Summary: There are aspects of God that we cannot know. God is above us -- far above us.
This would be Moses’ second trip up the mountain to meet God. The first trip had ended in disaster. God had given him the tablets of the law, written in stone, and he was coming down the mountain to give them to the people. But he heard something unexpected. He heard what sounded like loud music and laughter coming from the camp. He drew closer. And, as he did, he came to see the people. They were dancing with unrestrained abandon around…what? a golden calf! Could it be? They had crafted their own representation of God, and they were worshiping it? Moses erupted in anger. In a fit of rage he raised the stone tablets over his head and hurled them to the ground. The impact shattered them, and they broke into pieces. Irrecoverable fragments scattered across the surface of the earth.
Time passed, and now he was to go back for a new set. But, before he went, he asked two things of God. He asked God not to forsake the people, despite their sin. And he asked God to show him his glory. These were big requests. What would God do?
God, you see, was angry too – so angry that he was undecided about what to do with these fickle, faithless people. “If I were to come among you now,” he said, “I would consume you.” There is a holiness to God that will not permit him to look upon sin, certainly not with favor, and definitely not without reaction. He is incensed by it and intolerant of it, and, in this moment in time, there was in the mind of God a harrowing uncertainty as to the fate of his people. Would he abandon them? Would he give up on them completely? It would be understandable if he did.
But Moses asked him not to. “Consider that this nation is your people,” Moses said. “If you will not go with us, do not make us leave this place. If you do not go with us, we have no place to go.” And what Moses was doing was: He was making intercession for the people. He was asking for mercy for sinners. And God? What was he doing? He was training Moses’ heart to seek such things.
So, Moses made a second request. He asked to see God’s glory. “Show me your glory, I pray.” Those were Moses’ words. “Show your people your mercy, and show your servant your glory.” These were Moses’ two requests.
How did God answer them? Essentially, he gave the same answer to both. “My presence will go with you,” God said, “but I cannot show you my glory. Instead, I will show you my goodness.” I will show mercy to the people, and that will be my goodness. That you shall see, but my glory? No. You cannot see that. So, we read in verse 19, where God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said – and this gets us into verse 20 – “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
And then God framed it up for Moses, how it would be. When Moses went up on the mountain, he was to take his place on a certain rock. God would then hide him in the cleft of the rock, and, with this hand, he would cover Moses’ face as his glory passed by – the very glory of God. And when the glory had passed, God would remove his hand, and Moses would be allowed to see his back, something like seeing the trailing vapor stream of a jet. “But my face,” God said, “shall not be seen.”
There are aspects of God’s being that we cannot know. We could not survive the exposure. It is in kindness that God invites us into intimacy with him, but it is in kindness, too, that he protects us from being casually forward. Some people, I’m afraid, get too “chummy” with God. We are wise, I think, to avoid language about God that is overly familiar. I cringe when I hear people talk about God as “the man upstairs.” To speak of him that way does not show fitting gravitas. It does not show the respect that is due him. When our Jewish neighbors write the word “God,” they will often replace the “o” with a dash to show reverence. Perhaps we too should be so careful with God’s name. I am aware that the New Testament teaches us to call God “Abba.” Abba is the Aramaic diminutive that shows intimacy with one’s father. And I have read commentators that will say that this is permission to call God “Daddy,” but I can’t get there. It doesn’t sound right to me. To my way of thinking, we need to regard God with greater awe.