In Exodus 33, we witness an intimate discourse between God and Moses. Within this divine human dialogue, Moses makes an odd request: “Moses said, ‘Please show me your glory.’ And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name “The LORD.” And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy’” (vv. 18–19). What exactly is Moses asking of God when he requests to see His “glory”? And how do we understand God’s answer to Moses’ question?
Moses’ question to God is strange to our ears because of our modern understanding of the word glory. To us, it is commonly used of honor bestowed on someone by common consent. For example, when one goes to the field of battle, he hopes to win glory, that is, he hopes his actions in war will earn accolades and honor from others. Glory in this sense is man-centered, and it can be illusory. As Montaigne (AD 1580) so aptly says:
Of all illusions in the world, the most universally received is the concern for reputation and glory, which we espouse even to the point of giving up riches, rest, life, and health, which are effectual and substantial goods, to follow that vain phantom and mere sound that has neither body or substance.
The Hebrew word for “glory” is kavod, and in the Old Testament it can refer to honor that humans receive (for example, Gen. 45:13; Est. 5:11). However, the word has a much broader meaning than mere human accolades. The word itself in the Hebrew language literally means “heavy/weighty.” It is often used in a quantitative sense: so Absalom used to cut his hair once a year because it was “heavy” on him (2 Sam. 14:26); Pharaoh’s chariots drove “heavily” in the Red Sea in pursuit of the fleeing Israelites (Ex. 14:25); and Moses’ hands were “heavy” when he held up the staff of God in a battle against the Amalekites (Ex. 17:12).
But the word glory is also employed in a qualitative sense in the Bible. It can refer to something that is weighty, heavy, or filled with a particular quality or trait. Often it can reflect the moral quality that defines a person. Thus, in the exodus account, when the verdict is reached that Pharaoh’s heart is “hardened,” or literally, “heavy,” this signifies that his heart is filled with iniquity and injustice. His heart is “weighty/heavy” with sin. This defines his very being and character.
When Moses asks God to show him His “glory,” the Hebrew leader is asking that God reveal to him who He is, that is, the very essence of His being. The Lord responds by proclaiming His name Yahweh in front of Moses. This self-designation in Hebrew literally means “I am that I am,” and it signifies three things about the nature of God. First, God is self-existent and independent of creation. Second, He is immutable, unchanging. Finally, it implies the eternity of His being. The Lord then answers Moses by using an idem per idem formula to express His nature. This formula — “gracious . . . gracious” and “mercy . . . mercy” — signifies that God is autonomous, free to bestow His grace and compassion on whomever He pleases. It underscores the doctrine of the sovereignty of God.
Because the word glory defines the very essence of God’s being, it came to be used of the very presence of God among His people. So we read in Exodus 16:10 that the people of Israel looked into the wilderness and “the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.” Biblical scholars call this type of appearance of God the shekinah glory, that is, the dwelling presence of God with His people. It is this glory cloud that descends on and covers Mount Sinai when God reveals His word to His people (Ex. 24:15–16). It is this glory cloud that descends into the Holy of Holies in both the tabernacle and the temple (Ex. 40:34–38; 1 Kings 8:10–11). The shekinah glory is a sign that God’s very being and essence reside in the midst of His people.
The greatest manifestation of the dwelling presence of God’s glory (essence/being) among His people is in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Apostle John tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The Greek word that John uses for “dwelt” means “to tabernacle,” and it is a clear reference to the dwelling presence of God in the tabernacle/ temple of the Old Testament. The reality is that “something greater than the temple is here” (Matt. 12:6). Jesus is the true glory of God.