I. The extraordinary terror with which the law was given. Never was any thing delivered with such awful pomp; every word was accented, and every sentence paused, with thunder and lightning, much louder and brighter, no doubt, than ordinary. And why was the law given in this dreadful manner, and with all this tremendous ceremony? 1. It was designed (once for all) to give a sensible discovery of the glorious majesty of God, for the assistance of our faith concerning it, that, knowing the terror of the Lord, we may be persuaded to live in his fear. 2. It was a specimen of the terrors of the general judgment, in which sinners will be called to an account for the breach of this law: the archangel’s trumpet will then sound an alarm, to give notice of the Judge’s coming, and a fire shall devour before him. 3. It was an indication of the terror of those convictions which the law brings into conscience, to prepare the soul for the comforts of the gospel. Thus was the law given by Moses in such a way as might startle, affright, and humble men, that the grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ might be the more welcome. The apostle largely describes this instance of the terror of that dispensation, as a foil to set off our privileges, as Christians, in the light, liberty, and joy, of the New-Testament dispensation, Heb. 12:18
II. The impression which this made, for the present, upon the people; they must have had stupid hearts indeed, if this had not affected them. 1. They removed, and stood afar off, Exod. 20:18. Before God began to speak, they were thrusting forward to gaze (Exod. 19:21); but now they were effectually cured of their presumption, and taught to keep their distance. 2. They entreated that the word should not be so spoken to them any more (Heb. 12:19), but begged that God would speak to them by Moses, Exod. 20:19. Hereby they obliged themselves to acquiesce in the mediation of Moses, they themselves nominating him as a fit person to deal between them and God, and promising to hearken to him as to God’s messenger; hereby also they teach us to acquiesce in that method which Infinite Wisdom takes, of speaking to us by men like ourselves, whose terror shall not make us afraid, nor their hand be heavy upon us. Once God tried the expedient of speaking to the children of men immediately, but it was found that they could not bear it; it rather drove men from God than brought them to him, and, as it proved in the issue, though it terrified them, it did not deter them from idolatry, for soon after this they worshipped the golden calf. Let us therefore rest satisfied with the instructions given us by the scriptures and the ministry; for, if we believe not them, neither should we be persuaded though God should speak to us in thunder and lightning, as he did from Mount Sinai: here that matter was determined.
III. The encouragement Moses gave them, by explaining the design of God in his terror (Exod. 20:20): Fear not, that is, “Think not that the thunder and fire are designed to consume you,” which was the thing they feared (Exod. 20:19; lest we die); thunder and lightning constituted one of the plagues of Egypt, but Moses would not have them think they were sent to them on the same errand on which they were sent to the Egyptians: no, they were intended, 1. To prove them, to try how they would like dealing with God immediately, without a mediator, and so to convince them how admirably well God had chosen for them, in putting Moses into that office. Ever since Adam fled, upon hearing God’s voice in the garden, sinful man could not bear either to speak to God or hear from him immediately. 2. To keep them to their duty, and prevent their sinning against God. He encourages them, saying, Fear not, and yet tells them that God thus spoke to them, that his fear might be before their face. We must not fear with amazement—with that fear which has torment, which only works upon the fancy for the present, sets us a trembling, genders to bondage, betrays us to Satan, and alienates us from God; but we must always have in our minds a reverence of God’s majesty, a dread of his displeasure, and an obedient regard to his sovereign authority over us: this fear will quicken us to our duty and make us circumspect in our walking. Thus stand in awe, and sin not, Ps. 4:4.
IV. The progress of their communion with God by the mediation of Moses, Exod. 20:21. While the people continued to stand afar off, conscious of guilt and afraid of God’s wrath, Moses drew near unto the thick darkness; he was made to draw near, so the word is: Moses, of himself, durst not have ventured into the thick darkness, if God had not called him, and encouraged him, and, as some of the rabbies suppose, sent an angel to take him by the hand, and lead him up. Thus it is said of the great Mediator, I will cause him to draw near (Jer. 30:21), and by him it is that we also are introduced, Eph. 3:12.