The Wonder of God's Mercy
Passage: Exodus 33-34:9
I think we would all agree that one of the biggest questions people in our world often ask is why is there so much pain and suffering in the world. We struggle as a society with this question when there is a major tragedy like the shooting in San Bernardino a couple of months ago. But we also struggle as families or communities when a small child dies of cancer or when a good citizen is senselessly murdered. People really struggle with how these kinds of things can possibly be fair. Even when we are dealing with the minor frustrations of life, we will often declare, “I don’t deserve this.” In these moments, people’s anger is often directed toward God. They wonder why didn’t God stop this from happening or why doesn’t he give me what I want. We assume that he should feel obligated to do better by us. Hardship creates some difficult challenges for our faith, and this morning I want to consider a story that is very helpful in trying to understand the ways of God as it relates to what we deserve and how he shows mercy. The events of Exodus 33 take place only three months after God miraculously delivered a humble group of slaves from the most powerful nation in the world through ten incredible plagues and then the incredible story of the crossing of the Red Sea. In Exodus 19, Israel arrived at Mt. Sinai, and notice the promise God made (vv. 5–6). God promised that if Israel would obey his commands, they would be his special people. The people responded vigorously that they would obey God’s commands. The idea that these slaves would be God’s chosen people was a phenomenal gift of his grace. And so Moses and the entire nation stood at the base of Mt. Sinai and listened as God declared the Ten Commandments in the hearing of the entire nation. Imagine how incredible that must have been. It was an intense experience of God’s holiness, notice how the people responded (Exodus 20:18–19). God’s holiness was too much for them to bear and so they asked that God would instead speak indirectly to them through Moses. As a result, Moses went to the top of the mountain, and God continued to reveal to him the Law. In chapter 24, Moses came down from the mountain and rehearsed all that God had said. Verse 3 states that again the people heartily responded that they would obey God’s Word. Again, the thought that this great God would have a special relationship with them was amazing. Moses and the people then offered a series of sacrifices committing themselves to obey the covenant. God then told Moses to climb the mountain again, and God said that he would write down the Law on stone tablets. And so Moses went up the mountain and stayed for forty days. At this time, God not only wrote down the Ten Commandments and the other Laws he had given; he also added a series of laws regarding how Israel would worship him in the tabernacle. This section of Scripture may seem boring and monotonous to us, but it was crucial to Israel because the tabernacle worship would provide a way for Israel to be near to their God and have their sins forgiven. But Exodus 32 tells us that while Moses was on the mountain getting the instructions for how to have God present with the people, they grew restless and devised their own way to be near to God. They built a golden calf, which they claimed to represent the presence of God, and they worshipped this calf in a drunken orgy. God had just offered these former slaves a covenant that he had offered to no one else in the world. They had seen his glory and heard his voice. They had heartily agreed to the provisions of the covenant and had offered sacrifices to seal themselves to it. And only a few weeks later, they violated the covenant in an egregious way. The people’s sin was such a violation of God’s holiness that they deserved to be destroyed (32:10). However, Moses prayed, and God agreed to withhold his wrath. Moses then went down the mountain and interrupted the party. He shattered the stone tablets, not primarily out of anger but to signify that Israel had broken their promise to obey the covenant. It is in this context that we come to chapter 33, and it is hard to over exaggerate how dire the situation was. Israel deserved the full weight of God’s wrath, and we are left to wonder what will happen. What follows is an amazing picture of our God and of our standing before him.
The Dilemma (33:1–11):
The first eleven verses drive home the severity of the situation. The central question is this, “Will God be merciful to Israel and maintain his gracious presence among them?” Unfortunately for Israel, their prospects are dire based on two ominous signs.
God declares that he will remove his special presence (vv. 1–6).
God had said he would not kill the people, however, in v. 1, he tells Moses to take the people and to leave Mt. Sinai. Since Sinai was a holy place where God dwelt, he was telling Moses to remove these rebellious people from his holy presence. God graciously promises that he would still give them the land of Canaan, but he adds a devastating blow. He will send an angel before the people to accomplish his will; however, God says in v. 3 that he will not go with them himself. What does he mean by that? I think we all know that God is everywhere present, and so in one sense he is with all of us. But God had just made provision in the covenant for something far greater. He had promised to set his tabernacle where his glory would dwell in the midst of the people. He had promised to be near to them in special way, but now he said that he would not be among them. Since they had broken the covenant, the tabernacle would not be built.
God describes Israel as “stiff-necked” or stubborn, and he adds that he might destroy them as they go. This phrase is a difficult one for us to stomach. It sounds as if God is reckless and filled with uncontrolled rage, but we know from other passages that never loses his temper or acts irrationally. What is taking place here is that God is describing himself in terms finite humans can understand. He wanted the people to appreciate the wrath they deserved, and it is crucial that we understand this wrath was justified. God is absolute holiness and purity, and Israel had rebelled against his gracious covenant. God was not obligated to show mercy.
Verses 4–6 proceed to note that Israel mourned this news. They recognized their sin, and they recognized that losing God’s presence among them would be a terrible loss. This is because God’s presence among them was the only thing that made them unique. Without God, they were nothing but a group of disorganized former slaves without a home. They needed God’s presence.
Verses 7–11 continue to raise the stakes by describing a significant symbol of the fact that God would no longer be among the Israelites.
Moses set up a tent outside the camp (33:7–11).
In response to God’s words, Moses set up a tent outside the camp. In fact where he could talk with God. But this tent was very different from the tabernacle God had promised to build. It was “far from the camp”; whereas, the tabernacle was to be in the middle of the camp because God had promised to be among the Israelites. However, because the covenant was broken, Moses now had to meet with God outside the camp. As well, God’s presence at this tent would come and go; whereas, he had promised to be permanently present at the tabernacle. And many Levites would be involved in the tabernacle worship, but only Moses could enter this tent, and Joshua guarded its door very carefully. Verses 8 notes that whenever Moses entered the tent, the people would stand and watch. This was certainly a bitter experience. They could see the cloud come down, and yet it was distant from them.
However, Moses would enter the tent and speak with God face to face. Since God is spirit and doesn’t have a literal face, this is an attempt by the author to help us appreciate the significant closeness that Moses enjoyed with God.
Before we go on to hear of Moses’ plea, we need to recognize where the story stands. Israel has sinned, and they deserve the worst of God’s judgment. And though God has said he will not kill them, he has said he will remove his presence, and that promise has been demonstrated in the fact that rather than building a tabernacle in the middle of the camp, Moses can only meet with God outside the camp. And so the story has led us to a question: “Will God be merciful to Israel and maintain his gracious presence among them?” And if your response to this question is, “Of course God should be merciful,” then you don’t really appreciate the holiness of God and the seriousness of sin. Israel’s sin was a serious act of rebellion, and it deserved wrath.
What follows is a fascinating conversation between Moses and God.
Moses’ Request for Mercy (vv. 12–23)
Moses pleads for God’s presence (vv. 12–17).
God had already shown more mercy than Israel deserved. He had promised to send an angel and to give Israel the land. From a human standpoint, he was giving them everything he had promised, but Moses knew that they needed more. In vv. 12–13, Moses pleads to God based on the favor that God had shown to Moses, and in a respectful way, he complains that there is no way he could lead this people if God were not with him and with them. Moses saw that he and the nation needed the presence of God among them. Graciously, God replies in v. 14 to say that his presence will go with Moses. It’s important to note that the “you” in v. 14 is singular. God promised his presence with Moses but not with the nation. Essentially, Moses could keep the tent outside the camp, but there would be no tabernacle in the midst of the camp.
But Moses wasn’t satisfied. In vv. 15–16, he makes a powerful plea. Moses recognized that without God, they were nothing, and so he asks what the point is for them to go anywhere if God does not go with them. He says in v. 16 that the only thing that distinguished Israel from the nations was God’s presence among them. While it’s not the main point of the narrative, I think it’s important that we appreciate the significance for us of what Moses says. We all need God because without the favor of God on our lives, we are nothing. Our church is nothing, and you are nothing. We can look really good and have slick programs, but if we lack the presence and power of God among us, we are nothing. We better never forget that as a church or as individuals. Do you sense your desperate need of God’s grace and presence? A very simple way you can evaluate that question is to examine your prayer life. Does your prayer life reflect the urgent dependence on God that Moses felt? Sadly, a lot of the time we are content as long as God gives us the land, so to speak. As long as God gives us the things we want, we don’t sense any urgent need for more. Like Moses, we need to recognize that God is our greatest need, and we need to urgently seek him and desire his gracious presence.
God then replies to Moses in v. 17 by saying that he would show mercy to Israel by going up with the whole nation. God chose to be merciful. He declared that he would renew the covenant. Israel could build the tabernacle, and he would be with them even though Israel deserved nothing but wrath. God chose to be merciful.
But then the story takes a fascinating turn…
Moses pleads for confirmation (vv. 18–23).
In v. 18, Moses makes one more request. He asks God to show him his glory. This might seem strange since Moses had already seen a lot. And we might wonder why he is making this request if God had already promised his presence. It seems that the motive behind Moses’ request was that he wanted confirmation that God would do what he had said. By permitting Moses to see his glory, God could confirm his commitment to go with Israel.
In vv. 19–23, God answers and provides us with a unique window into his nature. He tells Moses that he will cause all of his goodness to pass in front of Moses and that he will proclaim his name, Yahweh or Jehovah, as he passes by. We will come back to the end of v. 19 in a moment. He then proceeds to describe how this vision will take place. In v. 20, he tells Moses that no one can see God’s full glory and survive such a sight. Moses had and would see a portion of God’s glory, but its full expression is too much for sinful man. In fact, we read in Isaiah 6 that even the angels who surround his throne cover their feet and their eyes. What a sobering statement about the holiness of God and the unworthiness of man. We like to think that we are just a step below him, but he is infinitely greater and purer than we are. God’s fully glory is just too great for sinners. And so God states that he will graciously protect Moses from his glory. When Moses came up the mountain, he was to stand on a rock while God passed by. And as God passed by, he would place Moses in a hollow spot of the rock and cover Moses with his hand to shield him from the full glory of God. Then as God’s glory passed by, God would remove his hand and allow Moses to see his back. Moses would be allowed a glimpse of God’s glory, but he would be protected from its fullness. We have to remember that God is spirit and doesn’t have a body, so this is not a literal description of what would happen. God is beyond our understanding, so he is using a human picture to help our finite minds understand his nature. But the picture is incredible, and it is intended to describe what actually happened. We ought to read it in awe of the holiness, majesty, and compassion of God.
But the heart of the story is the mercy God displayed to Moses by allowing him this sight but especially by his promise to remain with Israel. Notice again the words of v. 19. God says that this display will result from something good in Moses or in Israel but from his own choice as the sovereign Lord to extend grace and mercy. This is because neither Moses nor Israel deserved the mercy of God. God’ mercy is just that—undeserved favor. He is under no obligation to be gracious and merciful to anyone you and I included. And this is a reality that we need to stop and ponder because we like to think that we deserve something from God. As I mentioned in my introduction, we assume that God ought to forgive sin, bless our lives, and remove pain. But when we make these assumptions, it betrays the fact that we don’t understand who we are and who God is. It’s true that you and I are obligated to show mercy but that’s because God showed mercy to us. Remember the parable of the unforgiving servant. The master rebuked him because he failed to show mercy by forgiving a debt after he had been forgiven an infinite debt. But folks, God’s not like us. God has never received mercy because he doesn’t need any. And as a result, God is not obligated to be merciful to you or anyone else. We must guard against assuming that God is somehow obligated to be merciful. And we need to replace our sense of entitlement with awe that God would show me any kindness at all. God’s mercy is an awesome gift.
The story concludes by describing how God acted in mercy toward Moses and the nation.
God’s Mercy (34:1–9):
God demonstrates his mercy in two ways.
God restored his covenant with Israel.
According to v. 1, God told Moses to cut out two new tablets and to ascend the mountain where God would rerecord the covenant. God would not abandon Israel. He would keep his covenant with them even after they had broken it. Verse 4 notes that Moses did as God said, and the next section describes how God restored the covenant and committed himself to be the God of Israel. God chose to be merciful to the nation. He wouldn’t just send an angel with them, and Moses would not have to go outside the camp to meet with God. God would be with them, and he would place his tabernacle in the middle of the camp.
God confirmed the covenant by appearing to Moses.
Verses 5ff describe how God made an awesome display of his glory to Moses. Try to imagine being in Moses’ position. Verse 5 states that God stood in Moses’ presence. Moses’ was in the presence of unimaginable glory. Verses 6–7 go on to note that God spoke as he passed in front of Moses. Notice the incredible description God gives of himself. In light of the events that had just occurred, God proclaims his mercy. But to help us appreciate his mercy, God sets it in the context of his justice. The guilty deserve punishment, and God exacts that punishment according to his justice. By noting this fact, we see more clearly the beauty of his mercy. All of us deserve wrath. There is nothing that obligates God to be merciful to us, and yet he is. He is everything that he says of himself in these verses.
I opened by noting that the dilemma of these chapters is whether or not God would choose to be merciful to Israel and maintain his presence among them. We saw that God granted Israel mercy in the truest sense. He promised to maintain his presence among them, and he proved that fact through revealing a portion of his glory to Moses. According to his sovereign purpose, God chose to be merciful to Israel, not because of anything in them, but solely because of what he is. He is a merciful God. So what does this passage mean for us? It tells us a lot about the God we serve. It tells us that we serve a God who mercifully gives himself to mankind according to his sovereign purpose. Those of us who are saved need to consider that I am a sinner and God doesn’t owe me anything but wrath. But praise the Lord that he is merciful. He drew me to himself in salvation, and he gave me life. I am on my way to heaven, not because I figured out but because God chose to be merciful. In light of that, how dare I ever be bitter about what God has and has not given me. I am a debtor to mercy. Finally, I want to speak to any who are here who think that they will one day stand before God based on anything in themselves. If you think that you can have a relationship with God or enter heaven someday in a way that is dependent at all on your good works, then consider what this passage is saying to you. It’s saying that there is nothing in you that can earn the favor of God or obligate him to be merciful to you. God’s mercy is a gift in the most absolute sense. And 1500 years after Moses, God provided the ultimate means for him to show mercy. Christ died to bear the punishment for your sin, and if you will cry out to God today for mercy, you can have a relationship with God through Christ.