Moses was pasturing his father-in-law’s sheep around Mt. Horeb, that is Mt. Sinai, when something off to the side caught his eye. It was a bush on fire. And as he looked at it for a moment he noticed it was like no bush fire he had ever seen. The leaves were not wilting and disappearing, and the branches were not even turning black. The bush was on fire, but was remaining unaffected by the flames. His mind must been whirling, trying to wrap itself around this phenomenon he was observing. He had to get a closer look, so he started to walk toward it. Then the voice came. His heart must have leaped into his throat. The voice apparently knew him. He said, “Moses, Moses! Here I am”. The voice said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground”. The ground looked like just ordinary ground. There was nothing more special about this dirt over other dirt. Its chemical makeup was exactly the same as all the other ground that Moses and the sheep had been walking on. This ground must have been holy only because it was being used by someone very holy.
Ordinary stuff becomes special stuff if it is used by very special people. Let me give you some examples. In 1996 there was an auction held for various possessions that belonged to President Kennedy. President Kennedy’s rocking chair sold for almost half a million dollars, his golf clubs a little over three quarters of a million dollars, his desk sold for $1.43 million. Now, you could find a chair, golf clubs, and a desk of equal quality and physically indistinguishable, all for hardly a fraction of that price. But it was because of who used the stuff that made it so special, so valuable. Did you know a handful of Elvis Presley’s hair sold for $115,000? A pair of Michael Jackson’s underwear sold for 1 million. A tissue used by Scarlett Johansson who, from what I’ve read, used it when she had a cold that she caught from Samuel L. Jackson sold for $5,300. Brad Pitt’s and Angelina Jolie’s exhaled breath in a jar – $523. Well, that’s all ridiculous, isn’t it? But you probably see what I’m saying. This ground was holy, not really because of anything about the ground itself, but because it was being used by someone very holy.
Holy, what does that mean, some of us don’t know? The basic idea of holy is separate, set apart, special, unique, distinct. When we talk about God being holy we mean that God is far separate, far distinct from all others in every good way. God is not just a super-sized version of you or me. He is incomparable in power, wisdom, knowledge, goodness, and righteousness. In every good way, in every category of consideration, He is transcendent, in a class all by Himself.
Moses in front of that bush had a lot to learn about God’s holiness, how transcendentally great and perfect in every way God is. God identified Himself to Moses as the God of his father, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And then He told Moses of His plans to deliver the Israelites from their bondage and oppression in Egypt and to bring them to the good land of Canaan and give it to them as their inheritance. And He told Moses, “I’ve decided I want to use you to talk to Pharaoh for Me and then to lead My people, Israel, out”. And Moses, as though he knew better than the Holy One with whom he was talking, actually argued, respectfully argued, but argued. He tried to inform God of several reasons why he was not the man for the job. He said, “I’m too insignificant, too unimpressive, too incompetent, too ineloquent in speech. You’ve got the wrong man”. As if God would make a mistake. Moses had much to learn about the holiness of the God. God answered all of Moses’ objections and told him that his brother Aaron was going to be with him and could speak for him if he felt he was too ineloquent. Moses saw he wasn’t going to be able to weasel out of this calling, so he went with his brother Aaron down to Egypt.
Not only did Moses not grasp the holiness of God, neither did the Israelites or the Egyptians or the rest of the world. But God wanted them to learn of Him so He chose to deliver the Israelites in the way that He did. He could have freed the Israelites from Egypt in a quicker, simpler way (9:15-16). He could have just wiped out Pharaoh and His army to begin with by opening the earth below them and swallowing them alive or something like that. But God wanted to demonstrate His holiness, His incomparableness, His, in every way, transcending greatness.
For His glory and our good, we must see His holiness. In fact it’s so important that Jesus taught us it should be the primary concern in our prayers. You remember when Jesus taught His disciples how to pray by giving them an example prayer, the first request of His example prayer was, “Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name”. The word “hallowed” is related to the word holy. It means to be revered as holy. He was saying to pray that God’s name may be esteemed as holy. And of course when He says God’s name He doesn’t mean the particular combination of letters that make up God’s name. He means more what people think of when they hear God’s name. Like how we use the word “name” when we say that someone has a good name in this community. We don’t mean people like the actual word, Bill or Sue or whatever it is, but we mean is that what comes to people’s minds when they hear the person’s name is a good respectable person. The request, “Father, hallowed be Your name” means “Father, may people think of You and treat You as holy”. And it’s so important that people revere God as holy because that leads to the fulfillment of the next requests in Jesus’ model prayer. “Your kingdom come” or “Your rule come”. The thought is, I think, “God, may your rule come into the hearts and lives of people; may people set You up on the throne of their hearts as their king”. People do that when they come to see and believe that He is holy, that’s He’s so deserving of our trust and fear and love. So they make Him their king. And that leads to the next thing in the prayer, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. When we see God as holy and the set Him on the throne of our hearts, then we do His will on this earth as His angels do in heaven.
So God wanted to teach His people and the ancient world about His holiness.
Demonstrations of His Holiness
So one of the first things He did to demonstrate His holiness, is He laid out in detail to Moses (who relayed it to the Israelites) His control of history and knowledge of all things that were even yet to be. God said, “Moses, you’re going to ask Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go worship Me in the desert. He will not permit them to, except under compulsion. I will strike Egypt with My plagues, then he will let you go. But you’re not going to go out empty handed. You will ask of your Egyptian neighbors for articles of silver and gold and clothing and they will put them in your hand and thus you shall plunder the Egyptians as you go out”. He stated all that would happen before it happened. He’s in total control and He knows all things.
Then God demonstrated His holy power as Pharaoh refused to let the people go. The Nile turned instantly to blood, the fish died, and the smell was rancid. The people were scared and crying, and they had to dig in the ground to find drinkable water. Then the frogs came up from the Nile. They filled the streets and invaded people’s houses. They were everywhere, they were even in people’s beds and their ovens and in their cupboards, in the bowls and the cups. Then the dust turned to gnats that covered the people and the animals and were impossible to get away from. Then the swarms of flies, like you’ve never seen before, came with the mission to harass every Egyptian, but only the Egyptians. They left the Israelites totally alone, but filled every Egyptian home and pestered every Egyptian. That’s awesome to me. We may be able to tell our dog where to go and what to do. But God can tell the insects where to go and what to do and who to bother and who to leave alone. And then the fatal sickness on the Egyptian livestock in the fields, but not the Israelites’ livestock. Then the boils that broke out on the Egyptians and the animals they had left. Then the hail and lighting they had never seen before that destroyed trees and crops and any man or beast not under shelter. Then the locusts so thick that they blocked the sun and the land became dark and they ate whatever vegetation was left. And every time Pharaoh would cry uncle, and say “Alright, I’ll let the people go, just pray to your God that He will remove the plague”. But then when the plague was removed he would go back on his word. And then the complete darkness for 3 days, only in the Egyptian homes, but the Israelites were able to light lamps in their homes. This God can veil the sun and change the natural laws concerning the making of light wherever He wants those laws to be changed so that light cannot be made in some homes but can in others. And then there was the death of the firstborn in every house that did not have lamb’s blood smeared around the doorway. There was an increasing intensity in the plagues. They gradually got worse, from discomfort to disease to danger to death as Pharaoh refused to submit to God. But what I think we often miss about these plagues was that this was a religious contest. This was a contest between gods. Every one of these plagues was an attack on one or more of the gods that the Egyptians worshiped. They worshiped the god Khnum, whom they believed was the guardian of the Nile River. They worshipped Hapi, the spirit of the Nile, and Osiris, whose life blood was believed to be the waters of the Nile. They worshipped Heqt, who was a froglike god. They worshiped Geb, the god of earth, the dust of which the Lord turned into gnats. Hathor, whose likeness was a cow and Apis whose likeness was a bull. And there was a god of medicine and a sky goddess. And there was Seth, the protector of the crops. There was Ra, the god of the sun, the sun which the Lord veiled for 3 days in Egypt, and Isis, the goddess of life. And on top of all that, Pharaoh was believed to be divine as well. Every one of the 10 plagues was a poke in the eye of one or more of the Egyptian gods. The message was very plain. The God of these Hebrew slaves is far more powerful than any other god. No one compares with Him. The God of these slaves is holy.
And that was just the beginning of God’s demonstration to these Israelites and to that ancient world of His holiness.
In the wilderness
He parted the Red Sea for them, a wall of water on their right and a wall of water on their left. He changed the bitter undrinkable waters of Marah into sweet drinkable water for them. He flew in a quail dinner for them. Do you realize how much food and water God had to provide for them out in the desert? It says there were 600,000 men, not counting women and children (12:37). So we’re talking at least 2 million, twice the population of Montana, plus their livestock, that God was taking care of out there.
Then in the morning, surrounding the surface of the ground all around their camp, was this white fine flake-like stuff. And when the people first saw it they said, “What is it?” which in Hebrew is “manna”. That’s what they ended up calling the stuff, “manna”: “what is it?” Moses told them, “It’s the bread which the LORD has given you to eat”. And it says it tasted like wafers with honey. And for 40 years out in the desert this is the food that God provided for them. And it was the strangest stuff. They had to get up early to go gather it because when the sun came up and warmed the ground, it would melt away and be gone. But then they would take it back to their tents and bake it or boil it before they ate it. Weird! The warmth of the sun would melt it away, but baking or boiling it would not. And then 6 days out of the week it would have a very short shelf life. If they left some of it over night until morning it would breed worms and become nasty, but not on Saturdays, not on the Sabbath. They could collect twice as much on Friday and save half for Saturday and it wouldn’t spoil, so they didn’t have to go gather any on the Sabbath. How powerful, how in control their God is and what testimony that He will take care of them if they just keep His commandments. As they journeyed on God produced a river from a rock for them.
The Amalekites nearby felt threatened by these 2 million Israelites and came to wage war with them. Moses stationed himself up on the top of a hill with the staff of God in his hand, over looking where the battle was to take place. And he took with him his brother Aaron and a man named Hur (a he named hur). And Joshua led the fighting men of Israel in battle against the Amalekites. And when Moses would hold his hands up with the staff of God, the Israelites would prevail in the battle. But as soon as Moses began to get tired of holding his arms up and started to let them sag, the Amalekites would gain the upper hand in the battle. Can you imagine that? When his arms were up, the Israelites were mighty skilled warriors slaying Amalekites. And as soon as his arms went down all of the sudden they became puny and the Amalekites were slaying them. And Moses could only hold his arms up for so long and so his brother Aaron and this man named Hur brought over a rock for him to sit on, and stood on his left and his right and supported his arms up until Israel defeated Amalek. God is in such control of even the chaos of war He can in an instant change who is winning the battle. Surely you’d think they were getting a sense of how holy, how incomparable, how awesome God is.
But God kept teaching them. God proposed a deal to the people. He said, “Moses, I want you to tell this to the people for Me, ‘I want to make a covenant with you. I want to make a deal with you. You obey the Law I give You, and You will be my people, I will take care of you and protect you, and you will be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests, you will be like mediators between Me and rest of the world and you will help the rest of the world to come to know Me and be right with Me. Do you want make the covenant with Me?’” And the people said, “That sounds like a good deal. Yes, we’re in. All that the Lord says we will do”. And then before they sacrificed the bulls and sealed the covenant with blood, God said, “Moses, I’m going to come in a thick cloud on Mt. Sinai and I want the people to come to the foot of the mountain and hear My voice so they will really revere Me and trust in you Moses as My servant. You’ve got 3 days to get them ready for this sort of meeting with Me. They need to get cleaned up inside and out, spiritually and physically, they need to wash their clothes, and be ready to come to the foot of Mt. Sinai when the ram’s horn sounds on the 3rd day. And set boundaries all around the mountain and tell the people that if they even touch this mountain they will be either stoned or shot through with arrows”. Why 3 days to get cleaned up and ready to meet Him? Why not touch the mountain on which His presence would be manifested? Because, He is so holy. You don’t come grubby to meet a Great King. And you don’t touch His stuff without His permission.
On the morning of the third day, a loud trumpet sound was blaring from Mt. Sinai. The people from their camp could see the mountain off in the distance. The whole mountain was enveloped in fire and thick smoke. Lightning was continually flashing on it and thunder sounding, and the whole mountain was quaking violently. The people were absolutely terrified, but they followed Moses up to the foot of the mountain. And then God spoke to this nation. “I am YHVH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. Then God began to give them commands. The first few implied His holiness. Number 1, “You shall have no other gods before Me” or “besides Me”. As if to say “I alone am worthy of all your worship and devotion. And I am all the God you need. I will cover all your needs. No other god can provide you with anything that I can’t”. Number 2, He forbid them to make any idol or image for worship, including any images even to represent Him, as if to say “you cannot sculpt or paint or create anything that even remotely depicts My glory and holiness. Anything you come up with to represent Me would only be a horrible gross misrepresentation of Me. I am too holy to be represented by an image of any kind”. Number 3, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain”. He’s so holy you must be very careful that you don’t use His name in worthless or vain ways. God spoke 10 commandments to the people and then the people couldn’t take it anymore. They were so terrified by the scene they were seeing on the mountain and the sound of God’s voice speaking these commands which they knew they’d failed to live up to, that they thought they actually might die from sheer terror. And they begged Moses to mediate for them with God. So then God gave Moses the rest of His commands to give to the people. And the Law God gave them was a further testimony to His holiness, to His transcendent wisdom and beautiful character, His perfect sense of justice and His impartiality, and His compassion and concern for all people, even the poor and the widows and orphans and foreigners and slaves. And what a beautiful society it would be if they followed this Law.
The message was simple. Their God was greater and better and surpassingly superior to anything or anyone they could imagine and He deserved their complete trust and reverence and love.
The Struggle to Believe It
But that generation of Israelites struggled to learn that message and believe that God is so good and so faithful and so wise and so in control and so all that He is. At times they would seem to be getting it and believing it, but then very soon that faith would fade away.
When Moses and Aaron arrived in Egypt and told them for the first time that the God of their forefathers had spoken to them and He’d heard their cries and seen their oppression and He cared and He was going to deliver them from Egypt and bring them to the land He’d promised to give them, it says the people believed. And the people believed when they performed the signs God said they could perform; like throwing down the staff, it turning into a snake, and picking it up again as a staff, and like putting an arm in their garment, taking it out covered with leprosy and then putting it back in only to take it out again turning it as good as new. They believed all that Moses and Aaron told them about God and they were excited. But that faith and excitement quickly faded away during the next couple days, because God didn’t act like they thought He should have and as quickly as they thought He should have. God let Pharaoh, for a little while, increase their work load beyond reason and make their lives even more miserable. Even Moses doubted. He said, “O Lord, why have You brought harm to this people? Why did You ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done harm to this people, and You have not delivered Your people at all” (5:22-23).
But then I’m sure their faith built back up as God began to strike Egypt with the plagues. And then when they were marching out of Egypt, I think they were believing our God is holy and awesome and He’s going to keep His word and bring us to the promised land. But then quickly that faith was gone again when they were camped by the Red Sea and saw the Egyptian army coming after them. They said to Moses, “Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us this way, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (14:11-12).
But then after God parted the sea for them, brought the waters crashing down on the pursuing Egyptian army, and they saw the dead bodies of the Egyptian soldiers washing up on the shoreline, it says then they “feared the LORD and they believed in the LORD” (14:31). And they praised God’s holiness with a song in which they sang, “Who is like You among the gods, O LORD? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders?” (15:11). They were seeing their God as holy. And in the song they spoke of how He was bringing them to the Promised Land. But that faith soon faded when they were thirsty and had no drinkable water. And of course God provided for them. He just wasn’t acting as quickly as they thought He should. And then when they were hungry and had no food, they said to Moses and Aaron, “Would that we had died by the LORD’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (16:3). When they had no water again, “Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (17:3). God wasn’t handling things the way they thought He should.
Do you struggle like that when life is hard, when God is not handling things in your life the way you think He ought to? Do you struggle sometimes to believe that God is holy, that He is transcendentally so good and so wise and so in control?
We need to see that part of God’s holiness; He doesn’t think like we do. His wisdom and understanding is way beyond us. He has more in mind than we can imagine when He decides what to do and when to do it. We shouldn’t expect Him to always operate according to our way of thinking. We may think He should just make life easy and comfortable for us, but He doesn’t think like we do.
You’ll read a tragic story about that Exodus generation of Israelites too. They never really got the message either. Though He doesn’t act the way our little minds think; He is holy, He is transcendent, and incomparable in every good way, deserving of our total trust, reverence, and love. That generation wouldn’t believe it. So God let them die off in the wilderness and brought their children into the Promised Land instead.
The Exodus story is a historical metaphor for spiritual salvation.
The NT tells us it is a picture of our salvation in Christ (I Corinthians 10:1-12; Hebrews 3:7-4:11). God has intervened in a mighty awesome way to free us from the bondage of sin and Satan. It was a demonstration somewhat of His holy power, as were the plagues with Jesus’ miracles and resurrection, but more, it was a demonstration of His holy unfathomable love. The Almighty emptied of His prerogatives, suffered in human flesh and died for the sins of us, His creatures. And He’s promised to bring us to a good land and give it as our inheritance. Right now we’re sort of in the wilderness between freed from bondage and the promised land. And like the wilderness was for those Israelites, God doesn’t always deal with us the way we think He should. It’s a time of testing and teaching and discipline. But God will provide all that we need to sustain us through the wilderness, all the help we need with temptation, all the guidance and encouragement we need to be faithful and make it. And He will bring us to the land He’s promised as long as we learn the lesson that the exodus generation of Israelites didn’t learn, that no matter how God deals with us temporarily, here in the wilderness, He is holy. He is “beautiful beyond description, too marvelous for words, too wonderful for comprehension like nothing ever seen or heard, who can grasp His infinite wisdom, who can fathom the depths of His love” and He is “able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think“. He is able and He will, as He’s promised, bring us to the Promised Land. Do you see that? One day He will appear. And whether we die before then or not, we will stand before Him bodily. He will destroy this present heavens and earth and bring in a new heavens and earth, and if we’ve been faithful, living according to the fact that God is holy, He will say come and inherit what has been prepared for you.
May His name be hallowed in our hearts, may we let Him reign in our hearts and lives, may we do His will on this earth as His angels do in heaven.
– James Williams