In last week’s devotional, we saw that the people had sinned in the making of the golden calf. Moses had intervened on their behalf, and God had postponed the judgment. God had even promised to go with the people and not abandon them. One of Moses’ pleas was that God had made an eternal covenant with His people, the covenant made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and, therefore, that Moses wanted God to keep the covenant. God answered that he would keep His covenant and bring the people into His land. God said that He would send His presence before them. Perhaps He was referring to the cloud or an angel or something of that nature, because He said, “I myself will not go with them, because this is a stiff-necked people. And if I go with them and they sin again, my anger might break out against them and I would destroy them” (Ex. 33:3).
Moses wasn’t satisfied with that. As Moses saw things, to have any presence, however wonderful, or any angelic power, however great, go with the people rather than God was less than he wanted. And so what we have in Exodus 33 is Moses’ continuing intercession for the people in order that God Himself might go with them, and that he himself as a servant of God might see God’s glory.
This is one of the great examples of intercession in the Bible. Arthur W. Pink in his Gleanings in Exodus says, “Here we behold the typical mediator prevailing in his intercession for a sinful people, not only in averting the wrath of God”—which is what we saw him do in the last chapter—“but in securing His continued presence in their midst.”1
Earlier in the chapter, we are told that Moses went out of the camp to the Tent of Meeting that he had pitched. There is not a great deal of description here, but what Moses seems to have done is to have constructed a simple tent or tabernacle which he pitched outside the camp. This tent was outside the camp, probably symbolic of the fact that God is a holy God and they remained a sinful people. So God was somewhat distant from them. We’re told that Moses went out to that tent and entered it. When he did, God came down to the Tent of Meeting in the presence of the pillar of cloud, and spoke to Moses there.
Later, after the Israelites built the tabernacle, they set it up in the very midst of their encampment. And then, when the pillar of fire and cloud came down upon it, God was in their very midst. However, here in Exodus 33, Moses was still interceding for them before God because of the sin of the golden calf.
Here, Moses is concerned that God is going to send His angel with the people, but not go with them Himself. So Moses requests that God will go with the people. After this comes the most daring request of all. However, before this, he first asks that the Lord would teach Moses God’s ways so that Moses will know Him (v. 13).
Didn’t Moses already know God? Yes, he did. God had appeared to him in the burning bush and had revealed Himself to Moses as Yahweh, the great eternal God. Thus, Moses had come to know something of God then. But Moses still wanted to know God in a deeper way. Think of the apostle Paul, the man who probably knew more about God than anybody but Moses. Like Moses, Paul also wanted to know God better, and so prayed that he would know Christ and the power of his resurrection (Phil. 3:10). The more these men knew of God, the more they wanted to know God. If you and I really know God, that should be our desire as well. Each one of us needs to know God better.
Now what does it mean to know God? That’s not a simple question. In J. I. Packer’s book Knowing God, he spends some time analyzing what we really mean when we use the word “know.”2 He points out that we can use it in a number of different ways.
First, we can use the word “know” to mean simple awareness, such as knowing where someone lives. That kind of knowledge isn’t anything that touches you very deeply. All it means is that at one point you heard that person give their address, and you remembered it. And if someone were to ask you where a certain person lives, you could tell them.
That is the simplest kind of knowledge. If you carry that over into the knowledge of God, that would correspond to the kind of awareness that all people have that there is a God. Paul uses that awareness in Romans 1 to say that all of us are guilty before God because, although we don’t know God in a personal way or saving way, we know He exists. Paul says that we are guilty if we don’t allow that rudimentary knowledge, that of awareness of the being of God, to cause us to seek Him out, worship Him, and thank Him for the many things that He has given us, including life itself.
The second kind of knowledge is what we would call knowledge by description. For example, you could say, “I’ve lived in Philadelphia a long time, and I really know Philadelphia.” What that means is that if somebody asks you about Philadelphia, you can tell them about the city and explain how the streets run and where notable buildings are located. You could tell someone where the art museum is and point out the steps that Rocky Balboa ran up in the first of the Rocky movies. You can really talk about the city because you know it by description. But it would be possible for you to be able to do that without actually having lived there. You could know this much by studying a good map or by reading a good book about Philadelphia.
There are many theologians in that category. They’re not necessarily saved men or women, but they can study the Bible. And if you ask them, “What is God like?” they can give you the correct theological answers. God is sovereign. God is holy. God is powerful. They can tell you about God’s character by description, but that’s not what the Bible means when it talks in the fullest sense about knowing God.
1Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus (repr. Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2002), 338.
2J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 20-37.