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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Exodus 34

 

 

Verse 6

Exodus

GOD PROCLAIMING HIS OWN NAME

Exodus 34:6.

This great event derives additional significance and grandeur from the place in which it stands. It follows the hideous act of idolatry in which the levity and sinfulness of Israel reached their climax. The trumpet of Sinai had hardly ceased to peal, and there in the rocky solitudes, in full view of the mount ‘that burned with fire,’ while the echoes of the thunder and the Voice still lingered, one might say, among the cliffs, that mob of abject cowards were bold enough to shake off their allegiance to God, and, forgetful of all the past, plunged into idolatry, and wallowed in sensuous delights. What a contrast between Moses on the mount and Aaron and the people in the plain! Then comes the wonderful story of the plague and of Moses’ intercession, followed by the high request of Moses, so strange and yet so natural at such a time, for the vision of God’s ‘glory.’ Into all the depths of that I do not need to plunge. Enough that he is told that his desire is beyond the possibilities of creatural life. The mediator and lawgiver cannot rise beyond the bounds of human limitations. But what can be shall be. God’s ‘goodness’ will pass before him. Then comes this wonderful advance in the progress of divine revelation. If we remember the breach of the Covenant, and then turn to these words, considered as evoked by the people’s sin, they become very remarkable. If we consider them as the answer to Moses’ desire, they are no less so. Taking these two thoughts with us, let us consider them in-

I. The answer to the request for a sensuous manifestation.

The request is ‘show me,’ as if some visible manifestation were desired and expected, or, if not a visible, at least a direct perception of Jehovah’s glory.’ Moses desires that he, as mediator and lawgiver, may have some closer knowledge. The answer to his request is a word, the articulate proclamation of the ‘Name’ of the Lord. It is higher than all manifestation to sense, which was what Moses had asked. Here there is no symbol as of the Lord in the ‘cloud.’ The divine manifestation is impossible to sense, and that, too, not by reason of man’s limitations, but by reason of God’s nature. The manifestation to spirit in full immediate perception is impossible also. It has to be maintained that we know God only ‘in part’; but it does not follow that our knowledge is only representative, or is not of Him ‘as He is.’ Though not whole it is real, so far as it goes.

But this is not the highest form. Words and propositions can never reveal so fully, nor with such certitude, as a personal revelation. But we have Christ’s life, ‘God manifest’: not words about God, but the manifestation of the very divine nature itself in action. ‘Merciful’:-and we see Jesus going about ‘doing good.’ ‘Gracious,’ and we see Him welcoming to Himself all the weary, and ever bestowing of the treasures of His love. ‘Longsuffering’:-’Father! forgive them!’ God is ‘plenteous in mercy and in truth,’ forgiving transgression and sin:-’Thy sins be forgiven thee.’

How different it all is when we have deeds, a human life, on which to base our belief! How much more certain, as well as coming closer to our hearts! Merely verbal statements need proof, they need warming. In Christ’s showing us the Father they are changed as from a painting to a living being; they are brought out of the region of abstractions into the concrete.

‘And so the word had breath, and wrought

With human hands the creed of creeds.’

‘Show us the Father and it sufficeth us.’ ‘He that hath seen Me, hath seen the Father.’

Is there any other form of manifestation possible? Yes; in heaven there will be a closer vision of Christ-not of God. Our knowledge of Christ will there be expanded, deepened, made more direct. We know not how. There will be bodily changes: ‘Like unto the body of His glory.’ etc. ‘We shall be like Him.’ ‘Changed from glory to glory.’

II. The answer to the desire to see God’s glory.

The ‘Glory’ was the technical name for the lustrous cloud that hung over the Mercy-seat, but here it probably means more generally some visible manifestation of the divine presence. What Moses craved to see with his eyes was the essential divine light. That vision he did not receive, but what he did receive was partly a visible manifestation, though not of the dazzling radiance which no human eye can see and live, and still more instructive and encouraging, the communication in words of that shining galaxy of attributes, ‘the glories that compose Thy name.’ In the name specially so-called, the name Jehovah, was revealed absolute eternal Being, and in the accompanying declaration of so-called ‘attributes’ were thrown into high relief the two qualities of merciful forgiveness and retributive justice. The ‘attributes’ which separate God from us, and in which vulgar thought finds the marks of divinity, are conspicuous by their absence. Nothing is said of omniscience, omnipresence, and the like, but forgiveness and justice, of both of which men carry analogues in themselves, are proclaimed by the very voice of God as those by which He desires that He should be chiefly conceived of by us.

The true ‘glory of God’ is His pardoning Love. That is the glowing heart of the divine brightness. If so, then the very heart of that heart of brightness, the very glory of the ‘Glory of God,’ is the Christ, in whom we behold that which was at once ‘the glory as of the only begotten of the Father’ and the ‘Glory of the Father.’

In Jesus these two elements, pardoning love and retributive justice, wondrously meet, and the mystery of the possibility of their harmonious co-operation in the divine government is solved, and becomes the occasion for the rapturous gratitude of man and the wondering adoration of principalities and powers in heavenly places. Jesus has manifested the divine mercifulness; Jesus has borne the burden of sin and the weight of the divine Justice. The lips that said ‘Be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee,’ also cried, ‘Why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ The tenderest manifestation of the God ‘plenteous in mercy . . .forgiving iniquity,’ and the most awe-kindling manifestation of the God ‘that will by no means clear the guilty,’ are fused into one, when we ‘behold that Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.’

III. The answer to a great sin.

This Revelation is the immediate issue of Israel’s great apostasy.

Sin evokes His pardoning mercy. This insignificant speck in Creation has been the scene of the wonder of the Incarnation, not because its magnitude was great, but because its need was desperate. Men, because they are sinners, have been subjects of an experience more precious than the ‘angels which excel in strength’ and hearken ‘to the voice of His word’ have known or can know. The wilder the storm of human evil roars and rages, the deeper and louder is the voice that peals across the storm. So for us all Christ is the full and final revelation of God’s grace. The last, because the perfect embodiment of it; the sole, because the sufficient manifestation of it. ‘See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh.’


Verse 7

Exodus

SIN AND FORGIVENESS

Exodus 34:7.

The former chapter tells us of the majesty of the divine revelation as it was made to Moses on ‘the mount of God.’ Let us notice that, whatever was the visible pomp of the external Theophany to the senses, the true revelation lay in the proclamation of the ‘Name’; the revelation to the conscience and the heart; and such a revelation had never before fallen on mortal ears. It is remarkable that the very system which was emphatically one of law and retribution should have been thus heralded by a word which is perfectly ‘evangelical’ in its whole tone. That fact should have prevented many errors as to the relation of Judaism and Christianity. The very centre of the former was ‘God is love,’ ‘merciful and gracious,’ and if there follows the difficult addition ‘visiting the iniquities,’ etc., the New Testament adds its ‘Amen’ to that. True, the harmony of the two and the great revelation of the means of forgiveness lay far beyond the horizon of Moses and his people, but none the less was it the message of Judaism that ‘there is forgiveness with Thee that Thou mayest be feared.’ The law spoke of retribution, justice, duty, and sin, but side by side with the law was another institution, the sacrificial worship, which proclaimed that God was full of love, and that the sinner was welcomed to His side. And it is the root of many errors to transfer New Testament language about the law to the whole Old Testament system. But, passing away from this, I wish to look at two points in these words.

I. The characteristics of human sins.

II. The divine treatment of them.

I. The characteristics of human sins.

Observe the threefold form of expression-iniquity and transgression and sin.

It seems natural that in the divine proclamation of His own holy character, the sinful nature of men should be characterised with all the fervid energy of such words; for the accumulation even of synonyms would serve a moral purpose, expressive at once of the divine displeasure against sin, and of the free full pardon for it in all its possible forms. But the words are very far from all meaning the same thing. They all designate the same actions, but from different points of view, and with reference to different phases and qualities of sin.

Now these three expressions are inadequately represented by the English translation.

‘Iniquity’ literally means ‘twisting,’ or ‘something twisted,’ and is thus the opposite of ‘righteousness,’ or rather of what is ‘straight.’ It is thus like our own ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ or like the Latin ‘in-iquity’ {by which it is happily enough rendered in our version}. So looking at this word and the thoughts which connect themselves with it, we come to this:-

{1} All sin of every sort is deviation from a standard to which we ought to be conformed.

Note the graphic force of the word as giving the straight line to which our conduct ought to run parallel, and the contrast between it and the wavering curves into which our lives meander, like the lines in a child’s copy-book, or a rude attempt at drawing a circle at one sweep of the pencil. Herbert speaks of

‘The crooked wandering ways in which we live.’

There is a path which is ‘right’ and one which is ‘wrong,’ whether we believe so or not.

There are hedges and limitations for us all. This law extends to the ordering of all things, whether great or small. If a line be absolutely straight, and we are running another parallel to it, the smallest possible wavering is fatal to our copy. And the smallest deflection, if produced, will run out into an ever-widening distance from the straight line.

There is nothing which it is more difficult to get into men’s belief than the sinfulness of little sins; nothing more difficult to cure ourselves of than the habit of considering quantity rather than quality in moral questions. What a solemn thought it is, that of a great absolute law of right rising serene above us, embracing everything! And this is the first idea that is here in our text-a grave and deep one.

But the second of these expressions for sin literally means ‘apostasy,’ ‘rebellion,’ not ‘transgression,’ and this word brings in a more solemn thought yet, viz.:-

{2} Every sin is apostasy from or rebellion against God.

The former word dealt only with abstract thought of a ‘law,’ this with a ‘Lawgiver.’

Our obligations are not merely to a law, but to Him who enacted it. So it becomes plain that the very centre of all sin is the shaking off of obedience to God. Living to ‘self’ is the inmost essence of every act of evil, and may be as virulently active in the smallest trifle as in the most awful crime.

How infinitely deeper and darker this makes sin to be!

When one thinks of our obligations and of our dependence, of God’s love and care, what an ‘evil and a bitter thing’ every sin becomes!

Urge this terrible contrast of a loving Father and a disobedient child.

This idea brings out the ingratitude of all sin.

But the third word here used literally means ‘missing an aim,’ and so we come to

{3} Every sin misses the goal at which we should aim. There may be a double idea here-that of failing in the great purpose of our being, which is already partially included in the first of these three expressions, or that of missing the aim which we proposed to ourselves in the act. All sin is a failure.

By it we fall short of the loftiest purpose. Whatever we gain we lose more.

Every life which has sin in it is a ‘failure.’ You may be prosperous, brilliant, successful, but you are ‘a failure.’

For consider what human life might be: full of God and full of joy. Consider what the ‘fruits’ of sin are. ‘Apples of Sodom.’ How sin leads to sorrow. This is an inevitable law. Sin fails to secure what it sought for. All ‘wrong’ is a mistake, a blunder. ‘Thou fool!’

So this word suggests the futility of sin considered in its consequences. ‘These be thy gods, O Israel!’ ‘The end of these things is death.’

II. The divine treatment of sins.

‘Forgiving,’ and yet not suffering them to go unpunished.

{1} God forgives, and yet He does not leave sin unpunished, for He will ‘by no means clear the guilty.’

The one word refers to His love, His heart; the other to the retributions which are inseparable from the very course of nature.

Forgiveness is the flow of God’s love to all, and the welcoming back to His favour of all who come. Forgiveness likewise includes the escape from the extreme and uttermost consequences of sin in this life and in the next, the sense of God’s displeasure here, and the final separation from Him, which is eternal death. Forgiveness is not inconsistent with retribution. There must needs be retribution, from-

Conscience, our spiritual nature, our habits all demand it.

In it all things work under God, but only for ‘good’ to them who love God. To all others, sooner or later, the Nemesis comes. ‘Ye shall eat of the fruit of your doings.’

{2} God forgives, and therefore He does not leave sin unpunished. It is divine mercy that strikes. The end of His chastisement is to separate us from our sins.

{3} Divine forgiveness and retributive justice both centre in the revelation of the Cross.

To us this message comes. It was the hidden heart of the Mosaic system. It was the revelation of Sinai. To Israel it was ‘proclaimed’ in thunder and darkness, and the way of forgiveness and the harmony of righteousness and mercy were veiled. To us it is proclaimed from Calvary. There in full light the Lord passes before us and proclaims, ‘I am the Lord, the Lord God merciful and gracious.’ ‘Ye are come . . .unto Jesus.’ ‘See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh.’ ‘This is my Beloved Son, hear Him !’


Verse 29

Exodus

BLESSED AND TRAGIC UNCONSCIOUSNESS

Exodus 34:29. - Judges 16:20.

The recurrence of the same phrase in two such opposite connections is very striking. Moses, fresh from the mountain of vision, where he had gazed on as much of the glory of God as was accessible to man, caught some gleam of the light which he adoringly beheld; and a strange radiance sat on his face, unseen by himself, but visible to all others. So, supreme beauty of character comes from beholding God and talking with Him; and the bearer of it is unconscious of it.

Samson, fresh from his coarse debauch, and shorn of the locks which he had vowed to keep, strides out into the air, and tries his former feats; but his strength has left him because the Lord has left him; and the Lord has left him because, in his fleshly animalism, he has left the Lord. Like, but most unlike, Moses, he knows not his weakness. So strength, like beauty, is dependent upon contact with God, and may ebb away when that is broken, and the man may be all unaware of his weakness till he tries his power, and ignominiously fails.

These two contrasted pictures, the one so mysteriously grand and the other so tragic, may well help to illustrate for us truths that should be burned into our minds and our memories.

I. Note, then, the first thought which they both teach us, that beauty and strength come from communion with God.

In both the cases with which we are dealing these were of a merely material sort. The light on Moses’ face and the strength in Samson’s arm were, at the highest, but types of something far higher and nobler than themselves. But still, the presence of the one and the departure of the other alike teach us the conditions on which we may possess both in nobler form, and the certainty of losing them if we lose hold of God.

Moses’ experience teaches us that the loftiest beauty of character comes from communion with God. That is the use that the Apostle makes of this remarkable incident in 2 Cor. iii, where he takes the light that shone from Moses’ face as being the symbol of the better lustre that gleams from all those who ‘behold {or reflect} the glory of the Lord’ with unveiled faces, and, by beholding, are ‘changed into the likeness’ of that on which they gaze with adoration and longing. The great law to which, almost exclusively, Christianity commits the perfecting of individual character is this: Look at Him till you become like Him, and in beholding, be changed. ‘Tell me the company a man keeps, and I will tell you his character,’ says the old proverb. And what is true on the lower levels of daily life, that most men become assimilated to the complexion of those around them, especially if they admire or love them, is the great principle whereby worship, which is desire and longing and admiration in the superlative degree, stamps the image of the worshipped upon the character of the worshipper. ‘They followed after vanity, and have become vain,’ says one of the prophets, gathering up into a sentence the whole philosophy of the degradation of humanity by reason of idolatry and the worship of false gods. ‘They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.’ The law works upwards as well as downwards, for whom we worship we declare to be infinitely good; whom we worship we long to be like; whom we worship we shall certainly imitate.

Thus, brethren, the practical, plain lesson that comes from this thought is simply this: If you want to be pure and good, noble and gentle, sweet and tender; if you desire to be delivered from your own weaknesses and selfish, sinful idiosyncrasies, the way to secure your desire is, ‘Look unto Me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.’ Contemplation, which is love and longing, is the parent of all effort that succeeds. Contemplation of God in Christ is the master-key that opens this door, and makes it possible for the lowliest and the foulest amongst us to cherish unpresumptuous hopes of being like Him’ if we see Him as He is revealed here, and perfectly like Him when yonder we see Him ‘as He is.’

There have been in the past, and there are today, thousands of simple souls, shut out by lowliness of position and other circumstances from all the refining and ennobling influences of which the world makes so much, who yet in character and bearing, ay, and sometimes in the very look of their meek faces, are living witnesses how mighty to transform a nature is the power of loving gazing upon Jesus Christ. All of us who have had much to do with Christians of the humbler classes know that. There is no influence to refine and beautify men like that of living near Jesus Christ, and walking in the light of that Beauty which is ‘the effulgence of the divine glory and the express image of His Person.’

And in like manner as beauty so strength comes from communion with God and laying hold on Him. We can only think of Samson as a ‘saint’ in a very modified fashion, and present him as an example in a very limited degree. His dependence upon divine power was rude, and divorced from elevation of character and morality, but howsoever imperfect, fragmentary, and I might almost say to our more trained eyes, grotesque, it looks, yet there was a reality in it; and when the man was faithless to his vow, and allowed the crafty harlot’s scissors to shear from his head the token of his consecration, it was because the reality of the consecration, rude and external as that consecration was, both in itself and in its consequences, had passed away from him.

And so we may learn the lesson, taught at once by the flashing face of the lawgiver and the enfeebled force of the hero, that the two poles of perfectness in humanity, so often divorced from one another-beauty and strength-have one common source, and depend for their loftiest position upon the same thing. God possesses both in supremest degree, being the Almighty and the All-fair; and we possess them in limited, but yet possibly progressive, measure, through dependence upon Him. The true force of character, and the true power for work, and every real strength which is not disguised weakness, ‘a lath painted to look like iron,’ come on condition of our keeping close by God. The Fountain is open for you all; see to it that you resort thither.

II. And now the second thought of my text is that the bearer of the radiance is unconscious of it.

‘Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone.’ In all regions of life, the consummate apex and crowning charm of excellence is unconsciousness of excellence. Whenever a man begins to imagine that he is good, he begins to be bad; and every virtue and beauty of character is robbed of some portion of its attractive fairness when the man who bears it knows, or fancies, that he possesses it. The charm of childhood is its perfect unconsciousness, and the man has to win back the child’s heritage, and become ‘as a little child,’ if he would enter into and dwell in the ‘Kingdom of Heaven.’ And so in the loftiest region of all, that of the religious life, you may be sure that the more a man is like Christ, the less he knows it; and the better he is, the less he suspects it. The reasons why that is so, point, at the same time, to the ways by which we may attain to this blessed self-oblivion. So let me put just in a word or two some simple, practical thoughts.

Let us, then, try to lose ourselves in Jesus Christ. That way of self-oblivion is emancipation and blessedness and power. It is safe for us to leave all thoughts of our miserable selves behind us, if instead of them we have the thought of that great, sweet, dear Lord, filling mind and heart. A man walking on a tight-rope will be far more likely to fall, if he is looking at his toes, than if he is looking at the point to which he is going. If we fix our eyes on Jesus, then we can safely look, neither to our feet nor to the gulfs; but straight at Him gazing, we shall straight to Him advance. ‘Looking off’ from ourselves ‘unto Jesus’ is safe; looking off anywhere else is peril. Seek that self-oblivion which comes from self being swallowed up in the thought of the Lord.

And again, I would say, think constantly and longingly of the unattained. ‘Brethren! I count not myself to have apprehended.’ Endless aspiration and a stinging consciousness of present imperfection are the loftiest states of man here below. The beholders down in the valley, when they look up, may see our figures against the skyline, and fancy us at the summit, but our loftier elevation reveals untrodden heights beyond; and we have only risen so high in order to discern more clearly how much higher we have to rise. Dissatisfaction with the present is the condition of excellence in all pursuits of life, and in the Christian life even more eminently than in all others, because the goal to be attained is in its very nature infinite; and therefore ensures the blessed certainty of continual progress, accompanied here, indeed, with the sting and bite of a sense of imperfection, but one day to be only sweetness, as we think of how much there is yet to be won in addition to the perfection of the present.

So, dear friends, the best way to keep ourselves unconscious of present attainments is to set our faces forward, and to make ‘all experience’ as ‘an arch wherethro’ gleams that untraveiled world to which we move.’ ‘Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone.’

The third practical suggestion that I would make is, cultivate a clear sense of your own imperfections. We do not need to try to learn our goodness. That will suggest itself to us only too clearly; but what we do need is to have a very clear sense of our shortcomings and failures, our faults of temper, our faults of desire, our faults in our relations to our fellows, and all the other evils that still buzz and sting and poison our blood. Has not the best of us enough of these to knock all the conceit out of us? A true man will never be so much ashamed of himself as when he is praised, for it will always send him to look into the deep places of his heart, and there will be a swarm of ugly, creeping things under the stones there, if he will only turn them up and look beneath. So let us lose ourselves in Christ, let us set our faces to the unattained future, let us clearly understand our own faults and sins.

III. Thirdly, the strong man made weak is unconscious of his weakness.

I do not mean here to touch at all upon the general thought that, by its very nature, all evil tends to make us insensitive to its presence. Conscience becomes dull by practice of sin and by neglect of conscience, until that which at first was as sensitive as the palm of a little child’s hand becomes as if it were ‘seared with a hot iron.’ The foulness of the atmosphere of a crowded hall is not perceived by the people in it. It needs a man to come in from the outer air to detect it. We can accustom ourselves to any mephitic and poisonous atmosphere, and many of us live in one all our days, and do not know that there is any need of ventilation or that the air is not perfectly sweet. The ‘deceitfulness’ of sin is its great weapon.

But what I desire to point out is an even sadder thing than that-namely, that Christian people may lose their strength because they let go their hold upon God, and know nothing about it. Spiritual declension, all unconscious of its own existence, is the very history of hundreds of nominal Christians amongst us, and, I dare say, of some of us. The very fact that you do not suppose the statement to have the least application to yourself is perhaps the very sign that it does apply. When the lifeblood is pouring out of a man, he faints before he dies. The swoon of unconsciousness is the condition of some professing Christians. Frost-bitten limbs are quite comfortable, and only tingle when circulation is coming back. I remember a great elm-tree, the pride of an avenue in the south, that had spread its branches for more years than the oldest man could count, and stood, leafy and green. Not until a winter storm came one night and laid it low with a crash did anybody suspect what everybody saw in the morning-that the heart was eaten out of it, and nothing left but a shell of bark. Some Christian people are like that; they manage to grow leaves, and even some fruit, but when the storm comes they will go down, because the heart has been out of their religion for years. ‘Samson wist not that the Lord was departed from him.’

And so, brother, because there are so many things that mask the ebbing away of a Christian life, and because our own self-love and habits come in to hide declension, let me earnestly exhort you and myself to watch ourselves very narrowly. Unconsciousness does not mean ignorant presumption or presumptuous ignorance. It is difficult to make an estimate of ourselves by poking into our own sentiments and supposed feelings and convictions, and the estimate is likely to be wrong. There is a better way than that. Two things tell what a man is-one, what he wants, and the other, what he does. As the will is, the man is. Where do the currents of your desires set? If you watch their flow, you may be pretty sure whether your religious life is an ebbing or a rising tide. The other way to ascertain what we are is rigidly to examine and judge what we do. ‘Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the Lord.’ Actions are the true test of a man. Conduct is the best revelation of character, especially in regard to ourselves. So let us ‘watch and be sober’-sober in our estimate of ourselves, and determined to find every lurking evil, and to drag it forth into the light.

Again, let me say, let us ask God to help us. ‘Search me, O God! and try me.’ We shall never rightly understand what we are, unless we spread ourselves out before Him and crave that Divine Spirit, who is ‘the candle of the Lord,’ to be carried ever in our hands into the secret recesses of our sinful hearts. ‘Anoint thine eyes with eye salve that thou mayest see,’ and get the eye salve by communion with God, who will supply thee a standard by which to try thy poor, stained, ragged righteousness. The collyrium, the eye salve, may be, will be, painful when it is rubbed into the lids, but it will clear the sight; and the first work of Him, whose dearest name is Comforter, is to convince of sin.

And, last of all, let us keep near to Jesus Christ, near enough to Him to feel His touch, to hear His voice, to see His face, and to carry down with us into the valley some radiance on our countenances which may tell even the world, that we have been up where the Light lives and reigns.

‘Because thou sayest, I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing, and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked, I counsel thee to buy of Me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eye salve, that thou mayest see.’

 


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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Exodus 34:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/exodus-34.html.

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