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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 33

Gray's Concise Bible CommentaryGray's Concise Commentary

Verses 1-6


Moses for forty days has been absent in the mount, and to the people it seemed long. Had they forgotten the awe-inspired sights and sounds they had seen and heard? Had all the sublime and stirring events of the months since they departed from Egypt been obliterated from their memory? How can we explain the folly into which they now fell? If we cannot explain it, let us ask our own hearts if we know anything like it.

THE MOLTEN CALF (Exodus 32:1-6 )

What demand was made of Aaron (Exodus 32:1 )? How was their sinful impatience shown? How does the phrase, “who shall go before us,” indicate the cause of their impatience? Describe Aaron’s guilt (Exodus 32:2-5 ). Does this appear to have been a violation of the first or the second commandment?

The idol was probably a piece of wood carved into the shape of a calf, and overlaid with melted gold. The model was the bull worshipped by the Egyptians. The last words of Exodus 32:6 refer to unclean practices associated with such worship among the heathen.

DIVINE WRATH (Exodus 32:7-14 )

By the use of what pronoun in Exodus 32:7 does God renounce leadership of the people? What test of loyalty is put to Moses in Exodus 32:10 ? How does he apparently ignore God’s rejection of the people in Exodus 32:11 ? Notice the two strong arguments he presents in his expostulation (Exodus 32:12-13 ). One is God’s honor in the sight of Egypt, and the other His honor in keeping of his original promise to Israel. But does Moses excuse the sin of the people? When it says, “the LORD repented,” does it mean that He had changeable feelings like a man? Or should we say, rather that He acted on His unchangeable principle, always to show mercy to the penitent?

SWIFT PUNISHMENT (Exodus 32:15-29 )

Joshua probably had been awaiting Moses on the mount outside the cloud that enveloped him, and so had not heard the communication about the idolatrous worship. This explains the conversation in Exodus 32:17-18 .

Observe what Moses did: (1) He broke the two tablets of testimony, doubtless as emblematic of the breach the sin of the people had made in their covenant with God; (2) he destroyed the image, grinding it into powder and casting it in the brook from which they were supplied with drink; then did they experience in a physical sense the bitter results of their infatuation; (3) he rebuked Aaron, whose act was inexcusable (compare Deuteronomy 9:15-21 ); and (4) he judged the people through the instrumentality of the sons of Levi.

“Fill your hand” (Exodus 32:29 ) means, as in a previous lesson, “consecrate yourselves this day unto the LORD .” If it seems strange that the Levites met no effective resistance in their righteously indicative work, an explanation may be found in that many sympathized with them and disapproved of the sin committed. Perhaps also there were many indifferent ones, who simply had been led away by strong and wicked leaders. Then, consider the weakening effect of a conscience stricken by the sense of sin, which must have followed Moses’ words and actions.

POTENT INTERCESSION (Exodus 32:30 to Exodus 33:6 )

Instant destruction had been stayed, but full pardon had not been obtained, hence Moses’ action in these verses.

Note the impassionate form of entreaty in Exodus 32:32 . The consequences if God will not forgive their sin are unutterable. He does not name them. He feels that he could not live or enjoy the blessings of eternity if this were not done. Compare Paul’s words concerning the same people (Romans 9:1-5 ).

What can he mean by “the book Thou hast written?” How interesting that phrase thus early in the history of revelation! The Israelites were familiar with a register of families. Did Moses grasp by faith that such a register of the saints was to be found above?

What divine principle concerning sin and sinners is laid down in Exodus 32:33 ? (Compare Ezekiel 17:19-23 .) What command, promise and warning are found in Exodus 32:34 ? How does Exodus 32:35 show that God assumes the responsibility for what Moses and the Levites did? And how does it show that the people were held responsible for what Aaron did?

For “My Angel” of Exodus 32:34 , compare Exodus 23:20 and recall the previous instruction that He possesses the attributes and prerogatives of God. Subsequent revelation will conclusively show Him to be the second Person of the Trinity.

The last clause of this verse shows that while “the intercessor has prevailed, he has not yet heard the word of full remission.” The breach is repaired, but the relationship with God is not yet what it was before. The next lesson shows how that is brought about.

Verses 7-23



The tabernacle, or tent, here referred to (Exodus 33:7 ), was that of Moses, as the Tabernacle of the Lord had not yet been erected. As the Lord would no longer manifest Himself among the people, it was necessary thus to become separated from them if Moses was to enjoy such intercourse. (Compare 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 .) “The tabernacle of the Congregation” is rendered in the Revised Version, “the tent of meeting,” i.e., the place where the Lord met Moses and others who in penitence and faith gathered with him there.

In what now familiar way did the Lord manifest His presence with Moses (Exodus 33:9 )? What effect had this upon the people (Exodus 33:10 )? How is the Lord’s loving kindness towards Moses expressed in Exodus 33:11 ? Compared with Exodus 33:20 it will be seen that Moses did not behold the divine essence, but only such a vision of God’s face as it is possible for men to look upon and live.

MOSES’ INTE RV IEW WITH GOD (Exodus 33:12-23 )

What information does he seek (Exodus 33:12 )? And what argument does he use to obtain it? Observe further that he also wants to know God’s “way,” i.e., His way of salvation and leading for the people (Exodus 33:13 ). Moreover, he would know God Himself better, to the end that he might obtain more grace. Increasing grace always accompanies increasing knowledge of God (2 Peter 1:2 ). Observe the holy boldness with which he declines to relieve the Lord of the responsibility for the people He has chosen. He begs Him to consider that they are still His, and that He cannot thus break His covenant. What startling faith! And how God honors it! The Angel that shall go with them is the Angel of His presence (Isaiah 63:9 ).

And what greater boon does Moses ask (Exodus 33:18 )? Murphy has an excellent paragraph on this verse, quoted here in full:

To show mercy and yet do justly, to magnify grace and holiness at the same time, to bestow a perpetuity of blessing on a people wavering now and again into disobedience, was a problem that seemed to task the highest intelligence, to transcend the ordinary ways of providence, and call into exercise some inner and higher reaches of the eternal mind. Moved by a wish to do his duty with intelligence, Moses desires some insight into this mystery. Feeling that it touches the very center of the divine nature, involves the sublimest manifestations of His glory, his last and grandest petition is: “Show me now Thy glory.”

And from this point of view what is God’s glory (Exodus 33:10 )? An expansion of this thought is found in the next chapter. What necessary limitation must be laid upon Moses in the answer to his request (Exodus 33:20 )? The face of God means doubtless His essential self, the sight of which would be irresistible or insupportable to a finite being tainted with guilt as man is. But His back is His averted self, that mediate manifestation which a man may see and still live (Exodus 33:23 ).


Moses now returns to the mount (Exodus 34:2 ). What is he to prepare and take with him (Exodus 34:1 )? Who prepared the former tables which Moses broke? (Compare Exodus 31:18 .) What prohibition is laid upon him in this instance (Exodus 34:3 )?

Note carefully the proclamation of God’s glory in seven characteristics: “three pairs referring to His mercy and a single one affirming His justice” (Exodus 34:6-7 ).

If God “will by no means clear the guilty,” how can He at the same time forgive “iniquity, transgression and sin”? Only as the guilt falls on a voluntary and accepted substitute. A substitute accepted by God in the first instance, and humbly and penitently received by the sinner when revealed to him. It is this which gives meaning to all the Levitical sacrifices of which we are soon to learn more, and which typify the person and work of Him whom God had in mind from all eternity as the bearer of human guilt His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

How is Moses affected by what he sees and hears (Exodus 34:8 )? In what terms does he repeat his intercession for the people (Exodus 34:9 )? How does he identify himself with them?

Is Moses’ prayer heard and the covenant fully renewed (Exodus 34:10 )? What promise accompanies it?


The first part of this section is occupied with the repetition and enforcement of certain admonitions concerning entangling alliances with the idolatrous nations of Canaan (Exodus 34:11-17 ), and concerning the observance of the feasts (Exodus 34:18-26 ). Note especially the obligation imposed on the males in Exodus 34:23 , and the provision for their comfort in the promises in Exodus 34:24 , last half. Note further the second command to Moses to “write” what he had heard (Exodus 34:27 ). This writing doubtless includes the record of his present interview with God, but from Deuteronomy 10:4 we learn that it was God Himself who wrote the ten commandments again on the two tables which Moses had prepared.

How is Moses’ appearance described in Exodus 34:29 ? The word “shone” might be rendered “sent forth beams” or “horns,” which explains why some of the old artists show Moses with horns of light. How did this extraordinary luster affect the people (Exodus 34:30 )? How is the word “till” of Exodus 34:33 translated in the Revised Version? What a conspicuous sign this was of Moses’ acceptance with God and his authority over the people! And how it must have demonstrated to the latter their utter unpreparedness as yet for any higher manifestations of the divine glory than what they had already received. Compare 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 in the Revised Version.

Bibliographical Information
Gray, James. "Commentary on Exodus 33". Gray's Concise Bible Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jgc/exodus-33.html. 1897-1910.
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