“I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”—Genesis 32:30.
“Thou canst not see my face; for there shall no man see me and live.”—Exodus 33:20.
The difference here seems to arise from the phrase “face of God.” In the one case it is expressive of great familiarity, compared with former visions and manifestations of the Divine glory; in the other, of a fulness of knowledge of this glory, which is incompatible with our mortal state, if not with our capacity as creatures. What Jacob said of himself, that he had seen God “face to face,” is repeatedly spoken of Moses, and as that by which he stood distinguished from other prophets, Deut. 34:10. Even in the same chapter wherein it is said he could not see his face and live, it is said that Jehovah spake unto him face to face, Exod. 33:11, 20. He whom Jacob saw had at least the appearance of a man, who conversed and wrestled with him till day-break. Yet, before they parted, he was convinced that he was more than man, even God; who on that, as on other occasions, assumed a visible and tangible form to commune with his servants, as a prelude of his future incarnation. The face which was seen on this occasion was human, though belonging to one that was Divine.
Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face.” Thus, also, that which was beheld by Moses is called “the similitude of Jehovah,” (Numb. 12:8,) or a glorious Divine appearance; of which, though we are unable to form an adequate idea, yet we may be certain that it came short of what he was afterwards told he “could not see and live.” Though, in comparison of other dark speeches and visions, it was seeing him face to face; yet, when compared with a perfect knowledge of the glory of God, it was but seeing what among creatures would be called the shadow, or at most the back parts of a great personage.