Bible Commentary: Exodus 33

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Exodus 33

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Moses Intercedes for God's Presence and Asks to See His Glory

Following the incident with the golden calf, God told Moses to go ahead and lead the people to the Promised Land, and that His angel would go before them (Exodus 32:34 Exodus 32:34Therefore now go, lead the people to the place of which I have spoken to you: behold, my Angel shall go before you: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin on them.
American King James Version×
; compare Exodus 23:20-23 Exodus 23:20-23 [20] Behold, I send an Angel before you, to keep you in the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. [21] Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him. [22] But if you shall indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy to your enemies, and an adversary to your adversaries. [23] For my Angel shall go before you, and bring you in to the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites: and I will cut them off.
American King James Version×
)—a statement He repeats in this chapter (Exodus 33:1-2 Exodus 33:1-2 [1] And the LORD said to Moses, Depart, and go up hence, you and the people which you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, To your seed will I give it: [2] And I will send an angel before you; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite:
American King James Version×
). It is not clear whether this "angel" (Hebrew malach, "messenger") refers to the preincarnate Christ (as He sometimes conveyed the words of the Father) or to an angel such as Michael, who stands watch over Israel (compare Daniel 12:1 Daniel 12:1And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which stands for the children of your people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time your people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.
American King James Version×
). In favor of the latter is God's statement that He Himself would not go up in Israel's midst (Exodus 33:3 Exodus 33:3To a land flowing with milk and honey: for I will not go up in the middle of you; for you are a stiff necked people: lest I consume you in the way.
American King James Version×
) and Moses' complaint to God: "You have not let me know whom You will send with me" (verse 12). Understandably, the people having to go to the Promised Land without God's presence is perceived as "bad news" by them (verse 4). However, if this is what God meant, He relents and agrees to accompany the people after Moses intercedes for them (verses 12-17).

Yet there is, perhaps, another explanation—one in which God intended to go with them all along. The Lord, we see, informs Moses that His presence would be with him (verse 14). And as Moses was leading the people, God's presence would necessarily be going before them. The key to this explanation is God's statement that He would not go up to the Promised Land in the midst of the people. The pillar of cloud and fire would lead them, but it would not come right down into the camp. Rather, the Lord descended in the pillar to meet Moses outside the camp. This is why Moses set up His own tent outside the camp and called it the "tabernacle of meeting" (verse 7)—God, at this time, would not meet with the nation. Moses' intercession is that it is not enough that He alone have God's presence with Him—all the people needed it (verses 15-16). So God responds that He will do as Moses has spoken. Thus, we later see that the tabernacle of the sanctuary is set up right in the midst of the people—and it becomes known as the "tabernacle of meeting" (Exodus 40:2 Exodus 40:2On the first day of the first month shall you set up the tabernacle of the tent of the congregation.
American King James Version×
; Numbers 2:17 Numbers 2:17Then the tabernacle of the congregation shall set forward with the camp of the Levites in the middle of the camp: as they encamp, so shall they set forward, every man in his place by their standards.
American King James Version×
), where God would, in a sense, meet with the entire nation. Of course, God's promise that His Presence would go in the midst of His people was ultimately fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ as a human being and then dwelling in His people through the Holy Spirit—eventually to bring them permanent rest in His Kingdom.

Indeed, Moses, the intercessor, was himself a type of Jesus Christ. In this chapter we see quite clearly the very special relationship that developed between this man and the Everliving One. God, the preincarnate Jesus, spoke to Moses face to face as to a friend (verse 11). Perhaps this was similar to the way Christ was manifested to Abraham. But Moses was allowed to see even more of God than is recorded of Abraham's experience. When Moses requested to see God's glory, God explained to him that no physical person could see His glory as it blazed from His face and survive—so He would let Moses see His back, proving that God does have form and shape, even as a Spirit Being.Indeed, God later says, "Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is faithful in all My House. I speak with him face to face, even plainly, and not in dark sayings; and he sees the form of the Lord" (Numbers 12:6-8 Numbers 12:6-8 [6] And he said, Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known to him in a vision, and will speak to him in a dream. [7] My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all my house. [8] With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD shall he behold: why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?
American King James Version×