Not only had the tablets of stone been shattered on the rocks below Moses, but the people had broken their covenant relationship with God. They deserved his wrath. Yet God had graciously forgiven them and promised to go with them, bringing them into the promised land. As Moses, who had plead for forgiveness for his people, saw God’s mercy, he asked to see God’s glory (Exodus 33:18). And God did reveal something of that glory.
You cannot see your God and live. Moses was uniquely close to God. Although he did not hold the title of king, he was the leader of God’s people as he brought them out of Egypt. He filled a priestly role as he interceded for the people and offered sacrifices. But the title often ascribed to him is prophet. He brought the revelation of God to the people. But he was not just a prophet among others. God spoke directly with him in a way unlike any mere human being. “As Christ reveals the Father in virtue of a most direct and an uninterrupted vision of Him, and not in result of isolated communications, so Moses, though to a lower degree, stands nearer to God, and is more in all that he speaks and does the mouthpiece of God than any subsequent prophet.” (Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 120).
Neither Moses nor you can see the face of God. Given this close fellowship, Moses asked to see God’s glory. Perhaps he was overwhelmed with the mercy God showed that he wanted this closer and greater revelation of God’s character. But God warned him that he could not see God’s face and live. You cannot see God because he is Spirit. But more than that, he is utterly holy, as Isaiah discovered in his vision in Isaiah 6. Sinful mankind cannot endure the presence of a perfectly holy God. Don’t try to enter casually into his presence.
Your God has revealed himself. He is just. Though God is perfectly holy and utterly majestic, he did grant the request of Moses. He put him in a spot, possible a rock cave, protected him from the full display of his glory, but showed himself as fully as Moses was able to bear. Significantly, his self-revelation was verbal. He proclaimed his name, a name that reveals his character. That character, that name, includes his justice. He does not leave the guilty unpunished. He cannot tolerate wickedness. And, in language echoing the Ten Commandments, he brings punishment to the third and fourth generation. Don’t play with God! Don’t imagine that somehow you can flee away from his judgment. In fact, the only way to flee his judgment is to flee to him.
He is compassionate. As you listen to YHWH proclaim his name, his compassion and mercy is where the emphasis lies. He had just displayed it in forgiving his people, despite their covenant-breaking sin. As he shows himself to Moses, he repeats that covenant name. He is utterly faithful to his promises. He has mercy, not just to three or four generations, but to thousands of generations! He abounds in love and faithfulness. He reestablishes the covenant which had been broken by his people. He engraves new stone tablets with as the covenant documents. “Yahweh’s self-proclamation sets out in brilliant focus the the character of the covenant-making and -keeping God. As in covenant making, the suzerain would, as a rule, introduce himself. Yahweh does this in a beautiful, unforgettable manner as he begins to reconfirm his covenant with the people who had been involved in idolatrous worship.” (Gerard Van Groningen, From Creation to Consummation, p. 372). Don’t think of God’s justice and compassion as somehow competing. Don’t think of them as “parts” of God’s character. He is fully and totally just, and abundantly overflowing with mercy at the same time. How can that be?
In Christ see the God you cannot see. Jesus is God made flesh. Moses could not see God and live. But God has made himself visible. He did that in the incarnation—God becoming flesh. The Second Person of the Trinity, God from all eternity, became man. He took upon himself a truly human nature. John 1:14 tells you that the Word became flesh, and tented among us. 1 John takes up similar language. John, likely in his old age, marvels the he and the other disciples not only saw God in Jesus Christ, they touched him. They listened to him. He is the Word made flesh. By the way, as we remember the birth of the Protestant Reformation, the incarnation was something that continued to impress Martin Luther throughout his life. He never ceased to marvel that God had become man.
Justice and compassion meet in Christ. How can God be both just and compassionate? Not only did the Son of God become man, but the God-man died on the cross and rose again. He was the sin-bearer, in fact, he who knew no sin became sin for us. The full justice of God was satisfied in the death of his Son. Because he is the sinless one, who did his Father’s will, the Father raised him on the third day. And in raising him, he raised to new life all who trust in him. How costly is mercy and grace? Your forgiveness was paid for at Calvary.
Was it breathtakingly wonderful for Moses to see God’s glory and hear him proclaim his compassionate name? Indeed! But, if you trust in Christ, you have come to see, to know God in a far deeper, more wonderful and permanent way. You know God in Christ!