalm 104:2,4), and even in the imagery of the second coming of Christ at the end of history (1 Thessalonians 4:16). So terrified were the people that they cried out that God would not speak to them directly, but only through Moses as a mediator, as their representative before God.

The whole impact of this awesome event brings home the majesty and holiness of God. Truly, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’ (Hebrews 10:31).

3. Roots of Morality

The foregoing survey of the background of the Ten Commandments shows that a Israel’s high moral purpose had its origin in a profound religious experience. It came from their experience of God’s deliverance from Egypt and their encounter with God’s revelation at Sinai. Morality is rooted in religion. The moral law is not autonomous; it grows out of our experience of God’s redemption and revelation. Morality is an expression of God’s character, a fruit of his holiness.

This is why great religious revivals have always raised the moral and economic life of societies and nations. During Billy Graham’s evangelistic campaign in Glasgow during the late 1950s, the Clydeside shipbuilding firm, John Brown, had to open an entire workshop to receive back stolen tools. Earlier this century, during the Welsh Revival of 1905, extraordinary social consequences came from a widespread turning to God. The historian of revivals, Dr J. Edwin Orr, confirmed from newspapers of the time that coal production actually fell for a while in the immediate aftermath of the revival, because the pit ponies, so used to being sworn at, wouldn’t work when they were addressed civilly! They had to be retrained to work without being beaten and cussed!

A moral vision and a moral life isn’t innate or natural to us. Left to our own devices we become selfish and depraved. Moral living is the result of salvation, it comes from a living encounter with God. For a nation to experience moral and economic renewal, spiritual renewal is necessary. ‘Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.’ (Psalm 33:12). The vision of God’s holiness transforms the moral character of individuals and the moral life of nations. Personal salvation leads to social transformation. Theology, knowing God, is the key to morality, concern for the welfare of others.