It was the greatest day in the history of Israel. On Mount Sinai, God Almighty was making his covenant with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, fulfilling all the promises he had made to their ancestors. God had kept them safe from the plague of the death of the firstborn through the sacrifices of the Passover Lambs. God had rescued them from the pursuing Egyptian armies and chariots and horsemen by the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. The Israelites had crossed on dry land and then the waters had returned to overwhelm all the armies of Egypt. The Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land. God made the wonderful promises we thought about last week. God said,
Exodus 19 4 “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
God’s treasured possession – a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. If the people will obey God fully and keep the covenant.
8 The people all responded together, ‘We will do everything the LORD has said.’
It was the greatest day in their history when the nation of Israel came into existence as God’s chosen people. But very soon thousands of Israelites would be dead under God’s judgment. Even worse, the tablets of stone on which God himself had written the Law of Moses would be smashed and lost forever.
And all because of a calf made of gold.
We aren’t really aware of idols so much in this country although in the Far East and the developing world they are still very much a part of culture and everyday life for very many people. But whatever people love more than they love God becomes an idol for them and whatever people put their trust in to guide and lead and sustain them becomes a false god for them. So this story of the golden calf is a powerful warning as we look at the sins the Israelites fell into and are brought face to face with the reality of God’s judgment.
The Israelites’ Sins
First we are struck by their IMPATIENCE
Exodus 32:1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered round Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’
They had just witnessed first hand God’s amazing and miraculous acts of salvation. But the Israelites weren’t prepared to wait just a few more hours for God to act again, to speak and reveal himself.
They FAILED TO TRUST GOD FOR THE FUTURE. They demanded that Aaron make for them their own gods who would lead them and protect them and give them victory. In our world there are so many false gods competing for our allegiance. Money and possessions. Science and medicine and technology and computers. Entertainment and celebrity. Quite apart from all the deceptions of the occult and the New Age. So many false gods inviting us to rely on them and put our trust in them, offering us happiness or success or protection Promising so much which they cannot deliver, even in this life and certainly not for eternity. The people demanded, and so Aaron made them an idol.
2 Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’ 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’
It is the doom of men that they forget what God has done for them and create for themselves false gods. Of course Aaron and the people were already breaking the second of the great Ten Commandments, just days after God had revealed them to Moses.
Exodus 20 4 ‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
The problem with idols is that people give glory to them instead of to God who is the only true Saviour, and put their trust in them instead of in God who is creator and sustainer of all things.
Then they said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’
They were DENYING GOD HIS GLORY. God is understandably angry when human beings give credit and praise to false gods. When people fail to recognize God at work, or worse try to take the credit themselves for what God has done. Perhaps the greatest false god has always actually been “me, myself and I.”
So the Israelites fell into the sin of worshipping this idol they had created.
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.’ 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterwards they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.
God told Moses what was happening. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
Here the Israelites broke the First Commandment.
Exodus 20:1 …. 2 ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 3 ‘You shall have no other gods before me.
Today even in this country so many people do worship at the altars of the false gods of money and science and entertainment celebrity. Certainly there is no shortage of irreverent indulgence and revelry today. In fact the Israelites were falling into all kinds of other sins as well, as we read further on
25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughing-stock to their enemies.
When people’s lives aren’t centred on God they can so easily go out of control. False gods always lead people into other sins. Materialism leads to greed. Science and technology leads to pride. No wonder God was on the point of destroying the nation he had only just saved and created.
9 ‘I have seen these people,’ the LORD said to Moses, ‘and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.’
And God could easily have acted in judgment on Israel that day. Their greatest day could have been their last. If it had not been for Moses courageously interceding for the people. God was offering to make Moses himself into a great nation. But Moses says, “No thanks”.
As we see the tide of sin all around us threatening to sweep the world away, we can learn from the example of
Moses makes three appeals to God. The first refers to GOD’S MIGHTY ACTS OF SALVATION
11 But Moses sought the favour of the LORD his God. ‘LORD,’ he said, ‘why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?
God had demonstrated both his love and his power when he rescued the Israelites from slavery and from the Egyptian armies. Moses reminds God that Israel are now his chosen people.
Then Moses’ second appeal is on the basis of GOD’S GLORY. What will the other nations say if God destroys the Israelites?
12 Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.
God should spare Israel for the sake of his great name and his reputation across the earth. God’s character is faithfulness and loving kindness and mercy as well as righteousness and justice. And then Moses reminds God of the covenant promises he had made to the ancestors of the Israelites, the promises he had just renewed to his chosen people.
13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance for ever.” ’
So God listened to Moses’ intercessions. As we pray for our troubled world, we can remind God of his mighty acts of salvation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We can appeal to God’s character and we can claim the wonderful promises God has made.
14 Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
But the Israelites would still face consequences for making and worshipping the golden calf.
15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.
Moses himself saw the depths of sin the people had fallen into so quickly.
19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain.
The stone tablets of the covenant were smashed and lost forever! And now we need to take a moment to reflect on what this story tells us about
GOD’S JUDGMENT ON SIN
The God of the Bible is the God of righteousness and justice. We see in verses 9 and 10 how angry God became at the sins of idol worship. So angry that he was on the point of wiping out the whole of the nation even though they were his chosen people. We must make sure that we never allow false gods to tempt us away from worshipping God and trusting in God. Then there is powerful symbolism in what Moses did next.
20 And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.
The people were made to actually drink the dust from the golden calf, to remind them of their guilt.
We haven’t time to talk about the fact that it was Moses’s brother Aaron who had made the golden calf. That must have broken Moses’ heart. But we can’t overlook the other punishments which God brought on to the idolatrous Israelites.
Some faced death by the sword
25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughing-stock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, ‘Whoever is for the LORD, come to me.’ And all the Levites rallied to him.
27 Then he said to them, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: “Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbour.” ’ 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died.
This may seem excessively brutal. But the story reminds us of the seriousness of sin. Moses goes back to intercede for the people again, and even offers to take their punishment on himself. But God has decided that the individuals who had committed idolatry should face a plague. More than that, their names would be removed from the Book of Life.
33 The LORD replied to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.’
35 And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.
I don’t believe that there are any plagues in the world today which are acts of God’s judgment on humanity. But I do believe that when the day of God’s judgment does come, it will be more terrible for those who have rejected God than any battle or any plague could possibly be.
So this story shows us the sins of the Israelites and God’s punishments for those sins. A catalogue of bad examples to avoid. We need to put our trust in God alone. We need to stand against the temptations of today’s false gods of Money and Science and Technology and Entertainment and Celebrity. Without the intercession of Moses, the whole nation would have been obliterated just days after it had come into existence. Moses gives us a good example to follow and there was just one other good example in this chapter.
26 So (Moses) stood at the entrance to the camp and said, ‘Whoever is for the LORD, come to me.’ And all the Levites rallied to him.
The Levites showed that they were willing to stand up for God, to be set apart for God’s service even in the unpleasant task he commanded them. The Levites showed absolute obedience and commitment. ‘Whoever is for the LORD, come to me.’ Who is on the Lord’s side? Are we prepared to stand up and be counted and to serve God as Moses and the Levites did?