There are a million things being done for God every hour – probably more. There is so much activity and busyness and frenzied work being done in and for God’s name. We can be thankful that so much is being done in the name of our Lord.
But we must always ask a few hard questions about our mountain of activity: Is God really calling us to do this? Is God really in this activity? Does God really get glorified by what I am doing? Is God’s presence fully found in our ministry or work for God?
Those are questions we need to constantly be asking. Sure, we have copious amounts of promises in Scripture about God being with us. And in a general sense he of course is with all believers all the time. But is he specifically with us in a specific task? Is he clearly involved in the tasks we are performing?
Without his presence not only is our work in the Lord in vain, but it does nothing to bring honour and glory to God. Someone who knew this so very well was Moses. And one of the most amazing passages about this is found in Exodus 33.
But let me first present the background to this. In Exodus 32 we find the deplorable incident of the golden calf. Moses went up on the mountain to receive the law (the two tablets), and in the meantime, the Israelites lapsed into some heavy duty idolatry and immorality (the two usually go together).
We all know the story, so no further comment is needed except to say that the idolatry they engaged in is far more common and widespread – even today – than we might realise. As R. C. Sproul said about it:
“The cow gave no law and demanded no obedience. It had no wrath or justice or holiness to be feared. It was deaf, dumb and impotent. But at least it could not intrude on their fun and call them to judgment. This was a religion designed by men, practiced by men, but ultimately useless to men.”
You know the outcome of this tragic episode: reflecting the extreme displeasure of God, Moses smashes the two tablets, and swift and stern judgment is meted out. What we find in the opening verses of chapter 33 provides the immediate context for the passage I wish to share. The first three verses say this:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.”
This is what really disturbs Moses, and results in him pleading with God to not abandon his people. What Moses says in 33:15-16 should be our constant cry and prayer: “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?”
I like how Philip Graham Ryken comments on this:
Before God could answer, the prophet went on to make it clear that he would not settle for anything less than the very presence of God. He didn’t want any old angel to help him; he wanted the direct guidance of Almighty God. So he begged God to stay with him. “Teach me your ways,” he said, “so I may know you” (v. 13). To lead the people effectively, Moses needed to know the very mind of God. He didn’t want God simply to send down orders; he wanted to know the thinking behind God’s plans – his ways with his people. To that end, Moses wanted to remain in constant communication with God. This was essential to his spiritual leadership.
As Alec Motyer says about this, “We can feel the spiritual heartbeat of a real man of God, who deemed it better to remain permanently in a desert place than to get into a land flowing with milk and honey and find the Lord was not there with him.”
Not only is this plea of Moses wonderful and exemplary, but the reply of God is also a tremendous thing to hear: “And 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’.” (Ex. 33:17)
Wow, what an utterly terrific request from Moses, and what an utterly terrific reply from Yahweh. Would that all Christian leaders – indeed, all Christians – had such a heart as Moses did, with such a desire for God’s presence, and such a concern for God’s reputation.
When we get our priorities right and put first things first, then we will see the blessing of God. And who could want more than to hear these words, ‘I am pleased with you and I know you by name’? May that be our desire as we work for the Lord.
And may we never go anywhere or do anything unless we are certain that his presence is well and truly with us.