Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Mar 5 2019 - Exodus 32:1-35 – The golden calf

Moses had climbed up a mountain which had all the ferocity of a volcano. He had gone for so long that the people begin to think that he was not coming back. Who will lead them now? The pillar of fire and smoke has gone; the fire is on the mountain. So the people decide that they need a more permanent symbol of the presence of the god who has brought them out of Egypt and who will lead them into the land of promise. They ask Aaron to make them an idol, a god they can see and touch.

Aaron gathers the golden jewellery the people are wearing, has it melted down and shaped like a calf. When the people see it they declare, "This is the god who brought us up out of Egypt."

There is a deep irony in the fact that the Israelites are making an image of god, while God is delivering the Law beginning with the command that the Israelites should make no image of him.

It is easy for us to see the utter foolishness of the Israelites. But we are not so quick to spot our own folly. All too easily we place our security and hope in the things we can see and touch; the things we can control. It is hard to trust a God whom we cannot see.

God knows what the people are doing and is filled with anger. He tells Moses that he will destroy them and make a new people for himself from Moses and his descendants.

Note the remarkable selfless prayer of Moses (cf. Psalm 106:19-23). He pleads that God might spare the people, not because they deserve it, but for the sake of his own name and glory. He pleads what God has already done for them – he rescued them from slavery and brought them safely out of Egypt. He pleads God's reputation – what will the Egyptians say if they hear that the Israelites have perished in the desert? He pleads God's promises – remember your covenant with Abraham and your purpose to bless. And because of Moses' prayer, the people are spared.

Moses descended from Sinai with the two stone tablets in his hand engraved by the finger of God. Half way down he met Joshua who had been waiting for him. As they got nearer the bottom of the mountain the sounds of the people's idolatrous celebration could be heard. Joshua thought that the people were being attacked, but Moses quickly sets him right.

At the foot of the mountain Moses dashes the stone tablets to the ground where they shatter. This is no angry or impulsive gesture. Moses is demonstrating that the people have broken the covenant and no longer deserve to be called the people of God. The golden calf was burned – it was probably a wooden frame covered with hammered gold plates – and the remains ground into powder to be slowly and unpleasantly consumed by the people in their water. Those who would not turn away from their idolatry are to be put to death. Moses again intercedes with the Lord for his people. Like Paul in Romans 9:3, he is willing to sacrifice his own place in God's kingdom if only the Israelites can be saved.

God's grace was displayed when only three thousand died that day rather than all the people being rejected. How much more wonderfully is the grace of God displayed in the Lord Jesus. He, the spotless Lamb of God died for us that we might be forgiven – that our names might be written indelibly in the Lamb's Book of Life. Three thousand died on that day, but when Christ had died and been raised from the dead three thousand were added to his people in one day (Acts 2:41). Grace triumphs over judgment.

Gracious God, we thank you for the Lord Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Thank you that you do not treat us as our sins deserve but have written our names in the Lamb's Book of Life and will save us from the wrath to come. Forgive us that all too often our hearts turn away from you to idols which seem so much more substantial. Help us to keep ourselves from idols.

Peter Misselbrook