Talking Back to God
Prayer, by human persons to the living and personal God, is far more than transactional. It is relational, and often incremental, with measured, humble boldness. God leads us, like Moses, into prayer. We make our requests. He answers in time. We learn more of him, which leads us to ask to see more of him.
It is one of the most audacious, and awe-inspiring, moments in all of Scripture.
In the wake of Israel’s shocking rebellion against God — blatantly violating the covenant God just made with them — Moses humbly dares to mediate between God and his people. At the climax of his intercession, and his careful yet determined dialogue with the living God, Moses makes what is perhaps the greatest, and most perceptive, petition a creature can of his Creator.
And it is, after all, a prayer — a modest yet bold request, made by man, to God Almighty: “Please show me your glory.”
That this is, in some sense, a special moment is plain. We do not stand in Moses’s sandals. We are not prophets called to mediate a covenant, nor do we live under that Sinai pact. Yet Moses’s prayer still functions as a model for the godly after him. It will not be the last prayer in Scripture for a sight of God’s glory, and rightly do the faithful echo it today. What might we who are in Christ learn about our own prayers from the amazing sequence of Moses’s pressing into God in Exodus 32–33?
Can and Will God Forgive?
Before wrestling with the prayer itself, we need to first acknowledge Moses’s haunting question: Could and would God forgive the people such a horrific breach of the covenant? Moses was not yet sure. He heard stories of his forefathers, encountered God at the bush, and witnessed the plagues in Egypt and the rescue in the Red Sea. Moses knew a powerful God who had delivered his people, but would he also forgive them?
At first, it looked like he wouldn’t. When God first informed Moses, on the mountain, that the people had “corrupted themselves,” by making and worshiping a golden calf (32:7–8), God had said, “Let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. . .” (32:10). As Moses began to plead that God withhold destruction, it was far from clear that any relationship of peace could be fully restored.
God did relent of immediately consuming the people (32:14), yet the covenant remained broken. Although Moses went down the mountain, confronted the people in their rebellion, burnt the calf, disciplined the people (32:15–20), and oversaw the purging of the three thousand who led in the rebellion (32:21–29), Moses knew this did not restore what lay shattered. The next day, he returned to meet God on the mountain.
What drives Moses’s sequence of prayer in Exodus 33 is the question he begins to ask in 32:32: Can and will Yahweh forgive? Will God restore the relationship, and dwell among them, after they had worshiped the golden calf? And as we will see, God draws prayer out of Moses, and then moves to answer Moses’s question, in a way far more powerful, and memorable, than if there had not been an unfolding, developing, deepening relationship with God.
Moses, Teach Us to Pray
Exodus 33 begins with God declaring to the people that even though he will give them the land promised to their forefathers, God himself will not go up among them (33:3). They mourn this “disastrous word.” They want him, not just the promised land. They humble themselves before God, taking off their ornaments “from Mount Horeb onward” (33:6).
Even though the people heard this disastrous word, however, Moses continues to enjoy remarkable favor with God. In a tent pitched far off from the camp, God speaks with Moses (33:9), and verse 11 comments: “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” This sets the scene for Moses’s remarkable intercessory prayer in 33:12–18.
Observe, then, at least three lessons Christians today might take from Moses’s otherwise inimitable prayer.
1. Prayer responds to God.
The living God takes the initiative. He first announced to Moses the people’s breach of the covenant (32:7–10). And he revealed his enduring favor on Moses, prompting the prophet to reply. So too for us. We don’t just “dial up” God in prayer when we so wish. First, he speaks, as he has revealed himself in his world, and in his word, and in his Son, the Word.