In this revelation, when God explains more fully to Moses what His name really means, He communicates what we call His communicable attributes, that is, the attributes of God the God can communicate or share with us because He has made us in His image. These are things like compassion, grace, slowness to anger, love, and faithfulness (Ex. 34:6), as well as goodness and mercy (Ex. 33:19).
Now these are attributes that God not only can communicate to us, but does communicate to us if we are Christians, and we must have them if we are Christians. If we are Christians it means that we have been made alive by the Holy Spirit and are now new creatures in Christ. We have the life of God within us and therefore if we are Christians we should show God’s goodness in how we live, and we should be merciful, compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, and so on. We don’t receive all these at once, and we certainly don’t get them in their fullness. But the essence of those attributes has to be there, and it has to grow.
In the midst of this revelation of God’s mercy to Moses there is a verse that Paul picks up and uses in Romans 9: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ex. 33:19; Rom. 9:15). We need to understand how Paul develops it, because, otherwise, we get a distorted idea of mercy.
If we talk about the sovereignty of God in election or discuss reprobation (condemnation to eternal judgment) with somebody, the objection you may hear is this: God owes everybody a chance. But this objection is a contradiction in terms, because if you are talking about mercy, you can’t be talking about something that is owed. The very essence of mercy is that it isn’t owed. What God owes us is damnation. He owes us wrath and judgment. So when you talk about mercy, you are talking about something that’s quite different—something that we don’t deserve. And by the very nature of mercy, God shows mercy on whom he will have mercy, and He passes by those whom He will pass by. If you don’t have reprobation you don’t have mercy. If God’s obliged to save anybody, then that obligation is not mercy at all.
When Paul develops this idea of God’s sovereign mercy in Romans 9, it’s so troubling to commentators that they try to find all kinds of ways of getting out of it. For example, they say that Paul misunderstood what God was saying here in Exodus. It’s only referring to God’s mercy to Moses in granting a theophany, something that God did not do for other people. Others have said that this refers to God’s showing mercy to Israel in renewing the covenant and forgiving their sin. But even this explanation can’t escape His electing mercy, because it’s perfectly obvious that God showed mercy to Israel but not to the Egyptians.
This is exactly what Paul talks about in Romans 9. He brings in Pharaoh as an example and he quotes another text in which God says He raised up Pharaoh for this very purpose, namely, that He might display His wrath and judgment in him. In the case of Israel God shows His mercy; in the case of Pharaoh God shows His judgment. And you need the judgment on Pharaoh in order to preserve His mercy for Israel. That’s what Paul is doing, and it’s absolutely necessary.
I don’t know whether Moses understood fully what he was asking when he requested that God show Moses God’s glory. But seeing God’s glory means seeing God as He really is. This is profoundly disturbing to sinful people like you and me. We wouldn’t mind having God reveal His glory to us if that had to do with His love or mercy or grace. What Paul reminds us is that God is also a God of justice and wrath, and that the revelation of the glory of God involves these things as well. The wonder of the revelation is not that God is just, but that God is merciful, and that in these words to Moses God emphasizes His mercy so strongly.
Immediately after this revelation, we see expressions of God’s mercy. One thing God does is make new tablets for Moses. When Moses had come down from the mountain and had seen the people sinning in Exodus 32, he broke the tablets. In mercy, God did not treat the Israelites as they deserved. Rather, Moses cut out stone, went back up the mountain, and got the tablets again.
Earlier, God wrote on the tablets Himself. Here, in Exodus 34, God says that He will write on them, as He did the first time (v. 1), but also tells Moses to write on them in verse 27. Is that a contradiction? It’s probably a way of saying that whatever Moses wrote, God wrote. In other words, God wrote through Moses. That’s what we mean when we talk about inspiration. The writers of the Bible being human beings wrote with their own vocabulary and with their own limitations in some respects. They wrote out of their own experience and knowledge. But God superintended what they wrote so that it is true to say that what they wrote is God’s writing. When I worked with the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, we wrestled from time to time with ways to express this. On one occasion we expressed it this way: “What Scripture says, God says—through human agents and without error.”1 When Moses went back up the mountain, he himself actually writes down the words, but he is writing what God had for him to write. So, God again gives the law.
Then comes this strange incident about Moses’ glowing face. When Moses came down from the mountain, his face was radiant with a transferred glory. It was so bright that the people couldn’t look upon him. So Moses had to wear a veil over his face until the glory faded away.
This is one of those places where you find an amusing mistranslation of the Bible. The translators of the Latin Vulgate misread the Hebrew. In Hebrew, the verb for “he radiated” is karon. But there is a similar word, karan which has just slightly different vowel pointings. Karan means “horn.” So the translators of the Vulgate translated the verse to say that Moses had horns coming out of his head. This explains why some of the medieval and Renaissance art—such as Moses, one of Michelangelo’s best-known sculptures, has horns coming out of Moses’ head. Michelangelo read the Vulgate and thought that’s what the Scripture said. But it was an error. Moses was radiating light.
1Quoted in James Montgomery Boice, Does Inerrancy Matter? (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1981), 15.