God’s Indictment of Israel (vv. 7-9)
Your People, Moses, Have Done Wickedly (v. 7)
While Moses was with the Lord on the mountain, his people were forsaking him in the plain. Not all gave themselves to debauched idolatry, but the wickedness was sufficiently widespread to provoke the Lord to anger – great anger – and to threaten the annihilation of the entire nation. The Lord never loses control, for his anger is always wise and just, but his anger against sin was very real. And this sin – to form a golden calf while he was giving them his word, to despise his goodness in their redemption from Egypt and to make them a god like the Egyptian deities, which the Lord utterly destroyed – was beyond words – like spitting on someone who is giving you a glass of water or stabbing one who is hugging you. “Your people, Moses,” is rather strange – has the Lord abandoned them? No, I think this is one key to the correct interpretation of the passage. By this “your people,” God is testing Moses. They were in a sense Moses’ people, for he was their leader. He was the human mediator of the older covenant. Since your people, Moses, have done so wickedly, what will you do? How will you save them? “Corrupted” does not mean there was no hope of recovery, as if they were permanently ruined, but that they had by their wickedness perverted themselves and brought themselves under God’s fierce wrath. Who will save them?
They Have Quickly Turned Aside (v. 8)
This is not an esoteric question but one that confronts fathers – what will you do when your children forsake God’s ways, commit terrible sins, and provoke God’s wrath? What will you do, wife, when your husband falls into various sins? Or you, pastor, when members of your congregation commit evil? We are not mediators in the same sense as Moses, but we do have a certain responsibility for one another, depending upon degrees of authority and must therefore act when those for whom we are responsible turn from the Lord. Israel turned very quickly out of God’s ways – a serious indictment and justification for his wrath. He gave them every reason to walk humbly with him – his deliverance, redeeming love, wise law, constant provision, presence and protection. Moses has been gone for only some weeks, and they can see the burning mountain where he is – but all this goodness, this display of God’s majesty, is lost upon them. Even then, his goodness was not leading them to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Has his goodness led us to repentance? Have you heard a moving sermon in the morning only to sin with your words in the evening? Or give yourself to lusts? Or blaspheme on Monday the name you praised on Sunday? More alarming than Satan’s most hideous grimace is the speed with which our hearts can run to sin, leave the right way, turn our backs on very fresh commitments.
Moses is reeling – this is the first he has heard of this. What wickedness? They have made a molten calf and have worshipped it – Moses is suddenly back in Egypt – the idolatry of his youth – the smashed idols of Egypt under God’s plagues – and these people have made one? Are they trying to resurrect Egypt? Did we never leave? And they have said of these idols, “These are your gods, O Israel, which have brought you out of Egypt?” We cannot tell the knife that then plunged into Moses’ soul. Ah, this has been a glorious forty days with the Lord – am I to be plunged into evil with these people so quickly? In this life, our joys can quickly be turned into sorrow – a brother or sister who falls into sin; a denomination that will not walk in God’s word but insists upon bringing worldly lusts into God’s holy house; our own children committing evil – it is too much to bear, unless God sustains us, as he did Moses. And of course, it will be us, unless he restrains us from sin. Seeing how quickly Israel turned away from the Lord, let us heed the apostle’s warning to “walk in the Spirit” and “awake to righteousness, and sin not” (Gal. 5:17; 1 Cor. 15:34). Nothing but God’s preserving power can keep us from turning from him; nothing but his upholding power can help us bear up when those we love fall into sin.
They Are Stubbornly Wicked (v. 9)
Moses had been hopeful that the people would become accustomed to their new life and settle into an obedient walk with God. It was not to be the case. The Lord saw his people – right through them, who they truly were, even as he knows the thoughts and intents of our hearts, for nothing can be hidden from him. But to be told that your people are stubborn, stiff-necked, hardhearted – this was a heavy burden for Moses to carry. He had no idea. He would carry them for the next forty years through the wilderness. They were his people – they were also God’s people – but the Lord had bound Moses to them as their mediator. May the Lord deliver us from stubbornness – if you are persistent in your sins, refuse to give them up, make excuses for them, and always want to return to them, the Lord says the same to you as to Israel. You are stubborn. You will not bend your heart to me but insist upon having your own way. This is the worst form of wickedness and the only excommunicable offense – refusal to turn from sin. Since it is difficult for most to face this about themselves, we turn our vices into virtues, speak of “moral courage to be yourself” when we should really be saying “moral villainy and stubbornness in persisting in wickedness.” But men call evil good, and good evil, in Moses’ day and in ours. Our Lord Jesus has come to deliver us from our fallen corruption, which is indomitably stubborn until subdued by his grace and the quickening work of the Spirit. If he has made us humble and meek before him, let us praise and magnify his name. And if God has called you to bear the burden of being a pastor, father, or spouse to a stubborn and hardhearted person, he will give you strength to endure and be faithful. Seek him, and do not stop asking him to turn your rebel into a dove before his majesty. He is able.
Leave Me Alone, that I May Destroy Them (v. 10)
A Test for Moses the Mediator of the Covenant
“Leave me alone” – Wait – if God wanted to be left alone, would he have told Moses what was going on in the camp below? Would he have told Moses what he was about to do? Moses, we must remember, was the mediator of the covenant, God’s appointed leader. As hard as it may be to deal with sinful men, Moses had a responsibility to do something, to make peace between God and his people. “Leave me alone,” therefore, was really an invitation to Moses to do something quickly, for the Lord’s anger was burning, smoking. It is a dreadful picture. We have no idea how dangerous sin is, how God could justly leave a man to his own devices in a season of sin, never draw him out, or send him straight to hell for his wickedness. He does this daily, but men are still unmoved by his judgments. Especially since we are his people, his terror should move us to repentance and to do all we can to warn men from the wrath that is coming upon them (2 Cor. 5:11). He hates sin with the full weight of his holiness and justice. He will not leave the guilty unpunished (Ex. 34:5-6). It is only ignorance of the wrath to come that keep men happy in their sins and unmoved by gospel warnings. Let us be seriously awakened by God’s wrath against his people’s sins to turn from our own and walk humbly before him.
But there was another layer to the threatened destruction. God offered to make a new chosen nation from Moses. There is no indication that Moses considered this for a moment – a new people – what of the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Yes, it would have been a nation descended from Abraham, but the whole dynamic would have been changed? And for Moses personally, having known the power and opportunity of royal connection, the possibility of deliverance from a people whom he must have already known were bent of rebellion, this was a very serious test. Was this parallel to the glory of the Lord when he was transfigured, but then rejecting this glory in favor of the cross? Was it more like Satan’s temptation to our Lord, a way to the crown without having to pass through the shadow of Calvary? Moses was surrounded with the glory of the Lord, and he must go down to deal with idolatry? A golden calf? Really? It is one of the tests of a faithful leader that he is willing for the Lord’s sake to endure hardship with his people, patiently correct their faults, and even keep going back to square one with them if it means helping them along and helping them overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is tempting to want an easier path. Moses was offered one, but like his Lord, he rejected it.
If He Does Nothing, God Will Destroy Israel
Being more than a private individual, Moses had immediate supervision over Israel and must act decisively to save them from God’s wrath. It is deadly but common for those in authority to abdicate their responsibility to lead those for whom they are responsible into the paths of righteousness and peace, to resist their sins and warn them, and if necessary to chasten them. We have turned “18” and “21” into national ages of rebellion, but parents have no warrant from God to wash their hands of personal responsibility for their children at any age. At least we must be like Job, offering constant sacrifices for our children and holding them up before the throne of grace, so that God may remember his covenant promises and have mercy upon them. Throughout our society, we see the high cost of abdication – teachers, civil and business leaders – all saying, “Well, the tastes and proclivities of others is not my problem. I only sell products. Or, I can only try to lessen the consequences of sin, then turn sin into virtue, then demonize true virtue so that no one feels guilty.” This is bringing God’s wrath upon us our families and national institutions. We must have men who stand in the gap against sin, at least warning and urging men to repent and flee to Jesus Christ from the wrath to come. This is the reason that the Lord in one sense pushed Moses away, but in another, seriously aroused him to take steps to remove the wickedness of the people and thus turn God’s wrath away.
A Picture of Jesus Christ
It is not always clear what we should do when we know that God’s wrath hangs over us by the slenderest of threads, but we should take Moses’ example of fervent intercession seriously. This is an aspect of our work as a kingdom of priests, for as the children of light, God’s word gives us wisdom when the world walks in darkness. As citizens, we must ask God to send his Spirit to convict of sin, righteousness, and judgment, to awaken his church to pray and speak of the mystery of Christ and of godliness, and to declare God’s righteousness as Judge of all the earth. We must weep in private, warn in public. Fathers and mothers must do the same before God for their children, pleading his covenant promises, repenting of their own sins, and seeking God’s mercy. Pastors and elders truly must pray and warn day and night, teaching every man in all wisdom, as the apostle says, so that none of us may perish but all come to repentance. In this, we do the work of a mediator, each in his place, for we are now a kingdom of priests through faith in Jesus Christ and join with him in his great work of intercession.
In this, we see the test that our Father in heaven gave to his Son, the covenant of mediation he established with him. Moses was a picture of this, for he was building Christ’s house, as the Spirit wrote, and thus was teaching us of our Savior’s great work (John 5:47; Heb. 3:1-6). Although God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, it can also be said that we personally were “enemies in our minds by wicked works,” and that we have been delivered from the wrath of God solely through the mediation of our Savior. It was a great “test,” for the Son of God, a test of love and commitment – if he left us alone, if he would not become surety for us, if he would not stand in the breach and even take all the wrath of God upon himself, we would be destroyed under the smoking wrath of God. Only in this way do we see how dangerous is our state outside of Christ and how necessary is his work of mediation if we are to be redeemed to God and adopted as his children.
Let us, therefore, whenever we read of God’s smoking wrath against sin, think not of faceless unbelievers out in the world somewhere, which is a convenient way to insulate ourselves from the weight of our guilt and from the weight of the glory of the gospel. There remains a little aversion to light in each of us – not really wanting to know how horrible our filth is (or was), or how great is God’s grace and glory to us in Jesus, which must surely keep us very humbled and happy, if we would but give ourselves more fully to the truths of the gospel. But let us at least learn from Moses what a great weight of wrath the Lord Jesus Christ bore in order to reconcile God to sinners, that we have forgiveness only through faith in his blood. Since he has saved us by his mediation, should we not love and adore him, warn and encourage others to flee to him, and never forget the greatness of his love, that he would take upon himself the sorrow of our hell and death, be crushed in our place, bear our curse, all the while loving us and delighting to save his Bride from the wrath to come. Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Moses’ Intercession Delivers Israel (vv. 11-14)
Moses’ Five Pleas with God
Before considering Moses’ prayer, remember that God’s threat of destruction was very real. Had Nineveh not repented, God would have destroyed the city. “Unless you repent, you also will perish” (Luke 13;3,5). Moses had seen God’s sword of judgment unsheathed against Egypt. The land of his youth lay in ruins. He knew that the Lord was in earnest. Moses was also still in the midst of the whirlwind of God’s presence. It was a terrible moment. And God would make from him a new nation? Why, he would go down in history as the progenitor of the people of God, a second Abraham, but Moses chose a very different path – he chose to decrease, to humble himself under God’s hand and intercede for his people. First, he pled God’s deliverance of his people and the greatness of his power displayed in their deliverance (v. 11). Will you go to all that trouble only to kill them now? You knew what they were when you delivered them; surely, you are not surprised by their wickedness. Second, thinking of the Egyptians led Moses to plead God’s own reputation (v. 12). What will your enemies think? They will not doubt your power, but they will doubt your intentions and faithfulness, if you kill your people in the wilderness. God has in this world bound himself to us by covenant, so that the world’s opinions of God are shaped by his dealings with us and our faithfulness to him (Matt. 5:16).
Moses was seriously alarmed by God’s threat. He was hearing God’s voice from the whirlwind, seeing some sparks of his majesty. He knew that God could easily fulfill his threat; he knew that Israel deserved to be destroyed. In the middle of his plea, he utters the imperative – “Turn from your fierce wrath” – saying in a sense, Lord God, you cannot do this. Too much is at stake in your continued faithfulness to your people; you must relent from the threatened destruction and forgive them. This is when he pled the covenant, which is perhaps his strongest argument. Remember your servants, “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (v. 13). Remember how you called them from idolatry and promised them that their seed would inherit the earth – and you would now destroy their seed? What of your promises and mercies to them? You said you would multiply, not annihilate. Yes, your people do not deserve your mercy, but none of us ever has – it was always your promise, your covenant, and your steadfast love. Remember this and relent from your smoking anger. Forgive the sin of your people.
And God Turned from His Wrath
And God did relent. “Repented” should not suggest about God what it does about us – that we recognize the evil or foolishness of a certain course of action, come to our senses, then turn to a better way. It is purely a human way of conveying to us that whereas God declared his imminent destruction of Israel, Moses’ intercession prevailed with him. This was in accordance with God’s plans and purposes, but it was no less a true relenting – as with Nineveh or with us when we turned to his Son. Had we not repented, his wrath would have fallen upon us. His threat of hell was real. Through repentance and faith, he delivered us from the wrath to come – perhaps we are closer to the truth when we say that all the change, if we must use this word, is on our part – Israel now had an intercessor who prevailed with God – Moses. Moses was changed – he took more seriously than ever before his responsibility to defend and help his people. God is not a man that he should repent (Num. 23:19). His personal immutability does not prevent him from responding to us according to his purposes, making real threats of judgment unless we repent, or hearing and answering our prayers. In the course of life, it does seem that he has “relented” from wrath many times, or helped us against all expectation of deliverance, or changed his course of action. It was known to him all along. He changes us, enables us to repent, or start living in holiness, or seek him as we should. For us, the sun comes out again; for God, he was always smiling, but he will have us enjoy his favor through diligent seeking of him (Heb. 11:6).
Why Moses Prevailed with God
Like Jacob, Moses prevailed with God. He had a real office assigned to him by the Lord, and therefore the Lord heard and helped him. The Lord promised and gave to Moses all the graces he required to fulfill his office. Fathers and pastors, even kings of the earth, have similar promises, according to their station and specific calling, but Moses went further. He was humble before the Lord, and he humbled himself before the Lord. When offered an easier way and personal greatness, he rejected it. He would not leave his people – like Jesus Christ in Gethsemane and at Calvary – he endured to the end and would not lay down his assigned place and responsibility. He also supported his pleas with God’s promises. He had no idea what awaited him at camp or how difficult it would be in the years of wandering that lay before him. He knew that God had made promises to his people, and this was enough for him. It is enough for us – for parents facing rebellious children, pastors trying to shepherd Christ’s flock, even civil magistrates who want to be a terror to evildoers – our faith lives upon God’s promises. We can accomplish the most difficult duties as we feed upon his word as our manna. Then, when we plead his own promises back to him, we have every confidence that he will keep his word and bring us through every difficulty.
When Moses Went Down the Mountain (vv. 15-20)
The Revelry of Idolatry (vv. 15-18)
It is a sickening sight – Moses walking down the slopes of Sinai, with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, the work of God engraved upon stone, going to face a graven image of man’s hand and great rebellion against God’s holy law. We can be so wicked, readily sin against great privileges, and provoke the Lord without batting an eye. Truly, “it is by his mercies that we are not consumed” (Lam. 3:22). Partway down, Moses met Joshua, who was not permitted to enter the chamber of God’s majesty. He had waited all those days in the antechamber, ready when he might be called, a faithful adjutant. He was likely fed with manna during those days, and we see how future leadership is best trained – being close to those who walk closely with God, waiting upon them, not pushing themselves forward, and being patient to wait for the Lord’s time. Joshua alerts Moses to the noise of war in the camp. Moses knows that it is not war that that they hear, but the revelry of idolatry. There is something about idolatry – a core recklessness and chaos – whether the old heathen idolatry or the present cheap grace and worship chaos in God’s holy temple – that throws off moral restraint. Where worship is sober and joyful, where the Lord is feared, there is restraint and awe before him. This is because a sense of his majesty and wonder at his love are the best restraints to our fallen and reckless hearts. May he give these to us in increasing measure!
The Covenant Broken (v. 19)
Moses had averted God’s fierce wrath, but he was not able to restrain his own. The sights that met him when he entered the camp – Aaron leading a pep rally before the golden calf; nakedness and immorality widespread – and he had just come from pleading for their lives and basically dying on the altar of God’s wrath in order to turn it away – like Jesus Christ – and perhaps we should not sin so readily or listen to the preachers of casual discipleship if we more often recalled this scene. Our Savior loves us far more than Moses loved the Israelites, but he is provoked when, coming fresh from the altar on Moriah where he made his soul an offering for sin, he then sees us partying with the world, immoral and unchaste, unmindful of the great benefits he purchased for us the cost of his precious blood. For Moses, the sight was too much, and he boiled over with rage – righteous anger, an anger that knew as the people did not how close they were to God’s destroying judgment. When he saw what they were actually doing, how far they had fallen – this was the heritage of the Lord? His chosen people? He took the two tablets of the covenant and hurled them to the ground, breaking them in pieces. This was no sin on Moses’ part. The people had broken the covenant in their hearts; what good was an outer testimony of that covenant except to condemn them? Their fellowship with God was broken; they did not deserve his gracious law.
The Golden Calf Destroyed and Desecrated (v. 20)
But the golden calf – this tried Moses beyond all bounds – it would have alarmed us to see with what rage a man of God who had just been with God’s majesty and heard his voice can be filled when he is confronting such brazen sin. First, he took the golden calf and burned it in the fire. This must have taken some time. Moses may have had to fight off the most belligerent and frenzied of the idolaters, but no one could stand before him. The golden panels dripping and the wooden frame drooping, he then beat the monstrosity into dust, cast it upon the water, and made Israel to drink it. This was to desecrate the golden calf and to make it a part of the people’s intestines and filth – to show what an evil thing idolatry is, that it must not cling to it, and that it is lower than excrement.
We had a Reformation once to rid the church of her many idols, and I bless God for it. I also tremble when I think that God was so gracious to us in those days, to awaken love for his word and to strengthen men to seal his truth with their blood. But to see how the children of the Reformation have forgotten God’s grace and have corrupted themselves with immorality with the world and with idolatry in worship – worshipping God not with golden calves but with more subtle idols – personal willfulness, the worship of feelings and sentiment, the toleration of perversion in the holy camp of the Lord. God is so gracious and willing to forgive – look at Jesus Christ and his cross. But God is less not more tolerant of our iniquities now that we have such grace and boldness to draw near to God, and such love and condescension that he draws near to us. We are not stronger than he, as Paul warned the Corinthians. We cannot eat his Table and the table of idols. May the Lord restore in us a healthy hatred of all forms of sin and filth, eradicating from us by his Spirit the “me first” and “my feelings” idolatry that is a wretched stench in his nostrils. In their place, may he form us into his living temple by the Spirit, wash away our sins, and give us a meek and quiet spirit before his word.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. Why did the Lord say “your people” to Moses?
2. What use should we make of the warning that we can go so quickly astray?
3. What are the sins to which you stubbornly cling? What must we do about them?
4. What did God mean by “leave me alone?”
5. How did the Lord test Moses?
6. What happens when leaders (church, home, state) abdicate their moral authority?
7. In what ways is this commonly done? Why?
8. How was Moses a picture of Jesus Christ our Mediator?
9. Upon what did Moses base his plea for mercy?
10. Why did God relent from the threatened judgment?
11. Why are idolatry and immorality frequently found together?
12. Why did Moses break the stone tablets? Was he wrong to break them?