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A Practical Commentary On Holy Scripture by Frederick Justus Knecht D.D.

[Ex. 19–24]

IN the third month after their departure from Egypt, the Israelites came to Mount Sinai, where they rested and pitched their tents. Moses ascended the mountain, and God appeared to him there, and said: “Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob and tell the children of Israel: You have seen what I have done to the Egyptians and how I have carried you upon the wings of eagles and have taken you to Myself. If, therefore, you will hear My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My peculiar possession above all peoples, and you shall be to Me a priestly Kingdom and a holy Nation.”

Moses went down from the mountain, and related to the people what God had said. They all cried out with one voice: “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.” Then Moses went up again to the mountain, and the Lord told him that all the people should sanctify and purify themselves from all defilement that might render them unfit to appear in His presence, and to come, on the third day, to the mountain; but that barriers must be placed around it, so that they might not approach too near and die.

 

Fig. 25. Mount Sinai with St. Catherine’s Convent in the foreground.

The third morning being come, there was thunder and lightning around the mountain, and a thick cloud covered its top. Smoke mixed with fire was seen to ascend, the mountain rocked and trembled, while a trumpet sounded very loud, and the people below on the plain feared exceedingly. Then was heard the voice of the Lord, speaking from the cloud that covered the mountain, saying:

              I.              I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have strange gods before Me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing; nor the likeness of anything; thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them.

              II.              Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

              III.              Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath-day.

              IV.              Honour thy father and thy mother, that thou mayest be long-lived upon the land which the Lord thy God will give thee.

              V.              Thou shalt not kill.

              VI.              Thou shalt not commit adultery.

              VII.              Thou shalt not steal.

              VIII.              Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

              IX.              Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.

              X.              Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods.

The people, trembling and afraid at the foot of the mountain, cried out to Moses: “Speak thou to us, and we will hear; let not the Lord speak to us, lest we die.” Moses told them that the Lord had come down to instil fear into their hearts, that they might not sin.

And the people stood afar off, but Moses went into the dark cloud, and the Lord gave him further laws which he wrote down and explained to the people. They answered with one voice: “We will do all the words of the Lord, which He hath spoken.” Moses raised an altar at the foot of the mountain, and offered a holocaust to the Lord. And taking the blood of the victim he sprinkled the people with it, saying: “This is the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you, concerning all these words.”

The Holiness of God. God, who wills what is good, and abhors what is evil, revealed His will to the children of Israel by His holy Commandments, so that they might avoid what was evil, and do what was right. And because He is holy, He desired them to sanctify and prepare themselves by penance for His Revelation.

The fearful Majesty of God. The tremendous signs, under which God manifested Himself, were intended to convince the people of His greatness and majesty, and inspire them with a wholesome fear of breaking His Commandments. Therefore Moses said to them: “The Lord is come that you may fear Him and not sin.” These tokens of the presence of God are typical of His attributes. The cloud and the smoke signified that God is invisible, and cannot be gazed at by mortal eyes. The crashing of the thunder and the terrible blast of the trumpets revealed God’s might and majesty. The lightning and the flames pointed to God’s holiness and avenging justice. The quaking of the mountain signified the fearful and unapproachable majesty of God, before which the very angels tremble. No wonder that these tokens of the presence of God filled the Israelites with fear and awe. When the Lord God Himself spoke the Ten Commandments, they were filled with such consuming fear that they nearly fainted away, and said to Moses: “Speak thou to us &c.” They felt that they must die if God spoke to them in that way. How terrible is the majesty of God! The Israelites did not see Him; they only saw the signs of His presence, and heard His voice, and yet they nearly died of terror. Fear the just God, and keep His Commandments.

The Ten Commandments and the Natural Law. The Ten Commandments were but the expression of that natural law, which God has written in every man’s heart, and which every man can know if he listens to the voice of reason and conscience. Therefore the Ten Commandments apply to all men and all times: and, for this reason, God wrote them on stone to signify that they are as durable as stone, and are to last for all ages. We Christians ought to observe the Commandments even more perfectly than was expected of the Israelites; for our Lord has said: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (New Test. XXI).

The contents of the Ten Commandments are fully explained in the catechism, so I will only draw your attention here to their connexion with each other, and to their general tenor. The first three say to us: “Thou shalt worship God; thou shalt honour and keep holy His name; thou shalt respect and keep holy His day.” The fourth Commandment is a transition from one division to the other. The next four protect our most valuable possessions, and forbid any injury to life, innocence, property and honour. The last two forbid evil desires, because they corrupt the heart and lead to evil deeds.

The Ten Commandments are a benefit to mankind. God gave them to us out of love and for our good, or, in other words, for our temporal welfare and our eternal salvation. How would the world fare, if murder, rapine, robbery and defamation of character were not forbidden! Nobody would be sure of either life or property. There would be an end to all order and obedience in family life; evil and lawlessness would reign triumphantly; men would live like wild beasts in accordance with their savage lusts, and hunt down and devour each other. The Ten Commandments were, therefore, given to us for our good; that peace and order might reign among men, in family, society and state, and that we might attain to everlasting happiness. For this reason, he who does not observe the Ten Commandments is not only an enemy to God, but an enemy to mankind and to his own self.

The Old Covenant and the New. The Old Covenant was made through Moses, the New through Jesus Christ. The Old Covenant was made with only one nation; the New with all mankind. The Old Covenant was made to last for a limited time; the New will last to the end of time. The Old Covenant was sealed with the blood of victims; the New with the Blood of God made Man (“This is My Blood of the New Testament”; New Test. LXV). In the Old Testament, severe laws were made, but the power of observing them was not given. The New Testament has not only its own holy laws, but abundant grace is given by which to observe them; and the New Covenant is therefore called the Covenant of grace.

The Ten Commandments and the other laws of the Old Testament were a preparation for Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:24). The Jews could not perfectly observe those laws which forbade even evil desires; and, feeling this, they came to know their own weakness and sinfulness. They saw that they required divine help to do that which they ought to do, and to be just in the eyes of God. They longed, therefore, for the promised Saviour. But we Christians can, by God’s grace, keep all the Commandments, if only we desire to do so, and use the means of grace.

Pentecost. God gave the Ten Commandments fifty days after the departure from Egypt. In commemoration of this, the Jews always kept the feast of Pentecost fifty days after the Pasch (Old Test. XXXIX). The Christian Pentecost is also kept fifty days after Easter, because, on that day, God the Holy Ghost descended from heaven, and inscribed the law of love on the hearts of the faithful.

The first day of Pentecost in the Old Testament is a type of the first day of Pentecost in the New Testament. On the former, the mountain shook; on the latter, the house in which the apostles were. There the thunder and storm; here, the rushing as of a mighty wind. There, flames appeared; here, tongues of fire. There, God came down to give the Commandments; here, God the Holy Ghost came down to fill the hearts of the faithful with love of the Commandments.

No more barriers. The boundaries, set round the mountain, were meant to say to the Israelites: “You are not worthy on account of your sins to approach the Lord.” Now, the barriers which separate man from God are removed by Jesus Christ. We dare now approach God. We dare receive Him into our very hearts, and unite ourselves to Him in the closest manner.

APPLICATION. Thank God that, by the Ten Commandments, He has shown you the road to heaven. Take the trouble to learn the meaning of the Commandments thoroughly. Ask yourself, which Commandment you have most sinned against and pray to the Holy Ghost for the gift of holy fear. “If thou will enter into life, keep the Commandments”, says our Lord (see Deut. 5:29).

The Israelites had to prepare themselves for the hearing of God’s voice, by the sanctification of their hearts. How much more ought we to prepare ourselves for receiving God into our hearts in Holy Communion.








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