When Moses began to pray, his first request was that he might know God. He had been with God on the mountain twice for forty days at a time, but he still yearned to know God better: “If I have found favor in your eyes, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you” (Exod. 33:13). This is a petition every Christian should make often. If we are Christians, we know God partially already. But every one of us needs to know God better. This is what David was praying about when he asked God to teach him his “ways.”
Moses’ second petition expressed his most pressing concern, which had to do with God’s sending an angel with the people. Moses judged it impossible that he should lead the people without the Lord’s very own presence. So he prayed, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here” (Exod. 33:15). The Lord heard this request and granted it. “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name,” God replied (v. 17).
It would be good if all who are in a position of Christian leadership should think as Moses did. We ought to be afraid to take a single step without the assurance of God’s presence. As it is, we are often so self-confident that we think we can execute great projects without first asking God what we should do and then how we should do it. It is why so many of our projects fail and there is so little blessing.
At this point Moses had achieved what most concerned him. God had promised to go with the people. But Moses was a remarkable man, and one of his remarkable characteristics emerged now as he added a third petition to the two that had already been granted. “Now show me your glory,” he said (Exod.33:18). As God’s answer makes clear, this was nothing less than a request to see God face to face in all his splendor, to see him unobscured by clouds or devices like the burning bush.
God replied that he could not show his face to Moses, because no human being can see the face of God and live. But he would reveal his goodness and proclaim his name to Moses, which he did by placing him in the cleft of a rock, covering the opening with his hand and then causing his goodness to pass by. The text says, “Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exod. 34:5-7). These words unfold the meaning of the covenant name of God, expressed in his mercy to all who confess their sin and come to him.
This is one of the greatest revelations of God in the Bible, and it meant a lot to Israel. Exodus 34:6 is one of the most frequently quoted passages in the Old Testament. For example, it is referred to in Nehemiah 9:17, Psalms 103:8 and 145:8, Joel 2:13 and Jonah 4:2. And here is the point: it is referred to by David in our psalm. In fact, it is referred to twice. It is referred to briefly in verse 5 (“You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call to you”). It is cited extensively in verse 15 (“But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness”).
This is where David learned that God was merciful. He learned it from this great story in the Bible. Moreover, he was wise enough to base his prayer requests on it. So should we! Indeed, we have even more cause to do it, because we know how merciful God has been to us through the death of Jesus Christ.