…is His goodness.
In Exodus 33, Moses famously asks God to show him His glory. Notice how God responds:
17And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
18Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
19And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
21Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
So it is interesting that Moses asked to see God’s “glory” but God responded by saying that all of His “goodness” would pass in front of him. And it is this goodness that would be so overpowering that it would kill Moses if he experienced it full-on.
We noticed these things ourselves in our Bible study, but Guzik also picks it up in his commentary: “God didn’t reveal His justice to Moses, not His power, and not His wrath against sin. All those are truly aspects of God’s nature, but when He showed Himself to Moses He displayed His goodness.”
Now in the Bible study itself we were a bit puzzled by the sudden jump from God talking about His goodness to then saying, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy…” It seemed like a bit of a non sequitur.
But then later, when I was talking about the passages with my son, it made more sense. My son had said something like, “It is that God is so good compared to Moses that Moses brain would shut down?” and then that made me remember how I had once tried to explain what heaven and hell might be like. (I think I have touched on this here at the blog.) Suppose that in the afterlife, you are made acutely aware of just how much pain and suffering your actions caused others throughout your life. Faced with the full recognition of how bad you were, it is unspeakable agony, and you live with that for eternity; that’s what Hell is. If you stroll through life thinking you’re a pretty good person–not like one of those bad people–then you are in for a serious shock.
But instead, if you’ve been priming yourself your whole life with the notion that you deserve hell, but are granted access to God through the vicarious redemptive work of Jesus, and spend most of your free time singing praises about God, then when you see Him in the afterlife you don’t dwell on your sins–you bask in His presence. You have already moved beyond your own ego and know that He’s more important a thing to focus on than yourself. So that’s what Heaven is.
So back to my son’s comment on Exodus 33: 19-20: If the specific reason Moses would die in the full juxtaposition of God’s goodness is that Moses (by contrast) is so sinful, then it makes sense that God would immediately mention that He would pick some people to allow in His presence after suitably shielding them.
Let me try to restate the possible interpretation in other words: In this passage, Moses asks to see God. God points out that Moses is not good enough to do that, but God desires to make it possible, so He comes up with a way that God Himself covers up Moses’ shortcomings to allow it.
Likewise, for those of us who seek God, God points out that we are not good enough to do so on our own merits. But He desires to make it possible, so He comes up with a way that God Himself covers up our sins to allow it.