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. 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. 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.
Moses said to the LORD, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “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?”
And the LORD said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33, ESV)
Moses intercedes again on behalf of the people and Yahweh listens to him because Moses has favor with God. God has been speaking face to face with Moses (though the fact that Moses asks to see God’s face tells us that this is an expression of the close contact he had with Yahweh, not a literal face to face talk). Moses has used a tent to interact with Yahweh and he goes there again to present his case to God for going up with them rather than just sending an angel.
Interestingly, the tent was for anyone who sought Yahweh to meet with Him, presumable via Moses intercession. Joshua would stay in the tent seeking Yahweh even after Moses left. This is a model for us in our prayer. But now Moses goes to intercede on behalf of the people and himself.
The people are in proper mourning about their misbehavior and rebellion and when Moses gets the answer he wanted he seeks to trade on his favor with Yahweh to see Yahweh’s face. Yahweh says no, I believe, because what Moses is really asking is to see all of Yahweh’s glory, which would likely kill the human being who experiences it, overwhelming the bodily system in ways it could not recover from. But Yahweh shows him His “back” or a form of His glory that Moses can handle, and declares His glory, His character, as Moses experiences this vision of God.
What do we care about enough to beseech God’s throne the way Moses did? And are we in such favor with God that He would grant it?
Never give up prayer, and should you find dryness and difficulty, persevere in it for this very reason. God often desires to see what love your soul has, and love is not tried by ease and satisfaction. (John of the Cross)
God is still on His throne, we’re still on His footstool, and there’s only a knee’s distance between. Cold prayers, like cold suitors, are seldom effective in their aims. (Jim Elliott)
As St. Augustine says, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Knowing this is the essence of prayer. The posture our body and the words we use have no significance in themselves and are only pleasing to God as they express the feelings of the heart. For it is the heart that prays, it is to the voice of the heart that God listens to, and it is the heart that he answers. You ask me what this voice of the heart is. It is love which is the voice of the heart. Love God and you will always be speaking to Him. The seed of love is growth in prayer. If you do not understand that, you have never yet either loved or prayed. Ask God to open your heart and kindle in it a spark of his love, and then you will begin to understand what praying means. (Jean-Nicholas Grou, Devotional Classics)