While Moses was on Mount Sinai, receiving the law from God, the Israelites made a tumultuous address to Aaron. The giddy multitude had grown weary of waiting for the return of Moses, and so they begged him to make them some gods of their own. Alas! Weariness in waiting often leads to many temptations.
Notice the people’s readiness to part with their earrings to make an idol. Surely this ought to shame our slothfulness and stinginess in the service of the true God! Aaron took the jewelry and melted it down, producing the shape of an ox or calf, and giving it some finishing touches with a graving tool. It is interesting to observe that at this point, Aaron was unaware that he had already been set apart, by God’s Divine appointment, to the office of the priesthood. Hereby his potential pride and boasting were silenced, for he who had once shamed himself so far as to build an altar to a golden calf must acknowledge himself to be unworthy of the honor of serving at the altar of God. Truly, he was indebted to free grace alone for this privilege.
The people viewed this golden calf as a visible image of the Lord Jehovah Who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They proceeded to offer sacrifices to this idol; but since they had set up an image before them, and thereby changing the truth of God into a lie, their sacrifices were an abomination. Only a short time before, and in this very place, they had heard the voice of the Lord God speaking to them out of the midst of the fire: “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image!” They themselves had solemnly entered into a covenant with God, declaring that they would obediently do all that He had said to them (chapter 24:7). Yet before they had even left the place where this covenant had been made, they broke an express command, in defiance of an expressly stated threatening. This plainly shows that the law has the ability to show us the knowledge of sin, but not the cure of it. But every sinner may freely come to the blood of Jesus and be made clean and white, and learn to forsake his iniquities!
Before Moses came down from Sinai, God told him that the Israelites had corrupted themselves. They had turned aside out of the way, and they had forgotten the Lord’s works; and so He was very justly displeased with them. But Moses interceded for the people in an effort to save them from ruin; and in this, he stood as a picture of Jesus – by Whose mediation alone, God reconciles His people to Himself.
As Moses descended the mountain, he rejoined his servant Joshua, who had been waiting for him for 40 days and 40 nights. Joshua heard the great commotion down in the Hebrews’ camp as they were engaged in their idolatrous celebration, and he told Moses that he thought he heard the sound of war going on. But Moses had already been told what the reason for all the noise was; and he informed Joshua that it was not the noise of war, but rather the noise of singing and festivities. And that is exactly what met the eyes of Moses and Joshua as they walked – quite unexpectedly – right into the midst of the great party that was being held as a part of the idolatrous worship of the golden calf. In great anger, Moses took the two tables of the law that the Lord had just given him, and he broke them in pieces by throwing them down on the ground. Then, in order to show the people that an idol is worth nothing, he burned their calf, ground it to powder, mixed it into their water, and made them drink it – signifying that backsliders will surely be filled with the bitterness of their own ways. Moses also questioned Aaron, and never did a wise man make a more foolish excuse than he did for his sin! We must never be drawn into sin by anything that man can say or do to us, for they can only tempt us to sin – they cannot force us.
The sudden reappearance of Moses had transformed the people’s celebration and dancing into trembling. They were exposed to shame by their sin. The course that Moses took to roll away this reproach was not by concealing the sin or putting any false color upon it, but by punishing it. The Levites were to slay the ringleaders in this wickedness; yet none were executed except those who openly and defiantly stood firm in their transgression, even after Moses’ appearance.
The next day, Moses pleaded with God again for mercy. Having that same mind which was in Christ, he was even willing to lay down his life in the most painful manner, if he might thereby preserve the people. However, he could not completely turn away the wrath of the Lord – reminding us that the law of Moses was never able to reconcile sinful men with a holy God. It is in Christ alone that our Father pardons sin and remembers it no longer. How blessed we are that our Savior – Who is infinitely more powerful and merciful than Moses – has made atonement for our souls, and now intercedes on our behalf. Let us rejoice in His grace!
Lord, in this account of Israel’s shameful apostacy from You, after the many mercies which they had received; we see a picture of our own poor sinful nature, which is always prone to depart from You and follow idols. But in Moses, we also see a picture of Him Who stands in the glorious character of our Intercessor, and has made reconciliation for our sins. Dear Redeemer! You have taken away our sin by the sacrifice of Yourself. May our souls rejoice in Your great salvation! Amen.
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illustration from a Bible card published in 1901 by the Providence Lithograph Company