"So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments." (Ex 34:28)
Moses was busy on the mountaintop. His sojourn was not a hike up, a few hours taking in the view, and a hardy descent. On this occasion, for forty days and nights, Moses labored for the Lord. Almost in a trance, no doubt stressed and anxious being in the Lord's presence; he wrote down the words of God for the people restless in the valley below. By the end, he must have been exhausted but also relieved. The Lord's work is often challenging, stretching us to limits that seem beyond our abilities.
Moses is a prophet, but on this occasion, he is a stenographer, a secretary, a pen. He writes down what the Lord says. Putting it in writing, the word of God that comes in a moment of speech is stabilized by freezing it in time. Writing inscribes the vaporous quality of the speech-act into a stable, lasting confession. By writing something down, we give it a life far beyond its utterance. In a culture that digs up past tweets, old yearbook quotes, posts made in hasty reaction to something that set us off, we are perhaps more aware of this reality than some ancients. Writing is recoverable. It does not pass away like the conversation around the dinner table.
God's words are eternal. But when God speaks, he uses human, and thus temporal, mechanics. God does not trust the truth of his revelation to memory. It is true and has been demonstrated many times over that ancient people had much better memories (more accurate ones) than we do. Still, God did not entrust his word merely to memorization. He had Moses write it down on stone. The stone symbolizes the strength, endurance, and eternality of this word. When Moses smashes the tablets (Ex 32:19), he symbolizes in his anger the destruction of God's speech by a people whose hearts of stone do not receive them. But God's word is eternal. So, God calls Moses back to the mountaintop, where, in our reference today, he labors for forty days and nights to re-inscribe them. Their hearts may be of stone, but God will melt them like wax.
What is so important that it cannot be trusted to memory and requires stone-stamping? Why is God cautious that his truth does not become victim to a "telephone game" type corruption? Here is an excellent place to start, when Moses reaches the mountaintop for this task, this is what he hears:
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and the children's children, to the third and fourth generation” (Ex 34:6-7).
"The LORD, The LORD," is not a typo. His title repeats to stress the importance of this speech. Moses must write it down, and now, what Moses heard in his ears, we can listen to in ours. What Moses received on the mountaintop in his conversation with God has become our conversation with God. Such is the power of the written word. And what do we find in this discourse of God? We find a God whose personality and attributes need continual presence in our lives, in our hearts, and in our minds. Our God is LORD, but he is not on a power trip. He is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. This is how our God is to you - and your enemy.
We must remember that God is not what we experience him to be, what our emotions narrate him to be, or what our intuition thinks he might be. God is what and who he says he is. And we are blessed he speaks to us in words we can understand so we can know who he is! Here, for example, we are told God forgives sins, but he does not do this at the expense of justice. Western Christians steeped in individualism that comes from philosophical notions of the self and Enlightenment notions regarding human rights have a hard time understanding how and why God would punish generations of innocents for their fathers' sins. We cringe and wish such statements were not in our Bibles.
In one sense, the Bible does not believe the children of the sinful father are innocent. Corporate sin is almost unheard of in our culture, but it is not alien to ancient cultures. The children share in the iniquity of the father because sin always has communal effects. Not only does it harm others, but those in our direct orbit become beneficiaries of our sin. Think of a mafia family who lives in a nice house because their father is a thief. Are they entirely innocent themselves if they participate in and benefit from such thievery? The Bible does not think they are fully innocent. Yes, the family did not do the thieving, but by sharing in the robber's treasure, they are complicit in the mechanics of evil. God shows a zero-tolerance policy towards any sin, albeit direct or indirect. Additionally, the children of the sinning father also suffer from the immediate consequences of the sin itself--if the mafia father is arrested and convicted, the children grow up without a father, and so on.
The point is that God's forgiveness is not at the expense of justice. And that is just another way of saying God isn't "nice." God is loving, but also just, and he cannot forgive sins at the expense of justice. And this reality about God and us is not something that can be left to our collective memories. Instead, God has Moses write it down so that, thousands of years later, when God sends his Son, the work of the cross can be understood in light of the personality and faithfulness of God. On the cross, Jesus becomes sin for us, taking our place, standing in our arraignment. God does not forgive the sinner at the expense of justice; God fulfills justice so that he can forgive the sinner. This means God must stand in his own dock and face our execution. God must take on our guilt and face our consequences. God is both judged and condemned. For every sinning father and cursed child, God curses his own child that we might be free from the curse of death, sin, and hell. If the sins of the father pass on to the fourth generation, the grace of God through the Son passes on to those whom he stands in for.
What happens to Moses on the mountaintop is a feverish rush to write down God's speech. That speech carries itself along millennia, through the cross, right up to your ears this moment. What does it mean? It means that the words of God that morning to Moses are his words to you today. But it also means those words to Moses take on fuller meaning when read back through Christ's work. It means that what God was saying to Moses was that his plan to save you was on his mind when he told Moses to "write on the tablets [My] words."
Moses couldn't have known at that moment that what he was writing about was Christ, that Christ would prove all these stone-stamped words to be true. The words Moses wrote remain today, they are for us, and they remain true. As the culture shifts, struggles, squirms, squints, sallies, supplements, and stigmatizes the truth, his words remain fixed, written down, stable, eternal. Our hope remains ever here: in God's word, where alone Christ can be found. Thus, challenge yourself not to listen to your heart, your gut, your intuition, or your mind as the final window on truth. All those things fall under and can support (and sometimes resist) the true word of God.
What Moses heard that day, you now hear this day. God has spoken but he is still speaking. As many traditions rightly say after his Scripture is read, "This is the word of the Lord." With such a blessed refrain, we too ascend the mountaintop and, like Moses, receive the unshakable grace of God.