In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Last week, we looked at the golden calf incident. It’s a troubling moment in the story of Israel’s salvation. After God led them out of Egypt, and after God announces his covenant with them, the Israelites turn to false gods – to an idol – forgetting their covenant God. We also talked a little bit about the possible motivation behind such rebellion – essentially fear. But regardless of the reasons, there are consequences to the Israelites’ choice. The initial consequence was Moses’ command to execute all those who actively participated in the rebellion.
However, in the interim passage (the verses that we’ve skipped), we see an even greater consequence. To those who remained, God commands that they continue on their journey, to the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey. However, they would go without God – His presence would no longer be with them. The people are distraught, and Moses pleads to God on their behalf. This is where we find our passage today.
There’s a lot going on in this passage, though it seems like a relatively simple one. At issue is the prospect of Moses and the Israelites going to the promised land without God. The significance of this shouldn’t be lost on us. Think about where the Israelites have come from, where they are, and where they are going. In short, they are a people in-between. They are a people who are no longer what they used to be and not yet what they are supposed to be. They have left where they came from and not yet arrived where they are going. Their lives, in a sense, are defined by uncertainty. However, in the midst of their uncertainty, their identity has been defined by the presence of God. They have been God’s people. They have been chosen and saved by God.
And all of a sudden, because of their disobedience and lack of faith, they find themselves with the prospect of God’s presence leaving them.
Last week, we talked about the significance of identity – that a basic human need is to have a sense of identity. Though it wasn’t the focus of the passage that we looked at (and therefore, easily missed), one of the points that I hoped you took was that our identity is in part found in being known. There is a sense in which we are not fully ourselves without being known – our identity is found in community. But even as we cannot know fully know ourselves without others, no other knows us perfectly. Except the God who made us and gives us life. I believe that we cannot fully and truly find ourselves apart from God.
In a very real way, this is where the Israelites find themselves. They find themselves faced with the prospect of being disconnected from society, disconnected from history, because they are disconnected from God.
32:7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt.
32:9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people.
33:1 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt…
God calls them, “your people”, “these people,” the people that Moses brought up out of Egypt. No longer does God call them “My people.” Could there be any more terrifying prospect?
In the face of this dilemma, Moses intercedes on behalf of the people. There’s a lot to be said for Moses in this passage. We see a tremendous amount of growth in the former runaway. Remember when Moses was confronted by God at the burning bush? When Moses was called by God to confront Pharaoh (a false god) and lead the people out of Egypt, he was adamant in refusing the command and invitation of God. “Send someone else,” Moses said, over and over. When he faced Pharaoh, he took his brother Aaron with him because of his nervousness, self-doubt, and fear.
Now Moses comes before God Himself and confronts Him directly, pleading for mercy on behalf of Israel. Verses 12-16, with which our passage today begins, are a little bit complicated and confusing, textually speaking. But the gist of it seems to be something along the lines of Moses saying, “If I have found favour in your eyes, let this favour be extended to all of Israel.”
In response to Moses’ request, what we see at the end of this passage and the subsequent verses (34:9 onward) is God, yet again, re-affirming his covenant with His people. And before we continue on, let us not lose sight of the magnitude of the significance of a holy God choosing to enter into sovereign covenant with a sinful people – and what this means about God’s redemptive purposes in history.
Covenant is about relationship and promise. Covenant has eternal significance because the God who establishes covenant with us is eternal. Covenant means that we belong to God. We are a covenant people because God has chosen us and because God has called us.
Now a quick word about the dynamics of what’s going on here. This is one of many passages in which someone appears to change God’s mind. We don’t have the time to get into the theology or philosophy of this. I hope it’s sufficient to say that, like many things in scripture, the events are understood in a way, and communicated in a way, that human minds can understand. It’s a simplification but suffice it to say that from Moses’ point of view, God appears to have changed His mind. But this shouldn’t detract from the theology presented in Scripture that God is absolutely sovereign and that, because He is perfect, God is constant and never changes.
God’s response to Moses’ plea is to re-affirm covenant. He tells Moses that His presence will go with Israel. He says, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” This would have been a tremendous relief to Moses. But Moses makes one more request. He asks of God, “Now show me your glory.”
Now most of us are probably aware that the word for glory here, is a very theologically loaded term. “Glory” – kavod – means something like abundance, weightiness, heaviness, and splendour. I think there’s a sense in which any translation is insufficient. Not that any english translation of kavod is insufficient, but any translation of the glory of God into human language is insufficient. God’s glory is too big for us.
Further, it’s instructive that God’s response to Moses’ request to see His glory is not just “okay, I will show you my glory.” Rather, God says:
19 And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.
In other words, in some sense God’s glory is not some abstract sense of wonder or a dazzling bright light – God’s glory is revealed in His character.
This brings us back to what’s going on in the passage today. The revelation of God’s glory to Moses shouldn’t be seen as the intrusion of a personal interaction between Moses and God. In other words, this episode can’t be separated from the larger dialogue that’s going on. Therefore, what we can see is that the revelation of God’s glory to Moses is, in some way, a response to Moses’ request for an affirmation of God’s purposes to not take away His presence from a rebellious people. The revelation of God’s character is the guarantee of God’s purposes.
This should put in sharp relief what many of us, what society, expect of God. We want God to make us healthy, wealthy, and happy. We expect God to keep us from harm and to provide for us all the things that television tells us that we need.
The world is often a dangerous, chaotic place. And life is uncertain and often disappointing. So many people turn to religion, for example, to provide safety and certainty. We believe that if we do all the things that our religion tells us we’re supposed to do – we go to church every Sunday, we give money to the church, we teach Sunday School, or play in the band, or mow the lawn, or serve food to the homeless – we do all the things that a good religious person is supposed to do and trust and hope that God will keep us, protect us, from the chaos and uncertainty of life.
What God gives us, what God promises us, is Himself.
Now make no mistake, in God, through Christ, we have hope and a promise. We have hope in the promise that through Christ, God is restoring all creation and returning all creation to Himself. There should be no doubt what God says He will do, He will in fact do. And we have this hope because Christ has overcome death and despair. Because Jesus Christ has inaugurated the new kingdom, God’s kingdom, and through Him we live in victory.
But, in truth, the new life that will be ours (and in a very real sense is ours already) is not the goal. The goal is not to be healthy, wealthy, and happy. The goal is God. The promise is not that we will be kept from all possible dangers and threats. And the promise is not that we will have everything that we think we want (in this life). The promise is God.
So What Now…?
I frequently feel like all I’m doing is say the same three things over and over again. But what I want to say (again) is that life – real, actual life – is found only in God because God alone is the source of life. God alone is life. Everything else is ancillary. Everything else is secondary.
I feel like Moses would have been in a pretty bad state after everything that had happened. After a long journey, finding out that the Israelites had turned their backs on God. And finding out that the consequences of turning their backs on God – God removing from them His presence – would have been more than he could bear. So he pleads with God for mercy, for forgiveness for the people. And God relents agreeing to restore His presence to Israel. He promises to give to them the life that they had longed for, the fullness of life that is what they were made for. And Moses asks for assurance. He asks for a guarantee. And the assurance is no less than God Himself.
I don’t know what any of us are looking for, exactly. I’m not sure what any of us are looking for in terms of comfort or upon what we base our hope. What I believe is that each of us, all human beings, are longing for life. That we all know that something is missing, that we’re supposed to be doing something or that we’re supposed to be something that we haven’t quite found yet. I believe that something is the real life that can only be found in God. And I am convinced that the assurance of that can only be found in God Himself. So let us keep our eyes fixed on Him.