Commentary of the Old and New Testaments

Exodus 33

By Joseph Benson


Verse 1
Exodus 33:1. Go up hence, thou and the people — God here seems to disown them, and calls them no more his people, because of their perfidiousness and idolatry.

Verse 3
Exodus 33:3. I will not go up in the midst of thee — By my own special and gracious presence, as hitherto I have done, but I will depart from thee. In pursuance hereof, God removes his tabernacle without the camp. I will only make good my promise to thy fathers, and send an angel to accomplish it, but I will show no particular and further kindness to thee. Lest I consume thee in the way — Lest thy sins should be aggravated by my presence and favour, and thereby I should be provoked utterly to destroy thee. So God shows that their perverseness makes this severity necessary for them, and that he, even in his judgment, remembers mercy to them.

Verse 4
Exodus 33:4. No man did put on his ornaments — This was a visible sign and profession of their inward humiliation and repentance for their sin, and of their deep sense of God’s displeasure.

Verse 5
Exodus 33:5. I will come up in the midst of thee — In anger, not in favour. This threatening hath a condition implied, except thou repent, as the next words plainly show. That I may know what to do unto thee — That I may either inflict my judgments or suspend them, as thou art penitent or impenitent.

Verse 7
Exodus 33:7. And Moses took the tabernacle — The tent wherein he gave audience, heard causes, and inquired of God; and pitched it without, afar off from the camp — To signify to them that they were unworthy of it. Perhaps this tabernacle was a model of the tabernacle that was afterward to be erected, a hasty draft from the pattern showed him in the mount, designed for direction to the workmen, and used in the mean time as a tabernacle of meeting between God and Moses about public affairs. And called it the tabernacle of the congregation — Implying, that whosoever would seek the Lord, that is, would seek either for his favour, or for counsel and direction, must come thither.

Verse 8
Exodus 33:8. When Moses went out unto the tabernacle — Namely, to intercede with God for the people, all the people stood every man at his tent door — Acknowledging themselves unworthy to approach nearer; and looked after Moses — To observe what signs of favour he should receive from God in answer to his prayers. Hereby, also, they showed their grief for God’s departure, their respect to Moses, whom they had lately slighted, their dependance on his mediation, and concern about the issue of it.

Verse 9-10
Exodus 33:9-10. As Moses entered the tabernacle, the cloudy pillar descended — This symbol of the divine presence having before gone up, and stood aloof from the camp, which was become unclean through their idolatry, now came down again, upon the removal of the tabernacle. And stood at the door of the tabernacle — Openly to assert the authority of Moses, with whom God showed himself present, though he had withdrawn himself from them; and to signify his approbation of what he had done, however severe and cruel it might appear to some of them. All the people rose up and worshipped — As soon as they saw the cloudy pillar, that sign of God’s presence, gave Moses the meeting; every man at his tent door — Hereby they signified their humble adoration of the Divine Majesty; their thankfulness to God, that he was pleased to show them this token for good, for if he had been pleased to kill them, he would not have showed them such things as these; and their hearty concurrence with Moses, as their advocate, in every thing he should promise for them.

Verse 11
Exodus 33:11. The Lord spake unto Moses face to face — Or, mouth to mouth, as in Numbers 12:8. Not that God hath a face or mouth, or that Moses could behold it; which is denied, Exodus 33:20; but the sense is, he spoke with him freely, familiarly, and immediately, and not as he did to other prophets, in dreams, or visions, or by an angel. As a man speaketh unto his friend —Which intimates not only that God revealed himself to Moses with greater clearness than to any other of the prophets, but also with greater expressions of particular kindness than to any other. He spake not as a prince to a subject, but as a man to his friend, whom he loves, and with whom he takes sweet counsel. And he turned again into the camp — To tell the people what hopes he had of bringing this business to a good issue. But his servant Joshua departed not out of the tabernacle — Probably Joshua abode there to assist and direct those who resorted thither to seek God in Moses’s absence. And he seems to have been appointed to this work rather than Aaron, or any other of the elders, because they had, one way or other, been guilty of the late idolatry, and God would hereby punish them with a temporary suspension from his service and their office.

Verse 12
Exodus 33:12. And Moses said unto the Lord — It is likely that Moses, being satisfied with the penitence of the people, returned to the tabernacle, and there had this communication with God, in which he is an importunate supplicant for two favours, and prevails for both. In this he was a type of Christ, the great Intercessor, whom the Father heareth always. He is earnest with God for a grant of his presence with Israel in the rest of their march to Canaan. Thou sayest, Bring up this people — Lord, it is thou thyself that employest me, and wilt thou not own me? I am in the way of my duty, and shall I not have thy presence with me in that way? Thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me — Thou hast only said, thou wilt send an angel before me, (Exodus 33:2,) but holdest me in suspense whether thou wilt guide us in the pillar of cloud as thou hast hitherto done. For the Lord had left him at an uncertainty what he would do in case the people did repent, Exodus 33:5. Yet thou hast said, I know thee by name — In a special and particular manner. Thou hast vouchsafed to me peculiar marks and testimonies of thy love and favour. The expression is borrowed from the manner of kings, who, of all their subjects, know few by name but their favourites, and those who have access to their persons.

Verse 13
Exodus 33:13. Now, if I have found grace in thy sight — What favour God had expressed to the people they had forfeited the benefit of; and therefore Moses lays the stress of his plea upon what God had said to him. By this, therefore, he takes hold on God; Lord, if thou wilt do any thing for me, do this for the people. Thus our Lord Jesus, in his intercession, presents himself to the Father as one in whom he is always well pleased, and so obtains mercy for us, with whom he is justly displeased. Show me thy way — What course thou meanest now to take with us; that I may know thee, that I may find grace in thy sight — That by proof and experience I may know how good thou art to them that seek thee, and may be assured that I have found grace in thy sight. He intimates that the people also, though most unworthy, yet were in some relation to God; consider that this nation is thy people — A people that thou hast done great things for, redeemed to thyself, and taken into covenant with thyself; Lord, they are thy own, do not leave them.

Verse 14
Exodus 33:14. My presence shall go with thee — Hebrew, My face, I myself, my own person, as the same phrase is translated 2 Samuel 17:11. Or, the angel of my presence, Isaiah 63:9. The meaning is, I will conduct you myself, as I have done hitherto, by my glorious presence in the tabernacle. So that this is a revocation of the sentence pronounced Exodus 33:3. And will give thee rest — Not only thee, Moses, from thy present perplexity, but in due time will bring thy people to their rest and settlement in the promised land. For it is evident that Moses’s care and prayer were more for the people than for himself.

Verse 15-16
Exodus 33:15-16. If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence — Let us rather live and die in the wilderness, with thy presence and favour, than go into Canaan without it; for even that promise of rest I regard not unless thou be with us, and accept us. Thus he shows how highly he valued the special presence of God. He dreaded the very thought of going forward without it. For wherein shall it be known — To the nations that have their eyes upon us, and to future ages: by what other token shall it be manifest to them; that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight? — That we really are thy people, and under thy peculiar protection and care? Is it not that thou goest with us? — Can any thing short of this answer this end? So shall we be separated, I and thy people — Distinguished by thy peculiar kindness, and the privileges vouchsafed to us; or shall be made wonderful, eminent, and glorious, (as the word נפלינו, niphlinu, rather means,) above all other people.

Verse 17
Exodus 33:17. I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken — See the power of prayer! See the riches of God’s goodness! See, in type, the prevalency of Christ’s intercession, which he ever lives to make for all those that come to God by him! and the ground of that prevalency is purely in his own merit; it is because thou hast found grace in my sight — And now God is perfectly reconciled to them, and his presence in the pillar of cloud returns to them.

Verse 18
Exodus 33:18. I beseech thee, show me thy glory — Thy glorious majesty, the brightness of thy countenance, some such manifestation of thyself as becomes thy excellence, and such as shall be seen in the other life, or the highest I am capable of seeing on earth. Moses had lately been in the mount with God, and had had as intimate communion with God as ever any man had on this side heaven, and yet he still desires a further acquaintance. Show me thy glory — Make me to see it; so the word is: make it some way or other visible, and enable me to bear the sight of it. Not that he was so ignorant as to think God’s essence could be seen with bodily eyes, but having hitherto only heard a voice out of a pillar of cloud or fire, he desired to see some representation of the divine glory, such as God saw fit to gratify him with.

Verse 19
Exodus 33:19. I will make my goodness pass before thee — Moses’s request was to see God’s glory, and God answers him by promising to show him his goodness; intimating that, however, in themselves, all God’s attributes are glorious, yet he glories most in the manifestation of his goodness, and that his creatures need this most. Pass before thee — So that thou mayest at least have a transient view of it. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious — I will show this peculiar favour to thee, and I will also be gracious to the people thou pleadest for; but not promiscuously to all: some, namely, such as turn to me in true repentance, I will pardon and save; but others, even all that are finally impenitent, I will eternally punish.

Verse 20
Exodus 33:20. Thou canst not see my face — The full display of my glory, that light inaccessible, before which the angels stand, but which would be insufferable to mortal eyes; this no man can see and live.

Verse 21
Exodus 33:21. Behold, there is a place by me — Probably meant of some part of mount Horeb, where Moses had long enjoyed intercourse with God, and from which the tabernacle, where the cloud of glory now appeared, was at no great distance. And thou shalt stand upon a rock — If not that from which the water was miraculously brought, yet certainly one which, like it, was emblematical of Christ, (1 Corinthians 10:4,) through whom alone we can have the knowledge of the glory of God. For this glory none can see to their comfort but those that believe, confide, and take shelter in him. While my glory passeth by, I will put thee in a cleft of the rock — As the rock might limit Moses’s view of the divine glory, that he might not be overwhelmed by it; so the refulgent rays of the glory of God are limited and concealed by the humanity of Christ, and by faith we are hid in him, and secured from the effects of the glorious justice and wrath of God, which would otherwise consume us. I will cover thee with my hand while I pass by — My invisible power shall spread a cloud before thee, that thou mayest not be overpowered and struck dead by the excessive glory, and so be undone by thy own desires.

Verse 23
Exodus 33:23. I will take away my hand — Speaking after the manner of men: As soon as the dazzling splendours of my majesty, termed, my face, which it is impossible for man to behold and live, are passed by, I will, by degrees, withdraw the cloud that limited and concealed those splendours, and thou shalt see my back parts, or those rays of my glory which are not too bright and piercing for mortal eyes to sustain. To explain this further, the face in man is the seat of majesty, and men are known by their faces; in them we take a full view of men: that sight of God Moses might not have, but such a sight as we have of a man who is gone past us, so that we only see his back. Now Moses was allowed to see this only; but when he was a witness to Christ’s transfiguration, he saw his face shine as the sun.