18 Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. 19 Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.”
20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.” 21 So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.
This is a sad passage of scripture because it is the recording of an entire group of people, an entire nation, rejecting God's purpose for their lives due to fear.
In the previous chapter we see God telling the people of Israel his plan for them:
5 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; for all the earth is Mine. 6 And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’...
God had planned for them to be a "kingdom of priests". This meant that, like priests, they were supposed to approach God and then present him to the rest of the world. They were supposed to be a link between God and the world. Up until this point God had been only speaking with Moses and Moses was responsible for relaying the message to the Israelites but here God was announcing that He wanted to begin direct communication with all of the people of Israel.
So we see in between these verses God gave instructions for them all to prepare to hear from God. They were to purify themselves through rituals and stand before the mountain at the appointed time and then God showed up and presented the ten commandments to the people. You can see in verse 18 that God didn't hold back. He showed up with thunder and lightning! And the people were scared.
I can imagine that it would be intimidating, and we can see from Moses' comment that intimidation was a part of the point for God to show up so strongly. However I still believe that God's desire was to continue that direct communication with the people of Israel but the people didn't want it. It was after this point that God set up the Levites as priests and established the rituals and regulations of the priestly duties.
It is true that at this point they didn't have Jesus' sacrifice to purify them and embolden them to experience God speaking firsthand, but as we see in verse 21, there was one person bold enough to approach. Now, through Jesus Christ, God has given us the ability to "boldly approach the throne of grace" (Hebrews 4:16). We can again approach God and be priests for the world, connecting them to God. Peter announces to Christians that we are again "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" (1 Peter 2:9).
Let us take up that responsibility with boldness rather than reject it as the Israelites did.
Let us be like Moses and approach the mountain amidst the thunder, lightning and smoke, constantly seeking that deeper, more intimate relationship with the Creator.
Let us cry out like Moses "Show me your glory"! (Exodus 33:18)