We should first understand one of the terms that Scripture uses. The word that is translated “face” in Exodus 33:20 is the Hebrew word panim. While this word can have a specific, literal, and anatomical sense in reference to the front of a person’s head (Exod. 10:28), it can also refer to the surface of something – “the face (panim) of the earth” (Exod. 33:16), the front of something – “the forefront (panim) of the tent” (Exod. 26:9), it can mean to be before someone “your males shall appear before (panim) the Lord GOD” (Exod. 23:17), or it can even refer to the presence of someone “they were driven out from Pharaoh’s presence (panim)” (Exod. 10:11).
Of God it is clear that panim can have these same distinct applications in different contexts. For example, while God told Moses “My face (panim) shall not be seen” (Exod. 33:23), He also promised the Israelites a few verses before this “My Presence (panim) will go with you and I will give you rest” (Exod. 33:14). What we must conclude is that there is some element of the grandeur of God that cannot be witnessed by human beings, that Exod. 33:20-23 calls His “face” (panim). However, there is some other limited aspect of His glory that can be seen, to which the same word can apply—and most translations call His “Presence (panim)."
Notice a few things that support this conclusion. In Exodus 24:10 Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders go up on the mountain. We know that Moses was allowed to go further (Exod. 24:2), but the others were to “worship from afar” (Exod. 24:1). It is from this more remote distance that it is said, "…They saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity. But on the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand. So they saw God, and they ate and drank” (Exod. 24:10-11, NKJV). If this was all we had we might conclude that they saw the full grandeur of God but were spared death, since it says God did not “lay His hand” on them. However, there is more to it. What they are allowed to see, is some aspect of what Exodus 24:16 calls “the glory of the Lord” that came down on the mountain. Its appearance is described as “a consuming fire” (Exod. 24:17). Was this the full glory of the Lord? No. After this even, Moses begs the Lord, “Show me you glory” (Exod. 33:18). It is in response to this that God covers Moses in the “hollow of his hand” sets him in the “cleft of the rock” and passes before Moses (Exod. 33:19-23). It is in this context that God allows Moses to see his “back” (33:23) but declares, “You cannot see My face (panim); for no man shall see Me, and live” (Exod. 33:20).
It is clear when God says “see Me” He does not mean his “back” (Exod. 33:23), nor whatever aspect of His glory that Aaron and the other saw (Exod. 24:10). What God calls His “face (panim)” in Exodus 33:20 and 33:23 must be some fuller manifestation of His glory. New Testament writers acknowledge this distinction in writing, “No one has seen God at anytime” (John 1:18; 1 John 4:12).
Finally, let’s notice a couple of things which help clarify this. The expression “face to face” is an important phrase used in Scripture. Throughout the Old Testament it is used of the close relationship that God had to Moses (and with Israel). It is first used when Jacob wrestles with the Lord and God names him “Israel.” Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Gen 32:30). Now this can’t mean that he saw what God calls His face in Exod. 33:20 or he would be dead, and the New Testament claims that no one has seen God would be false. So, what does it mean? Jacob saw some aspect of God’s glory, but not His full “face” (panim). Even so, he was blessed with a close encounter (if you will) with Deity. The same is said of Moses numerous times (Exod. 33:11; Num. 12:8; Deut. 5:4; 34:10), but also of God’s treatment of the Israelites, "…You, LORD, are among these people; that You, LORD, are seen face to face and that Your cloud stands above them; and You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night" (Num. 14:14). Now obviously the Israelites as a whole hadn’t even seen what Moses saw of God’s glory, but it is still described as seeing Him “face to face.” This makes it clear that what is being described is the closeness of the relationship between God and Israel and even more so, between God and Moses.
Another example is found in the book of Judges. What is called the “Angel of the Lord” appears to Gideon (6:12) and Gideon later declares, “Alas, O Lord GOD! For I have seen the Angel of the LORD face to face” (6:22). It is often unclear in Scripture when the phrase “Angel of the Lord” is talking about an angelic being sent by God, and when it means some manifestation of God’s presence. Numbers 14:14 described Israel seeing the Lord “face to face” but then refers to the pillar of cloud and of fire. Exodus 14:19 connects the “Angel of God” with the pillar of fire. This was some manifestation of God. In the same context in which God passes before Moses, God’s “Angel” is promised to go before the Israelites in taking Canaan (Exod. 33:2). This is what allows them to be described as having a “face to face” relationship (Num. 14:14), and is even called His “Presence (panim)” (Exod. 33:14). Put this is clearly a restricted aspect of His presence. If His full presence had come into “their midst” they would have been consumed (Exod. 33:3, 5). That seems to refer to the same thing He calls His “face (panim)” that no one has seen, nor could see lest he die.
Kyle Pope, March 2011