SHEW ME THY GLORY.
And he said, I beseech Thee, shew me Thy glory.
Exodus xxxiii. 18.
Durham Cathedral, Trinity Sunday, 1879, after an Ordination held in the Cathedral.
The passage from which these words are taken is one of the most mysterious in the whole Bible. Moses, the man of God, the chosen servant who had been faithful in all his house, asks a favour of his Master. What is it? Not wealth, not honour, not reputation, not influence, not health, not enjoyment, not a long life, not a kingdom. Nothing which men commonly admire or covet. Nothing at all tangible or substantial, as we might say. It is a shadowy, elusive, visionary advantage which he craves; 'I beseech Thee, shew me Thy Glory.'
And, if the request is thus visionary and intangible, what shall we say of the response vouchsafed? Here everything is vague with the vagueness of a departing dream. 'I will make all My goodness pass before thee.' 'All My goodness.' Can goodness then be seen? Has goodness colour? Has it shape? Has it solidity? Has it motion, that it can be seen passing to and fro? 'And I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee.' What has this to do with seeing? Proclaiming a name—a name and nothing more! What a cruel mockery, what a bitter disappointment—to be put off with hearing a name when we wish to see a face!' And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.' Has it come to this? Must he be baffled at last with a truism, a truism which after all has nothing to do with seeing God? But even this elusive answer is not enough. A direct negative follows; 'Thou canst not see My face'— canst not see Me, as I am: the gratification of thy wish would be certain death to thee—'for there shall no man see Me, and live.' Then, and not till then, it is declared, as in a parable, to what extent and with what limitations this vision of God shall be vouchsafed even to the most favoured of His servants. Moses shall stand 'in a clift of the rock'—just one narrow strip of light in front and all darkness to the right hand and to the left. The glory of God shall pass by—fleeting across, but not resting on this narrow field of vision (if field we can call it). But even this meagre, transient view is too dazzling for human gaze. A hand shall cover his eyes and obstruct his sight. Just for one moment it shall be withdrawn; and he shall see—not God, not the glory of God, not the face of God: this were instantaneous death to him—but the back of a passing, vanishing Form, which shall represent to him the majesty of the Eternal, Almighty Being.
I said that it is declared as in a parable. We might imagine indeed that some visible apparition, as of some majestic form, was actually vouchsafed to Moses—something or other which was not indeed God (for God cannot be thus limited, God cannot be apprehended by mortal senses), but which might represent God to the human eye. We are not told however that this was the case. There is no record in the narrative that any such appearance did, as a matter of fact, follow upon this description. It seems best therefore to take the description itself—the clift in the rock, the hand closing the eyelids of the beholder, the transient form, the averted face—as a figurative statement of all that it is possible, even under the most exceptional circumstances, for man to know of God. The definite request is met with an elusive response. The response itself fades away in a figure, a metaphor. All is mystery.
So it is elsewhere, when the appearances of God, or such as seem to be His appearances, are described in the Bible. There is here and there an anthropomorphic image. Speaking to men, the lawgiver or the prophet or the Apostle is compelled to speak after the manner of men; but we find always something in the context of the description which puts us on our guard against a gross, material interpretation, something which warns us that we stand face to face with an inscrutable mystery. Is it Adam in Eden? We are told of his hearing 'the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden.' But the anthropomorphic image stops here. There is no mention of seeing the face or the form. Is it Abraham at Mamre? We read of men coming and going, of angels appearing and disappearing, while suddenly in the midst of these movements, as if it were connected with them by some mysterious link, we are told that 'Abraham stood before the Lord'—stood before Jehovah. Is it Jacob at Bethel? There is a dream, a vision, a ladder reared up to heaven, angelic forms ascending and descending, a voice (whether a form, we are not told), a voice as of God standing and speaking from above, and then Jacob awakes and cries out; 'Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not.' So effectually had He veiled Himself. Is it this same patriarch at Peniel? Here indeed it might seem as if some direct appearance were contemplated. In the first agony of conviction he cries out, ' I have seen God face to face.' He could speak of it as nothing less, overwhelmed, as he was, with the awe of the moment. But it was after all only the form of a strong man wrestling on almost equal terms, struggling under cover of the night, and vanishing at the first streak of dawn—a vision dark, mysterious, impenetrable, altogether. Is it Moses on Horeb? This is a very crisis of God's revelation to man: for He here declares Himself to be the Eternal 'I Am.' What then is the nature of the appearance? We read of the Lord speaking to Moses. The voice is heard again and again. But what of the seeing? 'Moses hid his face,' we are told, 'for he was afraid to look upon God.' But that which he saw, or which he was afraid to see, was not the Lord, but'the angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in the bush.' This is the remarkable fact in the narrative. Though we are told without any reservation that 'God called to' Moses 'out of the midst of the bush,' yet, at the very point where in accordance with this language we should expect God Himself to be mentioned, His angel is thus substituted in His place. Or again is it Isaiah? What does Isaiah mean when he says, 'Mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts'? The whole is plainly an ecstatic vision. And even here no description is given of the central form, if form it were, in the vision. 'The Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.' What was this? A human shape? A bright light? A haze of glory? We know not. Only the accessories of the vision are described with something like minuteness—the six-winged Seraphim, the heaving door-posts, the live-coal taken with the tongs from off the altar. Is it Ezekiel? Here indeed there is a direct and detailed account—of the chariot, of the four living creatures, of the motion of the wheels—while above the firmament, we are told, was, not a throne and a man sitting thereupon, but' the likeness of a throne...and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it' Was this God Himself, think you, Whom the prophet saw, this 'likeness of a man' on this 'likeness of a throne'? Nay, hear the words with which the prophet closes the description. He does not identify this with God Himself, nor even with the glory of God; but he says, 'This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.' It is a symbol thrice-removed, he would say, from the Eternal Being Himself, a shadow of a shadow, as it were. Or is it Stephen? What does Stephen behold, when the heavens are opened to his dying eyes? 'He saw,' we are told, 'the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.' Mark the distinction in the language. He beholds the Son of Man Himself, for the Son of Man can be so beheld, but of God he sees only the glory, some bright radiance, we may suppose, some visible symbol of the Invisible Being—nothing more. Or is it S. Paul? Here the reserve is absolute. He does not himself know whether the revelation was made through his bodily senses or not; he does not say that he saw anything; he cannot, he dares not, repeat even that which he has heard, for it is unutterable by human tongue. Thus, wheresoever any such revelation is recorded, there is some warning in the narrative itself, a sudden reticence, or an unexpected substitution, or a studied vagueness, or an emphatic assertion of the symbolism, which bids us stop short of this ultimate fact, the direct vision of God Himself, as He is. So true is it that' no man hath seen God at any time.' He ' dwelleth in the light which no man can approach unto: Whom no man hath seen, nor can see.'
These thoughts may well occupy us to-day. Trinity Sunday is unique among the festivals of the Christian year. Other festivals commemorate some event which has occurred in time. The fact, commemorated on Trinity Sunday, is beyond and before all time. Other festivals set before our eyes incidents s. s. 7
which have taken place on the scene of this world's history—the birth of Christ at Bethlehem, the crucifixion of Christ on Calvary, the ascension of Christ from Olivet, the descent of the Holy Spirit in the upper chamber at Jerusalem. This festival offers for our contemplation no incident in history, no scene on this world's stage, but the Eternal Being Himself, Whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain. Therefore we may well veil our faces, and bow our heads in awe. We, like Moses, have ascended into the mountain of God. The very place whereon we stand to-day is holy ground.
It is right for us to crave, as Moses craved, to be shewn God's glory. It is right for us; since this vision of His glory (so far as it is attainable) is the very light of our life. But here, if anywhere, all presumption, all self-sufficiency, all claim to finality of knowledge, must be laid aside. We must remember that it is given to no man in this present life—not even to Moses—to see His face. At best we stand 'in the clift of a rock ;' there is just one narrow streak of light before us and nothing more; a mysterious form with face averted passes rapidly across the opening; the hand which presses down our eyelids is for a single moment withdrawn; one hurried glimpse —and the vision is past.
But still He has made His goodness to pass before us. Still He has proclaimed His Name to us. Still He has been gracious to whom He would be gracious, and He has shewn mercy on whom He would shew mercy. This is the transcendent bounty, for which we are invited to render thanksgiving to Almighty God on this day above all days. Do not suppose that this doctrine of our faith appeals only to the learned theologian. It has its lesson for the very humblest Christian. For what is the meaning of the fact which we commemorate to-day—the fact that the Divine Being is Father and Son and Holy Spirit? It means that our God is not like the God of a deistic philosophy 'unknown and unknowable.' It is just because He is a Triune Being, that He can reveal Himself to us. There is not the Infinite, Absolute, Invisible, Intangible only; but with the Father there is the Son also, the Eternal Word, the Mediator between God and Man—between God and nature: through Whom the Infinite has held communication with the finite, through Whom the Father has wrought in the Creation, in the government of the world, in the redemption of mankind; and there is the Holy Ghost, the Universal Teacher, Who takes of all those things which the Father has wrought through the Son, and shews them to us, Who exhibits, interprets, brings home to us, the external workings of the Son, translating them, as it were, from the world of the senses to the world of the understanding, speaking as Spirit to spirits. If there were no Son, there would be no lessons to learn, no glory to behold. If there were no Holy Spirit, there would be none to teach us, none to shew us the glory.
'I beseech Thee, shew me Thy glory.' What do we mean, when we utter this prayer? Do we think only of the emerald rainbow and the crystal sea and the thunders and lightnings about the throne? Mere images these to deepen our awe by appealing to our imagination. They are to us what the strong man wrestling was to Jacob, or the burning bush was to Moses, or the figure seated on the chariot-throne was to Ezekiel—symbols of the Divine Glory, and not the very Glory itself. But the Glory itself? It is nothing which may be felt and handled, nothing which may be seen or heard, nothing which has colour or shape. It is perfect power; it is perfect truth; it is perfect purity, perfect love, perfect wisdom, perfect righteousness. It is not here nor there: it is everywhere. 'Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.' And is not the reality infinitely greater than the image? Is not perfect power more awe-inspiring far than the thunder-clap and the lightning flash? Is not perfect truth more transparent than the crystal? Is not perfect love more sparkling than the emerald? This then is our prayer. 'Teach us to understand Thy wisdom; teach us to realise Thy power; teach us to know Thy righteousness; teach us to feel Thy love.'
And yet we cannot know now, as we shall know hereafter; we cannot know now, as we ourselves are known. We cannot with our feeble organs of vision face the meridian splendour of the Sun. A single glance would blind us by the intensity of the light. We need to have it tempered for our eyes by an atmosphere charged with an haze of moisture, or we must content ourselves with gazing on its image mirrored in some pool, not daring to look up to the blazing orb itself. Is it not so, must it not be so, with the contemplation of the Divine Glory? Are our moral organs of vision so much more fully developed than our physical, that we can with impunity gaze on Infinite Perfection? Imagine for a moment, if you can imagine, what it would be to stand face to face with Infinite Power. You have shuddered and stood aghast, as you have witnessed some unwonted outburst of the forces of nature—a volcano, an avalanche, a land-slip, a torrent bursting its banks. But what idea do any or all of these together convey of the Power which wields the universe—these infinitesimally small fractions of the giant Force, which pervades all the countless orbs of all the countless systems which are scattered through measureless space? Would not the shock be instantaneous death to you? And, if this be so with Infinite Power, will it not be equally so with Infinite Righteousness or Infinite Goodness? Does your righteousness, your goodness, or that which you call your goodness, approach any nearer to God's Righteousness, God's Goodness, than your power to God's Power?
And yet, Lord, we beseech Thee, shew us Thy Glory. This must be our first and last petition. Open our eyes, that we may see: purge our senses, that we may apprehend. Teach us ever more and more to know Thee as Thou art, to see Thy Righteousness, Thy Love, Thy Holiness, Thy Truth. Widen the clift of the rock in which we stand; withhold Thine hand from our eyelids yet longer; let Thy passing Form rest, if it be only for a moment, on the field of our vision here: so that at length, if it cannot be in this life, yet in the life to come Thou mayest turn Thy face full upon us, and we may gaze with unaverted eye. It will not be death to us then, but life, eternal, inexhaustible life. 'We know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself even as He is pure.'
Holy, Holy, Holy, though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;
Only Thou art Holy, there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in power, in love, and purity.