Meditations in Exodus: 71. Another Day
Ex 33:1,3 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.’….. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.”
It is another day. Have you ever had a crisis, perhaps a failure, the bottom appears to have fallen out of your world and then you wake up one day and think, “It’s another day. I need to move on.” Well, Israel have just been through a major crisis. God set a test for them and some of them at least failed it. He had kept Moses up the mountain for over a month and during that time some of the people at least had not coped well with his absence. Their sin rose up in the form of grumbling and then making demands and then idolatry and then revelry. A light to the nations they were not – and so they were removed. As horrendous as the judgment was, it was also simple and straight forward – they were removed and the other 99.99 per cent (for that is what it was) lived to face another day. But how would they have felt about what had happened. Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t so much what they thought as what the Lord thought.
The instruction to move on comes: “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.’” (v.1) The comforting truth is that we may get it wrong but the Lord will not be put off working out His purposes. Yes, there has been failure within Israel but Moses and the Lord have dealt with it, so move on. Indeed, He bring encouragement: “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” (v.2,3a) The Lord’s angel will go ahead of them preparing the way. Note again what we have said in the past, it is the Lord’s intent to drive out the Canaanites not necessarily destroy them.
But then comes a twofold bit of bad news: “But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.” (v.3b) God won’t come with them in the same way He has so far (bad news 1) because it has become patently obvious that they are a stiff-necked bunch with a tendency to do their own thing and if He is with them, the next time it may be worse and they will not get off so lightly (bad news 2). Well actually that second part may be good news but it still leaves them feeling bad about themselves and vulnerable.
But it doesn’t end there: “When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. For the LORD had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, `You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.'” So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb.” (v.4-6) I believe commentators who say they didn’t put on ornaments as a sign of distress, miss the point. The Lord told them not to put on ornaments. Why? Well, perhaps it is twofold. First, you have nothing to celebrate so don’t dress up. I want to see a humble attitude in you. But, second, it is maybe a reminder of what has just happened when Aaron took the ornaments of the rebellious group and turned them into an idol. Whatever it is, there is a certain measure of chastening here.
It is an interesting point to be made. Very often we encourage one another when we have got it wrong by reminding ourselves of John’s words in his first letter: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn 1:9) Now that is indeed the right approach but there is a danger in it and it is that we make repentance into a formula which costs nothing. So on the one hand we may have Christians who struggle to realise they can be forgiven, and on the other Christians who are almost casual about it.
There is, I suggest, a balance to be brought here. The truth is you DID get it wrong, you DID make a mistake, you DID blow it. Perhaps we might say you should have known better and it was pure foolishness to do what you did. We are all prone to do it, but YOU did it! Now what point is there in making a meal of this?
It is so that we won’t do it again. I look back on various failures in my own history and wondered why the Lord in His mercy, having forgiven and cleansed me, didn’t also erase those failures from my memory? The answer, I believe, is that He wants me to remember these things, not to rub my nose in them and make me feel a constant failure, but to remind me how vulnerable I am to failure and how much I need His help to avoid such failures. It also helps me keep a right sense of perspective about my life when, in a time when I am doing OK, I see others who are not doing OK and I may have a temptation to look down on them. At such times I need reminding of my own spectacular little fiascos in my past life. Humility, it is a wonderful thing but sometimes has to come through painful ways!
Israel (and Moses) are being confronted by the Lord with their vulnerabilities – like us they have a propensity to stubbornness and stupidity and that could lead them into situations where the Lord would feel impelled to take disciplinary action to save them – and that might get painful. So, He suggests, He will stay at a distance. Is that how you would prefer it, God at a distance? We’ll see what Moses thinks about it in the next study.