Generally, we tend to think of the backside of anything as its worst side. A person from the back woods is viewed as ignorant and poorly educated. The person who brings up the rear is the loser. The devil, we are told, gets the hindmost. And yet Moses is said to see the “backside” of God in our text. Does this suggest that Moses got less than he asked for, or less than he had hoped for? Hardly! The text makes it clear that the backside of God is His good side, for it is the “goodness of God” which will pass before Moses.
Why is the “backside” of God His “good” side? What does this “side” of God have to do with His glory, which is what Moses asked to see? Why could Moses see this side of God, but not the other? The events of our passage are the last to occur before the renewal of the Mosaic Covenant, and thus are closely related to the revival of Israel’s hopes. These verses will tell us much about Moses, and even more about the God whom he sought to know more fully.
The structure of this text provides us with significant clues to its interpretation. Essentially there are two main divisions: first, the request of Moses to see God’s glory, followed by God’s response; secondly, the revelation of God’s glory, followed by Moses’ response. Outlined, the text looks like this:
A. Moses’ Petition and God’s Provision, 33:18-23.
1. Moses’ petition, v. 18.
2. God’s promise, v. 19.
3. Divine protection and provision, vss. 20-23.
B. The Revelation of God and the Request of Moses, 34:1-9.
1. Moses, Mt. Sinai, and the tablets of stone, vss. 1-4.
2. The glory of God, vss. 5-7.
3. Moses’ response, vss. 8-9.
In many ways this passage parallels chapter 24, where the nation Israel ratified the Mosaic Covenant for the first time. On the other hand, there are a number of significant differences. These similarities and differences provide us with the keys to understanding the Mosaic Covenant as given by God for the second time. Let us give heed to the Word of God, which we are studying in this lesson.
The petition of Moses in verse 18 is the third and final request in chapter 33. Moses has already asked that God make His ways known to him, so that he may continue to find favor in His sight (33:12). God promised His presence to Moses personally, but He has not said that He would be present among His people. Thus, in his second petition Moses asked that God show His favor to Israel, as well as to Himself, and that God not send the nation toward Canaan without a promise that His presence will accompany His people (33:13, 15-16). God’s response in verse 17 would lead one to believe that this second request will be granted: “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight, and I have known you by name.’”
The first part of Moses’ first petition, “… let me know Thy ways …” (v. 13), has not yet been granted. I believe that Moses left this petition till last, until after God assured him that He would be present with His people. Now that the requests for the people have been met, Moses returns to his first petition. Thus, the first request, “let me know Thy ways” and the petition in verse 18, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!” are essentially the same. To know God’s ways is to see the glory of God.
Moses has already prepared us for the use of this term “glory,” for it has occurred a number of times already in Genesis and Exodus. The term “glory” was used of Jacob’s wealth (Gen. 31:1) and of Joseph’s splendor in Egypt (Gen. 45:13). In Exodus the “glory” of God was the visible manifestation of His presence. The “glory of the Lord” first appeared in the cloud to Israel in the wilderness, when the people grumbled against Moses and the Lord, and asked for meat (Exod. 16:7, 10). In a similar form, the glory of the Lord descended upon Mt. Sinai, at the time the Mosaic Covenant was ratified (Exod. 24:16, 17). The altar, on which the sacrifices were to be made daily, God said would be sanctified by His glory (Exod. 29:43).
Later, after Moses’ request to see the glory of God (Exod. 33:18), the glory of God would fill the newly constructed tabernacle (Exod. 40:34-35). On various occasions during Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness God’s glory would be manifested to the people. On a number of these occasions, the glory of the Lord appeared to stop the people from sinning. For example, in Numbers 14:10 the glory of the Lord appeared, stopping the Israelites from stoning Moses and Aaron. On the other hand, the glory of God also appeared in response to Israel’s sacrifices. After describing the sacrifices which God required of the people, Moses said to them, “This is the thing which the LORD has commanded you to do, that the glory of the LORD may appear to you” (Lev. 9:6).
A little later in this account, after these sacrifices were offered, we are told,
Then Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them, and he stepped down after making the sin offering and the burnt offering and the peace offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting. When they came out and blessed the people, the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Then fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the portions of fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces (Lev. 9:22-24).
Thus, I believe that we can conclude that God’s glory can be manifested either by God’s response to man’s sin, or by God’s response to the sacrificial system, which is man’s confession of sin, and his act of obedience with regard to God’s means of putting off the consequences of it. The glory of God is almost always some visible manifestation of God’s presence and of His splendor. For Moses, the sight of God’s glory would serve as an assurance to him of God presence with him, and ultimately with the entire nation.
God’s response in verse 19 is to grant Moses all that He possibly can, which would be to Moses’ best interest: “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.”
The granting of Moses’ petition would include God’s causing of all His goodness103 to pass before Moses. As the term goodness is employed in the Old Testament, this meant that God’s benevolence, God’s graciousness and generosity would be seen by His servant Moses. This term, rendered “goodness,” is used in Genesis 24:10 of the “good things” which Abraham sent with his servant, as a present to the family of the future bride of his son. It is used of the “good things” which Pharaoh provided for Jacob and his family, as they traveled to Egypt from Canaan (Gen. 45:18, 20, 23). It also refers to the “good things” which the Israelites will enjoy in the land of Canaan (Deut. 6:11). Especially in the Book of Psalms, the goodness of God is emphasized. Here, the emphasis of “goodness” falls not on the things which God gives, but on the goodness and generosity of God as the giver of good things.104
Perhaps the best sense of the word “goodness” is found in the Book of Nehemiah, where we read,
“And they captured fortified cities and a fertile land. They took possession of houses full of every good thing, Hewn cisterns, vineyards, olive groves, Fruit trees in abundance. So they ate, were filled, and grew fat, And reveled in Thy great goodness. … But they, in their own kingdom, With Thy great goodness which Thou didst give them, With the broad and rich land which Thou didst set before them, Did not serve Thee or turn from their evil deeds” (Neh. 9:25, 35).
In His goodness, God gave His people the “good things” of the land of Canaan, but instead of being full of gratitude, so that they would worship and serve God, the Israelites turned from God, rebelling against Him. The “good things” which God provided for His people were testimony to His goodness to His people. Goodness therefore almost equals prosperity or blessing, so that God’s goodness is His benevolence, or generosity. To see the goodness of God would, at this point in time, greatly encourage and assure Moses of a future for Israel.
In addition to having all His goodness pass before Moses, God also promised to proclaim His name, the “name of the LORD,” before Moses. Once again, we have been prepared for the significance of a name in the Pentateuch, for many times in Genesis and Exodus, a name has been shown to have great importance. The specific name which God will proclaim is the name YAHWEH. This is the name by which God identified Himself to Moses at the burning bush, and by which God was to be known to Israel. YAHWEH was the name which spoke of God as Israel’s Savior and Deliverer. YAHWEH is the name of the God who made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:
Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I shall say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “I am who I am”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” And God, furthermore, said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations” (Exod. 3:13-15, emphasis mine).
If there was any name which would have given Moses encouragement, it was this name, Yahweh.
God’s response to Moses’ petition included a third element, a declaration of His Sovereignty: “… I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” I believe that there are two reasons why God included this statement here:
First, it is a reminder to Moses that God is under no obligation to show mercy to anyone. Moses’ petition for the people was a petition for God’s grace. There was absolutely nothing Israel could do to earn God’s favor. Israel had done enough already! The bottom line was that Moses could not, by his mediation, claim that God had any obligation to be gracious to this sinful, stiff-necked people. Sovereignty and grace can never be separated. Thus, whenever grace is shown, it is done at the exercise of God’s sovereign will. The reason for this is that grace has no reason for being manifested on a person except for the graciousness of the giver. Whatever is not of grace is of merit, and no one can ever be saved on the basis of his or her personal merit before God. Surely no Israelite at this point in Israel’s history would have dared to claim that he deserved God’s favor.
Second, one of the “glories” of God is His absolute sovereignty. God’s sovereignty means that He is free to do anything He chooses which is consistent with His character. God, in His holiness, could have destroyed this sinful people and have been absolutely just in doing so.105 On the other hand, God could also forgive His people, so long as their sins were atoned for. Whether we like to hear it or not, God is just as holy in condemning a person to eternal damnation as He is in graciously bestowing on another the gift of eternal life. The sovereignty of God is one of the many facets of His glory, and thus is mentioned here.
The sovereignty of God in the bestowal of His grace is one of the commonly neglected (or rejected) areas of biblical truth. For example, spiritual gifts are a matter of grace, as the Greek term for “gift” indicates. How is it, then, that some seem to think that they can specify to God which gift He is to bestow upon them, or others? Prosperity (success) is another manifestation of grace. God sovereignly bestows success on some, but not on others, but it is a matter of divine sovereignty. To be specific, God not only sovereignly bestows spiritual gifts to His children, but He also sovereignly bestows the measure of success one will have in the exercise of that gift: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons” (1 Cor. 12:4-6). Thus, one person with the gift of evangelism may be instrumental in winning thousands to Christ in a year, while another is used of God to win a handful. The measure of our success in such matters is a matter of God’s sovereign choice. Wherever the result is grace the means is sovereign.
God has granted Moses’ petition to “see His glory,” but not without restrictions. These restrictions are for Moses’ own good. Verses 20-23 describe the restrictions which God must place on Moses’ request, along with His provision for Moses’ protection in the process of seeing His glory.
Moses has asked to see the glory of God in visible form. God speaks of the “form” in which He will manifest Himself to Moses in what theologians call an anthropomorphism,106 which is a sophisticated way of saying that God speaks of His self-revelation to Moses in man-like terms. Thus, God speaks of Moses as being able to see His back, but not His face. In the context of the passage this means that Moses will be able to see all of God’s goodness, but not some of His other attributes.
The Bible consistently teaches us that no man is able to see God face to face and live.107 Had God granted Moses all he had asked for, Moses would have been struck dead by the presence of the living God. It is only in heaven, when we are rid of all sin, that we shall behold God face to face (Revelation 22:4). Thus, God will grant Moses the privilege of seeing more of Him than he (or any other man to this point, I believe) has ever seen before. He will see part of God’s glory, but not all of it. He will see, in human terms, God’s back, but not His face.
Verses 21-23 describe the provision for Moses’ protection which God promises. There on Mt. Sinai, there was a rock on which Moses could stand (v. 21). While he stands upon this rock, God will pass by Him in all of His goodness. God’s hand will shield Moses from the full radiance of God’s splendor (v. 22), much as a welding helmet filters out most of the brilliant light of the welding arc, or as asbestos clothing shields a man from intense heat. When God has passed by, He will take His hand away so that Moses can look upon a portion of His glory—His back side (v. 23).
Let us not fail to appreciate the wonder and the honor of this revelation of God to Moses. While it was “only” God’s backside it was all that Moses could survive, and it was more than any man had yet been privileged to see. To see a little of the infinite God is to see much more than the mind can fathom. Moses will be dipping deeper into the bottomless well of God’s infinite glory than man has ever dipped before, and yet he still will have but skimmed the surface of His splendor.
While Moses met with God at the “tent of meeting,” which was “outside the camp” (Exod. 33:7), the renewal of the Mosaic Covenant would take place at the top of Mt. Sinai. The revelation of the glory of God to Moses would, it seems, take the place of the manifestation of God to the 70 elders of Israel, as described in chapter 24. There are both similarities and differences between this renewal of the covenant in chapter 34 and the first ratification of the covenant in the previous chapters (especially chapter 24).
Similarities include the fact that the requirements of God are virtually identical. It is the same Ten Commandments which will be written on the two stone tablets. It is the same code of the covenant which God will lay down as His standard of conduct for the Israelites (compare Exodus 21-23 with chapter 34). Both times the covenant is given to Moses by God from atop Mt. Sinai. As before (cf. Exod. 19:12-13, 21-25; 24:2), the people are told to keep their distance from the holy mountain (Exod. 34:3). As the ratification of the covenant involved a vision of God (24:9-11), so it does in the renewal of the covenant (34:5-7).
The differences, however, are perhaps even more enlightening. The Israelites are represented only by Moses, and not by the seventy elders as before (cf. Exod. 24:1, 9). This time, there are no promises made by the people. Before, the people repeatedly affirmed, “All that the Lord has said, we will do” (19:8; 24:3, 7), but this time there are no promises made. And little wonder! Israel could not be counted on to keep her word, no matter how sincere her intentions at the time.
Finally, and I believe most significantly, Moses is noticeably more prominent in the renewal of the covenant than he was in the first ratification of the covenant. His level of involvement is considerably higher. In the first ratification of the covenant, God carved out the stones and wrote the commandments on them (cf. 31:18). In the renewal of this same covenant Moses cut out the stones and wrote the commandments on them (34:1, 27-28). Some would have us think that Moses had to cut out the stone because he had rashly broken the first pair of stones.108 I believe that Moses was given an even greater participation in the renewal of the covenant, so that now God can say that this is a covenant made between Him and Moses and Israel (34:27), a statement which was not previously made. There is no inconsistency here in the fact that we are told on the one hand that God wrote on the tablets (34:1), and, on the other, that Moses did (34:27-28). The account is informing us that God wrote on the tablets through Moses. This is no different than saying that one of Paul’s epistles, written by his own hand, is, at the same time, the Word of God. Moses’ role of mediator is thus enhanced. No wonder all of Israel stood at the doorway of their tents when Moses went out to meet with God at the tent of meeting (33:8).
Verses 5-7 describe the fulfillment of God’s promise to Moses in 33:19-23. God descended in the cloud and His goodness passed in front of Moses (vss. 5-6a). God also proclaimed His name before Moses: “Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin’” (Exod. 34:6-7b).
There are many blessings to be derived from a careful study of each of these expressions proclaimed by God here,109 but the essence of all of them can be summed up in a single word: goodness.
The final words of verse 7 must have puzzled the Israelites throughout the entire Old Testament period: “Yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exod. 34:7c). While God said that He was forgiving, He also said that the guilty would not go unpunished. This means, first and foremost, that God does not forgive sin by ignoring or overlooking it. Sin is a much more serious malady than this. A righteous God cannot minimize sin, and thus He cannot simply forgive men by ignoring what they have done. There must be punishment. The punishment, we learn from Isaiah chapter 53, is to be borne by the Messiah. Men’s sins are forgiven because someone was going to bear the penalty prescribed by the Law (death) for sin.
At first glance, it does not seem gracious that God would visit the sins of the fathers on their children and grandchildren, but I am convinced that this was a gracious provision of God for His people. This solves a very serious dilemma. God, in order to be just, must punish sin. God, in being gracious, can forgive sin. God, in order to keep His covenant promises to Abraham and his descendants, must fulfill His Abrahamic Covenant through the nation Israel. If God punished this generation of Israelites for the sins of idolatry and immorality completely and instantaneously (as He threatened to do, Exod. 32:10), then there would not be a second generation of Israelites, nor a third, and so on. In other words, there would not be an on-going line of Israelites through whom Messiah would come. By spreading out the consequences of the sin of this first generation of Israelites, God was able to preserve the nation, and assure the messianic line, until the time when Messiah would be born of a virgin of the tribe of Judah, of the family of David. Once this took place, the consequences of the sins of a given generation would not pass on to later generations (Jer. 31:29ff.). While the analogy is not entirely parallel (our government and economy have no coming Messiah to deliver it), the great national debt of our country is not imposed on our generation entirely, but rather is spread over several generations, especially those yet to come. So it was with the consequences of Israel’s sins.
Moses’ response to this revelation of God was instantaneous: “And Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. And he said, ‘If now I have found favor in Thy sight, O LORD, I pray, let the LORD go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate; and do Thou pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Thine own possession’” (Exod. 34:8-9).
The revelation of God’s goodness to Moses was a revelation of those aspects of God’s character which were the basis for Israel’s future, and thus Moses petitioned God to forgive this sinful people, and to dwell in their midst, not because they were righteous, but because He was gracious and forgiving. The grace of God is the basis for repentance and for restoration, and thus Moses requested that God forgive His people and make them His possession, as He had previously done.
It takes a little time and thought for the impact of this text to come home to the reader. In human-like terminology, God allowed Moses to see His back side, but not His face. The back side of God was His goodness. What, then, would be the face of God? I would like to suggest that from this text and others, the face of God might be His severity.
In Romans chapter 11 Paul sums up his argument with the words, “Behold then the kindness and severity of God” (Rom. 11:22). The kindness or goodness of God is that aspect of God’s person which Moses was enabled to see fully—he saw “all of God’s goodness” (Exod. 33:19). Moses saw some of God’s severity, too. He beheld the anger of God at the idolatry of Israel in the incident of the golden calf (cf. Exod. 32:10). He knew that God could easily have wiped this whole nation out, except for His promises to Abraham and his offspring (cf. Exod. 32:13). Moses reflected this anger in his own response to Israel’s revelry and rebellion (Exod. 32:20). He demonstrated this anger when he commanded the Levites to go about the camp, slaying those who had refused to pledge their allegiance to Yahweh (Exod. 32:25-29).
There was no comfort for Moses or for Israel in an in-depth revelation of God’s severity, for it would have only intensified the fear of the nation’s destruction (cf. Exod. 33:3). The dimension of God’s character which would encourage the heart of Moses was the goodness of God, which gave Moses (and Israel) hope of forgiveness and of God’s presence among His people. The vision of God’s goodness which God granted Moses produced exactly what God purposed, his petition that God forgive Israel and claim them as His own people (Exod. 34:9).
These two dimensions of God’s character, His goodness and His severity, give us a frame of reference for summing up Israel’s history throughout the Old Testament period. Generally speaking, Israel was either experiencing the severity of God in His discipline due to their stiff-necked rebellion, or they were appealing to the goodness of God by repentance and obedience.
Let me pause momentarily to say emphatically that the goodness and severity of God are not two opposing attributes, one of which must win out over the other. The fact is that God’s severity is good, that is, when God judges sin it is because of His goodness. Sometimes those good things which God brings into our lives come in ways that appear severe. Thus, the two dimensions of the goodness and severity of God are complimentary, not competitive. God never sacrifices one attribute to manifest another. But, from a human point of view, one attribute may appear to be the more predominant one, at a given point in time.
For Israel, the revelation of the severity of God, as occasioned, for example, by the idolatry of the golden calf, was a purifying force. Knowing how seriously God took their sin encouraged them to be very wary about sinning against a holy God. On the other hand, because the Israelites were sinners, or, as God put it, a stiff-necked people, the truth of God’s goodness always gave the people of God hope, even in the dark hours of God’s severity.
This can be illustrated in the Old Testament Book of Joel. The message of Joel is (initially, at least) one of judgment: “Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the LORD is coming; Surely it is near, A day of darkness and gloom, A day of clouds and thick darkness” (Joel 2:1-2a).
And yet, in this same chapter which outlines the coming severity of God, there is a word of hope, based on the goodness of God:
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping, and mourning; And rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, And relenting of evil. Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, And leave a blessing behind Him, Even a grain offering and a libation From the LORD your God? (Joel 2:12-14).
These words are so similar to those found in our text in Exodus, that I cannot help but think that the prophet, by divine inspiration, borrowed them to express the hope of the nation Israel, based in the goodness of God, a goodness which inclines Him to forgive the repentant.
The goodness and the severity of God is seen in other Old Testament prophecies, which speak of Israel’s coming Messiah. For example, the goodness of God in the Messiah to come is seen in these passages from Isaiah:
“Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry out or raise His voice, Nor make His voice heard in the street. A bruised reed He will not break, And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice” (Isa. 42:1-3).
Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him (Isa. 53:1-3).
Here we have some of the prophecies of the first coming of the Messiah, those which emphasize His gentleness and the kindness of God. But there are other prophecies which are not as comforting, those which speak of the second coming of the Messiah, to judge the wicked and to establish His throne by overthrowing His enemies: “The Lord is at Thy right hand; He will shatter kings in the day of His wrath. He will judge among the nations, He will fill them with corpses, He will shatter the chief men over a broad country” (Ps. 110:5-6).
I want to say something now which may be misunderstood, or may be too quickly rejected. I believe that in the first coming of Jesus Christ as reported in the gospels of the New Testament, the predominant revelation which we see of God in Christ at this time was the goodness of God. In His first coming, He did not come to condemn, but to save. Thus He could say, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him” (John 3:17; cf. 8:15; 12:47).
Jesus could thus say to the woman caught in the act of adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way; from now on sin no more” (John 8:10).
In the earthly life of our Lord the heavenly glory of our Lord was largely veiled, so that men could look upon Him and see one whom they regarded as but a man. There were a few occasions when this veil was lifted momentarily, so that some of the fuller glory of God was apparent. The transfiguration, for example, was one such time. Another momentary glimpse of His glory came at the time when the soldiers were about to arrest Him, and upon hearing Him say that He was the One they were looking for, they drew back and fell to the ground (John 18:6).
In His teaching, especially as His appointment with the cross drew nearer, the Lord Jesus spoke of His future coming, in His glory, when He would return in power to judge, just as the Old Testament prophets foretold:
“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” (Matt. 25:31-34; cf. also Matt. 24:30; 26:64).
In addition to this, our Lord’s high priestly prayer focused on the glory of Christ which was yet to be revealed:
These things Jesus spoke; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Thy Son, that the Son may glorify Thee, even as Thou gavest Him authority over all mankind, that to all whom Thou hast given Him, He may give eternal life. And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou has sent. I glorified Thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which Thou hast given Me to do. And now, glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I ever had with Thee before the world was” (John 17:1-5).
The words of our Lord expressed here in this prayer to the Father indicate that while the Lord Jesus glorified the Father on the earth, there was also a greater glory which He left behind, and to which He desired to return. It is this glory that will accompany our Lord when He returns to overcome His enemies.
At the cross of Calvary we see both the goodness and the severity of God. The severity of God is seen in the penalty which our Lord Himself bore, the anticipation of which is reflected by our Lord’s agony in the garden. The goodness of God is seen in the cross as well, for it is by this means that God was enabled to be just and yet to be the justifier of those who would believe (cf. Rom. 3:26). He was just in that His severity toward sin was carried out; He was the justifier in that the sins of the human race, put off throughout the Old Testament period, were forgiven in Christ, for all who believe.
After the resurrection of our Lord, the message which Peter preached at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36) was that of the second coming of Christ, to judge His enemies, just as God had foretold in Psalm 110. Thus, the sermon of Acts chapter 2 was a message focusing on the severity of God, but also one of God’s goodness, if men would but repent and believe on Christ as God’s Messiah. The Book of Revelation is the account of the return of the Lord Jesus to punish the wicked and to manifest the severity of God toward sin and the sinner. A new name of the Lord will be manifested at this time:
And His eyes are a flame of fire, and upon His head are many diadems; and He has a name written upon Him which no one knows except Himself. And He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood; and His name is called the Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty (Rev. 19:12-15).
I have found, to my dismay, that I, along with most other Christians, like to focus only on the goodness of God, but to ignore or minimize the severity of God. Men like to think of God as One who says to sinners, “Neither do I condemn thee …” Liberal scholars would have us think that there are really two “gods”: the Old Testament “god,” who was harsh and severe; and the New Testament “god,” Jesus, who is kind and benevolent. The truth of the Bible is that God is both goodness and severity. Those who think that God must be only good to men are wrong, just as those who think God is only judgmental are wrong. When we would think of sinning, let us remember the severity of God. And when we have fallen victim to our waywardness, when we have sinned, let us look to the goodness of God, confessing our sins and begging His forgiveness. Let us not minimize either the goodness or the severity of God, for both are a part of His nature.
103 Hyatt says of the term “goodness”: “… this is the only occurrence of the phrase in a theophany. Elsewhere it means either (a) beauty, fairness in appearance, as in Hos. 10:11; Zech. 9:17; or (b) the goodness of Yahweh in bestowing good things upon his people (Heh. 9:25) or in saving them (Isa. 63:7; Ps. 25:7; 145:7).” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 317.
105 The one thing which kept God from destroying the Israelites was the fact that He had promised to bless Abraham and the whole world through this people. This was the basis of Moses’ petition in Exodus 32:11-13.
106 Gispen writes, “He had a ‘face’ and a ‘back’ only in the sense that there were degrees in His revelation of Himself. His ‘face’ was then, so to speak, the focus of the radiance of His appearance on the mountain (cf. 34:5), while His ‘back’ was, as it were, the ‘fringe’ of that radiance as it passed by (cf. Job 26:14). It was like the glow of the sun immediately after it has set. Another possible conclusion is that the Lord revealed Himself to Moses in human form, and that this vision was a prophecy of the incarnation of the Word; in this case ‘face’ and ‘back’ can be understood literally” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982). p. 310.
Hyatt adds, The term for ‘back’ “… is used elsewhere of (i) the ‘back’ of the Tabernacle (26:12); (ii) the ‘hinder parts’ of the twelve bronze oxen which held up the molten sea in the Temple courtyard (I Kg. 7:25); and (iii) the ‘backs’ of the men who worshipped in the Temple in the time of Ezekiel, their backs being to the Temple and their faces to the E. (Ezek. 8:16). In the present theophany Yahweh is presented in very anthropomorphic terms, with references to his face, his hand, and his back. The meaning is that, while man can know something of the ways of God with man in his world (verse 13), the ultimate mystery of God’s nature is hidden from man’s knowledge.” Hyatt, p. 318.
108 “It was appropriate that Moses should hew for himself the new stones (v. 1). It was he who broke the former tablets (32:19) which ‘were the work of God’ (32:16).” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 295.
109 “The Lord proclaimed His own name (cf. 33:19). And then the Lord in His glory passed in front of Moses; but the most important aspect of this experience was that the Lord proclaimed His name, Jahweh, before Moses (cf. ch. 3), and thus revealed Himself to Moses in those attributes that constitute His Being. Each word in this mighty ‘proclamation’ of the Lord is of paramount importance. … ‘God’ (El) emphasized especially God’s power: His compassion and grace were not based on weakness (cf. 15:2). ‘Compassion,’ cf. 33:19: the powerful God had compassion on His elected people. ‘Gracious’: God bestowed His favor freely, His people had no claim on it. ‘Slow to anger,’ unlike the desert demon to which Jahweh is demoted in some circles. ‘Love’ … is the counterpart of His ‘grace.’ ‘Faithfulness’ is found in 18:21 in the sense of ‘reliability, trustworthiness,’ the attribute of someone one can depend on. …” Gispen, p. 312.
“The words in which the revelation is here made are repeated frequently in other passages, sometimes with variation or abbreviation: 20:5-6 (=Dt. 5:9-10), Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Jer. 32:18; Nah. 1:3; Jl 2:13; Jon. 4:2; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8.” Hyatt, p. 323.