"Then Moses said, ‘Now show me your glory’” (Exodus 33:18).
Charles Spurgeon calls this the greatest request a man ever made of God. I think he is right. How could Moses have asked for anything larger? To see God’s glory is to see God himself. It was as if Moses is saying, “Let me see you as you really are.” Usually when men pray, they want some special favor from the Lord. “Lord, help me find a job” or “Heal my child” or “Reveal your will to me” or “Increase my faith” or “Save me from this day of trouble.” Those prayers are noble in themselves because they ask of God what only God can give. If we ask that a mountain be cast into the sea, we are asking for something we ourselves cannot do. So even our “ordinary” prayers honor the Lord because they teach us that God is God and we are not.
But this prayer of Moses stands entirely alone. It is a category unto itself. No other request can be compared to it. God’s glory is the sum total of who he is. It is God’s power plus his wisdom plus his justice plus his mercy plus his wisdom plus his holiness plus his love plus every other attribute of his character. God’s glory is the shining forth of who God is in his essence.
We can only understand this request if we consider the context. Moses had just spent 40 days on Mount Sinai communing with the Lord. During those days on the mountain, God revealed to Moses his law and wrote the Ten Commandments on the tablets of stone with his finger. While Moses was with the Lord, the children of Israel grew restless so Aaron gathered gold earrings from the people and constructed a golden calf. They danced and shouted and proclaimed, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4). The people offered sacrifices to the golden calf and began to engage in wild revelry. The Lord knew all about it and told Moses that he was going to destroy Israel and start over with a new nation that would worship him and not turn to idols. But Moses interceded with the Lord for his stiff-necked, rebellious people. He reminded God of the promise he made to Abraham and he also said that the pagans would say he brought them into the wilderness just to kill them. So the Lord relented and did not destroy the people.
Then Moses came down from the mountain. When he saw the people and their wild celebration, he threw down the stone tablets in anger. He burned the golden calf, ground it to power, mixed it with water, and made the Israelites drink it. Then he called for those who were still loyal to God to rally to his side. The Levites stood with him, and at his instruction, they went through the camp killing the idolaters. Three thousand people died that day. The next day Moses pled with God for forgiveness for his people. He even asked God to blot his own name out of his book in order to save the people of Israel. God told him to lead the people away from Mt. Sinai and toward the Promised Land, but with one significant condition: “I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way” (Exodus 33:3).
This is our greatest fear—that when we go, the Lord will not go with us. It happens more often than we think. In our haste to get on with life, we take control of the situation and the results never work out as we hoped. I wonder how many of us can look back at some major decision and say, “I see now that the Lord wasn’t in that at all. I did that one all by myself.” The tragedy of going on without the Lord is that we generally don’t discover it until it’s too late to do much about it. Wrong decisions can’t always be undone. So Moses intercedes with God again. This time he says, “If you don’t go with us, we’re aren’t going to go.” That’s the right attitude to have. If God has led you out of Egypt, you’d better not leave him behind at Mt. Sinai. You’re going to need his help to navigate the wilderness.
Then comes the great request in verse 18—"Show me your glory.” God’s answer is a qualified yes. “I will show you my glory,” he says, “but not all of it.” No one can see God’s face and live. Moses will see God’s goodness but he will not see God’s face. No one can see God’s face and live (Exodus 33:20). Then God offers to hide Moses in the “cleft of the rock” while he is passing by. Moses will be able to see his back as he passes by. That is more than any man had ever seen before. That is the most Moses could see and not die.
I. We discover God’s glory in the time of crisis.
Moses prayed, “Show me your glory,” only after the children of Israel began to worship the golden calf. And he prayed this way after he had broken the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and after 3,000 Israelites had died, and after he had interceded with God several times. And this prayer came after he had saved the nation from destruction, and after he had received God’s promise not to abandon his people. No doubt the ongoing crisis had drained much of his natural strength. We all have our limits, don’t we? Tom Landry, longtime coach of the Dallas Cowboys, was fond of remarking, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Most of us can handle a little bit of adversity, and some of us can handle a lot of adversity, but everyone has a breaking point. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are or what your track record may be. We all have a breaking point—and sometimes we discover it without warning. There is a lesson here if we care to take it.
You’re not as strong as you think you are, and neither am I.
You’re not as wise as you think you are, and neither am I.
You’re not as clever as you think you are, and neither am I.
You’re not as self-sufficient as you think you are, and neither am I.
The mightiest oak tree in the forest looks invincible, but if you hit it in just the right place with a tiny ax, it comes crashing down. The ax may be small but it can bring down a tree in just a few seconds. It is a good thing that God sends us through fiery trials or else we would never see his glory. A few days ago I received an e-mail from a man in Erie, PA who read my book The God You Can Trust. A year ago the doctors told him he has prostate cancer. In times past he made many mistakes and hurt his own family greatly. “Difficult times. Tremendous guilt and pain. So when I got news of cancer I thought, ‘I certainly deserve it.’” He got a copy of my book and took it with him to work. He said he works 12-hour shifts and often goes high on the rooftops to pray late at night.
It was while reading your book that God and I came to peaceful terms with cancer. Not only that but He gave me ability to see how cancer would be useful in His kingdom and in my life. Cancer clears away the cobwebs, cancer clarifies, cancer makes concise, cancer enables you to find comfort in God and freedom from the world’s entrapments.
If he had not had cancer, he would never have discovered these things. Cancer may not be “good” in and of itself, but it can be good to have cancer if out of that crisis, you come to a new understanding of God.
We learn more in the darkness than we do in the light. We grow stronger in affliction than when the sun is shining and all is well. It is not coincidence that Moses discovers God’s glory in a time of personal crisis. It will be the same for us as well.
II. The revelation of God’s glory comes at a personal cost.
God told Moses he would answer his prayer but not in the way he expected. In a sense, Moses had no idea what he was asking for. He wanted to see God’s glory, but that meant seeing God in his essence. No man can see God’s essence and live. The light would blind us and then it would consume us. So God told Moses he would hide him in the “cleft of the rock” so he would see God’s back as the Lord passed by. That alone would be overwhelming to Moses, but at least he would not die.
Sometimes when we pray, we ask for things that we cannot bear alone. We want certain blessings but we have no idea of the cost involved. And certainly when we pray, “Lord, show me your glory,” like Moses of old, we are asking for something that goes far beyond our limited abilities to receive. Last year at Calvary, we took the theme, “Lord, teach us to pray.” On the first Sunday of the year, I did something I had never done before. At the end of my sermon, I asked the congregation to pray for me in a special way during the year. On the spur of the moment, I asked people not to come into the sanctuary unless they had prayed for me that day. I told them I felt my need for their prayers very deeply and I begged them to pray for me. Later I found out that my request for prayer unnerved certain people. They wondered if something was “wrong” in my life that caused me to ask for prayer. A few weeks later I repeated that request to the congregation. One lady came up and asked me why I had chosen this particular year to ask for prayer. On the spur of the moment, I replied, “I have no idea but I’m sure it will be revealed eventually.” That was in early February.
A few weeks later I came to Word of Life Florida to teach for a week. I wasn’t feeling well when I came. I wasn’t exactly sick, but I suppose you could say I was “off my oats” a bit. Just a touch under the weather. After I finished my final message, I went back to my room and more or less collapsed. It was as if my body said, “The work is done for the week so now it’s time to get sick.” I just felt miserable, started running a fever, got the shakes, the whole nine yards. We flew home later that day but my condition didn’t improve. The next day I got a bit worse. The whole thing baffled me since I’m in the category of people who “never get sick.” I had been truly sick exactly once in 30 years. That was in 1986 when I contracted mononucleosis. I ended up missing three Sundays preaching because of it. And since then, I’ve never missed a Sunday because of sickness. But my record was about to be broken. Later that Saturday I developed a pain that made it difficult for me to stand up. The flu or whatever it was had morphed into some kind of infection. By that night I knew I was in a bit of trouble. Finally at 3:00 a.m. I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to preach that morning. Later that day I started on a course of antibiotics that I hoped would help.
The next day I was mostly unchanged. Early on Tuesday morning my brother called with the news that our mother had died. Mom was 81 years old, had been in poor health, and had suffered from a form of Alzheimer’s disease for several years. Although she had been declining, the timing of her death was a surprise. And like so many people before me, I can testify that even if you expect it, you’re never really ready for the death of a parent. It hits you harder than you expect. So we rounded up the boys and began making the trip to Alabama for the funeral service. I was still sick and couldn’t drive so they laid me in the backseat and the boys and Marlene took turns driving. The next night we had the visitation and I saw lots of family friends I hadn’t seen for almost three decades. The day after that I spoke at the graveside service. It was cold and a bit windy on that early March day when we laid my mother to rest next to my father who had died 29 years earlier. Over 100 people gathered for the brief service. The thought occurred to me that I hadn’t seen most of these people since my father’s funeral in 1974. My high school principal was there, folks from the church where we grew up were there, and there were many old family friends who had known my father and mother many years ago.
While I was standing there doing my mother’s graveside service, I had a surreal personal experience. Perhaps it happened partly because of my sickness, perhaps it was seeing so many old friends after three decades, perhaps it was because we were burying my mother and my father side by side. It was as if there was a “wrinkle in time” and the 29 years since my father died had suddenly been swallowed up. They just disappeared for a moment. I was in my early 20s when Dad died; I’m in my early 50s now. Most of the family friends who came to the graveside service had been at my father’s funeral 29 years earlier. Most of them were in their early 50s then; most are in their late 70s or early 80s now. It seemed as if the three decades in between had just disappeared. All this passed through my mind in a flash while I was speaking. I could reach out and touch my mother’s coffin. I was standing three feet from where we buried my father. It was as if we buried my father last week, we were burying my mother this week, and next week someone would bury me. I had a tremendous sense of my own mortality, of the quickly passing years. It seemed as if the Lord whispered in my ear, “Ray, take a good look. This is where you will be someday.” And that day comes sooner than I think.
Yesterday my father died.
Today my mother died.
Tomorrow I will die.
Yet decades may pass between those events. But all are certain to happen. I cannot totally explain what I experienced that day, yet it was profound to me and I am still thinking about it. The sickness and my mother’s death were a revelation of my own weakness, my humanity, my frailty, a reminder that “dust thou art, to the dust thou shalt return.” This is always true for all of us, but often we live as if we don’t believe it.
As I survey my own life a year later, I find a huge desire to simplify things. I have spoken about this before because it is a compelling urge inside me. Simplify. Find out what really matters. Don’t carry so much clutter. Get rid of what you don’t need. Pack the essentials and don’t worry about anything else. And above all, trust in a sovereign God. This doctrine has become my bedrock. I can live without many things but I cannot live without a sovereign God.
Change and decay in all around I see,
Oh, thou who changes not, abide with me.
Moses received his answer, but not in the way he expected. And it did not come without a revelation of his weakness. The same is true for all of us. We say we want to know the Lord better, we want to come closer to him in prayer, we want to grow in grace, we hope to move forward in our spiritual journey. But there is a price to be paid. No pain, no gain. We must see our own weakness in a personal way before we can behold his glory.
III. When this prayer is answered, others will know it before you will.
Exodus 34:29 tells us that when Moses came down from the mountain, his face was radiant because he had been speaking with God, but he didn’t know it. He had been with God so long that some of God’s glory “rubbed off” on him. His men saw his shining face and knew that he had been with God. Moses had no idea his face was shining until they told him. Evidently it was too much to look at so he veiled his face so he wouldn’t blind his friends.
Sometimes we pray, “Lord, show me your glory,” hoping for some deep personal experience that will transform us on the inside. Although we wouldn’t say it this way, we secretly hope that by drawing close to God, we will have some experience that will make us better people, banish our doubts, increase our faith, free us from temptation, and fill our hearts with joy. In short, we want to know God better for our own benefit. But in Moses’ case, the real benefit was seen by others. They saw the visible evidence of God’s work before he did.
Occasionally I’m in a meeting where someone will ask, “Are you closer to the Lord today than you were a year ago?” I never know how to answer that question in a satisfactory manner. I certainly hope that I am closer to the Lord today than I was a year ago, but my judgment is necessarily flawed because I don’t see myself clearly. I see what I want to see or I see what I would like to see. Sometimes I look at my life and feel that there has been no progress at all. The best way to answer a question like this is to ask the people who know me best. My wife, my boys, the people I work with every day, they know the truth about me. If I have been walking with the Lord, others will know it; they will see the light shining from me even when I’m not aware of it.
So do not be dismayed if you feel that you have made little progress spiritually. No matter how far we come, there is always more ground to cover for the Lord. And often when we think we’re going in circles, we are actually ascending the mountain of the Lord. Sometimes it takes a friend who can say, “Look how far you’ve come. I can see God’s work in your life.” It was true for Moses. It will be true for us as well.
There is great encouragement for all of us from this ancient story. In a time of crisis Moses dared to pray a magnificent prayer to the Lord. He asked for more than any man had asked for before, and he received more than any man had ever received. Yet both the prayer and the answer came in a time of crisis through a revelation of Moses’ own weakness. And the answer was seen by others before it was seen by Moses. These things are here for our encouragement. Your trials are not meant to destroy you. God intends that you should use the hard times to draw near to him. If you are willing to be made weak, you will learn things about the Lord that you never knew when you were strong. This is always God’s way. The strong have no need of God—or so they think. But the weak are hidden in the cleft of the rock—and they are the ones who truly see God. Amen.