John Piper, in a sermon on Exodus 33, “I WIll Be Gracious to Whom I Will Be Gracious”
Now the question rises why in 33:18 Moses prayed to see God’s glory? “I pray thee, show me thy glory.” I think the reason was this: Moses knew that his request for God’s presence with a stiff-necked people would never succeed if it were based on any qualification in himself or in the people. (In 34:9 he included himself in the sin and iniquity of the people.) So for Moses to have assurance that God would actually be this gracious to Israel, he needed to see some basis in God and not in himself or the people. He needed a glimpse into the nature of God.
He knew God was an all-glorious God. But was this glory of such a nature that it would encourage Moses to believe that God would really be gracious to a stiff-necked people? So Moses says, Show me your glory. Let me have a glimpse into your divine nature. Let me see the meaning of your great name. Show me the foundation of this amazing promise. Give me some assurance that you will indeed grant your saving presence to this stiff-necked people!
To this God responds in verse 19, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name YAHWEH; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” In other words, when Moses asks to behold God’s glory, God reveals as of first importance his name, which he explains with the words, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.”
So in its Old Testament context the declaration of God’s absolute freedom to be gracious to whomever he pleases is intended to give Moses hope and assurance that God indeed can and will be gracious to the stiff-necked people of Israel and go with them to the promised land.
Theology and Everyday Life
The Bible never gives us glimpses of God’s nature merely for intellectual discussion. It opens the name and glory of God to our understanding in order to help us revere God and love him and trust him and obey him. So when God stands before Moses and uncovers his innermost soul—the glory of his absolute divine freedom—he is doing it for a very practical purpose, namely, to give Moses encouragement to get on with his mission of leading a stiff-necked people on to the promised land.
The deepest doctrines of God have to do with everyday life. Theology is the most relevant and practical of all the human disciplines. If that isn’t our experience, it’s either because our theology is untrue, or because we go about it in a spirit of irreverence and make a game of it. The doctrines of God revealed in the Bible are of immense personal, practical, and eternal importance. O how we need to study the name and glory of God.