To see the law in its right place, we must look at the circumstances going before. We must not imagine that the world was without law from God in the times before the law of Moses. There is the clearest evidence that law, commandment and statute were in force, and that men were righteous or wicked according to their attitude towards these during that time. Thus of Abraham God said to Isaac, he “kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws” (Gen. 26:5), which was centuries before the giving of the law. So, of Abraham’s contemporaries, it is testified, in the case of the subjects of Abimelech, king of Gerar, that they were “a righteous nation“, and the king a man of integrity (Gen. 20:4, 6); and, in the case of the Sodomites, that “they were sinners before the Lord exceedingly” (Gen. 13:13). The abstract possibility of finding righteous men in Sodom was admitted in the Lord’s response to Abraham’s question: “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes” (18:26); and the existence of godlessness as the prevalent quality of man at that time is recognized in the remark of Abraham to Abimelech, “Surely the fear of God is not in this place” (20:11).

Indeed, the entire history of the world before that time, as given in the Bible, is a history of man’s relation to God. When Adam was driven out of Eden, his relation to God was not suspended, though changed by the sentence of death affecting all mankind. Man was under command to walk in the way of God, but, at the end of over 1,600 years, “the wickedness of man was great in the earth”: “all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth”: and God said, “I will destroy man whom I have created” (6:5, 12, 7). There were exceptions to this state of things besides Noah in his day. Not only Abel, in the day when the human race was limited to Adam’s family circle, but afterwards, in the days of Seth, we read that “men (in a communal capacity) began to call on the name of the Lord “(4:26). Enoch also was a prominent example, of whom we read that “he walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (5:24), on which Paul’s comment is: “By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him; for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God” (Heb. 11:5).

In the days of Noah, things had attained a bad development. There was a complete abandonment of the restraints of divine law among the population, and God saw fit to remove them by a flood, saving “only Noah”. The flood was not an ending of the Lord’s law among men, but the assertion of submission to God as the divinely desired rule of life for all men. The reason of Noah’s exemption from the universal destruction was expressed thus: “Thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation” (Gen. 7:1). The continued life of himself and family was to be on the basis of submission to God: “Behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you … between me and all flesh that is upon the earth” (9:9, 17).

The divine claims upon human submission as the law of human life became more manifest as men again multiplied upon the earth. They proposed to make themselves a name by building a great tower as a rallying point which should prevent their weakening through dispersal. But they were not allowed to carry out their ideas. God interfered with their enterprise, confounded their speech, and “scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth” After this scattering, the activity of divine law becomes luminously visible in the office of “Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God”, who blessed Abraham on his return from the rescue of Lot. We should not have known from the casual mention of him in Gen. 14:18–20 how great and real a man he was, if he had not been referred to in Psa. 110 as exemplifying the nature of Christ’s priesthood, and if he had not been the subject of extended comment by Paul in Heb. 7, where we are asked to “consider how great this man was unto whom even the patriarch Abraham gave the tenth of the spoils… first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace” (verses 4, 2). We know very little as to the details of his position, his origin or his work: but there he stands before us, in the centre of human life as it was in those days, representing the claims of divine law among the descendants of Noah, who though far declined from the standard of Noah’s righteousness, had yet 470 years to run before the cup of their iniquity (in the case of the Amorites) was considered “full” (Gen. 15:16).

When we come to the case of Abraham, we do not come to the introduction of a new principle, but to the beginning of a new form of the same principle. The call to separate himself from his ancestral kindred and to leave his native country and depart to another country that God would show him, and the promise that God would make of him a great nation and should ultimately bless the whole family of man in him, required a faith special to himself; but did not begin the operation of the law of faith. Paul traces this law right back to Eden, introducing Abel as its first exemplification (Heb. 11:4), Abraham standing only fourth on his list of illustrations. He was the root from which faith and obedience expanded into a national form, embodying the system of the law of Moses. But the law was operative towards the race generally before his time. The reason of a new start in him appears to have been that the procedure employed when mankind were few in number, and comparatively tractable, was no longer suitable when they were developing in extensive populations on all hands, and sinking slowly into a state like that which prevailed before the flood. The altering circumstances required the creation of a national kernel or basis of divine operations in order that God’s ultimate purpose to bring the human race into reconciliation with Himself might be accomplished. This gradual transition from a general to a national administration of divine law—this narrowing of already active divine operations with the descendants of Noah to relations with a particular family organized into a nation—enables us to understand the apparently anomalous circumstance that there were “commandments, and statutes, and laws” before the laws of Moses (Gen. 26:5), and that there were “priests that came near to the Lord” before the consecration of Aaron or the separation of the tribe of Levi (Exod. 19:22). Divine law and priesthood were in fact as old as Eden. They came into operation immediately after Adam’s expulsion on account of disobedience; but in a form suited to the extremely limited circumstances of human life when Adam’s family circle for centuries formed the only population of the earth. A public and official priest was not required when every obedient man offered his own sacrifice. Every obedient man was his own priest, as appears in the case of Abel, Noah, Melchizedek, and Abraham. In the same way, Levi, the son of Jacob, before Jacob had become a nation, appears to have acted as priest, and to have received divine recognition in the matter, by reason of the special aptitudes referred to in Malachi 2:5–6. His sons would be likely to take after him in the matter, and appear to have acted for the other members of the family and afterwards for the tribes before the formal separation of the Levitical tribe in the wilderness.

These considerations throw light on the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and on the circumstances filling up the period between the confirmation of the covenant with Abraham and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. They account for the appearance of Melchizedek as a priest during the life of Abraham. They account for Abraham building an altar and offering sacrifice when he came into the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:6–7), and for the recognition of God among those with whom Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob came in contact during their sojourn in the land, such as Abimelech, King of Gerar (Gen. 20:4), Eliezer of Damascus, Abraham’s eldest servant (24:35), Laban and Bethuel (24:50), Ahuzzah, one of Abimelech’s courtiers, and Phicol, captain of his army (26:28)’ also for such lingering traces of the knowledge of God (though mixed with superstition) as exemplified in the case of Balaam, and even the Egyptian priests (Num. 22:8; Exod. 8:19). There were everywhere the perverted remnants and dying memories of the law of God which had come through Noah from previous times. The very idolatries and ritualisms and sacrifices of the Egyptians, Hittites, and other nations were vestiges of the divine “way” which had again become corrupted in all the earth religion had degenerated from a thing of enlightenment and obedience to a system of tradition and slavish compliance.
The first promulgated revelation had spent its force, so far as man was concerned, and if the race was not again to be a failure (fit only to be swept away by a second flood), the divine work had to be placed on the basis of a national organism which would generate a sufficiently constraining influence to develop suitable individual units, though it might not thoroughly affect the mass. Nothing was to be done with the national organizations extant. A new start had to be made’ new ground cleared’ a new nation made. This was done in the call of Abraham and his posterity. There was a necessary preliminary of 430 years, which gave scope not only for the multiplication of Abraham’s descendants, but for the perfecting of prominent individuals among them for a part in the final and permanent upshot of the work (in the immortal age beyond)—Luke 13:28. Among those are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Levi, and Moses, of whom we are expressly informed, and probably many others whose cases are not recorded. By faith were all these exercised and developed, but not to the exclusion of obedience, which has always been the corollary and test of acceptable faith. Of Abraham, the most distinguished of them all, James exclaims, “Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect ?” (Jas. 2:22). They were all of them obedient to the (unrepealed) “statutes and commandments and laws” which Abraham kept to God’s well pleasing (Gen. 26:4–5). “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off.”

As regards the bulk of Abraham’s posterity, by the time they had become numerous enough to be a nation for rescue from the Egyptians who enslaved them, they were in little better condition than the Egyptians themselves. We learn this from God’s message to them by Ezekiel (chap. 20:8), from which it appears they were addicted to the worship of the idols of Egypt. God had said (verse 7), “Defile not yourselves with the idols of Egypt … But “, He says, “they rebelled against me, and would not hearken unto me: they did not every man cast away the abominations of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt”. It is a question insoluble, on all human principles of action, why God should have redeemed Israel from Egypt under these circumstances. Human thoughts can imagine a fitness in the rescue of a deserving nation; but why should God have interfered on behalf of a nation to whom Moses said: “Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess the land … for thou art a stiffnecked people” (Deut. 9:5); to whom David said: “Our fathers understood not thy wonders in Egypt” (Psa. 106:7); and concerning whom Isaiah was commanded, “Write it before them in a table, and note it in a book, that it may be for the time to come for ever and ever, that this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the Lord” (Isa. 30:9).

There is an answer; but it is an answer whose force is not felt till the mind has learnt in the furnace of deep affliction that man is nothing but a transient appearance, and that God is the only intrinsic reality. God gives the answer through His prophet Ezekiel (20:9): “I wrought for my name’s sake, that it should not be polluted before the heathen, among whom they were, in whose sight I made myself known unto them, in bringing them forth out of the land of Egypt”. This answer is identical with what we read in the above-quoted psalm: “He saved them for his name’s sake that he might make his mighty power to be known” (Psa. 106:8).

It is a first principle of the subject, therefore, that Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and organization into a nation was irrespective of Israel’s state, and was wholly a measure with divine aims, with the promotion of which Israel as a nation in the first instance had very little sympathy. Yet it was needful that they should be brought into a state of willingness to co-operate, and finally into a state of fitness for use as an instrument in the work. These two objects were secured by the admirable methods adopted. As regards the first, Israel was brought into great affliction. Egypt’s jealousy was excited in reference to Israel’s increase and prosperity; and Pharaoh’s suggestion found a ready response among his people, that they should “deal wisely” with the alien race and set over them taskmasters to afflict them. “And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour, and they made their lives bitter with hard bondage in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field.” Finally they ordered the destruction of all male Hebrew babies in the hope of stopping their increase. No wonder that” the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God”. The persecution continued at least 80 years, for we find Moses himself cast out as a babe under the edict for the drowning of the children, and we find the oppression in full rigour when he stands before Pharaoh at 80 years of age to demand their release.

Such a prolonged experience of extreme hardship was well calculated to humble and predispose the nation for what was to come with the arrival of Moses, and it was probably also a punishment for the state of practical apostasy into which Israel had sunk. However this may be, the moment Moses presented himself along with Aaron with the commission received at the burning bush and the signs attesting his authority, “the people believed: and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel, and that he had looked upon their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshipped” (Exod. 4:31).

We have in another work (The Visible Hand of God) considered and traced the negotiations that passed between Moses and Pharaoh on the subject of Israel’s demanded release, and the stupendous displays of divine power that occurred in all the land of Egypt to compel Pharaoh to let Israel go. We need not repeat that line of contemplation here. We pass over the six months or so during which the resistance of Egypt was gradually broken in the ten successive plagues, and behold the children of Israel after the first Passover, and after the appalling visitation of death in every Egyptian house, leave the country in orderly array, and march from Rameses to Succoth, and thence in a series of marches to the shore of the Red Sea, where they are caught as in a trap, pursued by Pharaoh, and delivered by the miraculous opening of the sea, through which they marched to the opposite shore, while Pharaoh and his following host are drowned.

Safe on the eastern side of the sea, they unite in the magnificent song of deliverance set forth in Exodus 15. Afterwards they pursue their way to Horeb, which they reach in about two months. Here in the rock solitudes of the wilderness and under the shadow of the frowning heights of Sinai, they encamp at the end of what may be termed the first act in the national drama. Miraculously delivered at the end of about a century of oppression, they are in the best circumstances in which a multitude could be placed for receiving that communication and impress of divine law for which it was the object of all these experiences to prepare them.

Every measure was now adopted which was calculated to turn the situation to the best possible use for the object in view. First, Moses, the mediator or intermediary in the whole operation, is called to the top of the mount to receive a message for the mustered multitude. Nothing more appropriate could be conceived. God could have spoken to Moses in the presence of the whole congregation, or He could have spoken direct to the whole congregation, as He did presently for a particular purpose, but there were reasons against both of these modes at this moment. A message to Moses in their hearing would have been lacking in the dignity and impressiveness that always accompany well-timed reserve, and there could not indeed in that case have been any object in limiting the communication to Moses. A message direct to themselves was out of the question on many grounds. They were an assembly of unenlightened, faithless and rebellious men, though for the moment m the interested and grateful mood that is produced in the least intelligent of men by the conferring of a great benefit. They were not such as it was possible that God could have any direct dealings with. With Moses, it was different: he was “faithful in all his house”, as God Himself testified a short time afterwards, adding, “With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold” (Num. 12:7–8). It was therefore beautiful and appropriate that the first thing done on the completion of their journey from Egypt should be to call Moses to the solemn privacy of the top of Sinai.

“And Moses went up unto God.” The first communication he received was most natural to the situation. He was directed to fix Israel’s attention on the events of the last nine months, with a view to their divinely-intended purport: “Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel; Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine” (Exod. 19:3–5). What a suitable opening to the most wonderful negotiation that ever took place upon the earth! Moses went down to the people with the brief but pregnant message—inviting them, on the basis of what had happened in their sight and hearing during nine exacting months, to offer a voluntary subjection of their own wills to God, as the condition of their selection. What answer could the people make but the answer they gave: “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do”. Thus was the foundation of the first covenant laid, in knowledge and consent, to be presently ratified by sacrifice.

Moses took back the answer to the Lord. Next we have a step characterized by all the reasonableness and majesty that always appertain to divine procedure. God would manifest Himself in a sensible manner in the presence of the whole congregation that there might be no room for doubt hereafter as to the reality of His part in their transactions. They had seen the miracles performed in Egypt, but it had been as yet a matter of faith with them that they were the works of God. Moses had told them so, and in all the circumstances, their belief was reasonable; but God would now put the matter beyond all doubt by speaking to Moses in their hearing, so that faith in the work of Moses might not be a matter of reasonable tradition, but might be established for ever upon the actual evidence of their senses: “Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever” (Exod. 19:9). Not only so, but what He should say should also be addressed to the congregation themselves, and should be a declaration of the first principles of the covenant He should make with them as a nation—a compendium of the whole law He should deliver to them—as we discover from the speech divinely delivered from the summit of Sinai in the hearing of” six hundred thousand men, besides women and children”