I’ve been slowly making my way through Overcoming Sin and Temptation, by John Owen, which is a collection of 3 books by the great Puritan author.
I was struck by his take on Moses’ sight of God’s glory in Exodus 33-34, in a chapter that urges believers to endeavour to be in awe of God. God told Moses in Exodus 33:22-23, “And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.” He showed Moses only His “back parts,” that is the trailing garments of His glory after His presence had already passed by. Moses only saw the tiniest hint of God’s glory.
And what was that glory? God revealed Himself in Exodus 34:6-7, saying, ” The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, 7 Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty.”
Owen points out that God reveals His name and His nature to Moses here, showing him “the most glorious attributes that he has manifested in the covenant of grace,” and “yet all are but the ‘back parts’ of God” (p. 111). That amazed me! That should humble me, and everyone who knows God at all.
Here is Owen (all emphasis is mine):
“Consider, then, I say, to keep your heart in continual awe of the majesty of God, that persons of the most high and eminent attainment, of the nearest and most familiar communion with God, do yet in this life know but a very little of him and his glory. … All that he knows by it is but little, low, compared to the perfections of his glory. Hence it is with peculiar reference to Moses that it is said, ‘No man has seen God at any time’ (John 1:18); of him in comparison with Christ does he speak (v. 17); and of him it is here said, ‘No man,’ no, not Moses, the most eminent among them, ‘has seen God at any time.’ We speak much of God, can talk of him, his ways, his works, his counsels, all the day long; the truth is, we know very little of him. Our thoughts, our meditations, our expressions of him are low, many of them unworthy of his glory, none of them reaching his perfections.
“The apostle, exalting to the utmost this glory of light above that of the law, manifesting that now the ‘veil’ causing darkness is taken away [2 Cor. 3:13-16], so that with ‘open’ or uncovered ‘face we behold the glory of the Lord’ (2 Cor. 3:18) tells us how: ‘as in a glass’ (1 Cor 13:12). ‘In a glass’—how is that? Clearly, perfectly? Alas, no! He tells you how that is: ‘We see through a glass, darkly,’ says he (1 Cor. 13:12). … And speaking of himself, who surely was much more clear-sighted than any now living, he tells us that he saw but … ‘in part.’ He saw but the back parts of heavenly things (v. 12), and compares all the knowledge he had attained of God to that he had of things when he was a child (v. 11).
“We know what weak, feeble, uncertain notions and apprehensions children have of things of any abstruse consideration; how when they grow up with any improvements of parts and abilities, those conceptions vanish, and they are ashamed of them. It is the commendation of a child to love, honor, believe, and obey his father; but for his science and notions, his father knows his childishness and folly. Notwithstanding all our confidence of high attainments, all our notions of God are but childish in respect of his infinite perfections. We lisp and babble, and say we know not what, for the most part, in our most accurate (as we think) conceptions and notions of God. We may love, honor, believe, and obey our Father; and therewith he accepts our childish thoughts, for they are but childish.
“We may suppose that we have here attained great knowledge, clear and high thoughts of God; but, alas! when he shall bring us into his presence we shall cry out, ‘We never knew him as he is; the thousandth part of his glory, and perfection, and blessedness, never entered into our hearts.’ The apostle tells us that we know not what we ourselves shall be (1 John 3:2)—what we shall find ourselves in the issue; much less will it enter into our hearts to conceive what God is and what we shall find him to be” (p. 111-13).
So let us who are saved – and especially those of us who have been saved for many years and who have read the Bible over and over and had a good Bible education – beware of pride. We hardly know God at all yet; let us bow in humility before Him, knowing that our knowledge of God is but as the lisping tongue of a child. And yet let us praise Him for revealing Himself to us truly in His Word! Finally, let us joyfully anticipate the day when we see Him “face to face” (I Cor. 13:12)!