Exodus 33


‘Then the LORD said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.” Exodus 33:1-3

After Moses pleaded with God not to destroy His people, Exodus 32:30-35, God holds true to His promise He made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob concerning the land.

God is going to send an angel before them, but He Himself would not go with them. If He were with them, He knew that He would have to bring down judgment on them because they were a stiff-necked people. For this reason, God stayed at a distance lest He destroys them.

‘When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. For the LORD had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.’” So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb.’ Exodus 33:4-6

As a result of God declaring that He wouldn’t go with His people, the Israelites were deeply saddened by this. It’s clear they understood that this was a result of their sinful idolatrous behaviour, Exodus 32:25-29. Their sin separated them once again from God, Isaiah 59:1-2.

God commands them to remove their ornaments, which was a test to see if they really were repentant or not. They were to remove the ornaments that would possibly cover up any sign of remorse.

It appears that they now realise that this wasn’t the time for decorating themself with clothes, but a time for making their hearts right with God again.

The Tent Of Meeting

‘Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the LORD would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to their tent. The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent.’ Exodus 33:7-11

The tent mentioned here is also called ‘the tent of meeting’, but this isn’t the tabernacle. Earlier, God told Moses to make a tabernacle of meeting when Moses was on Mount Sinai, Exodus 25-28, but here the tabernacle itself hadn’t been built yet.

We know it was the tabernacle he built because of the following four facts.

1. There were no sacrifices were offered.

2. There was no High Priest, nor even any lesser priests.

3. This Tent was outside the polluted camp of Israel, not in the midst of it.

4. When Moses needed someone to watch the tent, he gave the commission to Joshua, not to Aaron, perhaps because Joshua was the only one in Israel who had not danced around the golden calf.

Moses appears to take extraordinary measures to seek God and so, he went ahead and made his own tent, a tabernacle of meeting. It wasn’t a tent or tabernacle in which people assembled, but a structure around which they assembled.

Notice the text was set up ‘outside’ the camp, Numbers 11:26 / Numbers 12:4, this was done because of Israel’s sin and so, if the people wanted to call on God, they would have to go outside the camp to do son. In other words, this was to let the people know that God couldn’t dwell where sin was.

It was when Israel murmured, rebelled, or didn’t have any faith that the pillar of cloud, indicating God’s presence, would appear over this tent instead of over the tabernacle.

The phrase ‘face to face’ is obviously figurative, as God doesn’t have a physical face, John 4:24 / 1 John 4:12, what is meant here is that Moses had free and open fellowship with God. Moses hadn’t and couldn’t see the actual face of God the Father in His glory.

Notice that Joshua is referred to as a ‘young man’, Moses, at this period point in time, was past 80 years old and Joshua might have been around 30 to 40 years old. He succeeded Moses for nearly 40 years after the events mentioned here.

It’s clear that Moses was setting the example for everyone else, especially Joshua. As Moses’ relationship with God, it appears that Joshua’s relationship with God got stronger, to such an extent that Joshua didn’t depart from the tent.

Moses And The Glory Of The LORD

‘Moses said to the LORD, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favour with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” And the LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” Exodus 33:12-17

This is now the third time Moses has interceded for Israel, Exodus 32:11-14 / Exodus 32:30-35. It’s here that Moses was reassured by God that He would be with him as he led the people from Mount Sinai. Moses was calling on the grace of God to overlook their sin in order to be with them as a nation.

God previously promised to send an angel with Israel, Exodus 33:2, but after interceding again for his people, God tells Moses He will go with him, which would have filled Moses with the courage to lead his people confidently.

Moses’ confidence in speaking with the Lord and his faith in the Lord is clearly seen here, he knew that nothing the Lord could give them would truly separate them from the nations.

He knew that only the strong presence of the Lord Himself could do that and as a result of his confidence and faith, God promised to restore His relationship with Israel.

‘Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” 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. But” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” Exodus 33:18-23

It appears that Moses’ confidence in speaking to God is getting bolder, he no longer wants to walk by faith, he wants to walk by sight, 2 Corinthians 5:7, but God denies his request, John 4:24.

Moses earlier had already seen something of the glory of God, Exodus 16:10 / Exodus 24:16-17, but here he wants to see more. It’s the glory that would pass by Moses and notice that God’s glory lies in His goodness.

When Moses saw the glory of God, He fully understood that God was good. God promised to reveal His name, that is, His character to Moses. God refused to literally show Moses His face.

Coffman, in his commentary, says the following concerning the words, ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion’.

‘Paul’s reference to this passage in Romans 9:15 is instructive. The meaning of this in the present context seems to be God’s disclaimer that God in any sense whatever owed Moses any such favour as that which he had requested. The sovereignty permits him to bestow His favour on whomsoever He will. Moses, of course, had not earned such a favour, nor did he, in any sense, merit it. Yet, in keeping with God’s sovereign will, He gave it to Moses.’

Notice that God tells Moses He will put Moses ‘in a cleft in the rock’, God was preparing Moses to see His glory by passing by, by giving Moses a specific place to stand.

Moses had to be protected by the hand of God and the cleft of the rock when the glory of God passed before him. Moses could only see God’s back not God Himself.

Can Anyone See God’s Face And Live?

It’s very common for people to read certain passages in Scripture and conclude that they contradict one another. However, those who take the time to look at these Scriptures a little deeper, know that the Scriptures nowhere contradict themselves.

This is especially true when it comes to the Scriptures which relate to seeing ‘God’s face’.

Paul tells Timothy that ‘no one can see God’, 1 Timothy 6:16, but then Jesus says, ‘the pure in heart will see God’, Matthew 5:8. Is this a contradiction?

There are other Scriptures which appear to imply no one can see God, 1 Timothy 6:15-16 / 1 Timothy 1:17 / 1 John 4:12 / Exodus 33:20 / Deuteronomy 4:12.

However, there are also Scriptures which appear to imply that we can see God, Genesis 32:30 / Job 19:26-27 / Matthew 5:8. The only conclusion we can come to is that there are ways we can see God and there are ways we can’t see God.

We Can’t See God

God told Moses that he couldn’t see ‘His face and live’, Exodus 33:20, Jesus Himself said, that ‘no one has ever seen God’, John 1:18 / John 5:37 / John 6:46. Paul tells Timothy that one has ever seen God or can see God, 1 Timothy 6:15-16.

We must remember that God isn’t physical, He is a spirit, John 4:24, He hasn’t got a face any more than He has legs or arms. The descriptions of God having eyes, arms and legs, etc, are metaphors which help us understand God in human terms, Deuteronomy 33:27 / Genesis 6:8 / 2 Kings 19:16.

The point is that we can’t see Him with our physical eyes because He is invisible to the physical eye, Colossians 1:15 / 1 Timothy 1:17.

There’s also a sense in which we can’t see God because we are simply too sinful, whereas He is just too glorious and holy, Isaiah 6:1-6. This is one reason why we need Christ to act as our Mediator, John 6:45-46 / 1 Timothy 2:5-6 / 1 John 2:1.

We Can See God

When it comes to seeing God, we know that Abraham saw God, Genesis 17:1 / Genesis 18:1. We also know that Moses saw God, Exodus 6:2-3, as did Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders of Israel, Exodus 24:9-11. Manoah and his wife, the parents of Samson saw God, Judges 13:22.

Stephen also saw God, Acts 7:2, although he was about to die physically. We also see God when we look at Jesus, John 1:14 / John 1:18 / John 20:28 / 1 John 3:2. We can also see God in the sense that we see Him in and through the Gospel, 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.

Seeing God’s Face And Live

There are many examples of people meeting God in the Scriptures, but we must remember that not all of them saw God’s ‘face’, Exodus 3:2 / Exodus 33:22 / Exodus 13:21 / Genesis 20:3 / Genesis 28:11-13 / 1 Kings 3:5.

God told Moses that ‘no one can see His face and live’, Exodus 33:20, yet we have Abraham, Genesis 18:22-33, and Jacob, Genesis 32:22-30, who lived afterwards and in the New Testament those who saw Jesus, who was God in the flesh, John 1:14 / John 1:18 / John 8:58 / John 14:8-9, lived to tell others about it.

Apart from those times when God physically appeared in human form to people, we must try and understand what the Hebrews meant when they used the term ‘seeing God’s face’.

The writers understood that this didn’t mean that they saw God in physical form, they understood the phrase ‘seeing God’s face’ as a metaphor for being in ‘the presence of God’.

Although Peter, James and John got a peek at God’s glory on the mountain, Matthew 17:1-9, they didn’t see His full glory. The Hebrews understood that no one could see God in the fullness of His glory and live, they understood that sinners can’t see God in His full glory. Sin and holiness just don’t go together, they can’t coexist in the same place, Isaiah 59:2.

The ‘heart’ is the centre of our thinking processes, it is the mind, Biblically speaking, Proverbs 23:7. The ‘pure in heart’, Matthew 5:8, are those who are free from evil desires and purposes; their thoughts and speech are pure, Matthew 12:24. This is because they meditate on those things in which there is virtue, Philippians 4:8.

Such people experience great joy in seeing God. Of course, they do not see Him physically since He is a Spirit being, John 4:24, but they do see Him through faith in Christ.

Most of the Jews, having their hearts defiled with carnal hopes or self-righteous pride, failed to see God as He revealed Himself in the person of His Son, John 14:6-9 / Matthew 13:14-17. Not only do the ‘pure in heart’ see God here, but they shall also see Him ‘as He is’ hereafter, 1 John 3:2-3.

Go To Exodus 34


"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."