Exodus 33:1-17

When God Is Not With Us

 

33 1Then the Lord said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.” When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. For the Lord had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.’” So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb. Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses. 10 Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to their tent. 11 The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent. 12 Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” 14 The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” 17 And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”

 

          Let me begin by giving a brief summary so far of what we have been reading and learning in the Book of Exodus.

          The Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt where the Egyptians had been very harsh towards them. God liberated his people and set them free from this bondage to slavery. He brought them out and promised them that they would be his people and he would be their God.

          He brought them through the wilderness to the Mountain of God, Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai, where he was going to show them His character and tell them how they could live a life that was acceptable to Him. First, He gave then ten Commandments that were the summary of how He wanted them to live in relation to Him and in relation to each other. These ten commandments were the beginning of His law. And this was all very good, and the people agreed to follow Him.

          But then we saw last Sunday at the very same time that God was giving them the initial instructions and teachings for how He was going to be with them and how they should respond to Him, they were at the foot of the mountain, building a Golden Calf and turning away from the One true God and worshipping idols and rejecting Him. They were forgetting all that God had done for them.

          And so, we were not too surprised when God said to Moses in Exodus 32:10, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” God’s anger was so great against them because of their idolatry that He threatened to destroy them all. But then as we also read in that same chapter God “relented” and he did not destroy them as they deserved.

 

          And now we come to this morning’s passage. It begins with God saying to Moses in verse 1, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.”    This is a little confusing, because as we have just learned God relented from destroying them so you would think that they would just return to doing what they were doing. They would remain at the mountain and continue to receive His commands via Moses. But here He just seems to say that they should just keep going towards the promised land. So maybe this was a good thing since they were getting bored and restless anyway.  

          And then in verse 2, God says, “I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites”. Again, this all sounds very encouraging to the people. There is still more encouragement as we move into verse three, “Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey”.

           But then suddenly there comes a great shock when God says, “But I will not go with you, So that is it, God is basically saying, I will keep my promise to take you to the promised land, but I’m not going to give you any more of my law or my presence. The great surprise is not that God is sending them on their way, but that he is also abandoning them. They had rejected God and now he is leaving them.

          Of course, they could never really escape God’s presence, because like everyone else in the world they would still enjoy God’s blessings of rain and sunshine. But the sad thing is that their relationship with God that is so central to their identity as a people is ending. No more will they be considered God’s people. So, even when they do enter the promised land, if they are without God, then it might not be so promising? The land was only a blessing because it came with God. It was only good as long as God was with them and they could have that special relationship. Otherwise, they would just be another wandering tribe in a strange land.

 

          So, why does God say, “go, but I’m not going with you”? Well as we read on in verse 3, we find the reason. God says, because you are a stiff-necked people, and I might destroy you on the way.” It might seem to us that God is being unforgiving here. When actually he is concerned for them, because he says He might destroy them.

 

          The issue here is that they are stiff-necked, which is another way to say they are stubborn. They will not repent and turn back to him and instead, they continue to live their lives the way that they want to. They have not listened to any of God’s rebukes and corrections so far. That is why God is concerned. He is a Holy God and when such sinful people come into His presence that makes Him angry and punishment comes as a result.

 

          God is so opposed to evil, therefore for those who choose to reject Him, He will inevitably bring destruction upon them. The picture we have here is not of a God who is vindictive or spiteful but of a God who is gracious. He tells them to just go their own way because he cares about them. He doesn’t want them to be destroyed. And therefore, he is actually saying that they are better off without Him. They are better off not being in His presence.

 

          The longer they stay at Mount Sinai and hear about God’s ways and what His standards are, the more guilty they will be of their sin. And so, since God knows they will continue to sin anyway then they are actually better off not knowing any more. The disturbing teaching here for us is that sinful people are better off outside of God’s presence.

 

          This also teaches us something about God. It tells us that God is both Gracious and Holy, He is both loving and just. He is the one who cares about people so much, but then at the same time can be the one who destroys them in His holiness. These two sides of God are presented together for us here in this chapter.

 

          Now, this may sound surprising to many people, but the concept is not really that different from what we can experience in our everyday lives. For example, let’s say you are operating a machine that crushes sugar cane into a delicious drink. That is a good thing. You are able to provide people with some enjoyment while at the same time making some income.

          But there is a warning sign attached near the rotating parts of the press that says keep hands clear while the machine is in operation. Why? Because accidents happen. A second’s distraction or a moment of inattention and the operator could be maimed or even killed. You see that same piece of machinery could either give enjoyment or death to the operator depending on his/her ability to follow warning labels. They may be better off doing something else for a living.

 

          So here in our passage, God is saying that sinful people are actually better off outside His presence. Now imagine when these same people come to the end of their lives and find themselves in God’s presence at the final judgement. What do you think will happen to them? Some people say, and teach, that God will just choose to ignore the way that people have rejected Him and that He will welcome them into heaven no matter what they had done.

 

          However, when reading this passage, we don’t get the impression that this is what God is like. He won’t just overlook or ignore their sin. According to this passage, it is more likely that God will throw people out of His presence, away from any relationship with him. Again, as I have mentioned before people who have turned away from God and have chosen to life their lives without recognizing God as Lord over them. How can they expect God to welcome them into heaven as if nothing had happened? We see God doing the opposite, He removes sinful people from His presence.

 

          Now, this picture of being removed from God’s presence is the way that hell is often described. It is said to be a place where God is absent. So, think of all the good things in this world, feelings, thoughts, actions, etc. And now imagine they were removed from your experience. Then you are left with a terribly frightful place apart from God’s presence. Because all good things find their origin with God and if he wasn’t present then neither would any good things.

 

          Actually, the Bible gives a description of hell that is worse than that. What can be worse than thrown out of God’s presence you may ask? Well, what about being thrown into God’s presence while still being a sinful person. Remember the reason for casting them out of His presence here is because of His kindness so that they may not be destroyed.

 

          However, sinful people cannot escape their eternal judgement. In the future, God’s presence and His Glory will be everywhere which means there will be no hiding, no escaping. Unfortunately, their experience of being with God eternally will not be a pleasant one where they will experience His glorious presence, His love and acceptance. No, unrepentant sinners will experience His anger and punishment eternally. The punishment which God graciously allowed them to escape at Mount Sinai, cannot be avoided forever.

 

          Hell is a real place we would rather not think about. We try to fill our minds with things to distract us from this reality. But God is unbending in his opposition to evil so that, when sinful people come into His presence, they will necessarily face His punishment and destruction. And we shouldn’t imagine that God will just somehow ignore their rebellion against Him. There is a day coming when everyone will enter into the presence of God. For some, this will be a terrible experience.

 

          In verses 4-6 we see how the people react to what God declares through Moses. “When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn, and no one put on any ornaments. For the Lord had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.’” So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb”.

We see here that the Israelites are now willing to obey. We get the picture here of them being confronted with the judgement their sin deserves. And now they are trying to find a way out of their predicament. They try to get rid of all the things that they had placed their security in before. Well, now it seems like it is a bit too late.

          So, Moses enters into a time of, for lack of a better word, negotiations with the Lord in verses 12 -17. Moses opens this time of intercession beginning from verse 12, “Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” So here Moses is reminding God that He had chosen to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land. He is pointing out that He, Moses, cannot do this unless God is there to guide Him. Moses is also aware that if he continues to lead these people into the promised Land then He too will be away from God’s presence and not able to enjoy God’s favour.

 

          God agrees with all that as we read His reply beginning in verse 14, The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” We should note here that God only agrees to go with Moses and still not with the Israelites. God has repeated what he said earlier that it is still better for the people if he does not go with them.

 

          So, then Moses adds the people to his appeal and says in verses 15 and 16, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” Moses points out that the Israelites are God’s chosen people and unless God goes with them there will not be anything special about them to show that they belong to God. So, Moses says that God should go with them so that His people are recognized as being different.

 

          Now God agrees with Moses again as He says in verse 17, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” But notice that in the second half of this verse we are told that God is not doing this because of anything good or worthy on the part of the people. He is doing this only because of Moses. He says I will do the thing that you have asked because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.

 

          This is another instance where we might be inclined to think that Moses has changed God’s mind. And therefore, we too, in the same way, we think we can use the power of our intellect and persuasion to get God to change His mind about a course of action that he has decided on so that the outcome is more favourable to us. But that is not what is happening here. This is what God had intended all along.

 

          But let’s suppose God had just gone along with the people and not said anything about the Golden calf incident and just ignored it. Well, that would have left the people thinking that it doesn’t matter if they rebel against God. Because in the end, God’s going to just overlook all the past sins.

 

          God allowed this process to happen because He wanted people to understand two things. First, He wanted them to understand that sinful people are better off outside God’s presence because His anger against sin would destroy them immediately. Second, they need to understand that if God was to go with them, despite their sinfulness, that would only be possible if a righteous person, such as Moses, pleads their case.

 

          To be in God’s presence and not be destroyed, sinful people need a righteous mediator. If we again fast forward to the end of time where we learned that people who turn away from God will be eternally removed from a relationship with Him. But now it seems that there is one possibility that our sins may not be counted against us and thereby allowing us to enter into God’s presence in heaven after all.

         

          If there is someone whom God favours, who will plead our case to Him, then it may be possible to enter God’s presence despite our sinfulness. Not because of anything we have done but simply because of that one person. It might be possible to enjoy an eternal relationship with God without being destroyed.

 

          Well, you have probably already guessed by now that this passage is pointing forward toward Jesus. Jesus enjoys complete favour with God and will plead the case for His people that they may enter heaven and not suffer His punishment. Now of course this passage in Exodus is just a shadow of what Jesus will bring.

         

          Because if we look closely here in our passage, we see that God still dwells with the people again even though their sin has not been paid for completely. He still accepts the mediation of Moses even though Moses is not a perfect person. This makes the need for Jesus to be a complete and acceptable payment all the more necessary. We need a perfect righteous mediator.

 

          If people want eternity to be a positive experience for them if they want to be in a wonderful relationship with God for all time and escape His anger and His punishment, then we need Jesus. There is no other way to have God’s presence with us without being destroyed.

Often when we read passages of the Bible, we find we should do something as a result. For example, last week we read about the Golden calf incident and learned that one of our responses could be to recognize our own sinfulness and resolve in the future to live differently, to be more obedient to God and worship Him alone.

 

          Today’s Passage is a little different, it doesn’t tell us to do something instead it tells us to acknowledge something. Now it just so happens that the thing we are called to acknowledge here is uncomfortable for us. Because it disagrees with what most people tend to think. We need to recognize the truth that God’s punishment of sinful people is real, and we will not be able to avoid it. The threat of hell is a real one and it will affect our friends our neighbours, our colleagues, even our families. This passage asks us to acknowledge that in our thinking and not to deny it.

 

Let’s Pray: Lord, each time we come to Your Word we are reminded of just how little we do know about you and this is reflected in our daily lives. Father thank you for saving us from an eternity in Hell without You. Thank You for providing the way, through Your Son, Jesus, to you and into Your very presence by Your Son. Lord, we acknowledge that no other name has been given to us whereby we can be saved except the name of Jesus. Holy Spirit empowers us to live the type of life that pleases the Father as You make the Son known to those around us through the Word that is in us.