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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible
Exodus 34

 

 

Verse 1

1.And the Lord said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone Although the renewal of the broken covenant was ratified by this pledge or visible symbol, still, lest His readiness to pardon should produce indifference, God would have some trace of their punishment remain, like a scar that continues after the wound is healed. In the first tables there had been no intervention of man’s workmanship; for God had delivered them to Moses engraven by His own secret power. A part of this great dignity is now withdrawn, when Moses is commanded to bring tables polished by the hand of man, on which God might write the Ten Commandments. Thus the ignominy of their crime was not altogether effaced, whilst nothing was withheld which might be necessary or profitable for their salvation. For nothing was wanting which might be a testimony of God’s grace, or a recommendation of the Law, so that they should receive it with reverence; they were only humbled by this mark, that the stones to which God entrusted His covenant were not fashioned by His hand, nor the produce of the sacred mount. The conceit by which some expound it, — that the Jews were instructed by this sign that the Law was of no effect, unless they should offer their stony hearts to God for Him to inscribe it upon them, — is frivolous; for the authority of Paul rather leads us the other way, where he fitly and faithfully interprets this passage, and compares the Law to a dead and deadly letter, because it was only engraven on tables of stone, whereas the doctrine of salvation requires “the fleshy tables of the heart.” (2 Corinthians 3:3.)


Verse 3

3.And no man shall come up with thee Again men as well as beasts are prohibited from access to the mount, as had been the case at the first promulgation of the Law, in order that the people might obediently receive the Law as if come down from heaven. Why God admitted no witness, is a question the answer to which must remain with God Himself. The miracle indeed would have been illustrious if the writing had appeared in a moment on the empty tables; but God would leave some room for faith, when He employed the intermediate agency of man. But still He amply provided what was sufficient to establish the dignity of the Law, when Moses brought the Ten Commandments written upon two tables which the people had lately seen taken up void and empty, whereas He could not have found in the mount a chisel or graving-tool. For (376) God so administers the dispensation of His heavenly doctrine as to prove the obedience and teachableness of believers, whilst He leaves no room for doubting.


Verse 5

5.And the Lord descended in the cloud It is by no means to be doubted but that the cloud received Moses into it in the sight of the people, so that, after having been separated from the common life of men for forty days, he should again come forth like a new man. Thus did this visible demonstration of God’s glory avail to awaken faith in the commandments.

The descent of God, which is here recorded, indicates no change of place, as if God, who fills heaven and earth, and whose immensity is universally diffused, altered His position, but it has reference to the perceptions of men, because under the appearance of the cloud God testified that He met Moses. Therefore, according to the usual phrase of Scripture, the sacred name of God is applied to the visible symbol; not that the empty cloud was a figure of the absent Deity, but because it testified His presence according to the comprehension of men.

At the end of the verse, “to call in the name of the Lord,” is equivalent to proclaiming His name, or promulgating what God would make known to His servant. This expression, indeed, frequently occurs with reference to prayers. Some, (377) therefore, understand it of Moses, that he called on the name of the Lord. In this opinion there is no absurdity; let us be at liberty, then, to take it as applying either to Moses or to God Himself, i.e., either that God Himself proclaimed in a loud voice His power, and righteousness, and goodness, or that Moses himself professed his piety before God. But what immediately follows must necessarily be referred to God, when He passed by, to cry out and to dignify Himself with His true titles. First of all, the name of Jehovah is uttered twice by way of emphasis, in order that Moses might be rendered more attentive. The name אל el, is added, which, originally derived from strength, is often used for God, and is one of His names. By these words, therefore, His eternity and boundless power are expressed. Next, He proclaims His clemency and mercy; nor is He contented with a single word, but, after having called Himself “merciful,” He claims the praise of clemency, inasmuch as He has no more peculiar attribute than His goodness and gratuitous beneficence. The nature also of His goodness and clemency is specified, viz., that He is not only placable, and ready, and disposed, to pardon, but that He patiently waits for those who have sinned, and invites them to repentance by His long-suffering. For this reason He is called “slow (378) to anger,” as if He would abstain from severity did not man’s wickedness compel Him to execute punishment on his sins. Afterwards He proclaims the greatness of His mercy and truth, and on these two supports the confidence of the pious is based, whilst they embrace the mercy offered to them, and securely repose on the faithfulness and certainty of the promises. Everywhere, therefore, in the Psalms, where mention is made of God’s goodness, His truth is connected with it as its inseparable companion. Another reason also is because God’s mercy cannot be comprehended, except upon the testimony of His word, the certainty of which must needs be well assured lest our salvation should be wavering and insecure. What follows, that God keeps mercy to a thousand generations, we have expounded in chapter 20; whilst, on the other hand, the punishments which He requires for men’s sins are only extended to the third and fourth generation, because His clemency surpasses His judgment, as is said in Psalms 30:5, (379) “There is only a moment in his anger, but life in his favor;” and although this only relates properly to believers, yet it flows from a general principle. To the same effect is the next clause, “forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin;” for thus the greatness of His clemency is set forth, inasmuch as He not only pardons light offenses, but the very grossest sins; and again, remits not only sin in one case, but is propitious to sinners by whom He has been a hundred times offended. Hence, therefore, appears the extent of His goodness, since He blots out an infinite mass of iniquities. Lest, however, this indulgence should be perverted into a license for sin, it is afterwards added, by way of correction, “with (380) cleansing He will not cleanse,” which, with the Chaldee interpreter and others, I understand as applying to His severe judgment against the reprobate and obstinate; for I do not like their opinion who say that, although God indeed pardons sins, yet He still moderately chastises those who have sinned; since this is a poor conjecture, that punishment is required though the guilt is remitted; and besides, it is altogether untrue, inasmuch as it is manifest, from experience that God passes over many sins without punishment. But what I have stated is very suitable, that, lest impunity should beget audaciousness, after God has spoken of His mercy, He adds an exception, viz., that the iniquity is by no means pardoned, which is accompanied by obstinacy. And hence the Prophets seem to have quoted from this passage, (381) “Clearing should ye be cleared?” ( Jeremiah 25:29,) when they address the reprobate, to whom pardon is denied. The words, therefore, may be properly paraphrased thus: Although God is pitiful and even ready to pardon, yet He does not therefore spare the despisers, but is a severe avenger of their impiety. Nevertheless, the opposite meaning would not be inappropriate here, “With cutting off He will not cut off;” for this is sometimes the sense of the verb נקה, nakah; and it would thus be read conneetedly, that God pardons iniquities because He does not wish entirely to cut off the human race; for who shall escape if God should choose to call to judgment the sins even of believers? And perhaps Jeremiah alluded to this passage, where (382) he mitigates the severity of the vengeance of which he had been speaking by this same expression, for there it can only be translated, “With cutting off I will not cut thee off.” If this be preferred, it will be the assignment of the reason why God pardons sins, viz., because He is unwilling to cut off men, which would be the case if He insisted on the utmost rigor of the Law. Some (383) thus explain it, That God pardons sins, because no one is innocent in His sight; as if it were said, that all are destitute of the glory of righteousness, and thence their only refuge is in the mercy of God. This is true indeed, but not so nmch an exposition as a plausible conceit.

Bush gives a very careful note on this clause, which he says is “of exceedingly difficult interpretation,” and declares himself satisfied that the sense which C. condemns is the true one, viz., “‘who will not wholly, entirely, altogether clear,’ i.e., who, although merciful and gracious in his dispositions, strongly inclined to forgive, and actually forgiving in countless cases and abundant measure, is yet not unmindful of the claims of justice. He will not always suffer even the pardoned sinner to escape with entire impunity. He will mingle so much of the penal in his dealings as to evince that his clemency is not to be presumed upon.”


Verse 8

8.And Moses made haste, and bowed his head This haste shews that Moses was astounded when he first beheld the brightness; for thus does God, when He reveals Himself, immediately ravish the godly into such admiration of Him, that there is no time for delay. (384) This prayer follows, that God would journey with His people, and bear with their frowardness; for, since God had said that He could not possibly dwell with so stiff-necked and intractable a people, Moses proposes the remedy, viz., after he has confessed that the people are of a hardened and stubborn spirit, he still expresses a hope of their safety, if God will be pitiful in sparing them. What follows is worthy of observation, “that thou mayest possess us;” (385) for the copula has the force of the causal particle, as if he had said, That God could not enjoy the inheritance He had chosen, unless by pardoning their sins. And surely so it is; for such is man’s frailty, that they would straightway fall from grace were they not reconciled to God. Nor was this spoken only of this ancient people, but refers also to us; for, in order that God should possess us too, it is needful that our sins should be constantly pardoned, as this embassy, according to Paul, daily resounds in the Church. (2 Corinthians 5:20.) Consequently, not only does the origin of our salvation flow from gratuitous adoption, but its continual progress even to the end can only be accomplished by God’s freely reconciling us to Himself.


Verse 10

10.And he said, Behold, I make a covenant It is not specified with whom God would make the covenant. Some interpreters, (386) therefore, supply the name of Moses, and this they seem to do on probable grounds, especially since it is added at the end of the verse “the work (387) that I will do with thee.” But, inasmuch as Moses stipulated in the name of all, the meaning comes to the same thing, if we read, I will make a covenant openly with the whole people. By this promise, then, God, as it were, entirely restored the Israelites, for He declares that He will deal so marvellously in the discomfiture of the nations, as to prove that He is the peculiar God of that people; and this was to distinguish them from other nations, according to the prayer of Moses. he says that they shall all be eye-witnesses of this, that, being thus at length convinced by their own senses, they might sincerely and faithfully submit themselves to his dominion.


Verse 11

Exodus 34:11.Observe that which I command thee. Although these supplements belong alike to the First and Second Commandment, still it was fit to postpone them to this place; because in them God applied a remedy to all external and manifest superstitions, which might easily have insinuated themselves had they not been anticipated in good time. All will run eagerly into idolatry, even though there be none to impel us from without; but where the ungodly act upon us also like fans, and this must needs be the case, when the people of God entangle themselves in their society, this disease is increasingly inflamed. And truly the closer our familiarity is with them, it is like a yoke, whereby they draw others with them. In order then that the people, when they entered the land, might preserve themselves pure and thoroughly devoted to God, care must be taken lest they should contract pollution from other nations; and therefore God would have all the inhabitants of Canaan utterly destroyed, lest they should entice His elect people to their errors and the worship of false gods. He here interdicts two kinds of covenant with them, lest there should be any public or private alliance between them; and then commands that all should be slain without mercy. As regards the public covenant, it was forbidden for a special cause, that the sons of Abraham should mix themselves with the reprobate; because they would have thus deprived themselves of the lawful inheritance which God had destined for them; nor would the face of the land have been renewed by the removal of all defilements. Since then in His just judgment God had long ago determined to destroy these nations, it was not lawful for the children of Abraham to rescind the divine decree, or to make any alteration in it.

If therefore any one should insist too literally on this passage to prove the unlawfulness of making any contract with the ungodly, because God forbade it of old, he will not reason soundly, since God does not now command us to execute vengeance by putting all the wicked to death; nor is a certain country assigned to the Church in which it may dwell apart and have dominion. Still I do not deny that what was enjoined upon the ancient people, in some degree has reference to us; nay, we must carefully remark what I lately adverted to, that those, who voluntarily unite themselves with the ungodly, impose as it were a yoke on themselves to draw them to destruction. And in fact Paul embraced in this comparison all the grounds upon which unbelievers insinuate themselves into familiarity with us, to ensnare us by their corrupting influence. (2 Corinthians 6:14) As much as possible, therefore, must all ties of connection be rather broken, than that by union with God’s enemies (301) we should allow ourselves to be drawn away from Him by their allurements; for they will always be attempting, by all the artifices they can, to make a divorce between us and God. Besides, if we desire faithfully to serve God, there ought to be a perpetual quarrel between us and them. God then would have us not only separate ourselves from open communion with them, but since we are too much given to depravity, He also commands us to fly from all the snares which might gradually induce us to participate in their sins. But inasmuch as Paul justly reminds us, that if we are not permitted to have any dealings with unbelievers, we must “needs go out of the world,” (1 Corinthians 5:10,) it is proper for us to distinguish between the contracts which associate us with them and those which do not at all diminish our liberty.

As long as we live among unbelievers, we cannot escape those dealings with them which relate to the ordinary affairs of life; but if we approach nearer, so that a greater intimacy should arise, we open the door as it were to Satan. Such are alliances between kings and nations, and marriages amongst private persons; and therefore Moses laid down rules respecting them both for the ancient people. And although our condition now-a-days is more free, still we are warned that all temptations are to be avoided which might give occasion to this evil. It is notorious that men are too apt to be led away by the blandishments of their wives; and also, that men in their power compel their wives to obedience. Those, therefore, who mix with idolaters, knowingly and wilfully devote themselves to idols. The same thing happens as to alliances; for men are ashamed in them to betray any marks of disrespect. Thus, to please the king of Syria, Ahaz raised an altar in the temple like that at Damascus. (2 Kings 16:10.) Thus while the Jews desired to gratify the Assyrians, they imitated their superstitions. In a word, it, is a most uncommon case that the religion of those should remain unaffected who seek to curry favor with the ungodly. But that they may cleave more earnestly to their duty, the danger I have spoken of is declared; otherwise such rejoinders as these would have been straightway in their mouths: “Although my wife is altogether averse from true piety, still I will stand firm; although my husband is not subject to God, yet I will never decline from the true course; although religion is not dear to our allies, still it shall not cease to be sacredly held in honor amongst ourselves.” God (302) therefore interferes betimes, and declares that they will not be so magnanimous in resistance, when once they have opened the window to the evil. He adds, too, another evil, i.e., that the sacred land would be thus profaned; for, although the Israelites should be separated from the impieties of the Gentiles, still it was not excusable to allow them to have altars in that land in which God had chosen a sanctuary for Himself. Yet at the same time Moses warns them that it could scarcely be but that this association would involve the Israelites also. When he says, then, “lest they go a whoring after their gods, and one call thee,” he means that the Israelites would be like panders, if under cover of their covenant, and for the sake of preserving their good-will, they gave the Gentiles permission to exercise their superstitions; and also that this would be a snare to grosser sin; since whilst they feared to give offense, they would not refuse to go to their feasts, and thus would be partakers of their guilt. Literally, it is, “Lest perhaps thou strike a covenant, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and call thee,” which words may be thus paraphrased, so as to depend on the foregoing prohibition: “Lest it should happen, after you shall have made a covenant, that they should go a whoring,” etc.; or thus, “By no means make a covenant, because they will go a whoring after their idols, and when they shall offer sacrifices will call thee.” The meaning, however, will amount to the same; for he mentions the two worst results of their unlawful covenant, i.e., that these unbelieving nations will pollute the land, and under pretext of kindness will corrupt God’s people. But in order that they may be more earnest and courageous in their duty, the promise is added, that they shall be victorious over these nations. This was almost incredible, that wanderers and exiles as they were, they should easily and quickly be enabled to gain possession of so many lands; therefore God takes away all doubt, and thus commands the Israelites to obey His dominion at the end of this war, which they shall feel that they have waged successfully under His auspices. Wherefore he convicts them of ingratitude if they shall dare to relax any of that severity which He requires; as if He had said, Since these nations far excel you in numbers, and strength, and warlike equipments, it will plainly appear that you have not conquered them by your own power; it will therefore be more than iniquitous that the war, which shall be concluded under my guidance alone, and by my hand, should be finished in opposition to my will, and that you should be the disposers of that victory which I have gratuitously conferred upon you. The discrepancy is easily reconciled, that Moses should only enumerate six nations in Exodus, and add a seventh in Deuteronomy; for often he only names the Canaanites or Amorites, yet comprising by synecdoche all the rest.


Verse 17

Exodus 34:17.Thou shalt make thee no molten gods. When he calls graven things, statues, and pictures, by the name of gods, he shews the object and sum of the Second Commandment, viz., that God is insulted when He is clothed in a corporeal image. Moreover, the name of God is transferred to idols, according to common parlance, and the corrupt opinion of the Gentiles; not that unbelievers thought that the Deity was included in the corruptible material, but because they imagined that it was nearer to them, if some earthly symbol of its presence were standing before their eyes. In this sense, they called the images of the gods their gods; because they thought they could not ascend to the heights in which the Deity dwelt, unless they mounted by these earthly aids. There is no doubt but that he comprehends by synecdoche, all kinds of images, when he forbids the making of molten gods; because metal is no more abominated by God than wood, or stone, or any other material, out of which idols are usually made; but, inasmuch as the insane zeal of superstition is the more inflamed by the value of the material or the beauty of the workmanship, Moses especially condemned molten gods. All question on this point is removed by the fourth passage here cited, wherein the Israelites are forbidden to make gods of silver or gold, viz., because idolaters indulge themselves more fully in their worship of very precious idols, by the external splendor of which all their senses are ravished. To the same effect is the third passage, in which mention is not, only made of graven images, but there is also added the name of a statue (89) or figured stone; for, although some expound these words as referring to a pavement, yet I have no doubt but that all monuments are included in them, wherein foolish men think that they have God in some measure visible, and therefore that they express all sculptures and pictures by which the spiritual worship of God is corrupted. For the object of Moses is to restrain the rashness of men, lest they should travesty God’s glory by their imaginations; for another clause is immediately added, “I am the Lord your God, ” in which God reminds them that He is despoiled of His due honor, whenever men devise anything earthly or carnal respecting Him. The word מצבה, (90) matsebah, is sometimes used in a good sense; whence it follows, that no other statues are here condemned, except those which are erected as representations of God. The same also is the case as to the polished stone, (91) viz., when it receives a consecration, which may attract men’s minds to regard it in a religious light, so as to worship God in the stone. But both in the second and third passages, Moses teaches men that as soon as they imagine anything gross or terrestrial in the deity, they altogether depart from the true God. And this is also expressed in the word אלילים, elilim, which embraces in it statues, stones, and graven images, as well as molten gods. Some think that this word is compounded of אל , al (92) the negative particle, and אל, el, God. Others translate it “a thing of nought;” the Greeks and Latins have rendered itidols.” It is plain, that the false representations, which travesty God, are so called to mark them with disgrace and ignominy. But, since the superstitious cease not to gloss over their errors with cavils, God is not content with this opprobrious name, but adds others also, respecting which their pretext was more specious; that we may know that whatsoever withdraws us from His spiritual service, or whatsoever men introduce alien from His nature, is repudiated by Him. In the fourth passage, the antithesis must be noted, which will presently be explained more fully, viz., when God forbids them to make gods of corruptible materials, since He has “spoken from heaven;” in which words He signifies that all are doing wrong, who, when they ought to look up to heaven, tie down their own minds as well as Him to earthly elements.


Verse 19

19.All that openeth the matrix is mine. He here defines what the offering was to be, viz., that they should redeem their children as well as the unclean animals at a price; but that they should bring into the tabernacle whatsoever could be offered in sacrifice. But God would not have their own sons consecrated to Him, because He had chosen the tribe of Levi, as we shall see elsewhere; they were therefore to remain free and in their own power after a pecuniary compensation. In the same way, unclean animals might be applied to domestic purposes, viz., after God’s price had been paid, since to Him they belonged, and He claimed them for Himself. But if any should not put so high a value on an ass or other unclean animal, the Law commanded that its neck should be broken; for otherwise it would have been sacrilege to reap profit from God’s property, or, what is the same, to transfer to their private use what God had adjudged to Himself.


Verse 28

28.And he was there with the Lord forty days The number of forty days is repeated, in order that the second Tables might have no less credit than the first; for we have stated that Moses was withdrawn from the common life of men, that he might bring the Law, as it were, from heaven. If he had only been kept a few days in the mount, his authority would not have been ratified by so conspicuous a miracle; but the forty days obtained full credit for his mission, so that the people might know that he was sent by God; inasmuch as the endurance of a fast for so long a period exceeded the capacity of human nature. Wherefore, in order that the majesty of the Law might be indubitable, its minister was invested with angelic glory; and hence he expressly records that “he did neither eat bread, nor drink watch” since it was requisite that he should be distinguished from other mortals, in order that his official character might be unquestionable. Now, it must be borne in mind, that this was not a mere fast of temperance or sobriety, but of special privilege, whereby exemption from the infirmity of the flesh was vouchsafed to Moses for a time, in order that his condition might be different from the rest of the human race. For neither did he feel any hunger, nor did he struggle with any longing for food, nor desire meat and drink any more than one of the angels. Therefore this instance of abstinence was never alleged as an example by the Prophets, nor did any one attempt to imitate what they all knew to be by no means accorded to them. I except Elijah, who, being sent to revive the Law, when it was almost lost, like a second Moses, abstained also from eating and drinking for forty days. The reason for the fast of Christ was similar, (Matthew 4:2;) for, in order to acquire full credit for tits Gospel, He desired to make it manifest that He was by no means inferior to Moses in this particular. Wherefore, (388) the less excusable is that error, which sprang from gross ignorance, when all, without exception, endeavored to rival the Son of God in their annual fast, as if a new promulgation of the Gospel was entrusted to them. For neither did Christ fast forty day’s more than once in His life; nor during the whole of that time, as it is clearly specified, did he experience hunger; and His heavenly Father separated Him from communion with men, when He was preparing Himself to undertake the office of teacher.


Verse 29

29.And it came to pass when Moses came down Another remarkable honor given to the Law is here narrated, viz., that the brightness of the heavenly glory appeared in the face of Moses; for it is said that his face gave forth rays, or was irradiated. The word is derived from קרן keren, a horn; and therefore it is probable that rays shone forth from his face, which rendered it luminous; and this effulgence God shed upon him, whilst He was speaking to him in the mount. It is not certain what was the reason why Moses himself was ignorant that he was thus illumined by God, except that it seems probable that it was concealed from him for a short time, in order that he might approach the people with more freedom, and thus that the miracle might be more evident from close inspection. When it is said afterwards, that Aaron and the children of Israel were so alarmed at the brightness, that “they were afraid to come nigh him,” I do not understand it, as if they fled from him immediately; for, since they were recalled by his voice, undoubtedly they had not seen the rays from a distance, but when they were in the act of receiving him, and he, on his part, delivering to them the commands of God. Therefore, what follows soon afterwards, that, when he had done speaking, he covered his face with a vail, (389) I refer to his first address, which He was obliged to break off on account of the departure or flight of the people, so that the meaning is, when He knew the cause of their alarm, He left off speaking, and covered his face with a vail; for he could not have known the reason of their flying except by inquiry. Some, in order to avoid the difficulty, separate the second clause from the first, and transpose their order; but this exposition appears to me to be forced. It seems, however, in my opinion, to be perfectly consistent that Moses, after he saw them departing in consternation, ceased from speaking, because they did not listen to him, and, when he discovered the reason, put on the vail. Hence arises a question, viz., How Moses could have borne the brightness of God’s glory, whilst the people could not bear the rays which shone from his face? But this is easily answered: that they were branded with this mark of disgrace, in order that they might confess how far by their ingratitude they had departed from God, since they were terrified at the sight of this servant. They were, therefore, humbled by this difference between them, that, whilst Moses securely advanced to them from his conference with God, although he bore upon him the indications of God’s terrible power, they, in fear and astonishment, recoiled from the sight of a mortal man.

After Paul has shewn the genuine object of this brightness, viz., that the Law should be glorious, he proceeds further, and shews that it was a presage of the future blindness which awaited the Jews. (2 Corinthians 3:13.) He begins, therefore, by saying, that although the Law was only a dead letter, and the ministration of death, yet it was graced with its own peculiar glory; and then adds what is accidental, that there was a vail before the face of Moses, because it would be the case that the Jews would not be able to see what is the main thing in the Law, nor to pay attention to its true end; and so it actually is, that since the coming of Christ, their senses have been blinded, and the vail is upon them, until Moses shall be (390) turned by them to Christ, who is the soul of the Law. But, since now in the Gospel God presents Himself with open face, we must take care that the prince of this world does not darken our minds, but rather that we may be transformed from glory to glory.

 


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Bibliography Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Exodus 34:4". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/exodus-34.html. 1840-57.

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