The second of this series of the relationship between the judgment and mercy of God takes us to Exodus and to the revelation that God gave of Himself to Moses. This revelation is undoubtedly one of the most vivid and prolonged of all the revelations of God in Scripture, which is not surprising since it involved the huge events of the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt, the re-formation of the nation around its new Law and Covenant, and its long journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Moses was at the very centre of all this, hearing God and doing his bidding.
His first encounter with God was in the desert as a refugee. It took place through a manifestation of a burning bush through which God spoke. His first words were, “Do not come any closer – Take off your sandals for the place where you are standing is holy ground”. In response, we are told, “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God”. (Gen 3:4ff). Thus the starting point of revelation for Moses was a deep feeling of the holiness of God and a sense of awesome fear. This did not, however, stop Moses speaking boldly to God as the conversation continued but his approach was always one of a genuine “fear of the Lord” – a profound respect and awe at God’s holiness. This was not the slavish fear of the typical pagan for his unpredictable and “unholy god”. It was a genuine “godly fear”.
The first experience the Jewish nation under Moses had of God as He began to deliver them was the enormously powerful and frightening judgements he poured on the Egyptians to secure the nation’s release. Then there were miracles of provision in the wilderness. But His plan was not simply that they should see his power and be set free but that they should be a holy nation, worshipping a Holy God, utterly free of idols and living a fully moral life. To that end they were to have a Law. So He met them at Mount Sinai. There he gave this Law to Moses but at the same time he gave them a revelation of himself as a Holy God. They witnessed the glory of God come down like fire on the mountain with the whole covered in smoke. There were loud trumpet blasts and the mountain itself trembled. They were not allowed to go up the mountain on pain of death, Moses alone being excepted. Indeed they trembled with fear and kept their distance. They were faced with the Living God who was holy and who was to be feared in his holiness. It was crucial that they recognised his holiness and walked in the Fear of the Lord. Again He was to be recognised as completely different from any pagan God.
It is utterly mistaken to dismissively think of this revelation as “primitive”. The recognition of God as a Holy God is fundamental to any true walk with God. It is as important for us in our so-called civilised era as for any previous era. In fact it is still our greatest need. The Commandments as they were given to Moses demanded that there should be no idols or graven images (which invariable spawned every kind of evil behaviour), but that worship be centred on Him exclusively, the Living Creator God. They demanded behaviour which was not destructive to other human beings.
Unhappily whilst Moses was up on the mount receiving such commandments the people, despite having trembled at the sight of the mountain, gave themselves to gross idolatry and immorality, losing any sense of the fear of God. As a consequence they experienced the anger of God, with death in their midst and plague.
All this was written into the Jewish national history and Scripture for a reminder of the fact that they (and we) are called to holiness. God is not there just to provide for a thoughtless, selfish or indulgent life. Indeed ungodly living is not something he tolerates but which incurs his deep displeasure and visitation. However, there was another revelation that God gave of Himself to Moses in the midst of all this, which is very much of a contrast, and of great importance. As Moses was interceding for the nation, that God would not destroy it for its idolatry and immorality, he uttered quite an astounding prayer. He prayed “Lord show me your glory” (Ex. 33:18). After all the powerful interventions he had witnessed in Egypt and in the wilderness one wonders quite what he had in mind, or what prompted it. But clearly he had become aware of something else in the nature of God he wanted to know about or at least he felt his understanding was incomplete.
God agreed to answer his request saying, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my Name (nature), the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion”. So Moses once again ascended the mount and the LORD put Moses in a cleft of the rock and “came down in a cloud … and proclaimed his name”….. “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sins of their parents to the third and fourth generation for the sin of their parents” (Ex. 33:18 – 34:7).
This was a revelation of the unbounding love, grace and mercy of God. That is His glory. Moses had seen his power and his judgements prior to this, but now he saw His love and felt something of the depth of it. He saw that God was slow to anger, not that there was no anger but a God reluctant to release his anger. His first desire is to show his love, but when his holiness is ignored anger must follow. That anger brings judgement, even on families where people walk contemptuously in sin. God is love, but it is a holy love that hates evil and burns against it, punishing it wherever it is to be found. Something of this glory of the love of God caused Moses’ face to shine when he came down out of the mount, and thereafter he had to wear a veil when he was with the people.
We sometimes seem to think that the Old Testament revelation of God is primitive and lacking. There is nothing lacking in this revelation of God to Moses. He sees God as we need to see him, first in his holiness and then in his love, though the two are in fact one. Judgement is the love of God refusing to countenance or parley with evil. The “fear of the Lord” and the “love of the Lord” are the twin insights that must always be with us.