Moses said to the LORD, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”
The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
And the LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” (Exodus 33:12-17)
This summer at church we’re going through a series on prayer called “Conversations with God.” Yesterday, pastor Steve Hixon covered a most fascinating conversation that Moses had with God in the Sinai Wilderness. It’s a conversation that only a mediator and close “friend” of the Lord’s could have had with the Almighty in the Old Testament era. Moses was honest. So was God. He had questions. And he wanted assurance. Don’t we all?
The setting for the conversation is as neat as the talk itself. Whenever he wanted to speak to the Lord, Moses would walk outside of the camp to the “tent of meeting,” the designated place where the great leader would enter and God’s presence would come down on the tent in the form of a cloud. Inside that tent Moses would speak and God would answer. All of Israel, it is written, would stand when they saw Moses walking towards that tent. They knew the significance of Moses’ intercession. They knew that Moses received specific instructions from God in that tent. They saw the cloud descend on the tent. It was an awe-inspiring sight. Verse 11 says that “The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” As a friend. “Face-to-face” is not literal, since God says later in the chapter that no man can see His face and live. But the point is made: Moses and God were friends. How cool is that!
Earlier in Exodus 33 God had told Moses that He wasn’t going to accompany the Israelites to the Promised Land. The camp had just turned against God and made a golden calf to worship, the latest in a long line of betrayals of God’s leadership. God — the Almighty — tells Moses that He might just destroy the Israelites along the way! Was this a test of Moses? Probably. Was God being honest? Probably. It’s one of those interpretation mysteries. God had not tot his point promised to send His presence with them all the way to Canaan. I think such accompaniment was an assumption on behalf of the people. However, He DID promise to give them the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and reiterated His promise in 33:1-2. But Moses interceded on behalf of his people and, reconsidering, God swore to continue accompanying the unruly bunch to Canaan. Out of the whole nation that started from Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb would make it there alive, but that’s another story.
Moses raises a series of inquiries before the Lord in 33:12-18. First, he asks God for something — a person or a sign — to accompany the Israelites on their journey. Who will you send with me, he asks? He follows up that statement with another: help me. More specifically, he asks, “Teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you.” It wasn’t easy to figure out God’s ways. The Lord would later declare to Israel through Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways (Isa 55:8).” God’s thoughts are in a sphere beyond mortal time and finite space. It is there that His ways are fully known. When He stoops to walk with man, to make contact and dwell with us, we catch a glimpse of His ways but we cannot understand them to their fullest — if at all. We are creatures and our brains are only yay so big. So we fall back on His revealed character and trust that He knows best and that he has a greater plan. At least we should.
Moses here was asking for wisdom and understanding from the Lord so that He might be able to better follow and please Him. In Ephesians 1:17, Paul asks a very similar request on behalf of the believers in Ephesus: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.” To know God better! Who doesn’t want to do that?
I love the simplicity of Moses’ request and, yet, it is very complex. Who can know the mind of the Lord? No one can, fully. He is God. But for those that ask for understanding and wisdom, God the Father gives greater insight through the intercession of God the Holy Spirit living inside of us. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” All you have to do is ask. Like Moses.
Moses continues by reminding God that Israel’s identity is wrapped up in God’s character and actions. “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” he asks. Who are we without You? Without the divine presence of God physically with them (cloud, fire, angel, something!), they are just another large nomadic people on the move towards better lands. Even more, the former Hebrew slaves would be no match in battle for well-trained armies to the north. Also, Moses was thinking, how will I lead these people if I cannot show them that you are with me? Moses becomes just another bossy old guy with a bushy gray beard without divine empowerment. So he was extremely worried. God responded with grace and love towards an old friend: “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” He knew Moses by name! He knows our names, too. In Galatians, Paul writes that we are known by God (4:9; also 1 Cor 8:3). He knows us! By name.
One lesson we can learn from Moses is to ask if you do not know. Moses didn’t know who would accompany him on this wilderness journey, nor, really what the plans of the Lord even were for this massive expedition. It was a murky mystery to the leader, so he did what those of us who are confused or uncertain of the Lord’s plans should do — asked for insight and wisdom. I love this simple ancient prayer for guidance: “Most high and glorious God, shed light on the darkness of my heart. Lord grant me insight and wisdom so that I might always deserve your holy and true will.” Those who seek to know the Lord should ask Him for wisdom and He, as a loving father, is more than happy to grant it to us (Heb 4:16). Maybe not in our specific timing (we want it now!) but in His own way. He won’t deny us, though.
A second lesson is to realize that just as we seek to know God and understand His ways, He already knows us and our ways. He was a friend of Moses and He is a friend of ours — more of a father, to be honest — who seeks our best interest. Moses asked for God’s presence to accompany he and the Israelite camp as they proceeded on their journey. Their identity was wrapped up in God’s presence. They were His people and His possession. We who believe in Jesus Christ are also God’s people and possession. And God the Father has sent His Spirit into our hearts to seal us as His own. “Having believed, you were marked in Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13; see also 2 Cor 1:22).” The question of God’s presence in the life of a believer is really a non-question. He is with us and will never leave us (Heb 13:5). Even in our darkness, in our confusion over direction and will He is still with us.