The God Who Goes Before His People

The God Who Goes Before His People

Exodus 33:12-34:9

I don’t know about you, but a little stability would be nice.  Everything around me seems to be in flux.  Think about what life must have been like for Moses and the Israelites (the Hebrew people); not long before Exodus 32, Israel experienced one of the greatest events in history with their miraculous delivery from the powerful clutches of Pharaoh out of the slavery of Egypt into a freedom promised to Abraham and their forefathers.  Moses and his fellow Hebrews witnessed God inflict all of Egypt with 10 plagues to loosen the clutches of Pharaoh by humbling him.  Every plague that God sent upon Egypt was intentionally designed to mock the gods the Egyptians hoped and trusted in.  When God turned the Nile into blood, he mocked Hapi, the god of the Nile.  When God sent the plague of frogs, he did so to mock the goddess Heket who had the head of a frog; she was not only the goddess of water and renewal, but the goddess of fertility. 

We are told in Exodus 8:1-15 that the frogs came out of the Nile and swarmed into their houses, bedrooms, their beds, their ovens, their kneading bowls.  Everywhere the Egyptians stepped was a frog.  Every time an Egyptian crushed a frog under their feet, they were reminded of the goddess of fertility.  However, it wasn’t until the final plague, the death of the firstborn, that resulted in the death of Pharaoh’s own son, that he released the Hebrew people.  Pharaoh was worshiped as a son of Ra, the most worshiped powerful god in Egypt; the death of Pharaoh’s son proved that Pharaoh had no real power at all.  I could preach a whole sermon on the Plagues, but my point is to illustrate to you that Moses and the Hebrews saw first hand the power of their God over all other gods.  The greatest display of God’s power was not the plagues, but the parting of the red sea that resulted in the death of Pharaoh’s army; they even wrote and sang a song to celebrate the way God delivered them in Exodus 15 that begins: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.”  The song also includes the lyrics: “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them” (see Exodus 15:1-2, 11–12).

When you read the chapters that come after Exodus 15, what you discover is a kind of spiritual waltz where the Israelites seem to take two steps forward spiritually and one step back spiritually.  Sometimes it seems that they take two steps back and only one step forward spiritually.  On one such occasion, where the Israelites seem to take two steps backwards spiritually is in Exodus 32.  Way back in Exodus 24:15, Moses went up to Mount Sinai and met with God for 40 days and 40 nights, but before he did that he delivered the Ten Commandments to the people and their responsibility to keep the Law and only worship Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The people responded: “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exod. 24:7).  All that it took for the people to forget God was 40 days, for we are told in Exodus 32:1, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1).  After Aaron helped the people make a golden calf out of the gold that God had blessed them with, the people said: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (v. 4).   The next day the people, “…rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play” (Exodus 32:6).

In chapters 32-33, we read about Moses interceding and pleading on behalf of the Israelites that God not destroy them based on his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God then assured Moses that he would not destroy the Israelites but with a condition; listen to what God said to Moses:

Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, “To your offspring I will give it.” I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people. (Exodus 33:1–3)

Moses’ plea has been haunting me since last March when our world was paralyzed by the pandemic; listen to Moses’ response to God:

Moses said to the Lord, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:12–16)

Moses’ answer to God was simply this: “I do not want to go where your presence is not with us.”  So God said to Moses: “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name” (v. 17).  However, God’s presence was not enough for Moses, because in the very next verse he asked, “Please show me your glory.”  What Moses wanted, was a reminder of the unchanging character of God before he led the people of God into the promises of God. 

Do you know why I think Moses asked to see God’s character on display in the form of his glory?  I think it was because Moses wanted to be reminded of the unchangeable character of the God who mocks the idols of the nations, the God to whom rivers obey, mountains stand to exultation, and the rest of creation bows in worship.  Moses understood that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”  This is why the Psalmist sang: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Ps. 20:7). 

So when Moses asked to see God’s glory, God allowed Moses a glimpse of his presence by making his entire goodness pass by Moses as he was hidden in the cleft of the rock.  As the presence of God passed, Moses before him while proclaiming: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.  Keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exod. 34:6-7).  There are five unmovable and unchanging facts about God that Moses is reminded of as the presence and glory of God pass by.

God is Compassionate

The NIV translates Exodus 34:6 in a way that better reflects the Hebrew: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God”  The Hebrew word used for “mercy” in the ESV is better translated “compassion” or “sympathy.”  Mercy is refraining to give a person what they deserve, but to show compassion or sympathy upon a person is a three-dimensional picture of God’s mercy.  It is the compassion God had upon the Hebrew people when He told Moses in Exodus 3:7, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt.  I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.

It’s not that the Israelites deserved God’s compassion, the point is that God helped them in their helplessness and delivered them apart from any power of their own.  God’s compassion reminds us that all of his promises are dependent upon His ability to make due on His promises.  This is the story of all of Scripture!  After Adam and Eve’s sin, God’s compassion moved Him into the Garden.  When God determined to judge the earth through the flood, He was moved with compassion to spare Noah and his family.  God promised Abraham to bless him and provided both he and Sarah with a son out of His compassion.  Every act of God to spare and save in history has been, and is motivated, by His compassion for sin-cursed human beings such as ourselves.

God is Gracious

Grace is giving us what we do not deserve.  When God rescued the Hebrew people from Egypt, it was not because they deserved it, it was only because of the grace of God.  The word used for “gracious “ is the Hebrew word, “han-nun” and can also mean kindness, merciful, or to show favor.  The grace God spoke of concerning Himself is the kind of grace, mercy, and favor described in Deuteronomy 7:7-8, “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

God is Patient

The patience of God is one of the great themes of the Bible!  A character study on Moses will reveal that he lost his temper on occasion, so when God moved by Moses and he heard how God is “slow to anger” he was reminded of God’s longsuffering in relationship to our sin.  I have to work at being patient.  I want things quick and I want them now.  However, God is not like us; He is patient.  God doesn’t have to learn patience, nor does He have to develop it. God is patient, and His patience is seen in refraining from giving us exactly what we deserve. 

For over one hundred years Noah built the Ark while surrounded by a wickedness God would eventually judge with the flood.  Yet, we are told in the Bible that Noah, while building the Ark, was a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5; NIV).  Think about what that means for a second.  After God determined to flood the earth, he provided wicked and violent men and women with one who represented him, to warn that generation of a coming judgment.  When it came to the sins of the Hebrew people, God often would provide them long periods of time to turn from their sin by warning them through His prophets. 

Because of God’s patience regarding injustice and sin, some have questioned His goodness and character, but history has proven that when His patience had been exhausted, His judgment was often swift and severe. The Bible even warns us about the temptation to take the patience of God for granted in light of sin:

“if he [God] did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials…”(2 Peter 2:4–9, ESV)

God is Love

The word that is used here for “love” is checed, which is a covenantal and unconditional love.  The kind of love used here to describe God is the equivalent of the word used to describe the kind of love that moved God to send His Son (agape): “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). 

We think that being a loving person means that we must never offend, always approve, and never reprimand another person.  However, biblical love is both gracious and compassionate, but also truthful and sacrificial.  We often use the following passage in our weddings as a way to define the kind of love that ought to be experienced and expressed within marriage, but have you ever stopped to consider that it is a description of the perfect love of a powerful, personal, holy, sovereign, and good God?  All Scripture flows out of the character of God and if 1st Corinthians is a description of the kind of love we are called to, we are called to it because it is the kind of Love God already is: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:4–8).

Is this not the kind of love we experienced through the gospel of Jesus Christ?  Does not the Bible state plainly and clearly: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—” (Romans 5:6–7)This is the kind of love Moses is told that God is.  

God is Just

God is compassionate, He is gracious, He is patient, and He is love.  But let there be no misunderstanding… God is also just.  God is equally committed to His justice as He is to His goodness, love, and compassion because that is who He is.  God holds out His love to all who would receive it, and all who do receive His love through grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, will experience His overwhelming compassion, goodness, and grace.  However, when these gifts are continually rejected and refused, the justice Jesus voluntarily placed Himself under so that we would never have to taste the wrath of God is then given to the sinner to experience. 

You have heard me quote John 3:16 in relationship to God’s unconditional love, but consider the verses that follow: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:17–18).


I took most of the church staff with me to Arizona this past week for a church leadership conference.  As I sat on the plane on my way back, it dawned on me that just about every sin Israel committed was motivated by fear.  This is especially true with their worship of the golden calf while Moses was on Mount Saini longer then expected.  In fact, any time decisions are motivated by fear instead of faith, it will almost always lead to disobedience. 

Think about it, it was fear of a famine that resulted in Israel making Egypt their home instead of the promised land of Canaan (Gen. 47:13-31).  It was fear that their slavery would become more difficult that some of the Israelites wanted to continue to live as slaves (Exod. 5).  It was fear of the pursuing Egyptian army and the impossibility of being able to cross the Red Sea that Israel wished they had never left Egypt in the first place (Exod. 14).  It was also out of a fear of the “giants in the land” that ten of the twelve spies did not believe they could take the land God had promised them (Numbers 13-14).  If you read through the Bible, what you will discover is that anytime fear becomes the main motivator for how to obey and follow after God, it never leads to anything good. 

Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that all fear is bad.  A healthy fear of anything ought to lead to wise choices.  For example, I have a fear of suffering a head injury from cycling, so I wear a helmet.  However, if fear has paralyzed you from responding to God in faith, then your fear has become the catalyst of disobedience of what God has, or is calling you to do.  The way to fight any fear that could lead to disobedience is to remember who God is and that who he is, is unchanging.  So who is God?  He is a God who is immutably compassionate, gracious, patient, loving, and just.  Any direction that He has called or is calling you to move towards in faith is because He of who He is and that He is for you and not against you.  As your pastor and as a church, it is my prayer that everything we do will be motivated by faith and not fear.  The best way to move forward in faith, is to move forward with our eyes fixed on the God who does not change.