Why can no one see God’s face and live? Sometimes we run across concepts in the Scriptures that simply don’t make sense to us. Or they seem to contradict each other. When we find these occurrences, rather than ignoring it, this should set off a flashing red sign in our minds that says, “study and pray.” The Lord wants us to understand.
Many of our misunderstandings come from the translation from Hebrew to English. The quoted verse above is one such example. The contradiction is found in Exodus 33:
Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend. (Exodus 33:11)
But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” (Exodus 33:20)
At first glance, these two verses make no sense. First, the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, and then later tells Him that he can’t see His face and live. How is that possible? The first verse states that he saw God’s face then continued to live. The confusion comes not from God’s face, but from our assumption of the word live.
The Hebrew Word for “Live”
In Hebrew, this word that was translated into “live” in English is “Chayay”. In biblical Hebrew this word derives from Chai – which means life.
But what are other examples of this word throughout Scripture? Chayay is sometimes used not to describe mortality or physical survival. But the word meant to be revived, strengthened internally into a full life or even to save a life.
In other words, God was not saying that if Moses saw His face he would physically die. So what was He saying?
What Does God Mean?
The Lord desires that we get our strength from Him. This was the clear message in the desert when He told Israel that “man does not live [chayah] by bread alone, but man lives [chayah] by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD (Deut 8:3).
Here again, this was not referring to physical life, but instead it is about being revived or strengthened. Man isn’t revived or strengthened by bread alone, but he is revived and strengthened by God’s word. The holiness of God is enough.
This is why Jesus quoted this verse to Satan during His 40 day fast. Jesus’ temptation wasn’t about eating physical food, but it was about being distracted by physical things for your strength rather than being “fed from” God. That is a temptation that we all are faced with, whether fasting or not.
What Seeing God’s Face Does to Us
This is what God is communicating here in Exodus. No one can see His face and continue to be revived and strengthened by natural means. No one can look directly at the Creator of Genesis 1 and simply call it a nice experience. In other words, no one can see the face of God and simply chayay – continue as if everything was normal.
Looking into the face of God can change us in such dramatic ways that our previous life is destroyed. But isn’t that what we want – to be dramatically changed?
Moses Spoke to God Face to Face
In this context, Moses asked to see God’s glory. In essence, God responded, “Alright, but not My face revealed in full glory of My goodness. If that were to happen, you would be so radically changed on every level that no one could relate to you anymore. And I need you to lead Israel to the land I promised.”
So, Moses simply saw His back, and even then he collapsed in worship. We later see how dramatic the change could have been, as Moses continues to meet with the Lord on the mountain and in the tabernacle. In result of that, Moses’ own face became a source of fear for Israel. It shone so brightly that he needed to wear a veil when speaking to Israel.
Sometimes, we do not see the full revelation of the Lord in order to still relate to those that need our love and friendship.
Seeing the Face of God Today
Today, we have access to that glory and more! Paul writes about this very thing in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18. He said Jesus is what lifts the veil off of our faces to see God’s glory more clearly. It is His way of making us like Him.
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
Just as in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, God’s desire is to walk with and to be in the midst of His children. Moses experienced portions of this life. This fullness is what the Messiah will restore when He returns. It is for this reason, the Psalmist doesn’t discourage but encourages us to do what Moses did — seek His face.
“Seek the LORD and His strength; Seek His face continually.” (Psalm 105:4)
7 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know: Free PDF Download
With the use of the Hebrew language God revealed Himself to mankind. This ancient tongue held the greatest spiritual truths that guided our lives through the ages. And in each generation, they are discovered anew.
We know the Bible can be hard to understand and you want to get more out of it. Which is why we want to teach you seven Hebrew words that will transform the way you read the Bible.