His Amazing Grace Goes Before Him (vv. 1-4)
The Grace of Reconciliation
It is hard for us to feel as Moses did during these days of uncertainty and desire. Because he had been so close to God on the mountain, he feared the Lord and knew Israel’s sins had provoked him. But the threat not to go forward with his people unhinged Moses. There was no point in the deliverance from Egypt and no glory for God in the world if he did not forgive his people. Moses was keenly aware that all the movement toward reconciliation and forgiveness had to come from God; he had to be gracious. There was nothing the people could say or do – not their tears, the execution of the ringleaders of the rebellion, taking off their ornaments, their wailing, promises to do better in the future – nothing but God himself could extend grace. He must take all the initiative. I wish that those who speak so assuredly about the “legal” nature of the old covenant and even find in the Mosaic covenant remnants of the covenant of works would pay more actual attention to Scripture itself, rather than adopting their theories and imposing them upon Scripture.
Could there ever be a more vivid picture of the grace of the old covenant than this very scene? There was absolutely nothing the people could do to restore themselves to God’s favor; he must act in grace and power. Their obedience – what obedience? They were extremely stubborn and rebellious to the point that the Lord said that if he did dwell with them, he would have to kill them. Thus, when we see here (v. 1) that God tells Moses to come back up the mountain and bring with him stones for a second giving of the law and covenant, this was all of sovereign grace – “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy” (33:19). Reconciliation between the holy God and vile sinners is what they used to call monergistic, meaning a sole or singular work of God, with no help from the sinner. This truth does not preach well today, for men have no heart for God’s sovereign grace or shame over their own depravity. The only way to bridge the distance between his holiness and our filth is from heaven to earth, from the offended God to the dead sinner. We cannot mount up to him one inch, but here we see a beautiful gospel picture that when the Lord found us in the wilderness of sin, cut to shreds by our iniquity, drowning in our depravity, he reached his hand down in his Son to save us. This is the true and only Gospel – man cannot save himself. He cannot reconcile himself to God or find a way to do so. God must take all the initiative, exert all the power, extend all the grace – and he does in Christ, as he did here through Moses, a type of our blessed Redeemer.
The Grace of Covenant Renewal
The graciousness of God’s covenant is further revealed in that he extended the covenant to them again. They broke his law, but he forgave their iniquities. Notice that there is nothing in Moses’ requests about giving the people another chance to obey. This is the way deal-makers talk – Lord, give me another try – I’ll do better tomorrow. There is no doing better before an offended God; there is only grace and mercy extended. And he had to extend them if the promise of life and salvation through the promised Deliverer was to be continued and fulfilled, for the people wholly broke his covenant (v. 1). Moses must now intercede again, even as we must when we break God’s word and sin. This is the directive the apostle John gives us (1 John 1:9-2:2). We must confess our sins and seek reconciliation through our only advocate, Jesus Christ. God was showing Moses the way – get up early in the morning and be ready to come up the mountain to appear before me (v. 2); no one else may come up with you, and no man or animal may touch the mountain (v. 3). Whenever God graciously forgives our sins and gives evidence that he has put away our sins and is willing to walk with us again after we have so grievously offended him, we must pursue repentance carefully (2 Cor. 7:11). Moses did exactly as the Lord commanded him (v. 4), preparing the two tables – one for Israel and one for God in the Ark – and rising early in the morning and ascending the mountain.
The Grace of Law
Worthy of the most careful attention is the point being made here, that God’s willingness to forgive his rebellious people was his response to Moses’ meditation and pleas for mercy. His law was utterly broken before it even made it down the mountain! To hear some talk, the old covenant is all about law-keeping as the basis of obtaining or remaining in God’s favor, while the new covenant is all of grace. If this is the difference, then there is no old covenant at all, for the people never kept it, if its basis was their obedience. What we actually see here is that God’s old covenant promises, nearness, and law is the fruit of his reconciling love and condescending grace to his people. God did not give them the law to make them righteous or to earn his grace. The law showed them God’s holiness and their sinfulness. His righteousness was the starkest contrast to their wickedness, which in turn elevated his grace beyond all bounds. Thus, we must always be assured that the fact we have the Ten Commandments is because of God’s amazing grace to his church in the wilderness. Salvation, then as now, was also the fruit of his mercy and power extended to sinners. The law was never given to make men righteousness but to lead them to the true righteousness to be possessed in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:21).
Since God gave the law to his people after reconciling them to himself, we must never see law and grace as opposites, except in the narrow sense that there were some Judaizers in later Israel who thought righteousness came by the law. The Roman Catholic church and related views of process justification hold the same view, but it is never taught, encouraged, or even hinted at in the Word of God. The righteousness that justifies sinners is always the gift of God’s grace, so that the humbled sinner never pleads his works before God but God’s mercy toward him through the good works of Jesus Christ applied to us. And with respect to the reconciled believer’s attitude toward the law, it must ever be positive. The convicting light of the law exposed his deadness and utter inability to reconcile himself to God. Our salvation, moreover, is not lawless, for it was obtained by Jesus’ obedience for us, and we know his attitude toward the law was delight: “I delight to do thy will, O my God; yea, thy law is within my heart” (Ps. 40:8). And now that we are righteous before God through our Savior’s imputed righteousness, he gives us the Spirit of holiness who writes God’s law not upon tablets of stone but upon tablets of human hearts (2 Cor. 3:3), so that we may imitate and enjoy our Savior’s delight in obeying our Father.
His Wonderful Name Revealed (vv. 5-7)
Mercy, Grace, and Longsuffering
“Show me your glory” is now answered by “and the Lord proclaimed the name of the Lord.” The shekinah glory cloud was also present, but if Moses was looking for any other visible manifestation of God’s glory, none was forthcoming. What the Lord here does is to “show” by “words,” to reveal glory by preaching Moses a sermon. And notice that this sermon flows directly from his reconciling grace. To us, his sinful creatures, all God’s loveliness and glory revealed now in the face of Jesus Christ is his saving grace and goodness. It is not knowledge of God’s essence that we need. We are incapable of receiving, understanding, or profiting from such a revelation. What we need is a revelation of his saving name – the LORD, the LORD God – Yahweh, Yahweh – perhaps a duplication of endearment, although it is impossible to affirm this with certainty, but absolutely for emphasis. What you need to know about my glory, Moses, is my saving grace and goodness to you. This is the reason you are able to stand before me now. It is the reason I am renewing my covenant with my people, that I am even willing to call them “my” people.
I am merciful – full of compassion. What! This is the first thing God would say of himself, at this point? Not: “I am the offended holy and just God who is about to destroy you.” No, he proclaims his pity and compassion for sinners. What moves him to this? His own “abundant mercy and great love” (Eph. 2:4), and surely not any thought of the people’s obedience – there was none in the past and would be none in the future. Salvation comes from God’s heart that delights in mercy, not at the expense of his justice but in his wisdom justice and mercy, righteousness and peace meeting and kissing ultimately at the cross – mercy providing the substitute, justice satisfied upon the substitute, all of God’s mercy and grace. From where does so great a gift come – even before Jesus Christ came, that God provided a way of forgiveness, and certainly after he came, that he would give his only Son? Because his heart is generous and liberal to the undeserving. And in the face of so many provocations that our sins are to him, he is longsuffering – long in the waiting, slow in the anger, giving sinners time to repent. And lest we grow weary in well-doing and try to call down lightning from heaven, remember that if God’s essence toward us then was long-suffering, how much more now? His longsuffering toward Paul is his pattern toward sinners (1 Tim. 1:16; 2 Pet. 3:15). The way we grow more merciful and patient toward one another, even toward the world of sinful men, is to “taste that the Lord is gracious” (1 Pet. 2:3).
Abounding Goodness and Truth
This revelation becomes a bedrock confession of faith for Israel’s faithful (Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). During all the subsequent centuries of backsliding and almost apostasy, it is Israel’s last remaining hope – that God is great in hesed, goodness, loving-kindness, sworn love, faithfulness. It is not as if God has “character traits,” some more fundamental or defining than others. All that God is, he is fully, eternally, and unchangeably. But there are aspects of his character that shine with the greater luster because we are sinners and yet loved by Him. One of these must forever be his goodness or loving-kindness, which is not based upon any whim or sentiment he has but upon his intrinsic mercy and grace. His hesed endures forever exactly because this is the way he is toward sinners – he delights in mercy toward them. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. These are not opposed. Their full unity escapes us because we are dust, so we must keep looking to Jesus to see God’s great goodness displayed in laying our transgressions upon his beloved Son. Truth is added, for God’s goodness and love are firm, reliable, sure, as the word emeth (tm,a/) signifies – not so much truth as in propositional truth, but truth in the sense that God’s word is firm – which certainly implies propositional accuracy, but is deeper.
Imagine, therefore, the Psalmist’s joy and wonder as he wrote, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:6). He could not believe this did he not also firmly trust in God’s reliable self-revelation, that despite our sinfulness, God is good and delights in showing kindness to us. We change in our circumstances of life, sometimes looking back twenty years or even one and feeling like things have so completely altered that we are altogether different people. Not the Lord – he is true or steadfast in his love and kindness, constant in his mercy and grace. If we would think upon these things with greater understanding, our affections would be enflamed to love the Lord our God, our Savior God. Sin would be less attractive to us, for how can we sin flippantly against the One who promised to do us constant good? Has iniquity abounded to such an extent that our love has become cold toward the One whose love never alters? May God deliver us, and one of the ways he delivers us is by revealing his character to our hearts. Nothing more elevates us to praise and obey God as clear views of his great goodness and grace to us in Jesus Christ.
Covenant Love and Faithfulness
God’s goodness and grace are expressed covenantally, or down through the believing generations of his people. Sometimes that line can be broken due to man’s unfaithfulness or God’s secret providences, but his normal working is that when his grace embraces a man, he embraces that man’s (or woman’s) family for generations to come. The children of believers are thus a “holy seed,” not because they are intrinsically better than the children of disobedience, for all of God’s dealings with us are gracious, but because their children are separated unto God (Ezra 9:2; 1 Cor. 7:14). With the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s covenant love still expresses itself in this covenant way. “The promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39). Notice the very covenantal way of expressing the gospel – you and your children, nearby and far away, and ever expanding. God’s covenant purposes are universal in their scope – men and women from every tongue and tribe (Rev. 5:9) – for he will fulfill his promises to Abraham, that in Abraham’s seed, which is Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16), all the nations will be blessed. And notice that the leading indication of this blessing is “guarding hesed,” or keeping mercy, guarding it closely, so that God’s purposes never fail to be realized, for thousands – generation after generation. How expansive is God’s love – ever growing, looking for more sinners to save, greater heights to scale with the ladder of his longsuffering.
Forgiveness and Justice
The Reformed confessions are united in teaching that God’s covenant is not an addendum to the main work of salvation or a holdover from the ancient past, but an essential property of his dealings with us. We could have no joy in him, no confidence in his love, unless he drew near to us with promises and instructions for walking with him, all of which his Word speaks of as a covenant – a bonded relationship of grace and love, in which God promises us life and salvation through Jesus Christ, upon the condition of faith, which is his gift (Eph. 2:8-9), with incentives to obey and warnings against disobedience. In other words, God has to come to sinners and make them a clear promise of mercy, then seal that promise with various encouragements and threatening, all centered in the Lord Jesus Christ. We must have assurance of his favor – where can we go if not to his word? Our feelings or experiences? Our brains and theological paradigms and rituals? We cannot reason or feel our way into a relationship with God. He must come down and pledge himself to be our God, as he has since Adam fell, to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, the prophets, and ultimately our Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 1:54-55, 72-73).
To teach us that his covenant of grace is always a living and breathing thing, not simply rules and structures, he brings forward “forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin” are a central feature of his covenant (v. 7). Iniquity refers to our now inborn depravity, by which we offend or transgress against God’s holiness and word, by many specific and actual sins. How else could there ever be a covenant if it depended upon our works and performances? It must immediately fall to the ground. Moses might walk down the mountain with a thousand stone tablets of the covenant, but if they are based upon our obedience, he must throw them down every time. No, at the heart of God’s covenant is that he will take away our sins (Rom. 11:27). This is the reason that the gospel we preach is one of remission or forgiveness of sins. God pledges to forgive us. It is the gate of his mercy through which all the other graces flow to us. Without this, all else is lost.
But he will not leave the guilty unpunished. How can these two things go together – that he will freely pardon our sins, throw them in the bottom of the ocean, while at the same time never forgive the guilty? First, we must be persuaded that God is absolutely just and that “not clearing the guilty” redounds to his praise as does his mercy. There is no pitting mercy and justice against one another. Second, all who are brought within God’s gracious covenant are treated undeservedly, so there is also no question that one is worthier or guiltier than another. But, third, we must say that some do not believe or apply to God’s promise of mercy. They do not confess their sins and come to God for cleansing and mercy. All are guilty and punishable, but those who believe upon Jesus Christ are punished in him. He took our load of guilt and judgment upon himself. Those who do not believe upon his name bear the load of their sins and guilt. God will never pardon them. They rejected the sacrifice of his Son, and there is no other substitute for sinners but He who became sin for us, that we might become God’s righteousness in him (2 Cor. 5:21).
But even here, not to place God’s very character on our weak scales, mercy triumphs justice, not at the expense of justice but by its satisfaction. The covenant faithfulness extends for thousands of generations, while the sins of the fathers are visited for only three or four generations. This is not an absolute rule, as if God is bound by our counting, but is meant comparatively. God does not keep anger forever (Jer. 23:12), but will remember his former mercies toward his people. This does not prevent him from sending his enemies to hell forever, for the limitation here is to his covenant people. Is it just for God to visit the father’s sins upon his children? The second commandment will help us here, for we can add here as it is said there to those who hate me (Ex. 20:5). If we love the Lord – which is all by his grace, so let us plead with our Savior to send his Spirit to us that our hearts may be filled with God’s love both his for us and ours to him in return (Rom.5:8) – this curse shall never come upon us or upon our children. Hearing this, let us flee to Jesus Christ, believe upon his name, believe his covenant promises for our children, and endeavor to walk joyfully and carefully with God, “perfecting holiness in his fear” (2 Cor. 7:1). Our lives, our children’s, and generations coming will be powerfully shaped by God’s mercy to us, lived out in believing, loving obedience to him.
On Our Face Worshipping (vv. 8-9)
Glory be to God for his Glorious Grace
Moses was immediately humbled by the loveliness of God’s grace and love, proclaimed to him in a sermon of such magnitude that the rocks must have splintered! Many men seem to delight more in preaching about God’s wrath, and it is true that men must be urged to flee from the wrath to come. The truth they most hate is most needed to save their souls. But it was God’s grace and love, all proclaimed to his heart, that led Moses hurriedly to bow his head to the earth and worship. Yes, the terrors of God’s wrath can have the same effect, but if we really want our hearts to be melted to faith and repentance, if we want to know God’s glorious heart, we must labor to gain clear views of his mercy, grace, loving-kindness, covenant faithfulness, and forgiveness. And this revelation led Moses to renew his former petition – since you are so kind and longsuffering, Lord, go among us. Keep your covenant and mercy. The people are stiff-necked, so please pardon our sins.
Pardon Our Sins and Take Us for Your Inheritance
Moses would have laughed in the face of theologians who speak of his covenant as including elements of “works righteousness” or a republication of the original, pre-Fall covenant of works. Really, he would say, and where would that be? Where did we ever give that obedience or have any other basis to plead with God except his covenant mercies? Here is the pinnacle of God’s covenant with Israel, and my only plea was for mercy and forgiveness. The revelation of God’s mercy leads Moses to go further in his prayers – we shall rarely go astray when our prayers are based upon God’s promises of mercy. “Take us for your inheritance” (v. 9). What? Why would God want these people for his inheritance? We are used to thinking of God being our inheritance, which is sufficiently wonderful to occupy our highest thoughts for one hundred lifetimes, but for him to take us for his inheritance? This would be equivalent to giving a man a box of pain and misery for his inheritance, or the thousand worst diseases anyone ever imagined. But this is where God’s mercy in Jesus Christ finally leads us – that he wants us for his own possession, for his dwelling place through the Spirit (Eph. 2:20), Christ in us, we in Christ, Christ in the Father, all one together forever (John 17:21-23). His grace and mercy utterly overwhelm the mind and soul. That Moses would ask for this shows that even the older covenant with its weakness and fading glory was abounding in sufficient grace and mercy to give believers hope and a measure of boldness before God.
My Covenant and the Wonders I Will Do (v. 10)
God’s answer – I make a covenant – which was a pointed way of saying, “I will do as I have promised.” If we depend upon our works or our feelings, we shall never have any confidence in God’s love, but even in the worst season, we can depend upon his, “I make a covenant.” Especially now, for we have his new covenant in Jesus Christ; it is founded upon a better sacrifice, with a better priest, and a better tabernacle. We have the precious blood of the everlasting covenant now shed for us. God says to us with greater force – for now he shakes the heavens and the earth – I will keep my word. Look to my Son. When you are weak and fall into sin, when you see the church convulsed by heresies and persecutions, when you see the nations raging against the crown right of Jesus Christ, I have made a covenant. My oath, my covenant, my word stands sure. I will do wonders. He did them for Israel, destroying that entire generation over twenty years of age for its wicked stubbornness, raising up their children to take their place, dispossessing the Canaanites, and then giving his people rest. They saw the work of the Lord. We have seen greater works. All the nations are now seeing his works and will continue to see them, until “every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Let us expect this. God has made a covenant, and he will not alter the word that has gone out of his mouth. Somehow, and our weak faith cannot see it now, the nations will wonder at God’s mighty works. Let us pray that they are works of salvation and mercy, for sometimes his work is judgment upon his enemies. Let us pray that his church awakens to the glorious revelation he has made to us in Jesus Christ, stop altering his word so that the world will accept it, and do as Moses did – quickly bow our heads and worship God for his mercy.
If we could only see it more clearly and believe it more constantly – that the great and glorious name God revealed to Moses on Sinai is the same name he has revealed in Jesus Christ. But the revelation he made to us in him is even clearer and should be more consuming, for the specifics of mercy and grace, longsuffering and forgiveness, covenant and justice, may now all be seen in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Ah, God abounds in grace and goodness to us – look at how much he has forgiven, the cost of our redemption, the tears of the Redeemer! Ah, his mercy he will not alter because Jesus Christ has made an end of sin and sacrifice; he has sealed every promise of God with the A-men of his blood (2 Cor. 1:20; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 1:19). Does God really take us for his inheritance, as vile as we are? Does he want us for his children and church? Look at Emmanuel, God with us, the way he was rich but became poor and tabernacled among us, the way he is still looking as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world? Doubt not. God wants us. He has not revealed his glory to kill us but to raise us to everlasting life, to be his possession, to live with us forever, to be a Father to us, and to make us his children by the adopting, renewing grace of the Holy Spirit. Let us make haste and worship.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. How is the gracious nature of the old covenant revealed in these verses?
2. How does monergism highlight the gracious nature of the covenant?
3. Why should the law never be viewed as the way to earn righteousness?
4. How did the Lord show Moses his glory?
5. Why is mercy the first rays of God’s glory?
6. What is God’s longsuffering? How it is related to our salvation? See 2 Peter 3:15.
7. How are God’s grace and faithfulness revealed by covenant?
8. Why does God relate to us by covenant?
9. How can forgiveness and justice go together?
10. How can God be just and visit the fathers’ iniquity upon the children? See Exodus 20:5.
11. Why is nothing more suited to humble our hearts and lead us to worship as God’s grace and mercy?
12. Upon what basis did Moses plead with God?
13. Why must we expect God to do wonders for us?