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MOSES’ INDIGNATION AGAINST THE WORSHIPPERS OF THE GOLDEN CALF
Exodus 32:19-2.32.20. And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing. And Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount. And he took the calf which they had made, and burned it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.
IT is painful to reflect how transient is the effect of the most laborious ministry, and in how many instances hopeful appearances of piety come to nought. If ever man was faithful, it was Moses; of whom God himself says, “He was faithful in all his house.” And if ever there was reason to expect that the work of conversion had taken place upon many hundreds of thousands of people, it was when Israel were singing praises to their God on occasion of their deliverance at the Red Sea. It might well be supposed, that their gratitude to God on that occasion, deepened by the awe impressed upon their minds at the thunders of Mount Sinai, would never be forgotten. But, behold! Moses, summoned as he was by God into the holy mount, in order that he might receive from Jehovah a written copy of that Law which had been just proclaimed, had not been absent from the people forty days, before they all concurred in desiring Aaron to make for them a god whom they might worship, and who should go before them in their way to the promised land: and even Aaron himself became an active confederate in this horrible apostasy. As for Moses, they seem to have lost all respect for him, as well as all becoming reverence for Jehovah, whose minister he was. Of this, God apprised Moses; and at last sent him down in haste to the people, that he might see with his own eyes what impiety they were committing. Moses, therefore, hastened down from the mount: and, filled with indignation against them for their wickedness, he testified his displeasure in the way recorded in our text.
Let us consider,
The grounds of his indignation—
The worshipping of the golden calf was a sin of most extraordinary enormity—
[Such interpositions in their behalf had that people seen, as never had been witnessed by any other people under heaven. And they were still within sight of that burning mount where Jehovah himself, their great Deliverer, yet vouchsafed to them his visible presence. They had but just before, too, received an express command to make no symbol of the Deity [Note: Exodus 20:4.], nor to keep in existence any of the gods of the heathen, but to “destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire;” and not so much as to “desire the silver or gold that was on them, or to take it unto them, lest they should be snared therein; but they were utterly to detest and abhor it, as an accursed thing [Note: Deuteronomy 7:5; Deuteronomy 7:25-5.7.26.].” Yet, behold! within less than forty days, they desire Aaron to make them a golden image, similar, probably, to what they had seen in Egypt [Note: Ezekiel 20:8.] ; and they take the ear-rings from their sons and from their daughters for the purpose of forming it; and, having formed it, they offer sacrifices to it, and ascribe to it the honour of all their past deliverances, saying, “These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt [Note: ver, 1–8.].”
This was plain and unequivocal idolatry. Perhaps they might be ready to deny this charge, just as the Papists have since done; and to say, that they only looked to the calf as a symbol, to remind them of the Deity, to whom alone they had respect in all the worship that they paid. They might say, that they could not be supposed to ascribe their deliverance to that, which but a few days before was in their own ears, and had no collective existence till it was cast into a mould and made a calf. But God declares it to have been idolatry, as all the worship paid to images and crucifixes by the Church of Rome also is; as the Apostle, in reference to this very transaction, says; “Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them: as it is written, The people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play [Note: Compare with 1 Corinthians 10:7.].” Here, then, was ample occasion for the hot displeasure of Moses.]
And is there no similar evil prevalent amongst us?
[As Protestants, we have discarded the idolatrous practices of the Church of Rome. But we may “set up idols in our hearts [Note: Ezekiel 14:3.],” as well as in our houses: we may have the love of money there; and that is expressly designated by the opprobrious name of idolatry: “Covetousness,” says the Apostle, “is idolatry [Note: Colossians 3:5.].” We may be addicted to sensual appetites: and then we make, as we are told, “a god of our belly [Note: Philippians 3:19.].” “The loving and serving of the creature more than the Creator [Note: Romans 1:23.],” in whatever way we do it, is the very essence of idolatry; and “provokes the Lord to jealousy [Note: 1 Corinthians 10:22.],” as much without an external symbol, as with one. God says, “My son, give me thy heart:” and if that be withheld from him, he is justly filled with indignation against us.
Let me, then, bring home this matter more closely to your hearts and consciences. The Israelites professed to celebrate their redemption from Egypt: and having presented their sacrifices of burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, “they sat down to eat and to drink (of the portion of the peace-offerings which was allowed to them, and rose up to play.” And, when Moses came down from the mount, he heard, whilst yet at some distance, their carnal revelry: which they judged a becoming mode of honouring their great Deliverer. Now at this season [Note: Sermon for Christmas.] we profess to commemorate the Redemption, not of a single nation, but of the whole world: and not by power only, but by price, even the precious blood of God’s only dear Son: we commemorate, I say, the Incarnation of the Son of God, for the deliverance of our souls from sin and Satan, death and hell. And in what way do we commemorate it? Is not this season even proverbially devoted to carnal mirth? We present our offerings, if I may so say, on the day appointed; and throughout the whole season, with the exception of two or three hours, “we sit down to eat and to drink, and rise up to play.” Such is our religion, precisely like that of those impious idolaters. To the honour of the Levites, it must be acknowledged that they did form an exception to this national transgression. Would to God the like could be said of our Levites! or even of our Aarons! But, with us, Levites and Aarons too are found, for the most part, sanctioning, by their presence and example, these sad enormities; as if Christ had come for no better purpose than to give us a more ample occasion for carnal indulgence.
Judge ye, then, whether God may not well be filled with indignation against us, as he was against his less enlightened and less indebted people of that day?]
Having seen the grounds of Moses’ indignation, let us proceed to mark,
His expressions of it—
He broke before their eyes the tables of the Law, which God had committed to him—
[Was this done in a paroxysm of rage? No: [Note: The manner in which Moses, forty years afterwards, relates it, sufficiently proves this. See Deuteronomy 9:16-5.9.17.] it was a significant action, declaring, in effect, to the whole people, that they had made void all their solemn engagements with the Deity [Note: Deuteronomy 5:27.] ; and that therefore the covenant he had made with them, of which. “these tables were a testimony [Note: 5.],” was utterly annulled.
And are not all the provisions of the Gospel, too, made void by wilful and deliberate sin? They are: and all hope in the Gospel, whilst our hearts are alienated from God, and fixed on earthly vanities, is nothing but delusion. Our Lord has faithfully warned us, that it is in vain for us to “cry, Lord! Lord! if we do not the things which he says:” and that however we may debate the matter with him in the last day, saying, “Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name cast out devils, and in thy name done many wonderful works? he will reply, I never knew you: depart from me, ye who work iniquity [Note: Matthew 7:21-40.7.23.].” Whoever then ye be, who, instead of delighting yourselves in God, are addicted to carnal mirth, I break the tables of the covenant before your faces this day; and declare, that “whoso doeth not righteousness, is not of God;” but that, on the contrary, “whosoever committeth sin, is of the devil [Note: l John 3:6; John 3:8-43.3.9.].” It is needful that we declare this faithfully: for, whilst dancing about your golden calf, you conclude that all is well, and little think in what light your conduct is viewed by a holy and jealous God. And to learn it, first, when your Lord shall descend from His holy mount to judge the world, will be too late: for, as the Levites passed through the camp, and avenged the cause of God on the offenders without favouring even their nearest relatives, so will the angels at that day inexorably and irresistibly execute on all the violators of God’s covenant the judgments denounced against them [Note: Compare Isa 37:36 with Matthew 13:41-40.13.42.]. Let all, then, bear in mind, that “God is a jealous God;” and that” he will neither give, nor suffer us to give, his glory to another.”]
He ground the calf to powder, and constrained the people to swallow it with their drink—
[We need not look for any recondite mystery in this, because the obvious effect of the act itself was sufficiently instructive. No greater indignity could be offered to this worthless idol, than that which he devised; nor any more humiliating punishment be inflicted upon the people, than to compel them to swallow their god, and to “cast him out into the draught” with their common food.
And shall not we, also, be made ashamed of the gods that we have chosen? Yes: if we will choose “vanity, we must have vanity for our recompence.” Do I say, We must? Let me rather change the word, and say, “We hare: for I may ask of all the votaries of earthly gain or pleasure, “What fruit have ye ever had of those things, whereof ye are now ashamed? What have ye done, but “filled your belly with the east wind?” I must warn you, then, that ye shall all “eat of the fruit of your own ways,” and “be filled with your own devices.” The day is quickly coming, when you shall be as much ashamed of those things which you now regard with idolatrous affection, as ever the Israelites were of their golden calf: yea, and when you yourselves also “shall wake to shame and everlasting contempt [Note: Daniel 12:2.].”]
From this subject we may fitly learn,
The danger of sanctioning the evils around us—
[Aaron should have rejected with abhorrence the measure proposed to him: but he acquiesced, and even made himself a ringleader in this vile apostasy. With such a sanction as his, it is not to be wondered at if the people went forward with unsuspecting alacrity, and sacrificed with readiness their most valuable ornaments for the furtherance of their plans. But who does not see how aggravated his guilt was, in comparison of theirs? He, from his nearer intercourse with God, had far greater information than they; and, from the high office which he sustained, he was bound to use his influence for the suppression of evil, and the enforcing of God’s commands. The same I must say of all who are possessed of influence amongst ourselves. Whether it be magisterial or ministerial influence that we possess, or only that which is connected with our respective situations in life, we are bound to exert it for God; and, if we neglect to do so, the blood of those who perish through our neglect may well be required at our hands.
I know that we have excuses without number to offer in our behalf; just as Aaron had when reproved for his conduct on this occasion. But, behold, what a pitiful figure he made, when attempting to justify himself before his reprover! “Let not the anger of my Lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief.” (This was a reason why he should have withstood them, and not a reason for concurring with them.) Again, “The people said to me, Make us gods who shall go before us. Then I said to them, Whosoever hath any gold, let him break it off. So they gave it me: and I cast it into the fire; and there came out this calf [Note: 1–24.]:”—came out accidentally, I suppose, and without any mould prepared for the formation of it! What a tissue of folly and of falsehood! See to what a state this man was reduced, even he who was so eloquent, that he was appointed to “be a mouth to Moses.” But thus it will be with sinners in the last day, with Aarons as well as others; (for official dignity is of no account in the sight of God;) or rather, their mouths will be shut through their utter incapacity to offer the smallest vindication of their folly [Note: Matthew 22:12.]. Remember this, Brethren; and “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them [Note: Ephesians 5:11.].”]
In what way we should be affected with them—
[See what a contrast there was between the conduct of Moses and of Aaron on this occasion! Whilst Aaron was uniting with the people in their transgression, Moses was filled with indignation against the sin, and with pity for the sinners. His indignation we have seen: and no sooner had he expressed it in the way that became him, than he returned to God, to implore mercy in their behalf. Forty days and forty nights had he already fasted: and he went up to the mount and fasted forty more days and forty nights, wrestling with God in fervent intercession, if that by any means he might prevail to obtain pardon for their sin [Note: Deuteronomy 9:18-5.9.19.]. Here was a man of God indeed! This, then, is the way in which we should act in reference to the sins around us. We should weep over them before God: yea, “rivers of tears should run down our eyes, because men keep not God’s law.” Such men as he are blessings to the world: for, as “God hearkened unto him at that time also [Note: Deuteronomy 9:18-5.9.19.],” so will he do to us, if we “stand in the gap before him, to avert his wrath” from an ungodly world [Note: Psalms 106:23.]. Little did that people think to whom the preservation of their lives was owing: and little do an ungrateful world know to whom they are indebted for the forbearance that is yet daily exercised towards them [Note: Matthew 24:22.]. But let it be sufficient for us, that God knows and approves our labours of love; and that, whether we prevail for others or not, our prayers shall surely return into our own bosom, to the everlasting benefit of our own souls.] with Ezekiel 22:30.
THE LORD’S PEOPLE TO BE DECIDED AND FIRM
Exodus 32:26. Who is on the Lord’s side? let him come unto me.
THESE are the words of Moses: and they were spoken on a very particular occasion. Whilst he had tarried on the top of Mount Sinai for the space of forty days, Aaron and the people of Israel, despairing of his return, had made a golden calf to represent Jehovah, and had worshipped that as their God. Moses, on his return, found them in the very act of performing their idolatrous rites; and, filled with indignation against them, he broke the two tables of the Law which he had received from Jehovah, in token that the covenant which God had made with them was altogether dissolved: and he reduced the golden calf to powder, and strewed it upon the water, and made the people to drink of it; that so they might have within themselves a testimony of their folly, and be assured that a cup of merited affliction should one day be put into their hands. And it is remarkable, that the Jews in general conceive that, in all their afflictions, there are, as it were, some grains of this golden calf even to this very day. For Aaron, Moses interceded, and obtained forgiveness [Note: Deuteronomy 9:20.]. And on behalf of the people, too, he so far prevailed, that only the ringleaders in this rebellion should be punished in the first instance; though, at a future period, this sin should surely be visited upon them all. To punish those who were most bold and daring in this impiety, and were walking abroad as not ashamed of it, Moses called to him those who were zealous for God’s honour, and ordered them to go through the camp and indiscriminately slay all they met with, without regarding even their nearest and dearest relatives. This was doubtless a most painful service to all who were engaged in it: but they executed it with fidelity, and brought thereby a blessing on their own souls.
Now, let it not for a moment be imagined that God’s faithful servants are called to any such office now. Christianity provides no such bloody employment for its votaries: it consigns the sword altogether to the civil magistrate, who alone is empowered to use it for the punishment of evil-doers. Still, however, there will arise many profitable lessons from this passage: to elicit which, I shall make some observations upon,
The inquiry instituted—
Amongst the people of Israel there were, especially of the tribe of Levi, some who had not joined in the idolatrous rites, but had remained faithful to their God: and Moses, standing in the gate of the camp, called them to his assistance, saying, “Who is on the Lord’s side?” Now from hence we observe,
That there are two classes, and two classes only, into which the whole world must be divided—
[There are some who are “on the Lord’s side;” and there are others who are on the side of sin, and the world, and Satan. That in these two great parties there may be many subdivisions, I grant: but there is no third party. Amongst the godly there may be persons of different sentiments and different habits: and among the ungodly there may also be many different degrees of impiety, and different states of mind: but, still, the great leading features of both parties sufficiently and infallibly attest to which they belong. The distinguishing marks of each I shall trace presently: at present I have only to shew, that two parties do actually exist, and must of necessity exist, as long as there continues an ungodly man on earth. They may be very unequal in their numbers, as was the case in the history before us: an immense multitude, with Aaron at their head, were on the side of idolatry; and a little remnant, with Moses at their head, were “on the Lord’s side.” It is probable, that, at that time, the friends of idolatry poured contempt on the godly as a party, just as the ungodly world do at this day on the advocates of true religion; forgetting that they themselves also are a party, no less than their opponents. But whose fault is it if the godly are a party? Are they to blame for adhering to their duty, and siding with their Lord? No, surely: the blame must attach altogether to those who turn from their God, and are disobedient to his will. And if the godly be but “a little flock” in comparison of their opponents, it may be their misfortune, but it is not their fault, any more than it was the fault of Noah, or of Lot, or of Elijah, that they were so circumstanced in the ages and places wherein they lived. Let it not be thought that I am justifying what is usually called a party spirit; for I cannot but reprobate that as a very great evil: hut I do, and must maintain, that to serve our God with fidelity is our bounden duty, even though the whole world, with Aaron at their head, should depart from him: and, if they choose to designate us as a party, I would have no man ashamed of belonging to a party, of which our Lord and Saviour is himself the Head.]
That it is of great importance to ascertain to which class we belong—
[Both are alike in this respect, that they are rational and nmortal beings: but in many respects they differ widely from each other: the one are “partakers of a divine nature” through the influence of the Spirit of God upon their souls; the others are altogether carnal, possessing nothing but what they brought into the world with them. The one live altogether for God; the others, for themselves. The one are in favour with God; the others are under his just and heavy displeasure. The one will, ere long, stand at the right hand of their Judge; the others will be turned to his left hand, differing as widely from the former as goats from the sheep. The one will be exalted to heaven, and be seated for ever on the throne of God; the others will be cast down to hell, and take their portion in the lake of fire and brimstone for ever and ever. Can these differences be contemplated for a moment, and any doubt remain whether we ought to examine to which class we belong? Methinks the matter should not be left in suspense one single moment; more especially since the means of ascertaining the point are close at hand, and easy to be used. The blessed word of God, if studied with prayer, will enable us to form a very correct judgment. True it is, that we cannot determine the question in relation to each other, because we know not what passes in the hearts of men, and can therefore judge of each other by the outward conduct alone: but we have an internal monitor, that will faithfully discharge its office, if we will listen to it, and will declare to us all that it has seen in the inmost recesses of our hearts: and, if we will but lay, to our own souls, “judgment for a line, and righteousness for a plummet,” we shall soon discover “whose we are,” and with whom we must expect our everlasting abode.]
To this I will add some observations on,
The direction given—
Moses, in calling to him the faithful servants of the Lord, shewed, that the Lord’s people should on all occasions manifest,
A readiness to confess him—
[Neither the authority of Aaron, nor the rage of all Israel, was to deter any one from shewing himself on the Lord’s side. So neither should any of us be afraid to confess Christ openly in the face of an ungodly world. We err exceedingly if we fancy that there is any third party to which we may adhere with safety to our souls. There are but two governors, to one or other of which we must adhere; “the god of this world,” and the God of heaven. The servants of Satan are bold in serving him; and the servants of the Lord Jesus must be bold in confessing him: and if, from any motive whatever, we deny him, he will be ashamed of us, and deny us, in the presence of his Father and of the holy angels. I mean not to say, that Christians are to distinguish themselves by foolish singularity in matters of indifference: but in matters of plain duty they are to differ from the ungodly as widely as light from darkness: “they are to come out from among them, and be separate, and not to touch the unclean thing,” if they would have “God for their Father,” and approve themselves to him as “his sons and daughters”— — —]
A determination of mind to sacrifice every thing for him—
[Moses, in his farewell discourse, at the distance of forty years, particularly commends this conduct of Levi, in that “he said unto his father and his mother, I have not seen him, neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor know his own children: but he had observed God’s word, and kept his covenant [Note: Deuteronomy 33:9.].” And this shews, that, though we are not called to follow his act, we are to imbibe and manifest his spirit, so far at least as to sacrifice every thing to, and for, our God. Our blessed Lord distinctly and frequently inculcates this important lesson: “We are to forsake all for him—father, mother, brother, sister, houses, lands, yea, our very life also, if we would be his disciples:” yea, we are to “hate them all for him,” that is, in comparison of him [Note: Luke 14:26.]. Doubtless, in the execution of this duty, we may appear unkind, undutiful, and cruel; but we must be firm, and suffer nothing to divert us from the path of duty: however painful it may be to discharge it, we must proceed, and, in dependence on divine strength, endure firmly unto the end. No doubt, if we are called to advance in opposition to the will of those who have the rule over us, we should be much on our guard, that we give them no unnecessary offence. We are to take great care that we contend for nothing but what is of vital importance, and that in our necessary conflicts we manifest nothing of an unhallowed spirit. But proceed we must in obedience to our God; and if called to an account for it by any human authority whatever, our answer must be, “Whether it be right to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye; for we cannot but do what is commanded us by our God.”]
As a further improvement of this subject, we will proceed,
To prosecute the inquiry—
[“Who amongst you is on the Lord’s side?” I have before said, that this is easy to be ascertained: and now let us address ourselves to the inquiry. By nature, we are all “enemies to God,” and “children of wrath.” It is by grace alone that our state can be changed, so that we can with justice be numbered as the servants of the Lord. Who then, amongst you, has been made sensible of his guilty and undone state? Who, amongst you, has fled to the Lord Jesus Christ for refuge from the wrath of God? and who is yet daily imploring mercy at the hands of God in his name? Who has given up himself unreservedly to God, as his reconciled God in Christ Jesus? and who is living altogether to the glory of his holy name? These are questions to be asked, and answered, in order to ascertain the point in hand. You must remember, that your having been baptized into the name of Christ will by-no means determine the point: for all the Israelites had been circumcised, and had been “baptized also unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea:” and as their profession was insufficient to prove them the Lord’s, so also is ours. Nor will any transient impressions of joy and gratitude prove the point: for such emotions had been lately experienced by all Israel at the Red Sea, though now, alas! they were altogether forgotten. It is the daily life and conversation that alone can determine this all-important point. “Examine yourselves then, my Brethren, and prove your own selves.” Try whether you are ready to obey the call of God, and to abandon all for Christ. See whether you resemble your Lord and Saviour in the whole of his spirit and deportment. See whether, whilst you profess to be on the Lord’s side, you are really “walking as he walked,” and giving up yourselves entirely to him. Decide not the question on any doubtful or insufficient grounds, lest you deceive your own souls, and perish amidst the enemies of God. One thought only I will leave upon your minds; and it is this: ‘If you be not on the Lord’s side, can you reasonably hope that ever he should be on yours? And if you have not him for your friend and portion in the day of judgment, how awful will be your condition!’ But an hour before, the whole camp of Israel was filled with the noise of joy and shouting: and in another hour, thousands were smitten down by the swords of their own brethren. So in a few more hours may the most thoughtless amongst you be consigned over to the jaws of death, by the hands of an angry and avenging God. Oh! may God awaken you to your condition ere it be too late! and may you be found of that party, of which God himself is the acknowledged and eternal Head!]
To enforce the direction—
[“Come unto me,” says Moses: and I also would say, “Go unto him.” If you belong truly to the Lord, you must go and learn from Moses what the will of the Lord is. The tables of the Law must be to you a rule of life and duty. “The whole Law is comprehended in these two commandments, To love God with all your heart, and mind, and soul, and strength, and To love your neighbour as yourselves.” This is “the law of charity, which if you fulfil, you will do well.” This is the law of Christ, which every follower of Christ is bound to obey. Go then, daily, and sit at the feet of Moses. For your principles and motives you must go to Christ alone: but for your directory in the path of duty, you must go to the law of Moses, which is a perfect transcript of God’s mind and will. Never can I enforce this too strongly, and especially after what I have said of sacrificing all for Christ. The command to honour your father and your mother is “the first commandment with promise:” and this shews how high it stands in the estimation of your God. Let it not be less high in your estimation also: and remember, that, except in those things which are directly contrary to God’s revealed will, the commands of earthly superiors should be regarded by you as the commands of God. A sword is indeed put into your hands; but it is for the purpose of slaying, not men, but sin, and Satan, with whom you are to contend, till they are “bruised under your feet.” Gird yourselves, therefore, for the occasion; and go through the whole camp of your spiritual enemies, and spare neither small nor great. So shall the blessing of God come upon you, both in time and in eternity.]
MOSES INTERCEDES FOR ISRAEL
Exodus 32:31-2.32.33. And Moses returned unto the Lord, and said, Oh! this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold! Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written. And the Lord said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.
WELL may it be said, “Lord, what is man?” Truly “his goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew that passeth away.” If we did not see it verified in fact, one would scarcely conceive it possible that man should be so frail and mutable as both history and experience attest him to be. The Israelites were now at the very mount where they had beheld Jehovah shining forth in all his terrific majesty, and had heard him proclaiming in most tremendous sounds his holy law. They beheld also upon the mount that very same cloud, the symbol of the divine presence, which had led them in their way from the land of Egypt to that place: yet, because Moses, when summoned by God to come up to the mount, abode there longer than they expected, they cast off him, and God also; and desired visible gods to be made for them, that they might in future commit themselves to their guidance and protection. It is this, which Moses so pathetically laments in the words before us.
The whole history is very instructive. That we may have a concise, but comprehensive, view of it, let us notice,
The sin of Israel—
This was a dreadful compound of ingratitude, folly, and impiety—
[The people had already forgotten the numberless mercies which they had received from God, through the ministration of his servant Moses: they thought that they themselves could form an image which should supply the place of all other benefactors, human and divine: and in direct opposition to the most express commands [Note: Exodus 20:4; Exodus 20:23.], to which they had so recently promised the most faithful adherence, they made a golden calf, and appointed it as the representative of the Deity, and offered sacrifices to it as their deliverer and their guide: yea, so bent were they upon having a visible god to go before them, that they at the very first proposal gave up their ornaments, in order that of them an image might be formed, which they might worship after the manner of Egypt. But most of all are we surprised, that Aaron, the divinely appointed colleague of Moses, should, at the first mention of such a device, assent to it, and be the very person to form the image, and to proclaim a feast unto Jehovah in honour of it: and that, when reproved for his wickedness, he should attempt to justify it by such frivolous and even false excuses [Note: 4.]. Well might Moses lament before God, “Oh! this people have sinned a great sin!”]
But the greatness of the sin will be more easily imagined from the indignation which both God and Moses expressed against it—
[The wrath of God, we are told, was “fierce, and waxed hot” against the offending people; and he threatened instantly to destroy them. The anger of Moses also “waxed hot” as soon as ever he beheld their impiety: and the indignation he manifested clearly shewed his opinion at least of their conduct.
First, having in his hands the tables of stone, whereon God had with his own finger written the precepts of his law, he dashed them in pieces before their eyes. This was no rash expression of intemperate wrath, but a holy and significant emblem, representing to them the crime they had committed. God had condescended to enter into covenant with them to be their God; and they had covenanted to be his people: and these tables of stone contained, as it were, the terms of the agreement; and were a pledge, that God would fulfil to them all that he had spoken. But this covenant they had entirely annulled; and all their expectations from God were utterly destroyed.
Next, he reduced the idol to dust, and cast it on the water, that all the people might be compelled to drink of it. This was well calculated to shew them how much they had debased themselves, in submitting to worship that as a god, which they must swallow with their food, and cast off together with it.
But lastly, he made them feel, as well as see, the marks of his displeasure. He called the Levites, who notwithstanding the defection of Aaron had remained faithful to their God, and commanded them to go through the camp, and without favour or pity to slay all the ringleaders with the sword. Thus were three thousand of them punished on the spot: there needed no formality of trial: they were caught in the fact; and the judgment of zeal was deservedly executed upon them.]
That no part of Moses’ anger was of a sinful kind, or expressed with undue severity, is evident from his tender compassion for the offenders, whilst he hated and abhorred their offence. To elucidate this, we notice,
The intercession of Moses—
No sooner did he see how God was displeased with them, than, notwithstanding the prohibition given him, he began to intercede for them—
[The prohibition, “Let me alone,” operated on his mind rather as an encouragement to intercede; because it seemed to say, If you intercede for them, my hands are tied; and I cannot execute upon them my threatened vengeance. He fell down instantly before God, and urged in their behalf every plea which was suited to the occasion.
He reminded God of his relation to them. Though God had appeared to disclaim them in that he had called them Moses’ people, Moses pleaded, that God himself had brought them out of Egypt, and had signally marked them as his peculiar people. He reminded God also of his promise to their fathers, which, if they were utterly destroyed, would be violated. As for having another nation raised up from his loins, he did not desire that honour: all he wanted was, to avert from this offending people the judgments they had merited. He further expressed his concern to God respecting his honour among the heathen. Lord, what will the Egyptians say? What opinion will they form of thee? Will they not represent thee either as weak, and incapable of carrying this people to the promised land; or as cruel, and bringing them out hither on purpose to slay them? Lord, if thou regardest not them, have regard for thine own honour, and spare the people for thy great name’s sake.]
After reproving their iniquity, he returned again unto the Lord, to renew, more fervently than ever, his intercession for them—
[He confesses humbly the greatness of their sin; well knowing, that for the obtaining of mercy, nothing is so efficacious as humiliation before God. He then implores pardon for them, if pardon can be extended to so rebellious a people. But, if some atonement must be made, and if some signal mark of his displeasure must be given, then he entreats that the judgment may fall on him, and not on them. He desires to be excluded from Canaan, and, as far as relates to this life, to be blotted out of the list of God’s peculiar people, in their stead: that so the enormity of their sin, and God’s abhorrence of it, might be made manifest, and yet the transgressors themselves be living monuments of God’s mercy [Note: It were absurd to think that he proposed to subject himself to eternal misery for them: for this would be more than even Christ himself has done for us.].
What a bright pattern is here of zeal for God, and compassion for men! And how desirable is such an union of them, as will keep us from palliating sin on the one hand, or hating and despising the sinner on the other.]
How far this intercession prevailed will be found in,
The reply of God—
God condescended to remit the punishment of their iniquity—
[At the very first intercession of Moses, God repented of the evil which he had thought to do unto his people [Note: 4.] ; and, in answer to the last, he renewed his commission to Moses to lead them to the promised land: and, though he withdrew himself from them in a measure, he commanded a created angel to guide them in the way [Note: Compare 4 with ch. 33:2, 3.]. He declared indeed, that, if by a continuance of their rebellions they compelled him to punish them, he would then visit for this sin together with the rest; but, if they were truly penitent, and observant of his will in future, he would remember it against them no more.
What an amazing view does this give us of the condescension of God, and the efficacy of fervent prayer! The prayer of one single person availed for the procuring of pardon for two millions of people, and for Aaron at their head, notwithstanding the peculiar enormity of his sin [Note: Deuteronomy 9:20. Read that whole chapter.]: yea, it prevailed at a time when God was so incensed against them as to forbid any intercession in their behalf, and to declare that he would “blot out their name from under heaven.” Surely the remembrance of this single instance is sufficient to encourage all the world to implore mercy for themselves, and to make continual intercession also for others.]
He declared, however, that at his future tribunal justice should be strictly administered to all—
[Rewards and punishments are often national in this world, and consequently partial: sometimes the innocent are involved in the punishment of the guilty; and sometimes the guilty escape without any punishment at all. But at God’s tribunal in the last day no such inequalities will be found: there every one will answer for his own personal transgressions, and stand or fall according to his own personal conduct: “The wicked will go into everlasting punishment; but the righteous into life eternal.” Multitudes in that day will be found, who, in name and profession, were the Lord’s people: but, inasmuch as they “had only a name to live, and were really dead,” God will blot them out of his book, and disclaim all relation to them or regard for them. Solemn indeed, and most worthy to be impressed upon our minds, is this declaration of God: it relates, not to that people only, but to all that dwell upon the face of the whole earth. Intercession may prevail in this world for the averting of temporal judgments even from the impenitent: but, in reference to the eternal world, nothing will prevail but personal repentance, and humble affiance in the Lord Jesus Christ.]
From this subject we may learn,
What an evil and bitter thing sin is—
[The Israelites might have excused themselves by saying, as the Papists do respecting their images, that they did not intend to make a god of the golden call, but only to use it as the means of bringing the true God more forcibly to their minds. But what would such sophistry have availed them? Would either God or Moses have altered their estimate of the crime, because they chose to veil it under specious names [Note: It is expressly called idolatry, 1 Corinthians 10:7.] ? And to what purpose is it for us to extenuate our crimes? We have soft imposing names whereby to conceal the evil of covetousness and sensuality; but does not God declare both the one and the other to be idolatry [Note: Ephesians 5:5; Philippians 3:19.] ? Does he not speak of men having “idols in their heart [Note: Ezekiel 14:3-26.14.4; Ezekiel 14:7.] ?” and is not this the essence of all idolatry, to “love and serve the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for evermore?” We may attempt also to extenuate our guilt, as Aaron did, from our acting under the influence of others, and not designing to do exactly all that we did: but this could not deceive Moses; much less can it deceive God. Moreover, both the people and Aaron might even think that they were honouring Jehovah; for they kept the feast professedly unto him: and when they had eaten and drunk of their sacrifices, they might think it well became them to indulge in mirth. We too may keep our feasts, and fasts, and Sabbaths, professedly to the Lord; and may conclude we have ground for cheerful security: but God may, all the while, be as wroth with us, as he was with them, and may have determined to blot out our unworthy names from the book of life. O that we would duly reflect on these things! O that we would consider that sin, however extenuated by us, is hateful to God; that he sees it wherever it is transacted, and under whatever veil it may be concealed; and that, finally, the time is quickly coming, when he will execute judgment upon all according to their works! Then will sin appear in its real colours; not in the temporal destruction of a single nation, but in the everlasting destruction of all, who have died in impenitence and unbelief.]
How much we are indebted to the Lord Jesus Christ—
[The intercession of Moses for the Jewish nation was typical of the yet more effectual intercession of our great Advocate, the Lord Jesus Christ. We may in a measure picture to ourselves the benevolent exercise of Moses, whilst the thoughtless Israelites were revelling in security. In that then let us view what has been taking place in heaven on our behalf. We have been sinning against God, a stiff-necked and rebellious generation: and many times has the decree gone forth, “Cut them down; why cumber they the ground?” But the Lord Jesus, presenting that most efficacious of all pleas, his own atoning blood, has said, “Spare them, O my Father! spare them yet another year.” Yes; had it not been for his intercession, we should not have been now in this place, but in that place of torment from whence there is no return. O that we might learn to estimate our obligations to him! O that we might go to him ourselves, and entreat him to obtain for us converting grace, and everlasting glory! Were but our eyes duly turned to him, our expectations could not be too large, or our confidence too strong.
But we must remember that nothing can supersede our own repentance: not even the blood and intercession of Christ will avail for those who die impenitent. The declaration of God shall never be reversed, “Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I (if he die impenitent) blot out of my book.” There are two fatal errors which pervade the great mass of nominal Christians: the one is, that they shall be saved by their repentance, though they trust not in Christ; and the other is, that they shall be saved by Christ, though they do not personally repent. But neither of these things can ever take place. The impenitent may be spared for a time; but they shall perish for ever: but the penitent, who believe in Christ, “shall never come into condemnation, but shall have everlasting life.”]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Exodus 32". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany