For the last seven chapters, we've been on the mountaintop with God and Moses. Funny thing about mountaintop experiences... there's usually a downhill afterwards. The chapter before us details one of the steepest and most infamous downhills recorded in Scripture.
Let's remember that in a relatively short period of time, the people of Israel have seen God smite the Egyptians with ten curses, part the Red Sea, lead them by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, miraculously provide water from a rock, and bunches of other supernatural provisions, not the least of which was the manna from heaven that was on the ground six days a week, which continued to be provided while Moses was gone.
How grievous it is when people who have followed God and seen His wondrous provisions and miracles turn away. How could they have fallen?
The people saw that Moses delayed - after all, he had been gone for over a month. They got tired of waiting and lost patience - then they lost faith.
In all fairness to them, this terrible sin of theirs isn't any different than our own. In case you hadn't noticed, we are also guilty - when a little bit of time goes by, we ourselves often begin to question.
I think of difficulties I've had in the past, when God told me something, and I expected it to happen within the hour. But then days and weeks passed. Sometimes it's even months and years. We begin to lose faith in the promise over the passage of time.
Now, that is absolutely not an excuse. Think of the righteous men who waited so long for God's promises to be fulfilled. Men like Abraham. Hebrews 6 tells us,
Hebr. 6:15 ...Having patiently waited, he obtained the promise.
There were so many over the years who waited for the Messiah to come. Jesus told the disciples,
Matt. 13:17 "...Truly I say to you, that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it; and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
We must learn to wait on the Lord. Psalm 37 commands us,
Ps. 37:7 Rest in the LORD and wait patiently for Him
Good advice. The Israelites lost patience and fell into sin.
When they lost patience, they lost faith. They began to walk by sight. They could see Moses, but now that he'd been gone so long, they want something tangible to look to - they wanted a god that they could see. The Bible tells us to...
2Cor. 5:7 ...walk by faith, not by sight
How sad it is that we continue in this sin today. Oh, not just in the idols and icons that many in the church have created. I'm talking about needing tangible proof for belief. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that our faith only goes so far. When was the last time you took a blind leap of faith without knowing that there were at least some of the ducks in a row? Without knowing that there was water in the pool? Hebrews tells us that...
Hebr. 11:6 ...without faith it is impossible to please Him
And Jesus told Thomas,
John 20:29 ..."Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed."
Oh, how we need to walk by faith! How we need to trust God when we cannot see Him working!
The people assemble around Aaron and say, "make us a god." I'm not bewildered by the fact that they strayed from the Lord so quickly - what amazes me is that Aaron follows their lead!
Moses had told the elders back in chapter 24,
Exod. 24:14 ..."Wait here for us until we return to you. And behold, Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a legal matter, let him approach them."
Aaron was to be a leader. But instead he becomes a follower. Spiritual leadership is supposed to be just that - leading. They are to point the way, lead people on the straight and narrow path. They are to make a stand for what is right and oppose what is wrong.
But when they assembled together around Aaron, he wimped out. The worst kind of peer pressure is when people who are supposed to be spiritual are all buying into the same thing and trying to pressure their leader into it as well. I know the intimidation of that - when people are all around saying "do this," or "don't do that" when it's unbiblical.
If I don't let a certain group do this or that, they threaten to leave. But if I'm afraid of that, I'll be compromising the truth, because...
Prov. 29:25 The fear of man brings a snare
So I go to the Scriptures and say, "It is written." If someone wants to do something ungodly or without biblical precedence, I cannot allow that to happen, because I am accountable to God for what happens in this church.
Aaron apparently didn't have the benefit of this conviction, and fell into the people's sin. He makes the calf and says, "This is your god."
The next morning, the people sacrificed and went nuts - totally out of control. They had a big feast, and then it says, they "rose up to play." "Play" in hebrew is "tsaw-KHAK", which means to laugh, mock, or play. The word can also have some sexual overtones, as we see the same word used in Genesis 26:
Gen. 26:8 ...Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out through a window, and saw, and behold, Isaac was caressing his wife Rebekah.
"Tsaw-KHAK" is there translated "caressing." So it appears that not only did the people fall into idolatry, but also immorality and fornication. 1Corinthians 10 tells us,
1Cor. 10:6-8 Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. And do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, "THE PEOPLE SAT DOWN TO EAT AND DRINK, AND STOOD UP TO PLAY." Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day.
The people have fallen very far.
Now obviously God knew that this was going on. He told Moses all the details before he ever left the mountaintop. David wrote,
Ps. 69:5 O God, it is Thou who dost know my folly, And my wrongs are not hidden from Thee.
But for some reason, we think we get away with so-called "secret sins." Speaking through Isaiah, God says,
Isa. 40:27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel, My way is hidden from the LORD, And the justice due me escapes the notice of my God"?
Rest assured, our sin finds us out. Jesus said,
Matt. 10:26 "...There is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known."
And 1Corinthians states,
1Cor. 4:5 ...The Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts...
Isa. 29:15 Woe to those who deeply hide their plans from the LORD, And whose deeds are done in a dark place, And they say, "Who sees us?" or "Who knows us?"
We haven't gotten away with anything.
Needless to say, God is really, really mad. He says,
Exod. 32:10 "Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may destroy them"
Yikes! Like the writer of Hebrews said,
Hebr. 10:31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Plus, notice that all this time, Israel has been "My people." Now they're "your people." They had clearly broken the covenant spelled out back in chapter 19:
Exod. 19:5 "Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples..."
They had not obeyed His voice, so He called them Moses' people instead of His own.
"But what about the unconditional covenant to multiply Abraham's descendants and give them the land of Canaan," you might be thinking. He's got it covered. Notice that He says, "I'll keep my promises to bless and multiply Abraham's descendants through you."
Moses begins to plead with God, making two basic points: #1: "Lord, you delivered them out of Egypt, and if you kill them, then you won't look so good to the Egyptians." And #2: "Lord, remember your covenant promises."
Incredibly, it says that God changed His mind! And what a theological debate that has stirred up! Admittedly, this is an incredibly difficult concept to grasp, because the Scripture is clear:
Num. 23:19 God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent...
1Sam. 15:29 "And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind."
Mal. 3:6 "For I, the LORD, do not change..."
So how do we reconcile the fact that God doesn't change His mind with the statement here that God did change His mind?
First, we must realize that God hates sin and judges it.
Second, we must understand how incredibly powerful intercessory prayer is.
Third, we have to know that God did not listen to Moses' reasoning and say, "You know what Moses? You're right. I'm sorry." God of course knew all along that He would not destroy the people. The change of mind that God had was strictly from man's viewpoint.
Why the apparent change? When the people stood on their own before God, He said, "I'm going to destroy them." But when Moses got between them and said, "God have mercy on the people," then the people's position was different. No longer were they standing in the firing line of God's judgment. They were standing behind Moses' appeal for mercy. Moses' intercession changed the position of the people in relationship to God. He was covering them through prayer.
What we need to get here is that the theological question is not nearly as important as the devotional lesson: The fact that intercessory prayer changes things. It is a sweet-smelling incense to God. It is so powerful, we don't even have a grasp of it.
We talked last week about these tablets of the testimony. The tablets of stone written on both sides with the Ten Commandments, front and back, written by the finger of God.
Remember that Joshua had gone up on the mountain further than the elders had been allowed to go.
Exod. 24:13-14 So Moses arose with Joshua his servant, and Moses went up to the mountain of God. But to the elders he said, "Wait here for us until we return to you.
He obviously didn't go all the way up, and wasn't privy to what the Lord was saying to Moses. Moses is heading down the mountain, and comes up to Joshua, who says, "Oh no! The Amalekites must be attacking again! It sounds like a war!"
Moses says, "Joshua, that's no war you're hearing, it's the people at play."
Funny how Moses had just been pleading with God for mercy. But now that he sees the people in all their wicked pleasures, he goes ballistic. He smashes the tablets of the testimony on the ground. Then he stomps down and destroys their golden calf, burning it, grinding it to powder, tossing it on the water, and then making some of the Israelites drink it.
This is one of the lamest excuses found in all of Scripture. Aaron is taking zero blame for what he has done, and what he has allowed the Israelites to do. He blames it on the people, he blames it on Moses, and then lied about his part in the manufacture of the calf.
Moses will tell us later on that God was angry at Aaron specifically.
Deut. 9:20 "And the LORD was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him; so I also prayed for Aaron at the same time.
There is a greater accountability on leadership. We who teach, James says, will incur a stricter judgment.
The party hadn't stopped - many of the Israelites just kept on with their out-of-control behavior. So Moses calls to all who are still faithful to God.
It was the Levites who unanimously joined Moses, something that they will be rewarded for later.
Moses commanded that the cancer of immorality be cut out of the camp. Yes, this may seem harsh to you. But look at the alternative. If these three thousand hadn't been smitten, then their wicked influence surely would have destroyed the entire camp.
What can we learn about this for our own lives? Cut out the cancer of immorality and idolatry in your own life. Jesus said,
Matt. 18:8-9 "...If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out, and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into the fiery hell.
Whatever causes you to sin... cut it off, get rid of it, purge it from your life. It doesn't matter what it is... get it out of there, at any cost.
Moses goes up on the mountain to see if he can make atonement for their sin. Atonement in the Old Testament was the covering up of sin.
Moses goes to the Lord and confesses the sin of his nation, and asks forgiveness, making reference to the Book of Life. Remember that we find out in Revelation 20 what the Book of Life is for:
Rev. 20:15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Moses was willing to give his own salvation for the people, just like Jesus did, and Paul wished he could do. Remember he said in Romans 9,
Rom. 9:2-4 ...I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites...
But God says that they'll reap what each of them individually has sown. Sin is not something to be taken lightly. Consider the cost before you go down that road. It's never worth it.