Here is, I. The message which God sent by Moses to the children of Israel, signifying the continuance of the displeasure against them, and the bad terms they yet stood upon with God. This he must let them know for their further mortification. 1. He applies to them a mortifying name, by giving them their just character—a stiff-necked people, Exod. 33:3, 5. “Go,” says God to Moses, “go and tell them that they are so.” He that knows them better than they know themselves says so of them. God would have brought them under the yoke of his law, and into the bond of his covenant, but their necks were too stiff to bow to them. God would have cured them of their corrupt and crooked dispositions, and have set them straight; but they were wilful and obstinate, and hated to be reformed, and would not have God to reign over them. Note, God judges of men by the temper of their minds. We know what man does; God knows what he is: we know what proceeds from man; God knows what is in man, and nothing is more displeasing to him than stiff-neckedness, as nothing in children is more offensive to their parents and teachers than stubbornness. 2. He tells them what they deserved, that he should come into the midst of them in a moment, and consume them, Exod. 33:5. Had he dealt with them according to their sins, he had taken them away with a swift destruction. Note, Those whom God pardons must be made to know what their sin deserved, and how miserable they would have been if they had been unpardoned, that God’s mercy may be the more magnified. 3. He bids them depart and go up hence to the land of Canaan, Exod. 33:1. This mount Sinai, where they now were, was the place appointed for the setting up of God’s tabernacle and solemn worship among them; this was not yet done, so that in bidding them depart hence God intimates that it should not be done—“Let them go forward as they are;” and so it was very expressive of God’s displeasure. 4. He turns them over to Moses, as the people whom he had brought up out of the land of Egypt, and leaves it to him to lead them to Canaan. 5. Though he promises to make good his covenant with Abraham, in giving them Canaan, yet he denies them the extraordinary tokens of his presence, such as they had hitherto been blessed with, and leaves them under the common conduct of Moses their prince, and the common convoy of a guardian angel: “I will send an angel before thee, for thy protector, otherwise the evil angels would soon destroy thee; but I will not go up in the midst of thee, lest I consume thee” (Exod. 33:2, 3); not as if an angel would be more patient and compassionate than God, but their affronts given to an angel would not be so provoking as those given to the shechinah, or divine Majesty itself. Note, The greater the privileges we enjoy the greater is our danger if we do not improve them and live up to them. 6. He speaks as one that was at a loss what course to take with them. Justice said, “Cut them off, and consume them.” Mercy said, “How shall I give thee up, Ephraim?” Hos. 11:8. Well, says God, put off thy ornaments, that I may know what to do with thee; that is, “Put thyself into the posture of a penitent, that the dispute may be determined in thy favour, and mercy may rejoice against judgment,” Exod. 33:5. Note, Calls to repentance are plain indications of mercy designed. If the Lord were pleased to kill us, justice knows what to do with a stiff-necked people: but God has no pleasure in the death of those that die; let them return and repent, and then mercy, which otherwise is at a loss, knows what to do.
II. The people’s melancholy reception of this message; it was evil tidings to them to hear that they should not have God’s special presence with them, and therefore, 1. They mourned (Exod. 33:4), mourned for their sin which had provoked God to withdraw from them, and mourned for this as the sorest punishment of their sin. When 3000 of them were at one time laid dead upon the spot by the Levites’ sword, we do not find that they mourned for this (hoping that it would help to expiate the guilt); but when God denied them his favourable presence then they mourned and were in bitterness. Note, Of all the bitter fruits and consequences of sin, that which true penitents most lament, and dread most, is God’s departure from them. God had promised that, notwithstanding their sin, he would give them the land flowing with milk and honey. but they could have small joy of that if they had not God’s presence with them. Canaan itself would be no pleasant land without that; therefore, if they want that, they mourn. 2. In token of great shame and humiliation, those that were undressed did not put on their ornaments (Exod. 33:4), and those that were dressed stripped themselves of their ornaments, by the mount; or, as some read it, at a distance from the mount (Exod. 33:6), standing afar off like the publican, Luke 18:13. God bade them lay aside their ornaments (Exod. 33:5), and they did so, both to show, in general, their deep mourning, and, in particular, to take a holy revenge upon themselves for giving their ear-rings to make the golden calf of. Those that would part with their ornaments for the maintenance of their sin could do no less than lay aside their ornaments in token of their sorrow and shame for it. When the Lord God calls to weeping and mourning we must comply with the call, and not only fast from pleasant bread (Dan. 10:3), but lay aside our ornaments; even those that are decent enough at other times are unseasonably worn on days of humiliation or in times of public calamity, Isa. 3:18.