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THE IDOLATRY OF THE GOLDEN CALF. During the absence of Moses in Mount Sinai, an absence of nearly six weeks, the Israelites grew impatient, and regarding their leader as lost to them, and the Divine Presence which they had hitherto enjoyed as lost with him, insisted on having a symbol of that presence made for them, which should henceforth go in front of the host and so lead them on in their journeyings. It would seem that the pillar of the cloud, which had gone before them from Succoth to Sinai, was now removed from the camp, and resting upon the "mount" where Moses was (Exodus 24:15). Under these circumstances they wanted a visible tangible something, in which they could regard the Divine Presence as resting, and whereto they might offer worship and sacrifice (Exodus 32:8). They therefore went to Aaron, whom Moses had bid them consult in any difficulty (Exodus 24:14), and requested him to "make them a god." Aaron had not the courage to meet this request with a plain negative. As Augustine and Theodoret conjecture with much probability, he sought to turn them from their purpose by asking them to give up those possessions which he conceived that they most valued—viz, the personal ornaments of their wives and children. But he had miscalculated the strength of their fanaticism. The people immediately complied—the ornaments were brought in—and Aaron was compelled, either to fly from his word, or to lend himself to the people's wishes. He did the latter. Either looking to Egypt for a pattern, or falling back on some old form of Syrian or Chaldaean idolatry (see the comment on Exodus 32:4), he melted down the gold and cast it into the form of a calf. The "god" being thus made, an altar was built to it (Exodus 32:5) and sacrifice offered (Exodus 32:6). Such was the condition of affairs when Moses, having just received the two tables of stone, was warned by God of what had occurred, and bidden to descend from Sinai.
The people saw that Moses delayed to come down. He had been absent, probably, above a month. It was the first day of their worship when he descended; and a week would suffice for the collection of the ornaments, the formation of the mould, and the casting of the idol. Unto Aaron. It is not clear why no mention is made of Hur, who had been made co-regent with Aaron (Exodus 24:14); but perhaps Aaron was known to be the weaker of the two. Up, make us gods. Most moderns translate" a god." But the word is vague, and the speakers did not themselves perhaps care whether one idol was made or more. Which shall go before us. The Israelites were apparently tired of their long delay at Sinai, and were anxious to proceed upon their journey. They wanted a visible god at their head, to give them confidence and courage. Compare 1 Samuel 4:3-8. We wot not what is become of him. He might, they thought, be dead—he might have returned to Egypt—he might be going to stay always with God in the mount which they did not dare to approach. At any rate, he was lost to them, and they might never see him again.
Break off. "Take off" would perhaps be a better translation. The ear-rings would not require any breaking. They were penannular, and could be removed by a smart pull. Your wives, your sons, and your daughters. See the comment on Exodus 3:22. It is implied that the men did not wear earrings. At an earlier date the household of Jacob, chiefly men, had worn them (Genesis 35:4).
All the people broke off the golden ear-rings. Thus, as is supposed, disappointing Aaron, who had counted on the refusal of the women to part with their finery, and the reluctance of the men to compel them. Had ear-rings been still regarded as amulets (Genesis 1:1-31.s.c.) it is not likely that they would have been so readily given up.
And fashioned it with a graving tool. Rather, "and bound it (the gold) in a bag." Compare 2 Kings 5:23, where the same two Hebrew words occur in the same sense. It is impossible to extract from the original the sense given in the Authorised Version, since the simple copula van cannot mean "after." When two verbs in the same tense are conjoined by van "and," the two actions must be simultaneous, or the latter follow the former. But the calf cannot have been graven first, and then molten. It is objected to the rendering, "he bound it in a bag," that that action is so trivial that it would be superfluous to mention it (Keil). But it is quite consonant with the simplicity of Scripture to mention very trivial circumstances. The act of putting up in bags is mentioned both here and also in 2 Kings 5:23, and 2 Kings 12:9. They said. The fashioners of the image said this. These be thy gods. Rather, "This is thy God." Why Aaron selected the form of the calf as that which he would present to the Israelites to receive their worship, has been generally explained by supposing that his thoughts reverted to Egypt, and found in the Apis of Memphis or the Mnevis of Hellopolis the pattern which he thought it best to follow. But there are several objections to this view.
1. The Egyptian gods had just been discredited by their powerlessness being manifested—it was an odd time at which to fly to them.
2. Apis and Mnevis were not molten calves, but live bulls. If the design had been to revert to Egypt, would not a living animal have been selected?
3. The calf when made was not viewed as an image of any Egyptian god, but as a representation of Jehovah (2 Kings 12:5).
4. The Israelites are never taxed with having worshipped the idols of Egypt anywhere else than in Egypt (Joshua 24:14; Ezekiel 20:8; Ezekiel 23:3). To us it seems probable that Aaron reverted to an earlier period than the time of the sojourn in Egypt, that he went back to those "gods on the other side of the flood," which Joshua warned the Israelites some sixty years later, to "put away" (Joshua l.s.c.). The subject is one too large for discussion here; but may not the winged and human-headed bull, which was the emblem of divine power from a very early date in Babylon, have retained a place in the recollections of the people in all their wanderings, and have formed a portion of their religions symbolism? May it not have been this conception which lay at the root of the cherubic forms, and the revival of which now seemed to Aaron the smallest departure from pure monotheism with which the people would be contented?
He built an altar before it. Aaron thus proceeded to "follow a multitude to evil" (Exodus 23:2), and encouraged the idolatry which he felt himself powerless to restrain. Still, he did not intend that the people should drift away from the worship of Jehovah, or view the calf as anything but a symbol of him. He therefore made proclamation and said, Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord (literally, "to Jehovah ").
They rose up early on the morrow. The people were like a child with a new toy. They could scarcely sleep for thinking of it. So, as soon as it was day, they left their beds, and hastened to begin the new worship Burnt offerings and peace offerings. It is evident that both of these were customary forms of sacrifice—neither of them first introduced by the Law, which had not—except so far as the "Book of the Covenant" was concerned—been promulgated. Compare Jethro's offerings (Exodus 18:12). The people sat down to eat and drink. A feast almost always followed upon a sacrifice, only certain portions of the victim being commonly burnt, while the rest was consumed by the offerers. See the comment on Exo 18:1-27 :32. And rose up to play. This "play" was scarcely of a harmless kind. The sensualism of idol-worship constantly led on to sensuality; and the feasts upon idol-sacrifices terminated in profligate orgies of a nature which cannot be described. See the application of the passage by St. Paul in the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Exodus 10:7), and compare Exodus 18:25
The hankering after idols, and its consequences.
There is a war ever going on in human nature between the flesh and the spirit (Romans 7:23; Romans 8:1-13). The two are "contrary the one to the other." From the time of their leaving Egypt, the Israelites had been leading a spiritual life, depending upon an unseen God—following his mandates—reposing under the sense of his protection. But the strain was too much for them. So long as they had Moses with them, to encourage them by his exhortations and support them by his good example, they managed to maintain this higher life, to "walk in the spirit," to "live by faith and not by sight." When he was gone, when he seemed to them lost, when they had no hope of seeing him again, the reaction set in. The flesh asserted itself. They had given way to idolatry in Egypt, and worshipped, in part, Egyptian gods, in part, "the gods which their fathers served on the other side of the flood" (Joshua 24:14, Joshua 24:15); they had, no doubt, accompanied this worship with the licentiousness which both the Egyptians (Herod. 2.60) and the Babylonians (ib, 1.199) made a part of their religion. Now the recollection of these things recurred to them, their desires became inflamed—the flesh triumphed. The consequences were—
I. THAT THEY BROKE A PLAIN COMMAND OF GOD, AND ONE TO WHICH THEY HAD RECENTLY PLEDGED THEMSELVES. "All the words which the Lord hath said," they had declared "we will do" (Exodus 24:3); and among these "words" was the plain one—"Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them." Nevertheless they required Aaron to make them a material god, and it was no sooner made than they hastened to worship it with burnt-offerings and other sacrifices.
II. THAT THEY PROCEEDED TO BREAK THE MORAL LAW WRITTEN IN THEIR HEARTS, AND LATELY REINFORCED BY THE PLAIN PROHIBITION OF THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT. "They sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play." They engaged in licentious dancing (Exodus 32:19), and perhaps laid aside some of their usual garments (Exodus 32:25). They turned a worship, which they still pretended to render to Jehovah (Exodus 32:5) into an orgy. If they did not proceed to the lengths of completed sin, they entered upon the slippery path which, almost of necessity, leads to it. By this conduct they so provoked God—
III. THAT THEY RAN THE RISK OF BEING SWEPT AWAY FROM THE EARTH. A sentence of death was at first pronounced against the whole people (Exodus 32:10), and would infallibly have taken effect, had not Moses interceded, and by his intercession prevailed. Universal apostasy deserved universal destruction. There is no reason to believe that the execution of the sentence pronounced would have been stayed, but for the expostulation and the prayer recorded in Exodus 32:11-13.
IV. THAT THEY ACTUALLY BROUGHT UPON THEMSELVES A HEAVY PUNISHMENT. The immediate slaughter of three thousand was required to purge the offence (Exodus 32:28). The sin was further visited upon the offenders subsequently (see comment on Exodus 32:34). Some were, on account of it, "blotted out of God's book" (Exodus 32:33). Christians should take warning, and not, when they have once begun "living after the Spirit," fall back and "live after the flesh" (Romans 8:13). There are still in the world numerous tempting idolatries. We may hanker after the "lusts of the flesh," or "of the eye"—we may weary of the strain upon our nature which the spiritual life imposes—we may long to exchange the high and rare atmosphere in which we have for a while with difficulty sustained ourselves, for the lower region where we shall breathe more easily. But we must control our inclinations. To draw back is to incur a terrible danger—no less a one than "the perdition of our souls." It were better "not to have known the way of righteousness," or walked in it for a time, "than, after we have known it," and walked in it, "to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto us" (1 Peter 2:21).
HOMILIES BY D. YOUNG
The Golden Calf.
I. THE PEOPLE'S REQUEST TO AARON.
1. The cause of the request. There are really two causes to be considered here, first, a cause of which they were conscious, and then, secondly, a deeper cause of which they were not conscious. The delay of Moses to return was the reason they put forward. We must do them the justice of noticing that they seem to have waited till the forty days were well-nigh expired before preferring their request; and an absence of forty days was inexplicable to minds as yet so spiritually darkened and benumbed as those of the majority of the people. What he could have to do, and how he could live so long, away up on a barren mountain, was beyond their power of imagination. Moses was given up just as a ship is given up when it has not been heard of for many days after the reasonable period of the voyage. It was not a case of being out of sight, out of mind; he had been a great deal in mind, and the general conclusion was that in some mysterious way he had vanished altogether. But there is also the deeper reason of the request to be found in the people's continued ignorance of the real hold which Jehovah had upon them, and the sort of future towards which he would have them look. Their action here was founded not on what they knew, but emphatically on what they did not know. They could not say, "Moses is dead," or "he has forsaken us." They could only say, "We wot not what is become of him." So far as outward circumstances were concerned, the people seem to have been in a state of comparative security and comfort. When Moses went up into the mountain, he knew not how long he would have to wait; that was not for him or Aaron or any man to know. But however long he was to be away, all due provision had been made for the people's welfare. The daily morning manna was there; and Aaron and Hur were appointed to settle any disputes that might arise. There is no word of any external enemy approaching; there is no threatening of civil strife; there is not even a recurrence of murmuring after the fleshpots of Egypt. All that was needed was quiet waiting on the part of the people; if they had waited forty months instead of forty days, there would have been nothing to cause reasonable astonishment; for Jehovah and not man is the lord of times and seasons.
2. The request itself. There is a certain unexpectedness in this request. Who is it that is missing? Moses, the visible leader," the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt." Hence we might suppose the first feeling of the people would be to put some one in Moses' place; even as later they said, "Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt" (Numbers 14:4). But instead of this their cry to Aaron is, "Make us gods." How little did Moses expect, when he put Aaron to be counsellor of the people in his absence, that it was for image-worship they would seek his help! And yet the more we ponder, the more we shall be led. to feel that this was just the kind of request that might be expected from the people. Their ancestors, Abraham, IsaActs and Jacob believed in the invisible Jehovah; but faith in the invisible will not go down from generation to generation, as if it were a blood quality. The God of Abraham was one whom, though Abraham could not see, he could hear as speaking with most miraculous organ. But these people at Sinai wanted above all things a god whom they could see, even though it was but a lifeless, sightless, voiceless image. Great is the mystery of idolatry. How men have come to bow down to stocks and stones is not a question to be dismissed with a few contemptuous words. These idolatrous Israelites were seeking satisfaction for a desire of the heart as imperious in its own way as bodily hunger and thirst. They wanted something to be a centre of worship and religious observances in general, and the quickest way seemed to fabricate such a centre by the making of gods. Whereas, if they had only been patient and trustful and waited for Moses, they would have found that, even by the very absence of Moses, God himself was providing for the worship of the people. We have here another illustration of the frequent follies of popular decisions. The greatest thing that required to be done for these Israelites was the thing that needed to be done in them.
II. AARON'S COMPLIANCE WITH THE REQUEST. He shewed great readiness in falling in with the request; and it has been suggested that his readiness was only in appearance, and that he hoped the women would refuse to surrender their cherished ornaments, thus making the construction of a suitable image impossible. It may have been so; but why should we not think that Aaron may have been as deeply infected with the idolatrous spirit as any of his brother Israelites? There is everything to indicate that he went about the execution of the request with cordiality and gratification. And it must not be forgotten that in the midst of all his forgetfulness of the command against image-worship, he evidently did not think of himself as forsaking Jehovah. When the image and the altar were ready, it was to Jehovah he proclaimed the feast. What Aaron and the people along with him had yet to learn was that Jehovah was not to be served by will-worship or by a copy of the rites observed in honouring the gods of other nations. Thus all unconsciously, Israel demonstrated how needful were the patterns given in the mount. The feast to Jehovah, indicated in Exodus 32:6, was nothing but an excuse for the most reckless and degrading self-indulgence. How different from the ideal of those solemn seasons which Jehovah himself in due time prescribed; seasons which were meant to lift the people above their common life into a more hearty appreciation of the Divine presence, goodness and favour, and thus lead them into joys worthy of the true people of God.—Y.
HOMILIES BY J. ORR
The sin of the golden calf.
Disastrous effects followed in the camp of Israel on the withdrawal of Moses' to the mount. Moved as by a common impulse, the people "gathered themselves together," and demanded of Aaron that he should make them "a god," i.e. an idol, that it might go—be carried in procession—before them (cf. Amos 5:26). It was a case of "hand joined in hand" to do iniquity (Proverbs 11:21). Many, doubtless, looked on the movement with dismay and horror (cf. Exodus 32:26); but their voices were drowned in the general clamour. The "lewd fellows of the baser sort" (Acts 17:5) had, for the moment, the upper hand in the host, and swept all before them. Intimidated by the show of violence, Aaron weakly acceded to the people's request. The whole incident strikingly illustrates the commanding space which must have been filled in the camp of Israel by the personality of Moses, and affords some measure of the turbulent and refractory dispositions of the multitude whom ordinarily he had to deal with. It sheds light, also, on the greatness of Moses' character, set as that is in contrast with the weakness and irresolution exhibited by Aaron. Consider—
I. THE PEOPLE'S TRIAL (Exodus 32:1). Every situation in which we can be placed has its elements of trial. These are purposely mingled with our lot
(1) that dispositions may be tested, and
(2) that life may be to us in fact, what it is needful that it should be for the proper development of character, viz. a succession of probations. The trial of the Israelites consisted:
1. In the delay in the return of Moses. Moses had disappeared in the mountain. Weeks had passed without his return. It had not been told the people how long his absence was to last. This constituted a trial of faith and patience. It gave colour to the allegation that Moses had perished—that he had gone from them for e
Cf. what is said in Luke 12:37-49 of the uncertainty left to rest upon the time of the Lord's second advent. Faith has its trial here also. Because Christ's coming is delayed, there are those who would fain persuade themselves that he will not return at all (2 Peter 3:4).
2. In the scope given by his absence for the manifestation of character. On this, again, compare Luke 12:37-49. It was the first time since the departure from Egypt that the people had been left much to themselves. Hitherto, Moses had always been with them. His presence had been a check on their wayward and licentious tendencies. His firm rule repressed disorders. Whatever inclinations some of them may have felt for a revival of the religious orgies, to which, perhaps, they had been accustomed in Egypt, they had not ventured, with Moses in the camp, to give their desires publicity. The withdrawal of the lawgiver's presence, accordingly, so soon after the conclusion of the covenant, was plainly of the nature of a trial. It removed the curb. It left room for the display of character. It tested the sincerity of recent professions. It showed how the people were disposed to conduct themselves when the tight rein, which had hitherto kept them in, had been a little slackened. It tested, in short, whether there were really a heart in them to keep all God's commandments always (Deuteronomy 5:29). Alas! that in the hour of their trial, when so splendid an opportunity was given them of testifying their allegiance, their failure should have been so humiliating and complete.
II. THE PEOPLE'S SIN. Note—
1. The sin itself. They had made for them "a molten calf" (Luke 12:4), which, forthwith, they proceeded to worship with every species of disgraceful revelry (Luke 12:6). The steps in the sin are noted in the narrative.
(1) They approached Aaron with a demand to make them "a god." The light, irreverent way in which, in connection with this demand, they speak of their former leader—"As for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wet not what is become of him" (Luke 12:1)—betrays an extraordinary levity, ingratitude, and callousness of nature.
(2) They stripped themselves of their ornaments of gold for the making of the "god" (Luke 12:3). They did this gladly. People, as a rule, spend freely on their vices. They are not so ready to part with their valuables for the service of Jehovah.
(3) They mixed up their calf worship with the service of the true God. On the supposed connection with the ox- and calf-worship of Egypt, see the exposition. The calf made by Aaron was evidently intended as a symbol of Jehovah (Luke 12:4). The result was an extraordinary piece of syncretism. An altar was built before the calf, and due honours were paid to it as the god which had brought Israel out of Egypt (Luke 12:4, Luke 12:5). A feast was proclaimed to Jehovah (Luke 12:5). When the morrow came, the people "offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings," only, however, to engraft on the sacrificial festivities the rites of the filthiest heathen worships (Luke 12:6; cf. Luke 12:25). It was their own passions which they sought to gratify; but, in gratifying them, they still endeavoured to keep up the semblance of service of the revealed God. Strange that the wicked should like, if possible, to get the cloak of religion even for their vices. But light and darkness will not mingle. The first requirement in worship is obedience. "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:22). "The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord" (Proverbs 15:8). It was monstrous to propose to worship the spiritual Jehovah, who had expressly forbidden the use of graven images in his service, under the symbol of a calf, albeit the idol was of gold. It was worse than monstrous, it was hideous, to employ the name of the Holy One to cover the shameless and revolting orgies with which their calf-worship was associated.
(4) They were eager in this worship. They rose up early in the morning to engage in it (Luke 12:6). Would that God's people were as eager in his service as these servants of Belial were in the service of their idol!
2. The sin in its generic character. The sin at Sinai was a case
(1) of sense reasserting its supremacy over faith. "As for this Moses, we wot not what has become of him" (Luke 12:1).
(2) Of carnal tendencies regaining the ascendancy over temporary religious impressions.
(3) Of engrained evil habits resuming their sway after having been for a time forcibly kept in check. The incident shows that nothing short of a thorough regeneration, of a radical change of heart, can be relied on to keep men in the way of good. It is the heart that needs renewal. David seized the matter at the root when he was led to pray, "Create in me a clean heart" etc. (Psalms 51:10). It was the want of this thorough renewal which was the bane of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:27-30).
3. Aggravations of the sin. The circumstances under which the sin was committed added greatly to its enormity.
(1) It was a sin committed immediately after solemn covenant with God. The transactions recorded in Luke 24:1-53. were not yet forty days old. The people had literally heard God speaking to them. They had acknowledged the solemnity of the situation by entreating Moses to act as mediator. They had formally, and under awful impressions of God's majesty, pledged themselves to life-long obedience. Yet within this brief space of time, they had thrown off all restraints, and violated one of the main stipulations of their agreement. A more flagrant act of impiety it would be difficult to imagine.
(2) It was a sin committed while Moses was still in the mount transacting for them. He had gone to receive the tables of the law. He had been detained to receive instructions for the making of the sanctuary—that God might dwell among them. A solemn time, truly! While it lasted, the people might surely have been depended on to conduct themselves with at least ordinary propriety. Instead of this, witness their mad gambols round their calf. The very time when, of all others, their frame of mind ought to have been devout, sober, prayerful, was the time chosen for the perpetration of this great iniquity.
III. AARON'S SHARE IN THE TRANSGRESSION. This, it is to be noted, the narrative makes no attempt to conceal. It tells the story with perfect impartiality. The Bible, like its author, is without respect of persons. If Aaron leads the people astray, he must, like others, submit to have the truth told about him. This is not the way of ordinary biographies, but it is the way of Scripture. It is one mark of its inspiration. It is a guarantee of its historic truthfulness. The conduct of Aaron cannot be justified; but suggestions may be offered which help to render intelligible.
1. Aaron was placed in a situation in which it was very difficult to know exactly what to do. A mob confronted him, evidently bent on gratifying its dangerous humour, its demand was peremptory. To resist its will was to run the risk of being stoned. The temptation which, in these circumstances, naturally presented itself to a timid mind, and to which Aaron yielded, was to put the people off, and endeavour to gain time by some show of concession. In the interval, Moses might return, and the difficulty would be solved. See the mistake of this policy. It was
(1) wrong. It involved a sacrifice of principle. It was temporising.
(2) Weak. Had Aaron been brave enough to take a firm stand, even at the risk of losing his life for it, not improbably he might have crushed the movement in its bud. As it was, his sanction and example gave it an impetus which carried it beyond the possibility of being subsequently controlled.
(3) Self-defeating. A temporising policy usually is. The favourable chance on which everything has been staked, does not turn up. Moses did not return, and Aaron, having yielded the preliminary point, found himself hopelessly committed to a bad cause.
2. Aaron may have thought that by requiring the women of the camp to part with their personal ornaments, he was taking an effectual plan to prevent the movement from going further (Luke 24:2). They might, he may have reasoned, be very willing to get gods, and yet not be willing to make this personal sacrifice to obtain them. If this was his idea, he was speedily undeceived. The gold ornaments came pouring in (Luke 24:3), and Aaron, committed by this act also, had no alternative but to proceed further. "He received them at their hands," etc. (Luke 24:4).
3. Aaron may have thought that, of the two evils, it would be better to put himself at the head of the movement, and try to keep it within bounds, than to allow it to drift away, without any control whatever. He may have argued that to allow himself to be stoned would not make matters better, but would make them greatly worse. On the other hand, by yielding a little, and placing himself at the head of the movement, he might at least succeed in checking its grosser abuses. This is a not uncommon opiate to conscience, in matters involving compromise of principle. It is the idea of the physician who humours a mad patient, in the hope of being able to retain some control over him. The step was a false one. Even with madmen, as wiser doctors tell us, the humouring policy is not the most judicious. With a mob, it is about the worst that could be adopted.
IV. GENERAL LESSONS.
1. The strength of evil propensities in human nature.
2. The fleetingness of religious impressions, if not accompanied by a true change of heart.
3. The degrading character of idolatry. Sin bestialises, and the bestial nature seeks a god in bestial form (cf. Romans 1:21-32). "Men," says Xenophanes, "imagine that the gods are born, are clothed in our garments, and endowed with our form and figure. But if oxen or lions had hands, and could paint and fashion things as men do, they too would form the gods after their own similitude, horses making them like horses, and oxen like oxen." But we have seen that men also can fashion their gods in the similitude of oxen. "They that make them are like unto them" (Psalms 115:8).
4. Mammon-worship is a worship of the golden calf. Cf. Carlyle on "Hudson's Statue" ("Latter-Day Pamphlets").—J.O.
THE INTERCESSION OF MOSES. Moses, in Sinai, was so far removed from the camp, and the cloud so shut out his vision of it, that he had neither seen nor heard anything unusual, and was wholly ignorant of what had happened, until God declared it to him (Exodus 32:7, Exodus 32:8). After declaring it, God announced his intention of destroying the people for their apostasy, and fulfilling his promise to Abraham by raising up a "great nation" out of the seed of Moses (Exodus 32:10). No doubt this constituted a great trial of the prophet's character. He might, without sin, have acquiesced in the punishment of the people as deserved, and have accepted the promise made to himself as a fresh instance of God's goodness to him. There would have been nothing wrong in this; but it would have shown that he fell short of the heroic type, belonged to the ordinary run of mortals, was of the common "delf," not of "the precious porcelain of human clay." God's trial of him gave him an opportunity of rising above this; and he responded to it. From the time that he reached full manhood (Exodus 2:11) he had cast in his lot with his nation; he had been appointed their leader (Exodus 3:10); they had accepted him as such (Exodus 4:31); he had led them out of Egypt and brought them to Sinai; if he had looked coldly on them now, and readily separated his fate from theirs, he would have been false to his past, and wanting in tenderness towards those who were at once his wards and his countrymen. His own glory naturally drew him one way, his affection for Israel the other. It is to his eternal honour that he chose the better part; declined to be put in Abraham's place, and generously interceded for his nation (Exodus 32:11-13). He thereby placed himself among the heroes of humanity, and gave additional strength and dignity to his own character.
Go, descend—i.e; "make haste to descend—do not tarry—there is need of thy immediate presence." Thy people, which thou broughtest, etc. Words calculated to awaken the tenderness between which and self-love the coming struggle was to be.
They have turned aside quickly. A few weeks have sufficed to make them forget their solemn pledges (Exodus 19:8; Exodus 24:3), and fly in the face of a plain unmistakable commandment. A molten calf. In the contemptuous language of Holy Scripture when speaking of idols, such an emblematic figure as the Babylonion man-bull would be a mere "calf." That the figure made by Aaron is called always "a molten calf"—literally, "a calf of fusion"—disposes of the theory of Keil, that it was of carved wood covered with gold plates hammered on to it. These be thy gods, which have brought thee. Rather, "This is thy god, which has brought thee." The plural must be regarded as merely one of dignity.
A stiffnecked people. This epithet, which becomes epitheton usitatum, is here used for the first time. It does not so much mean "obstinate" as "perverse" like a horse that stiffens the neck when the driver pulls the right or left rein, and will not go the way he is wanted to go. (Compare Exodus 33:3, Exodus 33:5; Exodus 34:9; Deuteronomy 9:6, Deuteronomy 9:13; Deuteronomy 31:27; etc.)
Now, therefore, let me alone. This was not a command, but rather a suggestion; or, at any rate, it was a command not intended to compel obedience—like that of the angel to Jacob—"Let me go, for the day breaketh" (Genesis 32:26). Moses was not intended to take the command as absolute. He did not do so—he "wrestled with God," like Jacob, and prevailed. That my wrath may wax hot. Literally, "and my wrath will wax hot." I will make of thee a great nation. (Compare Numbers 14:12.) God could, of course, have multiplied the seed of Moses, as he had that of Abraham; but in that case all that had been as yet done would have gone for nought, and his purposes with respect to his "peculiar people" would have been put back six hundred years and more.
Moses has three pleas wherewith he "wrestles with God:"—
1. Israel is God's people, for whom he has done so much that surely he will not now destroy them, and so undo his own work.
2. Egypt will be triumphant if Israel is swept away, and will misapprehend the Divine action.
3. The promises made to Abraham (Genesis 15:5; Genesis 17:2-6; etc.), IsaActs (Genesis 26:4), and Jacob (Genesis 28:14; Genesis 35:11), which had received a partial fulfilment, would seem to be revoked and withdrawn if the nation already formed were destroyed and a fresh start made.
The Lord repented of the evil. Changes of purpose are, of course, attributed to God by an "economy," or accommodation of the truth to human modes of speech and conception. "God is not a man that he should repent." He "knows the end from the beginning." When he threatened to destroy Israel, he knew that he would spare; but, as he communicated to Moses, first, his anger, and then, at a later period, his intention to spare, he is said to have "repented." The expression is an anthropomorphic one, like so many others, on which we have already commented. (See the comment on Exodus 2:24, Exodus 2:25; Exodus 3:7, Exodus 3:8; Exodus 31:17; etc.)
The anger of God.
God may well be angry when his people apostatise; and having recently professed entire submission to his will (Exodus 19:8; Exodus 24:3), rebel suddenly, and cast his words behind their backs. God's anger against Israel was at this time intensified—
I. BY THEIR EXTREME INGRATITUDE. He had just delivered them by a series of stupendous miracles from a cruel bondage. He had brought them out of Egypt—he had divided the Red Sea before them, and led them through it—he had given them a complete victory over the Amalekites. He was supporting them day after day by a miraculous supply of food. He had condescended to enter into covenant with them, and to make them his "peculiar treasure"—"a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (Exodus 19:5, Exodus 19:6). He was further engaged in giving them a law which would place them tar in advance of other nations, and render them the main source of life and light in a world of moral darkness and deadness. There had been no moment in their history when they were more bound by every consideration of duty, honour, and thankfulness to cling to Jehovah—yet, spite of all, they had rebelled and rushed into idolatry.
II. BY THE SUDDENNESS OF THEIR APOSTASY. "They have turned aside quickly out of the way," said the Almighty to Moses (Exodus 32:8). A few weeks only had gone by since they had declared themselves God's willing servants—had entered into covenant with him, and promised to keep all his commandments. What had caused the sudden and complete change? There was nothing to account for it but the absence of Moses. But surely it might have been expected that their convictions would have had sufficient root to outlive the disappearance of Moses for as long as six weeks. The fact, however, was otherwise. They were of those who had "no root in themselves"—and as soon as temptation came, they fell away. The remembrance of their old idolatries came upon them with a force that they had not strength to resist—and it happened unto them according to the true proverb: "The dog is turned to his own vomit again, and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire" (2 Peter 2:22).
III. BY THEIR SINNING AGAINST ABUNDANT LIGHT. Until the delivery of the second commandment at Sinai, it might perhaps have been a doubtful point whether the worship of God under a material form was, or was not, offensive to him. But after that delivery, all doubt was removed. The bowing down to an image had been then and there declared an "iniquity," an offence to a "jealous God," which he would visit unto the third and fourth generation. Nor was this all. An express prohibition of the very act that Israel had now committed, had been put in the forefront of the "Book of the Covenant"—which opens thus—"Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven—ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold" (Exodus 20:22, Exodus 20:23). It was impossible therefore that they should plead ignorance. Knowingly and wilfully they had transgressed a plain command of the Great God, whose power and glory had so lately been revealed to them. They had sinned in the full light of day. Christians in their manifold idolatries—of covetousness, lust, fashion-worship, etc.—are more ungrateful than even the Israelites, since they sin against One who has died to redeem them, and they sin against a still clearer light—the double light of a full revelation of God's will, and of a conscience enlightened by the Holy Ghost. God's wrath may well "wax hot against them, to consume them from the face of the earth."
The intercession of Moses.
This intercession should be studied and laid to heart by all Christians, especially by Christian ministers, whose duty it is to "watch for the souls" of others, as "they that must give account." It was—
I. EARNEST AND IMPASSIONED. No feeble voice, no lukewarm, timid utterance, was heard in the words whereby the leader sought to save his people. Prayer, expostulation, almost reproach, sound in them. God is besought, urged, importuned, to grant the boon begged of him. The tone of Jacob's answer rings in them,—"I will not let thee go, except thou bless me" (Genesis 32:26).
II. UNSELFISH, OR RATHER SELF-RENOUNCING. The promise, "I will make of thee a great nation," has evidently taken no hold of the unselfish nature of the prophet. He declines to give it a thought. God must keep his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—not make a new promise, as if everything was now to begin afresh. The offer, which might have tempted any man, is simply set aside, as if it had not been made, or at any rate could not have been seriously meant; and the whole energy of the speaker concentrated on inducing God to spare his people.
III. WELL-REASONED. Three arguments are used, and each of them has real weight.
(1) Israel is God's people—has been chosen, called, taken into covenant, protected and defended after a marvellous fashion. All this Divine effort would have been simply thrown away, if the announced purpose were carried out and Israel destroyed. God does not usually allow his plans to be baulked, his designs to remain unaccomplished. If he "has begun a good work," he (commonly) wills to "bring it to good effect." Will he not do so in this case?
(2) Are the enemies of God to be allowed a triumph? Israel's destruction would afford to the Egyptians an ample field for scoffs, ridicule, self-glorification. Would God suffer this?
(3) Promises had been made, with great solemnity (" Thou swarest by thine own self," Exodus 32:13), to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that the "Peculiar people" should spring from them. These might be kept in the letter, but would they be kept in the spirit, if all their descendants were now destroyed, except some three, and a new nation was created out of the descendants of Moses?
IV. EFFECTUAL. "The Lord repented of the evil, which he thought to do unto his people" (Exodus 32:14). The intercession of Moses prevailed—the announced purpose was given up. God spared his People, though his anger against them continued; and they were punished in a different way (Exodus 32:33-35).
HOMILIES BY D. YOUNG
The wrath of Jehovah and the intercession of Moses.
I. JEHOVAH DESCRIBES TO MOSES THE APOSTASY OF ISRAEL. Jehovah is omniscient; even while spreading before Moses, with all elaboration, the patterns in the mount, his all-observant eye is equally on the doings of the people below. And now, just when Moses is expecting to be dismissed with his instructions for the people, he is fated to learn that they have proved themselves utterly unworthy of Jehovah's great designs. The thing described is an utter, shameless, and precipitate apostasy from Jehovah. Previous outbreaks of the sinful heart were as nothing compared to this. If it had only been the sin of a few, some half-secret departure from Jehovah confined to a corner of the camp; if there had been a prompt repudiation of it and punishment of it on the part of the great majority: then, indeed, Jehovah might have found cause even for rejoicing that the apostasy of the few had been occasion to prove the fidelity of the many. But alas! the transgression is general; there is a public adoption of the golden calf with worship and sacrifice. The idolatrous spirit has been shown in the completest and most demonstrative way. Idolatry, with its awful degradations and its fatal influences, must always be an abomination to God; but how peculiarly abominable when it rose in the midst of a people with whom God had been dealing with the tenderest compassion and the sublimest power! It is to be noticed that God calls special attention to the quickness of this apostasy. "They have turned aside quickly, out of the way." The fact of course was that they had also been turned quickly into that way, and kept in it by a kind of external force. They might promise, and while they promised mean to keep the promise, but nature was too much for them; and as soon as the Divine constraint was in any way relaxed they returned to the old path. The impression Jehovah would make on the mind of his servant is that nothing can be expected from them.
II. Jehovah indicates to Moses THE RIGHTEOUS SEVERITY WITH WHICH HE PROPOSES TO TREAT ISRAEL (Exodus 32:9, Exodus 32:10). We have to think here not only of the words of Jehovah, but also of the attitude of Moses, which seems to be indicated by these words. Even before Moses puts in his earnest intercession, we have a hint of what is in his heart. Jehovah says, "Let me alone;" as one man, about to strike another, might speak to some third person stepping between to intercept the blow In the speaking of Jehovah's words there must have been an indication of wrath, such as of course cannot be conveyed by the mere words themselves. And what, indeed, could Jehovah do, but give an unmistakable expression of his wrath with such an outbreak of human unrighteousness as is found in idolatry? No doubt there is great difficulty in understanding such expressions as those of Jehovah here. When we remember the low estate of the Israelites spiritually, and the infecting circumstances in which they had grown up, it seems hardly just to reproach them for their lapse into idolatry. But then we must bear in mind that the great object of the narrative here is to show how Jehovah cannot bear sin. The thing to be considered first of all is, not how these Israelites became idolaters, but the sad and stubborn fact that they seemed inveterate idolaters. Such a decided manifestation of idolatry as the one here revealed, when it came to the knowledge of Jehovah, was like a spark falling into the midst of gunpowder. It matters not how such a spark may be kindled; it produces an explosion the moment it touches the powder. The wrath of God must be revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Yet doubt not that the God who spoke here in such wrath and threatening loved these Israelites in the midst of their apostasy. But it was not possible in one and the same moment, and from one and the same voice, to make equally evident love for the benighted apostate himself, and wrath because of the evil that was so intimately mixed with his nature. On such an occasion it became God to give a direct and emphatic expression of wrath from his own lips, leaving his love and pity to be known indirectly through the intercession of his servant Moses. When Jehovah is angry, it is then we need most of all to remember that love is the great power in his nature.
III. Jehovah further indicates A CERTAIN TEMPTING POSSIBILITY TO MOSES. "I will make of thee a great nation." Thus we see how the word of Jehovah is made to serve two purposes. It both expresses the fulness of wrath with an apostate people, and at the same time puts a cherished servant upon a most effectual trial of his magnanimity and mediatorial unselfishness. Thus this proposition of Jehovah comes in most beautifully to emphasise the simplicity and purity of the feeling of Moses in his subsequent mediation. And though Moses makes no reference to this proposition, it is well to be enabled to see how little hold any self-seeking thoughts took of his mind.
IV. THE REPLY OF MOSES HAS NOW TO BE CONSIDERED. Not that we need stay to investigate the merits of the considerations which Moses here puts forward. He could only speak of things according as they appeared to him. We know, looking at these same things in the light of the New Testament, that even if God had destroyed these People as at first he hinted, his promises would not therefore have been nullified. The temporal destruction of a single generation of men, however perplexing it might have seemed at the time, would afterwards have been seen as neither any hindrance in the fulfilment of God's purposes, nor any dimming of the brightness of his glory. Be it remembered that these same people whom God brought out with great power and a mighty hand, yet nevertheless perished in the wilderness. Spared this time, they were in due season cut down as cumberers of the ground. And as to any scornful words the Egyptians might speak, God's glow was not at the mercy of their tongues; for it had been manifested beyond all cavil in a sufficiently terrible chapter of their own history. Then as to the words spoken to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even if all but Moses had been swept away, yet in him the seed of Abraham would have been continued, just as in the days of the flood. God did not utterly destroy the human race, but narrowed it down to one family. And more than all we should bear in mind that the true fulfilment of God's promises was to Abraham's spiritual seed; they who being of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. Hence we must not too readily conclude that what Moses said was the thing which here influenced Jehovah in what is called his repentance. The influential power was, that here was a man to say something, to act as a mediator, one deeply concerned to secure escape for these people, even while they, revelling in the plain below, are all unconscious of their danger. Notice that Moses says nothing by way of excuse for the people. Indeed, the full magnitude of their offence had not yet been comprehended by him; and it is interesting to contrast his pleadings here with an angry God, and his own wrath when he came actually in sight of the golden calf. The one thing Moses fixes on, in his appeal to God, is the great Divine purpose for Israel. He recaps how great that purpose is; he is profoundly concerned that it should not be interfered with; and so we are led to think of Jesus the true Mediator, with a knowledge of Divine purposes and human needs, such as it was not for Moses to attain. Consider how Jesus dwells and caused his apostles to dwell on God's great purposes for the children of men. Thus both from Moses the type, and Jesus the antitype, we should learn to think of men not as they are only, but as they ought to be, and as God proposes they should be. Evidently Moses kept constantly in mind God's purposes for Israel, even though he knew not how profound and comprehensive those purposes were. So let us, knowing more than Moses of God's purposes for men in Christ Jesus, keep constantly in mind that which will come to all who by a deep patient, and abiding faith approve themselves true children of Abraham.—Y.
HOMILIES BY G. A. GOODHART
Some powers restrain, some compel.
Here we see a restraining power, and one which can even restrain God. Notice—
I. EVIL THREATENED.
1. Justly merited. Remember all that had gone before: deliverance after a series of awe-inspiring judgments on the oppressors; warnings after previous murmurings; now, with a fuller revelation of God's majesty, this act of impatient apostasy: all compelled to the conclusion that the people were utterly stiff-necked (Exodus 32:9).
2. Complete and final. As a moulder in clay, when he finds his material getting hard and intractable, throws it down, casts it away, and takes up with something more pliable, so God determines with regard to Israel (Exodus 32:10). Let the children of Israel go, and let the children of Moses inherit the promises.
II. THE INTERCESSION. Only one thing held back the judgment (Exodus 32:10). As though God could not act without the consent of Moses. [Cf. Hot sun would melt snow but for shadow of protecting wall.] The heat of God's wrath cannot consume so long as Moses stands in the way and screens those against whom it burns. What a power! See how it was exercised:—
1. Unselfishly. He might have thought, "A disgrace to we if these people are lost when I have led them;" this fear, however, provided against by the promise that he shall be made "a great nation," The intercession is prompted by pure unselfishness; Moses identifies himself with those for whom he pleads; and this gives the power. To come between the sun and any object, you must be in the line of the sun's rays; and to come, as Moses did, between God and a people, you must be in the line of God's will
2. With perfect freedom. Moses talks with Jehovah as a trusted steward might with his employer:
(1) Why so angry when he has exercised such power on their behalf? (Exodus 32:11).
(2) Why should the Egyptians be permitted to taunt him with caprice and cruelty? (Exodus 32:12).
(3) Let him remember his oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 32:13). The unselfish man need not fear to speak thus openly with God. Unselfishness is so God-like that it permits familiarity whilst it guards against irreverence.
III. EVIL REPENTED OF. Notice:—
1. The repentance was in direct answer to the intercession (cf. Exodus 32:12, Exodus 32:14). God did as Moses begged that he would do. Had Moses been less firm, God's wrath would certainly have consumed the people. Yet—
2. God cannot change! No: but Moses kept his place [cf. the wall screening the snow]; and therefore the conditions were never such as they must have been for judgment to be executed. God's repentance was one with Moses' persistence. The evil threatened was against the people, but the people apart from Moses. Moses identifying himself with them altered the character of the total.
Conclusion—What Moses did for his people that our Lord does for his Church (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25). That also we may do, each in his measure in behalf of others. It is the Pharisee who thanks God that he is not as other men are! True men love rather to identify themselves with their race, thus, salt-like, saving it from corruption; giving it shelter by the intercession of their lives.—G.
HOMILIES BY J. ORR
The first intercessions.
If Israel has been forgetting God, God has not been forgetting Israel. His eye has been on all their doings. There has not been a thought in their heart, or a word on their tongue, but, lo! it has altogether been well known to him (Psalms 139:4). It is God's way, however, to permit matters to reach a crisis before he interposes. For a time he keeps silence. During the inception and early stages of the movement in Israel, he makes no discovery of it to Moses. He allows it to ripen to its full proportions. Then he tells his servant all that has happened, and orders him to repair at once to the scene of the apostasy (Exodus 32:7-11). Mark the expression:—"Thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves"—indicating that they are no longer God's, that the covenant is broken. Moses intercedes for Israel, urging various pleas why God should not destroy them (verses 11-14). Consider—
I. THE DIVINE WRATH. "Let me alone," says God, "that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them" (verse 10). This wrath of God against the sin of Israel was—
1. Real. What we have in these verses is no mere drama, acted between God and Moses, but a most real wrath, averted by most real and earnest intercession. But for Moses' intercession, Israel would actually have been destroyed.
2. Holy. Wrath against sin is a necessary part of God's character. Not that we are to conceive of the thrice Holy One as swayed by human passions, or as needing to be soothed by human entreaty. But sin does awaken God's displeasure. He would not be God if it did not. "Resentment against sin is an element in the very life of God. It can no more be separated from God than heat from fire God is merciful. What does this mean? It means a willingness to lay aside resentment against those who have sinned. But it follows that the greater the resentment, the greater is the mercy; if there is very little resentment, there can be very little mercy; if there is no resentment at all, mercy is impossible. The difference between our religion, and the religion of other times, is this—that we do not believe that God has any very strong resentment against sin, or against those who are guilty of sin; and since his resentment has gone, his mercy has gone with it. We have not a God who is more merciful than the God of our fathers, but a God who is less righteous; and a God who is not righteous, a God who does not glow with fiery indignation against sin is no God at all." Put otherwise,-a God who cannot be angry with my sin, is one from whom it would be meaningless in me to sue for pardon. His pardon, could I obtain it, would have no moral value. Yet,
3. Restrained. The expression is peculiar—"Now, therefore, let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot," etc. The meaning is, that God is self-determined in his wrath, even as in his love (cf. Exodus 33:19). He determines himself in the exercise of it. It does not carry him away. In the present instance he restrained it, that room might be left for intercession. The words were a direct encouragement to Moses to entreat for his erring charge.
II. MOSES' INTERCESSION (verses 11-15). The last occasion on which we met with Moses as an intercessor was at the court of Egypt. We have now to listen to him in his pleadings for his own people. Four separate acts of intercession are recorded in three chapters (cf. verses 31-35; Exodus 33:12-18; Exodus 34:9). Taken together, they constitute a Herculean effort of prayer. Each intercession gains a point not granted to the previous one. First, the reversal of the sentence of destruction (verse 14); next, the consent of God to the people going up to Canaan, only, however, under the conduct of an angel (Exodus 33:1-4); third, the promise that his own presence would go with them (Exodus 33:14); finally, the perfect re-establishment of friendly relations, in the renewal of the covenant (Exodus 34:10). Like Jacob, Moses, as a prince, had power with God, and prevailed (Genesis 32:28). It is to be noted, also, that this advance in Power of prayer is connected with an advance in Moses' own experience. In the first intercession, the thought which chiefly fills his mind is the thought of the people's danger. He does not attempt to excuse or palliate their sin, but neither does he make direct confession of it. He sees only the nation's impending destruction, and is agonisingly earnest in his efforts to avert it. At this stage in his entreaty, Moses might almost seem to us more merciful than God. A higher stage is reached when Moses, having actually witnessed the transgression of the people, is brought to take sides with God in his wrath against it. His second intercession, accordingly, is pervaded by a much deeper realisation of the enormity of the sin for which forgiveness is sought. His sense of this is so awful, that it is now a moot question with him whether God possibly can forgive it (verse 32). The third intercession, in like manner, is connected with a special mark of Jehovah's condescending favour to himself (Exodus 33:9), emboldening him to ask that God will restore his presence to the nation (verse 15); while the fourth follows on the sight which is given him of Jehovah's glory, and on the revelation of the name (Exodus 34:5-8). Observe more particularly in regard to the intercession in the text—
1. The boon sought. It is that God will spare the people, that he will turn aside his fierce anger from them, and not consume them (verse 12). Thus far, as above hinted, it might almost seem as if Moses were more merciful than God. God seeks to destroy; Moses pleads with him to spare. The wrath is in God; the pity in his servant. (Contrast with this the counter scene in Jonah 4:1-11.) The affinity of spirit between Jehovah and Moses, however, is evinced later, in the hot anger which Moses feels on actually witnessing the sin. God's mercy, on the other hand, is shown in giving Moses the opportunity to intercede. It was he who put the pity into his servant's heart, and there was that in his own heart which responded to it.
2. The spirit of the supplication.
(1) How absolutely disinterested. Moses sets aside, without even taking notice of it, the most glorious offer ever made to mortal man—"I will make of thee a great nation" (verse 10). This was Moses' trial. It tested "whether he loved his own glory better than he loved the brethren who were under his charge." He endured it nobly.
(2) How intensely earnest. He seems to clasp the feet of God as one who could not, would not, leave, tilt he had obtained what he sought.
(3) How supremely concerned about God's glory. That is with Moses the consideration above all others.
3. The pleas urged. Moses in these pleas appeals to three principles in the Divine character, which really govern the Divine action
(1) To God's regard for his own work (verse 11). The finishing of work he has begun (Philippians 1:6).
(2) To God's regard for his own honour (verse 12). Moses cannot bear to think of God's action being compromised.
(3) To God's regard for his own servants (verse 13). The love he bears to the fathers (of. Deuteronomy 4:31; Deuteronomy 10:15). These are points in God's heart on which all intercession may lay hold.
4. The effect produced. God repented him of the evil he thought to do to Israel (verse 14). Repented, i.e; turned back from a course which his displeasure moved him to pursue, and which, but for Moses' intercession, he would have pursued. It does not appear, however, that Moses was at this time informed of the acceptance of his intercession. Notice, also, that the actual remission was bestowed gradually. In this first act of intercession God sees, as it were, the point to which the whole series of intercessions tends, and in anticipation thereof, lays aside his anger.—J.O.
MOSES BREAKS THE TWO TABLES. The entire conference between God and Moses being now ended, Moses hastened to descend from the mount, and interpose in the crisis that had arisen, he took carefully the two tables of stone, which he had received, in his two hands (Deuteronomy 9:15), and set out on his return to the camp. On the way, he fell in with Joshua, who must have been on the watch for his descent, and the two proceeded together. When a certain portion of the distance had been traversed, the sounds of the festivity which was going on in the camp reached their ears; and Joshua, mistaking the nature of the shouts, suggested that fighting was in progress (verse 17). Moses, however, better instructed in the actual nature of the proceedings (verses 7, 8), caught their character more correctly, and declared that what he heard was nothing but shouting (verse 18). Soon afterwards, the camp came into sight—a disorderly crowd, half stripped of their garments (verse 25), was singing choruses and dancing round the figure which Aaron had cast—the sights and sounds were those of a dissolute orgy—Moses was struck with horror and in the frenzy of his indignation, dashed the two tables to the ground and broke them into fragments (verse 19). The people, he felt, were utterly unworthy of the holy laws which he had brought them—they had "altogether gone out of the way"—they had become "abominable"—at the moment he perhaps despaired of obtaining mercy for them, and expected their entire destruction. God had not as yet told him whether he would "turn from his fierce wrath," or not.
The two tables … were in his hand. In Deuteronomy 9:15, using greater particularity, Moses says that they were "in his two hands." One was in each hand probably. Written on both their sides. This is the case generally with Assyrian and Babylonian tablets, but not with Egyptian ones, which are moreover scarcely found at this early date. Here we seem to have again an indication that some of the Israelitic civilisation had come to them from "Ur of the Chaldees."
The tables were the work of God. Shaped, i.e; by the same power by which the commandments were inscribed upon them; not, necessarily, of matter newly created for the purpose.
When Joshua heard. This abrupt introduction of Joshua, who has not been mentioned for seven entire chapters, is curious. Probably he had considered himself bound, as Moses' minister (Exodus 24:13), to await his return, and had remained in the middle portion of the mount, where he may have fed upon manna, until Moses came down from the top. The noise of the people. It is noted by travellers, that in all the latter part of the descent from Sinai, the plain at its base is shut out from sight; and that sounds would be heard from it a long time before the plain itself would open on the view. Sounds, however, which come circuitously, are always indistinct; and it is not surprising that Joshua, knowing nothing of the proceedings in the camp, should have fancied he heard a sound of war.
This verse is difficult to translate, being markedly antithetical and at the same time idiomatic. Perhaps it would be best to render—"It is not the voice of them who raise the cry of victory, nor is it the voice of them who raise the cry of defeat—the voice of them who raise a cry do I hear." The verb is the same in all the three clauses; and it would seem that Moses simply denied that there was any sound of war without making any clear suggestion as to the real character of the disturbance.
The dancing. Rather "dancing." There is no article; and as the subject had not been mentioned before, the use of the article would have been unmeaning. Dances were a part of the religious ceremonial in most ancient nations. Sometimes they were solemn and grave, like the choric dances of the ancient Dorians, and (probably) that of David in front of the Ark (2 Samuel 6:5-22); sometimes festive and joyous, yet not immodest, like the Pyrrhic and other dances at Sparta, and the dancing of the Salii at Rome; but more often, and especially among the Oriental nations, they were of a loose and lascivious character. In Egypt, the dancers appear to have been professionals of a degraded class, and the dancing itself to have been always sensual and indecent; while in Syria, Asia Minor, and Babylon, dancing was a wild orgy, at once licentious and productive of a species of phrenzy. We must suspect that it was this sort of dancing in which the Israelites were engaged—whence the terrible anger of Moses. He saw idolatry before his eyes, and idolatry with its worst accompaniments. In the extremity of his anger, he cast the tables out of his hands, dashed them violently against the ground, and brake them. For this act he is never reprehended. It is viewed as the natural outcome of a righteous indignation, provoked by the extreme wickedness of the people. We must bear this in mind when we come to consider the justice or injustice of the punishment which he proceeded to inflict on them for their sin (Exodus 32:26-29).
The act of Moses in breaking the tables.
At first sight the act seems impious, and wholly inexcusable. Here was a marvel—the greatest marvel existing in all the world—transcending the finest statue, the most glorious picture—more wonderful than the pyramids themselves or the great temple of Karnak—here was a monument shaped by the hand of God, and inscribed with his finger in characters that would have possessed through all ages an undying interest for man. Here, moreover, was a precious deposit of truth—God's great revelation to his people—put in a written form, and so rendered unalterable; no more liable to be corrupted by the uncertainty of human memory, or the glosses of tradition—pure, changeless, perfect truth; the greatest blessing that man can receive. All this, committed by God to his servant's care, and knowingly, wilfully destroyed in a moment of time! The thing seems, at first, incredible; yet we have the witness of God that it is true. Then we ask, How could Moses have so acted, and was not his action inexcusable? We look to Scripture, and we find that he is never blamed for it. He relates it of himself without any sign of self-condemnation—nay! he, at a later date, reminds the people of it in a tone which is evidently one of self-approval (Deuteronomy 9:17). What is the explanation of all this? It may help us to find a satisfactory answer, if we consider—
I. THE PROVOCATION TO THE ACT. Moses had left the people devoted apparently to God's service. When he reported to them the entire contents of the "Book of the Covenant," they had answered with one voice, "All the words which the Lord hath said, we will do" (Exodus 24:3). He had given them in charge to Aaron and Hur, on whose faithfulness he might well imagine himself justified in placing complete reliance. He had been absent less than six weeks—it might seem to him that he had been absent but a few days. And now—now that on rounding a corner of the gorge through which he was descending—he comes in sight of them once more and has them fully presented to his view, what is it he beholds? He sees the entire people—Levites and priests as well as laymen—dancing around a golden idol in a lewd and indecent way! Was not this enough to move him? Was it not enough to transport him out of himself, and render him no longer master of his actions? The wickedness of the people stood revealed to him, and. made him feel how utterly unworthy they were of the treasure which he was bringing them. Yielding to an irresistible impulse, in a paroxysm of indignation, to shew his horror at what he witnessed, he cast the tables to the ground. God seems to have regarded the provocation as sufficient, and therefore Moses receives no blame for what he did.
II. THE ACT ITSELF. The act was the destruction of a record which the people were at the moment setting at nought. It was akin to the action of God in withdrawing light from them who sin against light. It was a deserved punishment. It was a way of declaring to the people that they were unworthy to receive the truth and should not receive it. Those who saw Moses descend saw that he was bringing them something, carefully, in his two hands, and must have felt that, as he had gone up to the summit to God, it must be something from God. When he lifted up his two hands, and with a gesture of abhorrence, cast the "something" to the ground, there must have gone through them a sudden thrill of fear, a sudden sense of loss. They must have felt that their sin had found them out—that their punishment had begun. Casting the tables down and breaking them, was saying to the multitude in the most significant way'' God has cast you off from being his people."
III. THE SEQUEL OF THE ACT. If anything could have brought the Israelites generally to a sense of their guilt and shame, it would have been the act of Moses which they had witnessed. As it was, a deep impression seems to have been made; but only on the men of his own tribe. When Moses, shortly afterwards, demanded to know," Who was on the Lord's side?" (Exodus 32:26), "all the men of Levi"—i.e; the great mass of the tribe—rallied to him, and were ready to become the executioners of his wrath upon the most determined of the idolaters. This revulsion of feeling on their part was probably brought about, in a great measure, by the exhibition of indignation on the part of Moses, which culminated in his dashing the tables to the earth.
HOMILIES BY J. ORR
The return of Moses to the camp.
It may well be believed that it was with deeply agitated heart that Moses, stunned by the tidings he had just received, rejoined his faithful attendant, and as speedily as possible descended the rocky sides of the mountain. Great was the contrast between the things heavenly on which for forty days and forty nights his eyes had been uninterruptedly feasting, and the scenes he was now to witness. Even the light of common day could hardly seem otherwise than strange to him, emerging from his ecstasy. His bodily aspect, too, would be considerably altered. But in his spirit there is a stored-up energy, the product of his long rapture, which it only needs the sight of Israel's sin to kindle into awful heat of wrath.
I. THE BREAKING OF THE TABLES (Exodus 32:15-19). The downward journey was a silent one. Moses refrains from communicating to Joshua the news he has received. He is absorbed in his own thoughts. And while he muses, the fire burns (Psalms 39:3). So soon as they approach the camp, sounds of revelry are heard. Joshua, with his soldier's instinct, thinks at once of war, but Moses can tell him that it is "not the voice of them that shout for mastery," nor yet "the voice of them that cry for being overcome" that he hears, but "the voice of them that cry" (verse 8). Even Moses, however, is unprepared for the spectacle which presents itself, as, pursuing the descent, some turn in the road at length puts before his eyes the whole scene of folly. The tables of testimony are in his hands, but these, in his hot anger, he now dashes from him, breaking them in pieces on the rocks (verse 19). It was an act of righteous indignation, but symbolic also of the breaking of the covenant. Of that covenant the tables of stone were all that still remained, and the dashing of them to pieces was the final act in its rupture. Learn,
1. The actual sight of wickedness is necessary, to give us full sympathy with God in the hot displeasure with which he regards it.
2. The deepest and most loving natures are those most capable of being affected with holy indignation. Who shall compete with Moses in the boundlessness of his love for Israel? But the honour of Jehovah touches him yet more deeply.
3. It is right, on suitable occasions, to give emphatic expression to the horror with which the sight of great wickedness inspires us.
II. THE DESTRUCTION OF THE CALF (verse 20). Returning to the camp, Moses brought the orgies of the people to a speedy termination. He had little difficulty in restoring order. His countenance, blazing with anger, and exhibiting every sign of grief, surprise, and horror, struck immediate dismay into the evil-doers. No one, apparently, had the courage to resist him. The idolaters slunk in guilty haste to their tents, or stood paralysed with fear, rooted to the spot at which he had discovered them. He, on his part, took immediate steps for ridding the camp of the visible abomination. "He took the calf which they had made and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it." View this—
1. As a bitter humiliation. What could be more humiliating to these idolaters than to see their god ground to powder, and its dust made into a nauseous mixture, which afterwards they were compelled to drink? But is not this the end of all sin? The instruments of our sin become the instruments of our punishment. Our sin turns to bitterness. The golden sheen by which it at first allured us disappears from it. It ends in humiliation and degradation.
2. As a righteous retribution. Why was the calf thus ground to powder, and given to the Israelites to drink? It was no mere act of revenge on Moses' part. It was no hasty doing of his anger. It was a just retribution for a great sin. It was a method deliberately adopted of branding idol and idolaters alike with the print of the Almighty's judgment. It suggests to us the correspondence between sin and its punishment; the certainty of our sins coming home to roost; the fact that sin will be paid back to us in its own coin. Sin and retribution hang together. We "receive the things done in the body" (2 Corinthians 5:10).
3. As a prophecy of worse evil to come. Bitter as this humiliation was, it was not the whole. It was but the mark put upon the deed by God, which told those who had committed it that they must abide by it, and be prepared to eat the fruit of their doings. The drinking of the dust had its sequel in the slaughter and the plagues (verses 27, 35). Even so, the bitterness and humiliation following from sins in this life do not exhaust their punishment. They warn of worse punishment in the world to come.
III. AARON'S EXCUSES (verses 21-25). The first duty was to destroy the calf. This accomplished, or while the work was proceeding, Moses addresses himself to Aaron. His words are cuttingly severe,—"What did this people unto thee?" etc. (verse 21). Aaron, on his side, is deprecating and humble. He is afraid of Moses' anger. He addresses Moses as "my lord," and proceeds to make excuses. His excuses are typical, and deserve consideration.
1. He falls back upon the old, old plea—as old as Eden—that the blame of his sin rested on some one else than himself. "Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are bent on mischief. For they said to me," etc. (verses 22-24). It is, as we say, the old, old story of all evil-doers—"It wasn't me, indeed it wasn't; it was those wicked people who made me do it." It is the weak, childish excuse of all who, having been tempted into sin, or having through their own irresolution fallen into it, have not the honesty or manliness to make at once a frank avowal of their fault. An easy way this, were the excuse admissible, of getting rid of our responsibility; but transgressors were early taught that they will not be allowed to avail themselves of it (Genesis 3:12-20). It is not a plea which will be held valid on the day of judgment. All, more or less, are conscious of pressure exerted on them by their circumstances. There is, however, no fatality binding us to yield to that pressure, if yielding means sin. The pressure is our trial. Aaron's sin lay in his unmanly fear, in his not having the resolution to say at the critical time, No. Probably Aaron would have urged that if he had not yielded, the people would have killed him. "Then," Moses would have answered, "let them kill you. Better a thousand times that they had killed you than that you should have been the means of leading Israel into this great sin." Yet how often is the same species of excuse met with! "I couldn't help it;" "The necessity of my situation;" "Compelled by circumstances;" "Customs of the trade;" "If I hadn't done it, I would have offended all my friends;" "I should have lost my situation," etc. It may be all true: but the point is, Was the thing wrong? If it was, the case of Aaron teaches us that we cannot shield ourselves by transferring the blame of what we have done to circumstances.
2. If Aaron's first excuse was bad, the second was worse—it just happened. He put the gold, poor man, into the fire, and "there came out this calf!" It came out. He did not make it; it just came out. This was a kind of explaining which explained nothing. Yet it is precisely paralleled by people attributing, say, to their "luck," to "chance," to "fate," to "destiny," what is really their own doing. Thomas Scott says—"No wise man ever made a more unmeaning or foolish excuse than Aaron did. We should never have supposed 'that he could speak well,' were we to judge of his eloquence by this specimen." Note—
(1) The right way of dealing with a fault is frankly to acknowledge it.
(2) Though Moses so severely rebuked Aaron, he could yet intercede for him (Deuteronomy 9:20). The future high priest, who truly had "infirmity" (Hebrews 5:2), needed, on this occasion, an intercessor for himself. The severity of Moses was the severity of aggrieved love.—J.O.
HOMILIES BY J. URQUHART
Judgment and mercy.
I. THE DESCENT or MOSES THE EMBLEM OF THE LAW'S ENTRANCE INTO A WORLD OF SIN (Exodus 32:15-29).
1. He came with tables written by God's own finger. The Divine origin and claims of the law are still attested by its own nature and by man's conscience.
2. He was met by the exhibition of gross and defiant sin. The law does not come to a people waiting to receive the knowledge of God's will, but busy with their idolatry and breaking what they already know to be his will.
3. The law's advent, therefore, is in wrath (Exodus 32:19).
(1) The broken tables declare that God's covenant is broken. This is still shown in the taking away of God's word from the sinful: it is not understood. Though held in the hand, a veil is drawn between the soul and it. Spiritual death, rationalism, and infidelity, are tokens to-day of God's broken covenant.
(2) The burning of the idol, etc. The broken law is a prophecy and foretaste of wrath.
(3) The slaughter of the persistent idolaters. The place of feasting becomes the place of death.
II. THE INTERCESSOR.
1. His deep consciousness of the evil of their sin (Exodus 32:30, Exodus 32:31). The intercessor cannot make light of man's iniquity. He who bore our burdens felt their weight and terribleness as we have never yet done.
2. His love. Though he hates their iniquity, his life is bound up with theirs (Exodus 32:32).
III. THE TERRIBLENESS OF SIN AS SEEN IN THE MIRROR OF THE DIVINE ANGER.
1. The impossibility of ransom. "Whosoever hath sinned against me him will I blot out of my book." There is but one sacrifice which avails, and that reaches the heart of the sinful and changes it.
2. Mercy to the unrenewed only means a delayed judgement: "Nevertheless, in the day when I visit I will visit their sins upon them."—U.
MOSES DESTROYS THE GOLDEN CALF. The first vengeance which Moses took was upon the idol. It was probably hollow, and possibly of no great size. He might easily break it to pieces and subject the pieces to the action of fire, whereby they would be calcined, and might then be easily reduced to powder. This powder he caused to be mixed with the stream of the brook that flowed from Sinai, so that the Israelites were obliged to swallow with their drink particles of their own idol. Compare the action of Josiah with respect to the "grove" set up in the temple precincts by Manasseh (2 Kings 23:6), which was not identical, but still was similar. It has been suggested that this portion of the narrative is out of proper chronological order; and this may be so far true that the calcining and mixing with the water were at this point commanded rather than executed; but the destruction of the idol would naturally be the first thing which Moses would take in hand, and provide for, before proceeding to anything else. Only when the "abomination" was removed and. its destruction commenced, would he turn his attention to other points.
Burnt it and ground it to powder. Silver and gold subjected for a short time to a white heat, which may be easily produced by bellows, readily calcine, and are then easily crushed to a fine powder. Silver becomes detonating. I am not aware whether the case is the same with gold also. Strawed it—i.e; "sprinkled it." We need not suppose Moses to have done the whole—or even any part—himself. It was enough that he directed it to be done. The water. The article shows some particular water to be meant. We learn from Deuteronomy that it was the water of "the brook that descended out of the mount." Made the children of Israel drink of it. The brook being the only water readily accessible, the Israelites, if they drank at all, were compelled to risk swallowing particles of their "god."
Idolatry condemned by the idol's weakness and nothingness.
An idol is "nothing in the world" (1 Corinthians 8:4)—has no power—cannot even save itself. Nothing convinces men of the vanity of idolatry so much as to see their idol destroyed We read in Bede that Northmnbria was converted chiefly through the priest Coifi running a tilt at the great idol of the day, and throwing it to the ground (Eccles. Hist. 2.13). Hence the command given "utterly to abolish idols" (Isaiah 2:18). And what is true of idols proper, is true also, in its measure, of all those substitutes for God which the bulk of men idolise. Riches readily make themselves wings, and vanish, leaving their worshipper a beggar. Wife, mistress, favourite child, lover, erected into an idol, is laid low by death, decays, and crumbles in the grave. Reputation, glory, sought and striven for throughout long years as the one sole good, fades suddenly away before the breath of slander or the caprice of fortune. And when they are gone—when the bubble is burst—men feel how foolish was their adoration. Their idolatry stands self-condemned by their idol's weakness and nothingness.
AARON TRIES TO EXCUSE HIMSELF. Having taken the needful steps for the destruction of the idol, Moses naturally turned upon Aaron. He had been left in charge of the people, to guide them, instruct them, counsel them in difficulties (Exodus 24:14). How had he acquitted himself of his task? He had led the people into a great sin—had at any rate connived at it—assisted in it. Moses therefore asks, "What had the people done to him, that he should so act? How had they injured him, that he should so greatly injure them?" To this he has no direct reply. But he will not acknowledge himself in fault—he must excuse himself. And his excuse is twofold:—
1. It was the people's fault, not his; they were "set on mischief."
2. It was a fatality—he threw the gold into the fire, and "it came out this calf." We are not surprised, after this, to read in Deuteronomy, that "the Lord was very angry with Aaron to have destroyed him," and was only hindered from his purpose by the intercession of Moses
What did this people unto thee? Moses does not suppose that the people had really done anything to Aaron. He asks the question as a reproach—they had done nothing to thee—had in no way injured thee—and yet thou broughtest this evil upon them. So great a sin. Literally, "a great sin"—the sin of idolatry. If Aaron had offered a strenuous opposition from the first, the idolatry might not have taken place—the people might have been brought to a better mind.
Let not the anger of my lord wax hot. Aaron's humility is extreme, and the result of a consciousness of guilt. He nowhere else addresses Moses as "my lord." Set on mischief. Or "inclined to evil" (Kalisch).
Make us gods. Rather "Make us a god."
There came out this calf. Aaron speaks as if he had prepared no mould, but simply thrown the gold into the hot furnace, from which there issued forth, to his surprise, the golden calf. This was not only a suppressio veri, but a suggestio falsi. Having no even plausible defence to make, he is driven to the weakest of subterfuges.
We are all ready enough to condemn Aaron for his insincere and shifty answer; but do not the apostle's words occur to any of us?—"Therefore, thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest, for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things" (Romans 2:1). Do not we all, when we are taxed with faults, seek to shift the blame of them elsewhere? e.g.:—
I. ON THE PEOPLE WITH WHOM WE LIVE. Society, we say, is corrupt—is "set on mischief." Its customs are wrong, we know; but it is too strong for us. We must conform to its ways. There is no use in resisting them. Public men say—"Such and such changes in the law would be bad we know it—we admit it—but the people ask for them, so we must lend ourselves to their wishes, and take steps to get the changes made." Or again—"This or that war would be unjust, iniquitous, a flying in the face of Christian principle. To engage in it would be a crime—a disgrace to the age we live in." But let the popular voice call for the war a little loudly—and the public man yields, silences the remonstrances of his conscience, and becomes an active agent in bringing the war about. And the case is the same in private life. Ask a man why he spends on entertainments twice as much as he spends in charity, and he will immediately lay the blame on others—"every one does it." Ask him why he wastes his whole time in frivolous pursuits, newspaper-reading, club-gossiping, card-playing, party-going, and his reply is the same. Descend a little in the social scale, and ask the manufacturer why he scamps his goods; the shopkeeper why he adulterates; the ship-owner why he insures ships that he knows to be unseaworthy and sends out to be wrecked—and his answer is parallel—"every one in his line of business does the same." They compel him to follow their bad example. Descend again, ask the confidential servant why he takes "commission" from tradesmen; the cook, why she hides fresh joints among the broken victuals; the footman, why he purloins wine and cigars; they defend themselves with the same plea—"It is wrong, they know: but their class has established the practice." "We are all the victims of our social surroundings; it is not we who are in fault, but the crowd that pushes us on."
II. ON THE NATURE THAT GOD HAS GIVEN US, ON THE CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH WE ARE PLACED. Sins of temper and sins of impurity are constantly set down by those who commit them to their nature. Their tempers are naturally so bad, their passions naturally so strong. As if they had no power over their nature; as if again, they did not voluntarily excite their passions, work themselves up into rages; "make provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof." In thus doing they construct the mould into which the sins run. Sins of dishonesty are commonly attributed to circumstances: the temptation came in their way, men say, without their seeking it, and was too much for them, was not to be resisted. So with drunkenness, idleness, and the other sins connected with evil companionship; men's plea is they were brought into contact with persons who dragged them, almost forced them into evil courses. Had they been more happily circumstanced it would have been different. As if a man did not to a large extent make his own circumstances, choose his companions, construct his own way of life. We are not forced to company with any men, much less any women, out of business hours. We are not compelled to go to places of public amusement where we are tempted. The "circumstances" which lead to sin are usually circumstances which we might easily have avoided, if we had chosen, as Aaron might have avoided making the mould, or even asking for the ornaments.
MOSES PUNISHES THE RINGLEADERS. The presence of Moses in the camp—his impressive act in breaking the tables—even his seizure of the idol and consignment of it to destruction—did not arrest the licentious orgy in which the people had engaged before his coming. The "play" that had followed on the feasting still continued; though we may suppose that many had been impressed and had desisted. Moses felt that an example must be made, and a stop put to conduct which was more and more provoking the Almighty, and might at any moment bring down the judgment of complete destruction upon the whole people. He therefore took his station at the main gate of the camp (Exodus 32:26), and shouted the words "Who is on Jehovah's side? Here, to me!" The sound of the words could not, of course, have reached very far—but they rallied to him those of his own tribe who stood near, and thus placed a strong force at his disposal. Moses bade them get their swords, and proceed through the camp from end to end, slaying the idolaters—not, we may be sure, indiscriminately, but executing God's judgment on those who were most conspicuous and persistent. They were especially bidden not to spare their own nearest and dearest, which implies that many Levites were among the ringleaders. The result was the destruction by the sword of three thousand men—and the suppression of the festival. It is not to be doubted that Moses had Divine sanction for what he did in this matter (Exodus 32:27).
The people were naked. It has been suggested that "licentious" or "unruly" would be a better rendering (Gesenius, Dathe, Rosenmuller, Kalisch, Cook), but the primary sense of pharua is "naked," "stript;" and of the licentious orgies of the East, stripping or uncovering the person was a feature (Herod. 2.60), so that there is no reason for changing the expression used in the Authorised Version. Moses saw that most of the people were still without the garments that they had laid aside when they began to dance, and were probably still engaged in dancing and shouting. Aaron had made them naked. Aaron is said to have done that to which his actions had led. He had made the calf and proclaimed a festival. The "nakedness" had naturally followed. Unto their shame among their enemies. Amalekites were no doubt still hovering about the camp; indeed, the tribe probably still held most of the surrounding mountains. They would witness the orgy, and see the indecent and shameful exposure.
Moses stood in the gate of the camp. We must understand "the principal gate," since the camp had several (Exodus 32:27) Who is on the Lord's side? Let him come to me. Literally, "Who for Jehovah? To me"—but expressed, as the Hebrew idiom allows, in three words, forming an excellent rallying cry. All the sons of Levi—i.e; all who heard the cry. It is evident that there were Levites among the idolaters (Exodus 32:27, Exodus 32:29.)
Go in and out from gate to gate, etc.,—i.e; "pass through the whole camp—visit every part of it—and, where you see the licentious rites continuing, use your swords—do not spare, though the man be a brother, or a companion, or a neighbour—strike nevertheless, and bring the revel to an end."
About three thousand. We cannot gather from this, as some have done, that the Levites who rallied to Moses were only 3,000—for every Levite was not obliged to kill a man—but only that, when this number was slain, the idolaters desisted from their orgy
For Moses had said. Moses, on giving them their commission (Exodus 32:27), had told them, that their zeal in the matter would he a consecration, and would secure them God's blessing. They earned by it the semi-priestly position, which was soon afterwards assigned to them (Numbers 3:6-13).
The punishment of idolatry.
God did not long allow the sin against his majesty to remain unpunished. He declared his will to Moses (Exodus 32:27)—"Thus saith the Lord God of Israel"—and Moses, with his usual dutifulness, was prompt to execute his will. Having obtained the necessary force, he lost no time in inflicting the punishment. Of the punishment itself, we shall do well to note—
I. ITS SEVERITY. Men talk and think very slightingly in these days of sins against God's majesty. They profess scepticism, agnosticism, atheism, "with a light heart." The idea does not occur to them that their conduct is likely to bring upon them any punishment. But "God's thoughts are not as man's thoughts"—God visits such sins with death. Three thousand are slain with the sword on one day because of a few hours of idol-worship. Such is God's award. And the record of it has been "written for our learning, upon whom the ends of the world are come." It is intended to teach us that God will visit for these things; and, if not in this world, then assuredly in the next.
II. ITS JUSTICE. Idolatry is apostasy. It is a "casting of God behind the back"—a turning away from him, and a deliberate preference to him of something which is not he, and which cannot therefore but be infinitely inferior. The heart witnesses against idolatry; it tells us that we are bound, being God's creatures, to devote our whole existence to him. Idolatry might well be punished with death, if it had never been positively forbidden. But the Israelites had heard it forbidden amid the thunders of Sinai (Exodus 20:4, Exodus 20:5). They had a law against it in "the Book of the Covenant" (Exodus 20:23). They had pledged themselves to obey this law (Exodus 24:3). They could not therefore now complain. If all who had taken part in the calf-worship had perished, no injustice would have been done. But God tempers justice with mercy. There were well-nigh six hundred thousand sinners; but the lives of three thousand only were taken.
III. THE METHOD WHEREBY IT WAS ESCAPED. Those escaped who put away their sin as,
1. The Levites, who hastened to repent, and placed themselves on the Lord's side at the first summons made by Moses. This was the best course, and the only safe one. This was "turning to the Lord with all the heart;" and, though no atonement for past sin, was accepted by God through the (coming) atonement of his Son, and obtained from him, not only forgiveness, but a blessing (Exodus 32:29).
2. Those escaped who desisted either when Moses made his first appeal, or even when they saw the swords drawn, and vengeance about to be taken. To draw back from sin is the only way to escape its worst consequences. Even then, all its consequences are not escaped. Their iniquity was still "visited" on those who were now allowed to escape with their lives—"the Lord plagued the people because they made the calf" (Exodus 32:35) at a later date.
HOMILIES BY J. ORR
The zeal of Levi.
Panic was in the camp. The idolaters stood as they had been taken in their guilty revels. Their sin had been of too heinous a nature to admit of its being passed over without severe punishment. Law must be vindicated. Vengeance must be taken for the injury offered to the majesty of Jehovah. Stern as the duty is, the mediator does not shrink from immediately addressing himself to the execution of judgment.
I. THE SUMMONS. He stood in the gate of the camp and said, "Who is on the Lord's side? Let him come unto me" (Exodus 32:26). This must be taken to mean, not, "Who is willing to be on the Lord's side now?" but "Who has shown himself on the Lord's side during the recent apostasy?" Note—the Lord's side, though for a time the unpopular one, proves in the end to be the side of honour, of safety, and of comfort. Fidelity has its ultimate reward. Wisdom is justified of her children. (Matthew 11:19.)
II. THE RESPONSE. "All the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him" (Exodus 32:26). The Levites, as a tribe, would thus appear to have been less implicated in the idolatry than the rest of the people.
Among the faithless, faithful only he"
This now turns to their honour. The text, however, does not forbid the supposition that individuals from the other tribes also came out, anti separated themselves at the call of Moses.
III. THE COMMISSION. This was sufficiently sanguinary. It put the fidelity, of Levi to a terrible test. "Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out," etc. (Exodus 32:27).
1. In the work of executing Jehovah's vengeance, the Levites were to "consecrate" themselves (Exodus 32:29). They were to devote themselves. They were to be actuated in what they did by pure zeal for God's glory. They were to obey to the letter the command he had given them.
2. In the doing of this work, they were sternly to repress all natural impulses: "every man upon his son, and upon his brother" (Exodus 32:29; cf. Deuteronomy 33:9). So earthly ties are not to be permitted to stand between us and duty to Christ (Matthew 8:21, Matthew 8:22; Matthew 10:27).
IV. THE EXECUTION OF THE MANDATE.
1. The Levites showed unflinching zeal in the work entrusted to them. By their zeal on this, and on other occasions (Deuteronomy 33:8), they reversed the curse which lay upon their tribe, and won for themselves great honour and blessing. In particular, they won the privilege of serving in the sanctuary.
2. They slew three thousand of the people (Exodus 32:28). "Terrible surgery this," as Carlyle says of the storming of Drogheda; "but is it surgery, and judgment, or atrocious murder merely?" The number of the slain was after all small as compared with the whole body of the people. Probably only the ringleaders and chief instigators of the revolt were put to death, with those who still showed the disposition to resist. Note, that notwithstanding their great zeal on this occasion, the Levites were among those afterwards excluded from Canaan for unbelief. This is a striking circumstance. It shows how those that think they stand need to take heed lest they fall (1 Corinthians 10:12). It reminds us that one heroic act of service is not enough to win for us the kingdom of God. "We are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence fast unto the end" (Hebrews 3:14). It may suggest to us also, that many of the Israelites who failed under the later trial, and so were excluded from Canaan, thus forfeiting the earthly inheritance, may yet have had the root of the matter in them, and so, spiritually, were saved.—J.O.
Who is on the Lord's side? Let him come unto me.
The following points suggest a practical treatment of the passage—
I. IN THE WARFARE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL, THERE IS NEED FOR TAKING SIDES. Some side we must take. We cannot remain neutral. Not to be on the Lord's side, is to be on the side of his enemies. It is our duty to choose the Lord's side.
(1) He has a claim on our allegiance.
(2) It is the side of honour and of duty.
(3) It is the side we will ultimately wish we had chosen.
II. THE EXAMPLE OF ONE GOOD MAN, IN DECLARING HIMSELF ON THE LORD'S SIDE, AFFORDS A RALLYING-POINT FOR OTHERS. He gathers others around him. His influence decides and emboldens them.
III. THE TEST OF BEING ON THE LORD'S SIDE IS, THAT, WHEN OTHERS ARE APOSTATISING AROUND US, WE REMAIN FAITHFUL. Weak natures will always go with the multitude. Decided piety shows itself in being able to resist the contagion of numbers. It needs courage to be singular.
IV. BEING ON THE LORD'S SIDE CARRIES WITH IT CERTAIN OBLIGATIONS.
(1) The obligation of personal consecration.
(2) The obligation of renouncing earthly ties, so far as inconsistent with the higher allegiance.
(3) The obligation of doing the Lord's work.
V. FIDELITY ON THE LORD'S SIDE WILL MEET WITH AN ULTIMATE REWARD.—J.O.
MOSES ONCE MORE INTERCEDES WITH GOD FOR THE PEOPLE—GOD ANSWERS HIM. No distinct reply seems to have been given to the previous intercession of Moses (Exodus 32:11-13). He only knew that the people were not as yet consumed, and therefore that God's wrath was at any rate held in suspense. It might be that the punishment inflicted on the 3000 had appeased God's wrath: or something more might be needed. In the latter case, Moses was ready to sacrifice himself for his nation (Exodus 32:32). Like St. Paul, he elects to be "accursed from God, for his brethren, his kinsfolk after the flesh" (Romans 9:3). But God will not have this sacrifice. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4). He declares, "Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book" (Exodus 32:33). Moses shall not make himself a victim. Without any such sacrifice, God will so far spare them, that they shall still go on their way towards the promised land, with Moses as their earthly, and an Angel as their heavenly leader. Only, their sin shall still be visited in God's own good time and in his own way. How, is left in obscurity; but the decree is issued—"In the day that I visit, I will visit their sin upon them" (Exodus 32:34). And, writing long years after the event, the author observes—"And God did plague the people because they made the calf which Aaron made" (Exodus 32:35).
On the morrow. The day must have been well-nigh over when the slaughter of the 3000 was completed: and after that the corpses had to be buried, the signs of carnage to be effaced, and the wounded, of whom there must have been many, cared for. Moses would have had to direct, if not even to superintend, everything, and therefore could not reascend Sinai until the next day. Moses said unto the people, Not now to the elders only, as in Exodus 24:14, but to all the people, since all had sinned, and. each man is held by God individually responsible for his own sin. Ye have sinned a great sin. One which combined ingratitude and falseness with impiety. Peradventure I shall make an atonement. Moses has formed the design, which he executes (verse 32); but will not reveal it to the people, from modesty probably.
Gods of gold. Rather "a god of gold."
If thou wilt forgive their sin. The ellipsis which follows, is to be supplied by some such words, as "well and good"—"I am content"—"I have no more to say." Similar eases of ellipses will be found in Danial Exodus 3:5; Luke 13:9; Luke 19:42; John 6:62; Romans 9:22. And if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book. Some interpret this as merely equivalent to, "Blot me out of the book of the living," and explain that phrase as meaning simply—"Take my life—kill me instead of them"—but something more seems to be meant. "The book of the living"—"the book of life"—the book of God's writing—is not merely a register of those who happen to be alive at any given time. It "contains the list of the righteous, and ensures to those whose names are written therein, life before God, first in the earthly kingdom of God, and then eternal life also" (Keil). Thus Moses declared his willingness—nay, his wish—that God would visit on him the guilt of his people, both in this world and the next, so that he would thereupon forgive them. St. Paul has a similar burst of feeling (Romans 9:1-3); but it does not involve a formal offer—it is simply the expression of a willingness. Ordinary men are scarcely competent to judge these sayings of great saints. As Bengel says—"It is not easy to estimate the measure of love in a Moses and a Paul; for the narrow boundary of our reasoning powers does not comprehend it, as the little child is unable to comprehend the courage of heroes." Both were willing—felt willing, at any rate—to sacrifice their own future for their countrymen—and Moses made the offer. Of all the noble acts in Moses' life it is perhaps the noblest; and no correct estimate of his character can be formed which does not base itself to a large extent on his conduct at this crisis.
Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book. Beyond a doubt, it is the general teaching of Scripture that vicarious punishment will not be accepted. "The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son—the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him" (Ezekiel 18:20). Man "cannot deliver his brother, or make agreement with God for him; for it cost more to redeem their souls, so that he must let that alone for ever "(Psalms 49:7, Psalms 49:8). One only atonement is accepted—that of him who is at once man and God—who has, himself, no sin—and can therefore lake the punishment of others.
Lead the people unto the place, etc. This was a revocation of the sentence of death passed in Exodus 32:10. The people was to be spared, and Moses was to conduct them to Palestine. Mine Angel shall go before thee. Mine Angel—not I myself (compare Exodus 33:2, Exodus 33:3). Another threatened punishment, which was revoked upon the repentance of the people (Exodus 33:4, Exodus 33:6), and the earnest prayer of Moses (Exodus 33:14-16). I will visit their sin upon them. Kalisch thinks that a plague was at once sent, and so understands Exodus 32:35. But most commentators regard the day of visitation as that on which it was declared that none of those who had quitted Egypt should enter Canaan (Numbers 14:35), and regard that sentence as, in fact, provoked by the golden calf idolatry (Numbers 14:22).
The Lord plagued, or "struck"—i.e; "punished" the people. There is nothing in the expression which requires us to understand the sending of a pestilence.
Moses as the forerunner of Christ.
"A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you like unto me," said the great lawgiver, ere he left the earth (Deuteronomy 17:15, Deuteronomy 17:18); and the parallelism between Christ and Moses is in many respects most striking.
1. Both were of obscure birth—"the son of a carpenter"—the son of "a man of the house of Levi."
2. Both were in great peril in infancy—their life sought by the civil ruler—Herod—Pharaoh.
3. Both passed their youth and early manhood in obscurity—Christ for thirty, Moses for forty years.
4. Both felt they had a mission, but on coming forward were rejected by their brethren. "He came unto his own, and his own received him not" (John 1:11). "He supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not" (Acts 7:25).
5. Both showed "signs and wonders," such as have rarely been seen upon earth, and thus made it manifest that their missions were from God.
6. Both were law-givers—promulgators of a new moral code—Moses of an imperfect, Christ of a perfect law—(" the perfect law of love").
7. Both were founders of a new community—Moses of the Hebrew state, Christ of the Christian Church.
8. Both were great deliverers and great teachers—Moses delivered his people from Egypt and Pharaoh, and led them through the wilderness to Canaan; Christ delivers his from sin and Satan, and. leads them through the wilderness of this life to heaven.
9. Both willed to be a sacrifice for their brethren—God could not accept the one sacrifice (Exodus 32:33), but could and did accept the other.
HOMILIES BY D. YOUNG
Exodus 32:31, Exodus 32:32
The confession and intercession of Moses.
I. THE AMPLITUDE OF THIS CONFESSION. It is very necessary to contrast the words of Moses in Exodus 32:31 and Exodus 32:32 with his previous words in Exodus 32:11-13. What a difference there is in the ground, elements, and tone of the two appeals! and this difference is fully explained by the experience through which he had been in the interval. It was a bitter and humiliating experience—we may almost say an unexpected one. For, although, before he had gone down from the mount, Jehovah had given him a clear forewarning of what awaited him, somehow he seems not to have taken in the full drift of Jehovah's words. It is not till he gets down into the camp and sees the golden image, and the revelry and riot, and the implication of his own brother in a broken covenant, that he discerns the full extent of the calamity, and the difficulty, almost the impossibility of bringing together again Jehovah and his revolted people. Vain is it to seek for anything like sure conclusions in the details of Moses' conduct on this occasion. The things he did were almost as the expressions of a heart beside itself with holy grief. There is a good deal of obscurity in this portion of the narrative; and our wisest course is to turn to what is clear and certain and most instructive, namely, the great result which came out of this experience. It was truly a result, beyond all estimation, to have been led to the conclusion—"This people have sinned a great sin." That was just the light in which Jehovah looked upon their conduct; and though Moses could not see all that Jehovah saw, we may well believe that he saw all that a brother man could see, one whose own heart's vision was not yet perfectly clear. Blessed is that man who, for himself and for others, can see the reality and magnitude of the human heart's departure from God. It would not, indeed, be hard, from a certain point of view, to frame a very plausible story on behalf of these Israelites; but it is far better to bear in mind that just at this particular juncture this very Moses who at first had expostulated with Jehovah, making not the slightest reference to the people's sin, is now found on account of that sin bending himself in the utmost submission before God. Aaron came to Moses with an excuse (Exodus 32:22-24); he spoke in the spirit of Adam, laying the blame elsewhere. But Moses attempts neither excuse nor extenuation. Nor was any enlargement needed. The brief sentence he spoke, standing in all its naked severity, was quite enough.
II. HOW UNCERTAIN MOSES IS IN HIS EXPECTATIONS. The confession is as full and emphatic as it can be, but the heart is of necessity very doubtful as to what may come out of the confession. The words of Moses here are very consistent with the quick fluctuations of human nature. From extreme to extreme the pendulum swings. Previously he spoke as almost rebuking Jehovah for thinking to destroy his people; now even when the insulting image is ground to powder, and the ringleaders in transgression destroyed, he makes his way into the Divine presence as one who is fully prepared for the worst. "If thou wilt forgive them." One can imagine the stammering, half-ashamed tones in which these words would issue from the lips of Moses. The man who was so fruitful of reasons before is silent now. Jehovah's past promises and past dealings he cannot urge; for the more he thinks of them, the more by an inevitable consequence, he thinks of the broken covenant. The light of these glorious promises shines for the present, upon a scene of ruin and shame. Then it is noteworthy that Moses had to go up, from the impulse of his own heart. We do not hear as yet of any general confession; it is not the weeping and wailing of a nation returning in penitence that he bears before God. If only the people had sent him to say, "We have sinned a great sin;" if only they had made him feel that he was their chosen spokesman; if only their continued cry of contrition, softened by distance, had reached his ears, as he ventured before God, there might have been something to embolden him. But as yet there was no sign of anything of this sort. lie seems to have gone up as a kind of last resort, unencouraged by any indication that the people comprehended the near and dreadful peril. Learn from this that there can be no availing plea and service from our great advocate, except as we look to him for the plea and service, in full consciousness that we cannot do without them. We get no practical good from the advocacy of Jesus, unless as in faith and earnestness, we make him our advocate.
III. HOW COMPLETELY MOSES ASSOCIATES HIMSELF WITH THE FATE OF HIS BRETHREN. He could not but feel the difference there was between his position and theirs; but at the moment there was a feeling which swallowed all others up, and that was the unity of brotherhood. The suggestion to make out of him a new and better covenant people came back to him now, with a startling significance which it lacked before. Israel, as the people of God, seemed shut up to destruction now. If God said the covenant could not be renewed; if he said the people must return and be merged and lost in the general mass of human-kind, Moses knew he had no countervailing plea; only this he could pray that he also might be included in their doom. lie had no heart to go unless where his people went; and surely it must have a most inspiring and kindling influence to meditate on this great illustration of unselfishness. Moses, we know, had been brought very near to God; what glimpses must have been opened up to him of a glorious future. But then he had only thought of it as being his future along with his people. In the threatenings that God was about to forsake those who had forsaken him, there seemed no longer any brightness even in the favour of God to him as an individual. Apostate in heart and deed as his brethren were, he felt himself a member of the body still; and to be separated from them would be as if the member were torn away. lie who had preferred affliction with the people of God rather than the pleasures of sin for a season, now prefers obliteration along with his own people rather than to keep his name on God's great book. It can hardly be said that in this he spurns or depreciates the favour of God; and it is noticeable that God does not rebuke him as if he were preferring human ties to Divine. Jehovah simply responds by stating the general law of what is inevitable in all sinning, lie who sins must be blotted out of God's book. God will not in so many words rebuke the pitying heart of his servant; but yet we clearly see that there was no way out by that course which Moses so very deferentially suggests. When first Moses heard of the apostasy of Israel he spoke as if the remedy depended upon Jehovah; now he speaks as if it might be found in his own submission and self-sacrifice; but God would have him understand that whatever chance there may be depends on a much needed change in the hearts of the people, a change of which all sign so far was lacking.—Y.
HOMILIES BY J. ORR
The second intercession.
This second intercession of Moses is even more wonderful than the first. The question raised on that former occasion—Is Moses more merciful than God?—will, indeed, no longer occur. Those who might have been disposed to press that question then will probably not be disposed to press it now. They have since had sufficient evidence of Moses' severity. They have found that, whatever elements of character are lacking to him, he is not wanting in energy of indignation at patent wickedness. The temptation, on the contrary, may now be to accuse the lawgiver of unjustifiable and unholy anger—of reckless disregard of human life. The charge is groundless; but if, for a moment, it should appear natural, the reply to it is found in the study of this second scene upon the mount. Surely, if ever human heart laid bare its intense and yearning love for those whose sin fidelity to duty yet compelled it to reprobate and loathe, it is the heart of Moses in this new, and altogether marvellous, juncture in his history. Consider—
I. THE CONFESSION MADE (Exodus 32:30, Exodus 32:31). Moses makes a full confession of the sin of the people. This confession was—
1. Holy. He has just views of the demerit of the sin for which he seeks forgiveness. His impressions of its enormity are even stronger than at the time of his first intercession. So heinous does it now appear to him that he is mentally in doubt whether God possibly can forgive it.
2. Perfectly truthful Moses fully admits the people's sin. He does not make light of it. He does not seek to minimise it. Not even to secure the salvation of the people over whom he yearns with so intense an affection will he unduly palliate their offence, or feign an excuse where he knows that there is none to offer. Mark how, in both of these respects, Moses answers to the true idea of a mediator. "A mediator is not a mediator of one" (Galatians 3:20). It is his function, in conducting his mediation, to uphold impartially the interests of both of the parties between whom he mediates. Both are represented in his work. He stands for both equally. He must do justice by both. His sympathy with both must be alike perfect. He must favour neither at the expense, or to the disadvantage, of the other. These acts of intercession show in how supreme a degree this qualification of the mediator is found in Moses. He has sympathy with the people, for whose sin he is willing, if need be, even to die; he has also the fullest sympathy with God. He looks at the sin from God's standpoint. He has sympathy with God's wrath against it. He is as jealous for God's honour as he is anxious for the forgiveness of the people. He is thus the true daysman, able to lay his hand upon both.
3. Vicarious. He confesses the people's sin for them. On the depth to which this element enters into the idea of atonement, and on the place which it holds in the atonement of Jesus, see J. McLeod Campbell's work on The Nature of the Atonement.
II. THE ATONEMENT OFFERED (verse 32). The new and awful impressions Moses had received of the enormity of the people's conduct gave rise in his mind to the feeling of the need of atonement. "Now I will go up to the Lord," he says to them, "peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin" (verse 30). That the intercessory element entered into Moses' idea of "making an atonement" is not to be denied. But it is not the only one. So intensely evil does the sin of the people now appear to him that he is plainly in doubt whether it can be pardoned without some awful expression of God's punitive justice against it; whether, indeed, it can be pardoned at all. This sense of what is due to justice resolves itself into the proposal in the text—a proposal, probably, in which Moses comes as near anticipating Christ, in his great sacrifice on Calvary, as it is possible for any one, beating the limitations of humanity, to do (cf. Romans 9:3). Observe—
1. The proposal submitted. It amounts to this, that Moses, filled with an immense love for his people, offers himself as a sacrifice for their sin. If God cannot otherwise pardon their transgression, and if this will avail, or can be accepted, as an atonement for their guilt, let him—Moses—perish instead of them. The precise meaning attached in Moses' mind to the words, "If not, blot me, I pray thee, out of the book which thou hast written," must always be a difficulty. Precision, probably, is not to be looked for. Moses' idea of what was involved in the blotting out from God's book could only be that afforded him by the light of his own dispensation, and by his sense of the exceeding greatness of God's wrath. His language is the language of love, not that of dogmatic theology. Infinite things were to be hoped for from God's love; infinite things were to be dreaded from his anger. The general sense of the utterance is, that Moses was willing to die; to be cut off from covenant hope and privilege; to undergo whatever awful doom subjection to God's wrath might imply; if only thereby his people could be saved. It was a stupendous proposal to make; an extraordinary act of self-devotion; a wondrous exponent of his patriotic love for his people; a not less wondrous recognition of what was due to the justice of God ere sin could be forgiven—a glimpse even, struck out from the passionate yearning of his own heart, of the actual method of redemption. A type of Christ has been seen in the youthful IsaActs ascending the hill to be offered on the altar by Abraham his father. A much nearer type is Moses, "setting his face" (cf. Luke 9:51) to ascend the mount, and bearing in his heart this sublime purpose of devoting himself for the sins of the nation. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).
2. The alternative desired. If the people must perish—this meaning also seems to be conveyed in the words—Moses would wish to perish with them. Not only has the proposal to make of him "a great nation" (Exodus 32:10) no allurement for his mind, but, if the people are to be destroyed, he would prefer to die with them. He desires no life outside of theirs. Patriotic devotion could no further go. Noble Moses! Yet only the type of the nobler than himself, who, devoting himself in the same spirit, has actually achieved the redemption of the world. See in this incident
(1) The connection of a feeling of the need of atonement with just views of sin's demerit.
(2) The certainty, when just views of sin are entertained, of this feeling of the need of atonement arising. In declining the proposal of Moses, God does not say that atonement is not needed. He does not say that his servant has exaggerated the enormity of the sin, or the difficulties which stand in the way of its forgiveness. He does not say that it is not by means of atonement that these difficulties connected with the forgiveness of sins are ultimately to be removed. On the contrary, the spirit of Moses in this transaction is evidently in the very highest degree pleasing to Jehovah, and so far as atonement is made for the people's sins, it is by Jehovah accepting the spirit of his sacrifice, even when rejecting the proposal in its letter.
(3) The naturalness of this method of salvation. The proposal sprang naturally from the love of Moses. It expressed everything that was grandest in his character. It shadowed forth a way in which, conceivably, a very true satisfaction might be offered to Divine justice, while yet mercy was extended to the sinner. The fulfilment of the prophecy is the Cross.
III. THE REPLY GIVEN.
1. The atonement is declined in its letter. God declares that so far as there is to be any blotting from the book of life, it will be confined to those who have sinned. It may be noted, in respect to this declinature of the proposal of Moses that, as above remarked, it does not proceed on the idea that atonement is not needed, but
(1) Moses could not, even by his immolation, have made the atonement required.
(2) God, in his secret counsel, had the true sacrifice provided.
(3) Atonement is inadmissible on the basis proposed, viz. that the innocent should be "blotted out from the book of life." Had no means of salvation presented itself but this, the world must have perished. Even to redeem sinners, God could not have consented to the "blotting from his book" of the sinless. The difficulty is solved in the atonement of the Son, who dies, yet rises again, having made an end of sin. No other could have offered this atonement but himself.
2. While declining the atonement in its letter, God accepts the spirit of it. In this sense Moses, by the energy of his self-devotion, does make atonement for the sins of Israel. He procures for them a reversal of the sentence. Further intercession is required to make the reconciliation complete.
3. God makes known his purpose of visiting the people for their sin (verse 34). The meaning is—
(1) That the sin of the people, though for the present condoned, would be kept in mind in reckoning with them for future transgressions.
(2) That such a day of reckoning would come. God, in the certainty of his foreknowledge, sees its approach.—J.O.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Exodus 32". The Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent