Summary: Applying Moses request to see God’s face, but being allowed only to see God’s back, to our lives and faith.
The Reformed Church of Locust Valley Pentecost XXII October 20, 2002 Ex. 33:12-23, Mt. 22:15-22
“Trying Hard to See God”
“…I will cover you with my hand until I have
passed by; then I shall take away
my hand, and you shall see my back.”
- Exodus 33:22b,23
If you really want to understand the Bible, you need to have a child’s imagination.
This is not to say the Bible is childish – not by a long shot! It a book by adults for adults, with some exceptions. In fact, it is so X-rated that it used to amaze me that it was even allowed in our high school library! And there it was, in the reference section no less!
The Bible is God’s word for us. But it will help it if you approach it as a child approaches it, or remember how you read it when you were a child, if you were fortunate enough to have read it when you were a child.
A young boy – a boy with faith – reading these passages about Moses would want to be Moses – to have the kind of experiences Moses had. And there is one dimension of Moses’ religious experience in particular we would want to have – an intimacy with God – to actually meet and converse with God. Like two friends. (“Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” Ex. 33:11a) This was at the time of their wilderness wanderings, and Moses would take the tent of meeting out of their camp. And Moses would go into the tent. And the pillar of cloud would descend and block the entrance of the tent. And there the Lord would speak to Moses personally, Moses only, Moses as a friend; as it were face to face.
For any person who loves God, there can be no higher ambition than a face to face conversation with the God of the universe. And Moses had that, and any child reading this story would say, I wish I could be like Moses and talk to God like that.
But despite those conversations, Moses yearned for more. He wanted to behold God’s presence, literally to see him. Moses asks God if he can see his glory.
Moses is asking for certainty. God has freed them from Egypt and brought them into the wilderness where they will wander for a generation. God is feeding them manna and quails and giving them fresh water in the desert. He has promised them a homeland, but the truth is, they are homeless. Their roots are in Egypt, but they were only slaves there. Today’s needs are taken care of by the grace of God, but the truth is, they have no assurance other than God’s promise that tomorrow they will not starve or die of thirst. And they have a destination, but they know nothing about it. God has promised them a land flowing with milk and honey, but the truth is, it is utterly unkown to them.
So isn’t it natural that Moses wishes to be just a little more sure? On the one hand he has a demanding God. On the other hand he is leading a frightened and cantankerous people. So he is in essence saying to God, Give me just a little more. I know we talk like we’re face to face, but let’s make it literally face to face, just one time, to make it a little easier for me to trust you and lead confidently.”
So because it is a natural inclination to want to see God, and because Moses needs a little more certainty, he asks God this, “Show me your glory, I pray(Ex. 33:18).”
So God offers Moses something, but not everything. “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 you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live (Ex. 33:19,20).”
So God is going to let his goodness pass before Moses, and proclaim his name with his own voice, but prevent Moses from seeing the face of God. Instead God will let him see his back. The Bible says, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by, then I shall take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen (Ex. 33:21b-23).”
So God walks by, and with his own hand, covers the opening in the rocks where Moses stands peering upward. So he sees God’s palm. Then God, having passed by and facing away, lifts his hand and Moses glances up and sees God walking away, sees God himself, but only God’s back.