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“Does God even like us?” This question surfaces in many minds when people come across scenes like Yahweh descending onto Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19. After all, if you love someone and want to develop a relationship with them, why would you drive them off with a bunch of terrifying images? Yet at first glance, this is what Yahweh does to Israel. He assembles several terrifying geological events, throws in a very upsetting, blaring noise, and basically says: “This is how I want you to think of Me.”
Yahweh didn’t have to pick a mountain to settle down on as a sort of earthly throne. He could have picked something more friendly and accessible, like a field of flowers or a beautiful lake. Instead He picks a smoking volcano that appears to be on fire in the middle of a storm. Then He throws in an earthquake. And to kick the whole thing off, He fills the air with a deafening noise that sounds like the blast of a trumpet that keeps growing louder and louder. After following God’s instructions about consecrating themselves for two days, all of Israel is assembled to meet their God—or at least observe Him from the bottom of His holy mountain. This is what they see:
Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because Yahweh descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder. (Ex. 19:18)
Alrighty then. Now that everyone’s scared out of their wits, Yahweh calls Moses up the mountain and tells him to send this little happy gram back down to the trembling people:
“Go down and warn the people that they must not force their way through to see Me. If they do, many of them will die. Even the priests, who may come near Me, must first prepare themselves. If they don’t, I, Yahweh, will punish them.” (Ex. 19:21-22)
Two threats in four short sentences. This is not very comforting. Of course no one dares to go near the mountain because Yahweh already made it clear back in verse 13 that any person or animal who gets too close to sacred Sinai will be killed on sight—either stoned to death or shot with arrows.
It’s stories like this one that make a lot of Christians hang out in the New Testament and avoid reading the first two thirds of their Bibles. Yahweh acts very scary and harsh in the Old Testament and we don’t like scary and harsh. We want soft pictures of Jesus smiling with the kids or cradling a lamb in His arms. Why would the same Father who “so loved the world that He sent His only Son” intentionally terrify His chosen people? Didn’t He want them to feel safe and secure with Him? Didn’t He want them to feel loved? Fire, smoke and thunder doesn’t say “you are so special to me” to human beings. And yet before He presents Himself to Israel on Sinai, Yahweh tells them this message through Moses:
“This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now if you obey Me fully and keep My Covenant, then out of all nations you will be My treasured possession. Although the whole earth is Mine, you will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” (Ex. 19:3-6)
Notice the cherishing language: “out of all nations you will be My treasured possession.” God is very clear that He desires a special bond with Israel and that He has chosen her out specifically to be His special treasure. When they hear this wonderful news, the people all agree to do everything God wants.
And then Mt. Sinai happens. Oh. If this is who God really is, maybe they don’t want to be so close to Him after all.
Why is God sending Israel conflicting messages? From His perspective, He’s not. He made a proposal to Israel and she accepted. Now He’s doing the next logical thing to start their relationship off on the right foot: He’s making it very clear that He is a fearsome Being of unfathomable power that must be deeply revered. God isn’t trying to drive Israel away by coming at her in volcanic form—quite the contrary, He is protecting His bond with her like a gardener puts a screen over seedlings to protect the young plants from birds until they have a chance to get firmly rooted. God knows that if He starts His relationship with Israel off on too casual a note, they will never last. Reverence is a deal breaker for God. He demands it from anyone He draws near to. What better way to instill a healthy sense of awe and respect than to associate Himself with several uncontrollable and potentially fatal geological events? Violent storms, earthquakes and fiery volcanoes—we still fear these events today. When we’re around them we immediately feel small, frail and vulnerable. We don’t feel put down, ugly or insulted—we just feel like we’ve been reduced in importance while the power around us has taken center stage.
This is the mindset we need to succeed in our relationship with God. We must never start thinking of ourselves as His equals. We should be so impressed by His power and might that we never make the mistake of thinking we could ever control Him. Who can stop a rumbling volcano from erupting? Who can turn off the thunder or command lightning bolts to cease? Who can hold the ground still in the middle of an earthquake? Certainly not us. Only God can do these things because He is the great Creator-King and we are merely creatures He has made who depend on Him for every breath. Such Authority must always be respected. His Laws must never be violated. By setting boundaries around His holy mountain and threatening to kill anyone who approached Him without permission, God was teaching Israel the importance of revering Him. We can’t get to square one with God unless we have reverence. Even calling on the Name of Jesus and admitting we are sinners won’t do us any good unless we have a healthy dose of reverence in our hearts.
Reverence is a sober respect that is based on the fear of God’s immeasurable and uncontrollable power. Just as we fear a grizzly bear who is roaming wild in the woods nearby for his razor sharp claws and mighty strength, we must fear God. Reverence is not a negative, self-abasing fear. God does not want us to grovel in the dirt like ugly rejects. He doesn’t want us to confuse reverence with shame or rejection. Reverence is about respect, but the fact that it is rooted in fear and an awareness of God’s superiority over us makes it a far different kind of respect than we give to other humans. We can’t respect God like we respect our parents—smiling to their faces and then snickering behind their backs. Being near to God is like being stranded on the side of a rumbling volcano. If it erupts in our direction, we’ll be killed instantly. Likewise, should God ever want to destroy us, we would have no way of stopping Him. His complete domination over us must be understood and accepted if we are to make any real progress in our walks with Him. God wants to be close to us, not destroy us. He wants to hold us in His lap and hear us call Him our Daddy. But reverence must also be present at all times.
By presenting Himself in such a frightening form to Israel, Yahweh was helping her to succeed with Him. He was using sensual experiences to awaken in her a strong sense of reverential fear so that she would understand what He wanted the next time He told her to “fear the Lord.” Shortly after the rumbling Sinai experience, God gave Moses the famous Ten Commandments. After experiencing God the way that they did, the Israelites should have been very motivated to pay attention to His Laws. When such a volatile God says “Do not have any other gods before Me for I am extremely jealous,” it is clearly in our best interest not to cross Him. If Israel had properly applied the reverence God awakened in her, she could have gone very far with Him. Unfortunately, she just made a golden calf and refused to take God’s warnings seriously until it was too late. How many Israelites of old ended up in Hell because they refused to revere God? The records God preserved for us in the Bible make it clear that men like David, Job and Noah were rare exceptions amid a general trend of irreverence and idolatry. We certainly do not want to follow Israel’s lousy example.
On this side of the cross, reverence is just as important as it’s ever been. As Christians, we cannot progress with God if we refuse to fear Him. In today’s trend of feel-good preaching, Jesus is rarely presented accurately. A thorough reading of the Gospels and Revelation will show Him to be every bit as shocking, theatrical, harsh and formidable as the God who associated Himself with fire and thunder. Likewise, the Yahweh we meet in the Old Testament is a thousand times more loving, kind, gentle and compassionate than we assume after listening to bad teaching.
God underwent no change in personality between Malachi and Matthew. Our Gods act the same way from Genesis to Revelation and today They are inviting every soul to become part of Their treasured Church—a Bride whom They have selected out from the rest of the world to spend eternity with Them. How will we respond to such an incredible proposal? Salvation is only the first step. We have been given a whole lifetime to demonstrate to God how precious He is to us and how humbled we are by the great privilege of being invited to come closer to Him. Let’s make the most of every moment.