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Moses had been sent for to go up to the top of the mountain and speak to God. The man was sent for: he owed nothing to his own originality or invention. It is a mistake to suppose that Moses invented anything, originated or outlined anything of his own imagination. The Bible is of God, or it is not a word to be believed or received into the heart, or made the monitor of the troubled life. The minister does not make his own sermons: if he does, what wonder that they are not heard, or being heard are quickly forgotten; that they take no hold of the life, dominating over it with sweet and gracious sovereignty, ruling it into order, and charming it into hope? The man made it out of his own mind: he invented phrases and set them in order; the sermon is a kind of intellectual mosaic thinly sprinkled with the baptism of dew, but a human manufacture, a very clever and stirring invention nothing more. The true minister goes up to consult the Master for a long time. He is on the mountain, and the people think he is wasting the opportunity. They say, "We are waiting, the world is waiting, and as for this man Moses and all his tribe, where are they?" They are where they ought to be out of sight, but communing with God; away from the fray, the battle, the race, but receiving nourishment, nutriment, inspiration, comfort, and even words by which to express the Divine thought. And what is true of Moses and the minister is true of every genuine believer in God. He has his interviews with the Lord in the mountain, his periods of solitude, his seasons of withdrawment from strife, and noise, and unholy revelry; and coming back from the mountain of contemplation he touches life with a steadier hand, and does his duty with a completer obedience and more radiant cheerfulness. We should fight better if we prayed more; we should be more original if we were more spiritual; we should startle the world more if our face burned with the lustre which reflects our interviews with God face to face. The general is on the top of the mountain receiving marching orders; he is asking what to do next; he will invent nothing, plan nothing, start nothing, be responsible for nothing. He says, "I stand until I am told to go forward; I do the Lord's bidding; I do not act upon my own ingenuity." That is the truly religious life; that is the inner, spiritual, Divine, immortal life: that takes nothing into its own hands, but offers those hands as instruments through which the Divine Being himself may operate upon the destinies of the world. Do we love solitude? Do we ever go up for our marching orders? Is it our habit to shut out the world and keep it far below us that we may have every day some five minutes at least with God say in the morning, say early in the morning, or be it noontide, or in the quiet eventide? Do we ever clip out of the day some five minutes and say, "You shall be God's minutes; through you I will receive messages from the Eternal One; I will carve a five minutes' sanctuary out of every day"? for in five minutes how much can be done! what great speeches made! what oaths and vows exchanged! what memories touched into new vividness! and what vows formed with solemn and pregnant meanings! Let God have part of every day; then, when his own our own full day comes, it will be all too short for the interviews we wish to hold with him, and for the messages we wish to deliver and to receive.
When Moses was away the people became impatient; they said:
"As for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him" ( Exo 32:1 ).
Were they then dependent upon one man? Yes, to a large extent. I thought every man was one? Not at all. We are dependent upon our elder brother, our strongest man, our noblest suppliant, our wisest leader, in many of the crises and agonies of life. For a long time we are as good as he is; we know no difference between him and us; we wonder sometimes at apparent tokens of superiority, but suddenly we are confronted with circumstances which classify men: we come in face of great claims and demands which search us, and try us, and see what our quality really is, then we know which is Moses, which is Aaron, which is the man of prayer, and which is the man of mighty talk. The people did not understand the discipline of keeping still. That is a difficult discipline really to understand. We understand the discipline of going on, that suits our impatience and our littleness; but the discipline of standing still, simply waiting, doing everything by doing nothing, reducing life to a process of breathing, being nothing in the great tragedy, who can understand that? Who is equal to that strain? Who has the patience that can simply stand still and see the salvation of God? And yet this is the way in which we are sometimes trained. Let us own our impatience in this matter. I want to be going on, and I cannot stir; I want every stroke of my arm to win a battle, and behold I cannot raise my hand to my head. So much could be done before sunset, and we are not allowed even to make the endeavour. That discipline may be accepted either in the way of fretfulness, chafing, vexation, kicking against the pricks; or it may be so accepted as to chasten the soul, clarify it, make it without flaw or stain, a holy and beautiful thing laid in daily sacrifice upon the high altar. How shall we accept it? You want the appointment now; you want to come into your blessing to-day; you want the answer to the great question you have put immediately; and God says, "No; not to-day, nor tomorrow, nor this year, but by-and-by." How do you take that answer? Do you fret, chafe, kick, rebel? or do you say "Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight"? If you can say that, you need no more growth in grace: you are ripe; you are matured under the blessed and all-comforting sun of God's glory, and may surely be quickly transplanted to the higher gardens. That is the last conquest of grace, the supreme acquisition of the soul, to have no will, to be ready to stand, to go, to fight, to wait, to suffer, saying always, "Not my will, but thine be done."
And yet the people were religious all the time. They said: "Up, make us gods, which shall go before us," an unintended tribute to the majesty of their leader. "Make us gods which shall go before us," an unintended rebuke to Aaron. The responsibility did not devolve upon him. They did not say "Come, thy elder brother is lost; be thou our leader and our king, and we will do thee homage." Moses gone he can be replaced only by gods! It is thus that we reluctantly and sometimes unconsciously pay tribute to our masters, and leaders, and noblest teachers, and benefactors. One Moses gone gods must supply his place! Moses was one nominally, but Moses was influentially a host. It will take a good many gods such as Aaron can make to fill up the place of Moses. But Aaron did not feel the rebuke; the people perhaps did not intend it as a compliment or tribute to Moses. But you will find if you give up the Church, you will require a good many theatres to make up its place. You will discover that if you give up the poor preacher, the praying man, you will be driven to many expedients to find an equivalent in the place he really occupied. You did not think so at the time; you said you would find an equivalent next door over the way tomorrow, ay, it can easily be done. But when the terrific vacancies in life occur, then we begin to feel how much we have lost. We say, now that the old father is gone, how we miss him; we did not know he was so much to us until now; why, he did everything so quietly, easily, graciously, that we did not know that he was doing so much; we miss him morning, noon, and night; we miss him in the garden and on the street, at the table and in all the ways of life: the sunshine all gone: the helping story no longer told: the gracious advice no longer available. Ay, you will have to gather a great many people together before you find a total equal to the father whom you did not really appreciate when he was with you. It takes an innumerable host of acquaintances to equal one friend. It takes a whole furnaceful of gods to equal one Moses. Do not wait for the vacancy to occur to honour the man, the woman, the child, the teacher, the helper, the companion; but honour to whom honour is due now; and away with the cant, the hypocrisy, the falsehood, which says, "Had we but known what Moses was when he was with us, we should indeed have honoured and obeyed him." If you do not honour and obey your dear old mother now, I will not listen with complacency to the canting lie which attempts to shed tears over her tomb. Pay her court now, be civil to her now with a generous courtesy, wait upon her now with filial homage and obedience; and as for the epitaph, let any writer of phrases invent that. You keep her out of her grave, no matter who writes upon the stone which marks the sod under which she lies. Oh that we might have apt minds and good, clear, penetrating sense in these matters! and remember that many acquaintances are not equal to one friend, many gods not equal to one Moses, many casual helpers and assistants not equal to one father, and all the amusements in the world not equal to one holy service in God's blessed house. Could we seize these truths and make them the bread on which our heart lives and grows, we should be sad and weak no more.
Moses came down from the mount bringing great messages from God. What was in his heart as he carried the two tables of the testimony? Here is writing for Israel, here is God's gospel of law, written by God's own finger, graven upon the tables. What a day Israel will have! What reading of the testimony! What gluttonous eyes will devour the holy feast of truth! Oh, what spiritual voracity will consume this word of the Lord! Hark! what is that noise clanging, shouting? "The voice of them that shout for mastery?" No. "The noise of them that cry for being overcome?" No. What then? "the noise of them that sing do I hear." Then they are glad with a false gladness. Singing is religious? Often very irreligious. But the hymn is a religious one. True, but the singers are not religious singers; and religious songs on the lips of irreligious singers is an irony which might make the angels weep. To hear great Bible words sung by people who value the music rather than the truth is an anticlimax full of sad pathos to hearts that worship truly at the altar. I would these sinners did not double their sin by singing God's words. Why not invent empty phrases? Why not employ incoherent speeches? Why not sing the unrelated words of the dictionary just as they stand in thick columns, and let God's great words alone? Thus we are always paying homage to the very God we deny. There are no words like his. We borrow them to sin against them; we steal them to make money out of them. There is no book with so many oratorios in it as the Bible ay, and great anthems and swelling songs, could they but be sung aright, sung with the soul. It is robbery, it is sevenfold murder, to sing God's words without God's meaning, to laugh over them, and jest about them, and ask how they "went" in the vocal dance. God's words sung with God's meaning, then make the church a place of music in very deed; sing morning, noon, and night, for then singing will be preaching, and such preaching as will make the heart cry for the very agony of love. It is not enough that we sing: we must sing with the spirit and with the understanding, and have a right object, and a right subject, and a right soul; then the singing will be good. Moses drew near and with eyes purged by visions Divine, with a soul out of which had been taken every filament of evil, he saw the situation at once as with the burning eyes of purity, and he first inflicted judgment and then asked for explanation. Ay, that is right in great crises, in solemn eras of the soul. Moses did not first hold judgment; his
The Lord mourned that Israel "turned aside quickly out of the way." The word quickly seems to contain most of the meaning. It is always so. We go with eagerness in the wrong direction, and with leaden feet we climb the steep which leads us away to the upper places. There is but a step between us and death, not physical death only, but moral death, intellectual death, social death. The thing nearest life is death. Even physically the strongest man is always walking by the edge of his own grave. In a moment a man may speak a word which will bring down the tower which a lifetime was required to build. One action of the hand will shatter the character of the most venerable man. A character is not destroyed a blow at a time though even the slow process is not impossible, but the slowness is only on the social side; it is the one act done in one moment that shatters the character in the sight of God. Towards society we may go down by slow and almost imperceptible depreciation; but to the eye of God we rise or fall by one action. The departure is accomplished in a moment, and the return is but the act of one contrite prayer. A series of appalling thoughts is started by this circumstance. Life is a continual peril and can only be sustained by a continual prayer. "Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe." Never leave me; never forsake me. The higher my attainments the deeper will be my faith, if my watchfulness be not found wanting. Who can measure the time required for a stone to fall from the highest pinnacle into the lowest depth? If we would know the rapidity of the descent, we must watch the stone as it falls from its place of honour; it seems to be the work of a moment. Destruction cometh suddenly upon the sons of men. No destruction comes so suddenly as the destruction of the soul's attitude towards things Divine.
Let us look at the historical picture which has now been almost completed. Moses had been summoned to meet the Lord upon Mount Sinai. There he had tarried forty days and forty nights. On coming down the mountain, it was discovered that Aaron and the people had fashioned and worshipped a golden calf. On descending to the plain Moses broke the two tables of stone, and inflicted humiliation and punishment upon the idolaters. And strange to say yet not strange to those who know the wondrous ways of the human heart no sooner had Moses expended his righteous indignation than he began to pray for the very people on whom he had uttered his denunciation and his wrath. Here a very curious expression occurs:
"And Moses took the tabernacle, and pitched it without the camp, afar off from the camp, and called it the Tabernacle of the congregation" ( Exo 33:7 ).
But he had been in the mountain for the express purpose of receiving a specification for the building of the tabernacle; how conies it, then, that we read of the tabernacle before it was built? We have been expecting the erection of this glorious edifice, and, behold, in the very agony of our expectation, we read that "Moses took the tabernacle, and pitched it without the camp, afar off from the camp, and called it the Tabernacle of the congregation." This was a temporary tabernacle. Probably it was the tent which belonged exclusively to Moses himself, and in the urgency of his sacred passion, he anticipated the building of the edifice which had been sketched to him in the mount, and extemporised an altar. There is no mystery about this. We are forced by sadness and painful surprises into new postures of supplication and new eloquence of intercession. Moses was preeminently the man to do this very thing. Now and again, though known as the meekest of men, there flamed up out of him a hidden fire, that burned and showed him to be just the man to see the flaming bush where he learned his first lesson of leadership and saw what was truly his first revelation of the God of the living. A lesson lies here. Moses will not wait for the consecration of Aaron: he himself becomes priest before God on behalf of the people, and pours out his soul in passionate intercession. He was priest before the anointed one; he built a tabernacle of his own, before he had time to erect the specified structure. These are the actions of a burning life, the eccentricities and exaggerations of men who cannot proceed by cold rule and adapt themselves to intricate, pedantic, and slow-moving mechanism.
In this high temper he utters the boldest prayer ever uttered up to that time by human lips:
"I beseech thee, shew me thy glory" ( Exo 33:18 ).
"And it came to pass, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai" [the second time], "with the two tables of testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him" ( Exo 34:29 ).
What do we know about our best selves? Men have qualities of which they are not cognisant. We may be nearer heaven than we suppose. We may be nearer God than we fully realise. Sometimes there may be between us and him but a thin film, less than a vail in thickness. We know not where sometimes we stand.
Then Moses, returning, delivered the instructions to the people. He told them what God told him; and the people, having heard what Moses communicated to them, "did according to all that the Lord commanded." For the time being they were converted. Their conversion was not a momentary and final act. They went through a kind of process of conversion one conversion succeeding another, repentance following upon sin with quickness and certainty.
This is the historical position in which we now stand what are its sacred and eternal lessons? Do we not see how God's purposes are thwarted and deferred by human perversity? God's purpose was far advanced in the cloud, but the people at the foot of the mountain could not wait. At the very time when God had determined upon the election and consecration of Aaron to the priesthood Aaron was spending his time in moulding and chiselling the golden calf. Time is thus wasted. Just as the revelation was about to appear, the radiant cloud was turned aside by the wickedness of the idolatrous mob at the base of the hill. We do not know how often God has just been on the threshold, coming into the house, and has been affrighted by the overhearing of some idolatrous or blasphemous noise. We might have been crowned fifty years ago, but just as the coronation was about to take place, we were discovered in the manufacture of an idol. Your sins have kept good things from you.
It is most instructive to keep the two scenes vividly before the eye of the mind. The first scene is that of God with Moses in the cloud speaking about the consecration of Aaron, setting apart Aaron and his sons to the priestly office for ever. There the Lord detailed the mystic and symbolic garments by which the priest was to be clothed. That is the one scene. At the very moment when that scene is taking place in the cloud, Aaron is listening to the foolish clamour which insists upon having a god made, or is at that instant himself employing the graving tool upon the calf, that he may make an idol for Israel. What a solemn view this gives one of life! When we are thinking least of God, God is thinking most of us; or when God is thinking most of us, purposing for us great office and honour and service, we are farthest away in thought and love from the altar where he intended to meet us. Why is the vision delayed? Because of the idolatry of the people for whom it was intended. Why tarry the chariot wheels of the King? Because the people towards whom he was hastening in his golden chariot have prostituted their affections and turned their prayers to forbidden and helpless gods. Why should we blame Providence for slowness when the answer is in our own conduct? It may suit us in some of the lower moods of our mind and heart to think of God as very slow in his action and as keeping back revelation for inscrutable reasons. On one side of life that may be true, on another side of life it is not only untrue in fact, but it is unjust in principle. Who stopped the revelation? Aaron. Why were forty days and forty nights wasted? Because of the sin of the people. Christ might have been here yesterday, but for our making of the golden calf; fifty years ago he might have had the whole country as his own, but for perfidy, selfishness, and practical atheism. We might now see some great figure in the sun, and hear some voice supernatural, in music heavenly, but that we have filled our ears with riotous noise and deafened ourselves with the thunders of our own idolatry. Do not blame God for waste of history and waste of time, and repetition of events which we thought had been accomplished. Speaking reverently, God himself might have thought that the tabernacle was just about to be begun, and Aaron in a few minutes would be called to priestly office and honour, but (still accommodating human language to Divine mysteries) he was surprised and grieved by an action on Aaron's part, which suspended the Divine revelation and held back the honour that was prepared. What we might have been this day but for the calf-making, the idolatry, the disobedience, and the sins of various names! The Lord was just ready to make kings of us, when we made fools of ourselves. God was signing the decree that was to have given us solidity, influence, high position, and noble honour, and ere he laid down the pen of signature we smote him in the face by some new sin. Then we spoke about the mysteries of Providence, and wondered why God was so slow in his manifestations and revelations, it never occurring to the heart that had just sinned, that itself shut up the heavens and turned back a purpose which was just about to open in magnificent and beneficial fruition. When we wonder at the weeks being wasted, and the time being non-productive, and history being barren, instead of always making a providential mystery of it, let us ask ourselves the soul-dividing question, Are not we to blame for this loss of time?
Yet even sin may be made to contribute to the good man's highest education. Moses was enriched by this very circumstance. He never prayed in his life as he prayed for the children of Israel. When he saw what they had done, said he,
"Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin ";
There language fails; the sentence is not completed; it was completed in the living instance with a great choking sob which, having been overcome, made way for these continuing words,
"And if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written" ( Exo 32:32 ).
He could not survive an unpardoned nation; account for it as we may, he had come so to identify himself with the people that their pardon involved his, and his heaven was involved in theirs, and to be without them was an issue not to be borne by his noble and sensitive nature. What a hold his work had upon him! He was not priest, minister, or ambassador, who could stand aside from his people and let them be divided, sundered, smitten, and accursed, saying, "I am free; take you, who deserve it, the judgment of God." We already begin to feel the formation of that spiritual fellowship which cannot be dissolved. Here is a family within a family, a life within a life, a tenderness more sensitive than all the tenderness of perishable relationship. We now begin to see what is meant by the society of souls, the masonry of hearts, the oneness of the innermost nature of man. Moses could not bear to be left whilst Israel was lost. Who could be? Can the shepherd come home at night without his flock, and be merry in the house whilst the flock is being torn by the wolf? If he could be so happy, he would be no shepherd, but a selfish hireling. Can the general return, saying, "The army is broken, slain; it was no blame of mine, and I have come to enjoy the feast and the dance, and forget the bones that whiten on the field"? If he made a speech so base he would dispossess himself of every title to be called a soldier of the true blood. A minister standing before God to receive a solitary crown, saying, "The people are lost, but I did my duty; not a man has come with me; still, I claim the heaven due to virtue"! Could he make a speech so vile, no heaven could God shape for his residence and welcome. In all our higher moods we are one. We cannot be at rest whilst there is one vacant chair at the table which might be filled. Paul rose to the same magnanimity when he said he could wish himself accursed ratter than Israel should not be saved; he would be prepared to be lost if the people could be saved. We do not come into that sacred passion in any way conceived by the human mind, or invented by human selfishness. It is the inspiration of Christ yes, it is the very mystery and the glory of the Cross. Whilst the people, with Aaron at their head, were content with their idol, Moses said, "Show me thy glory." Some sights must be purged out of our vision, for they dim the whole outview and aspect of things. To have seen sin in the right way, and yet not to have suffered in feeling, but to have risen up into a tender and truer appreciation of holiness, is really to suggest an inspired prayer. "Show me thy glory." There is logic in this passion; there is rational sequence in all this tide of feeling, though it rolls billow upon billow, as if in a great confusion and tumult. When for a moment you have perused some debasing book, or even some feeble and inane composition, or have seen how the noble language of the fatherland can be debased into the utterance of things so jejune, so juiceless, and mean, how you have longed to take up some grand old author whose every word was a burning fire, every sentence the beginning of a revelation, every page the work of a master, that you might forget what you have passed through; and have it obliterated from the receptive memory! It is but a feeble picture of what Moses felt, and what we may feel, when we have seen the calf we are called to worship. We long to forget the miserable spectacle in some burst of glory worthy of a vision opened by the Almighty wisdom. So Moses was the better for this most ludicrous as well as mischievous and iniquitous event. He did not fall into the temptation. We need men of that mould and temper, who, coming down a hill of prayer and high communion, and seeing our folly, look upon it with the right eyes and burn it with their anger, and scorch it with their jealousy for God. Let us pray for such men. They are the angels of God amongst us. The Aarons of the race would fall into all snares and traps, and yield to all tumultuous clamour for new policies and new programmes. We need the stern, iron, burning man, the incorruptible patriot, the theologian whose soul is fastened upon central truths, the suppliant who never can lower the tone of his intercession, to keep us right, to call us back a man so terrible that he can smite us with judgment and, ere the thunder dies, turn his very anger into prayer.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 32". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25