Life is made up choices, but none more important than the one we encounter in our text.
God burned with anger when He observed the Golden Calf Debacle because He wants us to follow His will obediently. He has predetermined ways He would like us to respond to, but we have a choice to do them or not. God’s will is dynamic. As with any interpersonal relationship, God’s relationship with humanity involves give and take. God accommodates His responses to ours; we adjust our responses to God’s. So it can be said that on this level, God sometimes changes His mind in response to our prayers.
God was testing Moses by offering to replace Israel with a new nation descending from Moses. Theologically, a test of this kind must be considered in the light of the sovereign will of God that underlies all human decisions. God’s burning anger was real. For Moses this test was real, even though the proposed destruction of Israel was not in God’s plan, as shown by His covenant promises made with the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Likewise, Christ in the Gospels made a real offer of Himself as King to Israel even though His rejection and His death were certain according to Acts 2:23—
This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.
The determinate counsel of God planned the suffering of Christ to precede His glorious kingdom. How then was Christ’s offer of the kingdom to Israel real? Paul tells us in Galatians 4:4-5—
But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
God send His Son into the world at the precise time that Israel would rejected Him and kill Him so He could redeem those under the law. The Jews of Christ’s day were as stiff-necked as their forefathers at Mt. Sinai. They wanted a God of their own making also. When Jesus refused to be molded and shaped by them, they crucified Him.
What followed Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension was an opportunity for Israel to repent and chose Christ’s side and be part of His kingdom. The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. Peter preached the first evangelistic sermon of the Christian faith to a crowd and three thousand were added to the Church. Thousands rejected the Gospel that day! Shortly thereafter, Peter and John healed a crippled beggar and were called before the Sanhedrin. Acts 4:8-12—
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. He is “`the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
Acts 6:7 reports—
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
However, the Sanhedrin and the masses remained stiff-necked. The last opportunity for the nation to repent came with Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin. Acts 7:51-54—
“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.
They dragged Stephen out of the city and stoned him. The nation embraced the god of self-righteousness and rejected the Lord of glory! What followed was the persecution and scattering of the Christians-Jews. With all Christians dispersed from Jerusalem, God sent His sword of judgment against the city in A.D. 70. The Romans under Titus destroyed it and cast the surviving remnant from the Promised Land.
I have recounted these historical facts form the first century A.D. because they are foreshadowed in Chapter 32 of Exodus.
Like Moses, Christ had interceded on behalf of stiff-necked people. On the Cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
So God the Father gave the first century Jews amble opportunity to receive His forgiveness, but they continued to be a stiff-necked people except for a remnant of believers that included many of the priests, who were Levites.
Having rejected forgiveness, God sent His sword of judgment upon these stiff-necked people because of what they did with His Son!
Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.
In his hands, Moses holds the TWO TABLETS OF THE TESTIMONY engraved by God. They are the work of God, without human meditation. They bear the authority of God. They are called THE TESTIMONY because they stand as a witness against rebellious mankind, and especially the Israelites in valley below.
When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “There is the sound of war in the camp.” Moses replied: “It is not the sound of victory, it is not the sound of defeat; it is the sound of singing that I hear.”
Joshua has been waiting for Moses part way of the mountain for Moses. Joshua is unaware of the Golden Calf Debacle in the camp. He interprets the noise as the sounds of war! Although informed by God of the state of matters in the camp of Israel, Moses could have been scarcely prepared for the sight which presented itself. Exodus 32:19—
When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain.
Like God, Moses’ anger burned hot! If sin angers God, it should anger His leaders also. We are out of tune with God if we don’t get angry at what He gets angry at.
Whether the breaking of the TWO TABLETS OF THE TESTIMONY was due solely to an outburst of uncontrolled anger by Moses or whether it a deliberate symbolic act is difficult to determine. Certainly, the Israelites had broken the Second Commandments and the smashing of the Two Tablets pictured their breaking the whole law. James 2:10 says—
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.
Moses the prophet of judgment breaks the tablets as a sign that the covenant relationship no longer exists between Israel and God. Israel is apostate!
In the events that follow, Moses foreshadows Christ the Righteous Judge and Mediator. Exodus 32:20—
And he took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.
Deuteronomy 9:21 tells us that Moses threw the fine gold dust into a stream that flowed down the mountain and from the stream the Israelites drank. Not only is the Golden Calf destroyed, it suffers the disgrace of being dispersed more and more until it is reduced to human waste.
In the ANE, it was the practice to force one to drink a strange mixture to determine one’s guilt or innocence by whether or not the person reacted physically to the drink. Guilt was apparently easily established in this case, however, making the people drink the mixture probably reflected Moses’ belief that those guilty would suffer some type of plague, of which verse 35 probably refers—
And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.
Exodus 32:21-24 present Aaron’s rationale for making the golden calf. It appears Aaron’s attempts to shift the blame to the people when questioned by Moses—
He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?” “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, `Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ So I told them, `Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”
Moses’ question seems more to be designed to chasten than acquire information. Definitely, Aaron’s shallow and ineffective means of evading responsibility are portrayed over against Moses, who embraces his responsibility to the point of standing up against God. Aaron in weakness caves into the people’s request to make a god while Moses ignores God’s request to leave Him alone and with boldness proceeds to chastise God for His decision to destroy Israelites and start over with him.
If Moses could stand up to God, certainly Aaron could have stood up to the people!
Aaron goes so far with truth and then inserts a lie! His lie seems so ridiculous, we laugh at it— “Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”
But we need to stop and think! Some very miraculous things have been happened during the Exodus Experience—from the Ten Plagues in Egypt, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the Manna, the water from the Rock. A calf coming out of the fire seems like very insignificant thing in comparison! Would Aaron have Moses believe God made the Golden Calf? “Blame the people, blame God, but don’t blame me, Moses!” At this point, Aaron is an unrepentant sinner who refuses to confess his sin!
He does not convince or succeed with Moses as Moses did with God. The DEBACLE was still going on while Moses questioned Aaron. Exodus 32:25—
Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughing-stock to their enemies.
Aaron’s failure of leadership has left them open to the slander of their enemies. The far-reaching effects of good or bad leadership on the community of faith is not unique to Israel; it has been amply evidenced in the course of the entire history of the people of God.
RUNNING WILD, OUT OF CONTROL and STIFF-NECKED! What descriptions of the depravity of mankind! No wonder we need to receive the SAVIOR and the HOLY SPIRIT into our hearts. At this awful sight, Moses draws the line in the sand. Exodus 32:26—
So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.
It was the HOUR OF DECISION! NO—it’s the MOMENT OF DECISION! Tomorrow, another hour, another ten minutes would be too late! “WHOEVER IS FOR THE LORD, COME TO ME!”
The issue is the same as that articulated by Elijah in 1 Kings 18:21—
“How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
No coercion is involved, no threat is expressed; it is an invitation. This is call to commitment to Yahweh. Who is for the worship of the true God, and Him only, and against the worship of a gold calf, or any other idol, and is zealous for the glory of God, and the honor of His Name, COME! Who among you is free from this transgression, COME! Otherwise, repent of it, and COME!
ALL THE LEVITES RALLIED TO HIM. There are two possibilities why all the Levites came: EITHER the Levites for the most part had not assented to the people’s sin and the worship of the calf, but had been displeased on account of it—OR—seeing Moses they now repented of their participation in the idolatry and immorality. This tribe over against the other eleven tribes was more inclined to love God. That’s why God selected the Levites to be the priests of the nation.
At the very least, the Levites had silently stood by when Aaron made the Golden Calf and watched the people bow down to it and rise up in immorality. They failed to take a stand for the LORD. They also would have been destroyed by God’s wrath if Moses had not interceded. It can be catastrophic to observe sin and not take a stand against it.
If God judges the United States before the Rapture of the Church, how many Christians will be caught in God’s wrath because the church silently stood by at watched our country slid down the slope of idolatry and immorality?
The Israelites who chose Yahweh’s side would be saved, those who rejected Moses’ invitation to come to the LORD would face the dreadful consequences. The Levites respond positively as a group, forsaking their past and choosing now to be loyal. They immediately receive an unexpected task. Exodus 32:27—
Then he said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: `Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.'”
The Levites are to be executors of divine judgment upon those who did not respond. Is Moses too angry or zealous? Unlike God, he consults with no one. His actions are confrontation and elimination. Moses becomes the executor of judgment. He calls upon the Levites to take a stand against the sinners. Exodus 32:28—
The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died.
Why did just these 3,000 die? They did not fall simply because they happened to stand by nearest to Moses. Such indiscriminate punishment seems scarcely in accordance with the Divine dealings. But the text, as it appears to us, furnishes hints for the right explanation.
When Moses stood in the camp of Israel and made the invitation to chose Yahweh’s side, we read that “THE PEOPLE WERE RUNNING WILD—NAKED—LICENTIOUS.” In short, there stood before him a number of people, fresh from their orgies in a state of licentious attire, who had not sobered into shame, or repentance. Therefore, Moses ordered the Levites to kill all those who obviously had been sinning.
The obedience of the Levites was an act of faith, which knows neither the fear of man nor regard of person. God does not show favoritism in His judgment so they were to show no mercy because of any special relationship they might have with the sinners. One’s relationship with God takes priority over all other relationships. Jesus said in Luke 14:26—
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.
We are soft and sentimental and silly. Sometimes we are even stupid in the way we handle evil; not Moses nor God! The Levites by their obedience consecrated themselves for service to Yahweh this day and received His blessing. Exodus 32:29—
Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”
The severity of the punishment corresponded to the magnitude of the sin. For death is the destiny of everyone who rejects the LORD and rebels against Him.
We might imagine that the people retired to their tents that night in tardy repentance and fear of the holy and jealous God, whose terrible judgments they had so much cause to dread. The seriousness of this matter should occasion critical reflection by us who live in an age where virtually anything that goes by the name of religion is tolerated. The sleepless night hadn’t changed their predicament, but Moses’ anger had turned to mercy. Exodus 32:30—
The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”
The soul-shattering experience of the prophets who pronounced doom upon the people for whom they also made intercession is nowhere more graphically set forth than in this account.
Although Moses had the promise of God that as a nation they should not be exterminated, yet he had reason to believe that Divine justice must contend with them, and might prevent them from ever entering the Promised Land. God had repented from absolute destruction, but the people had not repented and received forgiveness. Neither had any atonement been made for their sin.
The pronoun YOU sets Moses off from the people. He is innocent; they have committed a great sin. Hence, he is hopeful but not certain that he might get God to forgive them. Verses 31-32—
So Moses went back to the LORD and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”
Moses spelled out the sin before God. And, friends, when we confess our sin to God, we should spell it out. Tell God exactly what it is.
With an intensity and self-denial of love, Moses desires to be cursed for the sake of Israel if God will not forgive the people. Moses identified with His people. That’s what the Second Person of the Trinity did when He became a Man and identified with our sin on the Cross.
Paul felt the same intense love when he wrote Romans 9:3—
For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.
Moses’ request that should the LORD not forgive the sin of Israel he BLOT Moses out of the book takes for granted the BOOK OF LIFE in which the names of the living are written.
David recognizes there is a BOOK OF LIFE when prays an opposite prayer in Psalm 69:27-28—
Charge them with crime upon crime; do not let them share in your salvation. May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous.
Jesus acknowledges the BOOK OF LIFE in Revelation 3:5—
He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.
According to Revelation 20:15 and 21:27, our eternal destiny is determined by whether our name is written in the BOOK OF LIFE—
If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire . . . Nothing impure will ever enter [the New Jerusalem], nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
It is obvious from these passages that a person’s name can and will be blotted from the Book of Life if they apostatize. Exodus 32:33-34—
The LORD replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.”
Yahweh refuses to accept Moses’ offer of one atoning for many. That is reserved for God’s Son. Yet, God has not reneged on His promise not to destroy the nation. Here the point is that, though this people would continue to survive and God would hold to His promise of giving them the land, the eternal destiny with Him of those who had apostatized had been forfeited.
The Hebrew literally reads, “And in the day of My visitation I will visit their sin on them.” This speaks to the Day of the LORD and the final judgment that Daniel 12:1-2 tells of—
At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
There are two important WHOEVER statements in the Bible that deal with eternal destiny. This one made by Yahweh to Moses and the other by Jesus to Nicodemus in John 3:16—
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that WHOEVER believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Both WHOEVER statements make salvation a personal responsibility. People are NOT saved by nations, communities, families or groups, but individually. Every person is responsible for his or her own salvation. Contrary to the teaching of Reformed Theology or Calvinism, people can be saved and lose their salvation.
It is evident that a soul cannot be blotted out of a book in which it had never been written! The sin that results in one being blotted out of the Book of Life is APOSTASY—“Whoever has sinned against me,” declares the LORD. All sin is against God, but APOSTASY is the sin spoken of here.
APOSTASY is that deliberate turning away from God to a god of one’s own making! It is saying to God, I have decided to live my life my way, not your way. That’s what the Israelites were saying with the Golden Calf Debacle.
Therefore, we read in Exodus 32:35—
And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.
If the events are not in strict chronological order, the plague might refer to the slaughter of the three thousand. The people exposed as most responsible for the Golden Calf Debacle by the mixture of gold and water, were killed. Frequently, the Scriptures directly attribute judgments to God that were carried out by men.
Drinking the mixture of gold and water, the killing by the sword of those refusing to chose the LORD, Moses offering his life for the life of Israel, and the plague must be read in concert. Yahweh’s response to Moses clearly enunciates the principle of individual responsibility— WHOEVER HAS SINNED AGAINST ME I WILL BLOT OUT OF MY BOOK.
Moses’ offer to give his own life for the life of his people failed, for every person must stand responsible for himself or herself before God. Not even Moses could bear the guilt of Israel, and the covenant community had to wait for a new Moses of another covenant to do what the old Moses could not do.