The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
After the announcement of God’s moral law the text transitions back to a narration of the events immediately following (vv. 18-21). The people’s first response is one of dread. This may be attributed to two realities. First, the supernatural phenomena that accompanied the giving of the law were fearsome. Moses describes how the mountain was consumed by smoke, clouds, and lightening. There was also the sound of thunder claps and the blast of trumpets. Interestingly, these same phenomena are used in Scripture to describe the Day of Judgment when the age to come is inaugurated by the returning Christ.
Second, the people’s fear was due to the law itself. They had not yet become so accustomed to God’s law that they had learned to disregard it with little or no thought. In that moment before the quaking mountain of God’s presence the people heard for the first time the demands of God’s holy law. Those demands were in harmony with the awesome holiness of God. At that moment the people realized the terrible gulf which existed between their sinful selves and the purity of God. Surely they wondered how a God like that could possibly tolerate them.
Their response was to place as much distance as they could between themselves and God. They also pled for Moses to speak to them on behalf of God (vs. 19). The burden of hearing directly from God was too great for their hearts to bear. In essence they ask Moses to be their mediator; their go-between so that they would not have to deal directly with God. Of course God had already made this arrangement. God had previously prepared and appointed Moses as the mediator between himself and his people. Long before the people knew their need for a mediator God had appointed one.
From that point on the people would hear God’s law proclaimed and applied by Moses. He went before the dreadful presence of God on their behalf (20:21). He would also intercede for them (32:9-14). When they sinned he would make atonement for them by shedding the blood of a sacrifice and sprinkling them with the blood (24:5, 6, 8). Moses even offered himself in their place, asking God to take his life if only to pass over their sin (32:32). But that was the one thing Moses could not do for the people. Though he was the God-appointed mediator Moses was also a fellow sinner along with the people. Ultimately the demands of God’s justice could only be met by God himself. There would have to be a Mediator who would not only be able to identify with the people’s frailty but must also be Divine; very God of very God.
The ministry of Moses was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the better Mediator whose blood speaks a better word than all of the sacrifices offered in all the previous generations. He is the Mediator whose life would pay the ransom price for God’s people. On the cross Jesus, our Mediator, drew near to the thick darkness where God was. There he made atonement for our sins and covered our shame.