12The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” 15Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.Exodus 24:12-18 (NRSV)
Words are among the most valued tools of political endeavor. The craft and influence of diplomacy, managerial work, or legislative processes are nothing without words. What words do we treasure most in the endless rivers of speech around us?
The words we tend to treasure most are either our own, or those of others that bend into the folds of our own. Yet, there are words beside our own that have proven their enduring worth for a variety of reasons. Sometimes a single word or phrase can have an impact that surprises even the best speech writers.
When Moses was summoned by YHWH to ascend the mountain, he was given ‘aseret haddevarim, the ten words (cf. Exod 34:28). God not only gave Moses important words but also stone tablets, which were a mark of their enduring importance. In our technological age, with multiple layers of backup and many devices for reading, the use of stone tablets seems primitive. In those ancient days, stone tablets served them well for preserving “the law and the commandment which [God had] written for their instruction” (Exod 24:12).
Moses is highly esteemed as one of the great religious leaders in the history of the world. Like many ancient prophets and priests, his position included the political duty to communicate to the nation. The Ten Words were at the center of that communication. Communicating how to further understand them and apply their principles was a large part of Moses’ duty. Ongoing “instruction” was a lively way to treasure and preserve The Ten Words—just as much as engraving them on a durable substance.
1The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! 2The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples. 3Let them praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he! 4Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob. 5Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he! 6Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called on his name. They cried to the LORD, and he answered them. 7He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them. 8O LORD our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings. 9Extol the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy.Psalm 99 (NRSV)
A copy of the Ten Words was kept by Israel in a sacred vessel, the Ark of the Covenant. As a symbol of God’s holy presence, the Ark of the Covenant was housed in the most sacred and inaccessible space of the Tabernacle and Temple. For there, God’s presence was “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalm 99:1). The proximity to the divine presence and seclusion of that space conveyed to the nation the high value of these words. The rich symbolism of this practice was a way to show future generations the priceless worth of these words.
The practice of guarding the memory of words is long in the history of humanity. Archaeology has restored to us the memory of many lost words. Yet, we have the continuing legacy of God’s words, as those of the “Mighty King, lover of justice” (Psalm 99:4). We have been afforded the gift not only of having the ‘aseret haddevarim, The Ten Words. We have in them and in so many other treasured words the gift of justice. What words help us live in the ways of justice and bring justice to others crying out for it? Treasuring these, no doubt, extends the honor and glory of the King of justice. Though removed by thousands of years from their first proclamation, we stand as instruments to continue using the King’s words to promote justice.
The Tabernacle and Temple are gone and yet God’s words remain. We esteem God’s words because they are God’s and because their root principles promote justice among all peoples. We neither want to elevate the words of the famous to the level of the sacred, nor think of the Almighty’s words as mere artifacts of a forgotten age. We listen intently to the thoughts of the wise across all cultures, but like Job, we still treasure “the words of God’s mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23:12).
According to Psalm 99, regarding God’s thoughts expressed to us will come much easier for us when we are living in the habits of worship (Psalm 99:5). Our political engagements will be more likely to be infused with the wisdom of divine justice when our hearts are filled with praise for the Lord who is the fountain of forgiveness (Psalm 99:8).
1Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”Matthew 17:1-9 (NRSV)
Deus Dixit, God has spoken. But now, in addition to their preservation in stone and on scrolls, God’s precious Logos has been begotten as the Son of Man. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matt 17:5). The Transfiguration was presented as a private event that witnessed to God’s dealings with humanity. For in that hour we hear God speaking, as it were, from a second Mount Sinai. And as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ resurrection, we also hear and see in his Transfiguration a glimpse of the glorious future opened up before us; a future when heaven and earth will finally meet.
The treasured words of Martin Luther King, Jr. fill us with such anticipation: “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”
Dr. King was able to see the land promised because he held dearly to the promise. Our political theology is strengthened by trusting that the words of the Son of Man are a fleshly restatement of what is divinely just and good and holy and lovely. Because Christ has come and his presence is with us, God’s words are even more accessible to us.
We have Jesus’ life and his love to illustrate and embody God’s revelations to humanity. Jesus is sufficient. “And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone” (Matt 17:8).
We have so many good words from God and from so many bright minds around the globe that before adding more words, we ought to continue treasuring these. The power of remembrance in the midst of swirling seas of words must not be underappreciated. What political moment or strategy could not benefit from a trusting revery in the Almighty, who gives all moments and oversees all plans? Jesus told his disciples to remain quiet about what they had seen and heard on that mountain (Matt 17:9). The time to tell, the hour to speak up, was not then.
Sometimes in our search for the right words, we can do no better than bask in the rich hope, the great expectation, which no words can now describe. We have a treasured promise and surety that all our striving for improvements here and whatever high successes we may enjoy now cannot match the great good our King will give in the renewal of all things.
“The new heavens and the new earth are not replacements for the old ones; they are transfigurations of them. The redeemed order is not the created order forsaken; it is the created order – all of it – raised and glorified.”Robert Farrar Capon