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.” So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 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.” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.
And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”
But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, “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? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did He bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and relent from this disaster against Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the LORD relented from the disaster that He had spoken of bringing on His people.
Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” But he said, “It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.” 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.
And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” And Aaron said, “Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, ‘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.’ So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”
The next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if You will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of Your book that you have written.” But the LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, My angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.”
Then the LORD sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made.
Exodus 32:1-24, 30-35
This is a brutal and terrifying story.
Moses delays with God up on the mountain for forty days, receiving the ten commandment tablets and instructions for the Tabernacle. Meanwhile, the people on the plain down below become impatient and - after being miraculously delivered from Egypt, provided for in the wilderness, and witnessing the glory of the LORD on the mountain - entreat Aaron to make an idol for them to worship instead of God. Aaron complies, and the golden calf is made, worshiped, and celebrated with a sumptuous feast and afterparty. God’s anger, rightfully, burns hot, and He announces a plan to destroy His people and start over with Moses like He did with Noah, fulfilling His promises to the patriarchs through Moses’ children. But Moses intercedes for the people and appeals to the LORD’s mercy and faithfulness, and the LORD relents. However, the people are still visited with the punishments of executions, plague, and literally drinking the consequence of their sin.
I’m not gonna lie, this is a God that I often forget is THE God, and not one whom I want to mess with. It makes me cold and clammy with fear to read about His wrath against such a seemingly simple sin as idolatry… especially when the accompanying activities are ones that I so often devote my time and energies to: feasting and fun! This is a sobering reminder of the holiness of God: “You are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with You.” (Psalm 5:4) Yet, praise the LORD, every reminder of the good fear of the LORD is meant to lead us into thankful worship and peace in the gospel: “But with You there is forgiveness, that You may be feared.” (Psalm 130:4) “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:21-23)
It is here that the fulfilled and better promises of the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood become sweeter to me than the old wine of the Mosaic Covenant. For we all, like the people down on the plain, have gone and often still go astray after idols, like sheep without a shepherd. But we have the Good Shepherd, the better intercessor than Moses, who continually pleads for our innocence at the right hand of the Father because of the Triune God’s love for us. He holds up His nail-scarred hands as a reminder that He was executed in our place for our sins. He indicates His pierced side as proof that He took our illnesses and bore our plague. Through His death and resurrection, He testifies that He drank the wrath of God - the consequence for our sins - down to the very dregs, and when He was through, wiped His mouth and said, “It is finished.”
What a marvelous, beautiful, and kind Savior we have in God. Please join me in praising Him today for His gospel of forgiveness that encourages me to endure in the fear of Him through consistent communion with Him, and comforts me in my failures to do so with the good news that I - unlike the people of Israel who served as examples for us - will never taste the fruit of my sin, because God ate it Himself and in exchange gave me the fellowship meal of Himself. “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!” (Psalm 34:8)
Soli Deo gloria.