In more detail: Exodus 33 appears to begin with a mixture of good and bad news: “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 33:1-3). But Yahweh’s people understand that even a blessing as great as the conquest of the Promised Land is of no value without Yahweh’s Presence among them: “When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments” (Exodus 33:4).
This delicate situation goes on. The Israelites wait in repentance; the tent where Yahweh meets with Moses is now far away, outside the camp… but Yahweh still meets face to face with
their intercessor, Moses. And that small opening of grace will grow into one of the most significant revelations of the entire Old Testament.
Moses intercedes for the people based on the grace that Yahweh already has shown: “Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people” (Exodus 33:13). Notice that he requests an extension of Yahweh’s grace to the people, not for them to receive the blessing of the Promised Land (that already has been confirmed) but for them to walk in the unique relationship offered to them when they first arrived at Mount Sinai: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples” (Exodus 19:5). They have not obeyed His voice nor kept His covenant, but Moses dares to request that Yahweh extend His unmerited love to them anyway.
Yahweh reconfirms His grace to Moses alone: “And he said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest’” (Exodus 33:14; note that “with you” and “I will give you” are singular, directed to Moses alone). Moses requests again that the grace he has found be extended to the people, too: “If your presence will not go with me [singular], do not bring us [plural] up from here” (Exodus 33:15). Again he identifies with the people: “For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:16) So that the splendor of Yahweh’s glory
may be seen by the nations, Moses pleads that this grace would be extended to the Israelites. And Yahweh approves Moses’request: “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name” (Exodus 33:17).
Moses breaks forth into joy in the request that follows: “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18). His intercession is much more than a desire to complete a mission, much more than simply attaining an objective in a long list of petitions for his people – he longs to walk in communion with Yahweh; he longs to know Him and enjoy His Presence. Immediately Yahweh agrees with him: “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will
proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD’. And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy (Exodus 33:19). But at the same time, there are limits between the companionship between man and God, limits based not on any weakness in God but on the incapability of created beings to know His holiness:“You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).
And just like Yahweh’s revelation on Mount Sinai in Exodus 20, Moses does not see any form but hears His word: “The LORD
passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin’” (Exodus 34:6-7). Just as in Exodus 3, Yahweh’s glory is linked with His Name. He always was, always is and always will be strong, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. His glory, power and mercy – indeed, all of His attributes – are eternally stable. This is glorious news to His sinful
people – He keeps steadfast love toward thousands and forgives all kinds of wickedness: iniquity, rebellion and sin. And His mercy is not weak or permissive; in no way does it negate His justice: “…who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). Both of these verses declare Yahweh’s glory and will resound several times in the rest of the Bible (see for example Psalm 86:15-16; 103:8-12; 145:5-9).
Moses responds appropriately to such a glorious revelation: “And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped” (Exodus 34:8). He also expresses one of the foremost
desires of those who have experienced Yahweh’s glory – the desire to remain in His Presence and see others enjoy Him, too: “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance” (Exodus 34:9). Yahweh answers, yes: “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you” (Exodus 34:10). His grace surpasses the sin of His people without discarding His righteousness. And in response, His people will walk in repentance and righteousness. They will live by their Jealous God (Exodus 34:14); they will separate themselves from the inhabitants of Canaan and will destroy all evidence of their idolatry (Exodus 34:12-13, 15-16). They will jealously guard the rituals and calendar organized upon
Yahweh’s grace (Exodus 34:17-26). And once again Moses is in His Presence, similar to the times before the incident of the golden calf but now with an even deeper appreciation of His grace.