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Scripture reading– Exodus 32-33
Moses and Joshua had been away from the people for “forty days and forty nights” (24:18). Moses’ appointment on Mount Sinai being ended, the LORD gave him “two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” (31:18).
Israel’s Provocation: Idolatry and Immorality (32:1-6)
In Moses’ absence, the people saw that he was “delayed to come down out of the mount” (32:1) and giving no thought of their covenant with the LORD, we read: they “gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him” (32:1).
Now, Moses was not aware of events in Israel’s camp, but the LORD knows all things and heard the wicked demands of the people (32:1). He witnessed Aaron’s failure to hold the people to the covenant they vowed to the LORD, and heard when he yielded to their idolatrous demands. Rather than rebuke the people, Aaron accommodated them and “said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me” (32:2).
Tragically, the people complied with Aaron’s directives. He received their “golden earrings” and “fashioned it with a graving tool after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (32:4). Aaron then accommodated their wickedness, and “built an altar before [the calf]; and [proclaimed]… Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord” (32:5). Having disavowed their covenant with the LORD, the people “offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play” (32:6). Thus the Scriptures revealed Israel not only committed idolatry, but did those things that were morally reprehensible.
The Wrath of the LORD and Moses’ Intercession (32:7-14)
The LORD, angered and provoked by the people’s sins, vowed to judge them in His wrath (32:7-10) and cut off the people as a nation. He declared He would covenant with Moses and “make of [him] a great nation” (32:10). Moses, however, interceded for the people, for he was jealous of the LORD’s testimony before Egypt and other nations. He implored the LORD, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants” (32:13) and reminded Him of His covenant promises. Then, in an act of mercy and grace, we read how the LORD heard Moses’ prayer, and He “repented [lit. had a change of mind or heart] of the evil [judgment; destruction] which he thought to do unto his people” (32:14).
Moses’ Loathing of Israel’s Idolatry (32:15-19)
Moses then descended the mount with “two tables of the testimony…in [his] hand: the tables [the Commandments] were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. 16And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables” (32:15-16).
Joshua, apparently unaware of the LORD’s revelation to Moses concerning the idolatrous state of Israel, heard a clammer of voices as they neared the camp and wondered if it was the “noise of war” (32:17). Moses knew it was the sound of frolicsome singing, and when “he saw the calf, and the dancing…[his] anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount” (32:19).
Aaron’s Tragic Failure and Defense (32:19-25)
Words fail me to describe this tragic moment in Israel’s history. How soon Israel turned from their covenant with the LORD and gave themselves to profound wickedness and idolatry! Incensed by the evil he witnessed, Moses “took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it” (32:19b-20). He rebuked his brother Aaron and questioned, “What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them?” (32:21)
Unbelievably, Aaron’s retort reminds me of many in spiritual leadership today. Rather than assume responsibility for his failure, Aaron placed the guilt of his failings as a spiritual leader on the people and said, “thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief” (32:22). The whole conversation that passed between Moses and Aaron was not recorded. Yet, the Scriptures record that Aaron was not only a spiritual failure as a leader, but he was implicated as a willing participant in their wickedness. We read: “Aaron had made [the people] naked unto their shame among their enemies” (32:25).
“Who is on the LORD’s side?” (32:26-29)
The time to stand for the LORD had come, and “Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the Lord’s side? Let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi [the priestly tribe of Moses and Aaron] gathered themselves together unto him” (32:26). Three thousand men were slain for their wickedness that day (32:28). Moses urged the people, and said, Consecrate yourselves to day to the Lord, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother; that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day” (32:29).
Moses’ Intercession and a Divine Reprieve (32:30-35)
The next day, Moses rebuked the people and said, “Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the Lord; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin” (32:30). Moses prayed and confessed the sins and wickedness of Israel, and interceded for the people saying, “Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written” (32:31-32). The LORD responded to Moses’ intercessory prayer (32:33) and, in the act of mercy and grace, gave Israel a reprieve from utter destruction. Though the tragic consequences of the people’s sins followed the nation, and He did not altogether stay His judgment (32:34-35), the Lord did not utterly destroy Israel.
A Sorrow unto Repentance (33:1-6)
The prophet Jeremiah observed centuries later, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not” (Lamentations 3:22). Certainly, that truth is witnessed in Exodus 33 when the LORD’s judgment against Israel was stayed by His mercy. Still, the consequence of the nation’s sin was the sacrifice of His immediate presence (33:1-3). Wisely, the people mourned and responded by stripping themselves of outward adornments (33:6).
Moses: A Friend of God (33:7-11)
Though disappointed in the people, Moses fulfilled God’s desire and design for the Tabernacle. He pitched it outside the camp and “called it the Tabernacle of the congregation” (33:7). When the people observed Moses coming and going to the Tabernacle (33:8), “they rose up, and stood every man at his tent door” (33:8). As Moses entered the Tabernacle, the people observed the presence of the LORD descended like a “cloudy pillar” (33:9-10).
The Scriptures give us a remarkable portrait in Exodus 33:11, where we read, “And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” Of Joshua, we read that when Moses left to return to the camp, he remained and “departed not out of the tabernacle” (33:11).
An Appeal for God’s Presence (33:15-22)
Moses dreaded the thought of proceeding on Israel’s journey without the LORD, and therefore pled, “If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence” (13:15). Yet, Moses was not satisfied only with the LORD’s presence; he prayed to the LORD, “shew me thy glory” (Exodus 33:18). God graciously replied to Moses, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live” (Exodus 33:20). So we learn no man can see God in His unveiled, heavenly glory; however, Moses was blessed with a glimpse of His glory while He sheltered him in the cleft of the rock (33:21-22).
Among the statements that indicated Moses’ special relationship with God, we read: “And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend” (33:11).
Imagine a relationship with God that is “face to face,” heart to heart, and friend to friend. Yet, that relationship is possible through Christ, for even His enemies accused Him and said Jesus was “a friend of publicans and sinners” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). Indeed He is, and waits for you to turn from your sins and accept Him as your Savior and Lord. He is “longsuffering to usward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Copyright © 2023 – Travis D. Smith
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