Moses has gone up Mount Sinai to make intercession for the people of Israel because of their grave sin of creating a gold calf. God has relented from the disaster that the people deserve for their rejection of God and rebellion against God. Now we might think that everything is good now and we can continue on with Israel going to the promised land. But this is not the case. Turn to Exodus 33:1-3.
Sin Separates (33:1-11)
The Lord tells Moses he can lead the people to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Lord will send an angel (messenger) before them to drive out the various peoples who live in the land. But listen to the middle of verse 3. “But I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” God cannot go with them because he knows he is going to consume them on the way because the people are so stubborn in their hearts. Now, is this the mercy of God? Yes. God does not want to destroy his people. He does not want any person to be destroyed. But he knows their character. He knows what is going to happen if he goes with them. The people are going to be destroyed for their sinfulness.
This sin is quite serious. Notice that God says that he will not be able to go with them. He will not be able to be among them. Go back to Exodus 25:8 and notice what the purpose of the tabernacle was: so that God could dwell in their midst. God says this cannot happen. The tabernacle project is cancelled. The whole purpose of the exodus is that God could be with his people. Sin has caused a separation between God and his people. This is not God’s fault. This is the people’s fault. God simply cannot be with the people.
Notice the response of the people in verse 4. “When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments.” This is a wonderful response. Consider they could have said, “Well, at least we can still go to the promised land!” “At least we still get God’s blessings that he promised.” No, this is not their reaction. The blessings of God are nothing without the presence of God. The people are convicted to their hearts and mourn over their sins. They desire God to be with them, not just have the blessings that come from God. This is the response God desires to see in repentance of sins. The point is not for God to keep the blessings flowing. The point is that I need the presence of God with me and I know that my sins have separated me from God.
Verses 7-11 describe further what was being lost. Moses would take a tent outside the camp to meet with God. When Moses went out to the tent, the people would stand up at the door of their tents until Moses entered this tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent. Then the Lord would speak with Moses. When the people saw the pillar of cloud, the people would worship at the entrance of their own tents. Verse 11 records something amazing.
Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent. (Exodus 33:11 ESV)
The relationship is absolutely special. The Lord spoke with Moses face to face. This is not saying that Moses saw God face to face. Rather, this describes the intimacy of the relationship between Moses and God. God was able to speak to Moses like he spoke to no other. But now God says that his presence cannot go with this people. God will not be with them. This is a huge loss.
Moses’ First Response (33:12-14)
Moses responds to this disastrous message by talking with God. Moses tells God that God told him to lead these people, but he cannot lead them on his own. Moses needs to know who is coming with him. Moses says that he needs God’s presence with him. Moses wants to know God’s ways so that he may know God and find favor in God’s sight (33:13). I need to know your ways so that I can know you. Only by knowing God can we find favor in God’s sight. What a heart that we see in Moses! God, you can’t leave! I need to know you. I need to know your ways. I cannot do what you have called me to do without you. I desire to find favor in your sight. The Lord responds that he will go with Moses and he will give Moses rest. God tells Moses that our relationship is good. God will be with Moses and Moses will enjoy God’s rest.
Moses’ Second Response (33:15-17)
What would have been your response to what God said? Would we be happy that at least we have a relationship with God so that is good enough? Listen to what Moses says in verses 15-16. Moses says that no only does he need God to go with him, but we need God to go with us. Moses pleads for the people, even though Moses is well-favored by God. Your presence must go with us, not just me! God, you must go with all of us so it will show that you are pleased with us (33:16). How else will we know if you are pleased with us? Further, God must go with us because this is what distinguishes us as a people from all the peoples on the earth. In short, God’s people cannot be God’s people unless God is with them!
Notice how God responds. God will go with the people. But please notice why. “For you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name” (33:17). The reason God will go with people and dwell in their midst is because Moses has found favor in God’s sight and God knows him. What solves the problem is that God is pleased with Moses and accepts his intercession. This is critical because this is the role that Jesus serves for us. The reason God can dwell with us is because of the intercession made by Jesus. Jesus is the Son in whom God is well-pleased and accepts his intercession for us. The repentance of the people earlier has no value without an intercessor.
Moses’ Request (33:18-23)
Then Moses asks the Lord show him his glory (33:18). Why does Moses ask this? How does this fit into the conversation? We should not read this request as out of place from the story or a completely random request. Moses wants proof that God would be with them and not abandon them. Show me your glory. Now it is important to realize that this not asking for something unusual, as we sometimes make this text to be. In Exodus 16:10 the glory of the Lord appeared in the time of crisis when the people lacked food. In Exodus 24 the glory of the Lord appeared after the ratification of the covenant. Moses asks for a demonstration of this promise that God will stay with the people for the whole journey. Put it in writing, if you will.
God responds with something greater. God is giving more than Moses asked because the glory of the Lord was this visible cloud. God is going to show Moses more but he cannot show everything. Rather than showing himself in the cloud, God says that all of his goodness will pass before Moses and he will proclaim his own name. What a thought! God will make all his goodness pass before Moses. God will show all his wonderful benefits. Moses is going to see the afterglow, if you will, of God’s glory. Further, God will proclaim his own name. Now remember that proclaiming your name means you are revealing your character and personality. You are revealing who you are. God is going to reveal who he is. What does the name of the Lord mean? What is his character? Listen to it in verse 19.
And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. (Exodus 33:19 ESV)
We must not read this to mean that God is capricious in election or that this is a message about God’s freedom to choose to whom he will be gracious. Too often this is how this phrase is understand but this misses the point. The point God is making about his character is that God is abundantly compassionate toward his own. God is saying that if he has chosen someone to receive favor, then that person is going to receive favor. If he chose Israel to receive compassion, then he will most definitely be compassionate toward them. God will indeed show mercy and grace toward Israel just as Moses desires. God’s favor and grace will keep coming and coming and because has chosen them for that. God is determined to show his compassion to Israel. Knowing God means knowing God’s sovereign grace and faithfulness to save his people. What God does is in contrast to Exodus 32. God is faithful in the face of Israel’s unfaithfulness with the gold calf.
You may recognize that Exodus 33:19 is quoted by Paul in Romans 9:15. The same point is being made in that passage by Paul. The word of God did not fail toward Israel (9:6). God promised to bless through Abraham’s offspring (9:7) but not depending on human works (9:11). This shows God’s purpose of election. God is compassionate and mercy toward his people, not because they are good or have done anything to deserve it, but because of God’s purpose of election. God decided he would be compassionate and merciful toward his people and that is what he is going to do. God is not unjust (9:14). Rather, the mercy we receive depends solely on God who has mercy (9:15-16).
Why can we know that God is going to be merciful toward us in spite of our sins? Because God’s mercy does not depend on how good we are, but upon the fact that God said he will be merciful. How easy it is for us to wonder if we could possibly be forgiven for the sins we have committed! How easy it is to think that are sins are too great and our guilt is too deep for us to be forgiven! But our forgiveness is not dependent on our human will, exertion, or works. Our forgiveness is dependent of the election purpose of God. God said he will be gracious and merciful and when God decides he will be gracious and merciful, then this is what he will be. He has decreed this glory toward us.
Let’s end by looking at how Paul taught this concept to Timothy in his second letter to him.
8 Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, 9 for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. 11 The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; 13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:8–13 ESV)
God’s faithfulness is our greatest hope. God remains faithful even when we are faithless. This is a direct reference to Exodus 32-33. The people of Israel have been completely faithless. They have turned away from the Lord. They are worshiping idols and are worthy of condemnation. They are worthy of the wrath of God. But rather than receive wrath, what happens? The people are broken by their sins and Moses as the intercessor goes before the Lord on behalf of the people. What does the intercessor find? The intercessor finds the Lord declaring that he will still go with his people because he will be merciful to whom he will have mercy and he will be gracious to whom he will be gracious.
This is what happens for us. We are worthy of the wrath of God for our complete faithlessness. But rather than receive the wrath we deserve, what happens? For the people who are broken by their sins, the intercessor Jesus goes before the Lord on our behalf. What does Jesus as our intercessor find? The intercessor finds the Lord declaring that he will still go with his people because he will be merciful to whom he will have mercy and he will be gracious to whom he will be gracious. If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself. In the words of Isaiah, in speaking about Jesus as the suffering servant, he makes intercession for the transgressors. He does not make intercession for the righteous. He makes intercession for the transgressors. God should not be in our midst and dwell with us. But he gives us Jesus as a sacrifice for sins so that we can still be drawn back to him even though we have been faithless. O, we have seen the glory of the Lord! We have heard the glory of the name of the Lord. The relentless grace and mercy of God is the display of God’s glory to whole world. Jesus intercedes and we have confident hope for forgiveness for our unrighteousness if we are broken by our sins and turn to him in faith. What confidence we have because of Jesus as our intercessor!