All That the Lord Has Spoken We Will Do
Sundown on Thursday will mark, according to the Biblical calendar, the beginning of Shavuot, also known as Pentecost. The majority of the Christian church will instead celebrate this holiday on Sunday, May 31. I talked a little bit about this holiday in my previous post on Counting the Omer, “Counting the Days”. Additionally, we have lots of other information about Shavuot/Pentecost on our website here. Shavuot is traditionally associated with the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, so in this article I want to focus on two ways that the Israelites responded to the message on Shavuot: with obedience, and with fear.
When the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai, God told Moses to relate the following message to them: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6). This statement shows God’s intent in saving His people: He calls them out so that they will belong to Him in a very special way. This process, culminating in the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, has been compared to a wedding ceremony: God, the groom, chooses Israel as His bride.
Moses does as he is commanded, and the people immediately respond in the affirmative. “All the people answered together and said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do!’ And Moses brought back the words of the people to the LORD” (Exodus 19:8). Even before they had heard the terms of the covenant, they declared their eagerness and willingness to obey. Without taking any time to think it over or deliberate, weighing the pros and the cons, they immediately said “yes” to God’s offer. They reaffirm their choice once again after Moses reads the book of the covenant, the terms of the agreement, to them: “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!’” (Exodus 24:7).
This immediate, positive response could be compared to that of Isaiah the prophet later in Israel’s history. In Isaiah 6:6 we read, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” Before even hearing what the message is that he will be required to convey, Isaiah passionately calls out to volunteer.
We see this again in the response of the disciples when Yeshua called them: “As He was going along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Yeshua said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets. Immediately He called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went away to follow Him” (Mark 1:16-20).
In each of these three cases, the response is immediate to God’s calling. At Mt. Sinai, the Israelites verbally affirm that they agree to the terms of the covenant. Likewise, Isaiah immediately responds to God’s request for a volunteer. In the case of Yeshua’s disciples, no words are recorded, but each shows their willingness to obey by immediately leaving behind their previous life and following after Yeshua.
If we read further in the narrative of the revelation at Sinai (Exodus 32), we see that the words of the people ring hollow: while Moses is delayed for some time on the mountain, they grow restless and fear the worst has happened to him. They make an idol and worship it. Although Aaron tries to justify the idolatrous activity as “a feast to the LORD”, it is a clear violation of the first commandment. The worship of the golden calf is in tragic contrast to the excitement which the people of Israel showed when they agreed to obey. Their response seems similar to one of the groups in Yeshua’s parable of the sower: “The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matthew 13:20).
We know that everything Scripture records is to teach us. So, what can we learn from the foregoing? One thing that sticks out is that responding immediately in the affirmative to God’s call is only valuable if we live up to our calling. This is itself reminiscent of another one of Yeshua’s parables: “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go” (Matthew 21:28-29). Obviously, in this parable the first son is the one who did the will of his father despite his initial rebellion, and this one will be commended. But there is a better way, the way that Isaiah and the disciples took. They responded “I will”, and then they lived up to their word. They agreed to do and obey all that the Lord told them, and they were able to do so by the grace of God.
After their initial agreement to do and obey, we see a second response once God reveals Himself in power: “So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19:16-17). The people of Israel had seen God’s mighty ability to act before this. They had seen the plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and God’s miraculous provision in the wilderness prior to their arrival at Sinai. But this revelation far surpassed any of those events. Israel was now up close and personal with God. Naturally, the people are terrified, as recounted by Moses in more detail later in Deuteronomy: “And when you heard the voice out of the darkness while the mountain was blazing with fire, all the heads of your tribes and your elders approached me, and you said, ‘Behold, the LORD our God has shown us His glory and greatness, and we have heard His voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that a man can live even if God speaks with him. But now, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us, and we will die, if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer. For who of all flesh has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the fire, as we have, and survived? Go near and listen to all that the LORD our God says. Then you can tell us everything the LORD our God tells you; we will listen and obey.’” (Deuteronomy 5:23-27).
Some Christians have condemned or ridiculed this fear of the Israelites. They insist that Israel was too preoccupied by the physical phenomena to notice the real purpose of it all, that they were being given the opportunity to experience God in a special way and they rejected it. But the text in Deuteronomy contradicts this interpretation. The fearful response of the Israelites is just the way God wanted them to react: “And the LORD heard the words you spoke to me, and He said to me, ‘I have heard the words that these people have spoken to you. They have done well in all that they have spoken. If only they had such a heart to fear Me and keep all My commandments always, so that it might be well with them and with their children forever’” (Deuteronomy 5:28-29). God was intentionally “turning up the heat”, as it were, so that Israel would understand His character more fully. He is a God who protects and heals, He is a God who defends us against our enemies; but He is also a God who is holy and requires obedience: He is “a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24). The way he revealed Himself at Sinai is only the smallest fraction of what He is actually capable of. And while God wants us to be close to Him, in a personal, loving relationship with Him, He also wants us to remember the incomprehensible hierarchical distance between an omnipotent God and a frail human being.
The author of Hebrews emphasizes the necessity of the fear of God. In chapter 12, he talks about the revelation at Sinai and the great fear and trembling that accompanied this revelation. He then argues that this is the response of fear and awe which we as Christians are to have even as we offer thanksgiving to Yeshua for our salvation. If we continue on the path of life, then we can look forward to the blessed inheritance of the saints, but on the contrary if we fall away then we only inherit God’s wrath: “See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven. And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven.’ This expression, ‘Yet once more,’ denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:18-29).
Correctly understanding the fear of God helps us to successfully obey Him. This is what God says in Deuteronomy 5, as we saw above. His desire is that His people will have a heart that fears Him so that we will keep His commandments. This Penteocst, let’s respond to God’s call by reaffirming our commitment to obey Him: not just with our lips, but with our hearts and our actions. Let’s ask God to pour out His Holy Spirit on us afresh so that we can be empowered to serve Him better. Let’s not neglect the fear of the Lord, but rather may we be like the early body of believers who had been empowered by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost some 2,000 years ago: “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase” (Acts 9:31).