In his novel The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien tells how Bilbo Baggins and a dozen dwarves traveled to the Lonely Mountain, defeated a terrible dragon, and returned home with golden treasures. Their companion for the first part of their journey was Gandalf the Grey, a man of unusual wisdom and extraordinary power. Gandalf served as their guardian and guide, and sometimes their savior.
But Gandalf could not always be with them. Midway through their journey, as the traveling party prepared to enter the forest of Mirkwood, they unexpectedly learned that Gandalf would not be going with them. This unhappy news was greeted with instant dismay: “The dwarves groaned and looked most distressed, and Bilbo wept. They had begun to think Gandalf was going to come all the way and would always be there to help them out of difficulties.… They begged him not to leave them. They offered him dragon-gold and silver and jewels, but he would not change his mind.” When traveling through dangerous and unfamiliar territory, it is good to have a guide, and devastating to lose one.
GOD CANCELS HIS TRIP
The loss of a guide explains Israel’s distress in Exodus 33. The Israelites had already suffered many painful consequences for their great sin with the golden calf, but now it was time to move on.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exod. 33:1–3a)
So far, so good. Even after everything the Israelites had done to displease him, God would still make good on his promises. He would give his people blessing after blessing. With Moses as their leader, they would finally leave the wilderness and enter the land that God had promised in the covenant. All their enemies would be defeated. By the power of his avenging angel, God would sweep the land clear of danger. Then the Israelites would take possession of the land in all its abundance. Everything was going to work out after all.
There was only one problem. Although the Israelites were still going to the Promised Land, God had decided not to make the trip. “But I will not go with you,” he said, “because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way” (v. 3b). This verse does not mean that God has trouble controlling his temper. As we have seen throughout Exodus, the Bible sometimes describes God in human terms. This is one of the ways he accommodates himself to our limited understanding. But it does not mean God has the same sinful emotions that we have. When God decides to destroy someone, it is not because he has lost his cool, but because he responds to sin with perfect righteousness. He is a God of holy justice, and this made it too dangerous for him to stay with Israel. It would be safer for them if he didn’t go at all.
The problem, of course, was Israel’s sin. The Israelites were covenant lawbreakers, or as God so aptly put it, “a stiff-necked people.” Like a farm animal that stubbornly refuses to shoulder the plow, the Israelites would not wear the yoke of obedience to God. And under these circumstances, God would not go with them. This was for their own protection. At any moment he might have to judge them for their sin, and then they would perish. The people wanted and needed God to live close to them, and yet he was unable to do this because of their sin.
Perhaps the Israelites should have seen this coming. Since the time he first told Moses to bring Israel out of Egypt, God had been drawing his people closer and closer. He answered their prayers. He provided for their needs. He taught them his law. He even made plans to build his home in the middle of their camp. God was totally committed to this relationship. He was their God, and they were his people.
But at the beginning of chapter 33 there are troubling signs that God and his people had grown apart. In verse 1 God referred to the Israelites as “the people” rather than “my people.” Why the sudden sense of distance? Then in verse 2 he promised to send Israel “an angel.” Formerly, God had called his messenger “my angel” (Exod. 23:23; 32:34), implying that the angel represented his very presence. In fact, many people think that the angel may have been the Son of God himself, the Second Person of the Trinity. But now God would send an ordinary angel to do the job, one of the heavenly rank and file.
Then at end of verse 3 God dropped the bomb: He was not going with them. Among other things, this meant that his plans for the tabernacle were put on hold. The purpose of the tabernacle was to create a sacred space where God could dwell with his people. But God had decided not to go with them—literally, not to go “in their midst.” This is the same language that he used back in chapter 25 when he told Moses to build the tabernacle: “have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them” (v. 8, emphasis added). So when God said, “I will not go with you,” he specifically meant there would be no tabernacle at the center of their camp.
The Israelites were desperate to have God go with them. The irony, of course, is that this is why they made the golden calf. They wanted God to be right there with them. But now, because of their sinful idolatry, he would not be with them at all. John Currid notes the irony: “God had given the Hebrews instructions to build a sanctuary so that he would reside among the people. They instead made a calf as a physical representation of gods being with them. Now Yahweh threatens to remove from them the true symbol of his presence.”
This is what happens when we worship other gods, especially gods that we can see and touch. Rather than bringing us closer to God, our idols take us farther away. Martin Luther said, “Whatever man loves, that is his god. For he carries it in his heart; he goes about with it night and day; he sleeps and wakes with it, be it what it may, wealth or self, pleasure or renown.” What preoccupies our thoughts? What do we treasure in our hearts? God wants to fill our lives with his presence. But when we carry other things around with us, pursuing them by day and thinking about them at night, there is no room left for God.
The Israelites were facing life without God. There would be no divine presence in their camp—no tabernacle. And without the tabernacle, there would be no altar for sacrifice, no laver for cleansing, no lampstand for light, no table for bread, no incense for prayer, no ark for atonement, and no glory in Israel. The Israelites would have to go it alone. They were still booked for the Promised Land, but God had canceled his reservations. According to Peter Enns,
The significance of this turn of events cannot be stressed too highly. The whole purpose of the Exodus was for God and his people to be together. God’s presence with them will be firmly established in the proposed tabernacle. By saying “go ahead, but you’re going without me,” the events of the previous thirty-one chapters are being undone. This is not merely a setback; it means the end of the road.
THE PEOPLE’S RESPONSE
How would you have responded to the news that God wasn’t going? Most people probably think they would be very upset, but I’m not so sure. Consider what God was offering the Israelites: He was offering to bless them without having a relationship with them. But this is exactly what most people want!
It is shocking but true: Most people want God to help them overcome whatever obstacles they are facing in life, and they want to reach a promised land, but they are not all that interested in having a personal relationship with the living God. They would be happy to have God defeat all their enemies and let them into his kingdom, even if he did not give them himself. In fact, this is what some people who claim to be Christians have tried to do. They have made a decision for Christ so they can get into Heaven, but they are not living with him as their Savior and their God.
Even the Israelites knew better. They refused to settle for any blessing apart from God’s very presence:
When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. For the Lord had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.’ ” So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb. (Exod. 33:4–6)
Word quickly spread throughout the camp: “God’s not going with us!” Instantly, the people were dismayed. Their distress is indicated both by their attitude and by their actions. They began to cry, partly because they were sad to see God go, but also because they were sorry for their sins. Then they took off their ornaments—meaning their jewelry and other finery—as a symbolic act of repentance.
A. W. Pink comments:
The removal of their ornaments was for the purpose of evidencing the genuineness of their contrition. Outward adornment was out of keeping with the taking of a low place before God. Contrariwise, external attractions and displays show up the absence of that lowliness of spirit and brokenness of heart which are of great price in the sight of God. The more true spirituality declines, the more an elaborate ritual comes to the fore.
Many scholars think that taking off jewelry related in some specific way to idolatry. There seems to be a parallel in Genesis. When Jacob renewed the covenant at Bethel, he told everyone in his family to take off their jewelry, and then he buried it all in the ground, along with all their idols (35:2–4). By taking off their jewelry, they were rejecting their pagan idols and recommitting themselves to serve the one true God.
The Israelites did the same thing at Mount Horeb. And they did it eagerly. God told them to “take off” their ornaments, but the Bible says that they “stripped” (natzal) them off, indicating how ready they were to get right with God. This was a sign of genuine repentance. Whenever we realize that something is causing us to sin, we need to get rid of it right away. We also need to make sure that we never go back to it. The Israelites were very careful about this. Once they stripped off their jewelry, they kept it off. According to the grammar of verse 6, they went without ornaments from Mount Horeb onward. This was a permanent change, which is another sign of genuine repentance: getting rid of sin once and for all. When the Holy Spirit convicts us of any sin, we need to take off whatever is leading us into sin and never put it on again.
Another thing we learn from Israel’s ornamentation is the spiritual power of money. We can trace the people’s spiritual progress simply by looking at what they did with their gold. Earlier they took off their earrings to make the golden calf, using their wealth to turn away from God. This time they were taking off the rest of their jewelry as a sign that they wanted to worship God alone. They were putting off idolatry. Later they would use the same gold to build the tabernacle (see Exod. 35:22). Clearly, the Israelites were making some spiritual progress. Rather than using their wealth to make idols, they were learning to give it up for God and use it for his glory.
What we do with our money and our other possessions is one of the best indicators of our true spiritual condition. Are we spending most of it on ourselves, or are we growing in the grace of generosity? Are we subtly becoming more and more selfish with what we have, or are we making deeper and deeper sacrifices for the kingdom of God? Are we only giving what’s left, or are we giving more than we think we can spare, so that God can do his saving work? Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). By examining our patterns of giving and spending, we can see whether our hearts are in the right place or not. A personal bank account or a family budget is a spiritual echocardiogram: It measures the soundness of a person’s heart before God.
Israel’s heart was in the right place. When the people heard that God was not going with them, they were distressed in the right way and for the right reason. They were not just feeling sorry for themselves. Instead, they were repenting of their sin. And they were doing this because they wanted to restore their relationship with God. This was everything to them. As far as they were concerned, if God was not in their midst, then even if they still made it to the Promised Land, they had lost the only thing that really mattered, which was their relationship with God. They didn’t want to be led by an angel; they wanted to walk with God.
Their example reminds us to love God more than we love his blessings. Many blessings come from knowing God. There is the blessing of repentance, of being able to see our sin and turn away from it. There is the blessing of forgiveness, of receiving a pardon for all our sin. There is the blessing of justification, of being declared righteous in God’s sight. There is the blessing of sanctification, of growing in godliness. There is the blessing of adoption, of having all the rights and privileges of a child of God. There is the blessing of perseverance, of staying with God to the very end. There is the blessing of glorification, of having the free gift of eternal life
The blessings go on and on forever, but the biggest blessing is God himself. Knowing him is better than anything else we can imagine. We should not focus so much on what he does for us that we neglect who he is to us. How blessed it is to have a personal relationship with the living God. How blessed it is to meditate on his many perfections—his infinite wisdom, power, holiness, goodness, and love. How blessed it is to know him as one God in three Persons. How blessed it is to know the Father as Creator, the Son as Redeemer, and the Spirit as Sustainer of life. How blessed it is to communicate with God every day, to listen to what he is saying to us in his Word, and to tell him all our troubles through prayer.
If we know God—really know him—then all the rest of his blessings will follow. But the first thing, the main thing, the fundamental thing, is to know God in a personal way through Jesus Christ. In his wonderful book Knowing God, J. I. Packer writes, “What were we made for? To know God. What aim should we set ourselves in life? To know God. What is the ‘eternal life’ that Jesus gives? Knowledge of God.… What is the best thing in life, bringing more joy, delight, and contentment, than anything else? Knowledge of God.”6 If this is true, then we should keep God at the center of our experience the way the Israelites wanted to keep him at the center of their camp.
THE TENT OF MEETING
At this point the Israelites weren’t quite sure what would happen next. God had told them that he wasn’t going with them. It was too dangerous—not for him, obviously, but for them. Yet they had repented of their sin. They had taken off the ornaments of their idolatry, as God had commanded. Now they were waiting to see what he would do.
The Bible does not resolve their tension right away. Will God go with the Israelites, or will they have to go without him? We don’t find out until later in the chapter. While we’re waiting, the Bible tells us about Moses and the tent of meeting. Many Bible scholars complain about what they see here as a change of subject. Some say that the next section of Exodus is “completely out of place.” The truth, of course, is that what comes next belongs right where the Holy Spirit put it. The Bible brings us to a crucial point in the story of salvation, but instead of resolving things right away, it leaves us hanging in suspense. This is an excellent way to tell a story.
Furthermore, what comes next begins to resolve the problem, because these verses show that there was at least one man who could come into God’s presence:
Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses. Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to his tent. The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent. (vv. 7–11)
This “tent of meeting” was not the tabernacle. What makes this somewhat confusing is that elsewhere in Exodus the inner structure of the tabernacle is also called “the Tent of Meeting” (e.g., Exod. 27:21; 40:2). Both tents were places to meet with God. However, at this point, when the tabernacle had not yet been built, Moses had his own private tent of meeting.
One significant difference between the two tents was that whereas the tabernacle stood at the center, Moses pitched this tent outside the camp—way outside. The Bible stresses that it was located “some distance” from the Israelites. It had to be far away because the Israelites were still under divine judgment. Their camp was still a place of sin, and God had said that he would not dwell in it. So at least for the time being, if the Israelites wanted to meet with God, they had to go outside the camp. They were separated from God by their sin.
Yet God had not entirely abandoned them. The tent of meeting was a temporary tabernacle—an alternative place to meet with God. And what happened at this sanctuary was amazing. Moses would leave the camp and walk out to the tent of meeting. As he was going, the people would stand and worship from a distance. They were looking to their mediator as he went to meet with God. When Moses entered the tent, a pillar of cloud would come down from Heaven and cover the entrance. This was a theophany, a visible manifestation of the glorious presence of God. The glory-cloud showed the people that Moses was meeting with God.
What happened inside the tent of meeting was just as amazing: Moses talked with God. He had talked with God back at the burning bush, and again on top of the holy mountain. But now God was coming down to meet with him in his tent. In grace he was condescending to communicate with his prophet. There at the tent of meeting God spoke with Moses “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Exod. 33:11). The phrase “face to face” does not mean that Moses could see God, for just a few verses later God would say, “no one may see me and live” (v. 20). Rather, it is a figure of speech intended to show that God and his prophet enjoyed direct communication. Moses had immediate access to God. This was a level of intimacy and fellowship that no human being had experienced since the day that God banished Adam and Eve from the garden. Moses and God were friends. God told him everything he needed to know about his plans for Israel. He spoke with Moses like a friend with a friend.
This meant that there was still hope. God had told the Israelites that he would not go up in the middle of their camp. But at least he was still talking to their mediator. There was a place, outside the camp, where God would meet with Moses. And anyone who wanted to know God’s will could approach the tent of meeting, talk things over with Moses, and then wait for Moses to inquire of God. Although God would not stay in their midst, they could go out and meet with God through their mediator. Even this limited form of contact was an extraordinary privilege. The people were distanced from God by their sin; yet there was still a point of contact, a way for them to connect with God.
FRIENDS WITH GOD
As we consider what Israel had to do to meet with God, we are reminded of the amazing privilege that we have today. Where can we go to meet with God? We don’t have to stay at a distance. We don’t have to go outside the camp. We don’t have to approach the tent of meeting. We don’t have to consult with a prophet or a priest. As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we have immediate access to God through the presence of his Holy Spirit.
Today the tent of meeting is inside us, because God has come to make his home in us. This is the work of God the Holy Spirit. Jesus has sent the Spirit to live in us. Thus the Apostle Paul prays “that out of his glorious riches he [God] may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:16, 17a). This means that we are the place of God’s dwelling. From the very moment that we receive Jesus into our hearts by faith, we are in direct communication with Almighty God.
This is what one of America’s founding fathers, John Winthrop, experienced when he first became a Christian. Winthrop wrote: “I was now grown familiar with the Lord Jesus Christ.… If I went abroad, he went with me, when I returned, he came home with me. I talked with him upon the way, he lay down with me, and usually I did awake with him: and so sweet was his love to me, as I desired nothing but him in heaven or earth.”
This is what happens when someone becomes a Christian. God comes into our lives in a whole new way. He is with us all the time. We have constant communion with him. Now when we read the Bible, God talks to us like a friend with a friend. His Holy Spirit applies his holy Word directly to our minds and hearts. All the promises in the Bible are promises that God makes to us in Christ. All the warnings are warnings to us; all the commandments are commandments to us. God speaks to us in his Word. The communication is two-way, because when we pray, we are speaking back to God. We tell God how much we love him. We confess our sins. We share our worries. We talk over our problems. We ask for help. We speak with God like a friend with a friend. This is what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It means to be in direct and constant communication with Almighty God.
The great Princeton theologian Archibald Alexander wrote, “If Christ be in us there will be communion.… He will sometimes speak to us—He will speak comfortably to us—He will give tokens of his love. He will invite our confidence and will shed abroad his love in our hearts. And if Christ be formed within us we cannot remain altogether ignorant of his presence. Our hearts, while he communes with us, will sometimes burn within us.”
Now that God is with us and within us, we know that he will never leave us or forsake us, but will stay with us wherever we go. This is the promise that Jesus made to his disciples: “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b). Jesus will never get up and leave our camp. Yet this is exactly what some Christians fear. When we fall into serious sin, we sometimes doubt whether God is still with us. Our sense of guilt is so great that we begin to question our relationship with God: “Does God still love me? Can God still use me? Will God still bless me? Or am I so stiff-necked that he will abandon me?”
The answer is that God never abandons his friends. Every friend of his is a friend forever. God has invested far too much in this friendship to abandon us. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And then he went on to say, “You are my friends … I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (vv. 14a, 15b). We have the same high privilege that Moses had—to be called a friend of God. But if anything, our privilege is even greater, because we know what sacrifice Jesus made to secure our friendship. He laid down his life for us, dying for our sins on the cross.
As we study the history of salvation, we see God always moving in the direction of closer intimacy with his people. He is always seeking to restore the intimate fellowship we lost through sin. All through Exodus he is trying to find a way to dwell with his people. He can’t do it in Exodus 33, but he hasn’t given up yet either. He is still meeting with Moses. Soon he will go ahead with his plans for the tabernacle. And by the end of Exodus he will come down to dwell with his people in glory.
The tabernacle was only the beginning. Eventually God came down in the person of his Son and “tabernacled” among us. But he wanted to have an even more intimate relationship with us; so he sent his Spirit to dwell in our hearts by faith. One day he will take us into his very presence. Then, as the Scripture says, we will see him “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12a). This has always been God’s plan. He wants to draw us into a closer and closer relationship with himself.
God wants to do the same thing in our lives as individual Christians. He wants to develop a deeper, more intimate relationship with us. He wants us to hear his voice speaking in Scripture. He wants us to trust in his promises, depend on his grace, and live by his Spirit. And he wants us to talk to him, growing more intimate with him through prayer.
Do you have this kind of friendship with God? He is inviting you to get to know him by trusting in Jesus. When you receive Jesus Christ into your life by faith, then God is with you. He will never leave you. He will be your friend forever.
Ryken, P. G., & Hughes, R. K. (2005). Exodus: saved for God’s glory (pp. 1018–1027). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.