The Lord, Lord: Part 2
The asymmetry of Exodus 34:6–7 startles us. Mercy and love loom large; retributive justice is acknowledged but almost as a necessary afterthought. John Owen put it this way in commenting on this passage:
When [God] solemnly declared his nature by his name to the full, that we might know and fear him, he does it by an enumeration of those properties which may convince us of his compassionateness and forbearance, and not till the close of all makes any mention of his severity, as that which he will not exercise towards any but such as by whom his compassion is despised.
The Puritans understood that in this revelation to Moses, God is opening up to us his deepest heart. In the supreme revelation of God in all the Old Testament, God himself does not feel a need to balance out communications of mercy with immediate and equal communications of his wrath. Rather he speaks of himself, as Richard Sibbes put it, “clothed all in sweet attributes.” Sibbes goes on to say: “If we would know the name of God, and see God as he is pleased and delighted to discover himself to us, let us know him by those names that he proclaims there, showing that the glory of the Lord in the gospel especially shines in mercy.”
What we see in Exodus 34, and what Owen and Sibbes confirm, echoes throughout the rest of the Bible, such as at Isaiah 54:7–8, where the Lord says:
For a brief moment I deserted you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.
The Christian life, from one angle, is the long journey of letting our natural assumption about who God is, over many decades, fall away, being slowly replaced with God’s own insistence on who he is. This is hard work. It takes a lot of sermons and a lot of suffering to believe that God’s deepest heart is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger.” The fall in Genesis 3 not only sent us into condemnation and exile. The fall also entrenched in our minds dark thoughts of God, thoughts that are only dug out over multiple exposures to the gospel over many years. Perhaps Satan’s greatest victory in your life today is not the sin in which you regularly indulge but the dark thoughts of God’s heart that cause you to go there in the first place and keep you cool toward him in the wake of it. The Christian life, from one angle, is the long journey of letting our natural assumption about who God is, over many decades, fall away, being slowly replaced with God’s own insistence on who he is. Click To Tweet
But of course the final proof of who God is cannot be found in Exodus but in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In Exodus 33–34 Moses cannot see God’s face and live, because it would incinerate him. But what if one day humans did see the face of God in a way that did not incinerate them? When John speaks of the Word becoming flesh he says, “We have seen his glory”—we have seen what Moses asked to see but couldn’t—“full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, identifying Christ as possessing in fullness the same traits as God in Ex. 34:6).
John is not the only Gospel writer to draw connections back to Exodus 33–34. Consider this: the revelation of Exodus 34 follows a miraculous feeding (Ex. 16:1–36) and discussion of the sabbath (31:12–18); involves God’s representative leader talking with God on a mountain (32:1, 15, 19; 34:2, 3, 29); concludes with God’s people as terrified of, calmed by, drawing near to, and speaking with God’s representative leader as this leader comes down from a mountain (34:30–31); is immediately followed by a recounting of marveling among the people as the object of their worship goes in the midst of the people (34:9–10); and is then followed thereafter by a further meeting between God’s representative leader and God, resulting in the leader’s face shining radiantly (34:29–33).
Every one of these narratival details occurs in Mark 6:45–52 and its surrounding context, as Jesus walks on the water. And now we begin to see why Jesus intended to “pass by” his disciples, struggling at the oars on the Sea of Galilee. The text says that “he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them” (Mark 6:48). Why would he intend to pass by them? The reason is that Jesus does not merely intend to “pass by” the disciples the way one car on the highway may bypass others. His passing by is far more significant and only understood against its Old Testament background. Four times in Exodus 33–34 the Lord says he will “pass by” Moses, the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) using the same word (parerchomai) that Mark uses.
The Lord passed by Moses and revealed that his deepest glory is seen in his mercy and grace. Jesus came to do in flesh and blood what God had done only in wind and voice in the Old Testament.
When we see the Lord revealing his truest character to Moses in Exodus 34, we are seeing the shadow that will one day yield to the shadow caster, Jesus Christ, in the Gospels. We are being given in 2-D what will explode into our own space-and-time continuum in 3-D centuries later, at the height of all of human history.
We are being told of God’s deepest heart in Exodus 34. But we are shown that heart in the Galilean carpenter, who testified that this was his heart throughout his life and then proved it when he went to a Roman cross, descending into the hell of God-forsakenness in our place.
**Content taken from Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund, ©2020. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, crossway.org.
 John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in W. H. Goold, ed., The Works of John Owen, vol. 25 (repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 483.
 Richard Sibbes, The Excellency of the Gospel Above the Law, in The Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. A. B. Grosart, 7 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1983), 4:245.
 That is: a miraculous feeding (Mark 6:30–44); discussion of the Sabbath (6:2); God’s representative leader talking with God on a mountain (6:46); concluding with God’s people terrified of, calmed by, drawing near to, and speaking with God’s representative leader as this leader comes down a mountain (6:49–50); is immediately followed by a recounting of marveling among the people as Jesus in the midst of the people (6:53–56); and is followed thereafter by a further meeting between God’s representative leader and God, resulting in the leader’s face shining radiantly (9:2–13). Readers who wish to see these connections laid out at length may consult Dane Ortlund, “The Old Testament Background and Eschatological Significance of Jesus Walking on the Sea (Mark 6:45–52),” Neotestamentica 46 (2012): 319–37.