One of the first times that God’s presence appeared to all of the Israelites in a tangible way was at the foot of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19. The people had just left Egypt and planned to camp at Sinai. It’s here that the Lord tells Moses that if they keep His covenant, they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). This is what He wants for the people. Moses proceeds to consecrate them, preparing the nation for this specific role of being a priestly kingdom.
Great! It’s time to make some formal introductions.
“On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly” (Exodus 19:16-18).
God is powerful, so this sort of introduction makes sense, right? He comes in a powerful storm (“rushing wind”) and is accompanied by trumpet blasts, smoke, and fire (“tongues of fire”). This intimidating experience was apparently more than the Israelites were expecting because the people trembled in the fear (Exodus 19:18) and told Moses they did not want to speak to the Lord directly. So they appointed Moses on their behalf:
"You speak to us...but do not let God speak to us, lest we die" (Exodus 20:19).
Moses told the people not to be afraid, but even still, they did not go up to the mountain like they were supposed to (remember Exodus 19:13?). Instead, the Israelites stood far off (Exodus 20:21) while Moses spoke with God. At this point, I'm sure you're saying, “Hey, did you hear about the lightning and fire parts? Who would want to get close to a trembling mountain and a thundering voice?!”
Fair question, but this is the God that just delivered them out of the hands of Egypt with plagues, raging waters, and pillars of fire. Nonetheless, the people stood far off, and we read that only Moses drew “near to the thick darkness where God was." Moses was mediating for the people as their priest, which seems great, but this wasn’t the ideal. The entire people was to become a “kingdom of priests,” not just a “kingdom with priests.”
Since the people would not come to God, He would have to come to them. God gave Moses the specifications of the tabernacle, what it was to be made of, what was supposed to be in it, the structure of its contents, all of that fun stuff. This elaborate architecture and language was a prolonged drumroll which lead to the the big reveal in Exodus 40.
“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle...” (Exodus 40:34).
Immediately after this, in verse 38, we are told that the Lord will lead the people during the day with a pillar of fire.
The presence of the Lord now had a resting place among the people in a tangible way, and sure enough, it was accompanied by wind and fire! But the theme doesn’t end there. Let's look at that same presence in Leviticus 9. Here, we see the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests. The Lord accepted Aaron's offering, and Aaron blessed the people. As this happens, the glory of the Lord appeared before all of the people, and fire came from before the Lord and consumed the offering (Leviticus 9:23-24), similar to the scene in Exodus 19 and 40.
Back in Exodus 20, we saw the entire people of Israel turn down the opportunity to draw near and hear the Lord, so only Moses drew near to where God was (Exodus 20:21). Now here in Leviticus 9, we see that the presence of God was more fully experienced by a larger group of people, Aaron’s family, the Levites.
This is a huge step. The people who are able to experience the presence of God was growing, but this is still not what God wanted according to Exodus 19. Remember His desire was for an entire kingdom of priests. This event began to expand the reach of those who interacted with God, but the entire nation had not yet been touched, let alone the “nations” who were supposed to be blessed by Israel (Genesis 12:2). Even Moses alludes to this in Numbers.
“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29).
But at this point, only the priests had access to the direct presence of God. The selection of a group of priests that represented all of Israel is great, but it was not the divine ideal. God wanted to be personally present with all of the people, but now the people had to settle with God’s presence among a select few leaders. Instead of being a kingdom of priests, those who could experience the presence of God were only a tribe of priests yet again mediating to the people.
So we’re still not quite there yet.