God gives the Israelites the Ten Commandments to show the seriousness of their sins.
First, He reminds them of His goodness, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself” (Exodus 19:4). He points out that He delivered them from Egypt through His grace, but then He adds conditions to future blessings by saying, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people…” (Exodus 19:5).
When they first came out of Egypt God blessed them out of His love, but now God puts them under “conditional blessing.” He says “If you obey me, then I will bless you.”
The children of Israel were confident they could do anything God asked of them. “…All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8). They boldly promised, “We will do everything you tell us to do.” Instead of begging God for more of His mercy and grace, they decided to be under God’s conditional blessing. They chose to live under Law, rather than continuing to live in God’s grace.
They thought they could “do” enough to keep God happy. But in order to show them their utter helplessness in completely obeying God, He gave them a perfect revelation of the requirements for earning a place in heaven. God met with the Israelites at Mount Sinai. With thunder, lightning, the sound of trumpets, and smoke, God spoke to them with a deep roaring voice. With bowed heads and trembling knees the people listened as God gave them The Ten Commandments:
1. You shall have no other God’s before me.
2. You shall not bow before a carved image.
3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
4. You shall remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
5. You shall honor your father and mother.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet from your neighbor.
The people of Israel were not comforted by this experience of God, rather they were terrified. They begged Moses, “You listen to God and tell us what He says. If we hear His voice anymore, we will die.”
So for forty days, God met with Moses on top of Mount Sinai. While they spoke together, God gave Moses instructions to guide the Israelites in their daily lives. From His wisdom, God gave them dietary laws, ceremonial laws, ethical laws, and most importantly of all, God wrote the Ten Commandments with His finger, on two stone tablets.
In giving the Law, God knew that the children of Israel would fail in keeping them. There was no way any human being could obey all the laws God had given Moses. The Law was too perfect. It was simply impossible to keep. But, God gave the Law because He wanted the Israelites to realize their need for a Savior. Once they realized how impossible it is to obey the Law, the people would appreciate God’s grace all the more.
As Moses came down from the mountain, he saw that in his absence, his brother Aaron had led the Israelites into sin by building a golden calf, a direct violation of the first two commandments. In anger, Moses threw the tablets of stone to the ground, shattering them into a thousand pieces. (Thus Moses became the first man to break all Ten Commandments at the same time.)
Over the centuries, the Law worked just as God knew it would. The Israelites struggled to keep the Law, yet over and over again, they continued to break it. For forty years, they wandered in the wilderness because they broke the Law. Once they finally entered the Promised Land, they went through cycles where the children of Israel “did evil in the sight of the Lord.” For their evil, they were punished, but then a judge delivered them. Then for a short time they would live in peace, prosperity, and blessing. But, inevitably, the people fell away from God once again. Later, they demanded a king, but the kings of Judah and Israel fared no better at keeping the nation on the straight and narrow. One king follows the Lord, keeping the Law to an extent, and experiences blessing for himself and the Kingdom. But the next king does “evil in the sight of the Lord” and everyone suffers for it.
One writer in the Proverbs notes how “your law is truth” and the Psalmists sing, “I love your law!” But despite this devotion, no one is able to keep the Law. When the Old Testament writers say how good the Law is, they are still waiting for salvation.
The Prophetic books are full of lamentations and condemnations because Israel has prostituted herself and wandered away from God. In punishment, the people of God are led away into captivity. Once they return from captivity, the Jews become serious about keeping the Law. Rabbis arose who debated every small detail of the Law of Moses. To be on the safe side, they intensified the Law. If God said to keep the Sabbath, the rabbis taught, “no cooking on the Sabbath,” “no riding a donkey on the Sabbath,” and “no lighting a match on the Sabbath.” They forgot the purpose of the Sabbath—they made it a day of hassle instead of a day of rest. But, for all their work, it was the same old story in the end. No matter how hard these “teachers of the Law” tried to keep the Law, they failed. They became hypocrites, keeping the Law on the outside, but failing to obey the inward dictates of the Law. They imposed horrible burdens on others they themselves were unable to keep.
Usually, when we read the Old Testament, we focus on the stories of victory: David defeats Goliath. Solomon builds the Temple. Esther rescues her people. But, taken as a whole, the Old Testament is the sad story of a huge failure. It is a story of a people who could not keep God’s Law. Despite centuries of striving to obey it, the utter failure to keep the Law given on Mount Sinai reveals the need for a Savior.