The Tables of the Law



By Cecil Yates Biss



(The following is an extract from a sermon on the subject of ‘Things contained in the Ark of the Covenant,’ which Dr Biss preached at Carlton Hill Chapel, London, NW, on 26th July, 1896).



The giving of the law to Israel was at once a blessing and a curse - a blessing if they had kept it, but a curse if it were broken.  When the apostle sets forth the special advantages of Israel, he commences with the words, ‘chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God,’ and, in the enumeration given in Romans 9 of the privileges of the nation, he says, ‘to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the Law, and the service of God, and the promises But this holy law, which it was such a privilege to receive from God, was a fiery law in its aspect towards sin.  They to whom it was declared came under its solemn responsibilities; and straightway, because of their sin, it became to them ‘the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones



True, it came in with glory - a glory whose radiance illumined the face of Moses, giving to his ministry a character of honour such as was granted to none else; yet this glory was evanescent and transitory, a glory which ‘was to be done away,’ because the covenant which was founded upon these promises - that is, blessings promised upon the condition of obedience - contained within itself the elements of failure.  For this reason the writer of the Hebrews says, ‘If that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been found for the second, for finding fault with them’ - that is, with disobedient Israel - God ordained the introduction of a better covenant, founded upon better promises of unconditional grace, in the future day of blessing.  Glorious, then, as was the character of the ministry of Moses, because of the essential holiness and excellency of that dispensation of the divine law which he declared, its aspect was ‘fiery’ and threatening towards the people because of their faultiness and failure.



They soon learned, alas, that ‘the letter (that is, the commandments lettered by the finger of God upon the tables of stone) killeth,’ for its requirements were as unyielding as the rock upon which the commands were written; and so, when broken, it became ‘the ministration of condemnation’ to the transgressors.  Accordingly we find that the very glory which shone from the face of Moses, as he descended the mount, was not attractive in its radiance, but rather dazzling and repellent, so that the people could not look upon his face until he had drawn a veil over it: for the blaze of that glory was a fiery splendour, and its radiance was expressive of the holiness of Him of Whom it is written, ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12: 29).  The figure indeed resembles two of the emblems used in the first chapter of the Revelation to set forth the glory of Christ, as seen by John – ‘His countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength,’ and ‘His feet like unto fine brass glowing as in a furnace;’ and at the overwhelming vision of that glory, bringing to his mind the consciousness of his own frailty and sinfulness, the apostle fell at the Lord’s feet as one that was dead.



The glory of God is the glory of holiness: it cannot be viewed by sinners without shrinking and terror.  So was it with Peter, when, by the enlightening of the Spirit of God, he realised the unspeakable holiness of the Lord, and, falling at His feet, cried, ‘Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, 0 Lord’ (Luke 5: 8).  So was it with Job of old, when, brought into the presence of God, he confessed, ‘I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eyes seeth Thee.  Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes’ (Job 41: 5-6).



Let us trace out the history of the tables of stone.  We read, at Exodus 31:18, that after God had spoken unto Moses the holy commandments of His law, He gave him two tables of stone, prepared by Himself, whereon these commandments were written by His own finger.  With these in his hands Moses descended the mount; but when he saw the appalling spectacle of revived idolatry in the camp of Israel - for the golden calf made by Aaron was only a renewal of the debasing idol-worship which had formerly ensnared the people in the land of Egypt (see Ezekiel 20: 8) - the people sitting down to eat and drink, and rising up to play, shameless before one another (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame before their enemies), and shameless before their God - his anger waxed hot, and he ‘cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount



This breaking of the tables of stone was in itself a sign of the infraction of the holy law engraven upon them, and also of the covenant which depended upon obedience to that law.  But let it be noted that the breaking of the tables was Moses’ own act: it does not seem to have been enjoined by God.  Moses appears to have thought that as the law was hopelessly broken, and the blessings of the covenant hopelessly lost, the tables must be destroyed also.  He did not realise that God was able, by a new work of mercy, to overrule the sin of His people, and to cause His grace to much more abound where their sin had so grievously abounded.



Yet he gave himself to intercession for Israel, pleading on two grounds for their forgiveness: first, that God would not destroy the people because the glory of the Divine Name had been associated with them; and, secondly, that if no other way of forgiveness for them were possible, his own name might be blotted out of the Book of God (Exodus 32: 32).  Of this last prayer we can only say that, however loving and devoted it was, it was a mistaken plea, for no man can ‘redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him’ (Psalm 49: 7); and when, therefore, Moses offered himself to be a substitute for Israel, as though he could become their ransom, he erred, not knowing what he spake; for he realised not the sin that was in himself, and which so soon afterwards deprived him of his own title to an entrance of honour into the Promised Land.



When, however, he pleaded that God would not, for the glory of His Own Name, cast away His people, he built his intercession on ground that Israel’s failure could not shake; and the prayer was heard.  Accordingly, his ministry, as the mediator of the covenant of law, was renewed, being now connected, however, with the revelation, not only of God’s holiness, but of His mercy and grace, His long-suffering, goodness, and truth (Exodus 34: 6) - principles on which He could continue to deal with Israel, though a sinful people; whereas, had He dealt in righteousness only, rewarding them after their sin, He must have destroyed them.  Now this was a fuller unveiling of the moral glory of God than the law, alone, had given; and, in receiving it, Moses attained to a higher privilege than that view of the vision of God’s glory for which he had prayed.



The next step of the history is found in Exodus 34: 1, where we find God instructing Moses to prepare two fresh tables of stone, upon which He Himself would write again all the words of the Law already given, so that these tables might be borne into the camp of Israel as the basis of a renewed covenant.  The Law, therefore, was granted to the people only by the intervention of a Mediator: ‘It was ordained by angels in the hand of a Mediator’ (Galatians 3:19); and, from this time forward, the tables of the law were to abide with Israel as the witness of the holiness of Israel’s God: to abide there as the expression, also, of the will of God that His people should be holy, according to the words, ‘Be ye holy; for I am holy



But how significant is the fact that when the Tabernacle was completed and the Ark of the Covenant carried within the Holy of Holies, the tables of the law were, by the ordinance of God, placed within the Ark!  It might have been expected, perhaps, that these tables would be displayed, either within or without the Tabernacle, so that the eyes of the priests at least, if not of all the people, might rest upon them from time to time, as the record of the righteous will of God.  But this case was to be far different.  Enclosed in the Ark, they were withdrawn from view, being covered by the Mercy-seat, upon which from time to time the blood of atoning sacrifice was sprinkled; as though God would express by this figure that His holy Law could no longer be displayed openly to Israel, lest its solemn curses should flame forth against their sin, and that He Himself, in His governmental holiness symbolised by the Cherubim, would not gaze upon it except as covered over by the memorial of atonement.  For to look upon the open tables of the Law would have been to remember Israel’s sinfulness, and the penalty due to the infringement of its holy requirements; while God’s purpose of grace was to forgive - to provide means whereby He could say unto His people, I will be merciful (the more exact rendering is ‘propitious;’ not merely ‘pitiful’ or ‘compassionate’) to your unrighteousness, and your sins and your iniquities will I remember no more (Hebrews 8:12).



How perfect is this lesson, and how welcome to our sinful hearts!  An open law would be the continual expression of a curse against the guilty, such as we are every one: a covered law - that is a law covered by propitiation - is the expression of blessing to all for whom it is thus covered.  ‘Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin’ (Romans 4: 7-8).  This is the lesson of the Mercy-seat.  Under it the tables of stone were abidingly to remain, and never again to be viewed by mortal eyes.



When the men of Bethshemesh (1 Samuel 6: 19) dared, in ignorant curiosity, to lift that Mercy-seat and look upon the contents of the Ark, they were smitten instantly by the judgment of God; as if to show that none could stand before God in His holiness without the shelter of redemption; nor did their ignorance of this deliver them.  A solemn thought, indeed, for those in our days who teach that the Scripture contains no such doctrine as redemption by blood, and some of whom daringly call that blessed doctrine ‘the religion of the shambles



In the history of the tables of the law it is easy, then, to trace the lesson that ‘where sin abounded, grace did much more abound The commandment, holy, just, and good, which, if kept, would have been unto life, was found to be unto death through the sin which it brought to light in the people.  The law was found, in virtue of their transgressions, to ‘work wrath’ against their guilty souls.  Here, then, would have been the end of their blessings, but for the unexpected, unasked, unmerited interposition of God in grace.  He suffered not the law to remain as an open volume of curse, but caused it to be covered by the shelter of the Atoning Blood; and thus the tables of the Law, hidden within the Ark, became the memorial at once of sin and salvation - of Israel’s rebellion and God’s forgiving grace.