The third way in which we use that word “know” is by experience. You can say, “I really know Philadelphia because I have lived there all my life.” You can talk about a person that way. You can say, “I really know so-and-so because we worked together for thirty years and I know how she functions.” That’s knowledge by experience, which is a far greater and far more important kind of knowledge than mere awareness. We talk about knowing God—that is certainly what we want to achieve—not merely to know there is a God or merely to be able to talk about God, however accurate we may be, but actually to know God by experience, that is, to experience God for ourselves.
As important as that is, that is still not quite what the Bible means when it talks about knowing God. When the Bible talks about knowing God, it talks about God in a way that always involves the change that we experience when we come to know Him. To come to know God means that you can never really be what you were before. As Packer explains,
Knowing God involves, first, listening to God’s Word and receiving it as the Holy Spirit interprets it, in application to oneself; second, noting God’s nature and character, as his Word and works reveal it; third, accepting his invitations and doing what he commands; fourth, recognizing and rejoicing in the love that he has shown in thus approaching you and drawing you into this divine fellowship.1
That’s what Moses wanted. Moses knew much about God. He could have explained what God was like. When Moses was with God on the mountain, he even had an experience of God that was perhaps in some ways greater than anything you and I experience. Here, when he asks God, “Teach me your ways so I may know you,” what he means is that he wants to know God in a way that changes who he is and transforms what he does. Moses wants a knowledge of God that really enters into every aspect of his life and being. This takes work. You don’t get to know God in that way by being lazy.
There is another great book that every Christian should read, titled The Pursuit of God by A. W. Tozer, a writer from the mid-twentieth century. His analysis of the evangelical church is even more characteristic of our own time. Tozer says that we have a shallow, empty form of worship in our evangelical churches. He says that true knowledge of God and the desire for God has been replaced by mechanical things like our programs in the church. “Spiritual worship [is] at a [low] ebb…Religion, so far as it is genuine, is in essence the response of created personalities to the Creating Personality.” Therefore, “If we would find God amid all the religious externals we must first determine to find Him, and then proceed in the way of simplicity…We must put away all efforts to impress, and come with the guileless candor of childhood.”2
That’s what Moses is doing in chapter 33. He is interceding for the people because he wants God Himself to go with them, not merely an angel. But whatever else he is doing, he is certainly approaching God simply, practically and very fervently.
There are more lessons there. First, we are unable to come to know God by ourselves, at least in the way Packer describes. Moses didn’t say, “I’m the leader. I’ve got a good mind. I can figure out what God is like.” He knew he couldn’t do that in the way he wanted to know God, and so he comes, recognizing his own inabilities, and asks God to teach him.
Second, the only person who can ever really show us what God is like is God. Nobody else can do that because our ways are not God’s ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts. If we’re ever going to come to know God, God is going to have to teach us. We can’t do it by ourselves, and so we need to come to God and ask Him to do it, as Moses does.
The remainder of the chapter is a great revelation of who God really is.
Moses’ second petition is found in verse 15, “If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.” That doesn’t sound like a petition, but it is because God’s response makes very clear that what Moses is saying is, “I want you to go with me.” This is a veiled way of asking God to reconsider, and the Lord heard this request and answered it. The Lord said, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
Think about what Moses was saying. Where were they? They were camped in a barren desert valley at the foot of Mount Sinai. They had the promised land before them, the very thing that God had been promising to the patriarchs for more than four centuries. God said He was taking them there. It was a land flowing with milk and honey. But Moses says, “I’d rather stay right here in Sinai in the desert the rest of my life than go to Canaan if you don’t go with us.”
You and I launch into so many things by ourselves because we are not really concerned about the presence of God. We say to ourselves, “It’s far better to have Canaan with its milk and honey than God. God can come later.” At times we say, “Well I think it’s important that we do this project. I don’t know whether God’s in it or not. But you know, it’s an important thing that we should do.” Normally, we baptize it with the name of God and say we are ministering in God’s name. But we should be careful never to want to take a step in any direction unless we are sure that God is with us. Moses had been with God long enough to know how important that was, and he’d also been with the people long enough to know how necessary that was. If God wasn’t going with them, they were in trouble.
Not only should we be afraid to take a step forward unless we know that God is with us, but when we know that God is with us we should be bold to move forward. Think of that great missionary hymn by Edith G. Cherry, a favorite hymn of the missionaries who were killed in Ecuador by the Auca Indians in the 1950s.
“We rest on thee”—our shield and our defender!
We go not forth alone against the foe;
Strong in thy strength, safe in thy keeping tender,
“We rest on thee, and in thy name we go.”
That’s the way Moses wanted to go forward. And if you and I are sure that God is with us, we can do it as well.
1J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 32.
2A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1948; repr., Chicago, IL: WingSpread Publishers, 2006), 9, 13.