“Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord?” This is one of the significant questions that dominates the Old Testament. The Psalmist expressly asks the question in Psalm 24. Across the Bible the presence of God is a pressing concern. The people of Israel go out to meet with God at Mt. Sinai, which is a central location in the Pentateuch (the people arrive there in Exodus 19 and remain there through the book of Leviticus, and up until Numbers 10). It is here that the people encounter God’s presence at three different levels. These three different levels of encountering God’s presence can help us to appreciate our own experience of God’s presence in Christ today.
Mt. Sinai may be pictured in three levels: the base, the midsection, and the summit. Each represents a closer encounter with the direct presence of God. “The dominate attribute,” writes L. Michael Morales, “of Mount Sinai is its holiness, brought out in a variety of ways by the narrative” (Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?, 87). God himself has descended on the mountain (19:20), and as a result of this Theophany there are strict commands given about how to approach the mountain and who may ascend it. So, in 19:21-25 we find that the people of Israel in general are forbidden from drawing near, they are not even to touch the mountain (v. 12). They are to remain at the base of the mountain, for in His holiness God would consume anyone unclean who would dare to approach Him.
In Exodus 24, however, we find the next two levels of encountering God’s presence. First, we see that God invites Aaron, his sons, and seventy of the elders of Israel to come up to the midsection of the mountain. We read:
Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.
I will talk more about this text in just a moment, but note that they are allowed to come part way up the mountain and to encounter, in a much more direct way than the rest of the people the presence of God. Yet, they are not invited any further up; Moses and Joshua alone go up into the thick cloud of God’s glory on the summit. He says to the elders: Wait here for us until we return to you (v. 14). They encounter God’s presence even more directly. While Aaron and the others remain at the midsection God invites Moses further up and into the very presence of God.
This fascinating description reveals the wonder, fear, and holiness of encountering the living God. The people at the base of the Mountain know that God has come down but they tremble and fear and keep their distance (Ex. 20:18-19). Aaron, his sons, and the seventy elders have a more direct encounter of God but it too is limited. They see God, but they see only His feet (24:10). It is Moses who encounters directly the presence of God in the cloud of glory. He alone is able to come up (24:1-2). The layers of encounter are significant. In the Old Testament the answer to this question of who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord is simply Moses. Moses alone may ascend the hill. His role as mediator, however, anticipates a greater answer, for even Moses cannot see God in His full glory (Ex. 33:19-23). Only Jesus is the perfect mediator, only Jesus can truly ascend the Hill of the Lord. As a result of Jesus’ intercession for us, however, we now can stand in the presence of God. The author of Hebrews invites us to “approach the throne of grace with confidence” (Heb. 4:16).
Let us return momentarily, however, to Aaron, his sons, and the elders at the midsection. Consider how astounding this must have been for them. The text tells us several amazing things that are worthy of reflection. First, we are told that they see the feet of God. Marvel for a moment that God, who is Spirit, presents himself in a way to these men that allows them to visually grasp the feet of the Almighty. They are, presumably, looking up through this glass-like substance and seeing God standing in the cloud. The text says God is standing on this sapphire pavement that is so clear they can see through it. They are at the very feet of Yahweh, creator of Heaven and Earth and Redeemer of Israel!
Next the text tells us that they ate in the presence of God. “They beheld God, and ate and drank,” it says. What an amazing thought. These men shared a meal in the presence of their God. I think back over my life to some wonderful meals, great moments of eating and drinking, of laughter and joy with friends crowded around a table. I think about how meaningful meals have been in my life, but imagine eating in the very presence of the cloud of glory!
Now consider that this is only the midsection of the mountain. The overwhelming beauty and wonder of this encounter was not even comparable to what the believer can experience now as the very presence of God dwells with us through His Spirit. Far too often we become accustomed to our status as followers of Christ. Far too often we lose the wonder of what it means that we can “approach the throne of grace.” I read this text in Exodus 24 and thought about how amazing that experience must have been. Yet, the people of this time, if they could have looked ahead and seen me today they would marvel at my own experience of the presence of God. The apostles had a similar experience when the encountered the glory and presence of God in the transfiguration of Jesus, and yet Peter says that “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed” in the Scriptures (2 Peter 1:19). In other words, the miraculous encounters of God from ages past are not as significant as what we now experience as Christians.
We have God’s presence in a unique way. Do you marvel at your own experience of God’s presence or has it grown too familiar to you? Aaron, his sons, and the elders marveled and rejoiced at the feet of God, but they were only able to go as high as the midsection of the mountain. We, because of Christ’s death, get to ascend to the summit! They saw the feet of God, but we will one day see His face (Rev. 22:4). Marvel at this, friends. Recognize all that you have in Christ and rejoice!