What does Exodus 33:17-23 really mean?

Exodus 33:17-23 is about Moses desiring to know God more deeply and asking to see His glory, ultimately demonstrating the importance of seeking and experiencing a personal encounter with God.

17 And the Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.”
19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.
20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”
21 And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock,
23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”


Setting the Scene for Exodus 33:17-23

In Exodus 33:17-23, we find Moses in conversation with God on Mount Sinai. After the incident with the golden calf, Moses had pleaded with God not to abandon the Israelites despite their disobedience. In response, God assured Moses of His presence and favor by saying, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14).

In this scene, Moses is standing on the mountain, surrounded by the awe-inspiring presence of God. The atmosphere is charged with a sense of holiness and reverence as God’s glory passes by. Moses, humbled and in awe, is covered by God’s hand as he catches a glimpse of God’s back. This intimate moment between God and Moses solidifies their relationship and reaffirms God’s faithfulness to His chosen people.

The setting is one of profound significance, with the mountain shrouded in a cloud and the presence of God palpable in the air. Moses, chosen as the intermediary between God and the Israelites, is granted a special encounter with the Almighty, strengthening his resolve and faith as he continues to lead the Israelites through their journey in the wilderness.

What is Exodus 33:17-23 about?

Moses yearns to see the fullness of God’s glory and asks for this intimate encounter in this verse. However, God, in His wisdom, knows that no one can see His face and live. So instead, God reveals His back to Moses as a symbolic gesture of His presence and power. This moment highlights the boundary between humanity and the divine, showing that even the most devout individuals like Moses cannot fully comprehend or grasp the entirety of God’s glory.

This passage prompts us to ponder the nature of our relationship with the divine. It challenges us to consider our limitations as human beings and the vastness of God’s presence and power. God emphasizes the importance of faith and trust in His mysterious ways by only showing His back to Moses. This verse encourages us to seek God’s presence but also reminds us to approach Him with reverence and humility, acknowledging that He is beyond our full comprehension.

Understanding what Exodus 33:17-23 really means

In the narrative of Exodus, we find Moses interceding for the Israelites, who had strayed by worshipping the golden calf. God, in response, threatens to withdraw His presence, but Moses pleads for Him to stay with the people. The verses in focus are God’s reply to Moses’ request to witness His glory.

“I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” This phrase underscores God’s personal relationship with Moses, emphasizing that God values the prayers of the faithful. “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence.” Here, God’s goodness and name symbolize His character, showing His willingness to reveal Himself to those who seek Him earnestly.

“You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” This statement highlights the holiness and majesty of God, emphasizing the vast difference between the divine and human. “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock…” The imagery of the rock and cleft signifies protection in God’s presence, offering a way to experience Him safely, even if incompletely.

“Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” This phrase suggests that while we may not fully grasp God’s ways, we can witness His actions and presence in our lives. Other biblical passages like 1 Kings 19:11-13 and John 1:18 complement this idea, emphasizing that God’s presence may not always be visible but is profound and revealed in unique ways.

In today’s uncertain world, the assurance of God’s presence and protection brings immense comfort. Knowing that God values our prayers and seeks a personal relationship with us can inspire a deeper connection with Him. Understanding that we may not comprehend God fully but can trust in His goodness helps us navigate life’s challenges with faith.

Consider a child afraid of the dark, comforted by a parent’s unseen presence in the room. Similarly, we may not always perceive God’s presence clearly, but we can trust He is guiding and protecting us. This passage from Exodus teaches us about God’s presence, His relationship with us, and His self-revelation. It encourages us to seek Him earnestly, trust in His protection, and find solace in His unwavering presence.

Can we truly know and experience God’s presence?

God reassures Moses of His presence and favor in the passage from Exodus. This interaction reveals that God’s presence can be known and experienced by his chosen ones. Moses’ request to see God’s glory signifies a desire for a deeper encounter with Him, which God grants by allowing Moses to witness His presence and goodness. This demonstrates that, through humility, faith, and seeking God earnestly, one can have a profound experience of His presence.

Furthermore, this passage highlights the importance of seeking God’s presence in our lives. We open the door for His presence to manifest in our lives in awe-inspiring ways by yearning for a closer relationship with God and fervently seeking Him. Just like Moses sought God’s presence, we too can have a personal encounter with Him by seeking Him with a sincere heart. Through faith and seeking, we can truly experience and know God’s presence, as exemplified in the passage from Exodus. We can encounter His glory and experience His presence in profound and transformative ways by humbling ourselves before Him, seeking His presence diligently, and desiring a deeper connection with God.


In the fast-paced dance of life, do we take a moment to pause and truly see? Let us grasp the promise of strength and peace in Exodus 33:17-23. Claim the steadfast support God offers, weaving through the chaos like a beacon. Just as we navigate the twists and turns of work and family, let us also navigate our faith with conviction. Will we open our hearts to His unwavering guidance and find solace in His infinite wisdom?