Exodus 33:14-15. The Lord replied, ‘My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’ Then Moses said to him, ‘if your Presence does not go with us; do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?
God is angry. While Moses was on the mountain receiving the commandments, Israel reverted to wanting a god they could see, so they donated their gold, melted it down and built an idol. Moses finally took himself away and what follows are some remarkable conversations.
First Moses prays for forgiveness for the people, even if it meant his own exclusion from the promises of his fathers. God still seems distant.
Yet Moses keeps reminding God who these people are. They are the chosen people. He pleads for God’s presence. God promises his face or presence will accompany them. But why did the people mourn when they heard God’s messenger would accompany them? Wasn’t that an indication of God’s forgiveness? We usually think God sending a messenger is a reason to rejoice. Occasionally the message is not pleasant, as in Jeremiah’s case. There God asked him to say things he knew the people would not want to hear. However, for the most part, the messenger is usually welcomed. In this case, however, the people understood the messenger or angel was a substitute for God’s direct presence. They had given up that privilege when they sinned.
However, Moses understands they must have God’s presence. He continues, almost arguing with God. ‘These are your people,’ he says, ‘If your presence doesn’t go with us, don’t send us up from here.’ It’s a combination plea and bargain. How will people know we are your people without your presence?
Somehow Moses understood the ‘two-foldness’ of God’s presence. We need God’s presence for guidance and strength. Without that presence, I beg God, ‘Don’t ask me to go. I simply can’t. And without Your presence no one will even know I’m Your child.’ We haven’t the strength in ourselves to live a life that is witness to the reality of God.
In Israel’s case the proximity of God’s presence caused fear. But the outward sign of the presence, the pillar of fire, was welcome. When we become acutely aware of the presence of God, it’s an awesome, humbling, exhilarating, emotional experience. For some of us who fight our emotions, how to respond to this presence is often a struggle in itself.
We need to think carefully about our use of words.God’s presence isn’t out there, sent to us now and again. God is always present. We are not always aware of the presence. So we need to pray, not send us your presence (for if God dwells in us, we are in God’s presence at all times), but rather, make us aware of your presence. As we mature in our relationship with God, our goal should be constant practice of the awareness of God’s presence.
Isn’t it the sense of God’s presence that prompts a response in us? God’s disturbing presence when we know we lack something or have done wrong. God’s presence in the assurance of forgiveness and daily life. God’s presence in strength supplied. God’s presence bringing peace to us. We say these things are given to us, supplied by God working in our lives or dwelling in us. We’ll not settle the duality Moses was aware of. When we speak both of being in God’s presence and God’s presence being in us, we speak of the mysteriousness of it. We don’t understand it. We only know it is. We experience both.
And we live our lives in the presence of God, finally becoming aware with the Psalmist who, in Psalm 139:7, writes of the presence of God; Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there: if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand guides me. Your hand will hold me fast.”
And that is both frightening and assuring. No matter where we go, how hard we try, we cannot leave the presence of God. At the same time, God is with us at all times. All we have to do is become aware of how close God’s presence is.
This is one of the few prose devotions I have written lately. It is the devotion from my second novel, The Twins of Zae, which will be ready to publish in the Kindle format shortly.