Heb 12:19. And the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words, which they that heard excused themselves, that the word might not be spoken to them;
20. For they did not endure that which was said: And if so much as a beast shall touch the mount it shall be stoned.
21. And so terrible was that which was seen, Moses said: I am frighted and tremble.
In Heb 12:18-24 the writer enters upon a comparison of the natures of the Old and New Covenants, showing that, whereas the Old was one of dread warnings and threats, the New invites to a glad and glorious fellowship. And because of this very difference, he says, those who become unfaithful to the latter are far more guilty than those who disobeyed the former. The characteristic of the Old Law was fear, that of the New Law is love. How terrible, therefore, will be the fate of those who turn their backs on the law of love! And how much greater sanctity, consequently, is required of us Christians than was expected of the Israelites of old!
In these verses (Heb 12:18-21) we have a description of the physical phenomena which accompanied the giving of the Law on Sinai (Ex 19:1 ff., Ex 20:1 ff.; Deut. 4:11ff.), and the consequent fear that filled the attending multitude, and even Moses to whom the revelation was made. So awful was the voice there heard that they prayed not to hear it again; and so holy was the mountain that, if even a dumb animal trespassed upon it, it was immediately stoned to death (Ex 29:12 ff.). In some MSS. of Heb 12:18 there is no word corresponding to “mountain,” but it seems to be implied and required by the context. The words attributed to Moses in Heb 12:21 are not found in the Old Testament, but perhaps the writer is drawing on tradition. Words somewhat similar, uttered on another occasion, are found in Deut. 9:19.
The awful and unapproachable mountain described in these verses is a symbol of a dreadful and forbidding God, whom the ancient Israelites might well fear. But in the following verses the writer will give us the very different picture of the New Covenant and of the God revealed therein.
22. But you are come to mount Sion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the company of many thousands of angels.
23. And to the church of the first born, who are written in the heavens, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the just made perfect,
24. And to Jesus the mediator of the new Testament, and to the sprinkling of blood which speaketh better than that of Abel.
In these verses the author tells us something of the beauty and transcendent character of the New Dispensation, of which Mount Sion was the symbol even under the Old Dispensation. Through their faith Christians have not been led to a mountain of warning and terror like Sinai, but to the Church Militant and Triumphant, of which Sion and Jerusalem were the material symbols. And the vision which meets their eyes is one, not of dread and foreboding, but of peace and festive joy, of a vast assembly composed of thousands of angels, of the faithful on earth, and of he blessed spirits of the Old and New Dispensations who have entered into their eternal rewards in heaven; and in the midst of all this innumerable gathering stands God Himself, the Judge of all mankind, and Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant, who has offered the perfect sacrifice of His own blood, by which the New Covenant is ratified and the sins of men washed away.
First born most probably refers to regenerated men on earth, who are called the “first born” of God by comparison with the rest of men who remain in darkness and infidelity. With less probability of correctness some authorities understand the phrase to be in apposition to “thousands of angels.”
And to the sprinkling of blood, etc. The allusion is to Gen 4:10, where it is said that the blood of Abel cried to heaven for vengeance; but the blood of Jesus speaks of a far better sacrifice, which calls for mercy and pardon. The allusion, however, may be, not to Abel’s blood crying from the ground to heaven, but to his “better sacrifice” (Heb 11:4), compared with which the sacrifice of Jesus is better still.