I Will Not Go Up among You—Exodus 33:1–11

I Will Not Go Up among You—Exodus 33:1–11

Written by B.C. Newton |
Wednesday, July 10, 2024

By having this tent of meeting outside the camp, Yahweh was sending a message to Israel that, through their sin, they had become defiled. Their camp could not be a place of holy communion with Him because they had defiled themselves and become unclean. Thus, God was effectively saying that they wilderness was cleaner than being in their midst. 

As I have noted before, the final half of Exodus can be divided into a several sections. In chapters 20-23, we studied the Book of the Covenant that Yahweh spoke to Moses. Chapter 24 gave us the ratification ceremony of God’s covenant with Israel. Chapters 25-31 gave us the instructions for the tabernacle that Moses received from the LORD. We may rightly call chapters 32-34 the saga of the golden calf. Although the actual act of idolatry was recounted briefly over the course of the first six verses of chapter 32, the consequences of that sin continue to linger. Indeed, this structure reflects the very nature of sin. A moment of self-gratification leads to much sorrow and pain.

Chapter 32 ended with God bringing a plague upon the Israelites, which He had warned them of doing back in 15:26, and the text before us continues the press home the great damage that Israel’s sin has done toward their communion with Yahweh.

I Will Not Go Up among You—Verses 1-6

After rejecting Moses’ attempt to make atonement for Israel’s sin, Yahweh now gives Moses sorrowful instructions:

The LORD said to Moses, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

As we said of 32:7, we should again notice that God is distancing Himself from Israel. He does not call them His people but simply the people, and He again presents Moses as the worker of the exodus. Even so, the message seems to be somewhat good at first. After all, the LORD commands Moses to lead the people into the land of Canaan, fulfilling His promises to the patriarchs. He even reiterates the promise that He made at the end chapter 23 about the angel that would go before them to drive out the inhabitants of the land. But there is still something off about this promise as well. Back in chapter 23, Yahweh called the angel that would go before them “my angel,” and He said that His name was in Him. Thus, many believe that it was Jesus Himself who would go before Israel. Here, however, it seems that an ordinary angel would be sent to them.

Verse 3 then removes all doubt that Israel’s sin has yet to be dealt with. God commands them to go into the land flowing with milk and honey, but He will not go among them. Of course, the LORD gave Moses instructions for the tabernacle so that He could dwell among His people, but because they wanted an idol to go before them instead, Yahweh was now withdrawing is presence from them. One commentator notes that:

The significance of this turn of events cannot be stressed too highly. The whole purpose of the Exodus was for God and his people to be together. God’s presence with them will be firmly established in the proposed tabernacle. By saying “go ahead, but you’re going without me,” the events of the previous thirty-one chapters are being undone. This is not merely a setback; it means the end of the road.

This ought to also serve as a potent reflection for us to consider. God was effectively giving the Israelites His blessings but not Himself, and we should consider well what our reaction would be to such an offer. As James 1:17 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Therefore, it is certainly proper for us to rejoice in the blessings that God gives to us, just as God intended the Israelites to enjoy the land of milk and honey. However, God’s good gifts should always lift our eyes up to Him as the good Giver, and it would be improper to do anything else.

Although God is the Giver of all good gifts, we must always remember that He is Himself the Blessed One. He is the supreme Treasure. Thus, while many today simply imagine heaven to be a place of endless happiness and think very little of God being a part of it, the reality is that God’s presence is what makes heaven heavenly. The person who believes that he or she is decent enough for God to allow into heaven doesn’t understand the nature of eternal life. As Jesus Himself said, knowing God is eternal life (John 17:3). Thus, the person who has no desire to know God in this life will not find any happiness in knowing Him throughout all eternity.

To the Israel’s credit, they do have the proper reaction to God’s command through Moses:

When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. For the LORD had said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do with you.’” Therefore the people of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward.

God’s refusal to dwell among them was rightly heard as being a disastrous word, and they mourned. They treated God’s message as though they had been stricken with death. They were sorrowful and removed all of their ornaments, which was a sign that they were in a time of mourning. They were physically displaying their sorrow over their sin and its effects. As Douglas Stuart notes:

In the ancient Near East, mourning tended to involve appearance, not just attitude, so that what one wore was a part of the appearance aspect of mourning. Nothing fancy could adorn the mourner because fancy dress was associated with cheerfulness and might contradict the desired pattern, which was thoroughgoing mourning behavior designed to appeal to a god (or the true God) for relief of suffering (including in this case relief from the unknown miseries that might be subsumed under “and I will decide what to do with you”). Therefore they removed all adornment and made their appearance “plain” as a sign of mourning. (691-692)

Matthew Henry also says,

God bade them lay aside their ornaments (Exodus 33:5; Exodus 33:5), and they did so, both to show, in general, their deep mourning, and, in particular, to take a holy revenge upon themselves for giving their ear-rings to make the golden calf of. Those that would part with their ornaments for the maintenance of their sin could do no less than lay aside their ornaments in token of their sorrow and shame for it.

There is something to be learned here of proper repentance. Since we have entirely removed a period of mourning entirely from our culture and largely emphasized happiness as the highest good in life, it is not surprising that we would also have a difficult time understanding what it means to mourn and lament over our sins. Yet there is a godly mourning that ought to accompany repentance. Does that mean that we should also strip ourselves of our ornamentation? Not necessarily. Joel 2:12-13 says, “’Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’”

In other words, God cares far more about the condition of your heart and the condition of your clothing. We should not dirty our faces and make a big show of our repentance like the Pharisees did when they fasted. But knowing that godly simplicity and humility is what the LORD desires, not a show, we should then consider what physical actions need to be taken as we repent of our sin. As Henry noted, it is no accident that God told them to take off their earrings for the remainder of their time in the wilderness. And we should at least give similar consideration to the instruments that we use for sin.

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