The people of Israel had declared their faith in the Lord, but for many their faith was more in the man Moses. With his extended absence, their professed faith in the invisible God was abandoned in favor of a man-made idol. Here is a reminder that our faith must be in God alone.
A well-known nineteenth-century pastor wrote, “To be a true minister . . . is to accept new happiness and new distress.” You’re going to have both. Warren Wiersbe wrote that this “principle is vividly illustrated in the life of Moses. His delight in God on the mountaintop was interrupted by deep disappointment with his people.”
Exodus chapter 32 gives us that account. Moses is up on the mountain with God, and the people down below are rebelling against God. In fact, here in verse 1 they’re demanding of Aaron, the high priest:
“Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
Remember, these are the same people who had declared their allegiance to the Lord little more than forty days earlier. Now with Moses out of sight, they’re impatient. They don’t want an invisible God; they want visible gods to lead them.
Sadly, instead of responding with righteous indignation, Aaron responds with an unrighteous solution. In verse 2, he tells them to hand over their gold jewelry. And from it he fashions a golden idol in the form of a calf. The ringleaders of this rebellion announce, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (verse 4).
Aaron makes a rather feeble attempt to direct them to the Lord in verse 5 by calling for a feast “to the Lord” the next day. But they’re not interested in the Lord. In fact, they engage in nothing less than a drunken orgy the following day.
The Lord says to Moses up there on the mountain, “Go down, for your people . . . have corrupted themselves” (verse 7). He goes on to tell Moses that they are worshiping and sacrificing to a golden calf. Verse 10 tells us that the wrath of God is burning hot against them! In fact, God proposes that He just might consume this nation and start all over with Moses.
Don’t misunderstand. This isn’t a moment of indecision from the Lord—it’s actually a moment of decision for Moses. God is inviting Moses to intercede for Israel. And that’s exactly what Moses does in verse 12, as he prays to theLord, “Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people.” And the Lord responds by withdrawing His threat.
When Moses comes down the mountain, he sees the golden calf and throws down the stone tablets on which the commandments are engraved, smashing them to pieces. Then we read in verse 20:
He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.
This is Moses’ way of defiling this idol and making sure it will never be remade. And drinking this impure water pictures the truth that the people are going to suffer the consequences of their idolatry.
I need to mention Aaron’s ridiculous response when Moses confronts him. First, Aaron blames the people. Then in verse 24 he says, “I threw it [the gold] into the fire, and out came this calf.” How ridiculous is that? Imagine your child saying, “Well, I was walking past the cookie jar, and a cookie jumped out of the jar and landed in my mouth!”
No, this idol didn’t just jump out of the fire. I think it’s because this response is so ridiculous that Moses doesn’t even respond to it!
Instead, Moses shouts, in verse 26, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” “The sons of Levi,” Moses’ tribe, step up with their swords, and in obedience to the Lord’s command, they go through the camp and put to death three thousand men who were the ringleaders in this idolatry.
Remember, this nation had just entered a covenant that required the death penalty for idolaters (Exodus 22:20). And because they defended the Lord’s honor, the tribe of Levi is given a permanent place of service alongside the priests from this point on.
So, here we are. Three thousand people are dead. The tablets of the law are shattered. And we’re left wondering if this grand plan of God for His chosen nation has come to an end.
But there’s hope. In verse 30 Moses says to Israel, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”
Moses goes back up the mountain and pleads with the Lord to forgive them. He even offers to die himself if it will gain God’s forgiveness for the people.
His offer is declined. Verse 35 relates that God sends judgment in the form of a plague, yet mercifully, He doesn’t destroy the entire nation.
As we come to chapter 33, God tells the people that He will lead them to the promised land, but He says in verse 3, “I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” What’s the Lord doing here? He’s reaffirming His covenant promise to give Israel the land but withholding personal communion and fellowship with them.
This is actually a loving push toward repentance. You see, the ringleaders had been put to death, but the nation had allowed it, and they haven’t yet repented. So, the Lord’s refusal forces them to see their silence for what it was. We read in verse 4, “When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments.”
Their repentance is genuine, and we read in verse 14 that in response to Moses’ intercession, the Lord says, “My presence will go with you.” How gracious and forgiving is the Lord!
In verse 11 we read that the Lord would “speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” You might wonder how that squares with John’s Gospel, where it says that no man has seen God at any time (John 1:18).
Well, Moses says to the Lord here in Exodus 33:18, “Please show me your glory.” And that’s what Moses is actually seeing when he speaks to the Lord—the glory of God’s presence.
In chapter 34, God tells Moses to cut two new tablets of stone and bring them up the mountain. The next day the Lord descends in the cloud and passes by Moses in a glorious appearance, proclaiming His name and describing His nature. Moses sees just a sliver, as it were, of God’s glory, and he then falls on his face and worships.
Then Moses records the words of God as he meets in the presence of God’s glory for these forty days on the mountain. And something happens to Moses. We’re told here in verse 30 that after Moses was in God’s presence, “all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.”
So, Moses now has to wear a veil for some time whenever he goes out in public. You can imagine how this elevated the credibility of Moses and solidified his position as Israel’s divinely chosen leader.
By the way, you will experience exactly what Moses did when you live with God in heaven: your entire countenance is going to shine like the sun. That’s what Jesus said in Matthew 13:43: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”