Let me tell you a tale of two men who desperately needed to see God.
The first is Moses.
The difficulties Moses faced in leading the Israelites out of Egypt are notorious. He encountered constant fear, dissatisfaction, and complaining. When the crowd finally arrived at Sinai, I suppose he expected that things would get easier, that the people would see the power of God exhibited and come together as a covenant nation.
Of course, they had seen the visible presence of God all along the way in the pillar of cloud that led them, and they had complained anyway. But surely here …
Moses meets God, apparently in view of the people, and receives the Ten Commandments (Ex 20.1-17) and some additional initial laws (Ex 20.22-23.33). He then offers sacrifices in the presence of the people (Ex 24.1-8), before ascending with the other leaders of Israel to the mountaintop (Ex 24.9-11)—and “there they saw the God of Israel” (Ex 24.10). The text doesn’t describe very clearly what they saw, but I’m inclined to think it was less than Moses wanted to see, as we’ll note shortly.
Then God calls Moses to a private audience on the summit, where he gives him the commandments in written form (Ex 24.12). (This is a significant step in the progress of divine revelation.) God and Moses commune there for 40 days, while God explains the design and procedures of the Tabernacle (Ex 25.1-31.18).
But while Moses is having his mountaintop experience, calamity strikes his people back on the desert floor. Assuming that Moses isn’t coming back, they demand that Aaron make them a visible representation of the gods (Ex 32.1)—and he does. This just days after they have received (orally) the Ten Commandments—including the Second One.
At the sight of the orgy, Moses is enraged. He breaks the stone tablets of the Law and destroys the idol—and forces the idolatrous people to drink the powdered gold (Ex 32.20). And then, in a surprising turn, he intercedes with God for the people (Ex 32.31-32).
God tells him there are still things to be resolved between Him and Israel, but he promises to send his angel to accompany the nation into the Land (Ex 32.34). Moses erects a tent outside the camp where he can communicate with God (Ex 33.7). (This is evidently not the Tabernacle, since it clearly hasn’t been constructed yet [Ex 35-40].) And there, hidden from the people, he meets with God and talks “face to face” (Ex 33.11).
But despite all this interaction. Moses is not satisfied with his sight of God. There in the tent he says, “I’m begging you—show me your glory!” (Ex 33.18).
And God replies, “I can’t do that; you wouldn’t survive. No one can see me—really see me—and live.”
Such is the glory of the God of heaven, the Creator of heaven and earth. For Moses, there is no way that he can fulfill his desire to know God that intimately. The distance—the gap—is far too great.
But God offers him a consolation prize. “I’ll put you in a crevice on the face of the mountain,” he says, “and I’ll cover you with my hand to protect you from my glory, and for just a split second I’ll take away my hand and let you see my back. That’s all you’ll be able to endure” (Ex 33.20-23).
And so, for all the special privileges Moses has been given, for all the revelations and meetings and face-to-face conversations, his deepest desire remains unfulfilled. He wants to know God clearly, accurately, fully. He wants to commune with his Maker at a level beyond what a mere creature can survive.
As creatures made in God’s image, we all have within us that desire to know God, to understand him, to love him. Since the Fall, of course, most of God’s images distort that desire into something grotesque. But it’s there, deep inside.
There’s another man in the Bible with a similar longing. We’ll meet him next time.