The Cleft of the Rock

The Cleft of the Rock, PDF format

Cleft in the Rock

Exodus 33:18-23:

  1. And he said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory.
  2. And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.
  3. And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.
  4. And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock:
  5. And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by:
  6. And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.

by Shaun Willcock

“Shew Me Thy Glory!”

  Moses had been up on Mount Sinai, where he had received the law from God, written on two tablets of stone. But he had broken them when he came down from Sinai and found the Israelites committing idolatry, worshipping the golden calf.  Having just prayed for the nation, he asked the Lord to show him His glory (v.18).  On Sinai he had heard the Lord’s voice speaking to him, and had been blessed with a favour such as was never given to any mortal man before or since on this side of heaven.  But he longed to know God even more intimately.  He therefore asked to see something of the Lord.

  But what exactly was this “glory” of the Lord that Moses wanted to see?  Did he want to see some visible symbol of God’s presence?  No, for this had been shown to him before (Exod. 16:7,10).  Was he, then, asking to see the very essence of the Triune God?  Surely not – he would have known that this could not be seen by men (1 Tim. 6:16).  It appears that he wanted to see some kind of visible representation of God Himself.  Something which had not been shown to him before.

  It is a good and holy desire on our part if we want to be even more acquainted with our Lord than before; if we long for a deeper fellowship with Him.  We should pray, as Moses did, “Lord, show me thy glory.”  For we may indeed see the glory of God, in a sense which will become clear as we proceed.

  Moses had been much in prayer and communion with God of late, which made him bold (bold, but still humble).  When we who are the Lord’s people come before the throne of grace in prayer, the Lord granting us much boldness there and freedom of access (Heb. 4:16), it should be our desire to prolong that time, and the blessings which flow from it.  We must be bold to desire much from our prayer-answering God.  He loves to hear and answer our prayers.

  This is why the Lord granted Moses’ humble request.  He did not answer it to the extent that Moses would have liked, for He did not show him His face; but He answered it to an extent never before experienced by mortal man, with the exception of Adam in his innocency.  No other fallen man, before the incarnation of God the Son, was ever granted such a wonderful favour as this.

The Saints’ Prayers are a Mixture

  What makes it the more amazing is that there was a mixture of right and wrong in Moses’ prayer.  Yes, he desired a more intimate acquaintance with the Lord, which was good.  But his request was tainted with human error as well.  For we are to walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).  Moses should have been content with all the favours he had already been granted – the pillar of cloud, the Lord speaking to him with an audible voice from the cloud, etc.  Nevertheless the Lord granted his request!  For He knows the frailty of human nature, and that no prayer offered by fallen, weak, fallible man is perfectly free of all sin.  Are not all our prayers like this prayer of Moses?  Are they not a mixture?  Sometimes while praying, our minds wander; sometimes, in what we ask of the Lord, we ask amiss; sometimes our words are spoken foolishly, not in accordance with the Scriptures.  But if the Lord refused to answer our prayers because of these things, no prayer of ours would ever be answered!

  Thus we see the graciousness of the Lord, that despite the frailties of our natures, and the mixture of right and wrong in our prayers, He still hears them, and answers what is right in them, overlooking the little errors and foolish statements just as a father overlooks the stammering words of his infant child and looks to the child’s heart, when he asks something from him.  How gracious is our God!  How kind and loving towards us, His frail, weak, puny, sinful people!

God’s Goodness is His Glory

  Moses prayed, “I beseech thee, shew me thy glory” (v.18).  In reply the Lord said, “I will make all my goodness pass before thee” (v.19).  Moses had asked to see God’s glory; the Lord said He would let him see His goodness.  This is because God’s goodness is His glory!  For what makes God glorious?  Amongst other things, the fact that God is good.

  His goodness is shown in His works of creation – that all things were made very good (Gen. 1); and it is shown in His work of salvation – the greatest of all His acts of goodness.  For since, as Prov. 19:11 says, it is the glory of a man to pass over a transgression, how much more is it the glory of God to pass over all of man’s numerous sins.  This is infinite goodness.  It truly is His glory.

  Yes, God is glorious in all His attributes, works, and perfections; but all of these culminate in His goodness towards sinful man, in saving His elect from their sins.  “Oh how great is thy goodness, which thou hast laid up for them that fear thee; which thou hast wrought for them that trust in thee before the sons of men!” (Psa. 31:19).  In Jer. 31:14 the Lord says, “my people shall be satisfied with my goodness”; and in v.12 it says the Lord’s people “shall flow together to the goodness of the Lord”.  They desire it, and they are satisfied with it when they experience it. 

  The fact that God’s goodness is His glory is also shown in the sequel – the fulfilment of this promise which the Lord had made to Moses: “And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.  And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:5-7).  The Lord had said, “I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee” (Exod. 33:19), as He passed by; and this was the fulfilment of this promise.   “And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD” (Exod. 34:5).  What He proclaimed was His mercy, grace, longsuffering, goodness and truth!  In other words, proclaiming the Name of the Lord meant proclaiming His goodness among His other wonderful attributes and perfections.

  The Lord said He is abundant in goodness, and spoke of His great salvation.  This directly ties His promise of showing Moses His goodness to the fact that His goodness is mightily revealed in the very work of salvation.

  He said, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy” (v.19).  What words these are!  Again we see that the Lord’s goodness in salvation is His glory – because His goodness is sovereign in salvation.  These words show that He will save some, and not others; He will be merciful to His elect, but not to the reprobate; His grace will be bestowed on His chosen ones, but not on the rest of mankind.  It is written of the Lord, “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Eph. 1:5); and, “Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself” (v.9).

  The Israelites had greatly sinned; still, the Lord would be gracious and merciful.  But not to all of them – some He would punish for their sins, while others He would pardon.  However, this would not be because the ones He pardoned were less sinful than the others, but merely of His free grace and mercy.  This is divine sovereignty in salvation.  It is expounded by Paul in Rom. 9:15-18: “For he saith to Moses [in Exod 33:19], I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.  So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.  For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.  Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.”   This is election.  It is the divine choice of some of mankind to obtain salvation by Jesus Christ, while the rest are passed by unto their just condemnation.  And in showing mercy to some, not based on their merits or on their supposed good works, but according to His own sovereign will, being gracious and merciful to the elect and to no others – in this, the Lord shows His glory!  His glory is seen in His sovereign and discriminating goodness to the elect.

  And the more we understand the sovereignty of God in salvation, the more we see the wonderful goodness of the Lord displayed in it.

The “Face” of the Lord

  The Lord then said to Moses, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live” (v.20).  God is all-holy; all-glorious; majestic; “dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see” (1 Tim. 6:16).   It is impossible for sinful man to see His face, and live.

  But what is meant by the “face” of the Lord?  His glorious essence.  If we could see the “face” of God, the very divine essence, we would be gazing at the full glory, splendour and majesty of God; and it would kill us where we stood.  “No man hath seen God at any time” (Jn. 1:18); that is to say, no man has seen the divine nature, the very essence of God, His full glory.  God is so infinitely holy, and man is so sinful.  God is glorious, and man is a fallen rebel.  God is good, and man is evil.  There is thus no way for sinful, mortal man to directly see God’s face and live.      

  But there is a way – and only one way – to see, as it were, the face of God.  And this is by seeing the Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5), God’s holy Son.  For although “no man hath seen God at any time,” yet “the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (Jn. 1:18).  “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).  When Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us”, Jesus replied, “he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?” (Jn. 14:8,9).  The Lord Jesus meant more than that they would merely see Him with the bodily eyes.  He meant that the one who has seen Him with the eyes of faith has truly “seen” God.  For Christ “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15); He is “the express image of his person” (Heb. 1:3).  God is revealed in Christ.

  This explains a text such as Gen. 32:30, where after wrestling with the pre-incarnate Son of God in angelic form, “Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [meaning “The face of God”]: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”  This is not contradicted by what the Lord said to Moses – “Thou canst not see my face”; for Jacob saw God’s face in the person of the Mediator.  Meaning, not merely that he saw a visible appearance of a face, but that by faith he beheld God the Son. 

  And it explains a text such as Judg. 13:22, where “Manoah said unto his wife, We shall surely die, because we have seen God.”  They certainly did see God, but they did not see the divine essence of God. They saw God the Son in one of His pre-incarnate appearances.

  And it explains Exod. 24:9-11, where it is written that Moses and others “saw the God of Israel”.  Again, they saw God the Son, in a pre-incarnate appearance. 

  Now although we have not as yet seen the physical face of the Lord Jesus Christ, we see, as the apostles did, by faith, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).  As we study His Word, and as the Lord by His Holy Spirit enlightens us, we see God in Christ, as revealed in His Gospel.  We see God revealed in His Son!  This is seeing the face of Christ by faith.

  But there is something more to the meaning of Exod. 33:20, where the Lord told Moses that he could not see His face, and live.  Not only does it mean that we cannot see the divine nature of God, but also, that even in the face of Jesus Christ we cannot fully see the glory (the grace and goodness in salvation) of God!  We cannot have a perfect revelation of it in this life.  It would be too much for us: “it is but a small part and portion of God, and of his ways and works, as of creation and providence, so more especially of grace, salvation, and redemption by Jesus Christ, that is known of him; the things of the Gospel in their full perfection are what eye has not seen; and particularly were more hidden and unseen under the legal dispensation; this face was covered with types and shadows, and dark representations of things; though, in comparison of that state, we now, with open face, behold the glory of the Lord, yet still it is through a glass darkly, and we have not the clear and full view of things as will be hereafter: for there shall no man see me and live: if there was to be such a revelation made of the grace and goodness, and glory of God in Christ, as it really is in itself, it would be too much for mortals in the present state to bear; it would break their earthen vessels in pieces; the full discovery therefore is reserved to a future state, when these things will be seen as they are, and men will be in a condition to receive them” (John Gill).

  Although (as 2 Cor. 4:6 says) the glory of God is revealed to us in the face (the Person) of Jesus Christ, His full glory is not revealed.  New Testament believers certainly see much more of His glory than Old Testament believers did, by comparison; but as wonderful as the revelation of God’s glory in the Person of Christ is to us, we are not given a perfect or full revelation of His grace and goodness to us, in this life.  Only in heaven will we understand it all perfectly and fully.

Christ the Cleft Rock

  “And the Lord said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: and it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: and I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen” (vv.21-22).  This place, this cleft in the rock, was on Mount Sinai.  There are at least six things to be gleaned from these verses, and they all have to do with the Lord Jesus Christ.

  First, Christ is the Rock.  Not literally but figuratively, as He is called in many parts of God’s Word.  Mount Horeb or Sinai was the literal rock out of which the Lord provided water for the Israelites to drink; but Scripture says, “that Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4) – i.e. it typified Him.

  In many parts of Scripture He is called such things as the rock of refuge, the rock of salvation, the rock of strength.  He is compared with a great rock, because He is strong; firm; immoveable; everlasting; a place of refuge from the heat; etc.

  Second, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Rock, is “a place by” God.  He is seated at His right hand, and He is in the very bosom of the Father (Jn.1:18).

  Third, we must stand upon Him.  The Lord told Moses, “thou shalt stand upon a rock”; and this is what Moses, and all saints throughout all the ages, have done: they have stood upon Christ the Rock.   See Matt. 7:24,25; 16:16-18; Psa. 40:2,3.

  Fourth, the Lord must place us in the cleft of the Rock.  Toplady in his great hymn said, “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”  Christ Jesus Himself is symbolised by this cleft in the rock.  He is the Rock of ages, cleft for His people.  He was cleft when He hung upon the cross, bleeding and dying for the sins of His chosen ones.  Not only was His body pierced by the thorns and the nails and the spear, as a cleft is a gash in a rock; but He was smitten by the justice of God in the place of His people. 

  And as the text shows, it is God Himself who puts us in Christ, the cleft Rock.  Salvation is all of Him!  We cannot save ourselves, we cannot hide ourselves in Him by our own efforts.  He has to take us and put us there.

  Fifth, when we are in the cleft Rock (Christ), we are covered by the hand of God.  This speaks of at least three things, symbolically:

  It speaks of the fact that those believers who lived under the Old Covenant did not have as clear a view of the Lord, and His ways, as we who live under the New Covenant do.  They saw things darkly, in a covered, veiled, hidden, obscure manner.

  It also speaks of the fact that Moses could not have been able to bear the full sight of the divine glory, and that indeed none of us could bear it.  The Lord covered him with His hand, to shield and protect him.

  And it speaks of being covered by the hand of the Lord from His wrath.  “Our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29).  If it was not for the fact that we are hidden by the Lord Himself in Christ, covered by His hand so to speak, we would be consumed in the fire of His wrath against sin.  “O my dove,” says the Lord of His Church, “that art in the clefts of the rock” (Song. 2:14): all believers are hidden in this cleft, by faith in Christ.  “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).  Moses being placed by the Lord in the cleft of the rock was an emblem of all God’s saints being hidden in Christ; and being hidden in Him we are safe from the wrath of God against sin. 

  Sixth, God’s glory passes by when we are in Christ, and we see at least something of it.  We cannot see His face, which means we cannot see everything of His divine glory; we cannot see His divine nature; but being hidden in Christ we are able to see something of the glory of the Lord!  The glory of His attributes, perfections, holiness, etc.  Most especially, the glory of His grace, mercy, and goodness in Christ – typified by Moses being in the cleft rock, and seeing something of God’s glory as it passed by.  The knowledge of God’s glory is given to us in the face of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).

  Like Moses, we desire to see the Lord’s glory.  We desire to see God!  But how can we?  We can, in the Person of His Son.  God is revealed in Christ (Jn. 1:18).  Christ is the brightness of God’s glory, the express image of the Person of God the Father (Heb. 1:3).  He is the very image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).  All that God wanted to reveal of Himself to men, He has revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ.

  The Lord then said to Moses that He would take away His hand (v.23).  Just as Moses being covered with the Lord’s hand speaks of the darkness and obscurity of the law, so the taking away of His hand speaks of the far clearer light of God’s glory under the Gospel.  For under the Gospel we see so much more of God, revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ His Son, the brightness of His Father’s glory.  God’s glory – in particular in this context (as we have seen) His goodness, grace and mercy – is far more fully displayed under the Gospel, in the Person of Jesus Christ.

  When He took away His hand, the Lord told Moses he would see His “back parts”, but not His face (v.23).  When we see a man’s back we see something of him, but without seeing his face we miss much; and so it was here.  It typified the fact that, even under the glorious Gospel – even when the veil is taken away, the clouds of the law are rolled back, the light of Christ shines brightly, we see so much in the Person of our Saviour, and He reveals so much of the Father to us – what we see by faith now is as nothing compared with what we will one day see in heaven!  All that we see of Him is like seeing only His back parts, compared with the full sight of Him which we will have in heaven.  

  He said His face may not be seen, i.e. the full and perfect revelation of Himself.  By faith we see Jesus; in His light we see light; in Him we see the Father, and know much about the Father; but even so, only in heaven will the sight we have be absolutely perfect.  “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2).  That sight is coming, brethren!  That wonderful sight that will enrapture our hearts for all eternity.  But that sight is not now.  Now we see much, and must thank Him for it; but we still do not see perfectly.


  O how we should praise the Lord for His goodness!  For His goodness is part of His glory.  God is good, and because God is good He is sovereign in salvation; and He has saved His elect.  Let us praise the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works toward the children of men.  Let us praise Him for showing us His glory in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour.  Let us praise Him for making Christ our cleft rock, in which we are hidden from the storms of God’s wrath against sin and sinners.  Let us praise Him for making our feet to stand upon Christ the Rock.  Let’s praise Him for JESUS, the Rock of Ages, cleft for us; the One in whom we are hidden and safe for time and eternity!

(This is the substance of a sermon preached by Shaun Willcock, entitled The Cleft of the Rock.  It is available as a free MP3 on the Bible Based Ministries website.)

Shaun Willcock is a minister, author and researcher.  He runs Bible Based Ministries.  This pamphlet was published in 2020.  For other pamphlets (which may be downloaded and printed), as well as details about his books, audio messages, articles, etc., please visit the Bible Based Ministries website; or write to the address below.  If you would like to be on Bible Based Ministries’ email list, please send your details.


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