Emptiness versus God's presence

What significance is there for us today in the words of Moses in Exodus 33:12-17 pleading for God's presence?

Exodus 33:12-17

12 Moses said to the Lord, "You have been telling me, 'Lead these people,' but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, 'I know you by name, and you have found favor with me.' 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people."

14 The Lord replied, "My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest."

15 Then Moses said to him, "If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?"

17 And the Lord said to Moses, "I will do the very thing you have asked because I am pleased with you, and I know you by name."

Week 48 (late November / early December), Commentary on Exodus 33

When our two children were young, Barbara and I would join the kids every night for a devotional time together.

I found that Bible reading and prayer with a four-year-old and a seven-year-old affected my praying aloud. Of course, I knew from the beginning that for Rachele and Matthew to participate meaningfully in the prayer time, I would have to use relatively simple words uncluttered with "stained-glass language."

One night, however, I thanked the Lord for His "presence" in our lives that day.

Immediately after my "amen" Rachele looked up at Barbara and asked, "What did Daddy say? Presents?"

What was I trying to say? Well, I was trying to thank our Creator for the greatest blessing mankind can receive, a blessing that Adam, for instance, enjoyed to its fullest. It was such an important thing to Moses that he told the Lord at Sinai, "If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here" (Exodus 33:15, NIV).

That evening as I tried to answer my little girl's question, I also inwardly asked the Lord to never let me ignore the wonder of my communion with Him. I asked Him never to let "thank you for your presence today" become just a stock phrase I put in every prayer without really thinking.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung once said, "The central neurosis of our time is emptiness." We Christians would put it another way: It's the lack of the presence of God.

One day, I stood in the aisle of a train from Rome to Florence, talking with a businessman. A devout Roman Catholic, he was frustrated with what was happening in his "Christian" country: rising crime rate, political violence, and pervasive government corruption.

Why is there emptiness in a country that professes to be 90 percent Christian? What would cause Cardinal Benelli, then archbishop of Florence, to admit: "We Christians are in a minority in Italy. This country has returned to being a mission field"?

Well, one reason for lament by the businessman and by Cardinal Benelli is that Christianity in Italy failed to displace the traditions and customs of ancient Rome. In many cases, the Italians' Christian beliefs are but a thin veneer over pagan ideas handed down for centuries by the inhabitants of that peninsula. For instance, several of the "saints" venerated as powerful protectors of this or that city or town are really nothing but old Greek and Roman gods in disguise.1

Italian observers have frequently noted that the Roman Catholic Church knows or at least suspects such syncretism exists but allows it to stand as long as it doesn't interfere with fundamental doctrines.

Perhaps the reason for the emptiness in a land considered "Christian" is to be found in the conversation between Moses and the Lord reported in Exodus 33:7-15 after the golden calf episode. Italy is dominated by a church that seems to have lost the urgency of having the presence of the Lord.

It can happen not only to the mammoth Roman Catholic Church but also to any other group of believers as well. May we ever be like Moses. May we not even be interested in starting toward heaven if God's presence does not go with us. May having the presence of the Lord be our all-consuming passion.

1St. Janarius, patron of Naples, is the most prominent example. Others include St. Liberata (patron of Ceretto Guidi) and St. Brigid (of Cassago Brianza). All these were ancient Greek, Roman, and Celtic gods and goddesses that became venerated as Christian "saints."

Discussion questions

  1. What does it mean to prioritize recognizing and welcoming the presence of the Lord, and how does it relate to feelings of urgency and passion in the Church?
  2. What can we learn from Moses' plea for God's presence in Exodus 33:12-17, and how can we apply it to our lives today?
  3. This article mentions the emptiness experienced in countries considered Christian. What factors do you think contribute to this emptiness? How might it be related to the church's lack of understanding and pursuit of God's presence?
  4. How might syncretism, as described in the article, impact the church's ability to truly experience God's presence?
  5. One neurosis of our time is emptiness, which Christians would attribute to the lack of awareness of the presence of God. What are your thoughts on this perspective, and how might it influence our understanding of societal issues and our role as Christians?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

I wrote this devotional article while Barbara and I were serving as missionaries in Italy. It originally appeared in Standard, a weekly Faith Connections take-home curriculum piece for adult Sunday school classes published by The Foundry.

More on God's presence


The concept of "God's presence" in the Bible refers to the idea that God is actively present and engaged with His creation, especially with His chosen people. It signifies the belief that God is not distant or detached from the world but is intimately involved in the lives of individuals and communities.

Throughout the Bible, there are various manifestations of God's presence:

Overall, the concept of God's presence in the Bible conveys the idea of divine intimacy, guidance, and assurance for those who seek Him. It signifies a relational aspect of God's interaction with humanity, reflecting His love, grace, and sovereignty.

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