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Gleanings In Exodus
by A. W. Pink

65. Sovereign Mercy


Exodus 33:18-23

In studying the varied contents of Exodus 33 we need to remind ourselves of the particular book in which these events are recorded. They are found not in Leviticus, but in Exodus. Everything has been placed by the Holy Spirit in each book of Scripture according to a principle of selection: only that which was in perfect accord with the special design of that book, only that which contributed directly to its theme, is given a place: everything irrelevant, every thing which did not illustrate or amplify the purpose and character of it, being excluded. This is true not only of the Gospels (see our book "Why Four Gospels?"), where each evangelist was guided by the Inspirer of Scripture to include only that which was in full accord with the particular character in which he was setting forth the Lord Jesus, but it holds good just as truly and strikingly of the four books dealing with the early history of the nation of Israel. It is only by recognizing this that we can appreciate the perfections of the Spirit’s handiwork, and as we do so, often the key is found which opens the deeper meaning of many a passage.

Genesis is the book wherein we have illustrated the foundation-truth of Divine election. This is seen in God’s singling out of Abram, and making him the progenitor of His chosen people. Exodus sets forth the blessed truth of Divine redemption, God ransoming and emancipating an enslaved people from the house of bondage, and bringing them into a place of nearness to Himself. Leviticus is the book of Divine worship, of priestly privileges and exercises, revealing to us the provisions which God has made for His people to approach unto Him. Thus, in these first three books of Holy Writ we have wrought before us that which relates, peculiarly, to each of the Persons in the Godhead. The Father’s predestination, the Son’s propitiation," the Spirit’s inspiration to worship.

As we have just said, the great subject which is unfolded in the book of Exodus is that of redemption. This was pointed out by us several times in the earlier articles of this series, but we mention it again because it throws light on the chapter now before us. What we would here call attention to is, that redemption not only procures deliverance from surfdom and slavery, not only brings its favored objects into a place of nearness to God, but, through the mediation of the Redeemer, it secures a continuance of God’s grace and mercy while His redeemed are still journeying to the purchased inheritance; and it ensures the continued presence of the Lord in the midst of His feeble and failing people. In 33:13-16 Moses is found pleading for God’s continued presence with them. In v. 17 the Lord answers, "I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken." At the close of our book, we behold the fulfillment of this. After Moses had erected the tabernacle, the visible symbol of Jehovah’s presence descended and filled it, and we read, "The cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys" (40:38).

In our last few articles we have been occupied with the love of Moses for his people, and his prevailing intercession on their behalf before God. In this present one we find him a beautiful type of the Lord Jesus. But what we would here emphasize is the fact that the record of this is found in the book of Exodus, teaching us that the intercession of Christ on our behalf, with all the blessings which it secures, is the fruit of that redemption which He has wrought out for His people. Now as we have seen, the first great blessing which the prayer of Moses obtained for his people was the averting of God’s consuming wrath (32:10, 14). The second grand privilege his supplications won for them—on the ground of having himself found favor in the eyes of God—was the securing of Jehovah’s continued presence with them (32:12-17). Keeping these things in mind, let us now turn to the seventh and last recorded thing in Exodus 32 and 33—compare the second paragraph in the preceding article.

"And he said, I beseech Thee, show me Thy glory" (v. 18). Our pen falters as we take up such a verse as this, for what sinful creature is competent to write upon such an exalted theme as the glory of God? Nevertheless, some blessed thoughts are suggested by this request of Moses. First of all, contemplating it in the light of the book in which it is found, are we not taught thereby that this is both the longing of the redeemed and the goal of their redemption—to behold the glory of God! That this longing is yet to be fully realized, that this wondrous goal will be reached. we know from the last charter but one of Holy Writ, for of the Eternal City we read, "And I saw no temple therein, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof" (Rev. 21:22, 23).

"And he said, I beseech Thee, show me Thy glory." Pondering this verse next in the light of its immediate context, we are shown what is the sure product of intimate fellowship with God. The great Jehovah had condescended to draw very near to the one who had separated himself from evil, for we are told, "the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend" (v. 11). And what was the consequence of this upon Moses? Not only did he have freedom in supplicating His grace, but there was a holy longing to know more of Himself. Such is ever the outflow of real and close communion with God: the more we know of Him, the more we desire to know. The closer God deigns to draw near to His people, the more constrained are they to cry, "Lord, lift Thou up the light of Thy countenance upon us" (Ps. 4:6).

"And he said, I beseech Thee, show me Thy glory." If the connection between this and the previous verse be noted, we are taught here another valuable lesson on prayer, one which we do well to take to heart. In the previous verse we read, "And the Lord said unto Moses, I will do this also that thou hast spoken: for thou hast found grace in My sight, and I know thee by name." Twice Moses had petitioned Jehovah; first not to consume His people; then, to beg His continuence in their midst. Each of these supplications had been graciously granted. Emboldened by his success, instead of being content therewith, Moses presents (we may well say) a still greater petition. And, as the Lord’s response denotes, He was not displeased at his servant’s importunity. Oh to remember in prayer that "We are coming to a King," then let us "large petitions with us bring." It is thus that we honor Him.

"And He said, I will make all My goodness pass before thee" (v. 19). How striking to learn here that God’s "glory" is His "goodness," His "goodness" His "glory." And what is the goodness of the Lord? Ah, who is capable of returning answer: human definitions are worthless. Shall we say that His "Goodness" is what He is in Himself, the sum of His personal excellencies? But has not the Lord Himself answered our question, and fulfilled His promise to Moses when He declared. "The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracing, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means dear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children" (34:6, 7).

"And I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee" (v. 19). Was not this the renewal and confirmation of what He had announced at the beginning, when, at the burning bush, He first called Moses? Moses had asked, "When I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say unto me, what is His name? What shall I say unto them?" He made answer, "I am that I am: and He said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you;" and then He added, "Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you; this is My name forever, and this is My memorial unto all generations" (Ex. 3:13-15).

"And will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy" (v. 19). These words bring before us one of the most precious truths found in Scripture for the comfort of God’s people, yet is it one that is little understood today. In 2 Timothy 2:15 the servant of God is bidden, "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." But how few "rightly divide" between the grace of God and the mercy of God! How many regard them as being virtually synonymous. How much we lose by failing to distinguish between things that differ, by confusing in our thoughts things which are perfectly distinct. Scripture never confuses the grace and mercy of God, and it is to our deep loss if we do so.

The order in which these two attributes of God are here mentioned supplies the key to the distinction between them: "mercy" comes in after the "grace" of God. Why is this? Because mercy is the wondrous provision of God to meet the desperate needs of a people who have failed to respond to His grace. And this is what is so blessedly brought out here in Exodus 33. From Egypt to Sinai God had dealt with Israel on the ground of pure grace. In themselves they were no better than the Egyptians, vet had God, in His sovereign benignity, brought them out of the house of bondage, conducted them through the Red Sea, separated them unto Himself, supplied their every need in the wilderness. But how had the people requited such favors and blessings? They had revolted against Him, they had repudiated Him, they had set up an idol in His place. Was, then, their case hopeless? True they had "mourned," stripped themselves of their ornaments, and bowed in worship before the symbol of His manifested presence by the Tent. But could a God whose favors had been so lightly esteemed go on with them any further?

As we have seen, the typical mediator had interceded on behalf of the people who had sinned so heinous. And now it was that the Lord made one of the most blessed revelations of His character to be found anywhere in Holy Writ. Something was here made known of God’s nature which had never before been revealed in its real depths, namely, His mercy. It is true we nave mention of that precious word in the book of Genesis, but the full interpretation of its meaning is not there discovered. It was here in Exodus 33 that this deep and blessed spring in God’s Being was made manifest—so rich, so full, so blessed. Man’s extremity was God’s opportunity. The Divine outflow of grace had been abused, His righteous law had been broken, the relation entered into by the Sinitaic covenant (Ex. 24) had been disrupted by the rebellion of Israel. Now, "mercy" sovereign and absolute, was the resource of Him who retires into Himself and acts from Himself; only by the exercise of mercy could sinning Israel be extricated from their merited doom.

As we have said above, from the time when Jehovah first took up His enslaved people in the land of Pharaoh, till the waters gushed out of the smitten rock at Rephidim, all was a stream of pure grace, that is, free gifts, Divine favors to a people who had no worthiness or merits of their own. But here in Exodus 33 Israel were given cause to praise God on an altogether different ground, and from this time on- wards we find that ground the great theme of Israel’s songs—"O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good: for His mercy endureth forever" (Ps. 106:1). In proof of this contrast, note the contents of Psalm 105 and 106. Let the reader turn to them and mark carefully how that in Psalm 105, which also opens with "O give thanks unto the Lord," that the grace-history of Israel is taken up, beginning with Jehovah’s dealings with the patriarchs (v. 9), and re- counting what God had done for their descendants, till Rephidim was reached. In v. 41 we read, "He opened the rock, and the waters gushed out," and there the Psalmist stops. It will be observed that the word "mercy" does not occur in it a single time.

Now let the reader turn to Psalm 106, where we have the mercy-history of Israel’s journeyings. Observe how frequently this Psalm makes mention of Israel’s sins:—their unbelief (v. 7), their impatience (v. 13), their lusting (v. 14), their envy of Moses (v. 16), their idolatry (v. 19), their murmuring (v. 25), their unfaithfulness (v. 28), their provoking the Lord (v. 33), their disobedience (v. 34), their wickedness (vv. 35, 37). As verse 43 summarizes it, "Many times did He deliver them; but they provoked Him with their counsel." Thus did Israel evilly requite the wondrous grace of God. What then? Did He annihilate them? Well He might have done so. But instead, we are told, "And He remembered for them His covenant, and repented according to the multitude of His mercies" (v. 45)!

From Sinai and onwards Israel’s songs never recounted God’s grace. No, it was too late for that after the golden calf had been set up. His grace had been abused, flung back, as it were, into His face. His law had been violated, His covenant broken. But His mercy "endureth forever." Hallelujah! Mercy, then, is that blessed quality of God’s nature which meets the deep and dire needs of those who have sinned against His grace. The background of God’s grace is our emptiness, poverty, worthlessness. The foil for His mercy is our sinfulness, wickedness, vileness. That is why we are bidden to come to the Throne of Grace that we may "obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16).

The distinction just drawn above serves to explain what is found in the opening salutation of the N.T. epistles. We would urge the reader to consult for himself each passage now to be referred to. In Romans 1:7. 1 Corinthians 1:1, 2, 2 Corinthians 1:1, 2, Galatians 1:3, Ephesians 1:2. Philippians 1:2 Colossians 1:2, 1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2, 2 Thessalonians 1:2, each Christian company is saluted with "grace be unto you." But when we turn to 1 Timothy 1:2, 2 Timothy l:4, Titus 1:4 we find "mercy" is added: "grace, mercy and peace." Why is this? We know of no writer that has ever advanced what we believe is the true answer. But does not the history of Israel supply the key? Alas, has not history repeated itself? has not the course of Christendom corresponded to that of Israel? Has not Christendom, too, abused the wondrous "grace" of God? And has He not, most blessedly, fallen back upon His mercy in His dealings with us?

It should be carefully observed that when we come to the epistles of Timothy (see 1 Timothy 4:1, 2 Timothy 3:1) we are brought down to the closing days of this dispensation. Ah, were it not for that mercy which "endureth forever" where would God’s unfaithful, backslidden, and lukewarm people be! Still more significant is it to note mat the salutation of Jude’s epistle, the last one (treating of conditions in the end-time) opens with "mercy unto you." Verily, "mercy" is our last hope. Nor does it fail us. Yea, we are "looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life" (Jude 20)—the reference being to His second advent: compare 2 Timothy 1:18.

Oh Christian readers, have our own souls understood and apprehended this glorious attribute of mercy in which our God is so "rich" (Eph. 2:4)? Have we not often confused it with His grace, and thereby failed to perceive its distinctive glory and blessedness? Have not we not only broken His holy law again and again, but despised His very grace? What then is left but to fall back upon His mercy, which very attribute supposes this is our last resource! Well aware are we that this very truth may be misappropriated and misused, but for those whose hearts desire to please and glorify God, it is unspeakably precious. The mercy of God can only be truly apprehended by those who have been made to feel how grievously they have sinned against His grace. It is such who will welcome the invitation to come boldly ("freely") to the Throne of Grace, that there they may "obtain mercy" for the unrequited grace of yesterday, and there also find fresh supplies of grace for the needs of today.

In perfect accord with all that has been said above, is the first mention of God’s "mercy" in Holy Writ: "And while he lingered, the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the Lord being merciful unto him: and they brought him forth and set him without the city" (Gen. 10:16). This regarded Lot, and it is blessed to note his own acknowledgment of it, "Behold now. Thy servant hath found grace in Thy sight, and Thou hast magnified Thy mercy, which Thou hast showed unto me in saving my life" (v. 19). Yes, he had "found grace" in God’s sight, for he was one of the Lord’s people (2 Pet. 2:7). But O how basely had he treated that grace! He had not only forsaken Abraham, but had settled down in wicked Sodom. The only hope for such an one was mercy, and this God had "magnified."

It only remains for us now to point out how that in Exodus 33:19 the Lord emphasizes His sovereignty in the exercise of this attribute, saying, "I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy." Necessarily it must be so. Mercy is that which none can claim as a right: might they justly do so, it would cease to be mercy. Hence God reserves to Himself the right to extend it to whom He pleases, and to withhold it from whom He pleases. To this principle the apostle, when treating at length of the sovereignty of God, called attention in Romans 9:18. Nor is God unrighteous in this. None is wronged if "mercy" be withheld. God is therefore free to act as He pleases: "Is it not lawful for Me to do what I will with Mine own?" (Matthew 20:15).

"And He said, thou canst not see My face: for there shall no man see Me, and live (v. 20). We must ever distinguish between God’s absolute character and His relative making known of Himself. In His absolute character and essence no man hath seen nor can see God, for He is "Spirit" (John 4:24), and therefore unseeable. But relatively He has made Himself known to us by His many names and titles, by the manifestation of His many and varied attributes, and more fully and blessedly still, by and in the person of Christ. Yet it remains true that, absolutely, God is the invisible God, "dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto: whom no man hath seen, nor can see" (1 Tim. 6:16). In O.T. times, when God made Himself known to Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Gideon it was the second Person of the Trinity, yet not in His essential Deity, but in human or angelic form. No human creature is capable of perceiving the infinite and eternal Spirit in all His majesty and ineffable glory.

"And the Lord said, Behold there is a place by Me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: And it shall come to pass while My glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cliff of the rock, and will cover thee with My hand while I pass by: And I will take away Mine hand, and thou shalt see My back parts: but My face shall not be seen" (vv. 21-23).

This is most blessed. In order for sinful man to be able clearly to contemplate the Divine perfections of an infinitely righteous, holy God, it is necessary that he should be put into a place of security and peace. This God has, in His infinite condescension and grace, provided for us. To faith that "rock" is Christ. Augustus Toplady beautifully represented this in his well-known hymn,

"Rock of Ages cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee."

Or, as we prefer to sing it,

"Rock of Ages cleft for me,
Grace hath hid me safe in Thee."

God graciously permitted Moses to have an impression and perception of His presence such as he was capable of. A beautiful illustration of what we have in view here, we borrow from Dr. Cuyler’s work on the Holy Spirit: —

"I was talking about Christ to an impenitent neighbor the other day. He said ‘Why can’t I feel about Him as you do? I have read the Bible a good deal—I have heard a good deal of preaching, yet I can’t get up any enthusiasm in regard to this Savior that you talk so much about.’ I said to him, ‘You make me think of my visit to the White Mountains some years ago. We were told that there was a wonderful piece of natural statuary there—a man’s face chiselled out of a granite cliff. When we went to see it, we found what we supposed was the cliff, but there was no appearance of human features—no form or comeliness such as we had been told of. We were about to turn away disappointed when a guide came along and said. ‘You are not looking from the right point.’ He led us up the road a few rods, and then said, ‘Turn and look!’ We did so, and there was the face as distinct as any of ours, though of gigantic size. Until we reached the right spot we could see only a jagged rock, and not a symmetrical face. The vision of the form and comeliness depended upon the angle of observation. And it is so with you, my friend. Come with me under the shadow of the Cross. Come there as a penitent sinner, look there upon that visage so marred more than any man. Realize that the mangled, thorn-crowned Sufferer is dying for you, and you will see in Him a beauty that will ravish your soul."

By linking together a clause out of v. 21 with what is stated in 5:22 we get a beautifully complete type of the believer’s absolute security. First. "thou shalt stand upon a rock." This at once reminds us of, "By faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand" (Rom. 5:1, 2). Second, mark well the words, "I will put thee in a clift of a rock," for no sinner of himself can do this. Blessed figure was of an elect soul being "created in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:10). Third, "and will cover thee with My hand." "He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide tender the shadow of the Almighty" (Ps. 91:1). Not only is the believer in Christ, but he is also protected by the Father’s hand (John 10:29). Finally, observe it is only as we are in the "clift of the rock" that God’s "goodness" passes before us (v. 22). His "glory" can only come into view as the flesh is altogether hidden; that is, as we are made "new creatures in Christ."

"And I will take away Mine hand, and thou shalt see My back parts: but My face shall not be seen" (v. 23). This was in keeping with the Legal economy: the law had only "a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things" (Heb. 10:1). But how blessed the contrast now: "For God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6)! O may Divine grace enable both writer and reader to walk worthy of such a God, and such a revelation of Himself (1 Tim. 3:16) as He has now made to us in and through Christ (John 14:9).


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