The Loss of God’s Presence

1 The Lord said to Moses, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 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.”

When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. For the Lord had said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do with you.’” Therefore the people of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward.

Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. 10 And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. 11 Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent. – Exodus 33:1-11 ESV

Israel’s ill-advised decision to abandon God proved to be far more costly than they could ever have imagined. Three thousand of their own kinsmen died as a result of their leadership role in the rebellion, while an undisclosed number of other Israelites lost their lives in the plague that God sent among them. These divine judgments must have left the people of Israel in a constant state of fear and anxiety. Had God’s wrath been satisfied or were more deaths to be expected? And would they be next? Yet the greatest judgment was yet to come, and it would appear in an unexpected form.

God commanded Moses to break camp and begin the next phase of the journey to Canaan. Their time at Sinai was complete. They had the Decalogue, the Book of the Covenant, and God’s plans for the Tabernacle. Now, it was time to complete their quest for the promised land. But notice how God changed how He referenced the people of Israel. He told Moses to depart and to take “the people you brought up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 33:1 ESV). He no longer refers to them as His “treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5 ESV). Rather than “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6 ESV), they are simply “the people” whom Moses brought out of Egypt. Their decision to abandon God has dramatically altered their relationship with Him.

God will keep the covenant promise He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Canaan will become the Israelite’s homeland, and to bring that outcome about, God will drive out all the inhabitants who currently occupy the land. He promises to send an angel ahead of them, who will “drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites” (Exodus 33:2 ESV). But the announcement about this divine agent is markedly different that what God had told them prior to their debacle with the golden calf.

“Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. – Exodus 23:20-21 ESV

Earlier, God had promised to send His angel to accompany them on their way to Canaan. He was to guide and guard them as they traveled. But the angel’s presence had come with conditions.

“But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. – Exodus 23:22 ESV

And God had told them that their conquest of Canaan would require the destruction of all the inhabitants, the elimination of every idol, and complete allegiance to Him.

“When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces. You shall serve the Lord your God…” – Exodus 23:23-25 ESV

But the people’s rejection of God at Sinai proved to be catastrophic and in ways that were completely unexpected and unnerving. God informed Moses, “I will not travel among you, for you are a stubborn and rebellious people. If I did, I would surely destroy you along the way” (Exodus 33:3 NLT).

And God had Moses command the people to remove all their fine clothes and expensive jewelry. They would no longer be allowed to adorn themselves with the trinkets and treasures they had brought with them from Egypt. This prohibition seems to have direct ties to Aaron’s request for the Israelites to donate all their gold earrings so that he could make them a false god (Exodus 32:2-3). God wanted nothing to do with their fancy ornaments and fine clothing because they served as reminders of their rejection of Him. So, he told them, “You are a stubborn and rebellious people. If I were to travel with you for even a moment, I would destroy you. Remove your jewelry and fine clothes while I decide what to do with you” (Exodus 33:5 NLT). And this command would remain in effect all the way to their arrival in Canaan.

But the most devastating part of God’s message was His decision to rescind the promise of His divine presence. Back in chapter 25, Moses recorded God’s plans for the Tabernacle.

“…let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.” – Exodus 25:8 ESV

And when Moses had descended from Mount Sinai, he brought those plans to the people of Israel. But now, the construction of the Tabernacle was put on hold. The place of God’s presence would not be built. Up until that moment, Moses had been accustomed to meeting with God at a place called the Tent of Meeting. This was another structure that was located on the outskirts of the camp where Moses would intervene on behalf of the people.

Whenever Moses went out to the Tent of Meeting, all the people would get up and stand in the entrances of their own tents. They would all watch Moses until he disappeared inside. As he went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and hover at its entrance while the Lord spoke with Moses. – Exodus 33:8-9 NLT

The Tabernacle had been designed to replace the Tent of Meeting. It would become the new dwelling place of God among His people. But their actions at Sinai had changed all that.

“The significance of this turn of events cannot be stressed too highly. The whole purpose of the Exodus was for God and his people to be together. God’s presence with them will be firmly established in the proposed tabernacle. By saying, ‘go ahead, but you’re going without me,’ the events of the previous thirty-one chapters are being undone. This is not merely a setback; it means the end of the road.” – Peter Enns, Exodus

This announcement left the people in a state of mourning. They were shocked and dismayed to find out that Yahweh would no longer dwell in their midst. They did as God had said and removed their fine clothes and expensive jewelry. They went into a state of mourning and tried to assuage the anger of their unhappy God with their outward display of contrition. But the damage had been done. Their rejection of God had been costly. They were now facing the prospect of traveling all the way to Canaan but without God in their midst. Their decision to replace Yahweh would haunt them for some time to come, and only time would reveal whether they learned the lesson God intended for them.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.