In the light of these observations certain perplexing passages in the book of Exodus take on meaning for us. One such passage is the promise which God made to Moses shortly after the arrival of the people of Israel in the wilderness, and which reads in part, “Behold, I send an angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of him and obey his voice. . . .” (Ex. 23:20-23). This announcement should not cause us to look forward to the appearance in subsequent chapters of a creature-angel to bring the people of Israel to Canaan. The angel here promised has already made his appearance. He is the angel—the angel of the Lord—whom the scriptures identify with. Jehovah and associate with the pillar of cloud and fire—the sign of his hidden presence. He was now for the first time promised and his presence in the camp announced, the reason being that, in reply to their reception of covenant, (Ex. 19:17, 18), the people of Israel had virtually just been constituted a holy nation to declare God’s praises and the army of God to war his warfare. Thus the need had been created of a captain, guide and shepherd to lead the people and to go before them as the terror of God to intimidate the enemy. This need was supplied by the angel already present but now for the first time introduced to the nation. Being sent by the Lord and being the equal of God even, the people were admonished to beware of Him and obey (His voice in that He would not pardon transgression.
Another such passage is Ex. 33:1-3, “And the Lord said unto Moses, Depart and go up hence, thou and the people which thou hast brought up out of the land of Egypt, unto the land which I sware unto Abraham. And I will send an angel before thee; and I will drive out the Canaanite. . . . for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiff-necked people: lest I consume thee in the way.” The Lord has a conflict with His people on account of their great sin. They have caused Aaron to make a golden calf. The people are pardoned; but their pardon is limited by the fact that Jehovah will not go in the midst of the people to Canaan, because in that case they would expose themselves to destruction through their sins, for they are a stiff-necked people; but that He will send an angel before them. Just what is the force of this threat? The passage, taken on its face meaning, asserts that, if hitherto Jehovah has gone up in their midst, He will henceforth withdraw Himself and cause His place to be taken by the angel. But this cannot be the thought conveyed. For God and the angel—so it appeared—are one and the pillar of cloud is the symbol of the presence of both. Hence, the notice cannot be taken as an announcement of a subsequent separation of the two.
Another explanation has it that he who says to Moses, “I will not go up in the midst of thee, “is Jehovah in the fullness of the revealed glory of the angel and that the angel to be sent is Jehovah in the obscuration of the glory of this same angel—the angel of the Lord. Thus on account of the stiff-neckedness of the people, the revelation of God will henceforth veil itself.
This explanation is as unlikely as the one first examined. What must be taken into account also here is that the angel of the Lord and Jehovah, though distinct, the one from the other, are yet one. The passage is to be paraphrased thus: “And the Lord, the triune Jehovah, said unto Moses through His angel, Depart, go up hence, thou and thy people. . . . and I will send an angel. In and through my angel I will go before thee and will drive out the Canaanite. . . . For neither I nor my angel will go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiff-necked people: lest I consume thee in the way.”
Thus, both Jehovah and the angel will go before them and neither will go up in their midst. The proof of the correctness of this interpretation is the subsequent doing of Moses. He takes the tabernacle and pitches it without the camp, afar off from the camp (vs. 7). Then we read, “and it came to pass, as Moses entered into the Tabernacle, the cloudy pillar descended, and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and talked with Moses” (vs. 9). “And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face. . . .” (vs. 11). So then, the cloud—the angel of the Lord—as well as Jehovah goes into seclusion. In the Old Dispensation Christ, too, was holding His people at a distance from Him and this for pedagogical reasons.
A right understanding of the relation which the angel of the Lord and the Triune covenant God sustain to each other greatly aids one in grasping the sense and meaning of the last half of chapter 33 of the book of Exodus and In discerning the thought-processes m this difficult passage. In verse 12 Moses complained to the Lord that “thou sayest unto me, Bring up this people: and thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me. . . .” So the text reads in our English Bible. But this should have been translated, “But thou hast not made me to know him or the one whom thou wilt send.” Moses’ complaint is not that God failed to tell him whom He would send. Jehovah has told. He will send His angel with Moses (vs. 2). Nor does Moses fail to comprehend that the angel is to be identified with Jehovah. That he has understanding of this is plain from his repetition of the complaint in vs. 13, “Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found grace in thy sight, shew me now thy way, that I may know thee. . . .’’—know thee Jehovah, Moses first says, “Make me to know him whom thou wilt send” i.e., the angel; and then, “that I may know thee “O my God.” It indicates that in his mind the angel and Jehovah stand out as being one, so that to know the angel was to know Jehovah. It also indicates that his request is not that the Lord tell him whom He will send but that He make him to know better than He has heretofore done, His, Jehovah’s own blessed self, i.e., that God give him a clearer and more perfect revelation of Himself in the face of the angel (who is Christ) and thus also a more perfect knowledge of the way in which He saves His people. Living, as he did, in the Old Testament Dispensation, his knowledge of this way was most imperfect. The Lord replies, “My presence shall go with thee and I will give thee rest” (vs. 14). It will appear that this answer is suitable if it be considered that what Moses desires is a clearer revelation of God in the totality of His attributes, a view of God perhaps such as cannot be realized except in the incarnate Son of God, thus a revelation of God’s glories such as the church at that time was not prepared to receive. The Lord’s reply is to be paraphrased thus, “Why dost thou desire that I show thee more of myself. My presence (face in the original) shall go with thee and I will give thee rest. Is this not enough for thee?”
Moses’ request was essentially identical with that made to the Lord by Jacob at Peniel when he said to the Lord, “Tell me, I pray thee, thy name” (Gen. 32:29). God’s answer to Jacob was, “Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name.” “And He blessed him there.” Essentially this, too, was God’s answer to Moses. Instead of yielding to his request, the Lord blessed him (and with him the people of Israel according to the election) in His declaring, “My face will go with thee and I will give thee rest.”
Let us lay hold on the thrust of this promise. Isaiah identifies the face of Jehovah with the angel (of the Lord) by the statement, “And the angel of His face saved them…. (Isa. 63:9). Thus the promise is to the effect that God’s Christ—the gracious countenance of the Lord—will go with Moses. The significance of this affirmation can be comprehended only in the way of distinguishing between God by Himself and God in His relation of the Father of Christ. By Himself, as standing outside this relation, He could only find it in Him to destroy this people. For His eyes are too holy to behold sin; and they in themselves are ill-deserving because of their guilt. It is only in the relation of Christ’s God and Father that He can keep mercy for thousands, forgive transgression, iniquity and sin, be for His people, give them the ascendency over the adversary, and give them rest, mark you, rest. The word includes all the blessings accruing from Christ’s atonement, thus life everlasting in opposition to eternal doom and desolation. It is only in the relation of Christ’s God that He can bring them into being a peculiar people and empower them to declare His praises. And it is precisely in their possessing Him in this relation that they are separated from the world.
It is in this relation of the God and Father of the angel—His gracious face, Christ Jesus—that He, the Triune Jehovah, through His angel, will go with them. The promise is thus of utmost significance. It spells life with God for Moses and his people. It means that eventually his desire to see God as he is will be gratified but that for the present he must be content to live by this promise.
That Moses had sufficient understanding of this word of God to him to sense its import, is evident from his reply, “If thy face go not, carry us not up hence. For wherein shall it be known that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight? It is not that thou goest with us,” Thou, thy face, thou in the relation of the angel’s Father? “So, solely through Thy going with us in this relation, shall we be separated, I and thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth” (vs. 15, 16).
“If thy face go not, carry us not up hence”. Life with Christ’s God in the wilderness is much to be preferred above life in Canaan without God; for apart from Him life is death, it matters not how filled that life may be with a material abundance, the good of this earth. And the sole evidence before men that Christ’s God is the God and Father of Christ’s people is that in and through Christ He go with them, vanquish their adversaries and make them to inherit the earth and on it fellowship with them. Therein precisely it is known that His people find grace in His sight. “Therefore, Lord, go thou with us, thy face Lord!” Such is Moses’ request. And the Lord responds, “I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken. . . .” Indeed, how could He show Himself unwilling to do this thing, seeing, “that thou hast found grace in my sight, and I know thee (and thy people) by name” (vs. 17), seeing that I love thee and in that love know thee by the name that bespeaks what thou art by the power of my grace—sons of Christ’s God.
Taking fresh courage at the hearing of these gracious words, Moses in his mind returns to his original request to which he now gives expression in this language, “I beseech thee show me thy glory, ‘reveal to me more of thy blessed self’ (vs. 18). That the glory of God, which Moses desires to see, is God’s face is plain from His reply, “Thou canst not see my face for there shall no man see me and live” (vs. 20). Here the Lord identifies His glory with His face. But what is to be understood by the Lord’s face? Is it the divine essence as such, the express i.e., the archetypal image of God, or the revelation of this image, the visible manifestation of the totality of God’s attributes in the human nature of Christ? The latter certainly. There is proof of this. Isaiah identifies God’s face with the angel of the Lord in this language, “And the angel of his face saved them” (Isa. 63:9). The angel, as was shown from the scriptures, is Christ. That the face of God is His glory visibly manifested is further evident from this that it was made to pass by Moses and that the reason he saw it not was that the hand of the Lord covered him while it passed by. (Ex. 33:21-23), so that what Moses saw was the “back parts” of God’s face, the glory of the triune Jehovah obscured. What passed by is the pillar of cloud, which at that moment was made to assume an aspect of such unearthly splendor that the sight of it was more than Moses could have endured without perishing.
Also God’s face then is Christ Jesus, the Son of God in His office of Mediator, visibly manifested on the earth first in human form, then in the pillar of cloud, and lastly in the foulness of time in the man Jesus. The face of God is now the glorified human nature of Christ which we see through a glass—the Scriptures—darkly. Thus in the Old Dispensation God’s face was the Cloud, the visible symbol of the Lord’s presence. It went before the people to lead them in the way; and its glory filled the sanctuary. Yet Moses was told that he could not see God’s face? What the Lord had reference to is either a splendorous revelation of the archetypal image of God’s attributes such as no man either in this life or in the life to come but God only can and does behold or a revelation of this image as only the saints in glory can and do behold. This latter is in all likelihood the case.
Let us now go back to vs. 19. “And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will shew mercy.”
This scripture makes mention of God’s goodness and name. The surrounding scriptures make mention of His glory and face. Both are the visible radiance of His goodness. And in the latter is comprehended the totality of all His virtues. And this is His name. Moses will see all God’s goodness not in its highest but only in its obscured radiance. This vision will be accompanied by the spoken word. The symbol—here the pillar of cloud—is mute without the word. The Lord will also proclaim His name before Moses. Preparation is now made for the fulfillment of this promise. There is a place by the Lord, a cleft of the rock. The Lord puts Moses in this cliff and covers him with His hand. Then “the Lord descended in the cloud”—mark you, the cloud—“and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord.” The one who proclaims is not Moses but the Lord. “And the Lord passed by (in the cloud) before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long- suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that by no means will clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:5-7).
What Moses receives is a dim vision of all the features of God’s glory, such as that which terrified Isaiah (Isa. 6) and such as was manifested in Christ. He sees, as was said, the “back parts” of God’s face—parts which correspond to the glass—God’s Scriptures—through which is now seen the glory of Christ darkly. The brilliance of the revelation of God’s glory in the full sense would destroy Moses. For he is yet a man with an eye that is both earthy and sinful. In his vision John saw one like unto the Son of man with hair white like wool, as white snow and with eyes as a flame of fire. It was the glorified Christ. And when John saw Him he fell as dead at His feet. Believers in this life cannot see God’s face unobscured. Hence they now see through a glass darkly and know in part and prophesy in part. Spiritually they remain children in this life and also speak as children of things heavenly in terms of an earthy language. And this was true especially of Moses, as he lived in an epoch in which the Spirit was not yet come. Therefore he, more so than we, spake as a child, understood as a child, and thought as a child.
Paul knew a man in Christ, whether in the body he could not tell, or whether out of the body, he could not tell, caught up to the third heaven, in paradise, where for a moment he stood face to face with the heavenly. And he heard unspeakable words—words not lawful for a man to utter and that no man can utter who still bears the image of the earthy and is occupied in his mind with earthy images of the heavenly.
When Christ will appear the glass through which we now see so darkly, will have served its usefulness and therefore will vanish away as did the ceremonies of the law at the first coming of Christ. For that which is perfect will then have come and that which is in part will be done away with. Then we shall know even as we are known (1 Cor. 13).
The proclamation of the Lord was as obscure as the glory of God that was made to pass by Moses was dim. The Lord is He who forgives iniquity and sin but who by no means will clear the guilty. How paradoxical this must have sounded in Moses’ ears. The fact and truth set forth by this word of God was not comprehended by Moses in all its implication. It is a word that can be understood only when contemplated in the light of the New Testament Scriptures.
It is plain that the goal of revelation during the Old Testament Dispensation was the incarnation of the
Son of God and the dwelling of the triune covenant God with men in and through God’s Son. The human form in which He at important points in the history of the patriarchs appeared to them; the pillar of cloud that went before the people of Israel to lead them in the way the tabernacle over which this cloud would hover during the rest-periods of Israel’s march through the wilderness—all prefigured the human nature that in the fullness of time the Son of God was to assume. This cloud had access to Him but only through the mediation of priests and in the world only through the mediation of the prophets. But this temple presence of Christ, of the triune God, ceased when the people of Israel had filled up their measure of iniquity; and Jerusalem abandoned to destruction. In the time succeeding the exile, Christ and through Him God was present in the word but the ark and the cloud were wanting in the temple. Thus forsaken of God, the true Israel waited and longed for a new manifestation of the face of Jehovah. At last the dawn broke. Jehovah once more visited His people but now in the mystery of “God manifested in the flesh.” But His own received Him not. They nailed the manifested in the flesh to the cross. But having died, he rose again unto the justification of His people and ascended into heaven. Then He returned in the Spirit. But the church longs to see His face. This longing will be satisfied in the glorious time of the church upon the new earth, when the tabernacle of God will be with men.