And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.” (Exodus 33:15)
A question that puts much of our Christianity into focus is this: Would you be satisfied with God’s eternal gifts and blessings, without God’s eternal presence? If God made the best world imaginable — a world teeming with laughter, beautiful lands, sparkling oceans, delicious food, and remade bodies — would this world be a heaven to you if God himself did not dwell there?
Imagine the triune God was ruling the universe from heaven. Imagine him watching from such heights as to see but not be seen. Would you be content to live in paradise without God himself revealing his glory? Is the uncompromised prayer of your heart, “Abide with us”?
“Abide with Us”
Moses was confronted with enjoying God’s favor without God’s presence. The Lord tells Moses, “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 33:3).
Were we Moses, we might have found ourselves hearing this word and inwardly calculating: I get a homeland flowing with milk and honey and I get to avoid getting destroyed because of my sin — win-win. Yet if we settled on this receiving of God’s stuff without God’s presence going with us, we would fall short of Moses’s and the people’s reaction.
Upon hearing that God wouldn’t go among them lest he consume them, the people, instead of being relieved, mourned (Exodus 33:4).
And even after God promises his presence to Moses and the people, Moses says,
If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth? (Exodus 33:15–16)
Other nations had nice stuff, but they did not have the living God. Moses would have God as their inheritance. He would rather stall and perish in the wilderness than go forward into Jerusalem without his God going among them. Are we like Moses?
Because We Are Sinners
We should be. And we should be because, like the Moses and the people, we are sinners. Often, we run from God’s presence because we are guilty, but Moses reasons just the opposite.
Moses did not take God’s threat to consume them lightly. He wasn’t expecting God to just sweep the people’s sin under the rug. They had just made a golden calf and worshiped it as an idol.
We see his recognition of their guilt, but he uses this fact in his second plea for God to come with them: “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance” (Exodus 34:9).
Did you catch that? Come with us, Lord, because we are a sinful people. Instead of that being the reason why God might tarry away from them, it now became the reason for the plea. What happened?
Moses saw God’s glory. And in seeing his glory, he heard something: that God will have compassion and show steadfast love to those he chooses (Exodus 34:6–7). He can, through his redemptive plan, have mercy on those whom he chooses. And this makes Moses bow low in worship, and beg for God to go with them — a sinful people.
In a Land of Milk and Honey
So is our prayer, “Abide with me”? Not just, “Take away this pain,” or “Bring me this blessing,” but “Give me more of you”? Do we confess, “I need thy presence every passing hour” — and this because we know ourselves to be sinners?
Even as some of us dwell in a land flowing with milk and honey, may we ever sing,
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away
Change and decay in all around I see
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.