What was God’s purpose when He appeared to the Israelites on Mount Sinai?
Exodus 19:16-20; 20:18-21 and Deuteronomy 5:22-27 contain a description of what is called a theophany (Greek theos, “God,” and phaino, “to appear/be visible”). The theophany at Mount Sinai is the most glorious manifestation of God in the Old Testament, and it certainly had a central purpose.
1. THE THEOPHANY
The manifestation of God to human eyes was accompanied by natural phenomena. A thick or dense cloud covered the mountain, making it impossible to see what was occurring (Ex. 19:16; 24:15, 16; Deut. 4:11; 5:22). The sound of thunder accompanied lightning flashes (Ex. 19:16; 20:18) and the powerful sound of a trumpet (Ex. 19:16, 19). The Lord descended “in fire,” and the mountain was covered by a smoke that ascended “like smoke from a furnace” (Ex. 19:18, NIV; 20:18, NIV). The mountain appeared to be burning (Deut. 4:11; 5:23) as the Lord allowed the Israelites to see His “great fire” (Deut. 4:36). These supernatural phenomena conveyed something that went beyond human comprehension: “And to the eyes of the sons of Israel [in their opinion] the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the mountain top” (Ex. 24:17, NASB;* cf. Deut. 4:24). They were observing the majestic and magnificent brightness of the glory of God that to them looked like an unapproachable fire (Deut. 5:24). They trembled and kept their distance (Ex. 20:18).
2. THE VOICE OF GOD
The sound and visual phenomena were intended to identify the place where God was located within creation. The people knew that God was present on the mountain, but they saw only His glory, they did not see God’s form (Deut. 4:12). The God who displayed the glory of His presence to the people was not to be confused with natural phenomena because He spoke; He was a person (Deut. 4:12; 5:22-24). They heard the voice of the Lord giving them the Ten Commandments (Deut. 4:12, 13; 5:5; 9:10). For the Israelites the true God was recognized primarily through His Word, not through a physical form. What predominates in the theophany and is determinative is not the visual but the spoken Word, although both were present.
3. THE DIVINE INTENTION
God intended to use His Word “to test you” (Ex. 20:20) or “discipline you” (Deut. 4:36, NIV), in the sense of instructing them particularly with respect to who He was. Here we find the purpose of the theophany. God said to the Israelites, “I will take you as My people, and I will be your God” (Ex. 6:7). This statement forms the very foundation of the covenant. When the people arrived at Sinai to meet with God (Ex. 19:17), He had already, out of His infinite love, chosen them as His people by redeeming them from the land of Egypt (Deut. 4:37). Now the Lord was testing them by letting them decide whether they wanted Him to be their God or not. He came to them in a glorious display of His majesty to introduce Himself personally (Deut. 5:32, 33). His theophany, particularly His unmediated speech to them, revealed that “the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other” (Deut. 4:39, NIV). The response of the people was positive, and they accepted Him as their God (Deut. 5:27).
The theophany at Sinai pointed to the theophany of God on Golgotha, where God displayed the glory of His infinite sacrificial love for sinful humanity (1 John 4:9-12). The question is whether we are willing to accept Him as our Savior and Lord.
*Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.