What do you do when the person or people you are in relationship with are so stiff necked; so downright stubborn; that they cannot feel your pain? No amount of explaining wakes them up to your reality. No amount of pleading penetrates their hearts. What if these people have done irreparable damage to the relationship and they don’t seem to get it? And you’re thinking that since they don’t get it, they will continue on like it is nothing. How could you wake them up to your searing sorrow? Would you take the Rhett Butler approach and walk yourself right on out of there and try to convince them and yourself that you don’t care? What if you were God?
Some suggest that Exodus 33:1-6 is God’s pre-announced punishment and this just may be the case. The command to “Go from here!” may be a command to leave the Presence of Yahweh; to depart the Mountain of God where they encountered holiness and presence. Maybe it was similar to the account when God drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden. The relationship was too damaged to go on like it was so God basically said, “Get away from me!” He tells Moses, “You and the people whom you have brought up from Egypt.” And this sounds as if God cannot even bring himself to claim responsibility for them. Or maybe it is a handing them over to Moses’ care.
But he does claim responsibility for his promise. He had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that he would give their descendants the land of promise. He will keep that promise. An angel will lead them and will make sure they are able to clean out the land driving out the current residents. And the land is a good land, flowing with milk and honey. Yes, he will keep the promise, but he will not go with them and he will not settle his presence in the land with them. They are such a stiff necked people he might just kill them all along the way. And again we are forced to wonder if God is a boiling furnace of rage that is barely kept from bursting out all over mankind. Is God unable to control his anger? Have you ever said something in order to emphasize the severity of the moment; something a bit exaggerated? Don’t get me wrong, God doesn’t lie. But he does have to communicate to us using language we will understand. How does he get them to feel the severity of their rebellion. “You people are so obstinate that I may just end you.” They need to feel the weight of what they had done.
And it appears they got it. When they heard this “sad” or “evil, distressing, misery” word, they went right into mourning. The primary meaning of the word translated “sad” is “evil”, but it doesn’t get translated as such here because it is describing God’s word. But it is describing their feeling. It was an injurious message. It pierced them. As it should. One source suggested that their “ornaments” meant “festive clothing” and this would make good sense. It is a time for mourning not celebrating. Often dress reflects mood. If it were our culture, they would have all put on black clothes – something to reflect their dejection.
The question arises in verse 5. Did they take off their festive clothes because God told them to? Verse 4 implies that their grief led them to take off the festive clothing; that they finally felt the weight of their sin. So, in verse 5, the message of Yahweh may be, this is not a one day mourn. Pack away your festive clothing because this is a long-term mourn. He tells them again that they are stiff necked and he intensifies his anger. If he were to be in their midst even for one moment he might just kill them all. Again, I believe God is trying to get them to feel the weight of what they had done. They are not to feel bad and then dance in celebration the next day. They need to feel this for a good long time. Guilt and shame are not bad things. They can be. But they can be the very thing we need; the very thing that will rock us to the depth of our soul; they very thing that will wake us up. Then, God dangles some hope in front of them. They are to continue on in mourning, away from his presence, so that he can know what to do with them. Ah, hope.
So, God withdrew to wake them up. And isn’t it interesting that in the New Testament, that is what we are told to do within the church. If people are rebelliously standing in sin, withdraw so that they will come back; so that they will feel the depth of their rebellion. It is not about punishment as much as it is about redeemed relationship. And in our passage God is working redemption, but before he can get there, the people must fully acknowledge their guilt. God is always working redemption. There is always hope.