God shows himself to Moses and to the people of Israel in incredible ways throughout the story of the Exodus. He protects Moses and raises him up to be a leader in Israel. God come to Moses and speaks to him in a burning bush and reveals his name. In ushering them out of captivity in Egypt, God shows his might pouring out 10 plagues on the land and he shows his mercy in sparing the children of Israel during the 10th plague. God provides a way for them in the Passover by the blood of a lamb. God then leads Israel out of Egypt, guiding them by the cloud of his presence. And if these acts weren’t enough, God then parts the Red Sea as pharaoh’s army advanced behind them. Truly this is a God with control over all things. He has great power and has used it to save his people and to be with them.
Unfortunately the chosen people of God cannot match his faithfulness and so quickly they are turning to those things which are not god. They reject God and turn to idols. This is sin and it offends God to the point that he says his presence can no longer be with the people.
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.”
Why can’t God be with the Israelites? It is because of their sin. It is because they are sinful and God fears that he will destroy them because of it. He describes their issue by describing them as a “stiff-necked people.”
The idea that God’s presence will no longer be among the people is devastating to Moses. This has been a hope that the God who revealed himself as, I AM, would remain with Israel and guide her. Moses has enjoyed the immense blessing of being in the presence of God and wants this blessing for others.
So Moses intercedes with God. If your presence will not go with us, why did you bring us out of Egypt? How can we be your people if you are not with us? We don’t want your angel–we want you.
Moses then asks to see the glory of God and God passes before him. He hides Moses in the cleft of a rock and God’s goodness goes in front of him and God says in chapter 34:
The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
Moses’ response is to bow in worship. And then he makes his final plea. He wants for the people what he just experienced himself, the presence of God. What argument can Moses make to get God to remain there among the people? What reason can he put forth for why God should make his dwelling in the midst of a sinful people? What does Moses say? In verse nine he says, "If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”
What sort of argument is this? Why had God already said he couldn’t be with the people, lest he consume them? Because they were stiff-necked. Now Moses is asking God to stay with them because they are stiff-necked. Does this make sense?
Let’s say there were two roommates, one of whom was moving out. Jack says to Jill, “Why are you leaving?” and Jill responds, “Because you’re filthy.” So Jack thinks this over and comes back and says, “Jill, I think you should reconsider.” “Why?” she replies. And his thoughtful argument is this, “Because I’m filthy.”
Would that make sense? His filthiness is why she’s leaving. So why would use that as a reason to stay? Do they have an unhealthy codependent relationship? Is Jack too dependent on Jill relying on her alone for his cleanliness, needing her to stay so he won’t be filthy?
While inappropriate for Jack to put that responsibility on another, it is entirely right for Moses to realize that only God can provide for Israel. Because they are stiff-necked they are sinful and that separates them from God. But in their sin, who can save? Could they ever save themselves? No. Therefore, Moses realizes that because they are stiff-necked they need God all the more. It is the problem and cause of separation, but it is also the cause of their great need. Israel is desperate for God to be with them because they know they are lost without him.
Graciously God says yes. He will remain with them, but we see throughout scripture what he does to make a way for our holy God to be with a sinful people. The end of Exodus tells us about the tabernacle and how that provides a way. We sometimes can read about it (or the temple) and see it as a barrier to being with God. Instead we should see in it how our God desires to be with us and for us and that is the way it could be accomplished.
It was the way for generations. The presence of God was seen as located among Israel. But now because of the work of Jesus Christ, the world is different. Read what Paul writes in Ephesians 2:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
Those provisions of the old are fulfilled and nullified in him because on the cross Jesus took the sin that separated. He removed the barriers and brought us together with God. Now in Jesus Christ, we who are a stiff-necked people are blessed with his Spirit and the very presence of God is not confined to a tabernacle or a temple and it is not limited to the few priests. We who are in Christ all have the presence of God by his Spirit and we all are made into temples of the Holy Spirit.
Where once the world went to Jerusalem to seek the presence of God in the temple, now the temples go out from Jerusalem to the world.