In a context of impending judgment, Yahweh issued a command to his people: prepare to meet your God, O Israel (Amos 4:12). A similar burden, though in quite a different context, characterizes Exodus 19:10–15.
With Israel camped around Mt. Sinai and Yahweh at the summit, final arrangements were being settled for the tremendous scene of God entering into covenant with the house of Jacob (19:1–3). Moses, functioning as mediator, ascended and descended the mountain to convey God’s words to the people, and their words back to God (19:3, 7, 8, 9, 14).
Since Yahweh was going to manifest himself in the most awe-inspiring theophany yet, a special preparation was called for on the part of the people of Israel. Its four requirements can be summarized in the one word: holiness. The people needed to be consecrated (19:10, 14), a fact which highlights that their default condition was not one of suitable holiness for such an encounter. They had three days in which to be consecrated (19:11, 15).
Four Requirements for Preparing to Meet God
The first requirement was to wash their clothes (19:10). It was inevitable that clothing should become dusty and grimy in traveling through a wilderness. While holiness is not intrinsically related to cleanliness, outward cleansing functions as a sign of inward purification. Israel’s innate lack of holiness did not consist of a spot or two of inadequacy—they were covered with unholiness as with a robe.
The second requirement was to set a boundary around the mountain, not to be transgressed on pain of death (19:12–13). Anyone who did was to be shot or stoned. Human pride and daring have no place in an encounter with the holy God. The boundary was for Israel’s own protection.
The third requirement was to assemble at the sound of the trumpet (19:13). They were to be witnesses of Yahweh’s descent and the audience of his voice. United and respectful attention to his voice was the most fundamental requirement of the covenant (19:5), without which there could be no real holiness.
The fourth requirement was a temporary abstinence from intimate marital relations (19:15). In the New Testament, Paul also allowed occasional, brief interruptions of normal sexual activity within marriage for the purpose of prayer and fasting (1 Corinthians 7:1–5). As with washing clothes, this was a ceremonial expression of holiness. It highlighted that the fountain of new human life has been corrupted. So far from being born holy and subsequently becoming defiled, since the fall of Adam humans have been conceived in sin (Psalm 51:5).
Three Lessons from Preparing to Meet God
These four requirements of holiness powerfully held out three lessons fundamental for anyone preparing to meet God.
First, human lack of holiness is a profoundly pervasive problem. There is no moment of our existence that is prior to our defilement. And this lack of holiness is not confined to a small area, but it overspreads our entire existence.
Second, human lack of holiness is a genuine obstacle to meeting with God. The unholiness of mankind puts them in great danger from the holiness of God. Yahweh’s absolute purity of being and act sets him utterly apart from a corrupted humanity.
Third, only God’s grace opens up the way to a safe encounter of God with man. The very obstacles mentioned highlight how surprising this event was. God took the initiative to bring about this encounter and protect the people from the consuming fire of his holiness. The fact that this comes about in context of a covenant and using a mediator is significant, but somewhat in the background in this text.
Meeting God in Christ
By this point, the connection to Jesus Christ should be apparent. The only way for a defiled people to safely encounter their holy God, is through Jesus Christ. His incarnation, death, and resurrection are the ultimate theophany. In him, God has drawn near to defiled mankind, bringing pardon and purification for sin in his wake. The only true way to prepare to meet our God is to trust in Jesus Christ.
For Further Reflection
For a discussion on the covenant theology of Exodus 19 and 24 listen to episode 25 of Vos Group, The Berith Made between Jehovah and Israel, led by Drs. Lane G. Tipton and Camden Bucey. For more on the topic of holiness see The Message of Leviticus where Rev. Dr. David Graves takes us to this important book of the Pentateuch to demonstrate how Jesus Christ, the once-for-all sacrifice, satisfies the demands for God’s justice.