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Audio but not visual

Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire.  You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.  He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets.
(Deuteronomy 4:12-13, NIV)

It was a truly momentous day in Israel’s history when Almighty God spoke to His people at Sinai.

He had extracted them from Egypt – these were the mighty events of Exodus – but needed to introduce Himself to them properly.  This is what He did when He met with them by the mountain in the desert.  There was thunder, lightning and fire: God Himself was going to make Himself known.

But when He did, it was not by means of appearing to them.  They might have expected a visible form to appear – perhaps as a great vision of God’s face in the sky.  But that didn’t happen: all they got was a voice.  God made Himself known by speaking – most famously, the Ten Commandments.  The speaker, however, remained invisible.  Had something gone wrong with the visual channel, so all they got was the sound?

Not at all.  Looking back forty years later, Moses sees God’s deliberate purpose in this way of making Himself known.  The point is this: God chose to speak rather than to appear, so as to steer the response He wanted His people to give.

If He had chosen to appear, the right way to venerate Him might be to try to replicate what they’d seen – with a statue or picture of God, rather in the way we venerate our loved ones by having their photos up.

But instead, He chose to speak, with words of promise and command.  How are we to venerate one who speaks?  We are to listen.  How are we to receive promises?  Trust them.  And what are we to do with commandments?  Obey them.  The very way the living God made Himself known leads us to the response He wants us to make.

People are sometimes bothered by the fact that God is invisible.  There are, of course, good reasons for this.  For one thing, He is not part of creation, so we should not expect Him to be visible.  And, secondly, His sheer holiness means that for us sinners, seeing Him is a dangerous thing (Isaiah 6:5).  But here is a third reason: it is God’s deliberate policy to make Himself known by speaking, because we are to respond by listening, trusting and obeying.

It’s interesting that nowhere in the four gospels is there any indication of what Jesus looked like.  In a normal biography that would be an astonishing gap.  But doubtless this is for the same reason: God’s desire is not that we should put up pictures of Him (as we imagine Him) but that we listen.  “This is my Son, whom I love.  Listen to him!”  (Mark 9:7)

We continue looking at Deuteronomy 4 this Sunday at 5pm.

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