By Elton D. HiggsThere is much to learn from the following passage that tells us of Moses’ audacious request to see God in all His glory.
18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 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.” 20 “But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” 21 And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and 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. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (Ex 33:18-23, ESV)
God has already promised (v. 14) that His presence will be with Moses as he continues to lead the people of Israel, but Moses wants to take that promise a step further and requests to see personally the very Essence of God (which he designates as His Glory). In response, God gives him both more and less than he asked for (in my experience that is the kind of an answer God often gives). Initially (v. 19), God seems to substitute His “goodness” and His “name” for the requested vision of His glory. But then God makes clear in v. 22 that His “glory” still describes what Moses will be able to see indirectly when the Lord passes by him. We may conclude, I think, that we have a triad of descriptors of God’s essential Essence, with differing but delicately interlinking nuances that equally reflect who God is.
It is understandable that after Moses’ encounter with the Glory of God on Mount Sinai he should refer to God’s Essential Self as His “glory.” That God follows this request immediately with reference to His Goodness and His ineffable Name, “The LORD”, seems to indicate that the Absolute Presence of God is characterized not only by His over whelming power (glory), but also by His absolute moral perfection and holiness and the irreducible and non-referential nature of the Name Above All Names (the I AM, or YHWH of Ex. 3:14). He then reinforces this triad of Absolutes by affirming the Absolute Sovereignty of His Will, which creates and defines the actions springing from His Goodness (the graciousness and mercy that go beyond mere law and judgment).
So it turns out that Moses’ request can be met only partially, because God’s Holiness and Absolute Moral Perfection cannot be endured by sinful human beings (“. . . man shall not see me and live”). But on the other hand, what God does grant to Moses is even more marvelous than what he originally asked for. God’s generous solution is for Moses to be hidden in “a cleft of the rock” while he is covered there by God’s hand, so that he can see, as it were, God’s back . Through His Sovereign Will, the LORD reached beyond the withering force of His Glory and the fire of His Holiness to manifest His merciful Goodness to a faithful servant. In this Sovereign act of merciful Goodness we see a foretaste of God’s eternal bridging of the gap between His holiness and fallen mankind.
Image: Gebhard Fugel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons