Light from the Sidra


Exodus 18:1 - 20:23; Isaiah 6:1 - 7:6; 9:5-6

The giving of the Ten Commandments was a great episode in the history of Israel, but why did God make the event so dramatic? Obviously, he was determined to make a powerful impression on his people. Mount Sinai covered with thick smoke, thunder and lightning, the earth quaking, a trumpet growing louder and louder and then, finally, audible words booming forth the Ten Commandments. What was the result? Great fear. The people trembling and asking that only Moses should speak to them. Which was exactly what God had intended should happen. What does that tell us about the spiritual condition of the people? They did not fear God as they should have.

Let me give an example. What does a dictator do when he has conquered a foreign country on order to demonstrate to the people that they must obey him? He puts on a display of military power. Does a conqueror have to do that sort of thing if the people welcome him with open arms as their saviour? Of course not. God is no dictator but what the incident of the giving of the Law tells us about Israel is that, like the rest of mankind, they lacked a true fear of God that would have moved them to submit themselves to him in love. Their constant complaining revealed that the people needed to learn to obey their God. And God was determined that they should. And He did it by putting on a great display of power.

He covered Sinai with thick darkness, forbidding anyone to approach the mountain. Sinners cannot come into the presence of a holy God, but those who lack a fear of God might attempt to and, as a consequence, be destroyed. God kept the people at a distance for their own good.

What does that tell us about human nature? That man is basically sinful and without the fear of God. This point is emphasised by the fact that the Ten Commandments are framed mostly in a negative form, “You shall not take the Name of the LORD your God in vain”; “You shall not covet”, etc.  If the people had been basically good and just needed a little guidance in the form of divine precepts, why all the negative commands? The constant use of the negative prohibition shows that the people would naturally tend to do what was wrong and therefore needed a strong corrective. The Ten Commandments provided that.

How ridiculous then are those people who speak as though God gave these commands in the hope that we would one day improve ourselves sufficiently to be able to do them. Look at the Haftarah from Isaiah, who wrote about 900 years later. Israel had had almost a thousand years to learn God’s ways, and what was the result? They simply would not listen anymore, so God made it clear that Galut was coming. Think, too, about that last Commandment, “You shall not covet”. Does that not find us all out? Who can conquer those selfish desires of their hearts, which produce covetousness, greed, envy and all the evils that follow? Some say that if God gave this command then surely we must have the ability to conquer the evil in our hearts. Well, we should do, but we do not. And we find that left to ourselves we cannot. Is that not true for you?  It seems to have been true even for the prophet Isaiah, for when he was granted a glimpse of God’s glory he exclaimed, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips.” Sound speech is the area in which a prophet excels but, before a holy God, Isaiah knew that even he was corrupt and worthy of condemnation.

No, God is under no illusions about our ability to keep this Law. The fact is that he gave the Law not only to guide us into right but also primarily to expose our powerlessness to do good. We are like a drowning man struggling to stay above water. The man sinks because his own body weight drags him under the waves. Likewise, the sin within our hearts is too great for us to overcome.

But the Haftarah also gives us hope because it ends on a prophecy of the Messiah. Of course, if the child spoken of in Isaiah 9:5 was only King Hezekiah, as some commentators suggest, then the prophecy gives no hope for, as the story of Hezekiah’s life shows, he was as weak as the next man. But the fact is there is only one person whose government on David’s throne knows no end and that is Messiah. The promise of Isaiah is that Messiah will bring in righteousness. In his day God’s people will live righteously and their sin will be forgiven. How can we be sure? Isaiah tells us that his name is El Gibbor, “the mighty God”. Messiah has the power to do what we cannot. For those who serve him, condemnation and constant failure will come to an end. For those who obey Jesus the Messiah, those days have begun already.

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