1 The People Ask for an Idol
1 Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
In the previous chapters we have seen Who God is. Here we see who man, His people, is. By that we learn to admire God more, because despite the sin of the people the tabernacle is built from Exodus 35 onwards. God comes to dwell with a people who have misbehaved themselves like this.
The people are getting impatient. Moses stays away for so long. They do not realize that Moses is on the mountain for their benefit. They speak of him as “that Moses”. There is a minty sound in it. There is no trust in him nor in the LORD because they “do not know what has become of him”. And all this while they saw him enter the cloud of God’s presence.
Moses is here a picture of the Lord Jesus who went to heaven. Because the Lord Jesus stays away for so long, Christianity has lost the thought of His return. The hope is gone. The fact that He is in heaven to commit Himself there for His people has no meaning whatsoever. The result is that Christians abuse each other and connect with the world, as the Lord Jesus suggests in a parable (Mt 24:48-49).
By the proposal of the people to Aaron to make a god, the people reject Moses. This is because now that they no longer have Moses in their midst, they have turned back to Egypt in their hearts. They reject Moses and his words. Has he not recently reminded them that they will not have any other gods besides the LORD, neither of silver nor of gold (Exo 20:23)? But they don’t want to obey him.
In this way, Christianity also acts in relation to Christ. The voices to introduce tangible things into the experience of religion are becoming stronger and stronger. It is because one does not want to listen to Christ and His Word. Then people come up with such proposals.
2 - 6 Aaron Makes the Golden Calf
2 Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring [them] to me.” 3 Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought [them] to Aaron. 4 He took [this] from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” 5 Now when Aaron saw [this], he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow [shall be] a feast to the LORD.” 6 So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.
The people are only too willing to supply things for making a god they can see. For that they want to make sacrifices, it may cost something (Isa 46:6). The ear decorations are gladly handed in. The ear is stripped of what it adorns, and that is listening to God’s Word.
Aaron gives it the shape of a calf and gives the calf the honor that only God is worthy of. He grants the calf the honor of redemption from Egypt. Forgotten are all His miracles. Psalm 106 gives an impressive account of this (Psa 106:19-23). Aaron builds another altar for it and even calls out a feast in which he mentions the name of the LORD.
This is one of the events Paul quotes from the history of the people of Israel, which he says “happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved” (1Cor 10:6). In the following verse he then cites this event with the golden calf: “Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play”” (1Cor 10:7).
Paulus refers to the ‘festivities’ around the golden calf. The Israelites became idolaters. Idolatry means: to put something else in the place of God and of Christ. That can easily happen. It really does not have to be about things that we know are sinful, wrong things. We see that here. What is their idolatry? It is said directly behind it: eating and drinking and playing. Are these wrong activities? Not in itself, but they are wrong for Israel.
The people have lost contact with Moses, his great foreman. He has been gone for a long time, people don’t see him anymore and don’t hear him anymore. That’s why they say to Aaron that he should only make a god. Aaron does that and the golden calf rises on its pedestal. Then they start to eat, drink and play. So what is the cause of eating, drinking and playing? That Moses has been gone for so long.
What is the example for us here? The Lord Jesus has been gone for so long, it seems as if He never comes back. Then the thought creeps in: “Let’s make it easy for ourselves in this world and live it up. We also make a god for ourselves, one we like, one with which we can get along, and life becomes one big party!’ But it is a feast without the true God. These kinds of sounds can be heard around us with people who profess to be Christians, but who do not take into account the coming of Christ.
When the Christian no longer looks forward to the coming of the Lord Jesus, he will focus on earthly things. Things other than the Lord Jesus take up his time and attention. The spiritual leaders take the lead. They do not want to lose their position and respond to what the people ask (2Tim 4:3).
The feast forms the pious sauce over the godless hassle. In many shades, this practice is repeated in Christianity. Pagan holidays are covered with a Christian sauce (Christmas), godless lifestyles are declared expressions of godly love (blessing of so-called same-sex marriages).
7 - 10 God Speaks to Moses About the People
7 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted [themselves]. 8 They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’” 9 The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. 10 Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.”
While God still speaks to Moses about what concerns His heart, He sees how the people behave. It is as if He is addressing Moses on this when He speaks to Him about “your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt”. God does not want anything to do with a people who behave like this. He asks Moses permission, as it were, to destroy it, and says to Moses that He will then make him a great nation.
The way God speaks here shows how much He seeks to connect with man. Every human being can understand this reaction from God. But with that God is not yet equal to man. He does not speak from an impulse, but deliberately. The people deserve nothing but to be wiped out. What an ingratitude! What an insult to God, Who so manifested Himself in goodness and grace. It is also understandable that He wants to make Moses a great nation. Moses knows Him and serves Him faithfully (Heb 3:2). It shows that God desires a people who know Him and serve Him faithfully.
God makes himself known here as Someone Who is to be hurt, as Someone Who does not look unmoved at everything that happens on earth. He tells people what is going on in Him. In this case He does so to hear from Moses what He will do. The point is not that He doesn’t know what to do, or that He would lack the power to do what He wants. He involves Moses in bringing out in him something of Himself.
11 - 14 Moses Entreats for the People
11 Then Moses entreated the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil [intent] He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about [doing] harm to Your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit [it] forever.’” 14 So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.
“Moses entreated the LORD his God.” The LORD is his God. He knows Him. After all, he has been in conversation with Him for forty days, isn’t it? His reaction evokes deep admiration. Moses does not accept God’s proposal. All self-interest is missing. He does not take over the words of God, but speaks to God about “Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt”.
For his plea in favor of the people, Moses appeals to two things. The first appeal is to God’s Name and fame among the Egyptians. By showing His power to Egypt, Israel has become His people. Secondly, he reminds God of the promises He made to the patriarchs. These promises are made unconditionally, independent of the faithfulness of mankind.
The outcome of Moses’ plea is that the LORD reconsiders His intention to destroy His people. God wants to be entreated. He uses prayer, the intercession of His own, in the way He goes with His people and with each of His own. The first ground for prayer is also for us to remind God that He has redeemed us from the world. The second ground for our prayer is what He said in His Word. He always wants to be reminded of this by us. Not because He forgot, but to notice that we have not forgotten it, that we live by the promises of His Word.
15 - 20 Moses’ Anger Burns
15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets which were written on both sides; they were written on one [side] and the other.
16 The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing engraved on the tablets.
17 Now when Joshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a sound of war in the camp.”
18 But he said,
“It is not the sound of the cry of triumph,
Nor is it the sound of the cry of defeat;
But the sound of singing I hear.”
19 It came about, as soon as Moses came near the camp, that he saw the calf and [the] dancing; and Moses’ anger burned, and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf which they had made and burned [it] with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it over the surface of the water and made the sons of Israel drink [it].
Moses descends the mountain. He holds in his hand the two stone tablets with the commandments of God on them. Joshua hears the noise of the people. He believes it has to do with a struggle and a victory. But he is wrong. That is no shame for him. He is still young. Moses, the elderly, mature believer, who was in the presence of God, tells him that he does not hear a sound of war, but a sound of singing.
Young believers may misinterpret certain expressions of God’s people through inexperience. They believe that in a service with a lot of fanfare spiritual struggle is being fought. What is really going on is a dance around the golden calf. Religion is practiced in such a way that the participants enjoy it most. The service is fully dressed and decorated to their own taste. The Name of the Lord is mentioned, but He has nothing to say. His Word is not asked, let alone listened to.
When Moses sees what the people are doing, his indignation is great. In great fury he throws the stone tablets out of his hands and shatters them. Even before God’s law came into the camp, they had already trampled on its first two commandments (Exo 20:3-4). God has not instructed him to break the tablets, but his action is a striking reflection of what is in God’s heart regarding the sin of the people.
On the stone tablets God has revealed Himself to His people. The people have made sure that the revelation of God’s will does not have to be done for them. The law is broken at the foot of the mountain, not at the top of the mountain. When the Lord Jesus comes, God makes Himself completely known, now not as a Lawgiver, but in love. But also this revelation is destroyed by the people. The Lord Jesus is rejected. Downstairs, on earth, He is murdered by a people He wants to redeem.
Then Moses burns the golden calf. He works it so that their idol can be mixed with water. Then he gives the people to drink their homemade god. He wants to bring them, as it were, to a deep inner awareness of the folly they have committed. If we have committed foolishness, the awareness of it must penetrate deep into our conscience. We are convinced of this by the Word of God, either that we read it ourselves or that someone comes to present it to us.
21 - 24 Aaron Called to Account
21 Then Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought [such] great sin upon them?” 22 Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil. 23 For they said to me, ‘Make a god for us who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’ So they gave [it] to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”
Moses calls Aaron to account. As a person Aaron is weak. He doesn’t acknowledge his own fault. He blames the people as if he had been unable to do anything but what they have asked. His arguments show what kind of man he is. He who represents the people before God has made himself their slave. And as for the calf, he says, he did not do anything about it either. He just threw the gold they gave him into the fire, and then the calf emerged. He forgot what he did (verse 4). The fact that he still lives despite his serious sin is because Moses also prayed for him (Deu 9:20).
How difficult it is to admit our guilt. Just like Aaron, and like Adam, we all too quickly place the responsibility for our wrong actions with others. And as far as our own share is concerned, we have our excuse ready too. We think that we have not been able to influence sin. It went as it did: “And out came this calf.” So we did not do it ourselves, but the circumstances.
25 - 29 The Levites Choose for the LORD
25 Now when Moses saw that the people were out of control—for Aaron had let them get out of control to be a derision among their enemies— 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, [come] to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered together to him. 27 He said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Every man [of you] put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.’” 28 So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day. 29 Then Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves today to the LORD—for every man has been against his son and against his brother—in order that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.”
In the mountain Moses was zealous for the people, and pleaded for them. Now he is with the sinful people, and full of zeal for the honor of the LORD. He sees the derailment of the people. The leader Aaron did not exercise the authority given to him by God, but was guided by the wishes of the people. Lawlessness leads to shamelessness, which in turn leads to derision by the enemies.
Moses makes a call to whom the LORD belongs. The Levites choose for the LORD. He instructs them to judge evil on behalf of the LORD. Without regard to the person, the Levites must go through the camp with their sword and kill their brothers. Later, when Moses blesses the twelve tribes, he mentions this honorably (Deu 33:9).
Their work is not desirable, but it is necessary. The holiness of God requires that discipline be exercised in the church and that evil be judged in this way. This can only happen by people who have dedicated themselves to the Lord. The result is blessing.
30 - 34 Moses Wants to Make Atonement
30 On the next day Moses said to the people, “You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the LORD, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 Then Moses returned to the LORD, and said, “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. 32 But now, if You will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!” 33 The LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book. 34 But go now, lead the people where I told you. Behold, My angel shall go before you; nevertheless in the day when I punish, I will punish them for their sin.”
After the execution of the judgment, Moses once again proves his great love for the people. With the words “perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” he climbs up again to the LORD. His attachment to this people who have corrupted themselves in this way is impressive. He even talks about wanting to die instead of the people.
Moses, however, cannot die instead of the people; he cannot make atonement for them. Only the Lord Jesus, the perfect sinless Man, can do this.
35 The Punishment for the People
35 Then the LORD smote the people, because of what they did with the calf which Aaron had made.
This is the summary of the judgment that has come upon the people. The reason for this is that the people made the calf and Aaron helped them to do so. The fact that not all the people have perished, while all the people have sinned, is proof of the grace and mercy of God.