Forty Days: 2. The Forty Days of Moses on Mount Sinai

 •  19 min. read  •  grade level: 8
The second of those remarkable “Forty Days” of scripture we find in the case of Moses on Mount Sinai, when he received the law for the first time from Jehovah. In his case there were two periods of forty days, as afterward in the Lord Jesus’ ministry: the first, before He entered upon it, when in the temptations in the wilderness; and the second, after His resurrection.
In Moses’ case these two periods are spoken of distinctly in Deut. 9;10, where we find two givings of the law connected with these two “Forty Days”: first, the law, pure and simple; and, second, the revelation of mercy and long-suffering added to the law.
We read, “When I was gone up into the mount, to receive the tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant which the Lord made for you, then I abode in the mount forty days and forty nights: I neither did eat bread, nor drink water: and the Lord delivered me two tables of stone, written with the finger of God; and on them was written according to all the words which the Lord spake with you in the mount, out of the midst of the fire, in the day of the assembly. And it came to pass, at the end of forty days and forty nights, that the Lord gave me the two tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant. And the Lord said unto me, Arise, get thee down quickly from hence; for thy people which thou hast brought forth out of Egypt have corrupted themselves: they are quickly turned aside out of the way which I commanded them, they have made them a molten image... So I turned, and came down from the mount... And I looked, and, behold, ye had sinned against the Lord your God, and had made you a molten calf... And I took the two tables, and cast them out of my two hands, and brake them before your eyes.
“And I fell down before the Lord, as at the first, forty days and forty nights: I did neither eat bread, nor drink water; because of all your sins which ye sinned, in doing wickedly in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger. Then I fell down before the Lord forty days and forty nights, as I fell down at the first; because the Lord had said he would destroy you. I prayed therefore unto the Lord, and said, O Lord God, destroy not thy people, and thine inheritance...
“At that time the Lord said unto me, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first, and come up unto me into the mount, and make thee an ark of wood; and I will write on the tables the words that were in the first tables which thou brakest, and thou shalt put them in the ark... And there they be, as the Lord commanded me (Deut. 9:9;10:59When I was gone up into the mount to receive the tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant which the Lord made with you, then I abode in the mount forty days and forty nights, I neither did eat bread nor drink water: (Deuteronomy 9:9)
5And I turned myself and came down from the mount, and put the tables in the ark which I had made; and there they be, as the Lord commanded me. (Deuteronomy 10:5)
).” There were altogether — as we may see — three givings of the law.
First, by the voice of God out of the midst of the fire (Ex. 19, 20);
Secondly, by the first tables of the law, written by the finger of Clod. These Moses broke after he came down from the mount the first time — his face darkened with wrath at the sin of Israel;
And thirdly, by the second tables which Moses brought back after the second forty days’ and forty nights’ intercession for Israel, at which time the skin of his face shone with the glory of Jehovah’s mercy. These tables he placed in the ark (the figure of Christ, by whom, and in whom only, they would be kept fully). There was no breaking of them this second time, and, as we read, “there they be” unto this day.
We have thus Israel dancing round the calf, and the broken tables of the law, figure of their condition, after the first forty days.
And Israel spared in mercy, but with the law still in their midst — within the ark of the covenant — unbroken, at the end of the second forty days.
I do not dwell much on the first announcement of the law, by the voice of God in Exodus 19, 20. It was given by One who shut Himself up in the “thick darkness,” and spake amidst thunderings, and lightnings, and the voice of words. So terrible was the sight, that even Moses said, “I exceedingly fear and quake.” God had proposed these terms, and Israel, ignorant of themselves accepted them, in the words, “All that the Lord hath spoken, we will do.” Mark the two things — first, the word of the Lord, expressing His claim; and, secondly man supposing he is capable to take it up, and do it. No doubt he is responsible to do so, but he has not the power. No man ever heard the law of God, and denied his responsibility to obey it; his conscience accepts it, whether he like, or no. When the “Ten Words” were spoken, the result was the people removed, and stood afar off. Immediately, when man finds there is a claim from God to which his conscience must bow, he desires some one to stand between him and God — he wants a Mediator (Ex. 20:18,1918And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. 19And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die. (Exodus 20:18‑19)). “Speak thou with us,” they say to Moses, “and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” At once God answers this desire with directions for an altar, and sacrifices of burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, in all places where He would record His name.
These four things are the result of God’s expressing His claim: the desire of a mediator by the people; God’s answer in the work of such; an altar, and sacrifices of acceptance and communion; and His presence with them in all places where He would record His name, to be with them, and to bless them. How touchingly does His unvarying grace break out, even in the midst of the solemn scene of law-giving on Mount Sinai!
Now, if we examine Exodus 24, where Moses was called up into the mount to receive the law, we find it was prefaced by a seven days of preparation. (Just as, before the blow of judgment of sin at the flood, there were also seven days of respite.) “And Moses went up into the mount, and a cloud covered the mount. And the glory of the Lord abode upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and the seventh day he called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud. And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mount, in the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moses went into the midst of the cloud, and get him up into the mount; and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights (Ex. 24:15-1815And Moses went up into the mount, and a cloud covered the mount. 16And the glory of the Lord abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days: and the seventh day he called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. 18And Moses went into the midst of the cloud, and gat him up into the mount: and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:15‑18)).” In the seven chapters that follow we find the unfolding, in type, of what afterward shone in the full blessedness of Christ, there given in the “shadows of things to come.” Moses could dismiss the history of creation with one chapter, but what spake of Christ, and of God’s desire to dwell amongst men, seven chapters are devoted to that theme (Ex. 25-29), unfolding the heart of God, afterward to be fully revealed in His Son.
The order and arrangement of these chapters are very beautiful. First, in the various parts of the tabernacle and its furniture, He reveals how He can approach man — coming out from the light of the glory in the holy of holies, from the ark and its mercy-seat (Ex. 25), until, step by step, He reaches the brazen altar (Ex. 27), type of the cross of Christ. There He meets man as a sinner, and then He returns with the saved one, as each step of His backward path testifies in the furniture of the tabernacle, now needed — such as the laver, which was for him (Ex. 30), not a display of God in Himself as such — to meet all the saved one’s requirements by the way, in returning to God’s own presence.
Meanwhile the high priest’s garments are introduced — garments of glory and beauty; and the names of the redeemed are graven upon the stones of memorial on His shoulders, and on the breastplate, where all were borne, in the light of God’s presence, in Him. Thus, the believer dwells in the light, and is borne upon the strength, and carried in the affections of Christ, in the presence of God for us.
When all this was being transacted in the mount with God, a dark and terrible scene was being enacted below, on the plain, by Israel (Ex. 32); their great original and corporate sin was committed, which reaped its bitter fruits to the end, in Babylon and judgment. I refer to the making of the golden calf.
The seed of Abraham, who had been himself called out of idolatry, now turning back from Jehovah, to dance round the similitude of a “calf that eateth hay” — and Aaron the great actor in this revolt against God.
God desires Moses to go down, telling him that the people had revolted, and made them God’s of gold, and that He would cut them off, and make of Moses a great nation. Moses uses his place of nearness, not for himself, but for the people he loved; and beseeches the Lord for Israel, and God is entreated of him. Then Moses comes down with the first tables of the law in his hand, and breaks them ere he reaches the guilty camp, thus preserving both the people from judgment, and the honor of Jehovah. They never, therefore, stood under pure law at all.
The tribe of Levi consecrate themselves in the discipline of that moment, and take the Lord’s side against their guilty brethren. Moses returns, with the words, “I will go up, peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin.” He pleads, “Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and made them God’s of gold: yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.” He asks that he, not they, should be blotted out of God’s book. The answer is, “Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.”
Moses then, when the people are convicted, and stripped of their ornaments, takes the tent, and pitches it outside the camp, afar of from the camp, and called it the tabernacle of the congregation. Every one, therefore, that sought the Lord, went out there.
The most touching scene follows. The most glorious moment in all the history of Moses, and the most blessed revelation of God he ever had, was then made. The cloud came down, and talked with Moses as a man speaks with his friend! He pleads there with God, and God answers the one who never stood under law at all, but had found grace in His sight. Still, he does not feel that all is clear; his spirit has no rest yet, for two things press on his heart —
(1) the people are not relieved, therefore
(2) God is not yet fully revealed.
He cries, “I beseech thee, show me thy glory.” Nay, this would but consume them — it was not the time. He would afterward be seen in the same glory with Christ in the mount of transfiguration; but another deeper spring was now to be reached. Something was now to be known of God’s nature, never before revealed in its true and real depths. This was “Mercy!” Never was its true meaning known before. Doubtless the word was there, and used too in scripture; but that deep spring in God’s own being, so rich, so full, so blessed; that in which He delights — taking pleasure in them that hope in it. The theme ever after for Israel’s song was to be made known; the chorus of every divine melody of theirs from that moment would be, “O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endureth forever!” How touching the subsequent words — “And he said, I will make all [yes, “all”] my goodness pass before thee. and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion upon whom I will have compassion!”1
Who could have seen His face, and lived? Moses might “bow his head, and worship,” when that deep spring was reached. When He passes by we can see His back parts, but His face, who could know? Who could have anticipated the incarnation, the cross, the counsels and ways of God; or this — His mercy? None indeed. We may be placed in the “cleft of the rock,” and, covered by His hand, gaze upon Him as He passes by, and see His back parts; but none can see His face — none can anticipate His ways, and live!
The deep spring was reached at that dire extremity. The divine outflow of grace had been abused. The law had been broken. All ordered relations had been disrupted by the rebellion and ruin of Israel. Now, mercy — sovereign and absolute — was the resource of Him who retires into Himself, and who chooses to act from Himself; — who alone can say, “I will,” and who can hinder? It presupposes a condition of things, and the absolute necessity for God to act from Himself in some way, either to vindicate Himself by resistless judgment, or to extricate the people in absolute mercy. It was not now of him that willeth, or of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.
Brethren, do our souls understand that attribute in which God is so rich? Do we not constantly find it confounded with grace (which is the divine outflow of His unconditional favor), to the soul’s great loss indeed? Have we never sinned against and outraged His grace, as well as broken His law? What then is left for us — absolute sovereign mercy, which presupposes all this condition of things. Can I explain it to the soul that has never tasted it? Nay: it must be tasted in those moments of deep, deep need, which nothing can meet but the revelation of His character and nature as sovereign and absolute — but who chooses to act in that sovereignty, and absoluteness in mercy, and not in judgment.
From the moment that Moses saw that strange sight — the Bush burning with fire, and which was not consumed, at the back side of the desert; until the waters gushed out of the Rock at Rephidim — all was a pure stream of grace. This grace-history is taken up, even going back to the Patriarchs, in Psalm 105, and the Psalm recounts what “He” did for them: it runs on to the Smitten Rock, and there it stops. But when we turn to Psalm 106 we find the mercy-history — and it recounts what “They “had done. What then is the burden of the Psalm? “O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good; for his mercy endureth forever!” “Moses, his chosen, stood before him in the breach, to turn away his wrath, lest he should destroy them”; and He “repented according to the multitude of his mercies.”
Do Israel’s songs ever recount His grace? Ah no; it was too late after the golden calf was made. Too late after grace was abused and thrown back in His face, as it was, and Law was hopelessly broken. What has been the burden of their songs in the past; as well as those for the time to come? Their burden and theme is mercy for evermore!
What an absence of this “mercy” do we find in those chapters of Romans (1-8) which unfolds the relations of our souls with God, by grace through righteousness!
But if we turn to the next three chapters (Rom. 9-11) all is mercy, for Israel is in view! Yet the last does not close without shutting up all, Jew and Gentile, in unbelief, that He may have mercy upon all! “O the depth of the riches,” says the apostle, in the contemplation of His ways — past finding out, yet how blessed when revealed!
Look again at the fact, that in the church Epistles we find them addressed in grace and peace; but not mercy. Yet, when we come to the Epistles to individuals, mercy is added there. But in that of Jude, which gives the full tide of the corruption of Christendom surging on to judgment, we find “Mercy, peace, and love be multiplied”: and the saints are taught to look for the “mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, unto eternal life.” Why is this? because the grace, in which all were set, has been abused and outraged; and nothing remains but absolute and sovereign mercy for all!
“Who,” says Micah, “is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? He retaineth not his anger forever, because he delighteth in mercy!”
The soul of David, in singing the praises of the Lord for His lovingkindnesses and His tender mercies (Psa. 103), seeks to measure this mercy which so suited his case. “As the heaven,” sang he, “is high above the earth, so great is his mercy.” Still that does not reach it, for the soul that has tasted its heights and its depths. Again he essays, in the words, “as far as the east is from the west”; but it is infinite, and greater than the finite — great as it may be. At last he finds its only measure is the nature of Him who, “from everlasting to everlasting,” is God (Psa. 90). So His “mercy is... from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him” — who grasp His outstretched hand reached down into the abyss of sin, which none have ever grasped in vain.
Hear him again, who so learned its sweetness to his own soul: “O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good; for his mercy endureth forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom he hath redeemed from the hand of the enemy. And gathered them out of the lands, from the east, and from the west, from the north, and from the south. O that men would praise the Lord for his mercy;2 and for his wonderful works to the children of men! Whoso is wise, and will observe these things, even they shall understand the mercy of the Lord (Psa. 107).”
How blessed, too, in Ephesians 2, if “God, who is rich in mercy,” would act according to that deep spring in His being, He must do so in a manner becoming that mercy; and as “the angle of incidence is equal to that of refraction,” so, if He acts, in forming His church out of the materials we find in Ephesians 2, and from that deep spring, He will place those who have been reached by mercy, far above all heavens: above all principality and might and dominion, in Him in whom it is expressed!
Ah yes, beloved brethren, mercy and grace are never mixed up in the thoughts of God, as in ours. We do it to our deep loss indeed. Mercy was first really learned in scripture, when Moses “bowed his head and worshiped,” at the suited name and character and attribute of Him, who chose to act — not according to the insolence of sin in Israel; but according to His sovereignty in mercy.
May it, in all the depth and fullness of God, be my own and my readers’ portion, in Christ Himself forever! In Him, whose own blessed lips spake those words to those who hated Him: “But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Matt. 9:1313But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Matthew 9:13)).” Sacrifice was what they could do for God, and failed to do. But mercy was what He could, in spite of all, show to them. And again, “But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless (Matt. 12:77But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. (Matthew 12:7)).” How sweet it is for the soul to rest thus in the Lord in His known nature and character, learned, too, in measure, through the deep needs of the soul, as a sinner as a failing saint. To have found that He delights in mercy, which He has revealed in His Son; and to be able to sing of Him — “O give thanks unto the God heaven: for his mercy endureth forever”!
The first “forty days,” then, of Moses on Mount Sinai, ended with a broken Law and a ruined people: the second with that blessed revelation of God’s attribute of mercy,3 which can never fail. There our souls can stay themselves in peace: whether as sinners needing and finding salvation in Christ; or as those who have outraged that loving grace of God, and have now no hope but in Him against whom we have sinned. In Him on whom we have no claim, but to count on that character on which we can cast ourselves unreservedly; to whom we may come as saints or sinners, for salvation for eternity; or pardon and deliverance under His righteous government in time for all in which we have exceeded. We can cast ourselves at His feet, asking nothing; suggesting nothing but resting on His nature — Himself, which so fully expresses itself in righteous consistency with Himself through the cross and work of His own beloved Son.
To Him and through Him be praise to God, both now and for evermore.)
Words of Faith, 1882, pp. 155-164.
1. 2. I have given the rendering of the LXX (Septuagint} of the latter part of this verse, as it has been accepted by the apostle Paul in Rom. 9, exactly as given there. It is thus shown to be the more correct meaning of the Spirit of God.
2. And so in verses 15, 21, 31, 43: see Heb. and LXX.
3. I do not here distinguish between governmental mercy, and mercy for eternal salvation. Nor do I notice the fact of the law being still left, accompanied by mercy, and Israel left under it, in this paper.