Throughout the Bible, the rock is a picture of Christ. Whether referring to the stone the builders rejected, the stone cut out without hands, the stone of stumbling and the rock of offense, the living stone, the cornerstone, or the choice and precious stone, the picture is of Christ. And this is why Exodus 33:17-23 is so beautiful.
Moses had just made intercession for the nation of Israel with the words, “Consider too, that this nation is Your people” (v. 13). He then asked the Lord to go before the nation, leading them. The Lord agreed to Moses’ request and told Moses that he had found favor in His sight. But then Moses asked for something most unusual: “I pray You, show me Your glory!” (v.18).
Moses was in the presence of God, but he wanted more of that presence. He wanted to be closer; he wanted deeper knowledge of who God is. It seems that Moses did not know exactly what he was asking, because the glory of God was a fearful thing. For example, in Exodus 24:17 we read, “And to the eyes of the sons of Israel the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the mountain top.”
Yet Moses made his request from the best of motives. He did not ask based on curiosity or mere religious impulse, but from a genuine desire to know God better. And so his request was granted. The Lord agreed to let Moses see him with one caveat: “But He said, ‘You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!’” We do not fully understand the reasons why the face of God could not be seen, but it is likely that this is a reminder that some things belong to God and God alone.
Moses is not permitted to present his own ideas about how to resolve this problem, for God Himself has the answer. (This is a reminder to us that mankind could never have devised a means of salvation for himself. Only God Almighty could come up with the gospel.)
God’s solution to this problem is given in verse 22, “I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by.” To the unbeliever, it would seem a silly idea from a primitive religion that a man would need to hide among some rocks so that he would not see the face of God. But for the Christian, this concept makes perfect sense. Since the rock is a picture of Christ, being hidden in the rock is consistent with the broad theme of Scripture.
Safe in the cleft
However, there is one detail we should note. Moses was not hidden behind the rock but was hidden in a cleft in the rock. That rock, as mighty as it was, had some sort of crack or fissure without which Moses could not be hidden. The cleft in the rock is essential to this story. There is a parallel for us. The Lord Jesus Christ, in all His might, beauties, and perfections, could not be the Savior until He went to the cross and was pierced for our sake, giving up His life. Just as the rock had been pierced by a cleft, so, too, the Lord Jesus Christ had His hands, feet, and side pierced.
Moses was given a great honor: he was allowed to see God and live. Isaiah understood what a privilege this was, for in Isaiah 6:5, we read his reaction to seeing the Lord: “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” But there was another great privilege that Moses would be granted, about 1500 years later. Each of the synoptic Gospels records that, on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses spoke face to face with the Lord Jesus Christ. What Moses could not do when he represented the Old Testament Law he was enabled to do by the grace that Jesus Christ brings. So Moses was finally permitted to see the face of God!
More than Moses
In light of this, we might ask ourselves, how is this practical? We live in a different time with a very different set of dealings between God and man than what Moses experienced. True! But we should remind ourselves that the Lord Jesus Christ inaugurated a new dispensation, the defining characteristic of which is grace. The restrictions of the Old Testament Law were largely for the purpose of teaching us basic lessons (Heb. 6:1; Gal. 3:24). No longer do we have dietary restrictions, animal sacrifices, or a form of worship that depends on sights, sounds, and smells. What Moses could understand in an elementary way in the previous dispensation of Law, we can understand more fully in this present dispensation of Grace.
In particular, we have a greater and fuller revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the cleft in the rock was only a picture. The character, personality, and teachings of the Savior are given to us in four Gospels. The nature of His saving work is portrayed for us in great clarity throughout the New Testament. We are presented with a person who appeals to both heart and mind. We’ve even been told His name! When Moses was hidden in the cleft of the rock, he could not have foreseen the scope of revelation given today to the humblest saint who is willing to sincerely open the Bible.
We are also reminded that God has His own ways of solving problems. Perhaps when we were first saved, we thought that we needed to devise our own answers to the problems of life. Our prayers consisted of informing God that we had come up with a wonderful answer to our problems, and we only needed God to make it happen. But as we mature in the Lord, we learn that God solves problems and answers prayers in ways we can’t anticipate. It is a beautiful thing to see a mature saint waiting patiently on the Lord.
This passage also presents the holiness of God in a powerful way. Christians today have free access to God through the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, persistence and boldness in prayer are encouraged (Lk. 11:8). But we must not lose sight of the fact that God is God, and that He is infinitely holy. The Christian learns to enjoy fellowship without losing reverential fear for God. It seems that many today have lost that reverential fear of God.
What do you see in the cleft?
Perhaps the most beautiful practical comment on this passage comes from Moses’ exclamation, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” Moses wanted more of God, and so God granted his earnest request. Here we see that God will honor our desire to enjoy more of Him. God rejoices in us when we are rejoicing in Him. It satisfies Him when we are satisfied with Him. When we purpose in our hearts that we will settle for nothing less than seeing the glory of the Son of God, it pleases the heart of our Father. Indeed, the very core of worship is to take those truths we learn about the Lord Jesus Christ from the Bible, to meditate on them, and then present them back to the Father with a heart-felt cry, “Father, we see how beautiful your Son is! We join You in taking pleasure in Him.”