33:1 The LORD said to Moses, “Go up from here, you and the people whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ 33:2 I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite. 33:3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go up among you, for you are a stiff-necked people, and I might destroy you on the way.”

“I will send an angel” – It is not entirely clear whether this angel is that same Angel of the Lord who appeared to Moses in the bush (Ex 3:2), who went ahead of the people in the pillar of cloud and the fire (Ex 14:19), and who protected them from behind (Ex 14:19-20), and who accompanied them along the way and guaranteed victory for them (Ex 23:20,23).  This angel was a manifestation of the Lord himself (Ex 13:21f/Ex 14:19), and may be regarded as a Christophany  (See Motyer, pp308-310).  This identification is supported by the combination of “I will send and angel” with “I will drive out…” in the one verse.  The doubt comes when the Lord says in v3 “I will not go with you.”

Fretheim explains the apparent disjunct in terms of different types of degrees of divine presence.  ‘Here the issue has to do only with God’s tabernacling presence. This note is sounded again in verse 5 and remains a major theme of the following verses. In terms of the final redaction, this means that the divine promise of Ex 29:45–46 (see Ex 25:8), that God will “dwell among them,” will not be fulfilled. This promise was tied to the building of the tabernacle and the faithfulness to God that that implied—they would confess that it was Yahweh who brought them out of Egypt (Ex 29:46). Inasmuch as the people have built a golden calf instead of a tabernacle, and made a different confession (Ex 32:4, 23), that directly affects the fulfillment of that promise. What the people have done (and not done) has adversely affected the relationship with God. The people have removed themselves from the sphere of the dwelling promise; it no longer applies to them.’

Fretheim adds: ‘God’s directive that the people leave Sinai without a tabernacle means that God’s dwelling would remain on Mt. Sinai rather than among the people. This does not mean that God would be absent from the people, anymore than God was absent from them prior to Sinai. God will continue to lead the people and to drive out the inhabitants of the land before them. But God will not dwell among them.’

‘The angel promised here is altogether different from “the angel of his presence” in Isa 63:9, since God declared that his “Name is in him” (Ex 23:21). Thus that angel was a christophany, an appearance of Christ in the OT. Although the Lord promised to send his personal representative, he himself would “not go with [them].” This withdrawal of the divine presence assured in Ex 23:20–23 was because of the presence of sin.’ (EBC)

“I will not go up among you” – What a terrible thought!  That the God who had led them safe thus far would not lead them home!  What is the value of a land flowing with milk and honey, if God is absent?  Do we pant for God’s presence (Psa 42:1)?  Think of Paul, who had come through so many dangers, and had seen so much blessing: he is not satisfied unless he knows the presence and the power of God.

‘The significance of this turn of events cannot be stressed too highly. The whole purpose of the Exodus was for God and his people to be together. God’s presence with them will be firmly established in the proposed tabernacle. By saying “go ahead, but you’re going without me,” the events of the previous thirty-one chapters are being undone. This is not merely a setback; it means the end of the road.’ (Enns)

The question whether God will, or will not, go with his people dominates this passage (vv 3, 5, 12, 14–16; also Ex 34:9).  The Lord’s initial ‘no’ becomes a ‘yes’ in the light of the people’s repentance (Ex 33:4-6) and Moses’ intercession (Ex 33:12-17).

‘To be given every other blessing is of no value if God is not with you. What is the value of Canaan? What is the value of milk and honey? What is the value of having possessions, if God was not with them? They saw that the realization of the presence of God, having this fellowship and company, was infinitely more important than everything else.’ (Lloyd-Jones, Revival, p158)

“I might destroy you on the way” – What a terrible thing to have God as your enemy, rather than as your friend!  The presence of God is a very dangerous thing to the sinner!  If it takes extraordinary protection for a spacecraft to approach the sun, how much more for the unprotected sinner to draw close to God!

‘Again, we see a very “human” portrait of God. The Lord does not know how he might react at some point in the journey; he does not seem to trust himself to control his anger. Thus, it is better that he not go at all. We should resist the temptation to gloss over this description of God. This is God’s Word and this is how he is described. We should not dismiss it on the basis of what we “know” God to be like. As we have seen above, the writer is not concerned to reveal to us the absolute, abstract essence of God, but God in the context of his dealings with his people.’ (Enns)

Is this what you really want?

‘How would you have responded to the news that God wasn’t going? Most people probably think they would be very upset, but I’m not so sure. Consider what God was offering the Israelites: He was offering to bless them without having a relationship with them. But this is exactly what most people want!’ (Ryken)

What is God like?

Enns remarks:

‘If a poll were taken of seminary students, perhaps pastors as well (i.e., those with formal theological education), and if the question asked was, “What is God like?” my strong suspicion is that many of the following attributes of God would be mentioned: omniscient, omnipotent, sovereign, unchanging, eternal, creator, and so forth. Few would add to the list such things as: prone to change his mind, argues with his people, can be frustrated, can regret past actions. Yet all of these latter attributes are just as scripturally defensible.’

‘Too often, it seems to me, despite our biblical literacy, we think of how God ought to be rather than how he has actually revealed himself. The biblical portrait of God is varied, and I do not deny that God is indeed all of those wonderful attributes we read about in systematic theologies. But what of those other attributes, those less-marketable qualities of God, that never seem to make their way into our systematic theologies but which find constant biblical substantiation? We should not focus on the God behind the scenes and thereby lose sight of the God of the scenes, the God presented to us in Scripture. Scripture itself is what God has inspired to teach his people what he is like. What he says about himself must be taken into account.’

Is it right to argue with God?

‘Do God’s children have the right to “negotiate” with God as Moses did? It all depends on our relationship with God. Moses knew the ways of God (Ps. 103:7) and was the intimate friend of God, and therefore he was able to present his case with faith and skill. The godly Scottish minister Samuel Rutherford, who knew what it was to suffer for Christ, wrote, “It is faith’s work to claim and challenge loving-kindness out of all the roughest strokes of God.” That’s what Moses was doing for the people.’ (Wiersbe)

A good deal?

Chester remarks that, on the surface, vv1-3 look like a good deal: the people get the Promised Land, but without the ‘complication’ of God’s presence.  How like ourselves!  We want all the blessings of the Christian faith – rescue from hell, a purpose in life, a loving spouse, a good job, and good health – without all the demands that the presence of God itself brings.  We don’t want the ‘inconvenience’ of a holy God who demands holiness from ourselves.

At least, in the case of the Israelites, they came to their senses and realised that there was no point in going on without God.

33:4 When the people heard this troubling word they mourned; no one put on his ornaments. 33:5 For the LORD had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I went up among you for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments, that I may know what I should do to you.’ ” 33:6 So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments by Mount Horeb.

When the people heard this troubling word they mourned – How much of our confession of sin is routine, superficial, or even hypocritical?  Are we too proud, or is it that our view of sin, and of the God against whom we have sinned, is deficient?  These people evidently felt their sin deeply, and were willing to demonstrate their remorse in practical ways.

Are we satisfied with the condition of the church?

D.M. Lloyd-Jones urges us to compare the state of the church today with that which pertained in New Testament times.

‘Are you satisfied with the condition of the Church? Are you satisfied with your own condition? You, who believe the truth, you who are evangelical, you who are not a liberal in your theology. That is good, but is that enough? What is our spiritual state and condition in reality? How do we feel when we read the experiences of those apostles, the Apostle Paul and others? Can we say honestly, with him, that we are in a kind of sate of tension, saying That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings… not as though I had already attained… forgetting those things which are behind… I press toward (Philippians 3:10-14)? Do you feel the tension, the concern, the stretching, the pressing on? How much do we know of that? Can we honestly say that we rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ with a joy unspeakable and full of glory? Can we say with Paul that to us to live is Christ, and to die is gain? That we might be with Christ; which is far better…. Now these are the ways in which we are to test ourselves. There is no hope for true prayer and intercession for revival unless we realize that there is a need. Is all well with us? Can we be satisfied? Can we sit back and fold our arms and say “Things are going marvelously, look at the reports.” Are we like the Israelites at this point, or are we like the Laodiceans saying that we are rich, that we have abundance, that all is well with us, and failing to realize that we are poor and wretched and blind? May God give us grace to examine ourselves, and be honest with ourselves…. My dear friends, the first step is that you and I have to realize these things. We have to be pulled up by them, to begin to think about them, to become concerned about them and have a deep awareness of the position as it is.’ (Revival, 154f)

Such an awakening to the true condition of the church, Lloyd-Jones avers, marks the first stage in any genuine revival.

According to Lloyd-Jones, a second step in revival is a realisation of the sinfulness of sin: ‘Go and read the history of revivals again. Watch the individuals at the beginning. This is invariably the first thing that happens to them. They begin to see what a terrible, appalling thing sin is in the sight of God, and it’s the thought of sin in the sight of God, how terrible it must be.  Never has there been a revival but that some of the people, especially at the beginning, have had such visions of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of sin that they have scarcely known what to do with themselves.’ (Lloyd-Jones, Revival, p157)

“I might destroy you…that I may know what I should do to you” – The first expression seems to suggest that God is afraid of his own actions, and the second that he is unsure what to do.  But, as Kaiser says, ‘it is only by way of accommodation to our impoverished understanding that he speaks in this way.’

The Israelites stripped off their ornaments – Mourning, in the ANE, was frequently marked by such physical signs.  Moreover, this would a suitable outward gesture of their repentance, since the golden calf had been made from the gold of their jewelry (Ex 32:2-4).

According to Ex 35:22 these ornaments were contributed towards the building of the tabernacle. ‘The very ornaments that could make a golden idol in the past could now be dedicated to God for the use of his sanctuary.’ (Cole)

By Mount Horeb – Stuart, together with NRSV and HCSB, says that this should read ‘from Mount Horeb’.  In other words, from this time forward the Israelites did not wear their jewelry.

The Presence of the Lord, 7-23

What is recorded in this section (Ex 33:7-34:35) evidently took place over a period of time; a period, in fact, of about ten months (Ex 19:1; 40:1).

This section, which some scholars consider to be placed in an odd position within the structure of Exodus, actually serves to illustrate the close relationship between Moses and the Lord, and therefore helps us to understand the loss that the Israelites were now feeling, and also why Moses’ intercessions prevailed.

Lloyd-Jones traces in the previous section the key stages of repentance in a context of revival: (a) waking up to the moral and spiritual condition of the church and the nation; (b) heartfelt confession of sins; and (c) taking suitable action.

The present section, according to Lloyd-Jones (Revival, ch. 13) illustrates three stages of intercessory pray in relation to revival:

  1. a burden for prayer experienced by one or many, together with the setting up of a place of prayer, the burden of which was for the presence of the Lord to return, vv7-11
  2. a pouring out of prayer for God to act in ways over and above the usual, vv12-17: (a) a deeper personal assurance of God’s presence and purposes, v12f; (b) a greater experience of God’s power (how necessary in the face of the great need of our own day!), v15; and (c) a special authentication of God’s people and their mission (a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that the world will realise that God is at work), v16.
  3. a manifestation of God’s glory, and a disclosure of his character, in a manner that is both revealing and concealing, vv18-23.
33:7  Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, at a good distance from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. Anyone seeking the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting that was outside the camp.

Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp – NIV: ‘Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp’.  Frethiem: ‘this is a picture of how things used to be’.  Either way, we must be clear that the tabernacle itself had not been built yet: only the instructions for it had been given so far.

Outside the camp, at a good distance from the camp – suggesting that God had become relatively distant from his people at this time (Stuart).

The tent of meeting – not to be confused with the tabernacle itself, which was also referred as ‘the tent of meeting’ (Ex 40:2,6).  The present ‘tent of meeting’ did not, it appears, contain the ark of the covenant or the other accoutrements.

‘The fact that a temporary tent of meeting is set up and that God does meet with Moses as a representative of the people signals to the reader that God has not entirely abandoned Israel. This so-called “tent of meeting” will soon give way to the splendor of the tabernacle, the true Tent of Meeting. The cloud will soon descend to guide the entire camp.’ (Enns)

33:8 And when Moses went out to the tent, all the people would get up and stand at the entrance to their tents and watch Moses until he entered the tent. 33:9 And whenever Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. 33:10 When all the people would see the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people, each one at the entrance of his own tent, would rise and worship. 33:11 The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, the way a person speaks to a friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his servant, Joshua son of Nun, a young man, did not leave the tent.

The Lord would speak to Moses face to face – See Num 12:8.

This appears to conflict with v20 – “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live”.  The present expression may be idiomatic, being interpreted by what immediately follows: “The Lord would speak…the way a person speaks to a friend.”

Fretheim: ‘Face means something different here from what it does in v. 23. It is not a reference to God’s very self. Rather, it refers to the unmediated relationship between God and Moses. God’s will and word are conveyed directly to him, a level of immediacy not available to the people as a whole.’

Bruckner, however, thinks that the present experience of Moses was an ‘exception to the rule’: ‘The first time Moses saw the Lord, at the burning bush, he was afraid to look. This is the major tradition in Scripture. One cannot see God and live, but God can be seen. Abraham and Sarah saw God speaking through “three men” (Gen. 18:2) who became “two messengers” (Gen. 19:1) and spoke as the Lord (Gen. 18:10, 13)…Hagar has a similar experience and says, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” (Gen. 16:13; RSV). The seventy elders also saw the God of Israel (see comment on 24:10), yet “God did not raise his hand against these leaders” (24:11). We witness the same concern over seeing someone and speaking to the Lord in Judges 6:22–23 and 13:22. God remained free to make exceptions to the rule, and allowed these people to live (Ex 24:10–11; see Num. 12:8; Deut. 34:10; Ezek. 1:26–28).’

Ryken reflects on the ‘amazing privilege’ we have today.  ‘As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we have immediate access to God through the presence of his Holy Spirit.’  See Eph 3:16f.  ‘This is what one of America’s founding fathers, John Winthrop, experienced when he first became a Christian. Winthrop wrote: “I was now grown familiar with the Lord Jesus Christ.… If I went abroad, he went with me, when I returned, he came home with me. I talked with him upon the way, he lay down with me, and usually I did awake with him: and so sweet was his love to me, as I desired nothing but him in heaven or earth.”’

We have two-way communication with God (continues Ryken).  The Holy Spirit address us in the words of the Bible, applying to us all its promises, warnings, commandments, and examples.  We speak back to God in prayer, telling him how much we love him, seeking forgiveness for our sin, sharing our worries, enjoying his friendship.

We have the same privilege as Moses – to be called God’s friend (Jn 15:13-15).

God is looking to restored and deepen that friendship.  How anxious are we to do the same?

Moses will have a singular experience of the glory of God.  But here he is found offering prayer and counsel on a daily basis.  Are we ourselves on speaking terms with God?

33:12 Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have been saying to me, ‘Bring this people up,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. But you said, ‘I know you by name, and also you have found favor in my sight.’ 33:13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your way, that I may know you, that I may continue to find favor in your sight. And see that this nation is your people.”

Moses asks the Lord for three things:

  1. “Show me your way”, v13
  2. “Go with us”, vv14-17
  3. “Show me your glory”, v18

Like the people themselves, Moses needed reassurance and leadership.  He was not prepared to venture into the future alone (v12).  He desired some certainty that the Lord was still prepared to go with him and his people (vv13-15).  He wished for something tangible, something visible, as a pledge and guarantee (v18).  To see God’s face was impossible (v20), but he received a promise (v14), a glimpse of the Lord’s glory (vv20-23), and a word to reassure (Ex 34:5-9), and to live by (Ex 34:10-27). (Motyer)

Motyer adds that we should not be surprised at Moses’ display of uncertainty at this point, since the golden calf incident ‘had brought to the fore, for the first time, the issues of sin, death and judgment.’  There is a big question mark over Israel’s future under God.

“You have not let me know whom you will send with me” – although, in v2, the Lord had said that he would send an angel before him.

“You said, ‘I know you by name, and also you have found favor in my sight’” – Moses ‘seems to be saying, “I know how special I am to you, but what about everybody else?” Moses does not want to make the journey alone. He sees no honor in being the only one to reach Canaan. So, he reminds God in verse 13, “Remember that this nation is your people”’ (Enns)

‘Favour’ (vv 12, 13, 16, 17) ‘is a heartfelt response toward someone who has a need but no claim upon the giver.’ (Bruckner)

‘Moses had been in a relationship with the Lord long enough to discover God’s friendship and grace. God’s faithfulness made it possible to bring blessing to the people and to the world through them (v. 16b). God would hereafter extend this grace and friendship shared with Moses to the whole nation.’ (Bruckner)

We don’t know when the Lord had said this.  But Moses is learning ‘the logic of intercession’ (Ryken); he is basing his request on What God has already revealed to him and assured him of.

‘Anyone who is friends with God through faith in Jesus Christ is known and loved by the God who rules the universe.’ (Ryken)

“Show me your way, that I may know you” – ‘Moses’ request was to know God better. What is especially instructive to us is Moses’ understanding of how that would be accomplished: by being “taught” God’s “ways.” As Luther’s friend Melanchthon once eloquently stated, hoc est Christum cognoscere: beneficia euis cognoscere (“To know Christ is to know his benefits”). There is little room for mysticism in biblical religion; we do not know God by having some sort of inexplicable ethereal communion with him, in which our feelings are used as the evidence for our closeness to him. We know him by learning his ways (i.e., his revealed standards, revealed methods, and revealed benefits)—in other words by objective, rather than subjective, emotional, means.’ (Stuart)

And the Lord did show Moses his ways, Psa 103:7.

“This nation is your people” – Moses is not praying just for himself, but for the whole nation.

In saying this, ‘Moses showed himself once again the servant of God’s revealed, clearly established purposes rather than someone who just wanted to be in charge or someone who wanted his job for its inherent prestige…Moses’ actions here have long been regarded as instructive and exemplary for all those in leadership in God’s service. Other biblical examples include the attitude of Jesus (e.g., John 17:9, 15, 20, 24) and of Paul (e.g., Rom 10:1; 2 Cor 13:9).’ (Stuart)

Noting Moses’ argument here, MHC comments: ‘Whom God calls out to any service he will be sure to furnish with necessary assistances.’

Lloyd-Jones points out how Moses argues with God here.  ‘Do not leave him alone.  Pester him with his own promises.  Tell him what he has said he is going to do.  Quote the Scripture to him.’  It pleases God, just as it would please a father for his child to make out his case before him.  (Revival, p197)

Implied here (says Lloyd-Jones) is a concern for God’s glory, for the church’s honour, and for the well-being of the unsaved.  Concerning the second of these, he says:

‘It seems to me that there is no hope for revival until you and I, and all of us, have reached the stage in which we begin to forget ourselves a little, and to be concerned for the Church, for God’s body, his people here on earth. So many of our prayers are subjective and self-centred. We have our problems and difficulties, and by the time that we have finished with them, we are tired and exhausted and we do not pray for the Church. My blessing, my need, my this, my that. Now, I am not being hard and unkind, God has promised to deal with our problems. But where does the Church come into our prayers and intercessions? Do we go beyond ourselves and our families? We stand before the world and we say the only hope for the world is Christianity. We say the Church, and the Church alone, has the message that is needed. We see the problems of society, they are shouting at us and they are increasing week by week. And we know that this is the only answer. Very well, then, if we know that and if we believe that, let me ask you in the name of God, how often do you pray that the Church may have power to preach this, in such a manner that all these citadels that are raising themselves against God shall be razed to the ground and shall be flattened in his holy presence? How much time do you give to praying that the preachers of the gospel may be endued with the power of the Holy Ghost? Are you interceding about this? Are you concerned about it? Moses, I say was more concerned about this than about himself. He would not go up alone to the promised land. He did not want to be made the great man alone. ‘No, it is the Church,’ he said, ‘I am not going on unless they are all coming with me, and with you in the midst.’ (Revival, p192)

Holy boldness

‘You cannot pray truly, still less can you intercede, if you have not an assurance of your acceptance, and if you do not know the way into the holiest of all. If, when you get down on your knees, you are reminded of your sins and are wondering what you can do about them; if you have to spend all your time praying for forgiveness and pardon, wondering whether God is listening or not—how can you pray? How can you intercede as Moses did here? No, Moses was face to face with God; he was assured; he was bold with a holy boldness. As we have seen, God had granted him intimations of His nearness, and so he was able to speak with this confidence and assurance’ (Lloyd-Jones, Revival, p195)

33:14 And the LORD said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

The concern, in the present passage, about whether the Lord would go with the people is the counterpart to the idolatry involved in the golden calf incident, when the people said to Aaron, “Make us gods who will go before us” (Ex 32:23).

Kaiser thinks that this verse should be understood as a question: “Shall my presence go with you…?”

Stuart stresses that at this point Moses would have been in considerable need of reassurance from the Lord.  The entire exodus project was in jeopardy because of the fickleness of the people, as evidenced in the golden calf incident.  ‘The theophany promised here would reassure him. It would strengthen his resolve and build his confidence. His assignment was daunting and his resources few. If he knew, however, that God’s glory abode with him and that therefore God’s favor and care attended his actions, he could endure and prevail.’

“My presence will go with you” – Singular: God’s presence will go with Moses (so Enns, Alexander and others, but not Stuart or Bruckner).  God had already said that he was prepared to start again with Moses, Ex 32:10.  But this is not enough for Moses; he needs to know that God’s presence will go with ‘us’, with ‘I and your people’, v15f.

A huge advance on the promise of ‘an angel’ to lead them (Ex 33:2).  God’s promise to himself lead the people to the Promised Land (in Ex 3:8, 12, 17) is fully restored.

“I will give you rest” – ‘Rest should not be understood psychologically, as if God is promising that Moses’ mind will be put to ease. It is an expression used in the Pentateuch (Deut. 3:20; 12:10; 25:10) for entering the land and receiving rest from engaging enemies in war. Hence, what God seems to be saying to Moses, albeit subtly, is, “Don’t worry Moses. I’ll be with you.”’ (Enns)  Stuart offers the same interpretation.

33:15 And Moses said to him, “If your presence does not go with us, do not take us up from here. 33:16 For how will it be known then that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not by your going with us, so that we will be distinguished, I and your people, from all the people who are on the face of the earth?”

“If your presence does not go with us…” – It seems that the Lord had promised that his presence would go with Moses, but assurance was needed that this applied to the nation too.

‘We can feel the spiritual heartbeat of a real man of God, who deemed it better to remain permanently in a desert place than to get into a land flowing with milk and honey and find the Lord was not there with him.’ (Motyer)

We should pray something similar regarding the presence of the Lord Jesus with us, knowing that apart from him we can do nothing (Jn 15:5).

“I and your people” – Moses pointedly refers to them as ‘your people’, turning the tables on the Lord, who has previously described them as ‘your’ (Moses’) people (Ex 32:7).

‘Moses had been in a relationship with the Lord long enough to discover God’s friendship and grace. God’s faithfulness made it possible to bring blessing to the people and to the world through them (v. 16b). God would hereafter extend this grace and friendship shared with Moses to the whole nation.’ (Bruckner)

Ryken perceptively remarks: ‘As Moses tried to persuade God to stay with Israel, he did something rather curious. He kept bringing himself into the discussion. He said to God, “How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people?… What else will distinguish me and your people?” (v. 16). At first this may sound self-centered. However, Moses understood what it meant to be the mediator of the covenant. He knew that the fate of Israel was tied to his ministry. Somehow his own relationship to God was inextricably linked to their salvation.’

“So that we will be distinguished…from all the people who are on the face of the earth?” – ‘Unless Israel succeeded where other nations would expect them to fail, no one would infer that their God was great.’ (Stuart)

Moses understands that it is the presence of God with his people that makes all the difference.  The Promised Land without the presence of God is not worth having.  It is this, suggests Chester, which makes this one of the most remarkable moments, and Moses one of the greatest men, in the Bible story.  And all of this bold negotiation comes just after God has warned, ‘I might destroy you’.

Kaiser urges that we should not see Moses as more gracious than God.  After all, it was God himself who had called Moses and prepared him for his mediatorial role.

‘This dialogue highlights the mediatorial role of Moses (see also Ex 34:9). And so it sheds light on the role of Jesus. Moses turned down God’s presence if it would be for him alone—Jesus left God’s presence so that we could know God’s presence. Jesus would die rather than leave God’s people without God. Jesus experienced God’s absence—he was “forsaken” (Mark 15:34)—so that we might enjoy and experience his welcome.’ (Chester)

‘”Now,” said Moses to God, “I am asking for this something extra, because I am concerned. Here we are thy people. How are all the other nations to know that we really are your people? They are looking on at us, they are laughing at us, mocking us and jeering at us, they are ready to overwhelm us. Now, I am asking for something,” said Moses, “that will make it absolutely clear that we are not just one of the nations of the world, but that we are thy people, that we are separate, unique, altogether apart.”‘ (Lloyd-Jones)

‘What was it that distinguished the Israelites from other nations as the people of God? It was not their land, because they didn’t have any land yet. It was not their wealth, because other nations had more treasure. It was not their culture, because they had been living in slavery. It was not their righteousness, because they could not keep even the most basic commandments. The only thing the Israelites had going for them was their relationship to God. And other people would only know that he was their God if he stayed in their midst.’ (Ryken)

Kaiser notes that, on the basis of Moses’ role as mediator, progressive steps of divine mercy are shown:

  1. The Lord relents in his threat of judgement, Ex 32:14;
  2. The Israelites are permitted to journey on with angelic guidance, although not with the presence of the Lord himself, Ex 32:34; 33:1f;
  3. The Lord pledges to accompany them himself, Ex 33:15-17.

Kaiser concludes: ‘Israel learned that there is no substitute for the personal presence of the living God.  How foolish and how risky it is for us to let sin interrupt and finally usurp that relationship.  Let us therefore immediately implore the Saviour for his forgiveness.’

Of the cry for God to authenticate his people and their message, Lloyd-Jones writes: ‘Authenticate thy word. Lord God, let it be known, let it be known beyond a doubt, that we are thy people. Shake us!’ I do not ask him to shake the building, but I ask him to shake us. I ask him to do something that is so amazing, so astounding, so divine, that the whole world shall be compelled to look on and say, “What is this?” as they said on the day of Pentecost.’ (Revival, p185)

We are nothing without God’s presence

‘It is God’s presence that makes us his people. So there are strong parallels with Pentecost, when the coming of the Spirit transformed a rag-bag of flawed, timid men and women into a bold, proclaiming community of Jesus (Acts 2:1-4). We are nothing without God’s presence. We have nothing without God’s presence. The greatest judgment of God is his absence instead of his presence—that’s what hell is.

‘All the blessings of being part of the church without knowing God are not worth having.’

(Tim Chester)

Richard Bewes (oral ministry) notes the many amazing experiences that Moses had been part of…

  • the bush that burned
  • the sea that parted
  • the bread that rained down
  • the rock that split
  • the mountain that shook

…but these amounted to nothing without the presence of God.

33:17 The LORD said to Moses, “I will do this thing also that you have requested, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

“I will do this thing…” – ‘It was always God’s intention to do this very thing—but he chose to do it through the courageous intervention of Moses, in order to highlight the problem that we can’t live with God and we can’t live without him.’ (Chester)

However, we can also agree with Enns, that the text allows us to infer that ‘once again, Moses has succeeded in moving God to compassion.’ (Enns)

Ryken emphasis Moses’ role as a mediator.  The Lord is pleased with Moses, and therefore the Lord will grant Moses’ prayer on behalf on the nation.  This points us to a greater Mediator, with whom the Father was ‘well pleased’ (Mt 3:17).  ‘Our salvation depends on the pleasure God takes in our mediator. That is to say, our salvation rests on the delight that God takes in the person of his Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.’

‘Jesus is the Mediator. He does for us what Moses did for Israel, only more perfectly: He prays for our salvation on the basis of his own standing before God. He asks God to accept us not because we’re acceptable (we’re not), but because he is. Jesus says to his Father, “If you are pleased with me, then save my people.” And the Father is pleased with Jesus. He has said it in his Word, and he has proved it by the resurrection. So he says to Jesus, “I will do the very thing that you have asked. Because I am pleased with you, I will save everyone who trusts in you. O my beloved Son, I will be as pleased with them as I am with you.”’ (Ryken)

33:18 And Moses said, “Show me your glory.”

“Show me your glory” – ‘Moses’ prayer is to see the kabod, the manifested glory (literally ‘weight’) of YHWH.’ (Cole)

Kaiser agrees that God’s ‘glory’ speaks primarily of ‘the sheer weight of his presence’.  Other meanings – such as ‘radiance’ – are secondary to this.

Fretheim: ‘This is a request to see God’s very self.’

‘This is not simply to satisfy his curiosity or some deep spiritual longing. He is in effect asking God for some demonstration of the promise he has just made. He is asking God to “put it in writing.”’ (Enns)

God had indeed shown Moses his glory previously, but at his own initiative.  Moses is looking for – and is given – a reassurance that after the debacle of the golden calf God is still with him and his people.  Moses would not only been given knowledge of ‘God’s ways’, but an experiential knowledge of God himself.

‘We may have been Christians for many years, but have we ever really longed for some person, direct knowledge and experience of God? Oh, I know, we pray for causes, we pray for the Church, we pray for missionaries, we pray for our own efforts that we organize, yes, but that is not what I am concerned about. We all ask for personal blessings, but how much do we know of this desire for God himself? That is what Moses asked for: “Show me thy glory. Take me yet a step nearer.”‘ (Lloyd-Jones)

‘This is what we may very well describe as the daring quality that always comes into great faith…Moses is no longer asking God for particular blessings.  He has done that, but he does not stop at that, he has gone beyond blessings, he has gone beyond gifts, he is now seeking God himself.  He is now filled with a passion for a personal knowledge, confrontation, meeting, with God himself.’ (Lloyd-Jones, Revival, p213f)

‘Moses had lately been in the mount with God, had continued there a great while, and had enjoyed as intimate a communion with God as ever any man had on this side heaven; and yet he is still desiring a further acquaintance. All that are effectually called to the knowledge of God and fellowship with him, though they desire nothing more than God, are nevertheless still coveting more and more of him, till they come to see as they are seen.’ (MHC)

33:19 And the LORD said, “I will make all my goodness pass before your face, and I will proclaim the LORD by name before you; I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.” 33:20 But he added, “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.” 33:21 The LORD said, “Here is a place by me; you will station yourself on a rock. 33:22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and will cover you with my hand while I pass by. 33:23 Then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face must not be seen.”

“I will make all my goodness pass before your face” – Stuart suggests that this might be better rendered: ‘all my splendour’.

‘God didn’t reveal His justice to Moses, not His power, and not His wrath against sin. All those are truly aspects of God’s nature, but when He showed Himself to Moses He displayed His goodness.’ (Guzik)

‘Sometimes people think they must “balance” God, supposing there is something like a Yin and Yang to the universe, in the sense of light and dark, good and evil, law and grace. But God Himself is “unbalanced” in this sense. He is entirely good. Even His justice and power and wrath must be understood as aspects of His goodness.’ (Guzik)

“I will proclaim the LORD by name before you” – ‘This is an allusion to the initial encounter in Ex 3:14–15, where God first proclaimed his name to Moses.’ (Enns)

God’s ‘name’ stands for his revealed character, as instanced in the words which immediately follow.  See also Ex 34:6.

‘God promised Moses that he would speak his own name so Moses would know for certain with whom he was dealing and would not be subject to doubt that his eyes had played tricks on him, or any such thing. This is an instance of God’s giving to a person the special reassurance he needed in a special situation, providing powerfully convincing evidence of his presence to that person in an aural way, parallel to the visual way his splendor could do the same thing.’ (Stuart)

‘Theophanies are exceptions, not the rule. They strengthen the confidence of those to whom they are given, in highly exceptional circumstances where such strengthening is needed and where less sensory encouragement would not suffice. Most people must rely on reports of theophanies rather than participation in one, and to seek a theophany as Moses did here would have no warrant unless one were on a par with Moses in job assignment and closeness to Yahweh and in an old covenant setting, neither of which is possible now. Fortunately, having the Holy Spirit dwelling in us is far better and far more permanent an asset.’ (Stuart, who citing Jesus’ words in Mt 11:11, adds that ‘the nature of the indwelling of the Spirit under the New Covenant eclipses any experience of God in the Old, including that of Moses.’)

‘Instead of a description of the way the God looks, we get a description of the way God is. God is not known through a visual image. He cannot be pictured. That’s why you cannot make an idol and say, “This is what God is like”.’ (Chester)

“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy” – Enns writes: ‘We must resist the temptation to read this statement in terms of personal salvation. The reference here is to the Israelites, those on whom the Lord has had mercy and compassion. It is a summary of what God has done for Israel in bringing them out of Egypt, an act of pure mercy.’

‘The Lord’s gifts of mercy and compassion, given to Israel in the exodus and at Sinai in the law, remained God’s own prerogative. They were, like friendship, the jurisdiction of a personal God. Through Israel the Lord had revealed mercy and compassion to the world. It was not to be taken for granted. The Lord declared here that God’s goodness was not abstract, but personal and relational.’ (Bruckner)

We might also see in this declaration an affirmation of the sovereignty of God, which is placed in (delightful!) tension with the intercession of Moses.

“You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live” – See also Ex 3:6.  Chester mentions the ‘strange apparent contradiction’ with v11, which says that Moses regularly conversed with God face to face.  The tension is resolved (although never fully explained) by the provision of a mediator: foreshadowed in the OT and placarded in the NT.

‘How is it that God can “[forgive] wickedness, rebellion and sin” and, at the same time, “not leave the guilty unpunished” (Exodus 34:7)? The answer is Jesus. Forgiveness and punishment, mercy and justice, grace and truth meet in Jesus. When he died, your guilt was punished so that you could be forgiven. Your judgment was taken so you could enjoy mercy. The truth of your sin was recognised and accounted for, so that you could know the joy and peace and life of God’s grace.’ (Chester)

‘God was willing to show as much of himself as Moses could bear.’ (Ryken)

‘Moses does not quite realise what he is asking, so God corrects him, and teaches him.  He does it gently, with tenderness, showing him exactly what is possible and what is not.’ (Lloyd-Jones, Revival, p217)

“You will station yourself on a rock” – Stuart says that this might be translated, ‘on the rock’, suggesting that Mt Sinai is meant.

“When my glory passes by” – ‘The purpose of this theophany…is to draw more clearly the parallel between Moses’ commission in chapter 3 and his “recommission” here in chapter 33.’ (Enns)

Moses view of the Lord must be partial (he would see only God’s back), passing (the Lord would pass by), and protected (the Lord would shield Moses with his hand).

“I will put you in a cleft in the rock” – This may have been the very place to which Elijah returned, 1 Kings 19:8-18.

The first line of Toplady’s hymn ‘Rock of Ages, cleft for me’ recalls this story.  Goldingay writes that ‘the story and the hymn have in common the insight that there are aspects of God’s own being that would be a threat to us but that God in person saves us from these. The hymn, however, is preoccupied by God’s righteousness and our sin while the story is preoccupied by God’s supernatural splendor and our mortal ordinariness. It constitutes another example of Exodus thinking its way round a theological profundity by telling a story.’

“You will see my back” – ‘This is not to imply that God appears to Moses in bodily form, only that he sees something. If we dwell on what precisely Moses sees, we lose sight of the point of the story as a whole. No one knows what it means to speak of God’s hand, back, and face, but perhaps this is precisely what is intended. God’s appearance is a mystery, a mystery that even Moses himself is able to see only partially.’ (Enns)

‘This is the most elevated glimpse of God Moses has ever had and will have. This is not the burning bush, which prompted Moses’ curiosity to take a closer look. This is not a series of disasters, as we saw in the plagues and the parting of the sea. This is not the miraculous giving of manna and quail. Moses has gotten to know the God of Abraham much better since then. He has seen his mighty power and has come to understand better what God intends to do with his people. Their relationship has deepened, and so, too, the degree to which God reveals himself to Moses. So, unlike the relatively “tame” theophany of chapter 3, Moses now catches a glimpse of God that, if God were to remove his hand, would bring death even to him.’ (Enns)

‘As with the theophanies in Exodus 3 and 24, this one serves a similar function. It is a boost of God’s presence for the task that lies ahead.’ (Enns)

Fretheim: ‘There is a visible appearance of God in the center of the text that cannot be argued away. Moses will use his eyes and will see. The anthropomorphic language for God is consistent with the human form of other theophanies, but it is unique.’

Poole: ‘Thou shalt see a shadow or obscure delineation of my glory, as much as thou canst bear, though not as much as thou dost desire.’

According to Kaiser, ‘the word… could…more accurately be rendered ‘the after-effects’ of his radiant glory, which had just passed by.’  Kaiser invites us to picture a vapour trail left by a plane and rocket as an illustration of this.

‘What happened in these theophanies was not that Moses actually saw God in the same way believers will see him in heaven but that God manifest himself by producing for Moses’ benefit some sort of shape that was visible and therefore gave a sense of closeness and locality to his contact with Moses.’ (Stuart)

‘Now Moses was allowed to see only the back-parts; but long afterwards, when he was a witness to Christ’s transfiguration, he saw his face shine as the sun. If we faithfully improve the discoveries God gives us of himself while we are here, a brighter and more glorious scene will shortly be opened to us; for to him that hath shall be given.’ (MHC)

Moses and Jesus.  Moses could only experience the presence and glory of God in part.  Jesus, on the other hand, sits at the very right hand of God, enjoying the unfettered presence and experiencing the unrestricted glory of his Father.

Moses could only reflect God’s glory.  Jesus, as a member of the threefold Godhead, actually possesses the divine glory.  See Heb 1:3.

The experience of Moses recorded here anticipates the greater experience of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.  There, Jesus’ face ‘shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light’ (Matt. 17:2).  There, God’s glory was seen and God’s voice was heard: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matt. 17:5).  Two witnesses from the Old Testament were present to see and hear: Elijah and Moses.

‘The amazing thing for us is that we, as believers, all have the privilege of seeing God’s glory as revealed through the person, work, and word of Jesus Christ. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).’ (Selvaggio)

God’s glory was similarly experienced by Isaiah (Isa 6), Paul (on the Damascus Road, and also at another time, 2 Cor 12), and John (Rev 1:17).  See also Acts 18:9; Phil 1:21,23; 4:13; Jn 1:3; 1 Pet 1:8.

Lloyd-Jones mentions similar experiences of Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd and D.L. Moody.

Guzik comments: ‘We also should have an earnest desire to experience God deeply. Paul made it clear that we cannot fully see the glory of God – we see it as in a piece of polished metal, dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12) – but we can see something of it. Paul didn’t say we see nothing of the glory of God, only that we can’t fully see it or comprehend it.’

“I…will cover you with my hand while I pass by” – In this life, we see ‘through a glass, darkly’; it could not be otherwise, given the blinding radiance of the divine glory.

Revival, says Lloyd-Jones, may be described as ‘a passing by of God’s glory.’  Moses was given ‘some sensible realisation of the presence of the glory of God.  By sensible, I mean something that one feels, something that one is conscious of experimentally.  Not only something that one deduces from the word, and receives from the word, which we should always do, but something over and above that, some sensible realisation of the glory and the power, the presence of God.’ (Revival, p225)

God is simultaneously revealed to, and concealed from, Moses.  It is so with the incarnation.  ‘The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.  We have beheld his glory.’  But also: ‘He was in the form of God, but did not think equality with God a thing to be clung on to, but he humbled himself, taking the form of a human being.’

However, Fretheim seems to underplay the extraordinary nature of this theophany when he suggests that it amounts to less than would have been the case if Israel had not sinned in respect of the golden calf incident.

‘This revelation left Moses fundamentally changed. Something profound had occurred on that day. This was reflected in Moses’ own appearance. When he descended from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, his face was visibly radiant (Ex. 34:29). When the people saw this they were afraid to even approach Moses (Ex. 34:30). Moses had seen and heard the glory of God and he was transfigured by it.’ (Selvaggio)

We see Jesus

God’s people long to see God (Job 19:26f; Psa 17:15).  But ‘no-one can see God and live’.  Indeed no-one has ever seen God, ‘but the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known’ (Jn 1:14,18; 6:46; 1 Jn 4:12; cf. 2 Cor 4:6).

We have the joyful prospect of seeing Jesus face to face (1 Cor 13:12).  ‘In the heart of every believer there is a yearning—yet unsatisfied—to see this promise fulfilled. Even though it is far beyond our comprehension, we know there is still more for us to see, and we long to gaze upon the beautiful face of Jesus Christ.’ (Ryken)

The same writer adds: ‘in the meantime we should ask God to show us as much of his glory as presently we can bear.’

God’s presence

  1. Do we really want it?  What difference would it make?  Would anyone notice?  What is the greatest evil, and what is the greatest blessing?
  2. Would we go banging on heaven’s door for it?  Are we even on speaking terms with God?  Bold intercession.  The importunate widow.  A man to stand in the gap.  Mystery of prayer: surely God knows already?  Ask, seek, knock.  God will give good things to those who ask him.
  3. Would we recognise it if we saw it?  ‘Surely God was in this place…’  No-one has seen God at any time, but ‘we have seen his glory’.  The glory of God in the face of Jesus.  Extraordinary experiences.