Gleanings In Exodus
by A. W. Pink
62. Israel Plagued
Exodus 32:28 - 33:2
Our last article closed with the descent of Moses from the mount and, upon his beholding the idolatries of Israel, his giving a stern commission to the Levites: "Put every man his sword by his side, go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor." In their response we behold the spirit triumphing over the flesh, the claims of Jehovah’s holiness over-riding all natural and sentimental considerations: "And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. For Moses had said, Consecrate yourselves today to the Lord, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother; that He may bestow upon you a blessing this day" (vv. 28, 29).
The above verses present several most striking contrasts. First, from what is recorded in Genesis 34:25, 26, where, too, the "sword" is seen in the hand of Levi, not for Jehovah’s glory, but in fleshly anger—cf. Genesis 49:5-7. Second, from what is said in Exodus 28:41, where we read of the sons of Aaron being consecrated that they might minister unto the Lord in the priest’s office. The word "consecrate" means to "fill the hand," the reference being to the sweet-savor offerings and fragrant incense with which they were to appear before Jehovah. But here in our present portion their hands were filled with swords, to slay those who had apostatized. Third, from what is recorded in Acts 2:41: on the day of Israel’s idolatry there fell of the people "about three thousand men," on the day of Pentecost "about three thousand souls" were saved!
Fearful was the ensuing carnage. Stupefied with terror and awed by the irresistible power with which Moses was known to be invested, and by the sight of the threatening Cloud upon the mount above them, the people offered no resistance, and three thousand of them were put to death. "And so they were left for the night: the day of sin had ended in lamentation and woe. The camp, which in the morning had resounded with unholy merriment and licentious song, was full of groans and sighs: the dead awaited burial, and the wounded cried for pain. And every soul was weighed down, if not with remorse for the sin, at least with dread, lest wrath should go forth from the Lord, and the destroying angel appear with sword outstretched to smite the wicked people, who, after hearing the law uttered by the awful voice of God Himself, and promising to do all that tie had spoken, and then, even before the signs of His presence were removed, lightly passed over to idolatry and fornication" (G. H. Pember).
"Now all these things happened unto them for types" (1 Cor. 10:11), that is, types for us; "types" mark, not precedents, not examples for us to imitate. The weapons of our warfare "are not carnal," (2 Cor. 10:4), but "spiritual." No place for the literal sword is provided in the Christian’s equipment. It is a perversion of the Scriptures, a failure to rightly divide the Word of Truth, to appeal to Israel’s history as warrant for us to use physical force. No, No; the material things connected with them, were but figures of the spiritual things which belong to us. What, then, is the lesson for us in this solemn work committed to the Levites? Is not the answer obvious? Uncompromising and unsparing dealing with all that is dishonoring to God, with everything that savors of idolatry.
The Christian possesses a sword, but it is "the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God" (Eph. 6:17). With that sword we are called on to smite every enemy which lifts up its head against Christ. "The sword must be drawn against every influence that corrupts the people of God, even though it may have a place in those nearest us. It might seem very severe to treat brethren, friends, neighbors, in this way, but it was the only way to be consecrated to Jehovah, and to secure His blessing. When what is due to the Lord is in question, it is with those nearest to you that you have to be most decided. There is no particular consecration in drawing the sword against people you care little about. But to take a definite stand for the Lord against influences which are not of Him, even in those that you regard and truly love, secures great blessing... If I am going on with something that does not recognize the rights of Christ, or maintain what is due to God, the kindest thing we can do is to take a definite stand against it. I may, now call you narrow, uncharitable, bigoted! But when I meet you in the light of the judgment-seat of Christ I shall thank you for it?" (C. A. Coates).
As we said in the preceding article, these Levites were the "overcomers" of that day, and if the reader will consult Revelation 2 and 3 he will find that all the promises contained in those chapters were made to the overcomers. How blessed then to find that these Levites were richly rewarded for their faithfulness. In Deuteronomy 33:8-11 we read, "And of Levi he said, Let thy Thummin and Urim be with thy holy one, whom Thou didst prove at Massah and with whom Thou didst strive at the water of Meribah: Who said unto his father and to his mother, I have not seen him; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children: for they have observed Thy word and kept Thy covenant. They shall teach Jacob Thy judgments, and Israel Thy law: they shall put incense before Thee. and whole burnt sacrifice upon Thine altar." It was because they crucified the flesh "with its affections and lusts," (Gal. 5:24) ignoring natural ties, knowing no man according to nature, not even acknowledging their own brethren when it came to maintaining the claims of God’s holiness; it was because they observed His word and kept His covenant, that unto this Tribe were committed the "Thummin and Urim," the gift of teaching, and the privilege of burning incense on the altar. Truly God does honor those who honor Him, but they who despise Him are lightly esteemed.
"And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people ye have sinned a great sin" (v. 30). It is solemn to note the absence of any recorded word of Israel’s repentance. Nothing is said of their contrition and horror at having so grievously offended against the Lord. Ominous sign was that. The rod of chastisement had fallen heavily upon them, yet, so far as we can gather, they had not bowed in heart beneath it. But God will not be mocked; if His chastening be "despised" (Heb. 12:5) it will return in a more acute form. It did so here, as we shall see in the immediate sequel. May the Lord grant each of us the hearing ear.
Moses did not wink at their wickedness, nor did he attempt to minimize the enormity of it. Just as when he first came down from the mount he charged Aaron with having brought "so great a sin" upon Israel (v. 21), so now, on the morrow, he says unto the people, "Ye have sinned a great sin." That he truly and clearly loved his people, the verses that follow plainly testify; yet, this did not deter him from dealing faithfully with them. As the Holy Spirit declares in Hebrews 3:5, "Moses verily was faithful in all his house, as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken after." In this too was he a type of Christ, the Holy One of God, who ever stressed the heinousness of sin.
"And now I will go up unto the Lord; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin" (v. 30). Care needs to be exercised lest we read into these words what they do not really contain. It was not the penal sentence upon their sin, but, we believe, the remitting of the governmental consequences to which Moses referred. It must not be forgotten that we have already been told in v. 14 that "The Lord repented of the evil which He thought to do unto His people." In answer to the earnest supplications of the typical mediator, the wrath of God in utterly "consuming" the people (v. 10) had been averted, and this, we say, should be carefully borne in mind as we endeavor to understand that which follows—admittedly a most difficult passage.
"Peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin." The "peradventure" here ought not to occasion any difficulty, though more than one commentator has tripped over it. The uncertainty was due to the character and circumstances of his mission. Moses was about to appear before God on behalf of a people who had evidenced no sorrow for their great sin; therefore it was doubtful whether or not the governmental consequences of it might be remitted. There are quite a number of similar cases recorded in Scripture. In a Samuel 16:12, following Shimei’s cursing of him, we find David saying, "It may be that the Lord will look on mine affliction and that the Lord will requite me good for his cursing this day. When wayward Israel was threatened by the Assyrians, Hezekiah sent to Isaiah saying, "It may be the Lord thy God will hear all the words of Rab-shakeh, whom the king of Assyria his master hath sent to reproach the living God."
Nor are such cases restricted to the O.T. In N.T. times we read of Peter saying to Simon the sorcerer, "Repent therefore of this that wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee" (Acts 8:22). While in 2 Timothy 2:25 we read, "In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth." The careful reader will observe two things common to all these instances: first, each had in view the governmental consequences of sin; hence, second, each emphasizes the note of uncertainty—because forgiveness was dependent upon their repentance.
"And Moses returned unto the Lord" (v. 31.) Very blessed is this. Moses was, preeminently a man of prayer. In every crisis we find him turning unto the Lord: see Exodus 5:22; 8:30; 9:33; 14:15; 17:4. Beautiful foreshadowing was this of the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, who, in the days of His flesh, ever maintained and manifested a perfect spirit of dependency upon the One who d sent Him. "And Moses returned unto the Lord, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin;—and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written" (vv. 31:32). Let us consider first the practical lesson which this incident contains for our hearts. Most helpfully has this been brought out by another.
"But if we speak of drawing the sword in this way, let us remember that the same man who said in the camp, ‘Slay every man his brother’ went up to Jehovah and said, ‘And now, if Thou will forgive their sin... but if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book that Thou hast written.’ It was the same spirit of Christ which led him to take a decided stand in public against those who had allowed what was contrary to God, that led him to go up and pray for them in secret with such intense yearning for their good. He went as far as it was possible fox man to go in the way of self-sacrifice. He could not be made a curse for them; only the Blessed One could go to that depth; but he was truly in the Spirit of Christ. It might be thought that slaying the people and interceding for them were not consistent. But the same spirit of Christ that would stand for Jehovah even against the nearest and dearest, was the spirit that would plead with God to be blotted out Father than that they should not be forgiven. The man who takes the strongest ground against me when I am wrong, and when I have set aside what is due to the Lord, is probably the one who prays most for me" (C. A. Coates).
"And Moses returned unto the Lord, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin;—and if not, blot me I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written." Unspeakably precious is the typical picture presented here. How it brings out the intense devotion of Moses both to Jehovah and to His people. No sin on their part could alienate his affections from them. "Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it" (Song 8:7). Superlatively was this manifested by the One whom Moses here foreshadowed: Having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end" (John 13:1). Yes, notwithstanding the fact that all would be offended because of Him that night, yea, that all would forsake Him and flee, yet, He "loved them unto the end."
Moses gave proof that his affections were bound up with Israel, though they were a sinful people. So much were their interests his, he was willing to be blotted out of God’s book, if He would not forgive them. Here again we must be careful not to read into his words what is not there. Moses said, "Thy book," not "the book of life." In Psalm 69:28 we read, "Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous." In Isaiah 4:3 it is said, "And it shall come to pass, that he that is left in Zion, and he that remaineth in Jerusalem, shall be called holy, even every one that is written among the living in Jerusalem." Thus it seems clear from these references that the "book" mentioned by Moses was not "the Lamb’s book of life" (Rev. 21:27), which was written "from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 17:8), but the Divine register in which are recorded the names of those living on the earth, whose names are "blotted out" at the death of each one. God has various "books:" see Malachi 3:16, Revelation 20:12.
"And the Lord said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book" (v. 33). God was speaking here from the viewpoint of the unchanging principles of his righteous government. Is not Galatians 6:7, 8 a parallel passage? "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption." Does not Romans 8:13 sound-forth the same warning note? "For if we live after the flesh, we shall die?"
"Therefore now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee: behold, Mine angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them" (v. 34). Here is further proof that their penal deserts were cancelled. Equally clear is it that the governmental consequences of their sin were not remitted. They were not consumed, yet in due time God would deal with them. Does then our type fail us at this point? Certainly not; it only serves to exhibit the perfect accuracy of it. In connection with the mediation of Christ, we find the same two things: His intercession averts the penal wrath of God, but does not remove the governmental consequences of His people’s sins. The latter is conditioned upon our true repentance and confession, and the laying hold of God’s restoring grace.
"And the Lord plagued the people, because they made the calf which Aaron made" (v. 35). In view of what we said in our last article, namely, that what is found here in Exodus 32 has prophetic application not only to Israel in the Tribulation period, but also to Christendom in this present era, probably the reader is ready to ask, But how could this terrible sequel to Israel’s sin ever have its counterpart in God’s dealings with His own in this Dispensation of Grace? Surely Christ has never called for the "sword" to smite His own; surely He does not "plague" His redeemed! Ah, dear friend, the picture that is now before us was not drawn by man, and the heavenly Artist makes no flaws. If it be recalled that Revelation 1 to 3 supplies the key to the present application of our type, it will not be difficult to discover the antitype.
In the second of the seven epistles found there, we read, "Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the Devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried." This epistle to Smyrna contemplates the second stage in the history of the Christian profession. It was a period marked by opposition and persecution, suffering and death. It was the martyr age, covering the last half of the first century A.D. and most of the second and third centuries. It was the time when the early Christians suffered so sorely under Nero and the other Roman emperors that succeeded him. It is unnecessary to enter into detail, most of our readers being doubtless aware of the fearful conditions that then prevailed, and of the fiery trials through which the people of God were called to pass. But what is not so well known, what in fact has been quite lost sight of by most Christian historians, is the cause of that era of suffering, as to why God permitted the Enemy to rage against His people—for, of course, neither the Roman emperors, or Satan who stirred them up, could move at all without His direct permission.
God does not afflict willingly (Lam. 3:33), nor are the sufferings of His people arbitrary. The Scriptures expressly declare, "When a man’s ways please the Lord, He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him" (Prov. 16:7). The reason why God sent such tribulation upon His people in the second era of Christendom’s history was because of their evil conduct in the first period. The epistle which precedes the Smyrean in Revelation 2, namely, the Ephesian, makes known what that evil conduct was: "Thou hast left thy first love" (Rev. 2:4)—Affection for Christ had waned: He was no longer "all and in all" to them. And, inward decline was swiftly followed by outward corruption, as is evidenced by the fearful fact that by the time the Smyrean era had dawned the "synagogue of Satan" (Rev. 2:9) had already become established in their midst. Thus, as cause stands to effect, the leaving of "first love" at the beginning, occasioned the sufferings of the second and third centuries. It was God chastening His backslidden people!
Had the people of God remained true to Christ, had not the love of the world crept into their hearts, haw vastly different history would have been! Nor is this a mere conjecture of ours. After Israel had suffered so severely from their enemies (see the book of Judges) God said through the Psalmist, "Oh that My people had hearkened unto Me, and Israel had walked in My ways! I should soon have subdued their enemies, and turned My hand against their adversaries" (81:13, 14)! But they did not "hearken" unto Him, nor did they walk in His ways. Sadly did history repeat itself. Just as God chastened Israel with the sword and "plague" then, so did He chasten and plague the early Church, using the Roman emperors as His scourge. Thus, what is seen in our type in Exodus 32 finds its counterpart in the history of Christendom. When there was departure from the Lord, when the spirit of idolatry came in, He called for the sword to smite them.
"And the Lord said unto Moses, Depart, and go hence, thou and the people which thou hast brought up out of the land of Egypt, unto the land which I sward unto Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, Unto thy seed will I give it: And I will send an angel before thee: and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittie, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite: Unto a land flowing with milk and honey: for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people: lest I consume thee in the way" (33:1-3). Thus Moses by his supplication secured the immediate safety of the people, and the promise of an angelic guide and protector, to go before them; but the further chastisement of their sin must yet be visited upon them. Nor were they restored to their covenant relations with Jehovah.
Moses was next directed to return to me camp with a message from the Lord. The details of that message, its effect upon the people, with the sequel, we must leave for consideration till our next article. May what has been before us bring to each of our hearts a greater horror and hatred of sin, and a more earnest crying unto God to be delivered from it.