It was a conversation between friends.
One was pleading with the other.
It’s not the first time – nor the last.
Moses talked with God with a greater familiarity than most.
Inside the so-called Tent of Meeting is where God and Moses would come together and hash things out. In that sacred place of divine intimacy, “the Lord would speak with Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11).
It was a holy intimacy we observe throughout the Old Testament – an intimacy of smoke and fire and clouds and wind – an intimacy rooted in awe.
This was quite unlike the easy familiarity found in many worship services today.
Moses appears before God seeking divine reassurance in the midst of yet another crisis.
God has had it up to here with his chosen people.
He’s fed up.
It’s no wonder.
After liberating, leading and miraculously protecting the people of Israel, God has seen their response: a rollercoaster of broken promises to trust and obey. Once safely on the other shore of the Red Sea, as soon as Moses ascends Sinai to receive God’s commandments, the people decide to make their own god in the form of a golden calf.
Then they party.
“Moses? We don’t know what became of him”, they cry as they dance half naked in a celebration of unrestrained compulsion.
God decides to wipe Israel off the face of the earth for their rebellion. Unfaithful, unthankful and unrepentant, they’ve pushed God too far.
Only when Moses appeals to God’s promise to the nation, and to God’s integrity and his reputation should he go back on that covenant, does God change his mind. Only a leader who knew God and had a close relationship with him would have dared or been able to make such a national intercession.
Now God tells Moses to lead Israel to the Promised Land. “Get going,” God tells him, “you and the people you brought up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 33:1, emphasis added).
When God’s angry with the people, they belong to Moses. When Moses pleads for mercy on their behalf, the people are God’s.
Not once but twice, God refuses to go with them. “I will not travel among you,” God tells Moses to tell the Israelites, “for you are a stubborn and rebellious people. If I did, I would surely destroy you along the way … If I were to travel with you for even a moment, I would destroy you” (Exodus 33: 3, 5, emphasis added).
This is more than a mere divine annoyance or even a divine separation – this is the threat of divine annihilation. God can’t be held responsible for what he might do.
God tells Moses: Go – and take these sorry people with you. But don’t expect me to go along.
I’ve had it.
You’re on your own – and good luck! I’ll send an angel along to guide you.
But now Moses, the leader God chose out of the burning bush and commissioned to set an enslaved people free, has come before God again. This time, to argue his case.
Moses reminds God of God’s favor upon him – and of the consistently intimate relationship they’ve enjoyed through all these ups and downs of leading a great but wayward people.
For Moses, the guiding angel is not enough. He wants God himself to go with them – and no one else. He must have the divine presence.
“If you don’t personally go with us,” Moses pleads, “don’t make us leave this place” (Exodus 33:15).
We’d rather dwell in this wilderness desert until we die than try and enter the Promised Land without you.
God’s presence is more than desirable – it is indispensable to the child of God.
With God, his people may go to the uttermost parts of the world. Without him, we dare not venture across the street. The enabling power of the Great Commission is found in the unchanging promise and presence of Jesus Christ: “And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).
“How will anyone know that you look favorably on me – on me and on your people,” Moses reasons with God, “if you don’t go with us? For your presence among us sets your people and me apart from all other people on the earth” (Exodus 33:16).
God changes his mind – once again. Moses persuades him. God agrees to go. His holiness and justice find balance with his mercy and love.
And Israel gets to the Promised Land and becomes – and remains to this day – a great nation.
God’s presence is as indispensable for his people today as it was the day Moses pleaded for it.
His presence sets you apart.
As you look forward to a brand New Year, here’s the greatest comfort you can have this side of eternity:
Every day that you rise from your bed; with every mile you travel; with every problem, challenge or decision you face; every heartache, illness or setback you may suffer, the God of Moses whispers to your heart, “Fear not, for I am with you … I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you” (Isaiah 41:10).
God’s indispensable presence is your strength.
He’ll never leave you.