And he said, "Behold, I make a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been wrought in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord; for it is a terrible thing that I will do with you.
"Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither you go, lest it become a snare in the midst of you. You shall tear down their altars, and break their pillars, and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they play the harlot after their gods and make your sons play the harlot after their gods."
You recall that this is the second time Moses had ascended to Mount Sinai to receive the ten commandments from God. Back in chapter 32 he had shattered the first stone tablets when he saw the people worshiping the golden calf (32:19). Now after pleading for mercy that God would spare the people of Israel, Moses approaches God again and prays (in Exodus 34:9) that God would take them to be his inheritance.
What a Covenant Consists Of
God responds in 34:10, "Behold, I make a covenant." A covenant is God's solemn promise that he will give the covenant people certain benefits if they will keep the covenant. Keeping the covenant means obeying the terms of the covenant. So a covenant involves three things:
- promises, which God will perform if the people keep the covenant;
- commandments or terms, which the people must keep in order to receive the promises;
- warnings, of what will happen if the covenant is broken.
The Terms of the Mosaic Covenant
When God says in 34:10, "Behold, I make a covenant," he means that he is willing to go back and start over with the ten commandments which were the terms or commandments of his covenant with Israel. Look at 34:27–28, "And the Lord said to Moses, 'Write these words. In accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.' And he was there with the Lord 40 days and 40 nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments." So the ten commandments are the terms of the covenant referred to in 34:10 when God says, "Behold, I make a covenant."
The Promises of the Mosaic Covenant
If the ten commandments sum up the terms of the covenant that Israel must obey, what are the promises of the covenant? What does God promise to do for his covenant people? The most important answer to this question comes from looking at what God has just said before verse 10. In verse 1 he told Moses to cut two tables of stone like the ones he broke and to come up on Mount Sinai to hear the words of the covenant. Then in verses 6–7 God comes down, but before he gives any commandments, he reveals what it is about himself that prompts him to make this covenant—"The Lord, the Lord a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty."
In other words, before he declares the terms of the covenant, he wants to make perfectly clear that it is a covenant based on mercy and love and forgiveness. So the very first promise of God's covenant is to mercifully forgive repentant sinners. Verse 7: "forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin." You recall from our sermon on this verse that the difference between the guilty whose sins God does clear and the guilty whose sin he does not is the difference between the repentant and the unrepentant. Those who are broken and humbled by their sin and return for mercy are forgiven. Those who are not broken but go on presumptuously will not be forgiven. So the covenant here is based on the merciful willingness of God to forgive repentant sinners.
Is the Mosaic Covenant Based on Merit or Mercy?
We will never understand the unity of the Bible until we understand that the great covenant made with Israel at Mount Sinai was not a covenant of works. Here's what I mean. There are many Bible teachers today who say that this covenant (Mosaic) pictures God as an employer, the covenant people as employees, the ten commandments as the job description, and the covenant blessings as the wages paid to those who earn them by obedience. In other words, they say, this is not a covenant based on God's mercy but on Israel's merit. The blessings promised are not freely given, they are earned.
The covenant made with Abraham, they say, and the new covenant sealed by the blood of Jesus are based on grace, and the blessings promised in those covenants are given freely to faith. But the covenant made on Mount Sinai is not based on grace, and its blessings were not to be received by faith. It is a covenant of works because God only pays its blessings to people who perform duties valuable enough to earn or merit God's blessing.
Generation after generation of Bible believers have been trained to believe this view by the footnotes of the Scofield Reference Bible and now the Ryrie Study Bible. But I appeal to you to be your own careful, humble reader of the Scripture. Will this view stand up in Exodus 34? When God says in verse 10, "Behold, I make a covenant!" right after declaring himself to be a God who is merciful and who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin, can we really believe that this covenant is not based on mercy? Can we really believe that the covenant has no merciful provision for forgiveness in it? And if it is based on mercy and does provide forgiveness, how can it be a covenant of works? If a person sins under this covenant and flees to God for mercy and finds forgiveness, how can we say the covenant is based on merit? Is it merit we offer to God when we plead his mercy and ask for forgiveness?
Employer and Employees with a Little Bit of Mercy?
But perhaps someone will say, "Even employers forgive their employees little mistakes, but then only keep paying them if they don't make too many blunders; they have to keep doing work valuable enough to earn their wages. In other words, maybe this is a covenant of works based on merit even though God shows some mercy and forgives some sins."
But there are two problems with that.
1. The Employees Have Committed Open Blasphemy
One is that these so called employees haven't just committed little mistakes. They blasphemed the "boss" with the golden cow and deserve to be damned for the outrage of their sin. The main point of Exodus 32–34 is to show that if merit were basis of God's dealings with this people, they would have been destroyed long ago. The covenant of Exodus 34 is not the rehiring of a secretary who broke the boss's pencil. It is reunion with a wife who committed open adultery.
2. The Basic Requirement Is Worship
There's another reason why we shouldn't think of this covenant as based on merit and works, with a little forgiveness and mercy tossed in. The reason is that the basic requirement of the covenant is worship not work. But you can't worship an employer whose needs you are meeting in order to earn his wages. The only kind of being you can truly worship is one whose fullness meets your needs. If God wanted to be pictured in this covenant as an employer who pays wages of blessing to employees who supply him service valuable enough to earn these wages, then he would not have written a so-called job description requiring worship above all else. You can't worship an employer who depends on you to meet his needs. So the very content of the ten commandments contradicts the idea that this covenant is based on Israel's meritorious service. It is based on God's mercy and it demands worship.
"Tear Down Your Pagan Altars"
Let's try to see the textual basis for this in Exodus 34:10–16. In verse 10 after declaring, "Behold, I make a covenant!" God promises to do marvels for all the nations to see—and to do them with Israel. In other words, God promises to show his terrible might before the nations on behalf of Israel. That's his covenant commitment.
Now what does God command as a response to this promise? Verses 11–13: "Observe (take note for yourself) what I command you this day. Behold I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither you go, lest it become a snare in the midst of you. You shall tear down their altars, and break their pillars, and cut down their Asherim." All this is an application of the first commandment, "You shall have no other gods before me."
The reason for tearing down pagan altars is to guard their hearts for Yahweh alone. The reason for not making covenants with pagan peoples is to escape the snare of divided loyalties. The commands of the covenant don't describe the services God needs as an employer. They describe the faithfulness he wants from his wife. It's as though he said, 'Don't make dates with other men; don't keep the pictures of your old boyfriends on the dresser, lest they become a snare for you and draw your heart away from me."
God Is a Jealous Husband
Verse 14 makes plain what the covenant demands from Israel and what image we should have in our mind. "For you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God." The demand of the covenant is for single-minded worship of God alone. And the image created in our mind by the word "jealous" is the picture of a lover or a husband who gets angry when someone else competes for the heart of his wife or when her heart goes away after other lovers.
This picture is confirmed by verses 15 and 16 which warn Israel against playing the harlot with other gods. The demand of the covenant is: don't be a harlot. Don't commit adultery against God. Don't let your heart turn from him and go after other things. For your God, your husband, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
Two Reasons to Stress This Covenant's Merciful Basis
There are two reasons I have stressed that the covenant of Exodus 34 is not a covenant of works but is based on mercy.
1. To Appreciate the Unity of the Bible
One is to help us appreciate and benefit from the unity of the Bible. The covenant made with God's people at Mount Sinai is the same kind of covenant made with Abraham and made with us in the death of Christ. It is based on mercy, it provides forgiveness, it has divine promises and warnings and commandments, and its basic requirement is single-minded devotion to God alone.
The difference between the covenant with Moses and the New Covenant sealed by the death of Christ is not that one offers salvation on the basis of merit to be earned through works while the other offers salvation on the basis of mercy to be received as a gift through faith. That is not the difference. Both teach us to worship God alone as God. And you cannot worship God as a sovereign, all-sufficient, merciful God without trusting him. Therefore, both covenants—all God's covenants—are covenants of grace which we keep by faith.
You don't need to skip over large portions of the Bible saying, "Oh that's Jewish," or, "That's legalistic." All of it reveals the blessings that come from the grace of God to be enjoyed by the obedience that comes from faith in God. It is true that the form of that obedience may change from one period of redemptive history to another (for example: we don't make animal sacrifices since Christ has given himself for us; and we don't establish cities of refuge since the people of God is no longer a single ethnic, political group). But nevertheless the necessity of obedience for covenant keeping, the origin of obedience in the power of the Holy Spirit, the appropriation of that power through faith, the goal of obedience in the glory of God—all these are the same in all God's covenants throughout the Bible.
I want us to be a people who love and understand the Scriptures. I want us to see its unified picture of God and experience its power. If, as we believe, this is the inspired Word of God, everyone of us should devote time and energy to search it and ponder it and study it and memorize it and pray over it and be changed by it—all of it, including the covenant of Moses.
2. To Understand the Context of God's Jealousy
But there is another reason why I have stressed that the covenant of Exodus 34 is not a covenant of works but is based on mercy. I wanted to make sure that we saw the jealousy of God in its true context.
God is not jealous like an insecure employer who fears that his employees might get lured away by a better salary elsewhere. God's jealousy is not the reflex of weakness or fear.
Instead God is jealous like a powerful and merciful king who takes a peasant girl from a life of shame, forgives her, marries her, and gives her not the chores of a slave, but the privileges of a wife—a queen. His jealousy does not rise from fear or weakness but from a holy indignation at having his honor and power and mercy scorned by the faithlessness of a fickle spouse.
The ten commandments are not a job description for God's employees. They are the wedding vows that the peasant girl takes to forsake all others and to cleave to the king alone and to live in a way that brings no dishonor to his great name.
The Threat and the Comfort of God's Jealousy
God is infinitely jealous for the honor of his name, and responds with terrible wrath against those whose hearts should belong to him but go after other things. For example, in Ezekiel 16:38–40 he says to faithless Israel, "I will judge you as women who break wedlock and shed blood are judged, and bring upon you the blood of wrath and jealousy. And I will give you into the hand of your lovers and they shall throw down your vaulted chamber . . . they shall strip you of your clothes and take your fair jewels, and leave you naked and bare. They shall bring up a host against you and cut you to pieces with swords."
I urge you to listen to this warning. The jealousy of God for your undivided love and devotion will always have the last say. Whatever lures your affections away from God with deceptive attraction will come back to strip you bare and cut you in pieces. It is a horrifying thing to use your God-given life to commit adultery against the Almighty.
But for those of you who have been truly united to Christ and who keep your vows to forsake all others and cleave only to him and live for his honor—for you the jealousy of God is a great comfort and a great hope. Since God is infinitely jealous for the honor of his name, anything and anybody who threatens the good of his faithful wife will be opposed with divine omnipotence.
God's jealousy is a great threat to those who play the harlot and sell their heart to the world and make a cuckold out of God. But his jealousy is a great comfort to those who keep their covenant vows and become strangers and exiles in the world.