The golden calf. — V.1. And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the text implies that they had waited for his return in vain, and therefore foolishly concluded that he had forsaken them, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, not in the spirit of an orderly congregation, but of a mob bent on violence, and said unto him, Up, make us gods which shall go before us! For as for this Moses, as they now contemptuously called him, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot (know) not what is become of him. They had given up all hopes regarding the leadership of Moses, and therefore proposed to establish their own gods, fashioned according to the ideas of their perverted mind. V.2. And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, the heavy ring pendants worn according to Oriental fashion, and bring them unto me. If Aaron, as some commentators state, made this demand in a spirit of cunning, thinking that the great sacrifice which this involved would keep the people from carrying out their plan, he found himself badly in error. V.3. And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. Swept along by a wave of mob activity, the people showed a fanatical readiness to part with the possessions which they prized most highly. It is the same tendency which may be observed in the case of the many cults and heresies of our days, which spread with such alarming rapidity and command such great resources. V.4. And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving-tool after he had made it a molten calf. After melting the golden rings, Aaron cast a rough figure of a young ox, or bullock, and then finished the outline with the tools of an engraver. It may not have been a work of art, but it served its purpose. And they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. In these words the people proclaimed the idol as god and rejected the true and only God. V.5. And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, To-morrow is a feast to the Lord. The name of Jehovah was introduced to cover up the evil, the implication being that he, Aaron, at least, had erected this figure in honor of Jehovah, the true God. St. Paul expressly calls the children of Israel idolaters in speaking of this incident, 1 Cor. 10, 7. V.6. And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, in honor of the false god, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, in a joyful sacrificial meal, and rose up to play, in merry festive games, in wilful abandon. The worship of the golden calf is a picture of the idolatry of our days, for these are the gods of the world, mammon, gold, money, luxury, eating, drinking, lascivious merriment. It is the very height of hypocrisy if Christians take part in the idolatrous ways of the world and then try to cover their sin with a sanctimonious behavior.
Moses intercedes for the people. — V.7. And the Lord said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. The omniscient, omnipresent God saw the transgression of the people and stated this fact to Moses as the representative and the mediator of Israel. V.8. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them, their guilt was increased by the great hurry which they displayed in choosing the ways of idolatry; they have made them a molten calf, and have worshiped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. With the children of Israel engaged in wilful idolatry, it was impossible for the work on the mountain to continue, and the indignation of the Lord breaks forth like a flood. V.9. And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, have observed it very closely, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people, as rigid of neck as an unwilling draught-animal, chap. 33, 3. 5; 34, 9; Deut. 9, 6. V.10. Now, therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them in revenge and punishment; and I will make of thee a great nation; of the entire people only Moses and his family were to remain, as the stock, or nucleus, of a new nation. It was an expression of just anger, a threat of righteous punishment. V.11. And Moses besought the Lord, his God, he showed himself the real priestly advocate of the people. The prospect of being the progenitor of a great nation held no allurements for him, as he began to plead for his people, and said, Lord, why doth Thy wrath wax hot against Thy people which Thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Note how skilfully Moses parries the Lord’s statement in v.7. as he reminds Him that it was His, Jehovah’s, great power, His mighty hand, that had effected the deliverance out of the land of Egypt. V.12. Wherefore should the Egyptians speak and say, For mischief did He bring them out, that is, for misfortune, for their destruction, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? This was an appeal to the honor of the Lord. Turn from Thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against Thy people. V.13. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Thy servants, to whom Thou swarest by Thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit; it forever. This was a reminder of the faithfulness and truth, the trust in which had sustained the patriarchs during the long years when they were strangers in the land of Canaan. Note also that Moses omits all reference to himself; he does not think of urging his own work as a consideration to influence the Lord. V.14. And the Lord repented of the evil which He thought to do unto His people, although, as it seems, He did make known His change of mind at this time, as vv.30–34 indicate. As Moses here acted in the capacity of advocate for the sinful people, so Jesus, at once the propitiation for our sins and our Advocate with God, pleads for us with His heavenly Father.
The wrath of Moses. — V.15. And Moses turned and went down from the mount, and the two tables of testimony were in his hand. The tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written, engraved, or chiseled, in the stone by the finger of God. V.16. And the tables were the work of God, hewn or fashioned by God Himself, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables. V.17. And when. Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp. It was characteristic of the soldier that his thoughts were engaged with matters of war. V.18. And he (Moses) said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome, it was neither the triumphant shout of the victors nor the answering moans of the conquered, but the noise of them that sing do I hear, the sound of antiphonal songs which the people shouted as they frolicked in their idolatrous dance. V.19. And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, so that he could distinguish things clearly, that he saw the calf and the dancing, for the riotous celebration was now at its height; and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount, at its foot, where it merged into the plain. His action symbolized the fact that Israel had broken the covenant of the Lord. V.20. And he took the calf which they had made, and burned it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it. So he not only demonstrated to them the nothingness of their god, but even had them drink down, devour, the idol, thus humbling them and putting them to shame openly for some time. V.21. And Moses said unto Aaron, What did this people unto thee, what kind of sorcery, what means of persuasion did they employ, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them? It was a sharp question, a direct accusation. making Aaron the moral author of the sin and the seducer of the people. V.22. And Aaron said, Let not the anger of my lord wax hot. Thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief. It is always the sinner’s convenient excuse to blame the transgression on some one else’s wickedness. V.23. For they said unto me, Make us gods which shall go before us; for as for this man Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. V.24. And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off. So they gave it me; then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf. He speaks of the calf as almost an accidental image produced by the fire without his design, without his knowledge and will. Thus Aaron added to his first sin the second of attempting to evade the accusation and casting the blame on others, whose spiritual knowledge did not equal his own. True repentance will not make use of such schemes. Cp. Deut. 9, 20.
The slaughter of the idolaters. — V.25. And when Moses saw that the people were naked; they had stripped themselves of their ornaments and had also neglected to keep the camp properly protected; (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies, he had given them free reign in their festivities, a fact which caused the camp to be unprotected and exposed the children of Israel to derision in more than one respect;) v.26. then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, Who is on the Lord’s side; who will take the Lord’s part? Let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. They were the first to turn from their sin in true repentance and to show their willingness to make amends for their sin. V.27. And he said unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, that is, passing through the length of the camp twice, going and returning, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor. No matter how close the relationship, there was to be indiscriminate slaughter: all those whom it would strike should die. V.28. And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. V.29. For Moses had said, before the men of Levi went forth to the slaughter, Consecrate yourselves today to the Lord, even every man upon his son and upon his brother, that He may bestow upon you a blessing this day. They were to dedicate themselves to the Lord by this implicit and unquestioning obedience, which disregarded the ties of even the closest relationship in order to secure the blessing of the Lord. For the Christians also it often becomes necessary to deny the nearest relatives, namely, when the alternative is Christ or the world. Obedience toward our Lord must always be the first consideration.
Moses again intercedes for the people. — V.30. And it came to pass on the morrow that Moses said unto the people, Ye have sinned a great sin; and now I will go up unto the Lord; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin. He indicates that their crime may still be covered by means of an expiation, and states his willingness to make an effort to obtain this atonement. V.31. And Moses returned unto the Lord and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold! It was a flagrant case of idolatry in a form which the Lord had expressly condemned, chap. 20, 23. V.32. Yet, now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin-. The greatness of his love for the people, on the one hand, and his awe of God, on the other, does not permit him to finish the sentence. It was a most profound appeal for mercy. And if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written, out of the book of life. Here is a case of magnanimous nobleness equaled only by Paul, Rom. 9, 3, and surpassed only by Christ in His unexcelled devotion, in His incomprehensible sacrifice. V.33. And the Lord said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book. He would not accept the sacrifice offered by Moses, He would not offer up the just for the unjust in this case. V.34. Therefore go now, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee, all of which indicated that He would spare the people at this time. Behold, Mine Angel shall go before thee, the Son of God Himself accompanied the army on its march; nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them. The time would come when their period of grace would be at an end, when the Lord’s revenge would strike them, when His judicial visitation would be upon them. V.35. And the Lord plagued the people because they made the calf, which Aaron made. The punishment meted out by the children of Levi was sufficient for the time being. God has patience with the sinners, with those that reject the Savior, for the sake of that very Redeemer. But when the sinners persist in refusing the grace offered to them, and despise the patience of God, death and destruction will finally come upon them.