Gleanings In Exodus
by A. W. Pink
59. The Golden Calf
Our present portion, which runs on to the end of chapter 34, commences a new and distinct section of Exodus, a section which, in one sense, is parenthetical in its character and contents. This will at once appear if Exodus 32 to 34 be omitted and chapter 35 be read right after chapter 31. In Exodus 24 to 31 inclusive we have recorded the communications which Moses received from Jehovah while he was with Him in the mount, instructions which concerned the making of the tabernacle and the institution of the priesthood. In chapter 35 Moses makes known to the people the revelations which he had received from the Lord, and forthwith the making of the holy vessels and the house for them is proceeded with. But in chapters 32 to 34 the flow of the tabernacle theme is interrupted, and a very different subject is brought before us. Here we are given to see what transpired among the Congregation while Moses was in the mount. Here we behold the awful sin of Aaron and the people during the interval of their leader’s absence, with the fearful consequences which it entailed.
A more frightful contrast than that which is presented in these two sections in the book of Exodus is scarcely possible to imagine. In the former we are permitted to witness the condescending grace of Jehovah as He spoke with Moses; in the latter we are called upon to gaze at that which exhibited the awful depravity of fallen man. In the one we are occupied with that which unveils to us the manifold glories of Christ; in the other we have exposed the awful abominations which Satan produces. First we are shown the provisions which God made for His people to worship Him, according to His own holy appointments; then we witness the idolatrous manufacture of a golden calf, and the children of Israel bowing down before it in worship. Verily, truth is stranger than fiction. "God hath made man upright," but they have sought out many inventions (Eccl. 7:29), inventions which only serve to make manifest the exceeding sinfulness of sin and the fearful depths of depravity into which fallen man has descended.
Above, we have stated that Exodus 32 to 34 forms a parenthetical section of the book, inasmuch as the contents of these chapters break in upon the narrative concerning the tabernacle. But looked at from another standpoint they contain the historical sequel to what is recorded in Exodus 19. There we see the children of Israel, in the third month after their going forth out of Egypt, encamped before Sinai. They were bidden to sanctify themselves, wash their clothes, and come not at their wives, and then on the third day, the Lord came down "in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai." Most awe-inspiring was the Divine manifestation: "There were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people in the camp trembled... And Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly" (19:16, 18).
Moses was then called up into the mount, where he received the laws enumerated in Exodus 20-23. Then, in 24:3 we read, "And Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the Lord hath said will we do." This vow of the people was most solemnly ratified: Moses wrote all the words of the Lord in a book, "And he took the book of the covenant and read it in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words (24:7, 8).
Following this, we are told, "And the Lord said unto Moses, Come up to Me into the mount, and be there . . . And Moses rose up, and his minister Joshua: and Moses went up into the mount of God. And he said unto the elders, Tarry ye here for us, until we come again unto you: and, behold Aaron and Hur are with you: if any man have any matters to do, let him come unto them . . . And Moses went into the midst of the cloud, and gat him up into the mount: and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights" (24:12-14, 18). It was while Moses was on the mount on this occasion that he received the Divine communications recorded in chapters 25 to 31. And what of the people during the interval? How were they conducting themselves during this most solemn period? Our present portion contains the answer; to it we are now ready to turn.
"And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him" (v. 1). The key to this incident is found in part of Stephen’s address, recorded in Acts 7: "This is He that was in the church in the wilderness.. to whom our fathers would not obey, but thrust from them, and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt, saying unto Aaron, Make us gods to go before us" (vv. 38-40). It was not that they were peeved at the lengthy absence of Moses, but that they had cast off their allegiance to Jehovah, their hearts had departed from Him.
What we have said above is confirmed by Israel’s reference to Moses on this occasion as "the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt." Instead of owning their Divine Deliverer, their vision was narrowed to the human instrument which had been employed. It is ever thus with a people whose hearts are divorced from God. Compare the words of apostate Israel at a later date: "Then the men of Israel said unto Gideon, Rule thou over us, both thou, and thy son, and thy son’s son also: for thou hast delivered us from the hand of Midian" (Judg. 8:22). Here in Exodus 32 the human instrument was contemptuously referred to as "this Moses," so little did they appreciate his unwearied service and prayers on their behalf.
It is not without reason that our present portion is immediately preceded by these words: "And He gave unto Moses, when He had made an end of communing with him upon Mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God" (31:18). On those tables of stone were written the ten commandments, the first of which was, "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me." And the second, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" (20:3, 4,). It is the deliberate, public and united disobedience of these commandments which our lesson records. Man must have an object, and when he turns from the true God, he at once craves a false one. What we have here has been perpetuated in every generation: nor has Christendom proved any exception to the rule. As another has said, "Alas! alas! it has ever been thus in man’s history. The human heart lusts after something that can be seen; it loves that which meets and gratifies the senses. It is only faith that can ‘endure as seeing Him who is invisible.’ Hence, in every age, men have been forward to set up and lean upon human imitations of Divine realities. Thus it is we see the counterfeits of corrupt religion multiplied before our eyes. Those things which we know, upon the authority of God’s Word, to be Divine and heavenly realities, the professing Church has transformed into human and earthly inventions. Having become weary of hanging upon an invisible arm, of trusting in an invisible sacrifice, of having recourse to an invisible Priest, of committing herself to an invisible Head, she has set about ‘making’ these things; and thus from age to age, she has been busily at work, with ‘graving tool’ in hand, graving and fashioning one thing after another, until we can at length recognize as little similarity between much that we see around us, and what we read in the Word, as between a ‘molten calf’ and the God of Israel" (C.H.M.)
Israel had served false gods in Egypt (Josh. 24:14), and the flesh in them was still unchanged. It is true that Israel as a nation were only typically redeemed—the vast majority of them being children in whom was no faith (Deut. 32:20)—yet we must never forget when reading their history that, "These things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted" (1 Cor. 10:6). Yea, does not the apostle at once follow this with, "Neither be ye idolators as were some of them" (v. 7). And again he says, "Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry" (v. 14). So, too, John, whose Epistle is addressed to those to whom he could say, "truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ," closes with the exhortation, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols." May God grant us hearts to heed these solemn and needed warnings. There is but one safeguard and preventative, and that is, being constantly occupied with Christ.
What has just been before us is of Such immense practical importance that ere passing on we feel we must add a further word. The typical picture is unmistakably plain in its present-day application to God’s people. Moses was away from Israel, up in the mount; so Christ is away from the earth, on High before God. But before He went away, He said to His disciples, "Ye believe in God, believe also in Me" (John 14:1). He is the Object of faith, and it is only as our affections are set upon Him, as we are in daily communion with Him, that our hearts are kept from idols. But just as surely as Israel’s turning away from Jehovah was at once followed by the making of the golden calf, just as surely as (in the history of the corporate Christian profession) the leaving of first love (Rev. 2:4) was followed by the setting up of the "synagogue of Satan" (Rev. 2:9), so now, the estranging of the heart from Christ opens the door for all sorts of abominable idolatries.
"And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring unto me" (v. 2). As Exodus 24:18 informs us, Moses was absent from Israel for forty days, a number which, in Scripture, is almost always connected with probation. It hardly needs to be said that such a length of time was not needed by God: had He so pleased He could within the space of a few hours (or even in a moment) have told Moses all that is recorded in Exodus 25 to 31 and made him understand it. Why, then, those forty days? For the testing of Israel—to make manifest whether or no they would patiently wait for the ordinances they had promised to observe. But so far from keeping their solemn vows, they would not even wait to hear what God said.
Aaron, with Hur, was left to adjudicate upon any question that might arise while Moses and his minister, Joshua, was away (24:14). Aaron is now put to the test. It was the first time he had been left in charge of the Congregation, and wretchedly did he acquit himself. Instead of putting his trust in the Lord, the fear of man brought him a snare. Instead of boldly withstanding the people, he, apparently without any struggle, yielded to their evil designs. Alas, it but supplies another tragic illustration of the fact that when responsibility is committed to man, he betrays his trust. Thus it has been in the history of Christendom: instead of the leaders refusing to follow the worldly wishes of their people, they have heeded, and oftentimes encouraged them.
"And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt" (vv. 3, 4). Another has pointed out an analogy between what we have here and that which is recorded in Matthew 17:1-18. "There is a striking resemblance, in one aspect, between this scene and that witnessed at the foot of the mount of transfiguration. In both alike Satan holds full sway. In the one before us, it is the nation who have fallen under his power, in the other it is the child whom he has possessed; but the child again is a type of the Jewish nation of a later day. The absence of Christ on high (shown in figure also by Moses on Sinai) is the opportunity seized by Satan—under God’s commission—for the display of his wicked power, and man (Israel) in the evil of his heart becomes his wretched slave" (Ed. Dennett.)
The calf, or ox, was the principal Egyptian god—"Apis"—with which they had been familiar in the land of bondage. "These be thy gods" is expounded in Nehemiah 9:18 as meaning, "This is thy god." The inspired comment of the Psalmist is very solemn, "They made a calf in Horeb, and worshipped the molten image. They changed their Glory into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass. They forgat God their Savior, which had done great things in Egypt" (106:19-21). The making of that idol and the rendering worship to it was an act of open apostasy, the bitter harvest from which continued to be reaped until they were carried into Babylon (Acts 7:43). Such is the flesh: ever ready to forget God’s deliverances, despise the light He has given us, disobey His commands, act in self-will, and bring in that which effectually shuts Him out.
"And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it" (v. 5). Still darker become the clouds which hang over this awful scene. Not content with substituting a false god for the true One, they must, perforce, cover up their wickedness under the cloak of religion. An "altar" is now erected. Thus it has always been, and still is: man ever seeks to hide the shame of his idolatry by putting over it the name of Deity. Therefore the next thing that we read here is that, "Aaron made proclamation, and said, To-morrow is a feast to the Lord" (v. 5). As a fact, this was a pretense, for there were no "feasts" in either the third or fourth months. (See Leviticus 23.)
What is before us in this 5th verse but gives the prototype of what is now going on almost everywhere in Christendom. Men have set up their idols and then sought to dignify and sanctify their inventions by worshipping them in the name of Christ. Romanism and Ritualism give us one form of it. Wordliness and fleshly indulgencies another. Just as Aaron proclaimed the honors paid to the calf and the carnal merriment that followed as "a feast unto the Lord," so many a "church supper," bazaar, religious carnival, whist drive, etc., is officially carried out under the name of Christianity. What a mockery it all is! Aaron had no Scripture to justify his proclamation, nor have the present-day leaders any word from God to warrant their doings.
"And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings" (v. 6). Terrible travesty was this. Those offerings which spoke of the devotedness of Christ unto the Father, and the fellowship which He has made possible between a holy God and His people, were now presented to this fetish of their own corrupt imaginations. It is significant to mark the absence of any sin offering! But that had no place in their thoughts. How could it? When there is departure from God, the conscience becomes callused: "The way of the wicked is as darkness, they know not at what they stumble" (Prov. 4:19). That is why the unscriptural and Christ-dishonoring performances in the churches occasion no uneasiness to those engaged in them.
"And the people set down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play" (v. 6). Having formally presented their offerings, they now felt free to indulge the lusts of the flesh. And, be it remembered, what we have here is something more than the inspired record of an incident which happened long ago. God’s Word is a living Word, describing things as they actually are. It was in the "early" hours that the burnt and peace offerings were presented. So the early morning mass or "communion" remains popular, and is still followed by the offerers spending the remainder of the clay eating, drinking, and playing: "As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man" (Prov. 27:19)!
"And the Lord said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves" (v. 7). These words of the Lord must be read in the light of what is recorded in Exodus 24:6-8. There we read of a "covenant" which the Lord made with Israel on the ground of His law and their avowal to keep it. It was a purely legal compact between the two contracting parties. Israel had now broken their agreement: they had disowned their Deliverer (32:1), they had broken His law (32:6) Therefore the Lord now, in view of the broken covenant, disowns them: He speaks of them to Moses as "thy people."
"They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt" (v. 8). Alas how "quickly" had they departed from the path of obedience and loyalty! Less than five months before they had declared, "The Lord is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation: He is my God, and I will prepare Him an habitation: my father’s God, and I will exalt Him" (15:2). Instead of so doing, they had raised up that which effectively shut Him out, and instead of exalting Him they had debased themselves. It is solemn to note the Lord here quotes to Moses the identical language the people had used with Aaron: though engaged in "communing" with His servant. He had heard the very words of His wayward people down below. And He still hears and records all our words!
"They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them." It has been thus all through the piece. How "quickly" Adam "turned aside" from the way of his Creator’s command! How "quickly" Noah failed after he came out from the Ark! How "quickly" Nadab and Abihu did that which the Lord "commanded them not" (Lev. 10:1) after the priesthood was instituted! How "quickly" sin entered Israel’s camp after Canaan was entered (Josh. 7). And so we might go on. Alas, how "quickly" the young Christian leaves his "first love" and loses his early joy! Failure is written large across every page of human history. And what is the chief cause of all such failure? Do not the next words of Jehovah to Moses make known the answer?
"And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people" (v. 9). What is signified by this oft-used figure? It signifies a state of insubordination: note the order in Deuteronomy 31:27, "I know thy rebellion, and thy stiff neck." It is the opposite of submission to the will of God: "Be ye not stiff-necked, as your fathers were, but yield yourselves unto the Lord" (2 Chron. 30:8). It is a state into which we may bring ourselves: "They obeyed not, neither inclined their ear, but made their necks stiff, that they might not hear, nor receive instruction" (Jer. 17:23). It is brought about by not yielding ourselves to God: "Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in hearts and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Spirit" (Acts 7:51). A stiff-necked person is one who bows not to God: he is one in whom self-will is at work. This was the state of Israel, therefore did God go on to say:
"Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation" (v. 10). Having by their sins forfeited all the blessings engaged to them on the terms of their own covenant, the Lord at once stands against them, disclaims them, and threatens to execute consuming judgment upon them. "Thus Israel, if dealt with according to the righteous requirements of the law which they had accepted, and to which they had promised obedience as the condition of blessing, were lost beyond recovery, and would perish through their own willful sin and apostasy" (Ed. Dennett). The reason why God did not totally destroy His stiff-necked people on this occasion we must leave for consideration, D.V., to our next article. In the meantime let us seek grace to heed this solemn warning. By nature none of us are a whit better than Aaron and the Israelites. Were God to withdraw His grace from us, we, too, would surely and speedily fall into as great and gross sin as they did. Then let us cry with the Psalmist, "Hold Thou me up, and I shall be safe, and I will have respect unto Thy statutes continually" (119:117).