Exodus 31 ends with amazing words: God giving Moses the two tablets of the covenant, written with the finger of God. Exodus 24:18 tells us that Moses remained on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights. But the people believe this is a problem as we come into Exodus 32.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (Exodus 32:1 ESV)
Now remember that Moses is meeting with God alone because this is what the people requested Moses to do. Moses was to be their buffer between them and God. Moses was their mediator. Yet now this is a problem. There are a number of sins being committed at this moment. We see impatience and impatience frequently leads to greater sins. The people refuse to wait for Moses or to wait for the Lord. Trust is waiting for the Lord. But they refuse to trust in what God is doing with Moses. So what do we do when we fail to trust in the working of the Lord? We take matters into our own hands. Rather than looking for God’s solutions we find our own. Their solution is to make an idol who will lead them. It is important to note that they are not looking for a new god. Rather, they want an earthly representation of God. They want a physical point of contact with God because now they do not have Moses as their physical point of contact.
The Problem of Idolatry (32:1-6)
So what will be the response of Aaron as all the people come to him looking for a new representation of God? Aaron tells the people to bring him their gold earrings and bring them to him. Once he receives these gold earrings he fashions the gold into the shape of a calf. With this completed, Aaron declares that the gold calf represents the gods who brought them out of Egypt. Then he builds and altar before the calf, proclaiming that tomorrow will be a feast to the Lord. So the people rose up early the next day, offered burnt offerings and peace offerings, and ate, drank, and played (32:6). There is so much wrong with what the people are doing.
First, the people take God’s physical blessings and use them for sin. They took God’s blessings and wealth and make an idol from them. This is one of the problems with idolatry. We are taking the good things of God and making them sinful things. We take God’s blessings and become selfish and stingy. We take our wealth given to us by God and spend it on our selfish, sinful desires. We take computers and high speed internet and use it for pornography. We take our televisions and entertain ourselves with sinful viewing. This is idolatry. We take God’s good blessings and use them for evil and for sin.
Second, the people want a physical point of contact with God that they can see. How often people will do this? We turn the church building into some holy thing as if this represents God and becomes our idol. People look for any physical representation of God, believing that this brings them closer to God, when it is actually idolatry.
Third, the result of idolatry forgets God. Notice the language of what it says the people are doing. They are offering sacrifices. They are dancing and singing according to verses 18-19. They are eating and drinking. They are now in fellowship with idols. This language is reflective of the covenant God had made with these people. The sacrifices represented the worship of the God who brought them out of Egypt. Now they are making these offerings to the idol. When Israel crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptians were destroyed, they sang the song of Moses and all the women were dancing before the Lord (Exodus 15). Now they are singing and dancing before this idol. Further, the people are eating and drinking. This is the covenant meal that the 73 enjoyed on the mountain earlier after the blood of the covenant had been ratified. Further, the tabernacle revealed pictures of God’s covenantal meal with Israel. Now the people are enjoying a covenantal meal with idolatry (please note this is the issue in 1 Corinthians 8-10). The eating and drinking pictures fellowship with your God. Israel is in fellowship with idolatry.
Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Corinthians 10:18–22 ESV)
Finally, after Israel was done eating and drink and offering sacrifices, they rose up to play. Idolatry leads to immorality. In verse 25 Moses notes that the people had “broken loose.” They are now behaving like the pagan worshipers, partying and indulging in their own desires. Sexual immorality is a likely outcome of what is happening. Stephen describes what is happening here during his sermon in the book of Acts.
Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. (Acts 7:39–41 ESV)
Now we see that the people were not simply concerned that Moses was gone. Moses was held in derision, which is reflected in Exodus 32:1, “As for THIS Moses.” They thrust Moses aside and their hearts were turned to Egypt, that is to idolatry and immorality. Stephen says that the people “were rejoicing in the works of their hands.” We look to ourselves and our efforts rather than looking at God and what he has done for us and given to us. Every human is an idolaters. But what is worse is when we are drawn into covenant with God only turn our hearts back to our idols, worship ourselves, using God’s blessings for paths to sin, and rejoicing in the works of our hands.
Sin Disowns Us From God (32:7-10)
Verses 7-10 describe the consequences of sin. Listen to what God says to Moses. First, in verse 7 Israel is now Moses’ people. These are not God’s people. They cannot be God’s people because they are not acting like God’s people. Sin disowns us from God. Sin separates us from God. Sin corrupts us. We are defiled and unholy. But please note that this is the people’s decision. They have rejected God. They have rejected the Lord as their God and are worshiping at the feet of this gold calf. God notes how quickly the people have turned away from the path God commanded them. God knows what these people are like. They are stubborn. They are stiff-necked. They are obstinate. This rejection of God and his covenant demands only one outcome: God’s wrath. This is what God expresses in verse 10. These people deserved to be destroyed. God will keep his covenant made with Abraham through Moses and make a new nation through him. But these people deserve to die. Friends, this is us. We are a stiff-necked people. We turn back to sin. We turn back to idolatry. We turn back to our evil ways. We use God’s blessings for sin and evil. We break loose and do what we want. We become sexually immoral. We turn to our own ways. We quickly leave the path of God. We have rejected the covenant God has made with us. We have separated ourselves from God. We have disowned God. We are worthy of destruction.
Moses Intercedes (32:11-35)
Now what happens next is absolutely staggering. Look at what Moses does in verses 11-14. “But Moses implored the Lord his God.” Moses intercedes on behalf of these sinful, rebellious people. Moses intercedes by declaring that these are YOUR people that you saved (32:11). He further intercedes on the basis of God’s name being glorified among the nations (32:12). If you destroy them then the nations will say that you brought them into the desert to kill them. Save them for the sake of your own name and your own glory. Finally, Moses intercedes by calling on God to remember his covenant his Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God, you are faithful to your covenant! The intercession of Moses is accepted by the Lord and he relents from the deserved disaster God has spoken. Moses is already acting as the high priest, interceding for the people’s sins before the tabernacle is built. Moses parallels Abraham who interceded for the sake of the righteous when God was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses now intercedes for the sake of the wicked. God relents and God saves, not because of the people’s righteousness, but for his own glory.
So Moses goes down the mountain with the two tablets and sees for himself what the people are doing. Look at verses 19-20.
And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it. (Exodus 32:19–20 ESV)
The picture is devastating. The covenant is broken. The people have broken the covenant and this is represented with Moses shattering the tablets at the foot of the mountain. Notice this is done at the foot of the mountain, not on the mountain. God is on the mountain and the people are at the base. The people broke the covenant so the tablets are shattered at the foot of the mountain. Then Moses comes to Aaron in verse 21 and asks Aaron what the people did to him so that you would bring this great sin on them. The people must have done something to you that you would do something like this. Aaron’s answer is humorous in verses 22-24. Aaron says that you know the people are set on evil. So he took the people’s gold, threw it in the fire, and out came this calf. The humor should not be lost on us because this is how our excuses for why we sin sound. Our excuses for sin are ridiculous.
Moses then lays down the challenge to the people in verse 26. “Who is on the Lord’s side?” It is the sons of Levi who come to Moses. God’s command was for the people who continued in this wickedness to be killed. So the sons of Levi carried out the command. Please notice verse 29. The reason why Levi was the tribe to be priests before God and were separated from the other tribes is because they declared themselves to be on the Lord’s side.
The next day Moses gathers the people and explains the problem (32:30-35). You have sinned greatly but Moses is going to go up to the Lord to try to make atonement for their sins. This is exactly what Moses does. He confesses the sins of the people (32:31). But listen to what else Moses says.
But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written. (Exodus 32:32 ESV)
Moses is willing to die for the sins of the people. Moses is willing to offer his own life so that the people will be forgiven. But God is not going to blot Moses out of the book. Whoever has sinned against the Lord will be blotted out of the book. Moses must go and lead the people to the place God spoke about.
In this great chapter what we see is the greatness of Jesus. Jesus is the one willing to die for the sins of the people. Jesus is the one who will offer his own life and it will be accepted by the Lord. Moses is not able to make atonement for sins but there is one who is coming in the likeness of Moses would can: Jesus. Jesus comes down and decrees judgment on those who are not on the Lord’s side and blessings on those who are on the Lord’s side. Then Jesus will go back up to God and make atonement for the sins of the people. This is exactly what we needed. We have committed great sins against the Lord, disowning us from God, and worthy of wrath and destruction. But we have one who goes before God and is able to make intercession for us: Jesus. Through Jesus’ death God is able to not give us the wrath we deserve but can pardon and forgive.
This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:22–25 ESV)
It is the final sentence that must strike our hearts. Jesus lives to make intercession for us. This is what he is doing through his own blood in the presence of God. We deserve wrath. We are the idolaters. We have rejected the goodness of God for rejoicing in the words of our own hands. But God made intercession possible so that we could receive mercy and find grace. God puts forward Jesus as the sacrifice of atonement so we do not receive what we deserve. God pictured all of this in the book of Exodus, an amazing picture of God’s story of redemption.