The Golden Calf—and God’s Grace

How quickly things change! One day God speaks the Ten Words from Mt. Sinai. Less than six weeks later Israel involved in riotous worship of a golden calf. Yet even here, as Exodus 32 tells you, God reveals his astounding grace.

You resemble what you worship. Idolatry ignores God’s Word. God had spoken the Ten Words. Moses ascended the mountain, where God engraved those commandments in stone as a covenant document. Further, he showed Moses the heavenly pattern for the tabernacle and it furnishings. In Moses’ absence, the hearts of the people turn from the Lord to an idol. They demand a visible God, and Aaron acquiesces, forming the golden calf. This may be a violation of either the First or Second Commandment (or both), and possibly the Seventh. God sends Moses down to the people. Idolatry this blatant may seem to be a distant, primitive problem, but our hearts are idol factories, as Calvin remarks. We find excuses for thinking that what God says doesn’t really apply to us. We choose to go our own ways. We put things, career, money, self, ahead of God—and make them idols. Israel’s problem is our problem.

Who or what you worship leaves its mark on you. Isaiah 6; 32:17-18 and 44:9 and 17-18, make the point, not only that idol worship is foolish, but that idolaters come to resemble what they worship. To worship an unseeing, unspeaking image is the work of someone who is spiritually blind and mute. Hosea 4:16-17, prophesying against the stubborn idolatry of Israel (which had calves set up at Dan and Bethel for worship), compares Israel to a stubborn heifer. Moses does not say so explicitly, but, as, not only the leader of Israel here, but also the writer who recorded this incident, he seems to pick language that makes a similar point. The people were “running wild” and “out of control.,” (Exodus 32:25). They turned away, making an idol in the sampe of a calf, and were “stiff-necked” (Exodus 32:8-9). “How is Israel’s sin portrayed in Exodus 32? The description can be seen as using cattle metaphors. Sinful Israel seems to be depicted metaphorically as rebellious cows running wild and needing to be regathered.” (G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, p. 367). Pursue an idol today, and you and your life run a real danger of being characterized by that idol. 1 Corinthians 13 is a call to remember and to change how you live your life.

Sin has consequences. Breaking God’s covenant separates you from him. God sends Moses down the mountain, carrying the two stone tablets with the words of his law engraved on it. These are not merely instructions, but are a covenant document, a record of the relationship God had established with his people. Moses throws them down, shattering them, not in a fit of anger, but as a graphic symbol of what the sin of idolatry has done to the relationship between God and his people. As you celebrate the Reformation, rejoice in the richness of justification by faith. But never let that degenerate into treating God’s Word and commandments lightly. Sin contradicts you relationship with him. Further, God tells Moses that he will destroy the people and make Moses into a great nation. He threatens to separate himself from the people.

Remember that the punishment for sin is death. You remember that from Eden. Moses seems to give an opportunity to repent, and the Levites turn to him. He sends them among their fellows Israelites, punishing idolatry with death, and 3,000 die. More perish in the plague described at the end of the chapter. Idol worshipers today may not suffer capital punishment, but eternal death await all those who stand outside of Christ.

God graciously hears the prayer of the Intercessor. Moses interceded for his people. Thankfully, that punishment is not the end of the story. Moses interceded for the people. In Exodus 32 he recalled God’s grace in the Exodus, called attention to what the nations would say about God, and appealed to God’s covenant promises, Exodus 32:11-14. The next day he ascends the mountain, and in one of the richest intercessory prayers in Scripture, asks God to forgive the people—or else blot his name out of God’s book. Of course, Moses, great as he was, was still a sinner, and could not atone for his people. But someone can!

Trust the Christ who laid down his life and who prays for you. The sinless Lamb of God could and did lay down his life in place of his people. He bore the sins of the Israelites who repented and believed. He bore the sins of the idolatry that you and I have fallen into. 1 Corinthians 10 is not only a warning against immorality, it is a call to be united to Christ by faith. He is the Rock! Not only did he lay down his life for you, but in heaven at this moment he intercedes for you. On the basis of what he has done he not only asks for your forgiveness, he secures it.

For homework read Exodus 33. Notice how God speaks with Moses face to face. It is Moses’ deep appreciation of the mercy and grace of God that leads him to ask God to show Moses his glory. Do you recognize the idols your heart tries to manufacture? Turn from those idols. But above all, entrust yourself to God’s mercy in Christ!

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“At the very outset, then, the covenant had been broken [by worshiping the golden calf]. The bond now had to be restored. . . . Although Moses served as a mediator, he could not die for his people. Only the other Mediator, Jesus Christ, could do that. Moses could do more than plead for his people. . . . This prayer was also heard. The Lord Himself would be with them. With that the relationship was restored from the Lord’s side.

“We must take careful note of the implications of this event. It is crystal clear that Israel had no right whatsoever to the Lord’s favor. That the Lord again chose to enter into a covenant with His people was purely a matter of grace; actually it was an anticipation of the work of Christ.

“When the Lord fulfills the promises of long ago, He is not under any obligation to do so. He would be completely justified in not fulfilling them. When He does fulfill them, He does so in divine freedom and sovereign love. Again and again we see that the Bible is not a book in which man lays claim to what is his by right. No Israelite had the right to demand this and that because he was an actual descendant of Abraham. There is no room for boasting. The covenant remains a covenant of grace.” (C. Vanderwaal, Search the Scriptures, Vol. 1, pp. 142-143).

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About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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