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Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 3: Harmony of the Law, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at


Exodus 19:1-8

1. In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai.

1. In mense tertio postquam egressi erant filii Israel e terra Aegypti, ipso die venerunt in desertum Sinai.

2. For they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the desert of Sinai, and had pitched in the wilderness: and there Israel camped before the mount.

2. Profecti ergo e Raphidim venerunt in desertum Sinai, et castrametati sunt in deserto: mansitque illic Israel e regione montis.

3. And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel;

3. Moses autem ascendit ad Deum, et vocavit eum Jehova e monte, dicendo, Sic dices domui Jacob, et annuntiabis filiis Israel.

4. Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself.

4. Vos vidistis quae feci Aegyptiis, et ut portaverim vos quasi super alas aquilarum, et adduxerim vos ad me.

5. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine.

5. Nunc ergo si obediendo obedieritis voci meae, et custodieritis pactum meum, eritis mihi in peculium (vel, thesaurum) prae omnibus populis, quia mea est (vel, quamvis mea sit) universa terra.

6. And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.

6. Et vos eritis mihi regnum sacerdotale, et gens sancta. Haec sunt verba quae loqueris ad filios Israel.

7. And Moses came, and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord commanded him.

7. Venit itaque Moses, et vocavit seniores populi, et protulit coram ipsis omnes hos sermones quos praeceperat ei Jehova.

8. And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord.

8. Responderunt autem omnis populus pariter, et dixerunt, Quicquid dixit Jehova faciemus. Et retulit Moses verba populi ad Jehovam.

1. In the third month. This chapter informs us by what means God rendered the people attentive and teachable when He would promulgate His laws. He had, indeed, previously delivered the rule of a just and pious life, but by writing the Law on tables, and by then adding its exposition, He not only embraced the perfect doctrine of piety and righteousness, but ratified it by a solemn rite, so that the recognition of it might remain and flourish in future times. And this is the main and principal thing which the prophets celebrate in the redemption of the people; and in this, as in a mirror, propose for consideration the image of the renewed Church, that God made known His testimonies to His redeemed, and bound the people, whom He had purchased, to Himself by a new covenant. He had indeed made with Abraham an eternal, and inviolable covenant; but because it had grown into disregard from the lapse of time, and the carelessness of mankind, it became needful that it should be again renewed. To this end, then, it was engraved upon the tables of stone, and written in a book, that the marvelous grace, which God had conferred on the race of Abraham, should never sink into oblivion. But in the first place we must observe that, although the Law is a testimony of God’s gratuitous adoption, and teaches that salvation is based upon His mercy, and invites men to call upon God with sure confidence, yet it has this peculiar property, that it; covenants conditionally. Therefore it is worth while to distinguish between the general doctrine, which was delivered by Moses, and the special command which he received. Moses everywhere exhorts men, by holding forth the hope of pardon, to reconcile themselves to God; and, whenever he prescribes expiatory rites, he doubtless encourages miserable sinners to have a good hope, and bears witness that God will be merciful to them. Meanwhile this office was separately imposed upon him, to demand perfect; righteousness of the people, and to promise them a reward, as if by compact, upon no other condition than that they should fulfill whatever was enjoined them, but to threaten and to denounce vengeance against them if ever they wandered from the way. It is certain indeed that the same covenant, of which Abraham had been the minister and keeper, was repeated to his descendants by the instrumentality of Moses; and yet Paul declares, that the Law “was added because of transgressions,” (Ga 3:19,) and opposes it to the promise given to Abraham; because, as he is treating of the peculiar office, power, and end of the Law, he separates it from the promises of grace. With the same import, he elsewhere calls it “the ministration of death,” and “the letter that killeth.” (2 Cor. 3:6, 7.) Again, in another place, he states that it “worketh wrath,” (Ro 4:15;) as if by its arraignment it inflicted a deadly wound on the human race, and left them no hope of salvation. In this preparation, then, wherein God instructed the people to reverence and fear, a twofold object may be perceived; for, since men’s minds are partly swollen with pride and haughtiness, and partly stupified by indifference, they must needs be either humbled or awakened, in order to their reception of divine teaching with the attention it deserves; nor can any be prepared to obey God, except he be bowed down and subdued by fear. Moreover, they then begin to be afraid when God’s majesty is displayed to inspire them with terror. Thus, therefore, let the fact that the authority of the Law was ratified by many signs and wonders, teach us that this is the beginning of piety and faith in God’s children. To this end also did God shake the earth, to arouse men’s hearts from their slumber, or to correct them by taming their pride. This object is common to the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel, and to the whole sum of divine teaching, to which due honor is never paid, unless God’s majesty first shines forth, whereby He casts down all the haughtiness of the world. But we must not pass over what I lately asserted to be peculiar to the Law, via, to fill men’s minds with fear, and by setting forth its terrible curse, to cut off the hope of salvation; for, whilst it consists of three parts, each of them tends to the same end, that all should acknowledge themselves deserving of the judgment of eternal death, because in it God sustains no other character than that of a Judge, who, after having rigidly exacted what is due to Him, promises only a just reward, and threatens the transgressors with vengeance. But who will be found to be a perfect keeper of the Law? Nay, it is certain that all, from the least to the greatest, are guilty of transgression, wherefore God’s wrath overhangs them all This is what Paul means, when he writes that believers

“have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but the spirit of adoption, whereby they cry, Abba, Father,”
(Ro 8:15;)

showing how much better is our condition than that of the old fathers, because the Law kept them enslaved in its bondage, whilst the Gospel delivers us from anxiety, and frees us from the stings of conscience; for all must necessarily tremble, and finally be overwhelmed by despair, who seek for salvation by works; but peace and rest only exist in the mercy of God. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews pursues this idea at greater length, where he says,

“Ye are not come unto the mount that must be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words: which voice they that heard entreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more, etc., (whence Moses said I exceedingly fear and quake:) but ye are come unto Mount Sion,” etc.
(Heb 12:18-22.)

The antithesis here proves, that what was entrusted to Moses is separate and distinct from the Gospel; because God, who appeared in the Law as an avenger, now with fatherly kindness gently invites us unto salvation, and soothes our troubled minds by offering us the forgiveness of our sins. Now, Paul shows us that there is no contradiction in this diversity, because the people were taught by the Law not to seek for salvation anywhere but in the grace of Christ, and being convinced of the horrible condemnation under which they lay, were driven by fear to implore God’s mercy; for, as men are apt to  207 allow themselves in sin, “sin (as Paul says, Ro 5:13) is not imputed, where there is no law;” but those, who delight themselves in darkness, are by the teaching of the Law brought before God’s tribunal, that they may fully perceive their filthiness and be ashamed. Thus is Paul’s saying fulfilled, that the life of the Law is man’s death. (Ro 7:9.) Now we understand why the promulgation of the Law was ratified by so many miracles; viz., because, in general, the authority of the divine teaching was to be established among the dull and careless, or the proud and rebellious; and, secondly, because the Law was propounded to men, who sought the means of flattering themselves, as the mirror of the curse, so that, in themselves lost, they might fly to the refuge of pardon. I have thought it advisable to say thus much by way of preface, for the purpose of directing my readers to the proper object of the history, which is here related. But Moses first recounts that the people came, at a single march, from Rephidim into the region of Sinai; for so I interpret it, that there was no intervening station; for their interpretation is forced and unnatural, who take “the same day” for the beginning of the month.

3. And Moses went up. It is probable that Moses sought, as he was wont, retirement., in order to take counsel of God; for he speaks not as of some new or unusual circumstance, but of a custom previously observed; because he dared not stop anywhere, nor make any further advances, except as far as was prescribed him by the mouth of God. His going up to God signifies no more than that he went; out of the camp, that afar from the multitude, and from all distractions he might in secrecy and quiet inquire of God, what was His pleasure; for he did not, like the superstitious, choose a lofty position, that he might be nearer to God; but he withdrew himself from every disturbance, that he might engage all his senses in the occupation of learning. Afterwards, however, he adds, that he had obtained more than he had hoped for, because God, beyond what was customary with Him, addressed him respecting the renewal of His covenant. And to this the opening words have reference — “Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel;” wherein the repetition and diversity of expression is emphatic, as though He would speak of a very serious matter, and would thus awaken greater attention.

4. Ye have seen. With the view of gently inviting the people to obedience, He first recalls to their recollection the blessing of their deliverance, and then promises that the blessings of the future would be not inferior, if they on their part honored their deliverer with the piety and gratitude which belong to Him. He recounts the two parts of His loving-kindness, first that He had exerted His tremendous power against the Egyptians, and secondly, that He had marvelously brought His redeemed people through the sea, and the mighty wilderness, as through the clouds and the air; for this was an instance of His inestimable grace, that He had made war against a most powerful king, had afflicted a most flourishing nation, and had devastated a land remarkable for its extreme fertility, in order to succor a body of despised slaves. For there was no dignity in them, who first of all were strangers, and moreover abject herdsmen, and devoted to base and shameful slavery, whereby God might be incited for their sakes to destroy the Egyptians, who were illustrious in glory, in wealth, in the richness of their land, and in the splendor of their empire. Wherefore it would have been detestable ingratitude not to acknowledge their great obligations to God. What He adds in the second place, that He bare them as eagles are wont to carry their young, has reference to the constant course of His paternal care. Moses will hereafter use the same comparison in his song, and it often occurs in the prophets. But He mentions the eagle rather than other birds, in my opinion, that He may magnify their difficulties, and thus commend His grace; for eagles lift up their young ones upon high places, and accustom them to look at the sun; thus the people, as if carried above the clouds on the wings of God, had surmounted every obstacle, however great. For the notion which some have, that eagles are mentioned instead of other birds, because they alone bear up their young ones on their wings, is a foolish and truly Rabbinical gloss.  208

5. Now, therefore. God declares that He will ever be the same, and will constantly persevere  209 (in blessing them), provided the Israelites do not degenerate, but remain devoted to their Deliverer; at the same time, He reminds them also, wherefore he has been so bountiful to them, viz., that they may continually aspire unto the end of their calling; for He had not willed to perform toward them a single act of liberality, but to purchase them as His peculiar, people. This privilege he sets before them in the word סגלה,  210 segullah, which means all things most precious, whatever, in fact, is deposited in a treasury; although the word “peculium,” a peculiar possession, by which the old interpreter  211 has rendered it, is not unsuitable to the passage; because it is plain from the immediate context, that it denotes the separation of this people from all others; since these words directly follow: “for,” or, although “all the earth is mine;” the particle כי, ki, being often taken adversatively, and there is no doubt but that God would more exalt His grace, by comparing this one nation with the whole world, as it is said in the song of Moses,

“When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel; for the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.” (De 32:8.)

The sum then is, that whilst the whole earth is in God’s dominion, yet the race of Israel has been chosen by Him to excel all nations. Whence it is evident, that whereas the condition of all is alike, some are not distinguished from others by nature, but by gratuitous adoption; but, in order that they should abide in the possession of so great a blessing, fidelity towards God is required on their part. And, first, they are commanded to listen to his voice, (since no sacrifice is more pleasing to him than obedience, 1Sa 15:22;) and then a definition of obedience is added, viz., to keep His covenant.

6. And ye shall be unto me. He points out more clearly, and more at length, how the Israelites will be precious unto God; viz., because they will be for “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” By these words, he implies that they will be endowed with sacerdotal as well as royal honors; as much as to say, that they would not only be free, but also like kings, if they persevered in faith and obedience, since no kingdom is more desirable, or more happy, than to be the subjects of God. Moreover, he calls this “an holy kingdom,” because all the kingdoms of the world were then in heathenism; for the genitive, according to the usual idiom of the language, is put for an adjective, as if he had said, that they would enjoy not merely an earthly and transitory dominion, but also a sacred and heavenly one. Others understand it passively, that God would be their king; whilst mortals, and for the most part cruel tyrants, would rule over other nations. Though I do not altogether reject this sense, yet I rather prefer the other, to which also St. Peter leads us: for when the Jews, who by their refusal of Christ had departed from the covenant, still improperly gloried in this title, he claims this honor for the members of Christ only, saying, “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood,” etc. (1Pe 2:9.) But the passive sense would not accord with these words, viz., that believers are subject to the priesthood of God, for the Apostle gracefully applies the words to take away the unacceptableness of novelty; as if he had said, God formerly promised to our fathers that they should be to Him for a royal priesthood. This privilege all, who separate themselves from Christ the Head, falsely lay claim to, since He alone makes us a royal priesthood. Meanwhile he teaches, by this apparent adaptation of the words, that what had been spoken by Moses is actually fulfilled. And, in fact, Christ appeared invested with the kingdom and the priesthood, that He might confer both of these privileges upon His members; whence it follows, that whosoever divorce themselves from Him, are unworthy of either honor, and are justly deprived of them. The nation is here called holy, not with reference to their piety or personal holiness, but as set apart from others by God by special privilege. Yet on this kind of sanctification the other depends, viz., that they who are exalted by God’s favor should cultivate holiness, and thus on their part sanctify God.

8. And all the people answered. We shall see in its proper place why God employed Moses as a messenger to carry backwards and forwards the commands and replies; now he merely relates what all the people answered, viz., that they would be obedient in all things. It was not a part, but the whole of the people who promised this, and the reply was unreserved, declaring that they would do whatsoever God required. Yet soon after they relapsed into their natural mind, and kept not their promise even in the smallest degree. Still we may believe that they spoke without dissembling; but that, although without any intention of deceiving God, they were carried away by a kind of headlong zeal, and deceived themselves. Nor was it the object of Moses to tell them in reproach that they had lied to God, or deceitfully boasted with their lips what they did not feel in their hearts; but, by stating how ready they were to obey, he deprives them hereafter of all pretense of ignorance. Nor is there any doubt that God inclined their minds to this docility, in order to establish the doctrine of His law. Meanwhile, let us learn from their example, that we must not merely obey God’s word by some earnest impulse; and that a hasty feeling is of no use, unless it be followed by constant perseverance; and, therefore, let us learn to sift; ourselves well, lest: we rashly promise, without serious self-examination, more, than we are able to perform. Yet we must not forget what. I have already said, that they were all made willing by the secret inspiration of God, in order that they might be witnesses both to themselves and others of the many signs, by which the truth and faithfulness of the  212 heavenly doctrine was then confirmed.

Exodus 19:9-15

9. And the Lord said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever. And Moses told the words of the people unto the Lord.

9. Tunc ait Jehova ad Mosen, Ecce, ego venio ad te in densa nube, ut audiat populus quum loquar tecum, atque etiam tibi credant in perpetuum. Indicaverat autem Moses Jehovae verba populi.

10. And the Lord said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes,

10. Et dixit Jehova ad Mosen, Vade ad populum, et sanctifica eos hodie et cras, laventque vestimenta sua.

11. And be ready against the third day: for the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai.

11. Et sint parati in diem tertium: quoniam die tertio descendet Jehova coram oculis totius populi super montem Sinai.

12. And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death:

12. Et praescribet terminum populo per circuitum, dicendo, Cavete vobis ne ascendatis in montem, neque contingatis terminum ejus. Quicunque tetigerit montem, moriendo morietur.

13. There shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live: when the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount.

13. Non tanget eum manus, sed lapidando lapidabitur, aut jaculis ferietur: sive jumentum fuerit, sive homo, non vivet, quum protraxerit buccina, ipsi ascendcut in montem.

14. And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their clothes.

14. Descendit autem Moses e monte ad populum, et sanctificavit populum, et laverunt vestimenta sua.

15. And he said unto the people, Be ready against the third day: come not at your wives.

15. Dixitque populo, Sitis parati in diem tertium, et ne accedatis ad uxores.

9. And the Lord said unto Moses. God here proclaims, that by a manifest symbol of His glory, He will make it evident that the Law proceeded not from Moses, but that he merely delivered faithfully what he received from heaven; for God was so covered with the cloud, as with a veil that He still upraised their minds as by a certain sign of His presence. On this was the authority of Moses founded, that the Israelites knew God to be the author of the doctrine, of which he was the minister. And this is especially worth remarking, because we gather from hence that there is no other mode of proving a doctrine, except by the assurance that it comes not from elsewhere, but from God alone; and thus is every mortal brought down to his level, lest any one, however excellent in wisdom, should dare to advance his own imaginations. For if the mightiest of prophets, Moses, obtained credit in the Church on no other grounds than because he bore the commands of God, and only taught what he had heard, how foolish and impudent will it be in teachers, who sink down far beneath him, to endeavor to attain a higher point! In fine, this passage shows that we must believe in God alone, but that at the same time we must listen to the prophets, who spoke out of His mouth. Besides this, it appears that God did not wish to obtain credit for His servant Moses during a short period of time, but that posterity should pay him the same reverence even after his death. The call of some is temporary; and it may happen that God takes away the spirit of prophecy from those to whom He has given it; but so did He appear to Moses, as to ratify, and, as it were, consecrate the truth of his doctrine in all ages. Thence it follows, that the brightness of God’s glory, which was shown to his ancient people in the thick cloud, is not yet extinct, but that it ought to illuminate the minds of all the godly, reverently to submit themselves to Moses. What follows at the end of the verse is a repetition from the last; for there was no intervening reply of the people which Moses could report. The meaning is, that although the Israelites had voluntarily promised to abide in the path of duty, yet that this confirmation was added, like a spur to those who are running, that they may proceed more nimbly.

10. And the Lord said unto Moses. Before propounding His law, it is not unreasonable that God should command the people to be sanctified, lest He should cast pearls before swine, or give that which is holy unto dogs; for although by right of adoption they were holy, yet, as regarded themselves, the filthiness of their nature unfitted them for participating in so great a blessing. It was by no means right or just that the inestimable treasure should be polluted by foul and stinking vessels. Therefore, in the injunction that they should be sanctified, two things were pointed out, — that the sacred doctrine of God was not to be handled by unwashen hands, and that the whole human race is impure and polluted, and, consequently, that none can duly enter God’s school save those who are cleansed from their filthiness. And, doubtless, it is the just reward of their unworthy profanation that so many readers or hearers profit not by heavenly doctrine, because they rush in without fear or reverence, as to some ridiculous stage play. This preparation, then, is seasonably commanded, to make ready God’s scholars and render them fit to be taught. But while the inward purity of the heart is chiefly demanded, this ceremony was not without its use to accustom an ignorant people to meditate upon true holiness. That they should wash their clothes and abstain from the nuptial bed were things of naught in themselves; but when external rites are referred to their proper end, viz., to be exercises unto spiritual worship, they are useful aids to piety; and we know that God, in consideration of the times, before Christ’s coming, employed such figures which now have no place under the brightness of the Gospel. But although the use of them be grown obsolete, yet the truth, which I spoke of, still remains, viz., that if we desire to be admitted to a participation in heavenly doctrine, we should

“cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit.”
(2Co 7:1.)

But here a question arises; for if, as Peter bears witness, faith purifies the heart, (Ac 15:9,) and understanding of the doctrine goes before faith, since Paul declares that it “cometh by hearing,” (Ro 10:17,) the consequence is, that the order of things is inverted if the people are to be sanctified before they hear the Law, because in this way the means of sanctification is wanting. My reply is, that albeit faith, in so far as it embraces the offer of reconciliation and the Spirit of regeneration, can alone truly purify us; yet this by no means prevents the fear of God from going before to prepare a place for the word in our minds. And, properly speaking, a pious desire of learning, humility, and reverence should be accounted the commencement of faith, since it is from these elements that God begins to perfect faith in us by certain progressive steps. On this account James exhorts us to “receive with meekness the engrafted word,” because the door of the entrance is shut against it by pride, and obstinacy, and profane contempt. As to the meaning of the passage, to be “sanctified,” and to “wash their clothes,” are not spoken of as different things, but the second is added as the symbol  213 of the first; for under the Law the rite of ablution reminded the ancient people that no one can please God, except he both seek for expiation in the blood of Christ, and labor to purify himself from the pollution’s of the flesh. Abstinence from cohabitation had the same object; for although there is nothing polluting or contaminating in the marriage bed, yet the Israelites were to be reminded that all earthly cares were, as much as possible, to be renounced, and all carnal affections to be put away, that they might give their entire attention to the hearing of the Law. The sanctity of marriage veils and covers whatever of sin there is in the cohabitation of man and wife; yet it is certain that it in some degree distracts them from having their whole minds occupied by spiritual affections. Therefore Paul makes this exception in the mutual obligation of the marriage bed, that couples may be separated for “fasting and prayer.” (1Co 7:5.) Yet the moderation which God prescribed is to be observed; for God did not enjoin perpetual celibacy, but so arranged the time that the Israelites might be disengaged from all earthly preoccupations, and might more freely apply their whole minds to the reverent reception of the Law.

12. And thou shalt set bounds. By this symbol the Israelites were admonished to restrain their natural inquisitiveness, that they may be sober in their desires after knowledge, because God, by the teaching of His Law, only enlightens those who are as “little children.” We know how great is men’s natural curiosity, how forwardly they seek to penetrate the secrets of God, how daringly they indulge themselves, and how, by their irreverence, all religion and fear of God is extinguished in them; wherefore there was good cause why He should set these bounds, and restrain this perverse longing after unlawful knowledge. All would have wished to come, like Moses, to familiar converse with God; but they are commanded to stand within the boundaries, that they may obey God speaking to them by an interpreter. Thus are their modesty and docility proved, when they desire no more than is permitted them, and keep themselves within the bounds of revelation. What was then enjoined upon His ancient people is extended also to us, that in reading and hearing we should not overpass the limits which God assigns us, but, content with the form of doctrine which He delivers to us, should let alone what He would have concealed from us; and, although He speaks to us from afar, should not be offended by the distance. Yet does He not prohibit the people from ascending, as though he grudged them a nearer prospect of His glory; but because it is expedient that the proud and improperly arrogant should be kept within His narrow limit, that they may be reminded of their weakness. To alarm them yet more, He commands that the men themselves,  214 and even beasts, though harmless, should be killed if they passed over the borders. We have just before explained what is meant by God’s descending, viz., the manifestation of His power; since His essence which fills heaven and earth moves not from its place.

13. There shall not a hand touch it.  215 They ignorantly pervert the meaning who resolve the particle ב, be, into the adversative else; as if Moses forbade them to touch the mountain with the hand, under penalty of stoning.  216 Those also are far from the truth who think that what is ordained is, that one should not follow the other, or that none should stretch forth his hand to the transgressors for their help. Moses referred to something altogether different; for in order to render more detestable those who, by rash advances, should violate the limits placed by God, he commanded them to be killed afar off by stones or darts; as if whosoever should touch them, even with a finger, would contract pollution. It is, then, as if he commanded them to be avoided as being accursed, lest they should infect others by their contagion. Therefore there is an antithesis between different kinds of death, viz., to smite with the sword or to shoot through with darts, and to strike with the hand. But lest the people should consider themselves rejected, and thus being offended by the ignominy of their repulse, should abandon their love and desire for the Law, He permits their ascent conditionally, viz., when the sound of the trumpet shall have been protracted for a long time, or it shall have done sounding. Thus there was no ground for complaining of the limitation which God had appointed for their safety.

Exodus 19:16-20

16. And it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunders and lightning’s, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.

16. Et fuit die tertia, quum factum esset mane, facta sunt tonitrua, et fulgura, et nubes densissima super montem, et clangor tubae intentissimus, expavitque universus populus qui erat in castris.

17. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.

17. Et eduxit Moses populum in occursum Dei e castris: qui steterunt in inferiore parte montis.

18. And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.

18. Mons autem Sinai fumabat totus, eo quod descendisset super eum Jehova in igne: ascendebatque fumus ejus: sicut fumus fornacis, et commotus est universus mons vehementer.

19. And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice.

19. Erat praeterea clangor buccinae procedens, et invalescebat valde: Moses loquebatur, et Deus respondebat ei in voce.

20. And the Lord came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the Lord called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up.

20. Descenderat autem Jehova supra montem Sinai, super verticem montis: et vocavit Jehova Mosen ad verticem montis, ascenditque Moses.

16. And it came to pass on the third day. We must bear in mind what I have already adverted to, that this terrible spectacle was partly to set the presence of God before their eyes, that His majesty might urge the beholders to obedience, and vindicate His doctrine from contempt, and partly to express the nature of the Law, which in itself produces nothing but mere terror. The air was disturbed by thunder and lightning’s, and the sound of the trumpet; the mountain was wrapped in smoke and darkness, that the people might humbly prostrate themselves before God, and solemnly embrace the covenant proposed to them; since religion never penetrates the mind so that it seriously receives God’s word until its vices are cleansed and corrected, and it is really subdued. And this fear is common also to the Gospel; for as in the promulgation of the Law God shook the earth, so when He speaks by the Prophet of the coming of Christ, and the restoration of His Church, He says, “Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens and the earth,” etc. (Hag 2:6.) Thus, too, David, when he would point to God as the avenger of His Church, describes Him under this image; for no doubt when, in Ps 18:7-9, he says, “Then the earth shook and trembled, the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, — there went up a smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured; he bowed the heavens also, and came down; and darkness was under his feet,” he alludes to the history which Moses here relates. Hab 3:3 yet more plainly does so, — “God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran.” Meanwhile the other point remains, that the awful prodigies, at which the people needs must tremble, were added as seals to the promulgation of the Law, because the Law was given to cite slumbering consciences to the judgment-seat, that, through fear of eternal death, they might flee for refuge to God’s mercy.

17. And Moses brought forth the people. We learn from these words that the prodigies were not intended to drive the people from God’s sight, and that they were not smitten with fear to exasperate and disgust them with the doctrine, but that God’s covenant was no less lovely than alarming; for they are commanded to go and “meet God,” presenting themselves with minds ready unto obedience. But this could not be unless they heard in the Law something besides precepts and threatenings. Yet in the smoke and fire, and other signs, some fear was added, in accordance with the office of the Law, because the sinner will never be capable of pardon until he learns to tremble from consciousness of his guilt, nay, until confounded with dread he lies like one dead before the tribunal of God. In the two following verses, Moses explains what he had briefly touched upon respecting the meeting with God; for he shows that God was near, since His majesty appeared upon the top of Sinai. He adds that he stood within the bounds, because he went up by himself alone, and that by invitation; for he clears himself from the accusation of temerity, by expressly stating that he passed over the limits assigned to the people, not voluntarily, but at the command and call of God.  217 It appears from the context itself that the order of the narration is inverted, which the old translator does not perceive, and perverts the sense. God’s answering him “by a voice,” means that He spoke aloud and clearly, viz., so that the people might hear, as we shall see hereafter in Deuteronomy 4.

Exodus 19:21-25

21. And the Lord said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the Lord to gaze, and many of them perish.

21. Dixitque Jehova ad Mosen, Descende: contestare populum ne perrumpatad Jehovam videndicausa, et cadat ex eis multitudo.

22. And let the priests also, which come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break forth upon them.

22. Quinetiam sacerdotes qui appropinquant ad Jehovam sanctificent se, ne forte rupturam illis faciat Jehova.

23. And Moses said unto the Lord, The people cannot come up to mount Sinai: for thou chargedst us, saying, Set bounds about the mount, and sanctify it.

23. Et ait Moses ad Jehovam, Non peterit populus ascendere in montem Sinai: quia tu nos contestatus es, dicendo, Distermina montem, et sanctifica illum.

24. And the Lord said unto him, Away, get thee down, and thou shalt come up, thou, and Aaron with thee: but let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto the Lord, lest he break forth upon them.

24. Et dixit ei Jehova, Vade, descende, et ascendes tu et Aaron tecum, sacerdotes autem et populus non perrumpant ut ascendant ad Jehovam, ne forte rupturam in illis faciat.

25. So Moses went down unto the people, and spoke unto them.

25. Descendit itaque Moses ad populum, et loquutus est apud eos.

21. And the Lord said unto Moses. By God’s command the same prohibition is repeated, that the people should not pass over the bounds, because, without doubt, it was not enough to have forbidden them once, as we may gather from the reply of Moses; for he thought that since they were all admonished, there was no necessity for a new prohibition. But God insists with greater vehemence, and again with threatenings, orders them to be charged that they take diligent heed to themselves. He knew, forsooth, that He had to do with the rebellious, for whose subjugation a sorer dread of punishment would be necessary. Now, since we are no better than they, let us not be surprised if God often spurs us on by the application of many exhortations, and redoubles His threats, for else forgetfulness of all which He has once enjoined would creep over us. This passage also confirms the fact, that the curiosity which influences men’s minds is greatly displeasing to God; for He expressly commands that they should not break through to gaze, — not because He would have anything concealed or hidden which it was profitable for them to know, but because their inquiries ought to be sober; and this is the legitimate limit of knowledge, humbly to learn at God’s mouth what He voluntarily teaches, — not to advance with too anxious longings, but to follow Him as He leads us.

23. And Moses said unto the Lord. Because Moses was persuaded that the people would be obedient, he rejoins that the decree which had already been pronounced would be sufficient, and that the repetition of it would be in some degree supererogatory; for when he says that “the people cannot come up,” he replies that he puts himself forward in the name of all as their surety. And this he does honestly, and in accordance with the rule of charity; yet it appears from God’s reply that he was deceived, whilst judging of others by his own feelings. Whilst, however, he unhesitatingly executes the task allotted to him, it is plain that he preferred the command of God to his own preconceived opinion; and thus taught us by his example, that whatever may be the imaginations which come into our minds, they must still be submitted to this yoke, that God’s authority alone may have the pre-eminence. A doubt may arise because He names “the priests;” since the priestly office was not yet committed to the Levites. Some, therefore, understand it to mean all the first-born, because, by ancient and common consent, it is allowed that they were always invested with the honor of the priesthood. But although I readily admit that they were chosen from the first-born, yet I do not think it probable that out of that immense multitude there were special priests for every house. In the meantime we may conjecture that since no heathen nations were then without priests, there was no less method amongst the chosen people; for what common sense dictated to the blind, assuredly a purer religion more clearly showed, viz., that God’s worship should not be separated from the priesthood.



Se pardonnent et dispensent aisement. — Fr.


This Rabbinical comment is thus briefly stated in S. M., — I bare you as it were on my shoulders, as an eagle carries her young ones upon her wings, and not after the manner of other birds, who bear up their young ones with their feet wherever they wish to carry them. — W See Illustrated Commentary on De 32:11.


Added from Fr.


סגלה, S. M. says this is equivalent to אוצר חביב, a beloved treasure, The root סגל does not occur in Hebrew, but in Arabic it signifies to mark with the owner’s seal; so that the noun should mean, a possession on which the owner has stamped his mark. Comp. 2Ti 2:19, and Eze 9:4-6. — W


i.e., The Vulgate. Our A.V. combines both ideas.


La Loy. — Fr.


Comme marque visible. — Fr.


“Or, pour plus estonner les hommes, il commande que les bestes memes,” etc.; now, to alarm men more, He commands that even the beasts. etc. — Fr.


There shall not a hand touch him, (eum.) — Lat.

Curiously enough, the French translation contradicts the Commentary, — “Nulle main ne la touchera (i.e., la montagne) autrement il sera lapide, etc.” Our translation, too, seems to carry this meaning. Dathe’s Version is in accordance with Calvin’s view, — “Nec tamen ejusmodi transgressorem mann esse tangendum (sc. ut vi adhibita ejiceretur e cancellis) sed lapidibus obruendum, etc.” Hugo de S. Victor, in Willet, gives yet another conjecture, — “The hand of man shall not need to be upon him; sed intelligitur lapidum ictibus in eum divinitus volitantibus necandus.”


Aben-Ezra sic exponit: Qui praescriptum terminum transierit in hunc nemo injiciat manus, nemo illum sequatur intra constitutos limites, sed projiciant ad eum lapides, aut feriant eum jaculis. S. M. W.


This sentence is omitted in the Fr. I presume the allusion here is to verse 20, which the V. translates “descendit, and not as C., “descenderat.” Corn. a Lapide defends the V., with which our A.V. agrees, conceiving that a still closer descent “in a thicker cloud, and with greater glory,” upon the very top of the mountain, over which the fire had only hovered before, is here described. It may be so; but his reasoning, founded on the word “super,” which is used in both cases, does not prove it.

Next: Chapter 20