Exodus 32:1-14 (EHV)
1 When the people saw that it took so long for Moses to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Get up, make a god for us, who will go before us, because this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt—we do not know what has become of him.”
2 Aaron said to them, “Pull off the gold earrings from your wives and sons and daughters and bring them to me.”
3 All the people pulled off their gold earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and shaped it with an engraving tool and made it into a bull calf cast out of metal. Then they said, “This is your god, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of it, and Aaron made a proclamation. He said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”
6 They got up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought fellowship offerings. Then the people sat down to eat and to drink and got up to celebrate wildly.
7 The Lord spoke to Moses: “Hurry down, because your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves! 8 They have quickly turned from the way which I commanded them. They have made a calf for themselves out of metal and have worshipped it. They have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’”
9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen these people, and they certainly are a stiff-necked people. 10 So now leave me alone, so that my anger can burn hot against them, so that I may consume them and make you into a great nation.”
11 Moses begged the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your anger burn against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He brought them out for an evil purpose, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn back from your fierce anger and change your mind about inflicting disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self. You said to them, ‘I will multiply your seed like the stars of the sky, and I will give all this land that I have spoken about to your seed, and they shall inherit it forever.’”
14 Then the Lord changed his mind about the disaster which he said he would inflict on his people.
Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so we might learn to worship you rightly through faith in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
When we read the bible, it can be extremely helpful to ask some basic questions. These questions can help us learn how it also applies to us personally and powerfully. Some examples of good questions are:
- What is God teaching us about our human problem which reveals our need for a Saviour?
- What is God teaching us about himself and the way he answers our human problem through our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ?
If we applied these questions to our text, we may quickly learn that we humans, no matter how well-intentioned, will either worship the wrong things, or will worship the right God but in the wrong way.
Similarly, we may learn how God, for the sake of his chosen servant, and for the sake of his holy name, relents from treating us as we deserve.
But, how might we come to such conclusions?
Well, it helps to understand the context of our text.
God had originally called Moses at this holy mountain to lead the Israelites out from their slavery to Egypt so that they may worship him and enter the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Ex 3:12; 5:1). God then rescued his people through powerful signs and graciously provided them water, manna and meat as they travelled through the wilderness to this holy mountain. Now they could begin to worship him as he had promised.
But, so that they might worship him in the right way, he gave them clear instructions how not to worship him. They weren’t to make any carved images in any likeness of anything that is above, on, or under the earth. They also weren’t to worship any golden or silver statues to gain access to him, because his name is enough for them. In response, they agreed to worship him as instructed. (cf. Ex 20:2-5; 22-23; 24:3, 7)
Then Moses went back up the mountain to receive further instructions on how they were to build and furnish a tabernacle, where they could meet with God. It was while he on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights that the people, despite the clear instructions from God, bugged Aaron to make them a god who would go before them, perhaps like the statues and images of gods they had seen in Egypt. For them God’s holy name wasn’t enough. They wanted something they could see and touch. Aaron gave in to them and did what they wanted.
He got them to take off all their rings from their ears and he made an idol in the shape of a bull-calf, which would usually represent a victorious ruler who tramples down their enemies. In a sense, the animal chosen to represent God makes sense as he had trampled down their enemies so powerfully.
But this meant the Israelites were now worshipping God in the very way he told them not to worship him! Not only were they swapping their worship of the Creator for a created item, but they were worshipping the right God in the wrong way.
This brings us back to the lesson mentioned earlier that, we humans, no matter how well-intentioned, will either worship the wrong things, or will worship the right God but in the wrong way.
But, how does this apply to us today?
Well, I don’t think there’s any video evidence of any of us dancing and singing around a golden calf! And, while we may have many different objects in our homes which are important to us, I don’t think anyone here bows down to any statues made of gold or silver.
But as we learn how the Israelites spent their gold on their new god, and spent time and energy worshipping it, we too might consider what we spend much of our time, money or energy on.
Not only this, but we might also listen to Martin Luther who was particularly insightful about idols.
He says in the Large Catechism, that ‘the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.’ (LC, 1st Commandment, 2b-4)
In fact, Luther believed our idolatry to be the fundamental human problem and the root cause of all human sin.
But how do we know whether our hearts are worshipping an idol or the true God?
Well, Luther also gave us a wonderful tool which helps us self-diagnose our hearts. His explanation to the First Commandment (which tells us the Lord is our God and that we’re to have no other gods) says: ‘We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.’
So, you might ask whom, or what, are you fearing, loving and trusting in?
For example, are you afraid of what people think of you? Are you afraid of admitting your faults? Are you afraid of those who might hurt you? Are you afraid of dying? What are you wanting to preserve or avoid at almost any cost? When you’re afraid of such people and situations, has your fears of them become greater than your fear and trust of God?
Do you love the things God gives you more than the God who gives you these things? Because fears and desires are often related, one way to check this is to ask yourself: ‘What am I worrying or anxious about here? What would it mean to me if this were taken away from me? If I’m getting angry or upset about this, why has this person, or this thing, become so important to me?’
What, or whom, are you really trusting in? When we place our trust in the people around us, we’ll get angry with them when they let us down. When we place our trust in ourselves, we’ll get angry with ourselves when we fail. When we gossip about others, we’re making ourselves into self-appointed judges who reckon we have the right to condemn others and trust the court of public opinion will punish them.
Every time we fear, love or trust in someone, or something, apart from God, even for a second, this makes us into an idolater who worships the wrong god. Every time we think we can provide for our own needs apart from God, or love ourselves more than God, or who trust in our own strength or abilities or ingenuity or knowledge, we worship the wrong God.
Similarly, everyone who thinks they can justify themselves or their actions apart from Christ, or who devise their own paths to God apart from the incarnate Christ, or who by-pass the Spirit-filled Word of God and trust in their own reasoning, or who think they can produce the good fruit of faith without relying on the Holy Spirit, are attempting to worship God in the wrong way. And all these thoughts, words and actions demand much of our time, money and energy.
This means, we humans, no matter how well-intentioned, will either worship the wrong things, or will worship the right God but in the wrong way.
But what about God’s response to our idolatry?
Well, we also learn today how God, for the sake of his chosen servant, and for the sake of his holy name, relents from treating us as we deserve.
God had so far been extremely patient with the people whom he saved from the Egyptians. They had consistently grumbled and complained to him, but it’s their misplaced worship which really upset him. In response he’s decided to disown these stiff-necked people by telling Moses they’re now Moses’ people and Moses’ problem. He says: “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves!” (Ex 32:7)
Now Moses also knew these people very well. He doesn’t make up any excuses for what they’ve done or try to minimise their sin. He knows they have no redeeming qualities about them and don’t deserve any mercy, but he also knows God and his true nature. For this reason, he appeals to God’s honour and reputation.
Firstly, he re-establishes the relationship between God and his people. He says to God “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” It’s like he’s reminding God of the 1st Commandment where God says: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
Secondly, he appeals to the honour of God’s name. What would the Egyptians think of him if they find out he saved them only to kill them in the wilderness? You could argue he appeals to the 2nd Commandment which talks about honouring God’s name and reputation.
Moses knows the people won’t keep their promises, but also knows God will always keep his. This is why he thirdly appeals to God’s own promises which he made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel. God had promised them rest in a Promised Land, a Sabbath land where they could worship him in peace and prosperity – which is an appeal to the 3rd Commandment.
So in a sense, Moses uses the Israelite Small Catechism in order to appeal to God’s merciful and forgiving nature, saying, “You are the Lord their God; honour your own name; and bring them to the Promised Land of rest according to your own promise.”
Remarkably, but perhaps not surprisingly, God relented and didn’t destroy his people. But his change of mind doesn’t mean God’s fickle. He has every right to be angry, but by nature he’s also ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ (Ex 34:6).
Now we, as New Testament Christians, know that if God listened to the intercessions of Moses, how much more will he listen to the intercessions of his own Son!
In this case, Jesus knows you and your heart more intimately than Moses ever could. He doesn’t make up any excuses for what you’ve done or try to minimise your sin. He knows you don’t deserve any mercy, and this time God didn’t change his mind. God would destroy his people, but his Son Jesus is the One who paid the price of death in our place.
There on the cross Jesus feared, loved and trusted God above all things. There on the cross, God’s name and reputation was honoured as he declared the forgiveness of all your sins. There on the cross, God’s judgment and mercy was displayed in all its ugliness and holiness. As a result of this, Jesus forgives you for all those times you spent too much time, money and energy on the wrong things, and for all those times you feared, desired, or trusted in someone or something else.
What’s more is that Jesus rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven, and now sits at the right hand of the Father so he may forever intercede for his people, including you and me. His resurrection reassures us of the promise of eternal life in his Promise Land of rest for all who trust in him.
But God is so gracious and compassionate that he will also listen to you and me as we pray for those who don’t deserve his mercy. Like Moses, we too can intercede for all those around us who can’t, or won’t, pray for themselves.
So, today we learn that we humans, no matter how well-intentioned, will either worship the wrong things, or will worship the right God but in the wrong way.
But we also learn how God, for the sake of his chosen suffering servant, Jesus Christ, and for the sake of his holy name, relents from treating us as we deserve.
This is so that the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.