After Israel’s idolatry with the golden calf (Ex. 32), Moses sought assurance from God that He would indeed not utterly destroy Israel but would go with the people and remain with them to set them apart from other nations (33:12–16). The Lord, by His grace, reassured Moses that He would stay with Israel, but then Moses made a remarkable request of God—he asked to see the divine glory (vv. 17–18).
This request was incredible for several reasons. First, it shows us that the true source of our assurance is God Himself. Moses had already seen God’s mighty act of salvation in delivering Israel from the Egyptians in the crossing of the Red Sea (chap. 14). However, given the sin of Israel, Moses sought greater assurance that the Lord would not break His covenant with His people even though they had broken covenant with Him. The only assurance that could satisfy Moses was to have a vision of God Himself.
Second, Moses’ request is remarkable because in response God did reveal an essential truth about His glory, namely, that it is all-consuming. As we see in today’s passage, the Lord agreed to show Moses His goodness but not His face directly, for no one can see the face of God—the fullness of His glory—directly and live (33:19–20). Moses would have to be content with a more indirect revelation of divine glory. He would get to see the Lord’s “back” but not the Lord’s “face” (vv. 21–23). Since “God is Spirit, and has not a body like men” (Catechism for Young Children 9; see John 4:24), we know that “back” and “face” are anthropomorphic terms. The Lord does not literally have a face or a back like ours, but these are metaphors for a direct vision of God’s glory (face) and a lesser, indirect vision of the same glory (back).
The Lord was gracious in granting Moses’ request and letting Him see His glory only indirectly. One day, in fact, we will see the glorious face of God, but that cannot happen until all sin has been removed from us. We will see God because we will be like Him on that final day (1 John 3:2), but until then, any sinner who would see Him directly would be consumed. The Lord in His glory is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29), and so sin and sinners cannot be sustained in His presence. Until we are fully renewed after God’s image in our glorification, John Calvin comments, “it must needs be that the incomprehensible brightness [of divine glory] would bring us to nothing.”