Last Lord’s Day evening we considered the narrative sections that surround our text for this evening. Both before it and after it we have sections that describe Yahweh’s stepping back from his people Israel, putting distance between himself and them on account of their unbelief and sin. This is the message of the angel who would replace Yahweh himself at the head of Israel’s columns, of the Tent of Meeting now pitched outside of the camp instead of at its center, and of Moses’ veil that prevented Israel from gazing at the reflected glory of the Lord radiating from his face. But, in the midst of that material, we find this much more positive and wonderful material describing a conversation and an encounter between Yahweh and Moses. Israel is out of the picture and now it is only Moses and the Lord.
- We don’t know when Yahweh told Moses “I know you by name,” but having read 33:11, it doesn’t surprise us to know that he had. Moses wants to know the identity of the heavenly messenger, the angel the Lord had promised to send before Israel.
- Moses wants to know the principles behind God’s dealings with men so that he, as God’s representative among the people, might act accordingly. [Ellison, 177] And he reminds the Lord that Israel is his people.
- “My presence” is literally “my face” as in 33:11. This does seem to be a relenting on the Lord’s part, but it is cryptically put. Indeed, the two phrases of the NIV’s v. 14 – after “And he said,” which is but one word in Hebrew – contain only two Hebrew words each. Moses may not have been sure just what the Lord was actually promising, hence his reaction in the next verses. [Alter, 504] In an earlier conversation with Moses he had said in v. 3 that he would not go with Israel and now seems to say that he will. But we expect that this assurance in v. 14 would come after Moses’ plea in vv. 15-17. Perhaps it is Moses’ reminder that Israel belongs to Yahweh by his covenant that wins the change in the Lord’s plan.
- Moses’ logic is unassailable. No people can be the people of God without the presence of God. [Durham, 448] And that relentless logic explains the Lord’s reply in the next verse.
- Moses’ immediate reaction to this promise, that must have so relieved his heart, was to ask to see God’s glory. “Glory,” literally “weight,” in such a context refers to the inner reality that made God’s being and character what they were. It is a request, in other words, to see God as he is. To see his deity.
- What God will show Moses is his goodness, his moral attributes. Remember, in the OT one’s name was viewed as communicating something of his nature and, in this particular case, the part of his nature that will be revealed to Moses will be his moral attributes.
- The Lord will reveal to Moses what he can and Moses will be given to see and hear what he is able, but no mortal man can see God and live. There is a noble sentence in Augustine’s Confessions that reflects on this passage: “Then, Lord, let me die that I may see thy face.”
- The shielding of Moses with the Lord’s hand is obviously meant as protection for Moses. He might otherwise not survive this theophany.
- In speaking of his “back,” the Lord is obviously employing another anthropomorphism that communicates again the notion that man is capable of seeing only the periphery, the outer edge of the divine glory.
- As the medieval Jewish commentator, Rashi, puts it, “God says to Moses, ‘You smashed the first ones, you carve some others yourself.” [Alter, 507] Prior to Yahweh’s revelation of himself to Moses, there is a pause for instructions. Moses has something to do on his way to this encounter with the glory of God. What is very interesting and very important about the Lord saying “I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets,” is that later in this same chapter, in vv. 27-28, Yahweh commands Moses to write the words on the tablets, especially the words of the covenant, that is the Ten Words or Ten Commandments. It is possible to say that we have an entire doctrine of Holy Scripture here: it is God’s Word by man’s hand. Human authors wrote the Word of God.
- The rules as to the sacredness of the mountain because of Yahweh’s presence on it were as they were before (cf. 19:12-13). But this time, after the affair of the golden calf, the separation is total. There will be no attendants stationed partway up the mountain.
- The name, Yahweh, stands for all he is and does. Remember the name amounts to something like “The One who Always Is” but in the sense of “The Ever-faithful God.” This was the God who proved his eternal reality and his faithfulness by bringing Israel out of Egypt by mighty acts of power. But its meaning is now to be more fully described.
- The two-fold repetition of Yahweh is an “exclamatory repetition” [Alter, 508] and conveys an effect something like “alpha and omega” or Christ being the same “yesterday, today, and forever.” [Ellison, 179] “Compassionate” comes from the noun, “womb,” like the maternal instinct to care for a newborn infant. “Slow to anger” reminds us that God’s anger is a reality but that his anger is tempered by his mercy. “Abounding in love,” is abounding in חסד, hesed, a term important enough that you may have heard its Hebrew sound pronounced many times. Of no one else in Scripture but the Lord is it said that he “abounds in love.”
- As in 20:6, in the midst of the Ten Commandments, this phrase, in context, almost certainly means “to thousands of generations” in contrast to the three or four generations of judgment later in the verse.
However loving God is and must be, he is also just. In context it obviously means that those who persist in their rebellion cannot count on God’s mercy. And that justice, as his grace, runs in the lines of generations. We are seeing it in our world all the time, of course, in the legacies of addiction, betrayal, hatred and resentment that foster trouble, misery, and death all over the world. The benighted people of Iraq, for example, are paying for the sins of their fathers just as this present generation of Americans is in another way. [Cole, 228]
Some measure of the importance of this revelation is furnished by the fact that it is quoted, in whole or in part, ten times in the Old Testament.
- Moses immediately gets the point. With a God of grace like this, even Israel’s sin is no bar to Yahweh’s continued presence. In other words, Moses argues Israel’s unworthiness as a ground for God’s mercy. Israel needs the Lord; that is her sole claim on the Lord’s attention. As Robert Murray McCheyne would make the point many centuries later: “I come to Christ, not although I am a sinner, but just because I am a sinner, even the chief.” [In Bonar, 23]
“How religious do you want to be? Not perhaps as religious as an Islamic terrorist. Most Americans manage very well to keep religion within their comfort zone.” [Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, 95] But how religious do you want to be? Well, insofar as religion has to do with God and with our relationship to God, no doubt the answer to that question depends profoundly on one’s view of God.
Early in his Confessions Augustine asks the question: “Who then are you, my God?” And he answers this way.
“Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, most omnipotent, most merciful and most just, deeply hidden yet most intimately present, perfection of both beauty and strength, stable and incomprehensible, immutable and yet changing all things, never new, never old, making everything new…always active, always in repose, gathering to yourself but not in need, supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to maturity, searching even though to you nothing is lacking; you love without burning, you are jealous in a way that is free of anxiety, you ‘repent’ without the pain of regret, you are wrathful and remain tranquil.” [trans. Chadwick, 4-5]
And on Augustine goes, describing a God so far beyond our understanding and yet, at the same time, a God of whom we know the most wonderful and important things. The God he is describing is the God of Exodus 33 and 34, the God who revealed himself to Moses to the extent that he could, but whom Moses could not see and survive. It is worth our often pondering that last fact: that we cannot see the Living God and survive. His glory would consume us, as the heat of the sun would consume us if we ventured to close to it. To be that close to the glory of God, to see its aftereffects as Yahweh passed by, Moses had to be hidden in the cleft of a rock and then covered by the Lord’s hand. Anything less and Moses would not have survived the theophany, his nearness to God would have destroyed him. Moses saw something of the glory of God – remember, we read last week that after speaking with God in the Tent of Meeting his face would be radiant from the reflected glory – but what he saw was, obviously, only the edge of that glory.
I don’t believe any one of us will ever behold the glory of God directly except as that glory is revealed in God the Son, now incarnate, and by the Holy Spirit. We will no more in heaven than on the earth be able to tolerate a direct vision of the divine glory, any more than we can now stare at the sun without being blinded. Some things are simply impossibly greater than we are and stronger and brighter than we are capable of withstanding. [cf. Duncan, Just a Talker, 72]
I read a story in the Christian press this past week about a very large Pentecostal church in Tulsa, Oklahoma that had shrunk to ten percent of its former 5,000 strong membership as a result of its pastor beginning to preach universalism some four years ago. With its great numbers lost, the church could no longer pay its mortgage and its 30 acre site and large campus were lost to foreclosure. The good news is that the church’s Pentecostal congregation was offended by their pastor’s new view that everyone in the world was to be saved, no matter whether a person confessed Jesus Christ as Lord. The bad news is that the remnants of the church found a ready welcome at a large Episcopal Church in Tulsa, whose pastor expressed his enthusiasm for the Pentecostal pastor’s gospel of universal salvation. “I have difficulty believing in a God that’s going to put my colleagues in hell,” was how the Episcopal rector put it.
“I have difficulty believing in a God that…” How many times have I heard that or something like that? “I couldn’t believe in a God who would do that…or say that…” Do we realize how preposterous such a statement really is? As if we were competent to take the measure of God. As if he lived at our pleasure. As if he would be required to meet our expectations and demands. And yet this patronizing view of God is found everywhere and heard everywhere! And it is heard very often in evangelical Christian circles – in the health and wealth preacher who figures that, of course, God would want us all to be rich; or in the self-obsessed American man or woman whose interest in God goes little further than the expectation that he will help me with my problems; or very often heard in our own hearts, as we look up to God at our convenience, when we have the time, and talk to him almost exclusively about what are, in the greater scheme of things, our petty little interests and problems. It used to be thought that human beings existed to glorify God. Now, in 21st century America, it seems that God exists to glorify us!
No. The truer picture is found here in Exodus 34 in an encounter in which Moses – who had been for some 40 days in unprecedented fellowship with this same living God – had to be hidden and protected lest the glory of God destroy him. He heard God say wonderful things; he heard God say terrible things, but at the end he had learned first and foremost how small he was before God, how weak, how impossibly dependent. What he learned about God was that which he needed to know; but what he could not find out about God was almost everything.
Herman Bavinck, who wrote one of the finest systematic theologies of the Christian religion ever written, perhaps second only to Calvin’s Institutes, began his study of God with this:
“Mystery is the vital element of Dogmatics…. the idea that the believer would be able to understand and comprehend intellectually the revealed mysteries is…unscriptural. On the contrary, the truth which God has revealed concerning himself in nature and in Scripture far surpasses human conception and comprehension. In that sense Dogmatics is concerned with nothing but mystery, for it does not deal with finite creatures, but from beginning to end raises itself above every creature to the Eternal and Endless One. At the very outset Dogmatics is confronted with the Incomprehensible. “[Doctrine of God, 13]
Or listen to this from Charles Spurgeon’s very first sermon at the New Park Street Church in London, amazingly when he was but twenty years of age.
“It has been said by some one that ‘the proper study of mankind is man.’ I will not oppose the idea, but I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God’s elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father. There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can compass and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-content, and go our way with the thought, ‘Behold I am wise.’ But when we come to this master science, finding that our plumb-line cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the thought, that vain man would be wise, but he is like a wild donkey’s colt; and with the solemn exclamation, ‘I am but of yesterday, and know nothing.’” [NPSP, i, 1]
We do not understand God! We do not comprehend him. We do not appreciate in anything like a complete way his characteristics or the wonder of his character. This is the emphasis of so many psalms, of the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, of many sermons of the prophets. We are given words that are meaningful, but we only begin to understand them: compassionate, gracious, abound in love; just and wrathful. We know what these things mean but, in relation to God, we only begin to understand them and we certainly have never come close to plumbing their depths. And when understanding is superficial, it very often leads astray. “Compassionate” comes to mean indulgent and indifferent toward human behavior. “Gracious” comes to mean phlegmatic and lackadaisical; uncaring about the moral failures of human lives. “Just” comes to mean only that the mighty God will look with disfavor on those people we think ought to be punished. God has been reduced to a being whose glory we not only can see but can take for ourselves. He becomes the God of our success. And, apparently, he’s happy to have been given such a noble assignment as that of making us happy.
Moses, hiding in the cleft of the rock in the darkness created by the Lord’s “hand” above him, whatever that anthropomorphism meant in the moment, listening to these mighty words resounding across the mountain, knew that what he was hearing were not commonplaces, were not the sort of conventional pieties one hears about God. They were staggering truths upon which depended the eternal destiny of every human being for weal or woe. That the living God, the Maker of heaven and earth, is merciful and gracious, that Yahweh is just, and that he draws near to care about the human creatures he has made and that he has offered his salvation to those who trust in him, these are the most staggering, the most breathtaking realities of human existence.
This is not the God of our subjectivity, of our feelings, of our imagination. This is the God who made the cosmos by the utterance of a word, the God who controls everything that moves in the vast spaces of the universe, the God who controls human history down to the very last detail and yet has given freedom to human beings that they might live responsible and consequential lives. This is the God of the flood, of the destruction of Jerusalem, of the devastating judgments that have befallen the world times without number; the God of the last judgment, the God of hell. But this is also the God of unconquerable love, the God of the cross, and the God of heaven whom angels joyfully worship covering their faces and their feet before him with their wings. This God is in no one’s pocket and no human mind has ever come near to grasping his greatness, his majesty, and his glory.
In The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis tells the tale of Bree, the horse and Shasta the boy who rides him. In their adventures, as you children will remember, Bree and Shasta are joined by another horse Hwin and her young mistress, Aravis. Toward the end of the story, Bree learns what so many human beings must learn: that when they prattle on about God and what God must be like, they are making pitiful fools of themselves. Bree is scoffing at Aravis’ suggestion that Aslan, the great King of Narnia, might actually be a real lion. But while scoffing at such an absurd idea he fails to notice that Hwin and Aravis are staring wide-eyed at something behind him.
“[While] Bree spoke they saw an enormous lion leap up from the outside and balance itself on the top of the green wall; only it was a brighter yellow and it was bigger and more beautiful and more alarming than any lion they had ever seen. And at once it jumped down inside the wall and began approaching Bree from behind. It made no noise at all. And Hwin and Aravis couldn’t make any noise themselves, no more than if they were frozen.
‘No doubt,’ continued Bree, ‘when they speak of him as a Lion they only mean he’s as strong as a lion or (to our enemies, of course) as fierce as a lion. Or something of that kind. Even a little girl like you, Aravis, must see it would be quite absurd to suppose he is a real lion. Indeed it would be disrespectful. If he was a lion he’d have to be a Beast just like the rest of us. Why!’ (and here Bree began to laugh) ‘If he was a lion, he’d have four paws, and a tail, and Whiskers!…Aie, ooh, hoo-hoo! Help!’
For just as he said the word Whiskers one of Aslan’s had actually tickled his ear. Bree shot away like an arrow to the other side of the enclosure and there turned; the wall was too high for him to jump and he could fly no farther….
‘Now Bree’ [Aslan] said, ‘you poor, proud, frightened Horse, draw near…
‘Aslan,’ said Bree in a shaken voice, ‘I’m afraid I must be rather a fool.’
‘Happy the Horse who knows that while he is still young. Or the Human either.’
You get Lewis’ points: both our ignorance of how great God is and how everything changes when we finally see that greatness and glory. How the divine glory drains our hearts of all its silly preconceptions and preoccupations with the comparatively trivial. It lies at the foundation of every Christian life and of all true godliness and human goodness, this discovery of the greatness of God and, especially, this discovery of how impossibly small and insignificant our thoughts, our ideas, our wills, our plans are in comparison to the reality of the Living God. That this God should still care about us and our lives, even our thoughts and our feelings, is the most amazing thing of all.
Most of you, at least most of you who are adults, have at one time in your life or another been struck dumb. You have been awestruck. It rarely happens. You see the Grand Canyon fiery red at sunset; you walk for the first time into a great Gothic cathedral; you watch your child being born; or, for many Christians, a moment or a few moments at worship when suddenly the veil is drawn back and, by faith, you are given to see and feel what you immediately understand to be the glory of God. It takes your breath away. It lifts you up to impossible heights of the purest feeling and imagination. Where does this power come from? It comes from God; from your being made in God’s image. You have been made for this God of impossibly great glory and so you have been made with the capacity to experience that majesty and respond properly to it.
And why does this happen so rarely in our lives in this world? Because in our sin and selfishness, in the smallness of our view, we have domesticated God. We prattle on about God as if we knew what he was like in the glory of his being and the wonder of his works. And making God small, we are not moved by the knowledge of him as we ought to be.
I guarantee you that Moses went back to his tent that night and laid awake for hours basking in the wonder of what he had seen and heard. He shivered from the impossibly magnificent revelation of God that he had been given – and he thought and thought about the fact that he had seen only the smallest part of the divine majesty. He thought of God’s wrath against sin and he thought of the Lord’s tender mercy toward sinners and he could scarcely control himself for the thought that Yahweh loved him and knew him by name.
We should tremble over the same things: our sin and guilt, God’s wrath; and God’s grace and mercy to those who trust in him. Compared to this, compared to what God is like in comparison to human beings and what he like toward his people, nothing in all the world matters at all – including all those things that everyone seems to think are so much more important than the glory of God.