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Lessons from the Golden Calf
“And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him… And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron…After he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, To morrow is a feast to the LORD. And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play…And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people, Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the LORD; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin…And the LORD plagued the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made.” (Exodus 32:1-35)
“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked!” — How we prove those words day by day! How deceitful, how fickle is the heart of man! “Who can know it?”
When Moses read the book of God’s law to the children of Israel upon Mt. Sinai, in Exodus 24:7, the congregation spoke immediately, with unanimous voice, saying, “All that the LORD hath said, will we do, and be obedient.” Less than six weeks later, while Moses was in the mount receiving the heavenly pattern of God’s salvation and grace in Christ as portrayed and typified in the tabernacle, we find those very same men and women dancing naked around a golden calf, calling their golden calf their gods and calling their naked revelry in idolatry the worship of Jehovah! What would God the Holy Ghost have us learn from the record of Israel’s idolatry in worshipping the golden calf their hands had made?
We know that even this sad, sad portion of Israel’s history came to pass according to the will of our God, that Israel might stand before us as a beacon, as an example, lest we should follow them in the pursuit of our own heart’s lusts. We know this because the Holy Spirit specifically points to this event and warns us not to follow their example (1 Corinthians 10).
“Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted. Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play…Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:6-7, 11-12)
The first thing we are taught here is the fact that we are all superstitious idolaters at heart. The Egyptians had among their many gods the image of an ox and worshipped it. It must have been a very impressive image of strength, because the Jews remembered it, made a replica of it as an image of Jehovah, and worshipped it!
“And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.” (Exodus 32:1-2)
Aaron was a good orator, but he wasn’t a leader. As God’s priest he was responsible to be a leader; but he failed in his responsibility. He lacked backbone and was apparently one whose heart craved approval. I say that is obvious because the children of Israel knew they could manipulate him. They knew he would obey their whims. They did not ask him for his counsel. They simply said, “Get up and make us some gods.” Immediately, Aaron complied. They spared no expense; and Aaron willingly complied with their desire. — “The fear of man bringeth a snare: but whoso putteth his trust in the LORD shall be safe” (Proverbs 29:25).
“And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:3-4)
“They made a calf in Horeb, and worshipped the molten image. Thus they changed their glory into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass. They forgat God their saviour, which had done great things in Egypt” (Psalms 106:19-21).
“And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD. And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.” (Exodus 32:5-6)
Robert Hawker observed that “At the very moment the Lord, in the mount, was ordaining Aaron with peculiar honors to the priesthood, Aaron was aiding the Israelites to idolatry. Well might the Apostle say, the law maketh men high priests which have infirmity.” But, blessed be our God for his great grace! We have a Priest without infirmity (Hebrews 7:26-28).
Adding insult to insult and blasphemy to blasphemy, Aaron and the children of Israel called their sin the worship of Jehovah. The Spirit of God describes their religious ceremony with these words, “They sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.” Lascivious foolishness always accompanies idolatry. Idolatry is filth and always leads to the practice of filth. — “Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). Every form of religious imagery is idolatry. Every addition to the worship of God is idolatry. Every mixture of false religion with the worship of God is idolatry. Every effort of man to mix the work of his own hands with the glory of God is idolatry.
What was it that these people did that cost the lives of three thousand of them? What was their crime? They kept their feast unto the Lord. They offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. They used the strongest of images to represent Jehovah’s might and power. They spared no expense. They ascribed their deliverance from Egypt to Jehovah — their golden calf! What did they do that was so terrible? — They worshipped the work of their own hands and called it the worship of God. — They worshipped themselves and called it worshipping Jehovah!
So it is with the idolatry of our age and every age. God save us from the religious idolatry that runs deep in every depraved heart: self-righteousness, will worship, legalism, works religion! There is no worship of God except the worship of Jesus Christ the Lord as our only Savior. If you would worship God, you must trust his Son. Christ alone is our Wisdom in the knowledge of God, our Righteousness for acceptance with God, our Sanctification (holiness) before God, and our Redemption to bring us to God (1 Corinthians 1:30-31; Philippians 3:1-3).
Israel’s sin was horrible and inexcusable. Their idolatry cannot be justified or lessened by any consideration, but in verses 7-14 we see that Israel was spared, because Israel had a mighty intercessor with God. So, the second lesson to be learned from this chapter is that the wrath of God we deserve has been turned away by one God has ordained, one God has raised up for us, one God himself accepts as our Representative and Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ.
“And the LORD said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And the LORD said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.” (Exodus 32:7-10)
These Jews fully deserved God’s wrath. They were more corrupt and wicked than the Egyptians God destroyed at the Red Sea. They were a people like you and me, far more deserving of God’s wrath than many who have gone to hell before us. They corrupted themselves (v. 7). They turned aside quickly out of the way (v. 8). They made a molten calf (v.8). They worshipped the calf they made (v. 8). They called their hand-made god, Jehovah our Savior (v. 8). They were a stiff-necked people (v. 9).
The Lord God said to Moses, “Get out of my way, and I will kill them all and raise up from your loins a great nation.” But Moses interceded for the children of Israel as no mortal man ever interceded for other men. He said, “Lord destroy me and spare them! Take me in their stead!”
“And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, LORD, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand? Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it forever. And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” (Exodus 32:11-14)
Surely, it is the Holy Spirit’s intent that we should lose sight of Moses in this place in order to behold him whom Moses typified, our Lord Jesus Christ, our mighty Intercessor. — “He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor: therefore his arm brought salvation unto him; and his righteousness, it sustained him” (Isaiah 59:16).
Notice the arguments Moses urged before the throne of God, giving him reasons why these sinful people should be spared. He said to God, “These are thy people. You redeemed them, thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt. Your name is at stake here. Your honor is pinned to the salvation of these people. Remember your covenant.”
“And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people” (v. 14; Psalm 106:8, 23, 45). How we ought to thank God for our all-glorious Christ who, like Moses, stands in the breach for us!
In verses 15-19 we see in vivid, clear symbolism that God’s broken law demands satisfaction.
“And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables. And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp. And he said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear. 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.” (Exodus 32:15-19)
When Moses came down from the Mount and saw the children of Israel dancing naked around their golden calf, he threw the tables of the law down on the ground, the tablets written by the finger of God, the work of God and the writing of God, and broke them; but he was never reproved for doing so. Symbolically, this action displays God’s demands and God’s work. His broken law demands satisfaction. But God alone can repair the law we have broken.
In verses 20-26 we learn a fourth lesson. — There is no reconciliation to God in our hearts until we justify God against ourselves.
“And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it. And Moses said unto Aaron, What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them? And Aaron said, Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief. For they said unto me, Make us gods, which shall go before us: for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off. So they gave it me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf. And when Moses saw that the people were naked; (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies:) Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the LORD’S side? Let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him.” (Exodus 32:20-26)
Israel had to drink their golden calf. They had to take their corruption and sin to themselves. That is exactly what the Lord God requires of us (Psalm 51:1-5). If we confess our sins the Lord God is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and cleanse us from all sin by the precious blood of Christ (1 John 1:7-10).
Repentance, faith, and the confession of sin do not accomplish our forgiveness. The judicial ground of our forgiveness is the shed blood of Christ alone. But until a man confesses his sin, he cannot receive the forgiveness accomplished at Calvary. Our hearts must be reconciled to God, and that reconciliation is begun in confession. Our confession must be made in humble sincerity towards God, with faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice. You cannot mention every offence, but you dare not hide one. Confess that you are vile by nature, wicked in practice, and evil in heart. Lie down as low as you can at the footstool of mercy. — “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.”
God’s forgiveness of such sinners as we are is both faithful and just. God has promised to forgive repenting, believing sinners for Christ’s sake. And he is faithful to his Word. But he can only forgive us in a way consistent with his justice. In holy justice God slew his Son as our Substitute. With that one sacrifice, justice is fully satisfied. And now, upon the ground of the finished work of Christ, the justice of God pleads as strongly as his mercy for our forgiveness. Our forgiveness is complete. If we confess our sins, trusting the blood of Christ alone to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, God will never impute iniquity to us (Romans 4:8). Oh, blessed forgiveness!
In verses 27-35, we learn that the children of Israel were spared, because satisfaction was made by legal atonement.
“And he said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour. And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. For Moses had said, Consecrate yourselves today to the LORD, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother; that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day. And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people, Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the LORD; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin. 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. Therefore now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee: behold, mine Angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them. And the LORD plagued the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made.” (Exodus 32:27-35)
None were spared except those for whom intercession was made; and all were spared for whom intercession was made (Deuteronomy 9:17-21). A great multitude was slain that the severity as well as the goodness of God be demonstrated. But all who were spared were spared by atonement, justice satisfying atonement made by a substitute (vv. 30-34). How sweet are the waters of forgiveness, flowing from a satisfied God! As we are reminded of and acknowledge our sin, we are refreshed and revived by God’s great forgiveness.
Moses made symbolic, typical atonement; but real satisfaction, real atonement could only be made by one great Substitute, our Lord Jesus Christ, who fulfilled these very words when he was made sin for us (Proverbs 17:15; 2 Corinthians 5:20-21; Galatians 3:13-14). The Lord God declares, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die!” He said to Moses, “Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.” And in Christ, in union with our blessed Savior, all God’s elect suffered and died. Our great Savior, God incarnate, has by the sacrifice of himself forever satisfied God’s offended justice for us. In Christ, through Christ, by his blood atonement, the Holy Lord God is “a just God and a Savior!”