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God's Sermon on His Name - Part 1

Tom Pennington Exodus 33:12-34:9


Well, we are stepping away for a few weeks here from our study of Paul's letter to the Romans. Lord willing, we'll return on the first Sunday after Labor Day to consider Romans 14 and issues of conscience. But today and at least next Sunday, I want us to study one of the most profound passages in the entire Bible. It is, as Martin Luther called it, "God's sermon on His own name," His exposition of His character that's found in Exodus 33 and 34. Specifically, we're going to look at Exodus 33:12 – 34:9. Those are the key passages we're going to examine together.

Now let me set the context for you. Exodus 33 unfolds at Mount Sinai where Israel has spent almost an entire year after the Exodus from Egypt. During that year, Moses spent two lengthy periods on the mountain, personally, with God. In Exodus 24 he ascended the mountain and remained there with God for 40 days, and during that first set of 40 days he received the Law of God and instructions regarding the Tabernacle. In Exodus 34 Moses ascended Sinai for a second time and remained with God for another 40-day period.

But I want us to examine the passage that falls between those two 40-day times that Moses spent on Mount Sinai with God. I want us to examine it because it is God's self-revelation to His people. Now obviously, the entire Bible is God's self-revelation, but what makes this passage unique is that it is God's self-revelation to His people in light of their sin. Here is God explaining how He will respond to the sin of His people.

Now to fully appreciate that amazing passage that comes in a couple of verses in Exodus 34, we really need to back up and get a sort of running start. And so I want to set the stage for us, because to understand what God says about His name, the sermon He preaches on His name, we

first have to understand what I'll call the ominous backdrop. The ominous backdrop: the sin of God's people. It begins in Exodus 32:1 and runs through 33:11. Turn back with me to Exodus 32:1. We are at Sinai. Moses has been up on the mountain for 40 days with God—the first time. Exodus 32:1 says,

Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, "Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him."

The people grew tired of waiting for Moses. Now remember that Moses has been with them constantly from the time they left Egypt until this, and then he goes up the mountain to be with God. And he is gone not for one day or two days or a week, but he's been gone now for over a month, for 40 days. And the people begin to grow restless. What's happened to Moses? Perhaps they think—they'd seen the cloud covering Mount Sinai, they'd heard the lightening, they'd seen the storm, they had heard the trumpet blast—perhaps they've come to the conclusion that Moses has been consumed by God Himself.

Regardless, they're tired of waiting, and they ask Aaron to make them an idol. Now remember folks, this is less than two months after they saw the glory cloud covering the top of Mount Sinai and after they heard the very voice of God pronouncing to them the Ten Commandments, the second commandment of which says, "You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them." So God had said (less than two months before in His own voice to these people) do not make any idol that represents Me. And they ask Aaron to do exactly that, because that's what they know. That's what they had known as a people for 400 years in Egypt.

Moses is gone. and so Aaron obliges them. Verse 2:

Aaron said to them, "Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt." Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord."

Now notice that what's going here is not the replacement, completely, of the true God; rather, it is syncretism. They declare this molten calf to be representative of the true God who brought them out of Egypt. And Aaron seals it clearly in verse 5 when he says, "Tomorrow [having completed this calf] tomorrow [will] be a feast to"—notice in your Bibles the word "Lord" in all caps. That's God's personal name. Tomorrow will be a feast to Yahweh. This is the sin of idolatry in which the idol worship that they had known in Egypt overlays and completely taints and corrupts the worship of the true God who brought them out of Egypt. And all they knew about how to worship that they'd learned in Egypt was to do so as the pagans had done.

And that's exactly what begins to happen: their feast to the Lord becomes a drunken orgy. Notice verse 6: "So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink [they have a feast, they drink too much], and [they] rose up to play." The Hebrew word translated "play" can include (and likely does here include) drunken, immoral activities that often went along with pagan worship in the Old Testament era.

In verses 7-10 we go back up to the mountain, and there Moses is completely oblivious to what's happening in the camp. He's with God. He's been there for 40 days. And God tells Moses what's happening in the camp and threatens to destroy the nation and to rebuild the nation from Moses. And of course, beginning in verse 11 and running down through verse 35, we read Moses' famous intercession on behalf of the people. And in response to that intercession, we see God's measured judgment on their sin. Down in verses 27 and 28 we read,

[And] He said [Moses said to the people], "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, 'Every man of you put his sword on his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.'" So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day.

Out of, probably, close to two million people, only 3,000 died as a result of this activity. Who were these 3,000? Likely, they were either the leaders of the rebellion, or they were those who (even confronted by Moses) refused to repent and were absolutely stubborn in that rebellion. And so God judges. But rather than wipe off the nation, He instead measures out His judgment, and 3,000 (the leaders or the unrepentant) are killed.

That brings us to chapter 33. In the first 11 verses of this chapter, we learn that in addition to the killing of the 3,000 there were other consequences for their sin. God had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that their descendants (these people) would inherit the land, and God promises again that He will fulfill that obligation. But as a consequence of their sin, in 33:1-3 the Lord told Moses that he would not accompany them to the land. Notice verse 2:

"I will send an angel before you and [He] will drive out the [people of the land]. [Verse 3] Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, and I might destroy you on the way."

God says, I'm not going out of protection for you.

In response to that tragic news, in verses 4-6 God demands and the people respond in obedience and express their repentance and the fruits of that repentance. God says listen, I'm the one who allowed you to enrich yourselves from the things that the Egyptians owned (the golden bracelets and all these things that you wear), and you chose to fashion those into an idol. And so as an expression of your repentance, as the fruit of your repentance, I want you to put those things off of your body, so that you're not reminded of that and tempted to do it yet again. By the way, that is a powerful reminder to us. It's one thing to come to God and confess your sin and ask His forgiveness; it's another thing to show the fruits of repentance. What can I do, God, that will show I'm serious about cutting this sin out of my life?

In verses 7-11 we learn that at this point God's presence is still with them, but even then His presence was outside the camp. Moses had pitched a tent (probably his own tent) outside the camp. The Tabernacle had not yet been completed. And there was God in a tent outside the camp. That's where everyone who wanted to seek God went. That's where the presence of God was manifested. Folks, this was a graphic illustration of the fact that separation comes when there is sin. Separation comes when sin comes between the sinner and God. That is always true. This is a reminder to us that where is there is unconfessed, unrepentant sin in our lives—listen closely—when there is unconfessed, unrepentant sin in our lives, there is just as real a separation between us and God as there was between those who lived in the camp and God who was outside the camp—regardless of how spiritual we think we are or how close to God we think we feel. You know, a lot of people who are living in unrepentant sin think they're spiritual, think they have a close relationship with God. Let me tell you something. If you're living in unrepentant sin, you are separated from God.

That's the ominous backdrop for God's sermon on His name. It's in the context of the sin of God's people that one of the most profound passages in all of Scripture occurs. Have you ever wondered how God responds to your sin? Well, we're going to see it in this passage.

But first let's consider, secondly, three audacious requests. Three audacious requests: the prayer of God's mediator, that is, Moses. We see this in 33:12-23. Let's begin by looking at the three requests themselves. Moses here makes makes three breathtaking requests of God. First of all he requests for the promise of God's presence. Go with us, he asks God. Notice verse 12: "Then Moses said to the Lord, 'See, You say to me, 'Bring up this people!' But You Yourself have not let me know whom You will send with me. Moreover, [You've] said, 'I have known you by name, and You [also have] found favor in My sight.'"

The angel of God's presence (as Isaiah refers to Him) or the angel of (literally) God's face (is what it says in the Hebrew) had accompanied the Israelites so far on their journey from Egypt. In fact, it was this mysterious figure who had appeared in the burning bush in 3:2. It was this mysterious person who had appeared in the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud, according to 14:19. It was this angel, in whom was the name of God, who was to go with them and protect them, according to 23:20-21. This was the mysterious person known throughout the Old Testament as "the angel of the Lord," the angel of Yahweh. This One exercised the prerogatives of deity. In fact, you find will find Him at times being called God and often accepting and receiving the worship of men and women. In fact, the angel of Yahweh, this angel of His face, this angel of His presence was in fact God Himself.

If you want to see that in the Scripture, you can compare two passages. If you look at Exodus 13:21-22, there you discover that Yahweh was going before His people in the pillar of cloud by day and in the pillar of fire by night. It was God (His personal name is used) who was in the cloud and the fire. Just a few verses later in 14:19, there is says it was the angel of God who was in the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud. So what we have in this mysterious person who has accompanied them from Egypt is in fact a preincarnate appearance of the second person of the Trinity. The New Testament makes that very clear. In 1 Corinthians 10:4, referring to this very period of time (the children of Israel in the exodus from Egypt and in the wilderness wanderings) we read this. "[They] all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock [was Messiah] was Christ." It was the preincarnate Christ who protected and sustained His people from Egypt to the Promised Land.

But the golden-calf incident had produced two unexpected outcomes. First of all, God had withdrawn His presence to outside the camp, verses 7-10. And as we just read in verses 2-3 of this chapter, God had now said He would not go with them to the Promised Land. Instead, He's going send an angel—not the angel of His Presence, but an angel. And so Moses is concerned, and Moses wanted to know exactly who it was that would accompany them. If it was just an angel, then Moses asks God to change His mind and to go with them Himself. In typical Middle Eastern style, Moses' first request was not direct in verse 12. But what he was really asking becomes clear if you look down at verses 15-16:

Then he said to [God], "If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people?"

Literally, the Hebrew text says, "If Your face does not go up with us, do not lead us from here." Moses wanted God Himself to go with them. The same angel, that mysterious, divine person who had led them to this point in the cloudy pillar, he says, God, let Him go, let Him accompany us.

And he pleads for that on the basis of three things. Go back to verse 12. He pleads for it on the basis of the Word of God: "You have said." He appeals for it on the basis of the choice of God: "You have said [to me, Moses says], 'I have known you by name.'" That is, God, You've said You've specifically chosen me. And he appeals on the basis of the grace of God (verse 12): "You have said... 'You have... found favor in My sight.'" God, You've extended grace to me, that's what You've said, and on the basis of that grace I'm making this request.

Now why was it so important to Moses that God Himself went with them? Well, in verse 16 he tells us. It's because God's presence proves that Moses and the people of Israel had experienced God's grace. Notice verse 16: "For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not by Your going with us?" And secondly, God's presence proves that they were God's people. He goes on in verse 16 to say, "So that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are [on] the face of the earth." So Moses asked, who is going with us? And God's answer is, I am.

Now folks, this is such a powerful reminder of the power of intercessory prayer. Because remember, back in verse 3 God had said, "I will not go," and in verse 14 He says, "My presence [will] go." What happened? Well clearly, it was God's plan from the beginning to accompany His people. But He had determined to do so in response to intercessory prayer: to hear Moses' prayer, and then to answer it, and to respond and to say I will go. It's a lesson for us on intercessory prayer. Pray for the people in your life.

But it's more than that. Because what happens in this passage is actually a reminder of the power of—listen carefully—the intercessory prayer of a God-appointed mediator, which is what Moses was. God had appointed him in this role as the mediator to go back and forth between God and His people. And when the mediator prayed, God heard and responded. Folks, we have a mediator, and it's not Moses. It's the eternal Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who intercedes on our behalf. And the Father always hears Him.

Verse 17: "The Lord said to Moses, 'I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight and I have known you by name." I have chosen you, and I have shown you grace. Now, what was this thing that God would do? Well, God's more complete answer comes back in verse 14. Notice verse 14: "He said, 'My presence [will] go with you.'" Here Christ assured Moses that He would accompany him, that that same, visible symbol of the divine presence, the Shekhinah glory cloud that accompanied them so far, would continue to accompany them. And He adds, "I will give you rest." Christ promised that He would give Moses and the people of Israel rest by subduing their enemies and planting them in the land of promise. What an amazing reality. Moses' first request was for the promise of God's presence, and God said yes, "My presence [will] go with you."

There's a second audacious request here in this passage. It's for the knowledge of God's character: "Let me know Your ways." Verse 13: "Now therefore, I pray You, if I have found [grace or] favor in Your sight, let me know Your ways that I may know You." "If I have found favor in Your sight" can be translated as I read it, "since You have shown me grace." Moses' request here is based solely on God's grace. And here comes his second request: "Let me know Your ways." That is a profound and important request. The word "ways" in Hebrew is a word which refers to a well-worn path. It actually refers to the ruts left in the ground by either feet or wagon wheels passing over the same territory again and again and again. That's what it literally refers to. But it came metaphorically to refer to habits or patterns of behavior, the ruts that you leave in the ground by the patterns of behavior that you follow day after day. So Moses is actually asking God this: God, let me know Your predictable patterns of behavior, let me know how You respond. Don't you love that? God is predictable. He's always the same. You don't have to worry if—and I say this respectfully—if God got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. He's completely, utterly, always predictable. His actions have worn deep ruts that can be traced out and can be followed.

Moses prays in verse 13, "Let me know Your ways that I may know You." Folks, it's only when you begin to understand God's ways, His predictable patterns of behavior, that you really come to know God. And then Moses adds, "So that I may find favor in Your sight." Wait a minute Moses, I thought you'd already found grace in God's sight. Why are you now asking for that? He's saying listen God, when I truly know You, then it will bring even greater grace into my life.

Verse 13 ends, "Consider too, that this nation is Your people." Remember, Moses is praying for some specific requests, but it's on behalf of the nation really. And here Moses is reminding God that the people of Israel stand in a special relationship to Him. Why is that important? Because you remember back in 32:7 when God told Moses what was going on in the camp with the golden-calf incident? He said get down there because your people are doing this. And so Moses just gently reminds God, God, they're not just my people, they're Your people.

God's answer comes in verse 19 to this request for the knowledge of His character. "He said, 'I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, [and here it is] and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you.'" God's answer to the request to know God's ways was this: "I... will proclaim the name of the Lord before you." I am going to do a sermon on My name. I'm going to explain to you who I am. Exodus 34:6-7 is the fulfillment of that promise. There Yahweh declares who He is, and He explains His predictable patterns of behavior, God's ruts. And we'll study that amazing text together next week.

But before we leave this second request, I don't want you to miss something really important. Listen to what one author, one commentator named Stuart, writes. I love this. He says,

There is little room for mysticism in biblical religion. We do not know God by having some sort of inexplicable, ethereal communion with Him in which our feelings are used as the evidence for our closeness to Him. We know Him by learning His ways, in other words, by objective rather than subjective emotional means.

You want to know God? You know Him by knowing His ways, by knowing His predictable patterns of behavior.

Moses made a third audacious request of God. It was for a display of His glory: "Show me Your glory." Verse 18: "Then Moses said, 'I pray You, show me Your glory!'" "Show" is the normal Hebrew word; it means "to see." Moses is asking for a visible display that can be seen with the eyes. The Hebrew word for "glory" in all its forms is an important Old Testament word. It occurs some 376 times. Its basic meaning is "to be weighty or heavy." It was only used rarely of actual weight. It was used of Eli and his weight, but most of the time it's used figuratively. More than half of the Old Testament uses refer to a person who's weighty in their character. Because, you see, in Hebrew thinking if something is light, it's worthless, and if something is heavy, it's valuable. Think an agricultural society, wheat and chaff. Chaff is light and blows away. It's worthless. But wheat's heavy, and it falls to the ground when it's winnowed. It's the same with a person's character. So when a person is weighty, it means they're weighty in character. Moses was asking God here to let him visually see that which made God weighty or impressive. Moses had seen the cloud (that was more of a shield from seeing God than it was actually seeing Him), and now he's asking God to really let him see Him. Even with all he'd seen, Moses knew there was so much more, and he desperately wanted to see God.

God's answer comes in verse 19. "I... will make all My goodness pass before you." "Goodness" can refer to moral goodness. But it can also refer to visible beauty or splendor, and I think that's the idea here. Moses had asked for a visible display of God's glory, and God says I'm going to give you a visible display of My beauty or My splendor. It's going to "pass before you." It literally means "to move in front of you." Can you imagine? God says you've seen a lot Moses. You've seen the glory cloud. I'm going to show you more.

Verse 20: But "He... said, 'You cannot see My face.'" Now remember, when we talk about God's face, we're using what theologians call anthropomorphic language; that is, man's form. That is, we are attributing something about man to God to help us understand God. God is a spirit, so He doesn't have a face. God sometimes uses human terms to describe Himself to help us understand something that's true about Him. To speak of seeing God's face means to have a full or complete view (in this case) of His visible glory. And God says that's not going to happen. To have a vision of His back means to have an incomplete view.

God said to Moses, I will not allow you to have a full or complete visible display of My glory as I am. Why? Verse 20: "For [no man can] see Me and live!" No sinful human being has ever seen the face of God, has ever seen the full display of the glory of God. John 1:18: "No one has seen God at any time" except the Son. John 6:46: "Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father." Again, a reference to Jesus Christ. First Timothy 6:16: God "alone... dwells in unapproachable light, whom no [man] has seen or can see." Think about this. If God had allowed Moses to see His face, that is, a full view of His splendorous, blazing glory, or if He would allow us to see it, we would be incinerated in a moment. So God doesn't permit it for Moses' own sake.

Verse 21:

Then the Lord said, "Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by."

God says I'm going to permit a portion of your request, Moses. And He placed him in a cleft of the rock, perhaps a cave, maybe even the same cave that Elijah hid in on this same mountain in 1 Kings 19. Then God (literally, the Hebrew says) would screen Moses with His hand until the full radiance of God's glory had passed. And then God would remove His hand and allow Moses to see only His back. Again, that's [in] human terms to help us understand. What He's saying to Moses is, you're only going to get a faint glimpse of the true reality. Or as one author puts it, "You're going to see an afterglow of the divine glory." Verse 23: "Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen." Even so, wouldn't you have loved to have seen whatever it was God let Moses see that day?

Now folks, look at those three audacious requests. Don't you agree that they are, in fact, truly audacious requests? But here's the amazing thing. In Christ, all three requests that Moses made of God have become yours! They're yours. First of all, you have God's abiding presence. You have God's abiding presence in this life. Matthew 28:20, Jesus said, "I am with you always [literally, "all the days"], [even] to the end of the age." Hebrews 13:5: "He Himself has said, 'I will never desert you, nor will I ever [forsake] you.'" You have in this life God's abiding presence, and He will never leave you. And that will be true in eternity as well. You remember our Lord's prayer in John 17:24? "Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You [have] loved Me before the foundation of the world." Jesus said Father, I want My people to be with Me. And that prayer will be answered. First Thessalonians 4:17 says when the Lord returns and receives us in the Rapture, "We will always be with the Lord." You will never be separated from the Lord you love again.

Secondly, you enjoy a growing knowledge of God and His ways through His Word. Psalm 25:4-5: "Make me know Your ways," O God—almost the same prayer Moses had. "Make me know Your ways... teach me Your paths. [How?] Lead me in Your truth." The way you learn the paths of God is not by direct revelation, the way Moses did, but through the revelation contained in this book as God makes Himself known. Psalm 86:11: "Teach me Your way, [O] Lord; I will walk in Your truth."

Thirdly, you are privileged to see the display of God's glory. You see it now in the face of Jesus Christ as it's revealed in the gospel. Second Corinthians 4:6 says, "God, who said, 'Light shall shine out of darkness,' is the One who has shone in our hearts to give [us now] the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of [Jesus] Christ." You have come to see the glory of God through the gospel in the person of Jesus Christ. And in eternity you will visibly see the face of God forever. You and I haven't seen what even the children of Israel were permitted to see in the wilderness. And we certainly haven't seen whatever it was God let Moses see that day. But Christian, someday you will—and more. First John 3:2: "Beloved, now we are the children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because [listen to this] we will see Him just as He is." And that'll be true forever. Revelation ends in Revelation 22:4 with that vision of the new earth on which we will live with God forever. And it says this about us: His servants (that's us) "will see His face" That's something worth living for, and that's something worth dying for.

How could such incredible blessings become ours? Well, they become ours the same way they became the blessings Moses enjoyed, and that is through the only grounds. How could this all be possible for a sinful person? Look at verse 19. I skipped over one phrase. "And He said, 'I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; [now watch this] and I will be gracious to whom [or to whomever] I will be gracious, and [I] will show compassion [on whom or to whomever] I will show compassion.'" God says Moses, the reason I'm going to grant these requests has nothing to do with you. It's because I have decided to be gracious. And God says I will be gracious if it pleases Me, when it pleases Me, for the reasons that please Me, and to whom it pleases Me. Alec Motyer writes, "Not even Moses has a right. It is all of grace, and sovereign grace at that." You remember, Paul quotes this very verse in Romans 9. And there he says that God's saving mercy is not something that is accomplished by human decision (it's not him that wills), it's not accomplished by human effort (it's not the one who runs), it simply becomes yours because God decides to have mercy. It's the fact that God in His grace decided to have mercy on us as He did on Moses that we celebrate in the Lord's Table. Let's pray together.

Father, thank You for this great revelation of Yourself that is unfolding in this passage. Lord, thank You that in Your mercy and grace You've allowed us to see it, to know it, to read it. Lord, we weren't there. Neither were the children of Israel, but in Your goodness You let us look over the shoulder of Moses and see it unfold for ourselves. What grace You've shown to us. Lord, we thank You for what we've learned even today of You, and we look forward to what we will learn next week as we see You preach a sermon on Your name.

Father, now we turn our hearts to the Lord's Table where we remember that the only reason we have a relationship with You is because You have been gracious to us because You determined to be gracious to us, You have shown compassion to us because You determined to show compassion on us, and You've accomplished that through Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. You've brought us into right relationship with You through Him. Father, I pray that You would now prepare our hearts, Lord, that You would forgive our sins. I pray for all those who are believers here. Lord, help us to examine our hearts before You, to judge our sins so that we would not be judged, to condemn our sin before You and to seek Your forgiveness so that we don't take of the Lord's Table in a way that is demeaning to Him and that causes Your chastening to rest upon us.

Lord, I also pray for those who may be here who are not in Christ. Lord, help them to pass these elements by, but to think about the gift You've offered them in Christ, the gift of forgiveness, the privilege of knowing You through Jesus Christ our Lord. And may they run to You for that forgiveness today, turning from their sins and putting their complete and total trust in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now receive our worship, we pray, as we bring it. Amen.