I was reading Exodus 34 this morning and a certain statement jumped off the page at me. Israel has just been horribly polluted by open idolatry with the golden calf and decimated by a devastating judgment. Brother has gone against brother with the sword. The first tablets of God’s Law have been shattered at the foot of the mountain symbolizing the complete breaking of the Law by the people.
Moses has confessed that God is just and holy and punishes the guilty yet nevertheless is also “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin.” This is quite a contrast. It must have left a sinful Israelite uneasy, yet cautiously hopeful.
Moses, who speaks to this holy God as a man speaks to his friend (Ex. 33:11)…Moses, whom God covered with his hand and hid in the safe cleft of a rock…Moses, who beheld God’s glory, makes a request of God. And the request is simple: Lord, pardon this people and take them as your own (Ex. 34:9). Moses, the man who has received mercy, asks for mercy for the people.
God responds to Moses and renews his covenant with Israel. In the midst of this covenant, he reminds Moses that the people can only come to him by way of sacrifice. Their deliverance and redemption from Egypt is to be annually commemorated by the annual redemption of the firstborn of every animal in their flock. This redemption was to be accomplished by the blood of sacrifice. Thundering from the Mount of Sinai, God says to Moses, “None shall appear before Me empty-handed” (v. 20).
This is the statement that grabbed me. None shall appear before God empty handed. But where is the solace in this? Where is the end of sacrifice and of sin? Where is the assurance that the God who Moses said “will by no means leave the guilty unpunished,” will also forgive iniquity?
Even Israel could see in the endless repetition of sacrifices that ultimately nothing we bring to God can atone for our sins. In this way, the Law was a God-given tutor, leading them to Christ (Gal. 3:24). Where, then, we ask, is the assurance of mercy? Only in Christ and him alone. In Christ we have a perfect redemption. In the sacrifice of Christ, we are saved to the uttermost.
So when the Law says, “None shall appear before Me empty-handed,” the Christian cries, “Christ has fulfilled the Law’s demands!” Nothing in my hands I bring. Only to the cross I cling!
This would make a good song and prayer for your day:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.
Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See Thee on Thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.