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Exodus 33:18–23

“While my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:22–23).

Moses’ work as the mediator between God and the Israelites is on full display in Exodus 32–33. When Israel was under the threat of destruction for the sin of idolatry, Moses stood in for them, asking for the Lord to relent, and God showed mercy (Ex. 32:1–14). After our Creator moved outside the camp of Israel temporarily, Moses brought the needs of Israel before Him (Ex. 33:7–11). Then, when the Lord told the Israelites that He would go before them but not with them into Canaan, Moses interceded for the people, and the Lord renewed His commitment to remain among them (Ex. 33:12–17).

Today’s passage informs us that Moses then made a request for himself—namely, the vision of God’s glory (Ex. 33:18). The text does not tell us explicitly why Moses asked to see the Lord. Given that our Maker had just threatened not to go with His people into the promised land, perhaps Moses was looking for additional assurance that the Lord would be with them. Maybe he was looking for a reward for his faithful execution of the work of covenant mediation. Whatever the exact reason, it is notable that Moses made this request even though he had already seen God, at least in some sense (see Ex. 3:1–4; 24:9–11). This means that the prophet was looking for an even greater vision of the Lord; he wanted to see more of the Lord than he had ever seen before.

God agreed to Moses’ request, promising to make His goodness pass before the prophet and to proclaim His name “The Lord” before him (Ex. 33:19). In Scripture, the name of the Lord represents God Himself, for those who take shelter under His name enjoy the protection of His holy and just character (see Prov. 18:10). So when God pledged to proclaim His own name, He was promising to show His very nature to the prophet. Yet as Exodus 33:20–23 reveals, this would not be a direct vision of the Lord’s face. Moses would see only the Lord’s “back”—that is, Moses would see more of God than he had previously seen, but he would not see God in all His fullness. Since one day the glorified redeemed will see God “as he is” (1 John 3:2), Moses’ inability to see the Lord was not due to his humanity but was because of the abiding presence of sin. One day we will see the Lord, but only when sin is fully eradicated from us. Until then, we must be content with a partial vision of God, with the brief glimpses of His character that we get in sacred Scripture. John Calvin comments that God “manifests Himself as far as is expedient; nay, [accommodating] the amount of light to our humble capacity, He assumes the face which we are able to bear.”

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

If we have seen Jesus by faith, then we have seen God the Father (John 14:9). Nevertheless, a yet fuller vision remains when we will see God face-to-face. Until then, the Lord in His grace veils the fullness of His glory because a sinner who views Him directly will be destroyed. By His grace, the Lord presently shields us from seeing Him completely, but by grace one day we will see Him directly.

for further study
  • Genesis 32:22–32
  • Matthew 5:8
  • 1 Corinthians 13
  • Hebrews 12:14

    Moses Prays for God’s Presence

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