The Terror at Mount Sinai

“For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: ‘And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.’ And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I am exceedingly afraid and trembling’” (Hebrews 12:18-21).


As has been the pattern throughout the book of Hebrews, there is a sharp contrast made between the Old and New Testaments in the climactic portion of this inspired document (I.e., Hebrews 12:18-29). The terrifying sight of God’s holy presence at Mount Sinai (vv. 18-21) is contrasted with the superiority of Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem (vv. 22-24). This builds to the book’s final crescendo: “See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven…Therefore…let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire” (vv. 25, 28-29).

The God of the New Testament is also the God of the Old Testament. He has not mellowed over time. He does not change (Malachi 3:6). There is, however, a difference in focus and emphasis on God’s character from the Old Testament to the New. The Law given to and through Moses focused on God’s utter holiness and immense superiority. The gospel of Jesus Christ focuses on His love, grace, and mercy. Without the Law’s focus, the riches of God’s love, grace, and mercy revealed in the gospel dissolve into a mass of sentimental mush and divine permissiveness.

Therefore, it is good to remember the august and terrifying presence Jehovah had at Mount Sinai. The mountain where He visibly manifested Himself was off limits to humans and animals. It burned with fire, yet there was blackness, thick darkness, and tempest. The people witnessed thundering, lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and a mountain smoking and quaking greatly (Exodus 20:18). From the midst of the fire, they heard the voice of the living God speak to them (Deuteronomy 5:26). The sound of His voice was heard, but He had no form to see (Deuteronomy 4:12).

So majestic and terrible was God in this manifestation of His absolute holiness, with the blast of the trumpet sounding long and becoming louder and louder, all the people in the camp trembled (Exodus 19:16), stood afar off, and said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die…You go near and hear all that the Lord our God may say and tell us all that the Lord our God says to you, and we will hear and do it.” (Exodus 20:18-19; Deuteronomy 5:27).

Moses himself was exceedingly afraid and trembling in God’s holy presence.

Why? Why did Moses and his Hebrew kinsmen need to experience this terror at Mount Sinai? So “that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:29).

The fear of the Lord is a spiritual necessity.

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Author: jchowning

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