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SUBSTITUTES FOR GOD
‘Gods which shall go before us.’
We see that the Israelites’ residence in Egypt had familiarised them with the idea of symbols for God, so that there was no strangeness in it, but even a certain attraction in the pomp, and circumstance, and excitement, of idolatrous ceremonial.
I. It must be borne in mind that, at the time of their lapse, they had no Tabernacle, and no religious rites, such as were soon after established. They had nothing of external form and interest to satisfy the desire for a sensuous expression of religion. This desire had been previously met, at least, in part, by the shining of the pillar cloud, as the symbol of Divine presence; and the relation in which they stood to Moses, as the earthly representative of the Will. But for weeks the pillar cloud had not been seen in the sky; it was swallowed up in the great cloud about the summit of the Holy Mount; and the man Moses was, to their thought, certainly lost; it was inconceivable that he was alive, after being all those weeks without food. That awful majesty and glory, which had so alarmed the people that they had drawn back from the Mount, must have burned up Moses; and they felt that they were left to all the perils of the unknown wilderness, with no Divine leader and no Divine signs.
II. The suggestion seemed at first innocent enough.—Cannot we make for ourselves a sign to go before us, something that shall indicate we are Jehovah’s people; some symbol that shall be an earthly reminder of our absent God? It seemed innocent, but it was wholly wrong from the first. It was not indeed a sin against the Divine Unity. No hint is given to us of their intention to abandon the service of Jehovah, and substitute another God for Him. But they sinned against the Divine Spirituality; against their second great truth, ‘God is a Spirit, and therefore no material likeness can be made of Him.” Their sin lay in their pretending to worship a visible symbol of Him whom no symbol could represent.
The suggestion to make a molten figure must have come from some one man, but it could have had no influence if the doubt and fear, and the half-formed wish or some material sign, had not been generally in the thought of the people. Such national movements must be in the heart of the people, if the genius, or the forwardness, of some individual is to waken the movement into activity; and this may be illustrated in the cases of Luther and the Reformation, and John Hampden and the refusal to pay ship money.
III. Once started, the thing went altogether further than was at first intended.—A sort of visible marching sign may have been the first thought; but the figure that came forth of the mould seemed at once to inflame the evil passions of the people; they lost all self-control, and gave themselves up to an excitement which easily degenerated into licentiousness and abominations. The evils—moral evils—into which the people fell illustrate the peril of moral deterioration which lies in having any ‘sense-image, or likeness,’ of the spiritual Jehovah. Animal conceptions of God will tend to cultivate the animal passions; and this was found to be true even of the fine Greek conceptions of the Divine, as represented by the perfect body, the ideal human form. Even that animal conception had in it no power to purify or keep pure. There is no possible basis for a pure morality save the full conception of the spirituality of God; and it was this conception which the Golden Calf imperilled.
(1) ‘Aaron did not so much initiate the new policy of image making as he sought to control and direct the popular impulse toward idolatry. Like many another leader since, he argued that it was better to retain control of a movement which his conscience could not altogether approve than to break with the people and so lose all power. By so doing, he at once lost character, and, in the end, the popular respect which he valued so highly.’
(2) ‘There are idols of the heart as well as idols of gold and silver and brass and stone.
My work may be my idol. I take pride in it. I do it faithfully and diligently, never scamping it, never fulfilling it remissly. Mine is the eye, like Antonio Stradivari’s, that “winces at false work and loves the true.” And that is well; but there is a better Lord than this.
My home may be my idol. Wife and children and friends, the familiar threshold and the dear fireside—are they not a “happy clime”? John Stuart Mill said wistfully of her who had been the desire of his eyes, “Her memory is to me a religion.” And that also is well; but it is not the best.
My sin may be my idol. So much do I delight in it, that I will not part with its enchantments and pleasures—not now at least, not for a long season yet. Its glamour bewitches me; its whisper of freedom deceives my heart. As Cleopatra led Antony captive, so my besetting sin enslaves me. But from all idols I turn to the one Lord.’
‘So they gave it me; then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.’
I. There never was a speech, more true to one disposition of our human nature than this of Aaron. We are all ready to lay the blame on the furnaces. ‘The fire did it,’ we are all of us ready enough to say, ‘In better times we might have been better, broader men, but now, behold, God put us into the fire, and we came out thus.’
Our age, our society, is what, with this figure taken out of the old story of Exodus, we have been calling it. It is the furnace. Its fire can set, and fix, and fasten what the man puts into it. But, properly speaking, it can create no character. It can make no truly faithful soul a doubter. It never did. It never can.
II. The subtlety and attractiveness of this excuse extends not only to the results which we see coming forth in ourselves; it covers also the fortunes of those for whom we are responsible. Everywhere there is this cowardly casting off of responsibilities upon the dead circumstances around us. It is a very hard treatment of the poor, dumb, helpless world which cannot answer to defend itself. It takes us as we give ourselves to it. It is our minister, fulfilling our commissions for us upon our own souls.
III. There is delusion and self-deception in this excuse. Very rarely indeed does a man excuse himself to other men and yet remain absolutely unexcused in his own eyes. Often the very way to help ourselves most to a result which we have set before ourselves is just to put ourselves into a current which is sweeping on that way, and then lie still, and let the current do the rest, and in all such cases it is so easy to ignore or to forget the first step, and so to say that it is only the drift of the current which is to blame for the dreary shore on which at last our lives are cast up by the stream.
IV. If the world is thus full of the Aaron spirit, where are we to find its cure? Its source is a vague and defective sense of personality. I cannot look for its cure anywhere short of that great assertion of the human personality which is made when a man personally enters into the power of Jesus Christ.
Bp. Phillips Brooks.
(1) ‘Of course, in one sense it was true that the calf had come out of the furnace, hut it was also true that Aaron had been the chief agent in its production.
Yet, how true this is to nature! All of us are inclined to lay the blame of anything that we are, upon the furnace. The sensualist excuses himself to his friends, in a moment of repentance, by saying that he is the child of a drunkard, or that his companions are solely accountable. He got into ‘a bad set.’ The plutocrat, who piles up his fortune regardless of the lies or oppression by which it is amassed, when some searching exposure comes, defends himself by saying: ‘It is really not my fault, it is the way in which I was trained.’ The young man who flings away his faith tells us that the whole drift of his college was against orthodox evangelicalism—and asks what else could be expected of him. We lay the blame on our unhappy circumstances, or our companions, almost on God, that He made us as we are.’
(2) ‘In a recent letter, Rev. Donald Fraser sends a description of what he witnessed in Central Africa, which throws a lurid light on this incident. ‘The moon has risen. The sound of boys and girls singing in chorus, and the clapping of hands, tell of the village sport. You turn out to the village square to see the lads and girls at play. They are dancing; but every act is awful in its shamelessness. You go back to your tent bowed with an awful shame, to hide yourself. But from that village and that other the same choruses are rising, and you know that under the clear moon God is seeing wickedness that cannot be named, and there is no blush in those who practise it.’ This is heathenism; and God’s anger against such sights is as hot to-day as it was in Aaron’s time. Only who is to blame to-day?’
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Exodus 32". Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34