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Persistently Praying for Presence

Updated: May 9

I've been reflecting a lot on what it means for God's presence to be with me. I'm seemingly in good company; King David prayed for God's presence quite a bit. It's a regular ask for me.

Moses expressed a very urgent need for God's presence. Walter Brueggemann, in his commentary on Exodus 33, says that this chapter contains "the most thorough and sustained struggle with the problem of presence in the entire Old Testament." It occurs in the immediate aftermath of the Israelites creating and worshipping a golden calf, aided by a weak-willed Aaron. When Moses learns of this, he throws the Ten Commandments down Mount Sinai in his anger.

While it's true that the Israelites suffer the consequences of their sin, God stays true to His promise. He immediately confirms with Moses that He will continue to extend His promises: help against enemies, and safe passage to the promised land, which is filled with the oft-mentioned milk and honey--I would absolutely embark on a trip which concluded with milk and honey, preferably mixed in a lovely black tea.

There is only one hitch: God states that He will not accompany them.

They are a stiff-necked people, and destruction is the likely end for a people who keep pushing against the very God who is trying to save them. God wants to save them from themselves.

Despite their previous rebellion, or perhaps because of it, the people are heart-stricken at these words and engage in corporate mourning. Perhaps their sinful idolatry was a huge wake-up call.

Time goes by. Moses pitches a tent to meet personally with the pillar of cloud in which God placed His presence, and Joshua accompanies him. The Israelites stand at attention and watch as Moses begins the long walk to the tent, which was pitched outside the camp. All they could see was the pillar of cloud as it descended to the tent, and when it did, they began to worship. They are learning to worship rightly.

Eventually, Moses asks God the question that is on his heart. He beats around the bush a little and asks that God teach him how to lead these people. He throws in two points in his favor: God has evidently told Moses that He knows his name and is pleased with him. Knowing Moses' name is more than a factual knowing of his given name. Skye Jethani, in his fabulous book, With, writes,

Remember that to know in Scripture denotes relational knowledge--an intimate relationship, and not simply cognitive knowledge.

God know Moses down deep.

But what Moses really wants to know is, if you're so pleased with me and know me inside and out, why are You telling us that You won't come close to us?

Moses is in a tight spot. He grew up in luxury and then spent most of his adult years in a priestly family. Now, he's in the wilderness with a group of people who constantly blame him for everything. Mutiny seems to perpetually be on the horizon. Sometimes his family turns against him. Frequently, he has to deal with complaint after complaint. He understandably asks for help.

But it's not just help with the job that Moses wants. The only thing he had going for him was God's presence! And now God says that He won't go with them into the promised land.

It's amazing how God so often brings us into places of wilderness, where all possible idols and golden calves are stripped away, and just when we think we're "getting it," the sense of His presence is removed. Moses can survive a lot of things, but he can't survive the removal of God's presence, and he knows it.

This shows the true desire of Moses' heart, and it is for God. If he believed in a prosperity gospel, he would have been mollified. God already promised him that he'll be successful: the Israelites will make it to the promised land and he will grant them success against enemies. They will have that milk and honey!

A prosperity gospel Moses would have said, "Great! Uh, thanks. I guess we're done here. In Jesus' Name, amen!" and gone on his merry way.

But these promises were not good enough for Moses. Success is worth nothing if it means the absence of God's presence.

God knows this and instead of giving Moses leadership tips, He says, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest."

God knew his unvoiced prayer of his heart. But this is so important to Moses that he wants confirmation. He so longs for God's presence, that he asks that this whole exodus thing be suspended if God doesn't give it.

This seems cheeky.

Pastor David Guzik says of this verse,

This was bold – almost rude – drawing near to God. Moses was determined to have God’s presence with Israel as close as possible.

Can you ask that of God? Can you say, "I won't do this if You won't come with me." Well, Moses does just this, and God responds by agreeing and reminding Moses that he knows him and is pleased with him. He's essentially saying, "It's OK. You can ask these things of me because of the nature of our relationship."

Eric Mathis, at, says that Moses approached God with an "Unreserved freedom in prayer." He adds:

This approach is something that Christians today can learn from. It might be said that we are often too passive or too submissive to God in our prayers, yet Moses provides an alternative example for us. He approaches God with all of his might, yet he also shows restraint; he knows when to stop and listen for YHWH’s response.

Can we be too submissive in our prayers? Yes, apparently. When Jesus was on earth, he repeatedly asked the people to voice their request. For example, he asks the blind man in Mark 10, "What do you want me to do for you?" The reader half expects a passive-aggressive answer, "Uh, I want to not be blind?!" But Jesus isn't asking a rhetorical question; he wants to hear the ask. God wants us to voice our requests to Him.

There's a give and take in prayer. We make our requests known (Philippians 4:6) and we also listen. Eric Mathis notes that in the prayer in Exodus 33, Moses dominates the first half of the conversation while God is more prominent in the second half. Moses laid his burdens before the Lord and then listened to the answers. In the middle, he engaged in a bit of wrestling.

Matthew Henry writes approvingly of Moses' prayer approach:

See the power of prayer, and be quickened hereby to ask, and seek, and knock, and to continue instant in prayer, to pray always and not to faint. See the riches of God's goodness.

God is so generous, someone said to me lately, and it is true. I don't know why I sometimes expect small answers rather than big blessings. Moses was emboldened to keep asking and he relied on God's knowledge of and love for him.

After all this, Moses is even more cheeky and asks that God show him His glory...and God does, safely and carefully, though, because seeing God's glory directly is lethal for any sinful human. God declares that He can show mercy and compassion on whoever He wants to, implying that He is indeed doing so for Moses. It is indeed cheeky to ask to see God's glory. But God shows mercy and because he does indeed see into Moses' heart, He knows that he is granting a deep desire.

This is my desire. Perhaps not to see God's glory just yet, because I take Him at His word that I couldn't handle it. But, I deeply desire His presence. It's been a rough year, and if I have been listening correctly in prayer, I thought I heard God saying early on, "Worship me." In the midst of difficulty, instead of being obsessed with how to navigate, I believe I was told to just worship. And I attempted to do just that. Then, as things got harder, I thought I heard, "Keep your eyes on me." I did so imperfectly, and it would have been much better for my stress level if I had fully listened. But I did somewhat, when I remembered. And then, I thought I heard, "Stand on my promises."

I wondered, what promises did you give me? I'm not Moses, I'm not Elijah. I don't have any direct promises from the Lord. I don't have any guarantees that everything will be alright. And then I remembered John 14.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever--the Spirit of truth...I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. (John 14:15, 18-19, NIV)

I have held onto these verses for the past month or so and kind of engaged in a sort of begging prayer before the Lord. "God, you promised not to leave us as orphans. But I feel alone in this. Where are you? Help me!"

I realized later that God sent a variety of people my way to speak a good word and offer encouragement, serving as God's hands and feet and mouths, even if they didn't know they were serving in this way. He offered comfort to me through others.

It is OK to pray a begging prayer. Moses' example here is more than begging, it is a big cheeky blend of demands, questions, and worries. He offers them all to God, and he sticks with it.

Matthew Henry comments more on Moses' prayer:

...Those who know how to value God's favours are best prepared to receive them. Observe how earnest Moses is in this matter; he begs as one that would take no denial. "Here we will stay till we obtain thy favour; like Jacob, I will not let thee go except thou bless me." And observe how he advances upon God's concessions; the kind intimations given him make him yet more importunate. Thus God's gracious promises, and the advances of mercy towards us, should not only encourage our faith, but excite our fervency in prayer.

Yes, Moses' example should indeed encourage us toward greater fervency in prayer. We may not be Moses, but God has given us promises that we can draw upon in our requests. Wrestling, whether modeled by Jacob or Moses, is held up as a good example. It shows passion, trust, and faith.

In a more modern example of someone who didn't know how he could go on without God's presence, Skye Jethani's With includes the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. Paralyzed by fear due to the death threats against his family that started immediately, he began to pray in his kitchen. In the midst of praying, King heard an inner voice saying,

Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world...He promised to never leave me, never to leave me alone.

The promise of God's presence, and the reminder of this through the gospel music that King so loved. Here is the song that so encouraged King:

He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. If we seek Him earnestly, we find all that we need. He promises never to leave us.


Thank you for reading Christian Musings! You can also find my writings on my Substack All Shall Be Well (@stephaniewilsey) and on Medium (@stephaniewilsey).

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May we be bold as lions as we boldly approach His presence knowing He is within us. What a great reminder that we can talk to our Friend openly and honestly.

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Just beautiful!

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