Taken by Surprise
Some time ago I read a newspaper article about a couple who had been married for over fifty years. The husband made a remark that has always stuck with me. He said that after so many years, he knew his wife extremely well, but that every once in a while she did something that took him by surprise. As close as they were, she could still confound and mystify him on occasion. If the ways of a human being whom we know intimately can puzzle us, it comes as no surprise that at times the ways of God can completely mystify us.
Moses: Face to Face
Moses was a man to whom the Lord spoke “face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). The face-to-face nature of the relationship between the Lord and Moses suggests a striking depth of intimacy and immediacy in their relationship, indicative of a profound friendship. The two interacted on a very close, intense, personal level.
Yet there were points in their relationship when Moses struggled to understand the Lord and the Lord’s ways. In Exodus 33:13, Moses asks of the Lord, “Let me know your ways, that I may know you.” Moses clearly expects knowing the Lord’s ways to lead to knowing the Lord.
As Moses and the Lord continue to interact in Exodus 33 and 34, the Lord seems to respond to Moses’ request in two ways. First, the Lord assures Moses of the Lord’s presence with Moses and with Israel (Exodus 33:14-17). The comforting, strong, supportive presence of the Lord will be with them on their journey. Second, the Lord reveals what this God who will be present with them is like. He does this by proclaiming his name, declaring his goodness—that he is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
The Lord continues by describing actions that flow out of these attributes: he keeps steadfast love for thousands and forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin, yet by no means does he leave the guilty unpunished (Exodus 33:19; 34:5-7). The order here seems to affirm that the Lord’s ways are determined by his nature.
It is true that how the Lord acts reveals his character. Yet in this instance, it is as if the Lord is indicating to Moses that Moses has the cart before the horse. It is not so much that Moses knowing the Lord’s ways will lead to Moses knowing the Lord. Rather, if Moses knows the Lord, then Moses does not need to worry about the Lord’s ways. Moses can place his trust in the essential character of the God who is present with him, walking forward in faith that, though the actions of the Lord may seem perplexing and confusing, the Lord’s plans are for the welfare of Moses and Israel.
The Ways of the Lord
To understand the Lord’s ways—how and why he acts in certain ways in certain situations—is often a struggle for us. His ways are not our ways; they are much higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). In fact, his ways are unfathomable (Romans 33:11). When we are in tight places, facing an uncertain future as Moses was in Exodus 33-34, we too can be assured of the fact that the Lord is with us and we can lean into his loving arms. And we can be confident that his plans for us will reflect his essential nature—his goodness, compassion, grace, and steadfast love.
We need to let go of our preoccupation with trying to figure out exactly what the Lord is doing and why, and instead rest in the absolute, unwavering truth that whatever may come, it comes bathed in his infinite wisdom, overwhelming grace, and unfailing love.