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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Exodus 19

Verse 2


(2) They were departed from Rephidim.—If Rephidim was where we have placed it, in the Wady Feiran, the march to “the wilderness of Sinai” (Er Rahah) must have been by the Wady Solaf, or the Wady esh Sheikh, or possibly by both. The distance by Wady Solaf is about eighteen, by Wady esh Sheikh about twenty-five miles. The wilderness of Sinai, now generally identified with Er Rahah, is a plain two miles long by half a mile wide, “enclosed between two precipitous mountain ranges of black and yellow granite, and having at its end the prodigious mountain block of Ras Sufsafeh” (Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, p. 74). It is nearly fiat, and covered at present with stunted tamarisk bushes. “No spot in the whole peninsula is so well supplied with water” (Our Work in Palestine, p. 268).

Israel camped before the mount.—On the capacity of the plain Er Rahah to receive the entire multitude, see Stanley (Sinai and Palestine, p. 42), and comp. The comment on Exodus 12:37-41. The Ras Sufsafeh is visible from every part of the plain.

Verse 3

(3) Moses went up unto Godi.e., ascended Sinai, where he expected that God would speak with him.

The Lord called unto him out of the mountain.—While he was still on his way, as it would seem, so that he was spared the toil of the ascent. God meets us half-way when we “arise and go” to Him.

Verse 4

(4) I bare you on eagles’ wings.Comp. Deuteronomy 32:11, “As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them upon her wings.” When its young are first fledged, the eagle is said to assist them in their flight by flying beneath them, so that they may settle upon its wings or back, if necessary. God means that He has bestowed upon His people the same tender and powerful care, has borne them up mightily when they might have fallen, supported their first flight as fledglings, and so saved them from disaster.

Brought you unto myself.—Not so much “brought you to my presence here on Sinai,” as “brought you out of Egypt and its corrupting influences (Joshua 24:14), and led you back to my pure worship and true religion.” That is spoken of as accomplished, whereof God had begun the accomplishment.

Verse 5

(5) A peculiar treasure.—The Hebrew sĕgullah is from a root, found in Chaldee, signifying “to earn,” or “acquire,” and means primarily some valuable possession, which the owner has got by his own exertions. (Comp. 1 Chronicles 29:3, where the English Version translates it by “mine own proper good.”) God views the Israelites as made His own by the long series of mighty works done for their deliverance, whereby He is sometimes said to have “redeemed” (Exodus 6:6; Exodus 15:13), or “purchased” them (Exodus 15:16). The word sĕgullah is here used for the first time. Later it be comes an epitheton usitatum of Israel. (See Deuteronomy 7:6; Deuteronomy 14:2; Deuteronomy 26:18; Psalms 135:4; Malachi 3:17; and comp. also Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9.)

Above all people: for all the earth is mine.—While claiming a peculiar right in Israel, God does not mean to separate Himself from the other nations, to cease to care for them, or give them up to their own devices. He is always “the Most High over all the earth” (Psalms 83:18), “a light to lighten the Gentiles,” one who “judges the people righteously, and governs all the nations upon earth” (Psalms 67:4). Israel’s prerogative does not rob them of their birthright. He is the favoured son; but they, too, “are, all of them, children of the Most High” (Psalms 82:6).

Verse 6

(6) A kingdom of priests.—All of them both “kings and priests unto God”—kings as lords over themselves, equals one to another, owing allegiance to God only—priests, as entitled to draw near to God in prayer without an intermediary, to bring Him their offerings, pay Him their vows, and hold communion with Him in heart and soul. The same privileges are declared by St. Peter (1 Peter 2:9) and St. John (Revelation 1:6) to belong to all Christians, who in this respect, as in so many others, are now the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).

An holy nation.—It is not the duty of personal, but the privilege of official, holiness that is here intended. Each Israelite was to be as near to God, as fully entitled to approach Him, as the priests of other nations either were or thought themselves. Personal holiness was the natural and fitting outcome from this official holiness; but it is not here spoken of. God has, however, previously required it of Israel by the words “If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant” (Exodus 19:5).

Verse 7

(7) Moses . . . Called for the elders-The “elders” formed the usual channel of communication between Moses and the people, reporting his words to them, and theirs to him. (See Exodus 4:21; Exodus 12:21; Exodus 17:5-6; Exodus 18:2; Exodus 24:14, &c.) On their position and authority, see Note on Exodus 3:16.

Before their faces.—This translation is a curious piece of literalism. Liphney, in the time of Moses, was a mere preposition, signifying “before.”

Verse 8

(8) All the people answered together.—There was no hesitation, no diversity of opinion, no self-distrust. In view of the great privileges offered to them, all were willing, nay, eager, to promise for themselves that “they would obey God’s voice indeed, and keep his covenant.” In the glow and warmth of their feelings the difficulty of perfect obedience did not occur to them.

Moses returned the words—i.e., “took them back,” “reported them.”

Verse 9

(9) And the Lord said . . . . —The first step in the great event of the formation of a covenant between God and Israel was completed by the people’s acceptance of God’s offer. The second step was now to be taken. The terms of the covenant must be declared, and it pleased God to declare them, or, at any rate, the most important and fundamental of them, in the hearing of the people. He therefore makes the announcement of His approaching manifestation of Himself, and proceeds to give directions connected with it to Moses.

Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud.—Heb., in the denseness of a cloud. Though God is light—nay, because He is light, clouds and darkness are round about Him (Psalms 97:2). Even when He reveals Himself. He still “dwells in the thick darkness” (2 Chronicles 6:1). It is absolutely necessary that He should be closely veiled when He draws near to men, for otherwise they could not endure for a moment “the brightness of His presence.” (See Exodus 40:35 :2 Chronicles 5:14; 2 Chronicles 7:2.) If even the light that remained on Moses’ face after converse with God required him thenceforth ordinarily to wear a veil before the people (Exodus 34:33-35), how much more needful must it be that God should cover His face when He condescends to converse with men! In the present case, it would seem to have been “the pillar of the cloud” that had guided Israel, which served Him for a covering, and out of which He spake to Moses and the people.

That the people may hear . . . and believe thee for ever.—God’s purpose in manifesting Himself to the people was twofold :—(1) To impress them with the awful sense of His presence, and through them, their descendants; (2) to make them more ready to submit to Moses, and “believe him for ever.” On the whole, it must be said that the purpose was accomplished. God has remained to the Israelites, for more than three millennia, an awful power, real, personal, tremendous. The Law of Moses, under whatever false interpretations, has remained the guide of their life. Though the living Moses was often resisted and contemned, the dead Moses has been reverenced and obeyed from his death to the present time. His laws are still accepted and professedly obeyed by the entire Jewish community.

Verse 10

(10) Go unto the people, and sanctify them.—The approaching manifestation required, above all things, that the people should be “sanctified.” Sanctification is twofold—outward and inward. The real essential preparation for approach to God is inward sanctification; but no external command can secure this. Moses was therefore instructed to issue directions for outward purification; and it was left to the spiritual insight of the people to perceive and recognise that such purity symbolised and required internal purification as its counterpart. The external purification was to consist in three things—(1) Ablution, or washing of the person; (2) washing of clothes; and (3) abstinence from sexual intercourse (Exodus 19:15).

Let them wash their clothes.—The Levitical law required the washing of clothes on many occasions (Leviticus 11:25; Leviticus 11:28; Leviticus 11:40; Leviticus 13:6; Leviticus 13:34; Leviticus 13:58; Leviticus 14:8-9; Leviticus 14:47; Leviticus 15:5-22, &c.) In connection with purification. The same idea prevailed in Egypt (Herod., 2:37), in Greece (Horn. Od., iv. 1. 759), and in Rome (Dollinger, Jew and Gentile, vol. ii., p. 82). It is a natural extension of the idea that ablution of the person cleanses, not from physical only, but from moral defilement.

Verse 11

(11) Against the third day.—There is no special “significance” in this mention of “the third day.” The important point is, that the purification was to continue through two entire days—one day not being sufficient. This taught the lesson that man’s defilement is, in the sight of God, very great.

The Lord will come down in the sight of all the people.—See the comment on Exodus 19:9.

Verse 12

(12) Thou shalt set bounds.—Here was another formal and mechanical direction, having for its object to deepen and intensify the lesson of God’s unapproachable majesty and holiness. Moses was required to “set bounds to the people,” i.e., to make a substantial fence between the camp and the base of Sinai, which should prevent both animals and men from coming in contact with the mountain. Modern travellers generally observe how abruptly the rocky precipice of Ras Sufsafeh rises from the plain in front of it, so that in many places it is quite possible to stand on the plain and yet touch the mountain. The idea that a line of natural mounds now to be seen near the base of Sinai represents the “bounds” of Moses (Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, p. 43) is unsatisfactory, since the “bounds” of Moses were most certainly artificial ones. It is, however, possible that his “bounds” may have followed the line of the natural barrier.

That ye go not up into the mount.—Unless it had been forbidden, there might have seemed to be no reason why pious Israelites might not have ascended the height, to draw near to God in prayer. It is a praiseworthy feeling which breathes in the words, “Nearer, my God, to thee;” but the nation was not fit for close approach.

Verse 13

(13) There shall not an hand touch it.—This translation gives an entirely wrong sense. The meaning is, beyond all doubt, “There shall not a hand touch him,” i.e., the transgressor. To stop him and seize him, another person must have transgressed the bounds, and so have repeated the act which was forbidden. This course was to be avoided, and punishment was to be inflicted on the transgressor by stoning him, or transfixing him with arrows, from within the barrier.

Whether it be beast or man.—Though beasts are innocent of wrong-doing, and are thus no proper objects of punishment, yet the law of God requires their slaughter in certain eases—e.g. (1) when they are dangerous (Exodus 21:28); (2) when they have become polluted (Leviticus 20:15); (3) When their owner’s sin is appropriately punished through their loss (Exodus 13:13). In the present case, it could only be through the culpable carelessness of an owner that a beast could get inside the barrier.

When the trumpet soundeth long.—Comp. Exodus 19:19.

They shall come up to the mount.—Rather, into the mount. The expression used is identical with that of the preceding verse, and there rendered “go up into the mount.” Thus the act forbidden in Exodus 19:12 is allowed in Exodus 19:13; it is not, however, allowed to the same persons. The word “they” (hêmah) in this present place is emphatic, and refers to certain privileged persons, as Moses and Aaron (Exodus 19:24), not to the people generally.

Verse 15

(15) Come not at your wives.—Comp. 1 Samuel 21:4-5 :1 Corinthians 7:5. It was the general sentiment of antiquity that a ceremonial uncleanness attached even to the chastest sexual connection. (Herod. I. 189, ii. 64; Hesiod. Op. et D., 11. 733-4: Tibull, Carni. ii. 1, 11. 11, 12; Porphyr., De Abstinentia, 4:7.) The Levitical law took the same view (Leviticus 15:18), as did the Indian law (Menu, v. 63), the Persian (Zendavesta, quoted by Bähr, Symbolik, vol. ii., p. 466), and the Mahometan (Koran, iv. 5).

Verses 16-20

(16-20) Thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud.—Compare with this description that of Deut. (Deuteronomy 4:11-12), which is fuller in some respects:—“Ye came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire unto the midst of heaven, with darkness, clouds, and thick darkness. And the Lord spake unto you out of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice.” The phenomena accumulated to impress the people seem to have been loud thunder, fierce flashes of lightning, a fire that streamed up from the mountain to the middle of the sky, dense volumes of smoke producing an awful and weird darkness, a trembling of the mountain as by a continuous earthquake, a sound like the blare of a trumpet loud and prolonged, and then finally a clear penetrating voice. So awful a manifestation has never been made at any other place or time, nor will be until the consummation of all things. To regard it as a mere “storm of thunder and lightning,” or as “an earthquake with volcanic eruptions,” is to miss altogether the meaning of the author, and to empty his narrative of all its natural significance.

The voice of the trumpet.—Heb., a voice of a trumpet. The trumpet’s blare is the signal of a herald calling attention to a proclamation about to be made. At the last day the coming of Christ is to be announced by “the trump of God” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). In the Apocalypse angels are often represented as sounding with trumpets (Revelation 8:7-8; Revelation 8:10; Revelation 8:12; Revelation 9:1; Revelation 9:14, &c.) when some great event is about to occur.

Verse 17

(17) Out of the camp.—An open space must have intervened between the camp and the “bounds.” Into this Moses led the representatives of the people, so bringing them as near to God as was permitted.

At the nether part of the mount.—In the plain directly in front of the Ras Sufsafeh, and almost under it.

Verse 18

(18) Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke.—Heb., smoked, all of it. Some understand by this, “dense clouds, having the appearance of smoke.” But if “the mountain burned with fire,” as asserted (Deuteronomy 4:11), the smoke would be real.

The whole mount quaked greatly.—Comp. Psalms 68:8, “The earth shook, the heavens also dropped at the presence of God: even Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God.” The expression is more suitable to an earthquake than to the vibration sometimes produced by very violent thunder.

Verse 20

(20) On the top of the mount.—On the summit of the Ras Sufsafeh, not on the Jebel Musa, which is out of sight from the plain of Er Rahah.

Verse 21

(21) Lest they break throughi.e., force their way through the barrier which Moses had erected.

To gaze, and many of them perish.—Some might have perished by the execution of the orders given in Exodus 19:13. But the allusion is perhaps rather to such a heaven-sent plague as destroyed the men of Beth-shemesh to the number of 50,070 (1 Samuel 6:19).

Verses 21-25


(21-25) Warning was given, as soon as God announced His intention of descending upon Sinai, that the people must not approach too near. “Bounds” were set, and the people required to keep within them. Actual contact with the mountain was forbidden under penalty of death (Exodus 19:12). It is evident from Exodus 19:23 that the command to “set bounds” had been obeyed, and a fence erected which it would have required some force to “break through;” nor can there be any doubt that Moses had promulgated the directions, which he had received from God, forbidding any approach to the mount, and threatening death to those who should “touch” it. Yet still it is evident from this concluding paragraph of the chapter (Exodus 19:21-25) that the first warning was insufficient. An intention to “break through, to gaze,” must have been entertained by many. To this intention the existing priesthood, whatever it was, were parties (Exodus 19:22). It always grates upon men’s feelings to be told that they are less holy than others; and we can easily understand that those who had hitherto acted as priests to the nation would resent their exclusion from “holy ground” to which the sons of Amram were about to be admitted. Even of the people there may have been many who participated in the feeling, and thought that Moses and Aaron were “taking too much upon them, seeing that the whole congregation” was holy. Hence, a further very stringent command was requisite, and Moses, having reached the summit, was sent down again from the top to the bottom in order to enjoin upon priests and people alike, in the most solemn possible way, the necessity of their observing the bounds set.

Verse 22

(22) The priests.—This has been called an anachronism, since the Levitical priesthood was not as yet instituted. But the Israelites, like all other ancient tribes or races, must have had priests long ere this, appointed upon one principle or another. It is a reasonable conjecture that hitherto the heads of families had exercised sacerdotal functions.

Break forthi.e., punish in some open and manifest way. Compare the “breach” upon Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:8).

Verse 23

(23) The people cannot come up.—Moses probably means that they cannot do so unwittingly; he

Does not contemplate the case of an intentional trespass. But it was this which God knew to be contemplated, and was desirous of preventing.

Verse 24

(24) Away, get thee down.—He “with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17) overrules the objection of Moses, and persists. The warning is required, and is to be given. Moses, submissive as usual, yields, and “goes down unto the people and speaks unto them.” The result is that no attempt to break through the barrier is made.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Exodus 19". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.