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Ferrar Fenton entitles Moses' second speech, “Upon the Covenant of Sinai.” It covers Deuteronomy 5-8. The passage begins,
1 Then Moses summoned all Israel and said to them. . .
The actual speech then follows:
1 .... Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I am speaking today in your hearing, that you may learn them and observe them carefully.
Hearing is proven by obedience, as the Hebrew word shema indicates. The parallel idea is to “learn” and “observe” these statutes—put them into practice in response to learning.
2 The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. 3 The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, with all those of us alive here today.
Moses made it clear that this covenant was unique to their time. It was not a covenant that God had made with Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. God had made an unconditional covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 after “Abraham believed in the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (vs. 6). But He made a conditional covenant with Israel at Horeb, saying, “If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant” (Ex. 19:5).
4 The Lord spoke to you face to face at the mountain from the midst of the fire, 5 while I was standing between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain. He said. . .
Moses was the mediator of the Old Covenant, and because this covenant was conditional, it required two parties to make the agreement: God and Israel. Paul mentioned this fact in Gal. 3:19, 20,
19 Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed should come to whom the promise had been made. 20 Now a mediator is not for one party only; where God is only one.
By definition, a mediator is one who stands between two parties. God is “only one” of them. The other was Israel. Paul's point was to show that the Law Covenant involved obedience and not simple faith; hence, Israel had to agree to this as well, obligating them to be obedient to God in order to obtain the blessings of God.
God had promised Abraham unconditional blessings, but made them conditional to Israel. So Paul asked in Gal. 3:21,
21 Is the Law (law-covenant) then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be!
With Abraham, God obligated Himself to succeed in the plan to save the world through Abraham's seed. By demanding obedience from Israel, failure appeared to be assured. However, God is not limited to any man's life time, nor to this present age. The conditions of the law-covenant meant that man would not be saved UNTIL his faith produced the fruits of obedience.
For a remnant of grace, this is accomplished in the present age. It comes in two stages: the imputation or reckoning of righteousness, as with Abraham, which comes through the first work of Christ; and the actual infusion of righteousness, which comes through the second work of Christ.
However, the vast majority of Israel and mankind in general do not claim faith in Christ during their life time. God must then save them in the age to come by means of judgments, in order to fulfill His obligation to Abraham.
Moses also reminds Israel of their refusal to “go up the mountain” (5:5). In the account given in Exodus 20:18-21, it is unclear as to whether God was inviting them to go UP the mountain, or simply to stand their ground and listen to His words. But here we see clearly that they had been invited to go up the mountain, even as Moses had gone up. Ferrar Fenton translates this passage, “you were afraid at the presence of the fire and could not ascend to Him.”
Their fear limited their ability to hear and obey God's voice. Their refusal to ascend the mount meant that the law would not be written on their hearts by the voice and fire of God. They would have to receive the law on external tablets of stone, so that they could study the word from a distance. Since then, the only way for the law to be transferred to their hearts is for men to overcome their fear of fire and to receive that baptism of fire that changes men's character and gives them the mind of Christ.