Rev. Woudenberg is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God.

Hebrews 7:19

Israel had arrived at Sinai with the firm conviction that they were by reason of their birthright a people superior to all others and worthy of the special favor and approval of God, and, if given the opportunity, they would be able to demonstrate this excellency to everyone. It was fully within their ability, they believed, to live as the distinctive people of God. And so it was that, when it was announced to them upon their arrival at Sinai that God was about to give them a definitive statement of how life as God’s own people should be lived, they quickly responded, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8). And again, even after they had quivered in fear and drew back from hearing of that law as spoken by the very voice of Jehovah, they soon regained their composure and exclaimed again as Moses prepared to ascend the mountain to speak for them to God, “All the words which the Lord hath said will we do” (Ex. 24:3). But once Moses, who was the mediator between them and Jehovah, was gone from their sight, their lust began to build, until within less than forty days they had broken every one of the commandments, which they had so vehemently promised to keep. And from there on the battle between God’s holy law and their sinful flesh was met. 

No one was more shocked and dismayed at what had happened than was Moses. Although warned by God of what had happened, once he had descended from the mountain with the engraved tablets of God’s law in his hand, and he was able to look down on the orgy of heathen debauchery that was taking place in the valley below, Moses in frustrated rage dashed the tablets of law to pieces on the rocks below. It was almost as if he acknowledged that even that law could do nothing to change a people as sinful and unfaithful as were these. What could the law possibly accomplish with a people who, within a few short weeks of having heard the thundering of that law from the very voice of God, had transgressed every one of its precepts they had so ardently promised to keep? In fury he descended from the mountain and gathered about him those who were willing to turn from their way, to slay those who continued in their sinful way, to grind their golden idol to powder and cast it into their drinking water, and to reprimand them all as severely as he could.

Still, Moses loved Israel; and after all was over he promised to ascend the mountain again to plead their cause. Certainly there are few more sadly beautiful scenes in all Scripture than that of Moses’ heavy-hearted journey back up into the mountain after ruefully telling his people, “Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the Lord; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin” (Ex. 32:30). He could hope, but deep within his heart he knew it could never be. And still, what could he do but try?

With a pained heart and hesitantly, he came to Jehovah and laid out his plea, “Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin”—and with that he stopped. In his heart he knew it couldn’t be. What Israel had done was not something that could be ignored. Jehovah was a God of justice, and sin such as Israel had committed couldn’t simply be passed over, forgiven, and left at that. Sin must be paid for; the whole history of the sacrificial altar, which had been there from the beginning, testified to that. And what sin could compare to what the children of Israel had just done; what could that sin possibly deserve but eternal dismissal from the presence of God? It was not something that could be passed over, unpunished, and forgotten. It had to be made right.

And so, falteringly, Moses started once again with the only other thing he could conceive of. Falteringly he went on,—”and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written” (Ex. 32:32). Might it be that Jehovah would take his life as a sacrifice, a substitute of the people? Clearly he was touching on that very principle that Jesus later would express so clearly, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Moses, through many years of his own personal loneliness and suffering in the wilderness, was made ready to present himself in just that way. He was in very reality a type of the coming Redeemer, who in the fullness of time would do exactly what Moses was now offering to do. In a very real way this was the peak of his prophetic, priestly office. 

But Moses was only a type; and what he typically was offering, and typifying, was not something that he was himself able to bring to reality. He might in his mind think himself ready to stand before the wrath of God against Israel’s sin and bear it for them; but he was only a man who had guilt of his own that he would never be able to meet. There simply was no way, therefore, in which he could bear the sin of anyone else. It was more than any mere human could do. And so the voice of Jehovah almost tersely responded, “Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book” (Ex. 32:33). Until a true mediator could be found, each must bear the burden of his own sin. Moses was not sufficient for that. 

But that wasn’t all. Enigmatically Jehovah added, “Therefore now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee: behold, mine Angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them” (Ex. 32:34). For Moses, this presented an incomprehensible dilemma. After this sin that Israel had committed, what hope could there be for them, if God would blot out of his book everyone who had sinned? And, if that was so, what reason should there be for bringing them on to the promised land? 

For some time we find Moses struggling with this, back and forth, as though in contention with Jehovah, yet always striving to understand how Jehovah’s justice and His promised mercy for Israel could both continue to be—until finally he blurted out, “I beseech thee, show me thy glory” (Ex. 33:18). It wasn’t simply a request for a vision, even though in typical form that would be given. Moses’ essential request went far beyond this. His request was for an explanation, an understanding, of the way of God with them. How could Jehovah be both merciful and just with a people as sinful as Israel was? It was a bold and presumptuous request. And to it the response of Jehovah was even more remarkable, “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 show mercy” (Ex. 33:19). God’s answer to Moses was simply—as the apostle Paul brought out with this very text in Romans 9:18—election. It was the eternal predestination of God alone that would bring from a people as sinful as Israel was, salvation for His people.

But there was also the realization that this was beyond the comprehension of Moses, as it would always be for any mere human. Jehovah went on to explain this too, when He added, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. … Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt standupon a rock: And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: and I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.” It was God’s way of saying, in dramatic typical fashion, that neither Moses nor any other mere human could ever expect to understand all of the ways of God; for they are always far beyond what the human mind can possibly endure (see Is. 55:8, 9). But God would reveal to him, and to all that follow him, as much as they can stand to see, all that they are able to comprehend. And with that they must be satisfied. They might not be able to grasp the reason for it—they cannot see Jehovah’s face and live—but He will reveal His mercy and compassion to whom He will. None of us can ever understand it, how God can be merciful to those who have sinned so greatly, but God will reveal His mercy to some, even if not to all.

It was this that the law would bring out. Already it had become evident that just hearing and knowing the works of Jehovah’s law had not, and would not, make Israel a better people. Rather, in some perverse way their reaction would always bring out the opposite. They might promise to keep it, but their natures would always rise up against it, and bring out how sinful they truly were. It would continue to be that way, over and over again. The Ten Commandments that God had spoken from the mountain—and engraved, as though to emphasize their permanence, on tablets of stone—were only the beginning. In the months that followed, God would enlarge upon these ten areas of life, and lay out detailed instructions exactly how Israel would have to live if they were truly to demonstrate themselves to be worthy to be the people of God. He would tell them how they should worship, how they should be governed, and how they should relate to one another. And the more He would tell them, the more it would come out that they were of themselves completely incapable to be what they thought themselves able and worthy of being. Israel would fall into sin and rebellion over and over again. 

The remainder of the wilderness journey to Canaan was indeed a striking confirmation of exactly how true this was. Little was noble about it. God would come and supply Israel its needs, and they would turn against Him in murmuring and rebellion, rejecting the way in which they were led. It was not just a journey from Sinai on to Canaan, because, when they came to the very gate of the promised land, they refused to enter; and so Jehovah turned them back to wander for yet forty more years in the wilderness, until every adult who had come up out of Egypt—save for Joshua and Caleb—had passed away in death. And through it all God dealt with them according to the law. When Israel, even outwardly, did what was right and showed reliance on Him, Jehovah would provide for their needs; and when they strayed He would punish them. That is what the law was; it was an arrangement of conditional response to what the people deserved; and in the end they deserved nothing at all. Through it all God made it perfectly evident that just outward observance was not enough. Unless they did what they did out of the love of their hearts, and unless they reflected that love in dealing with their neighbors, and did this with their whole heart and soul and mind, it could never meet the criterion of righteousness that His law required. On every count, the law brought out the fact that Israel had fallen short.

Nor was the following history of Israel any different. The story of the Old Testament is a strange history. It is certainly the most accurate and responsible history recorded by any of such great age. In fact, it very evidently is more accurate that any recorded anywhere. It is the history of one people, one line of spiritual thought and life, following from the beginning of time the line, life, and experience of those to whom the Creator God was to come and show His compassion and His mercy. But it comes always under the government of the law. God dealt conditionally with these people, giving them what they deserved. When they walked uprightly, even in only an external way, He would be with them and show to them blessing; and when they sinned and went astray, He would deal with them accordingly. 

In the end it always came out that way. The history of the Old Testament is that of a people who were always falling into sin, rebelling against the goodness of their God, and being punished for it. It could only be said of them, as Hebrews 7:19 put it, “the law made nothing perfect.” Or, as Paul stated it even more emphatically, “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). All that the law brought out was that there was no one who could fulfill the conditions of righteousness; or, as Paul had stated just shortly before, and as it had been pointed out already in the Old Testament scriptures long before, “They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:12).

And yet, what God had said to Moses was true: He would have mercy and compassion on whom He willed. And He did. All through that same history, there came to those whom the Lord chose, a revelation of grace. They were called out from under the condemnation of the law and brought into fellowship with God. It is that that the covenant of grace is all about.