God’s Name (Exodus 34:1-9, 14)
Big Idea: What we need most in life is to know God’s name.
I’ve saved the best for last.
This is the tenth and final week that we’re looking at the book of Exodus. We’ve seen so much: God’s determination to rescue his people and to live with them. We’ve also seen how messed up God’s people are. These are the twin themes of the book: God is determined to have his people, and his people are determined to mess it up.
Last week we came to the greatest crisis in the book of Exodus. The greatest crisis is not that Israel was in slavery in Egypt. The greatest crisis is that God’s people are determined to be unfaithful to God. They’ve just committed the most staggering act of unfaithfulness. God is meeting with Moses to outline how he is going to live among his people, and while God meets with Moses, Israel is building a golden calf and committing idolatry.
Friends, the message of Christianity is not that we need to measure up so that God can accept us. The message of Christianity is that God will have his people, even when we seem determined to mess things up. This is great news for those of us who know that we’re not unlike the Israelites. We seem to have a spectacular ability to sin against the very God who has treated us so graciously.
But as I said, we’re getting to the really good part today. Israel has just performed the greatest bellyflop in history. If you were here last week, we saw that Moses mediates for the people. It’s a picture of Jesus’ mediation for us. Right now, Jesus is praying for those who trust him. Right now, Jesus is pleading on our behalf. It’s our greatest hope.
But the question remains: how are things going to proceed? How can a holy God live with such a sinful people?
In Exodus 33, Moses manages to negotiate two concessions from God.
- Concession one: God will stay with Moses. “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,” he promises to Moses (Exodus 33:14).
- Concession two: God will go with the people. Moses says, “Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” And God replies, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name” (Exodus 33:16-17).
Have you ever pulled off a negotiation that went so well that you almost feel like you’ve robbed the other person? That’s what’s going on here. God gives Moses more than he could possibly expect. Despite how drastically Israel failed, God says the he’s going to continue to stay with Moses. He promises that he will continue to go with the people despite their sin.
But Moses doesn’t leave it there. Despite getting these amazing concessions from God, Moses goes for broke and asks for a third concession from God. Moses says, “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18).
God’s glory is his weightiness. It’s his splendor and radiance. Moses has received everything he could ask for, but he wants to see God’s glory. The reason why: not for Moses’ personal benefit, but because he wants some demonstration of God’s promises for what lies ahead. He needs some assurance from God if he’s going to be able to lead these difficult people through the wilderness into the promised land.
Amazingly, God grants the request, with one change.
But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:20-23)
Be careful what you ask for! You want to see God’s glory? You wouldn’t be able to survive seeing God’s glory! It would kill you. Nobody can see God as he actually is and live to speak about it.
In July 2010, Paul Crowther, professor of astrophysics from the University of Sheffield's Department of Physics and Astronomy, announced that he and his research team had discovered a star they described as the brightest star ever found in the universe. Not even a welder's helmet would help you face the light from this giant. The mass of the star is roughly 265 times that of our sun. But that's nothing. The brightness of this star is some 10 million times greater than the light coming from our sun!
Think about that: The star, currently named R136a1, is not twice as bright as our sun, which would be overwhelming in itself if it were the sun that our earth orbited. It is not just 10 times brighter, which is a light so bright we can hardly imagine it. It is not a hundred times brighter or a thousand times brighter than our sun. It is not a million times brighter! This newly identified star is ten million times brighter than our sun! How can anything be that bright?
Thinking about this star gives us a sense of what the glorious presence of God is like, for Scripture says that God is a being who "lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see." (Craig Brian Larson)
Let’s just pause here.
Our greatest need is God’s glory. D.A. Carson says:
When your whole universe is falling apart, when you cannot see how you are going to survive, when cancer threatens, when you are facing loss, when your people are being bombed out in some corner of the world from which you spring, when you are facing the most amazing depression, as mortgages crumble around you and your own children walk away from the Lord and you do not to whom to turn.… What do you need the most? You need to see God’s glory.
You need to see God for who he is. That alone will stabilize you…Do you know what you need the most? You need to see the glory of God. You need to see God for who he is, because that relativizes everything else.
He is the God who is your Maker. He is the God who is sovereign. He is the God who loves you. He is the God who has displayed himself across history for the protection and good of his own people. You need to see God as he is, and Moses understands that in this perilous situation, what he must have above all else, if he is to lead the people, is a renewed vision of God, or he has nothing.
But here’s the other reality: What we need is also a bit scary. God is far more glorious than we imagine. He is, as somebody says, a God who smokes — “so full of passion and blazing emotion that He burns—and yes, smokes in the ferocity of His infinite, holy love that compelled Him to give it all away for His Bride.”
We need God’s glory, but we wouldn’t be able to handle it if we saw it fully. You know what you need most in your life? God’s glory. It’s the only thing that will give you the weight, the ballast, to steady you through life.
But we haven’t even got to the really good part yet.
God promises, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD’” (Exodus 33:19).
What is really cool is what happens when God tells Moses his name. I think it’s going to surprise you.
You may think that God’s name is a little ho-hum. But in the Bible, a name isn’t just a name. A name stands for who someone is. What we’re about to see is spectacular. It is one of the only places in the Bible that God describes God. It is the most quoted verse in the Bible by the Bible. It’s the foundation of biblical theology. If you want to know what God is like, this is the place to look.
Years ago, a famous preacher who pastored in Toronto for a while said this:
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. (A. W. Tozer)
What we think about God is of utmost importance. Which is why Exodus 34:5-7 is so amazing and so important.
The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
What is God like?
God tells us what he’s like. Let’s look at what he says. I’m stealing the wording from David Platt, but the ideas all come from God’s own mouth.
To the downcast, God is compassionate
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful…” The word merciful means compassionate. I’m so grateful for this word. When God describes himself, the first word that he uses is that he’s full of compassion for us. This is really good news for those of us who have been battered and wonder if God really cares. God is compassionate!
As someone has said so well, “As a mother is tenderest toward the most diseased and weakest child, so does Christ most mercifully incline to the weakest” (Richard Sibbes).
God is a compassionate Father. He loves His own, and He will never forsake them. He will always be available in times of need. His compassion allows him to deal gently with weak and failing people. He’s full of tender sympathy for the sufferings and the miseries of human frailty. Do you wonder if God cares? Wonder no more. He does. He’s full of compassion for you.
To the undeserving, God is gracious
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious…”
Compassion is good news for the weak. Grace is good news for the undeserving. Grace means to give someone what they don’t deserve. It’s what sets Christianity apart from every other religion. In every other religion, we get what we deserve, and we work hard to deserve it. Christianity is exactly the opposite. With Christianity we get what we don’t deserve. We deserve judgment; instead God gives us his grace. “Without grace, Christianity is nothing” (Charles Ryrie).
God doesn’t give us what we deserve. God is gracious to those of us who are undeserving, to those who have sinned against him again and again.
With the defiant, God is patient
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger…”
I plugged the kettle in the other day. I guess I was in a rush, because I went back a few seconds later and made sure that it was running. It was slow to boil, or at least it felt like it that day.
That’s what this term means when it comes to God. We grumble and sin and rebel. God could rightfully judge our sin. But God does not have a short fuse. He’s long-suffering. It’s as if God takes a long, deep breath before dealing with sin. He never flies off the handle. He doesn’t rush to punish us. Instead, he gives us time to repent. He is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Think about how much patience God has showed to us when we wanted nothing to do with him. Think about how much patience he’s showed when we’ve let him down time after time. God is patient with the defiant.
With the undesirable, God is loving
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…”
This may be my favorite word in the whole passage, although it’s hard to choose: abounding. I went to a restaurant with Charlene the other day. I had a gift card, but the prices on the menu were far greater than the amount on the gift card. I had money, but I wasn’t abounding in money. We had to be a little bit careful in what we ordered because there was an upper limit to what we could afford.
When it comes to love, God is not on a budget. He is abounding in steadfast love. Okay, I said abounding was my favorite word, but the word for steadfast love is also amazing. It means a stubborn love that just won’t give up. Not only is God unfailingly loving, but he is abounding in his love. It never runs out.
For the doubtful, God is faithful
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” There are some things that are just not stable — people for instance. You just don’t know when to depend on that. God isn’t like that. God is faithful. He is reliable, stable, and secure. You can count on him. He never wavers.
For the disobedient, God is forgiving
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” To a nation that had just committed a heinous sin, and to us as well, this is very good news. The word for forgive has a picture in it of lifting. God sees our sin, and he says, in effect, “Let me take that away from you. Let me get rid of that for you.” I also love how he piles on the words: iniquity, transgression, and sin. God is telling us that he can handle our sins no matter what category they’re in. No matter how deep, no matter how dark, God’s forgiveness is greater. No sin is a match for God’s grace.
Regarding the demands of the law, God is just
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
Just in case we started to get the idea that God is soft on sin, God reminds us that he is anything but. Although God delights in giving us grace, those who refuse to repent will be judged. Nor does God erase the consequences of sin. Unfortunately, sin has consequences, and many times children and grandchildren feel the effects of the sinful behavior of their parents.
Don’t use God’s grace as an excuse for sin. Turn away from your sin, and turn to God today.
Regarding the devotion of your heart, God is jealous
Don’t miss verse 14. “For you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” There’s a negative kind of jealousy, when someone is insecure and clingy. And then there’s a right and good kind of jealousy, in which a spouse will zealously pursue the one they married and fight for that relationship. God is jealous for his people. He wants our devotion. He takes our faithlessness seriously. He wants our hearts to be his.
To all who desire to see My glory, God is Jesus
Friends, this is our God. In our darkest moments, this is what we need most.
What we see in this passage is ultimately what we have in Jesus. Do you want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. He is compassionate, gracious, patient, stubborn in his love, faithful, forgiving, just, and jealous. He’s what we need most. He gave us life so we can know him.
What we need most in life is to know God’s name. Memorize these verses. Rejoice in them. Celebrate them. Put all your trust in this God today and forevermore.