Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And the LORD said unto Moses, Depart, and go up hence, thou and the people which thou hast brought up out of the land of Egypt, unto the land which I sware unto Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, Unto thy seed will I give it:XXXIII.
THE HUMILIATION OF THE PEOPLE AT THE THREAT OF GOD’S WITHDRAWAL.
(1-6) If God consented at all to renew His covenant with the people, after they had so flagrantly broken it, the terms on which He would renew it were, in strict justice, purely optional. In the “Book of the Covenant” He had promised to go up with them by an Angel, in whom was His Name (Exodus 23:20-23): i.e., by His Son, the Second Person in the Holy Trinity. He now, to mark His displeasure, withdrew this promise, and substituted for the Divine presence that of a mere angel. “I will send an angel before thee” (Exodus 33:2); “I will not go up in the midst of thee” (Exodus 33:3). Dimly the people felt the importance of the change, the vast difference between the angelic and the Divine, and “mourned” their loss (Exodus 33:4). mourned with some touch of real godly sorrow, and, as was the custom of the Orientals in mourning (Terent. Heaut. ii. 3, 47; Herodian. iv. 2, &c.), “put off their ornaments.”
(1) The Lord said unto Moses.—In continuation and explanation of the words recorded in Exodus 32:33-34, but probably at another time, after Moses had once more descended from the Ras Sufsafeh to the plain at its base.
The land which I sware unto Abraham . . . —The misconduct of Israel in their worship of the calf would not annul the promises of God to the patriarchs. These He was bound to make good. “The Lord sware, and will not repent” (Psalm 110:4).
And I will send an angel before thee; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite:(2) I will send an angel before thee.—“An angel” is ambiguous. It might designate the Angel of the Covenant, the Angel of God’s presence, as in Exodus 23:20; or it might mean a mere ordinary angel, on a par with those who presided over the destinies of other nations besides the Hebrews (Daniel 10:13; Daniel 10:20). That here the expression is used in this latter sense is made manifest by the declaration of the next verse: “I will not go up in the midst of thee.”
Unto a land flowing with milk and honey: for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people: lest I consume thee in the way.(3) A land flowing with milk and honey.—See Note on Exodus 3:8.
Lest I consume thee.—Comp. Exodus 32:10; Leviticus 10:2; Ps. 88:21, 31, &c. “God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). His near presence, if it does not cleanse and purify, scorches and withers. The conduct of Israel in the wilderness was such as continually to provoke Him to destroy them; and but for His amazing compassion and forbearance, the result here glanced at would assuredly have followed.
And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned: and no man did put on him his ornaments.(4) When the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned.—It was something that the people felt the tidings to be “evil.” It is natural for sinful men to shrink from the near presence of God (Matthew 8:34; Luke 5:8); and so the Israelites had shrunk from it a short time previously (Exodus 20:19). Even now they would probably have feared a too near contact; but still, they were unwilling that God should cease to be the leader and guide of the host: they set a value on His presence and protection, which they felt that that of an angel would ill replace. Accordingly, when Moses communicated to them what God had said (Exodus 33:1-3), they “mourned,” i.e., not only grieved inwardly, but showed the outward tokens of grief—made a public and, as it were, national lamentation.
No man did put on him his ornaments.—The Orientals, both men and women, have always affected ornament, and taken an extreme delight in it. Herodotus tells us that the Persians who accompanied Xerxes into Greece wore generally collars and bracelets of gold (Hist. ix. 80). Xenophon says that the Medes indulged a similar taste (Cyropœd. i. 3, § 2). In Egypt, at the time of the exodus, men of station wore generally collars, armlets, and bracelets, occasionally anklets. The Assyrians wore armlets, bracelets, and ear-rings. To strip himself of his ornaments was a great act of self-denial on the part of an Oriental; but it was done commonly in the case of mourning on account of a family bereavement, and sometimes in the case of national misfortunes. (See Note on Exodus 33:1-6.)
For the LORD had said unto Moses, Say unto the children of Israel, Ye are a stiffnecked people: I will come up into the midst of thee in a moment, and consume thee: therefore now put off thy ornaments from thee, that I may know what to do unto thee.(5)For the Lord had said unto Moses.—Rather, And the Lord said unto Moses. The message did not precede the repentance of the people, but followed it.
I will come up into the midst of thee in a moment, and consume thee.—Rather, were I to go up in the midst of thee, even for a moment (a brief space), I should consume thee. The people learnt by this the reason of God’s proposed withdrawal. It was in mercy, that they might not be consumed, as there was danger of their being unless they repented and turned to God.
Put off thy ornaments.—Rather, leave off thy ornaments, i.e., put them aside altogether; show thy penitence by giving up the use of them; then shall I know what to do with thee; then shall I be able to deal with thee in a way which otherwise were impossible.
And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments by the mount Horeb.(6) And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments—i.e., left off their ornaments, ceased to wear them altogether.
By the mount Horeb.—Rather, from mount Horeb, i.e., from the time of their first discarding them in Horeb (= Sinai).
(7-11) Moses, having experienced the blessedness of solitary communion with God during the forty days spent on Sinai, felt now, as he had never felt before, the want of a “house of God,” whither he might retire for prayer and meditation, secure of being undisturbed. Months would necessarily elapse before the Tabernacle could be constructed according to the pattern which he had seen in the mount. During this interval he determined to make use of one of the existing tents as a “house of prayer,” severing it from the others, and giving it the name “Tent of Meeting,” which was afterwards appropriated to the Tabernacle. It would seem that he selected his own tent for the purpose—probably because it was the best that the camp afforded—and contented himself with another. God deigned to approve his design, and descended in the cloudy pillar on the tent each time that Moses entered it.
(7) Moses took the tabernacle.—Rather, Moses took his tent. The Hebrew article, like the Greek, has often the force of the possessive pronoun. The LXX. translate λαβὼν Μωυσῆς τὴν σκηνὴν αὐτοῦ; and so Jarchi, Aben-Ezra, Kurtz, Kalisch, Keil, Cook, &c.
And pitched it without the camp.—Heb., and pitched it for himself without the camp. “For himself” means for his own use, that he might resort to it. This was his special object.
The Tabernacle of the congregation.—Rather, the tent of meeting. (See Note on Exodus 25:22.) He gave it—i.e., by anticipation—the identical name by which the “Tabernacle” was afterwards commonly known. It was, in fact, a temporary substitute for the Tabernacle.
Every one . . . went out unto the tabernacle.—Though he had designed it for his own special use, Moses allowed all Israel to make use of it also.
And it came to pass, when Moses went out unto the tabernacle, that all the people rose up, and stood every man at his tent door, and looked after Moses, until he was gone into the tabernacle.(8) When Moses went out . . . all the people rose up.—As a mark of respect and reverence. (Comp. Esther 5:9.)
The cloudy pillar descended.—During the stay of the Israelites in the plain at the foot of Sinai, the ordinary place occupied by the pillar of the cloud was the summit of the mount (Exodus 19:16; Exodus 19:20; Exodus 20:21; Exodus 24:15-18; Exodus 34:5). At this time, whenever Moses entered the temporary tabernacle, the cloud came down from Sinai, ascending again when he quitted it.
And the Lord talked with Moses.—Heb., and talked with Moses. The “cloudy pillar” is the subject of the verb “talked.” It is here identified with God, who manifested Himself through it.
And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. And he turned again into the camp: but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the tabernacle.(11) Face to face.—Comp. Numbers 12:8; Deuteronomy 34:10. This is clearly spoken of as a privilege peculiar to Moses; but in what exactly the peculiarity consisted is not apparent. Some special closeness of approach is no doubt meant—some nearness such as had been enjoyed by no mortal previously. In later times, Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-5) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:28) were perhaps equally favoured.
His servant Joshua.—Comp. Exodus 24:13, where Joshua is called Moses’ “minister,” the word employed in the Hebrew being the same.
(12-17) The self-humiliation of the people (Exodus 33:4-6) had appeased God’s anger. He was now ready to be entreated. Moses therefore renews his supplications on their behalf, and especially prays for a revocation of the threatened withdrawal of the Divine Presence, and substitution for it of a mere angel. Taking advantage of his privilege to speak to God as friend with friend (Exodus 33:11), he ventures to expostulate, uses familiar terms, and persists until he at last obtains a distinct declaration that his request is granted (Exodus 33:17).
(12) Thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send.—Moses finds the promises of Exodus 32:34; Exodus 33:2 ambiguous. What is meant by “mine angel” and “an angel?” Is it the “Angel” of Exodus 23:20-23, or no? If not, who is it?
I know thee by name.—God had shown this knowledge when He called on Moses out of the burning bush (Exodus 3:4), and again, probably, when he “called unto him out of the midst of the cloud” (Exodus 24:16); but the exact phrase had not been used previously. It implies a very high degree of Divine favour. God “knows by name” only those whom He greatly regards. (See Note on Exodus 31:2.)
Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found grace in thy sight, shew me now thy way, that I may know thee, that I may find grace in thy sight: and consider that this nation is thy people.(13) Shew me now thy way—i.e., Thy course—Thy intention. Let me know if Thou really intendest to withdraw Thyself from us, and put a created being in Thy place or no.
Consider that this nation is thy people.—Moses glances back at God’s words recorded in Exodus 32:7, and reminds God that the Israelites are not merely his (Moses’) people, but also, in a higher sense, God’s people. As such, God had acknowledged them (Exodus 3:7; Exodus 3:10; Exodus 5:1; Exodus 6:7; Exodus 7:4, &c.).
And he said, My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.(14) My presence shall go with thee.—There is no “with thee” in the original, and consequently the phrase is ambiguous. Moses could not tell whether it was a personal promise to himself, or a renewal of the old engagement to go with the people. He consequently requires something more explicit. Will God go, not merely with him, but with the people? (Exodus 33:15-16).
And the LORD said unto Moses, I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken: for thou hast found grace in my sight, and I know thee by name.(17) I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken.—At length the promise is unambiguously given. Moses is rewarded for his importunity. God’s people have found grace in His sight. He will “go up” with them, and so “separate them,” or distinguish them, from “all the people that are on the face of the earth.” Now at last Moses is satisfied.
(18-23) Not till he had received full assurance of the people’s restoration to favour did Moses prefer any request for himself. Then, however, he made use of the privilege granted him to speak with God, “as a man speaketh unto his friend,” in order to obtain a blessing for which his spiritual nature craved, and than which he could conceive nothing more desirable. “Shew me,” he said, “I beseech thee, thy glory.” All that he had yet seen of God was insufficient—only raised his desire, only sharpened his appetite to see more. He craved for that “beatific vision” which is the final reward of them that are perfected in another world. God could not grant his request in full, for it is impossible so long as we are in the flesh that we should look on God and live. “No man hath seen God at any time” (John 1:18). But He granted all that could be granted. He made “all his goodness pass before” Moses; He gave him a fresh revelation of His name (Exodus 34:6-7); and He even let him see some actual portion of His “glory”—as much as mortal man could possibly behold—more than any son of man had ever beheld before—more, probably, than any other son of man will ever behold until the consummation of all things (Exodus 33:22-23).
And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.(19) I will make all my goodness pass before thee.—It is not clear how this was fulfilled. Perhaps, as God announced His name—“the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,” &c. (Exodus 34:6-7)—a revelation of God’s ineffable goodness was miraculously flashed into his inmost soul, and the thousand instances of it which he had known brought distinctly to his recollection, so as to “pass before him.”
And will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.—It is not meant that God’s favour is bestowed arbitrarily, but only that it is in any case favour—a free gift, not earned nor merited.
And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock:(21) There is a place by me.—A place on the summit of Sinai, where God had been manifesting Himself, is clearly intended; but it is impossible to fix the place with any certainty. Speculations like those of Dr. Robinson (Biblical Researches, Vol. 1, p. 153) are of little value.
And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by:(22) And will cover thee with my hand.—Kalisch observes with justice that the mysteriousness of this obscure section “attains its highest climax in the three last verses” (Exodus 33:21-23). Human language is, by its very nature, unfit for the expression of sublime spiritual truths, and necessarily clothes them in a materialistic garment which is alien to their ethereal nature. All that we can legitimately gather from this verse and the next is that Moses was directed to a certain retired position, where God miraculously both protected him and shrouded him, while a manifestation of His glory passed by of a transcendent character, and that Moses was allowed to see, not the full manifestation, but the sort of after-glow which it left behind, which was as much as human nature could endure.