Moses said, “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18).
This request was made by Moses following the Lord’s acceptance of his intercession on behalf of idolatrous Israel. God had threatened the removal of his presence from his people because of their sin, and, according to the narrative, Moses’ pleading for God to relent from this unthinkable occurrence is successful.
Moses is subsequently emboldened to ask God to reveal to him His glory, and, on a rock in Horeb, he is shown the ‘back parts’ of God – his grace, mercy and covenant faithfulness. Protected by the hand of God, safe from being exposed to, and annihilated by, the full measure of the glory of God, Moses glimpses something of God’s sovereign goodness as ‘The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord’ (Exodus 34:5).
In a sense, this dramatises for us what we are about as preachers called to proclaim the glory of God from the Old Testament. We want both to see and to show the sovereign wonder and eternal majesty of the God who speaks to us in the Law, the Writings and the Prophets. He is the God who, in the fulness of the new covenant, mediates his glory to us in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). Yet it was the spirit of the same Jesus who was in the prophets (1 Peter 1:11), and who were instruments of revelation of the same glory. Our people come to the word saying to God ‘Please show me your glory’. As preachers, we must wrestle with the text of the Old Testament with the same prayer.
So what is the relation between the Old Testament and the glory of God? Let’s explore this along four trajectories.
First, the glory of God is revealed. It has to be; how would we know it otherwise? Moses has to request God to show his glory, and God accedes to his request, accommodating himself to Moses’ understanding. He does that by proclaiming His own name, and by republishing the words of the covenant (Exodus 34:1, 10). God discloses himself, revealing himself to be a personal God, entering into covenant with his people.
The most fundamental way, therefore, in which we as preachers handle the text of the Old Testament is with the premise that a personal God is speaking to us in the language of covenant and commitment. Our handling of the text – our reading of it, our singing of it, our preaching of it, our translating of it – must be done reverently and cautiously. In the text of the Old Testament the God who cannot be seen makes his voice heard, and he enters into a relationship with his people. In our preaching, God shares his secrets with and befriends those who fear him, making his covenant known to them (Psalm 25:14). They, in turn, ought to respond with awe, gratitude and delight as the house of God becomes for them a theatre in which the beauty of the Lord may be seen (Psalm 27:4).
Second, the glory of God is creative. The Old Testament opens purposefully with the narrative of creation, carefully weaving a pattern of distinctions. God is distinct from his creation. Light is distinct from darkness, day from night, earth from sea, man from animals, male from female, Sabbath from the other six days of the week. The stage is being built upon which the great dramatic purpose of God will be enacted, and its grandeur praises its Maker well.
Little wonder the text of the Old Testament marvels that the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), as God silences us by asking if we were present when he made the earth (Job 38:4). In our preaching we extol the God whose invisible attributes are displayed in everything he has made (Romans 1:20), reminding our hearers that he made us, and not we ourselves (Psalm 100:3), that the awesome nature of his creation sets his special love to man in glorious disproportionate perspective (Psalm 8:3-4), and that the power of the Creator of the ends of the earth is deployed for the help and protection of his people constantly (Isaiah 40:28-31).
Preaching the Old Testament means emphasising the core doctrine which is there from the beginning: that God is the sovereign God of creation, history and all that transpires in the providences that shape this world. Before him we are less than nothing and vanity (Isaiah 40:17), yet in covenant the Lord remembers us (Psalm 40:17).
Third, the glory of God is redemptive. It is particularly as the redeemer of his people that God displays his glory. He promised deliverance to man by intimation of the ultimate destruction of Satan (Genesis 3:15); he redeemed his people out of Egypt because of his covenant faithfulness (Exodus 2:23-25), and he restored them to their land out of the exile of Babylon for the sake of his own name (Ezekiel 36:23-24).
The history of Israel in the Old Testament is thus bracketed by concrete acts of redemption, from bondage in Egypt and from exile in Babylon, and both of these redemptive acts are displays of the glory of God (Exodus 15:11-13; Nehemiah 9:31). The same redemptive glory that is displayed in our salvation in Christ is displayed throughout the Old Testament. Our preaching of the gospel from the Old Testament is to direct the attention of men and women to that great fact.
There are at least four elements to this. First is the fact that the Old Testament supplies us with the vocabulary of redemption. By the time we have read through Genesis and Exodus, the first two books of the Bible, we have mastered the basic vocabulary necessary for the communication of the gospel. We have learned about God, creation, sin, covenant, redemption, blood, law, grace, sacrifice: they are all there, like the building blocks which the New Testament will use to construct the completed glorious gospel.
Preaching through the Old Testament, therefore, is to be constantly interacting with the grand themes and rich word groups in which the good news of God’s salvation comes to us. When Christ and the apostles proclaimed the forgiveness of sins through faith in the blood of the Lamb, they already had the lexical and conceptual framework in which to do it. The glory of God in the Old Testament is couched in a language the jot and tittle of which will not fail.
Second is the fact that the Old Testament tells a history of redemption. Whichever Old Testament text or passage is being expounded is located on a line of history that runs from creation to consummation, of which Jesus Christ is alpha and omega, pivot and foundation. Into the darkness of man’s fall a light shines, almost imperceptibly, gradually rising like the slow dawning of the sun, so that over time the world is prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ. By the time the sun has risen, so much glory light has been revealed that only one person can fulfil every prophecy and prediction, every type and analogy. Our gospel proclamation must do justice to the nature of the revelation given at particular points along the line, doing justice to the biblical story as a developmental axis of redemption.
That fact ought to guard us from a mere moralising of the Old Testament, from treating it only as a compilation of examples of how we are to live. To be sure, we will miss some of the great themes of the Old Testament if we do not take to ourselves lessons of faith, just as the author of Hebrews does in Hebrews 11. But the story is a story of warfare, the story of God championing the cause of his people. The song of Moses contains the glorious insight that ‘The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is his name’ (Exodus 15:3). That is the song of Heaven, and the song of the Lamb (Revelation 15:3). The Bible’s story is a particular interpretation of history, in which every detail is designed to highlight the theme of God’s determination to rescue his people from the grip of sin and Satan. If we do not highlight the glory of God in the work of redemption as we handle the text of the Old Testament, we have missed the key element of the record.
Third is the fact that the Old Testament provides a theology of redemption. In addition to being located on a historical timeline, every Old Testament passage is also located within the circle of the Bible’s theology. So if we are preaching on the tabernacle, for example, the special tent constructed purposefully to domesticate the glory of God within the camp of Israel (Exodus 40:34), we must do justice both to the primitive nature of revelation at the time, and the full disclosure of that revelation in the wider canon of Scripture, in which tabernacle language is used of Jesus (John 1:14) and of his people (2 Corinthians 5:1). We cannot preach all our theology in any given sermon; but we can, and must, shape our sermon in the light of the totality of the theology God has given.
Can we preach on the passover redemption of Exodus 12 without bringing to bear on our exposition the deep theology of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, whose substitutionary death and vicarious bloodshed are the very heartbeat of the gospel? Can we preach on Isaiah 6 and the prophet’s vision of God without shining onto it the light of John 12, where the New Testament tells us that it was Jesus whom Isaiah saw? Can we preach the passages of the Old Testament which are quoted in the New without nuancing our interpretation in the light of the use which the New Testament makes of them?
I think not. The Scriptures, no less than the heavens, declares the glory of God; and to isolate texts from contexts, or pericopes of Old Testament theology from the wider context of the completed canon of Scripture is to do a disservice to the God whose word we are proclaiming. We show the glory of God in our preaching of the Old Testament precisely as we demonstrate how each individual passage is organically connected to the whole, and how God’s covenant of grace with us in Christ is the theological principle which binds all of Scripture together.
Fourth is the fact that the Old Testament produces a hymnody of redemption. The worship wars of our churches are an interesting window into the cultural impact of society on the church. Our churches are what our churches sing. And whatever our position on singing the Psalms, there is no doubt that the Old Testament, in supplying its own praise book, calls us to magnify, and exult in, the glory of God. It does that by rehearsing the great acts of redemption, such as in Psalms 78 and 105. It does it by describing the perfections of the God who redeems his people, such as in Psalms 111 and 145. And it does it by expressing the personal experience of redemption, in both the best and the worst circumstances of the believer’s life. To sing – or at least to preach – the Psalms is to proclaim the glory of God within both a public and a private context.
Ultimately, of course, the glory of God in the Old Testament is seen in anticipation. The ministry of the law was glorious, but that of the Spirit, though organically connected to it, excels in glory (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). Moses could see only the back parts of God; we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Everything in the Old Testament looks forward to that moment, since the prophets, through the Spirit of Christ, spoke beforehand of the sufferings of Christ and subsequent glory (1 Peter 1:11). But that was because everything in the Old Testament drew its significance from that great act of God’s self-disclosure when the Son of God was revealed to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).
Like Mary, the mother of the Lord, the Old Testament is pregnant with the expectation of an even greater revelation of glory than any – even its most significant figures – could anticipate. And as we preach the Old Testament to our people, may they be able to say, like Mary, ‘he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name’ (Luke 1:49).