Who is the most famous person you have known (not just met)? Perhaps you knew someone who later became a politician, preacher, athlete, or actor. But how well do you know that person? Do you really know them? If you grew up with the person, dated them, married them, worked with them, etc., you probably could tell us all some stories that would indicate how well you knew that person.
Do you know God? How well do you know Him? It all began when you were repented of your sin and put your faith in Jesus. Then God forgave your sins and made you a new creation. But since then, have you been getting to know the Lord? What do you know about Him? How would your description of God agree with what the Bible reveals? What stories could you tell about Him?
In Exodus 33, we learn something about Moses’ relationship with God. Since his initial conversation with God at the burning bush, Moses has gotten to know the Lord rather well. Yes, they had been through much together in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness. But their relationship was not just event based, it included talking and working together to accomplish the same goals. As we read through the chapter, you will see how well Moses knew the Lord … and yet He still wanted to know Him more.
- A sad message from God (Exodus 33:1-6)
In verses 1-3, the Lord speaks to Moses about the people. He was still not happy with the stiff-necked nation of Israel. They had repeatedly shown their unbelief, unfaithfulness, and discontent. The Lord here tells Moses what He thought about the people and what He was going to do. Then in verses, 4-6, we will see how the people responded to what Moses told them.
a. The message (1-3)
The Lord told Moses to go to the Promised Land (1). He agreed with what Moses had said in chapter 32. He had promised the land to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so He would keep the promise. He would also send His Angel to drive out the inhabitants of the land (2). The land would have everything they needed, but the Lord would not go with them (3) because they were “a stiff-necked people.”
What does stiff-necked mean? “To be stiff-necked is to be obstinate and difficult to lead. The Bible often uses this figure of speech when describing the attitude of Israel toward God (e.g., Exodus 33:3; Deuteronomy 9:13; Nehemiah 9:16; Acts 7:51). The term was originally used to describe an ox that refused to be directed by the farmer’s ox goad. When a farmer harnessed a team of oxen to a plow, he directed them by poking them lightly with a sharp spike on the heels or the neck to make them pick up speed or turn. An ox that refused to be directed in such a way by the farmer was referred to as ‘stiff-necked.’ A stiff-necked animal (or person) refuses to turn the head in order to take a different path” (Gotquestions).
When God wanted to lead them in certain ways, they refused to obey. “So perverse, stiff-necked, and rebellious had they proved, that they … forfeited the favor of such a presence” (Bush 227). In other words, God was removing His presence because they refused to be led by Him and His ways. “You don’t want to obey? Then I will remove Myself from your lives.”
b. The response (4-6)
When Moses took the news to the people, they responded with mourning (4). They “were distressed that God had said, I will not go with you. They were promised His protection and guidance by an angel, but not His personal presence” (Hannah 157). God’s message caused them to realize that their actions had caused God to remove His presence from their lives.
The people also fully realized what God thought of them (5). God accurately described them as obstinate, stubborn, stiff-necked people. While they may have felt their attitudes were not that big of a problem, God did think so. He was holding Himself back so that He didn’t kill them right away.
Moses told them that God was still deciding what to do with them. In the mean time, they were to take off their ornaments. What are ornaments? This is a word used to describe how we decorate our Christmas trees not ourselves. (Although, we did have a Christmas party at BIO where we wrapped a fellow student with tinsel and hung ornaments on him.) The ornaments were jewelry and things that would be worn when they dressed up (and also the jewelry used to create the golden calf). When the people understood what God wanted, they obeyed God (6) and removed their jewelry. “While disrobed of their festive garments and previous jewels, and clad in habit of penitents, God represented himself as deliberating how to act towards them” (Bush 228).
Did God need time to settle down and think what He would do?
“When God speaks of himself in this language, as if perplexed and wavering in his mind, it is not to be understood as intimating that such things actually exist; for ‘known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world;’ nor can any occasion possibly arise which he can be at a loss how to act” (Bush 228). Consider the following verses in Scripture.
Hosea 6:4 – “O Ephraim, what shall I do to you? O Judah, what shall I do to you? For your faithfulness is like a morning cloud, and like the early dew it goes away.”
Jeremiah 3:19, 20 – “How can I put you among the children and give you a pleasant land, a beautiful heritage of the hosts of nations? … Surely, as a wife treacherously departs from her husband, so have you dealt treacherously with Me, O house of Israel, says the Lord.”
The point is that the Israelites did not deserve any mercy from God. They had rejected His commands and worshiped an idol instead of Him alone. How He would respond would likely be determined by how they responded. Would they repent of their sins and turn back to God?
- A meeting place outside the camp (Exodus 33:7-11)
When you are wanting to talk with God, where do you go? Most people go to a private, secluded place to read the Bible and pray. This keeps distractions to a minimum and allows you to concentrate on your time with the Lord. In verses 7-11, we see that Moses had a similar idea. He placed a tent some distance away from the camping site of the Israelites where he could be alone to talk to God.
a. The people sought the Lord at the tent (7).
While many had turned from the Lord and had been executed after the golden calf incident, there were still some who wanted to seek after the Lord. When they saw the tent of meeting set outside of the camp, “it reminded the people that their sin was an alienating force in their relationship with God. … He was outside their community” (Hannah 157). They needed to repent and seek to be reconciled with the God Whom they had offended.
b. The people respected Moses (8).
Moses obviously had a tent to live in with his wife and family. However, when he “went to work,” he would walk from his family tent to the “tent of meeting.” Moses’ time with the Lord may have been at a notable time each day. I think this because the people rose and stood by their tent entrances as he walked by. This was their way of respecting the leader God had given them—the one who pleaded on their behalf on so many occasions.
c. The people knew the Lord talked with Moses (9-11).
How did they know that the Lord was speaking with Moses? They knew because the cloud (which represented God’s presence) would come down and stand next to the tent’s entrance. The descending cloud showed them that the Lord was meeting with Moses. You can see that this made an impression on the people as they rose and worshiped the Lord (not Moses) whenever it happened.
There is an interesting phrase mentioned in verse 11. It says that “the Lord spoke to Moses face to face.” What exactly does this mean? Does God have a face? No, “‘face to face’ is a figurative expression suggesting openness and friendship” (Hannah 157). God was super close with Moses.
Numbers 12:6-8 – “Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is faithful in all My house. I speak with him face to face, even plainly, and not in dark sayings; and he sees the form of the Lord.”
So, the people were aware of this close relationship between the Lord and Moses. He knew the Lord as very few others have known Him. And He was the only one who could mediate for Israel with God. We shall see how that turned out in the next point.
Extra: In verse 11b, we discover that Joshua stayed at the tent of meeting when Moses left. This seems fitting for someone who would later replace Moses as leader of God’s people. Why did he stay there? I don’t know. But could it be that he wanted to be near the Lord, get to know Him, and speak to Him like Moses did?
- A conversation with God (Exodus 33:12-23)
If you could talk to God about any one thing today, what would it be? Would you bring up the war in Ukraine, the moral failures around us, or a health need in your family? In reality, Christians have the opportunity to talk to God about any number of topics. But for Moses, current events were on his mind. His earlier conversation with God had brought up some questions that were still pressing. In verses 12-23, he addresses three things that were on his mind.
a. Show me your way (12-14).
The Lord had instructed Moses to lead the people to the Promised Land, but Moses had some questions. (1) You have given me my marching orders, but You have not told me who will go with me. (2) You have also told me that I am close to You and have found grace in Your eyes, but I need to know Your way, know You, and know that you still consider these people to be your own.
At first glance, it looks like Moses is wanting to know the Lord better. But the whole section seems to indicate that he wanted to know “the Lord’s intentions for His people” (Hannah 157). In other words, if I have been honored with a close relationship with You, please tell me what your plans are for the nation of Israel.
In response to Moses’ prayer, the Lord promised Moses His presence and a future rest. Instead of leaving the stiff-necked people alone to enter the Promised Land, the Lord “changed His mind” and promised to go with them on their journey. He also promised to give them rest when the enemies had been removed from the land. This was God’s plan, His way.
Sometimes, we want to know what the Lord will do. What is He planning for us and our church? This can be known only by praying and asking Him. Do you find yourself sitting and wondering what God is doing? Maybe, just maybe, it would be a good idea to talk with Him about it. Ask, like Moses, for the Lord to show you His way. Then thank Him for it and follow His direction to fulfill that plan.
b. Show me your presence (15-17).
Have you ever wondered if something someone promised you would actually be delivered? Maybe it was a handshake agreement with someone, a conversation with an employer, or a promise from an acquaintance. Although they have said they would do it, you ask them if they are really going to do as they promised. Why do we do this? We do it because people don’t always keep their promises.
Moses seems to second guess the promise made to Him by the Lord in the previous verses. He wanted “confirmation that the Lord would indeed go with His people” (Hannah 157). Why did he do this? Perhaps he was remembering how angry the Lord had been with the people. The Lord had told Moses that He would not go with them because of their stiff-necked attitude toward Him.
But before Moses finishes his question, He reminds the Lord that the only way he would know that he had found grace in God’s eyes (as with Noah) is if the Lord went with them. Without the Lord, the journey would be a waste, but with His presence they would be separated (different than) all other nations because of that one simple fact: God was with them.
What makes you different from all other people today? What makes you different is that God Himself is with you. When those who know the Lord hear of impending disaster, they don’t lose hope; they go to God. When those who know the Lord listen to radio talk shows, they don’t lose hope; they go to God. His presence makes all the difference in our lives. What would it be like to not have His presence in your life today?
In response to Moses’ request, the Lord promised to go with Israel for Moses’ sake. Note that he promised this because of the relationship that the Lord initiated. The Lord’s reasons were, “for you have found grace in my sight … I know you by name.” Because the Lord loved Moses and had created this close, first-name-basis relationship, He was willing to do as Moses requested.
Never forget what the Lord has done for you. You were not rescued from your sin because you sought the Lord or because of your innate goodness. You were a sinner who enjoyed his sin and didn’t want the Lord.
Ephesians 2:4-5 – “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).”
Just as with Moses, our relationship with God was initiated by Him, not us. But that great relationship, which we enjoy so much, is filled with many blessings just because He loves us. Meditate on that fact today.
c. Show me your glory (18-23).
“Third, Moses asked to see the glory of God” (Hannah 157). It seems like such an odd request as this point. You would think that Moses would thank the Lord for His promises and then report back to the people. But Moses was so interested in the Lord, that He wanted to know Him more and more. He wanted to see the Lord in all of His glory.
Have you ever felt so close to God during your Bible reading or prayer time, that you talked like this to God? I am not sure that I have. But there have been times when I have reveled in what the Lord has shown me in the Scriptures and when He has caused me to come to tears when praying. In times like these, we might be more interested in our relationship with the Lord than in going back into the world.
How did the Lord respond? The Lord immediately answered Moses’ request, but not quite as was expected. He promised to pass by Moses in such a way that he would see His goodness, hear about His grace and compassion, and see His back as He passed by. But He told Moses that he could not see His face as nobody could see Him and still live.
This passage is one that is hard to understand. The Bible tells us that, “God is Spirit” (John 4:24) and is invisible (Col. 1:15). “While God can appear in human form (or in other physical form) if He wants to, He is, in His essence, not a physical being” (Gotquestions). And yet, the Bible tells us that “God is light” (1 Jn. 1:5) and that the heavenly city will have “no need of the sun … for the glory of God [will illuminate] it” (Rev. 21:23). Somehow God is both spiritual and gloriously bright at the same time.
So, how is it that God could be seen by Moses? This is what I think. Somehow, God is both Spirit and gloriously bright in appearance. In heaven, we will be able to see His glory in a way that we cannot now. In perhaps the way that the three disciples saw Jesus’ glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses was promised to see the brightness of God’s glory. Anything more than that is not something we will be able to understand.
Extra: In the next chapter, we will see that Moses’ face had a shine to it after speaking with the Lord. The brightness of God’s glory reflected off of and adhered to Moses’ face somehow.
When you think about this chapter, what do you come away with?
You might be thinking about your own stubbornness. Like the Israelites, perhaps you have become stiff-necked or hard to be led by the Lord. Understand that the Lord does not want you to continue that way. Repent of your sin and begin to listening to Him again.
You might be thinking about seeking the Lord in a private place. Just as Moses and other like-minded people went outside the camp to seek the Lord, so you may be needing to set aside some time to talk with the Lord without distractions. Understand that the Lord wants you to seek Him. But you have to take the time to do it.
You might be wanting to know the Lord’s presence in your life. Perhaps you have allowed some things to get in between you and the Lord. If this is the case, it will be hard for you to feel that God is with you. Take the time to examine your own situation and understand what is keeping your from being close to the Lord. You will not regret it.
Whatever the case may be, I hope that you will turn to the Lord and grow in your relationship with Him.
Bush, George, Notes on Exodus, Vol. 2, Minneapolis: James & Klock, 1976, orig. 1852, pp. 226-241.
“Did Moses see God?” as seen at www.gotquestions.org/did-Moses-see-God.html on 9/17/2022.
Hannah, John D., “Exodus” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary Old Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1989, p. 157.
McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Genesis through Deuteronomy, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1981, pp. 303-306.
“What does the Bible say about being stiff-necked?” as viewed at https://printer.gotquestions.net/GeneratePF?articleId=24379 on 9/17/2022.