*Scripture verses covered in this section's commentary are noted in italics

Exodus 33:1-6 meaning

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Exodus 33:1
  • Exodus 33:2
  • Exodus 33:3
  • Exodus 33:4
  • Exodus 33:5
  • Exodus 33:6

Chapter 33 begins with the LORD commanding Moses to tell the people to leave Sinai and begin their journey to the land He promised them. He would guide them using an angel and would guarantee victory in their conquest of the land. When the people heard that the LORD would not be leading them from their midst, they went into mourning and refrained from wearing jewelry from then on.

The sin of the people had been dealt with through God’s mercy, and it was time to move on. The LORD had promised Moses that He would lead them indirectly through His angel (Exodus 32:34), and they needed to continue their journey. So, the Lord spoke to Moses, depart, go up from here. The phrase depart, go up is literally “go, go up”, giving a sense of urgency to depart immediately. They were not to linger any longer at Sinai, the place of their failure. The LORD commanded Moses and the Israelites, whom He referred to as the people whom you [Moses] have brought up from the land of Egypt (Exodus 32:7).

Their destination was the same as before—the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it’.

The Promised Land was given by God to Israel through an unconditional grant. In His faithfulness, God had granted the land to Abraham as a reward for faithful service, as Abraham had done as God had commanded (Genesis 12:1-3). The grant was in the form of a promise from God that Abraham’s descendants would inherit the land (15:7-20). Now it was time for Abraham’s descendants from Isaac, the son of promise, to possess the land, fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham.

In spite of the people breaking the covenant with Him, in His infinite mercy, the LORD reinstated the covenant, and now was going to allow the opportunity for this first generation to be delivered from slavery in Egypt to fulfill the promise He made to Abraham by conquering and possessing the land (Genesis 15:18). In Genesis 15:16, God had promised that in the fourth generation Abraham’s descendants would return to Canaan after being in bondage for four hundred years (Genesis 15:13). God did not, however, specify in Genesis 15 which generation would actually possess the land—only that God had given the land to Abraham’s descendants, from the Nile to the Euphrates (Genesis 15:18). No generation has yet occupied the full extent of God’s grant, so that is still left to a future generation.

There was going to be a major change in how the LORD led Israel. Instead of the LORD leading the Israelites Himself, He was going to send an angel. This angel (or “messenger”) had a different role than the one promised in Exodus 23:20 – 23. There, the angel was a gracious provision to be a guardian for the people. This angel is a downgrade, as this angel took the place of the LORD’s presence in the midst of the people.

As promised in Exodus 23:20 – 23, the Lord again promised to drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, the current inhabitants of the Promised Land of Canaan. He still wanted His covenant people to go up to a land flowing with milk and honey (v. 3), meaning that it was a fertile, productive land that would be a joy in which to live. All of this was possible because the LORD graciously promised this to the Israelites. He would ensure that they would be successful in driving out these pagan, exploitive peoples and establish their homeland based on worship of the gracious God that gave the land to them (see Leviticus 18 for a list of exploitive behaviors common in Caanan). As we shall see, however, there will be a role for the people to play in acquiring this promised blessing. The Lord will drive out the current inhabitants if the people will walk in obedience and fight for the land, trusting God to provide the promised deliverance.

The negative aspect of this is that the LORD told them that He will not go up in your midst (v. 3). The LORD would go with them, but He would not reside in their midst. The reason for this was that they were an obstinate (or “stiff-necked”) people, and being in their midst, the LORD says, might have caused Him to destroy (or “consume” or “annihilate”) them on the way to the Promised Land. This is a follow-on to the statement God made to Moses that He wanted to wipe out the people, as was their due for breaking the covenant by worshipping the golden calf, and start over with Moses to raise a generation to possess the land He promised to Abraham (Exodus 32:7-10). God is making it clear to the people that they are on a razor’s edge with Him, and He is being merciful to them by giving them a sort of buffer zone, with the angel to go before them.

The Israelites are grieved to learn that the LORD would not dwell among them:when the people heard this sad word that the LORD would no longer be in their midst. The people went into mourning, and none of them put on his ornaments. They knew that they had committed a horrible sin in the eyes of the LORD, and were suffering adverse consequences because of their bad choices. This seems to be progress, that they are realizing their actions have consequences. However, as we shall see, their learned lessons do not stick for long.

The reason for God’s distance was clearly told to them—you are an obstinate (or “stiff-necked”) people. The people were stubborn and self-willed and prone to do what they wanted to do (following their appetites) instead of what they needed to do—obey God because they trusted God to have their best interest at heart. They were stiff-necked, like oxen that refuse to respond to the directives of their master. The situation was so dire that the LORD declared that should I go up in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you. So, the fact that the LORD would not be in their midst was an act of grace, because He had agreed not to destroy them. God of course does not lose His temper. But God does visit His wrath on unrighteousness (Romans 1:18-27). And God is communicating here that the people are on probation.

This principle runs throughout the Bible. God gives multiple opportunities for people to make wise choices. But at some point, the window of opportunity closes, and people receive judgment. This will be the case with this first generation, who will lose their opportunity to enter the land, after putting God to the test “ten times” (Numbers 14:22). New Testament believers can suffer a similar fate with respect to rewards for faithful service. There is a sin unto death, that would terminate the opportunity on earth for faithful service (1 John 5:16; 11:30). Hebrews also makes it clear that there can come a point for a believer who knows the truth and willfully disobeys that their opportunity to repent passes, and their deeds will be burned, like wood, hay, and stubble (Hebrews 6:4-7; 1 Corinthians 3:11-15).

Following the Israelites’ grief, the LORD then commanded them to put off your ornaments from you, that I may know what I shall do with you. The ornaments (jewelry) were secured from the Egyptians, when Israel plundered them before they left Egypt (Exodus 12:35-36). The LORD’s command to take their jewelry off might have been a test to see if they were truly sad about what they had done, or if they would rebel yet again by continuing to wear it. It is fitting to see if Israel would put away these visible manifestations of Egypt, the custom of wearing ornaments, given that their disobedience was expressed in terms of Egyptian practice, worshipping a golden calf with sexual immorality and revelry (Exodus 32).

This time, the sons of Israel obeyed the LORD and stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward. Mount Horeb was another name for Mount Sinai. The phrase from Mount Horeb onward implies that the Israelites never again wore these ornaments on their way to the Promised Land. At least in this instance they put away these Egyptian practices for good. We will soon see that they will have opportunity to offer some of these ornaments to fabricate the tabernacle, as opposed to their offering of earrings to fashion the golden calf (Exodus 32:3).

To sum up, the LORD told Moses to leave Mount Horeb (Sinai) and lead the people to the Promised Land. However, the relationship between the LORD and the Israelites had changed. He would no longer lead them directly or be in their midst. Instead, He maintained a separation between Him and His obstinate “stiff-necked” people. The people were sad; they realized their loss and mourned, and did as the Lord commanded by ceasing to wear their Egyptian jewelry.

Biblical Text:

1Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Depart, go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’ 2I will send an angel before you and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite. 3Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, and I might destroy you on the way.”

4When the people heard this sad word, they went into mourning, and none of them put on his ornaments. 5For the Lord had said to Moses, “Say to the sons of Israel, ‘You are an obstinate people; should I go up in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you. Now therefore, put off your ornaments from you, that I may know what I shall do with you.’” 6 So the sons of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward.

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