I received the following question:

Exodus 24:9-11. Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, 10. and 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. 11. But on the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand. So they saw God, and they ate and drank. 

What did they actually see of God since we know that only Moses saw Him?

In Exodus 24:9-11, the elders of Israel saw the LORD. There is a bit of awe in this, as they are said to eat and drink. This means that they lived, basically, and did not die, which is a significant thing indeed, considering what they saw.

This almost seems to present to us a picture of the God of Israel standing on a sapphire stone, and the elders looking upon Him from underneath. At least, that is the impression I get, although I could be wrong. Yet when the LORD speaks in verse 12, He seems to indicate that He was still above them.

12. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there; and I will give you tablets of stone, and the law and commandments which I have written, that you may teach them.”

So I would suggest that they saw Him from below, but not face-to-face as Moses and Joshua did.

As for only Moses seeing the LORD, you are no doubt referring to Exodus 33:18-22, where we start off with Moses’ words.

18. And he said, “Please, show me Your glory.”
19. Then He said, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” 20. But He said, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” 21. And the LORD said, “Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. 22. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. 23. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”

What Moses asks here is that the LORD show him His glory. I believe that the glory of the LORD is the Lord Jesus Christ. II Corinthians 4:6 tells us this.

6. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

So I believe that when men saw God in the Old Testament, what they were seeing was what we call a “preincarnate” form of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, they saw Him in appearance like a man, but not yet actually become one of Adam’s race, as He did when He was born as a baby in Bethlehem (the incarnation.)

So it was definitely the Lord Jesus Who was going to pass by Moses in the cleft of the rock. Yet since we know that Moses talked with God “face to face” (Numbers 12:8,) we know that this cannot be referring to the fact that he simply saw the LORD, for this was not too unusual. As you point out, these elders saw Him as well. Abraham saw Him and spoke with Him, as did others. It would seem rather that when the LORD appears to men, His glory is always veiled, and He appears without it to a great extent. Thus, men are able to talk with the LORD and not die. Therefore what Moses was asking here was not just that he see the LORD, but that he see Him in all His glory. This he was unable to do, at least not to look on His face, for no man could do that and live. Yet he was allowed to view the LORD in all His glory from the back. So that is what he saw after the LORD passed by and then removed His hand.

So when the elders of Israel saw God standing on the sapphire, they were seeing Him, but not in all His glory. That was the difference in the case where Moses saw Him.