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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 33

Coke's Commentary on the Holy BibleCoke's Commentary



The Lord refuseth to go with the people: Moses pitcheth the tabernacle without the camp: the Lord descends in a cloud, and speaks with Moses: Moses desires to see the glory of the Lord.

Before Christ 1491.

Verses 1-3

Exodus 33:1-3. And the Lord said unto Moses, &c.— One would imagine, that this was a repetition of what is said in the 34th verse of the last chapter; to which is added (Exodus 33:4.) a detail of the consequences which the declaration of God (Exodus 33:1-3.) had upon the people. In this view it should be rendered, now the Lord had said unto Moses, Depart, go, &c. The Almighty disclaims the people, and speaks of them only as brought up out of Egypt by Moses; see ch. Exodus 32:7. And though, in consequence of the intercession of Moses, he determines to fulfil his promise, and to give them the land which he sware unto Abraham; yet he refuses to go up with them himself, lest their refractoriness and continued disobedience should occasion their immediate and total destruction: he promises, however, to send an angel before them; a messenger or minister of an inferior order; from which it is evident, that the angel mentioned in the preceding chapters, as going before and conducting the Israelites, was, as we have had occasion often to observe, JEHOVAH himself, the MESSIAH, or Angel of the covenant. Compare these verses with ch. Exodus 23:20-21.

Verse 4

Exodus 33:4. And no man did put on him his ornaments The ornaments of dress have always been esteemed marks of cheerfulness and festivity. The laying aside these, and putting on sackcloth or other melancholy robes, has always been usual in times of trouble and sorrow, especially in the East; see Isaiah 32:11.Nehemiah 9:1; Nehemiah 9:1. The children of Israel, deprived of their greatest blessing, the presence and protection of the God whom they had grossly offended, were commanded to appear before him in the habit of mourners, confessing their sorrow for their offence, and deprecating his just indignation. The 5th verse is explanatory of the 4th. That I may know, Houbigant renders, that I may declare, or make known. By the mount Horeb, Exo 33:6 is in the Hebrew from mount Horeb; specifying that distance from the mount to which the people retired, as afraid and ashamed to appear before the presence of God. See Houbigant.

REFLECTIONS.—It was a discouraging message that Moses brought them, and bespoke God's high displeasure against them. For, 1. God refuses to go up with them, and leaves them to Moses and a ministering angel; against whom their provocations, though continued, might not be so aggravated as against himself in the midst of them; for the abuse of greater privileges brings along with it greater guilt. 2. He reproaches them with their stubbornness: he knew what was in them. Note; God sees our hearts, and of all our sins is most offended with the inbred alienation of our affections from him. 3. He threatens to consume them, as justly he might. It becomes us to know and feel the justice of our condemnation, that we may be more affected with the wonders of God's grace in pardoning. 4. He stands, as it were, to consider how to deal with them, and bids them humble themselves before him: if so be, he may yet have mercy upon them. God delights not in the death of a sinner: he stays his descending arm, and when he sees us in the dust, stripped of every hope, then he will magnify his grace to the uttermost.

The people were justly confounded at the message: to be forsaken of God, was matter of bitter mourning; and therefore they humble their souls, strip off their ornaments, and give strong expression of contrition. Note; (1.) To be forsaken of God, is the heaviest punishment that can fall upon us: if he but withdraw the light of his countenance from his people, they go mourning all the day long. (2.) When sin is committed, sorrow and shame should cover us; and though tears cannot wash away our guilt, yet 'tis in the way of humble abasement that we may expect to hear a message of peace.

Verse 7

Exodus 33:7. And Moses took the tabernacle Hence it appears plainly, as we have had occasion frequently to observe before; that there was a tabernacle among the Israelites, before that which was formed and reared by the immediate order of God. We must not, however, dissemble, that some take this to be only the tent of Moses, which he removed and pitched without the camp. But certainly, if the tent of Moses had been meant, it would have been called, in the Hebrew, HIS tent; whereas, it is emphatically THE tent or tabernacle. Saurin observes, that "before the building of the tabernacle, there was a tent, which bore likewise the name that was afterwards given to the real tabernacle. This was the tent of Moses; not that in which he dwelt with his family; but that which was destined for the conference between God and this lawgiver: God talked to him face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend, whether this kind of expression was, as Maimonides thinks, to distinguish that verbal commerce which God held with Moses, from the dreams and visions wherewith he honoured some other holy men, or, as others believe, that it denoted that God spake to him directly, and not by the ministry of angels. This tent was called the tabernacle of the congregation, or, as some render it, the tabernacle of association or meeting; because it was there that Moses met God, and where the people met Moses, when there was an occasion to consult the Divine oracle: God was pleased to give sensible tokens of his presence at such times. It is said, in Exo 33:10 that all the people saw the cloudy pillar stand at the tabernacle-door; and God gave answers there. This tent was set up in the camp of the Israelites before the idolatry of the golden calf: but God ordered it to be removed, the Jews say two thousand cubits; to testify, as is also their opinion, the abhorrence he conceived of their crime: and they build upon what is said, Num 35:5 and Joshua 3:4."

Verse 9

Exodus 33:9. And the Lord talked with Moses Houbigant, observing that there is nothing for the Lord in the Hebrew, renders the last clause of this verse, and the pillar stood at the door of the tabernacle, behind Moses.

Verse 11

Exodus 33:11. The Lord spake unto Moses face to face, &c.— i.e. Not by visions, dreams, or any obscure and awful resemblances; but by a distinct voice, in a conspicuous, familiar, friendly, and condescending manner. See Deu 34:10 and compare Exo 33:20 of this chapter. His servant Joshua—a young man, might be rendered, his servant Joshua—who ministered unto him: see note on ch. Exodus 24:5. Joshua must now have been near fifty years old.

REFLECTIONS.—While matters stand thus in suspense, God separates himself from them. The tabernacle is removed without the camp, in token that he left them: yet not so removed, but that they who were disposed might follow it. Thither the people whose hearts sought after God resorted; and thither Moses, as their advocate, went to intercede for them. The people followed him with their eyes; and God's appearance in the cloud at the door of the tabernacle bespoke his returning favour to them; on which they all worshipped him at the door of their tents, to beg that mercy which they had so justly forfeited. God there speaks friendly to Moses, and he returns to encourage the people, while Joshua remains before the Lord. Learn, (1.) That the removal of God's ordinances is a great judgment upon any people. 2. While there is a praying remnant left, there is hope. 3. The eye of faith, which follows Jesus into the heavenly tabernacle, keeps the soul from sinking under its fears.

Verse 12

Exodus 33:12. And Moses said unto the Lord Moses having received, as we may suppose, sufficient proofs of the contrition of the people for their abominable idolatry, now returns to the tabernacle, and renews his intercession for them with the Lord. He had so far prevailed already, as to gain a promise that the Lord would bring the Israelites into the land of Canaan; but the loss of the Divine Presence was too serious an evil not to engage his whole attention: and therefore, as mediator between the Lord and the people, he now proceeds to obviate this difficulty; wholly to regain, if possible, the Divine favour, and to reinstate the Israelites in those privileges which their late disobedience had forfeited. In this view, I conceive, the present very obscure and difficult passage of Scripture, from this verse to the end of the next chapter, is to be understood. "It must be owned," say the authors of the Universal History, "that the account which Moses gives us of this Divine vision is covered with obscurity. But it must be remembered, that Moses spoke to a gross and carnal people, in a language far from copious, especially in words or idioms suitable either to the Deity, or to the dignity of the present glorious transaction; and that it is therefore no wonder, if he borrows his expressions from outward and sensible objects and actions. It is plain, that those inspired penmen who wrote in Greek, which is vastly more rich than the Hebrew, even the sacred Writers of the New Testament and the primitive fathers, who were far from having any gross ideas of the Godhead, have been forced to make use of the same figurative expressions in many places of their writings, for want of more proper and intelligible ones, which were equally wanting in both languages. Neither does it appear that the Jews themselves understood Moses's words in a gross sense; because it is plain, that they had a notion that the Angel or Divine appearance who directed them through the wilderness, was the MESSIAH, who then assumed a visible appearance, which they called the Shechinah (from שׁכן shakan, to dwell) under which he delivered his Divine oracles and commands to them: which Shechinah, though some understand it of all the appearances which God assumed from the beginning; and others, either of the Shechinah of fire and water, or of the fiery and cloudy pillar; yet all agree that it was the הכבוד כסא kisae hakkabod, the throne of glory. However, to exculpate at once the Jewish lawgiver from such an imputation, we need but call to mind the glorious descriptions he gives almost everywhere, especially in Deuteronomy, of the Godhead; and what pains he takes to deter the Hebrews from any misrepresentation of it, under any form whatsoever, by reminding them that when God was pleased so to display his glory upon mount Sinai at the delivery of the ten commandments, they saw no shape or likeness, but only heard his dreadful voice. These so frequent inculcations may, therefore, be reasonably looked upon as a key how to understand all those other expressions, which he had been forced to accommodate to their capacity; that is, not in a literal sense, but in such a one as was worthy of the Deity and the dignity of the subject."

Thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me The sum of the intercession of Moses seems to be this: "thou hast condescended to assure me, that I shall bring up Israel to the promised land; but, withdrawing thine own invaluable presence, thou hast not let me knew, otherwise than in general terms, whom thou wilt send with me in this arduous undertaking: thou hast mentioned an angel only; but what is the conduct of an angel, compared to thine own immediate Presence?—Yet, graciously condescending, thou hast vouchsafed to shew me special marks and testimonies of thy favour; assuring me, that thou knowest me by name (i.e. in a peculiar and distinguishing manner), and that I have found grace in thy sight. Now, therefore, (Exodus 33:13.) if this indeed be the case, if still thou art gracious and favourable to me, shew me thy way; discover to me thy good pleasure, or what it is thou intendest to do in this matter; that I may know, and be sensibly assured, that I do find grace in thy sight: and consider, O Lord, and grant this the rather, because this nation is thy people."

Verse 14

Exodus 33:14. And he said, my presence, &c.— Condescending to the intercession of Moses, the Lord promises that his presence, as usual, shall go with him, and give [Israel] that rest in the promised land which they sought. Le Clerc renders this verse, if my presence shall go with thee, wilt thou be at rest? Wilt thou be satisfied? Which, though rather a harsh translation of the Hebrew, seems to agree well with the answer of Moses; who, expressing (Exodus 33:15.) the highest estimation for the Divine Presence, entreats that, if this be denied, they might not stir from the place where they now were: for, he goes on to observe, it was by Jehovah's presence alone that their grand distinction and separation from other people was discovered: and in this view, the 16th verse should be rendered thus, For, whereby shall it be plainly known, that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight? Will it not be by thy going with us?—So shall we be distinguished or separated, (i.e. by thy going with us,) I and thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth. We subjoin what Houbigant observes on this passage, of which the following is an exact translation: "My presence," says he, "is the same as myself. God had before denied, in the 3rd verse, that he would go in the midst of this stiff-necked-people; therefore something else is now treated of, or God would contradict himself: wherefore Moses subjoins, unless thy Presence go with us, carry us not hence: as much as to say, 'To have brought us out of Egypt by a thousand miracles, would not be of great consequence, unless thou thyself wouldst come and dwell among us; for this people, whom thou refusest to bring up, is not worthy of such mighty miracles.' In consequence of which, Moses wishes that God would be with us, עמנו immanu; and afterwards in the 17th verse God grants his petition, saying, even this thing which thou hast spoken will I do; promising not only that his Presence should go before them, (for that was granted to Moses in the 14th verse; and the words, even this thing, prove that something new was promised,) but also that he would be God with us or Emmanuel; and would hereafter have a people, whom he would make far more glorious above other people, than they who now were the adumbration of them. After God had promised this to Moses, he earnestly entreats the Lord that he would shew him his glory; i.e. that he would shew himself to him in that character of Emmanuel, in which he was hereafter to appear: to which petition God immediately replies, Exo 33:19 that he would cause all his goodness to pass before him, i.e. would represent to him all that beneficence which, as God with us, he would exhibit in future times; and then, that he himself would invoke, or call upon the name of Jehovah; that is, would himself pray for mortals; and, sustaining this Person, would be gracious to whom he would be gracious; not only to that people from whom Moses departed, fixing his tabernacle without the camp; but to others, whom he would choose from the whole world as his peculiar people, 1 Peter 2:9. Lastly, in the 20th verse, he declares that his face cannot be seen by any mortal; for he who is the Brightness of his Father's glory, dwelleth in light unapproachable: he assents therefore so far to the last petition of Moses, as to shew himself such to him, as he was to be seen by mortals in after-times; Thou shalt see my back-parts, or that last state in which I shall be seen by mortals, the last revelation of myself; as the ancient writers of the church understood the words: which adumbrations of future things they who do not see, have the vail upon their hearts; denying that which Christ affirmed, that Moses wrote many things concerning him."

Le Clerc very much admires here the inconstancy of the Hebrew language, Moses requesting to see the glory of God, though he had before his eyes that cloudy pillar, which is every where called the glory of God: but, upon our interpretation, that objection is removed: besides, 1st, the cloud is called in this chapter the pillar of cloud, and not the glory of God: and, although it were called so, Moses would signify, by his desire to see the glory of God when this cloud was present, that another glory of God was adumbrated in the cloud or obscurity: nor, secondly, is a language to be accused of inconstancy, because it does not always use the same word for the same thing; for this is the nature of all languages.

Verse 17

Exodus 33:17. The Lord said unto Moses, I will do this thing also Though we cannot suppose that prayer can make the Deity more compassionate, or produce a change in his sentiments; yet, as he has been pleased to suspend the grant of his favours on the condition of prayer; we have the strongest reason and the best encouragement, to continue unwearied in the use of it; and to intercede earnestly for those blessings for ourselves and others, which the unbounded goodness of God is always ready to bestow upon such as are fit to receive them.

REFLECTIONS.—Moses now appears before God, pleading for the people, and prevails. He had gained for them already a respite from wrath, but he seeks the manifestation of the presence and favour of Jehovah.

1. We have his prayer. Since it pleased God to employ him, he begs his Presence with him: though Israel had forfeited all favour, he pleads God's gracious expressions to himself, and that they may appear in the grant of mercy to the people at his intercession. He desires the Divine guidance, as sensible that he else could never lead them aright; and introduces at last their covenant-relation to God. Though they were rebellious children, he insinuates, God was a Father to them still: nay, he insists upon the impossibility of advancing, unless God go with them; and rather chooses to die there, than move without him. He then closes with an argument drawn from God's glory for the success of his petition; and if the people were unworthy, or himself undeserving, yet for his own great Name's sake, he pleads for his Presence among them, Learn, (1.) Without Divine guidance we never could find the way to heaven. (2.) If ever we are led thither, we must be indebted to the intercession of our dear Redeemer, for whose sake alone God can have any respect to us.

2. God's answer. He grants his request, promises his Presence, and acknowledges the efficacy of his pleadings. Note; (1.) When Jesus is our Advocate, we are sure of prevailing: not only guilt will be pardoned, but grace conferred, and glory secured to us. (2.) They will never fail of an answer of peace, who thus, with Moses, in humble faith and importunity, make their requests known unto God.

Verses 18-23

Exodus 33:18-23. He said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory, &c.— Moses, having obtained from the Lord a merciful remission of the dread penalties denounced upon the Israelites, proceeds now to request a confirmation of his grace by a sight of his glory. Again, condescending to his petition, the Lord promises to make all his goodness pass before him, &c. Exo 33:19 from which one would conclude, that the glory which Moses was desirous to see, was some display of that mercy reserved for thousands, in future times to be fully exhibited, and which alone can give comfort to repenting and returning sinners. Confirmative of this idea, we find that Christ's manifestation in the flesh is called his glory:—The Word was made flesh, says St. John, and tabernacled among us; and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, John 1:14. Heb 1:3 and if, as we have endeavoured to prove, the name of JEHOVAH refers to the MESSIAH, this interpretation will receive new strength; and a sufficient reason is given why God proclaims the name of JEHOVAH before him; adding that prophetical declaration respecting the future and free dispensation of his blessings by the gospel; "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy;" see Romans 9:15. I would observe once more, that goodness (Exodus 33:19.) being immediately opposed to glory, (Exodus 33:18.) and God's discovery of himself (ch. Exodus 34:6.) being that of his goodness; it follows, that glory can only be understood as referring to his goodness: and, indeed, such was the situation of things with Moses, that one cannot well conceive him requesting any other view of God, than a display of him as that merciful and forgiving Saviour, whom he now so entreated for a sinful people. The subsequent part too of this vision, plainly proves, that it was a representation by action of something future: (see notes on Genesis 22:0.) for, when the Lord says, Exodus 33:20. Thou canst not see my face, something very different must be understood from those expressions where it is said, that Moses spake face to face to the Lord; as indeed, the whole of the history discovers that Moses, in the mount especially, had the nearest intercourse with God. By God's face, therefore, which Moses was not allowed to see, might be meant the full and clear discovery of his mercies in redemption; as by his back-parts, Exo 33:23 might be meant such a partial and imperfect view of those mercies, as was adapted to the present state of things, and was sufficient for the comfort of himself and the people: but see more in note on Exodus 33:14. That the face and back-parts of God must not be taken in a literal sense, is granted by every one: and, therefore, if the reader agrees not with me in the interpretation I have given to this very obscure passage, he will at least pardon the attempt to elucidate the difficulty as much as possible. If, now that the glory of God in CHRIST is discovered so fully, we see only through a glass darkly; direct vision or sight, face to face, (1 Corinthians 13:12.Isaiah 52:8; Isaiah 52:8.) being reserved for another state; Moses, under the Jewish dispensation, might well be allowed only a sight of the back-parts; i.e. a more obscure and distant view of God's mercies in redemption. Should this whole interpretation be rejected, it may be proper to add, that the common one is, that Moses desired to see the unveiled and immediate majesty of God; which God declaring no human eye could bear, promises, by laying his hand upon him, to conceal the dangerous effulgence of his glory; so that he should see only his back-parts, or some such rays of that glory as would not prove destructive. But, from ch. Exo 34:6 it is evident that the glory discovered, was what Moses and the Israelites now most wanted; his goodness and forgiving mercy.

REFLECTIONS.—Mercies received are an earnest of greater in store: one prayer answered, is the encouragement for renewed supplication. While we are not weary of asking, God is never weary of granting. Moses had obtained one favour for the people; now he seeks another for himself.

1. He begs to see God's glory; some more eminent display of it than had yet been manifested to him. They who have tasted of God's grace, are longing with Moses to behold his glory, yea, to see him face to face.
2. God is pleased to grant him all that could then be granted. The full blaze of uncreated glory even the angels cannot bear, and much less man, who is a worm. But he shall see as much as he can endure, and live. God will make his goodness pass before him, and shew him some glimpse of the transcendent brightness of his train, while hid in the cleft of the rock from the intolerable blaze. Note; (1.) The glory God does most display, is his free and infinite mercy. (2.) All our views of God in this world, are poor and imperfect. It is reserved for the felicity of a better state, to see him as he is, and to know even as we are known. (3.) Whoever hopes to come to this beatific vision, must remember that there is no way to enjoy it, but by being found in Christ, as Moses in the cleft of this rock which represented him. Lord, I beseech thee, shew me the glory of thy grace in the face of Jesus Christ on earth, and bring me to behold its most transcendent brightness in thy Presence in heaven!

Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Exodus 33". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tcc/exodus-33.html. 1801-1803.
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