Click here for the reading: Exodus 33:12-23.
After the assertion that Moses spoke with the Lord face to face as a man speaks to his friend (33:11), we learn that this familiarity is not vision. Moses cannot look at the Lord’s face directly and live, so the presence of the Lord will pass by in gracious elusion. Directness would kill. An indirect vision keeps Moses alive.
The divine presence will be transmitted to Moses, who from now on will be himself unbearable to his own people, “and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him” (34:30). Even the indirect presence of the Lord communicated something terrifying to Moses. Distinctions between reverence and terror break down at some level of experience. Too much presence can kill. Too much glory is a terror. So only the Lord’s back may be seen, and Moses wears a veil over his face (34:35).
Moses’ intercession is grounded on the familiarity that is not yet direct vision. He can speak with the Lord in the way that he does because they have the relationship that they do. Moses’ prayers in vv. 12-16 are reminders, quotations followed by deductions. “If you said X, shouldn’t Y be true?” Those promises are for Moses null and void unless the Lord’s presence accompanies His people. Without divine presence, salvation is nothing. The Lord must go with His people – His being with them is their mark of distinction from all other peoples (33:16).
God’s presence is desired but dangerous. It is necessary but terrifying. It should be near and also far enough away. The resolutions of these dilemmas are in Christ. Moses encountered the preincarnate Christ, but the Lord was too surpassingly and terrifyingly different for Him to dwell with man and for man to live to tell the tale. Christ’s incarnation is a way of being with us that enables Him and us to live together so that He “tabernacles” (Jn. 1:14) with us in His flesh, no longer holding His hand over our eyes as He passes by.
There is a certain terror in the divine presence and in the divine pronouncement that He will be gracious to whom He will be gracious and merciful to whom He will be merciful. Will His presence kill me before He decides to be merciful? Will I live long enough to see His grace? Faith feeds on Christ because in Christ only do any of these kinds of questions get an answer. All the promises of God find their Yes and their Amen in the Messiah tabernacled now forever in flesh and blood with His people, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Ex. 33:14, cf. Mt. 11:28).