Beckett: Pastoral Thoughts – The Theophany at Sinai (Exodus 19:16-19)

Featured image from “Mount Sinai,” 1839, by David Roberts.

“On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder” (Exodus 19:16-19).

Whenever I read God’s theophany at Mt. Sinai, I always spend significant time trying to picture what His presence looked like on the mountain. Of course, anything I imagine can’t be anything like the real thing, but it’s still an interesting—and terrifying—exercise. So, let’s try.

First, the mountains in Israel are nothing like what we usually picture when we hear the word “mountain.” Israel’s mountains are not like Mt. Everest; they’re more akin to North America’s Appalachian mountains (in some cases). Mount Sinai is one of these kinds of mountains.

Now let’s try imagining God’s theophany on such a mountain: standing at the foot of the mount, as we look up, we see it completely wrapped in thick smoke with darkness and fire encircling like a supernatural hurricane. As we’re gazing upon His presence, we hear a trumpet blast that grows louder and louder. (I wonder what note it was. Perhaps a D flat or some other minor key to convey the terror of His presence?) And as if this isn’t loud enough, every time God speaks, His voice sounds like vociferous thunder.

Perhaps we can picture some of it, but ultimately, it’s impossible to imagine because we weren’t there. Still, though, we get the idea that His presence is terrifying. It’s no wonder the people of Israel told Moses to speak with God alone, because they feared they would be destroyed! And their fear was correct.

No one can look upon God’s face and live. God makes this quite clear to Moses later. So, He allows Moses only to see His backside (Exodus 33:20-23). It’s amazing enough that Moses stood in God’s actual presence and lived, even with viewing only His backside.

But what’s even more amazing is that, as we think of Christ at this theophany, we have the promise that we shall see God face to face and live. John alludes to this in his epistle, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). “As He is” strongly implies no hiddenness. John says quite explicitly that God’s servants “will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads” (Revelation 22:4).

Jesus’ Parousia will be the final theophany of God. Those who believe will see His face and live; those who do not believe will never see His face and will die eternally. Thus, while this theophany of God on Sinai ought to instruct the fear of the Lord, let it also remind us of the hope we have in Christ that all God’s children shall see Him face to face and live when His Son returns in glory.

Theology Terms Used

  • Parousia: Jesus’ second coming.
  • Theophany: a physical manifestation of God’s presence.

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