Suppose you are driving down the highway. You go around a curve and there in the median is a state policeman with his radar gun. What’s typically your first reaction? Let off the gas and maybe step on the brake. Why? Because he is the law and you’re immediately aware that you may be breaking the law, and you don’t want to get caught. The police car is an instant judge on your life.
In the same way, the law of God makes us conscious of our sin and judges our sin. As Paul wrote in Romans 7:7, “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” Further, in 1 Timothy 1:8, Paul tells us, “But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully.” We are not under the law but under grace today (Rom. 6:14); however, there is a good use of the law under grace. The law gives us a knowledge of sin and demonstrates that we’re all sinners and have fallen short of God’s righteous standard (Rom. 3:20,23). The lawful use of the law under grace is to produce the conviction of sin and an understanding of a person’s need of God’s grace through the finished work of the Savior.
In the account of the golden calf, we learn that, while Moses was up in the heights of Mount Sinai receiving the law, the instructions for Israel’s worship, and the blueprints for the tabernacle, the people were down below creating their own form of worship and breaking the very law that Moses was receiving. Moses demonstrated their breaking of God’s law in a very vivid and dramatic way, by casting down and physically breaking the stone tablets of the ten commandments.
Breaking the Commandments
“And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people 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.
“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, and bring them unto me.
“And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron.
“And he received them at their hand, 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.
“And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord. “And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play” (Ex. 32:1-6).
Approximately forty days prior to all that, Moses had gone up on Mount Sinai to receive the law (Ex. 24:18). Before he left, Moses had delegated authority to Aaron and Hur to lead in his absence (v. 14). After Moses had been away for over a month, the people became impatient. Giving up on his ever returning, the people turned to their temporary leader, Aaron, and demanded that he make them an idol. Instead of leading and restraining the people, Aaron went along with them.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that accounts like this in Israel’s history are “ensamples” for us, the Body of Christ, “and they are written for our admonition” (1 Cor. 10:11). Under grace, we are waiting for Someone as well (1 Thes. 1:10); we are waiting for Christ and His glorious return for us at the Rapture. While we wait, Aaron is a reminder to us of the danger of spiritual leaders going along with what the majority of the people and the popular culture want, instead of leading people according to what God desires.
The people in this account were mistaken in what they thought they needed. They thought they needed an idol, but what they really needed was to trust the Lord and wait on Him. While we wait for Christ to come for us, the Church needs strong leaders devoted to God’s Word no matter the cost, because that is what people need the most.
The people told Aaron to come and make them gods “which shall go before us” (Ex. 32:1). They were not just requesting gods but gods to lead them. They were ready to leave Mount Sinai, and not having Moses to guide them, they asked Aaron to make gods that might go before them and show them the way.
The Israelites wanted a visible, tangible object to follow. They imagined that a visible god formed by their own hands that they could see was better than the Lord, Jehovah God. So in their faithlessness, they exchanged the glory of the true and living God for the image of a baby cow!
Aaron acquiesced to the people’s appetite for idolatry and told them to bring him the golden earrings in the ears of their wives, sons, and daughters (Ex. 32:2). Exodus 12:35 informs us that, as the Israelites left Egypt, the Egyptians lent them “jewels of silver, and jewels of gold,” and so “they spoiled [plundered] the Egyptians” (v. 36). This is where they had acquired these golden earrings that Aaron requested. The people willingly brought their gold earrings to him and Aaron then melted them down. That gold was used by Aaron to fashion an idol cast in the shape of a calf.
After the golden calf was forged, it was hailed by the people as the gods which brought them up out of the land of Egypt (Ex. 32:4). Earlier on Mount Sinai, when the covenant of the law was established with Israel, the Lord said these words in His absolute authority as Israel’s God: “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:2). In Israel’s impatience and unbelief, they were attributing their deliverance from Egypt, not to the Lord, but to this golden cow that they made with their own hands.
After completion of the idol, Aaron built an altar before it and declared the next day “a feast to the Lord” (32:5). A feast to THE LORD! Aaron mixed the worship of the true and living God with the worship of a piece of metal. And the people loved it! This feast to the Lord was a combination of worshiping a golden calf and bringing offerings to it, as well as drinking, eating, and dancing. It was a mixture of everything they wanted.
Aaron led the people in breaking God’s first three commandments: (1) they had put another god before Him (Ex. 20:3); (2) they had made a “graven image” (20:4-6); and (3) they had taken “the name of the Lord [their] God in vain” (20:7).
The Israelites rose up at the crack of dawn on the day of the feast. The anticipation of sin and false worship got them out of bed early. The Israelites offered burnt and peace offerings on the altar before the golden calf. Then they ate and drank, “and rose up to play.” The “play” is explained later in chapter 32, in verses 19 and 25, which describe their dancing and the people being naked.
A Memorable Object Lesson
“And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written.
“And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables. 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.
“And he said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear.
“And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.
“And he 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” (Ex. 32:15-20).
When Moses initially went up on Mount Sinai, the Lord had told him, “Come up to Me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone…And Moses rose up, and his minister Joshua: and Moses went up into the mount of God” (Ex. 24:12-13). Moses obediently went up on the mountain, taking Joshua with him, to receive the tables of stone.
In Exodus 31:18 we learn that the Lord “gave unto Moses, when He had made an end of communing with him upon Mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.” Moses descended the mountain with these two tablets of the Ten Commandments. As he did, Joshua was confused and troubled by what he heard at the base of the mountain. He thought the camp below was under military attack because of the shouts he was hearing.
The Lord had already told Moses what was taking place in the camp (32:7-8), so Moses told Joshua that it was not the voice of them that shouted for mastery, and it was not the voice of them that cried from being overcome. In other words, those were not the sounds of battle from those who were conquering or those who were being conquered. Moses told Joshua that he was hearing the sound of singing.
As Moses and Joshua drew near to the camp, Moses saw the calf and the dancing. The combination of idolatry and immorality caused Moses’ anger to wax hot. In righteous anger, Moses threw the two stone tablets down and shattered them. He broke the tablets of the law as a witness to what the people had already done. It symbolized how Israel, in her heart and by her actions, had broken the law and their covenant with Jehovah God.
Moses did not break the commandments when he cast the tablets down at the foot of the Mount; Israel had already broken them when they desired the golden calf and worshiped it. The breaking of those two stones, which were “the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God” (32:16), was a demonstration of the seriousness of Israel’s sin.
Moses broke the tablets and then he proceeded to destroy the golden calf. First, he burned the calf. Second, he reduced it to powder. Third, he spread that gold dust on the water of a brook coming out of the mount. And fourth, he made the people drink that water (Ex. 32:20; Deut. 9:21).
By drinking that water, Moses forced the children of Israel to identify with their terrible
sin. And as one commentator put forth, “In this manner the thing they had worshiped would become a product of their own waste, the very epitome of worthlessness and impurity.”
“And Moses said unto Aaron, What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them?
“And Aaron said, Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief. For they said unto me, 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.
“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” (Ex. 32:21-24).
Moses called what the children of Israel had done “so great a sin” (v. 21). It was a great sin for a number of reasons. First, because of who committed it: God’s chosen people. It was a great sin because God’s chosen nation fashioned a golden calf and worshipped a false god.
Second, because of where they committed it: at Mount Sinai where God’s presence was residing. His glory had been revealed in the mount, and it was here that Israel had entered into a covenant with Him. The people had witnessed the lightning, thunder, and the quaking, smoking mount (Ex. 19:18; 24:17).
Third, because of when they committed it: not long after their deliverance from Egypt by the mercy and power of God. They had seen and experienced the miraculous plagues God brought against Egypt, the remarkable parting of the Red Sea, and God’s provision of food and water as they traveled to Sinai.
Because Aaron had been placed in charge while Moses was gone, Moses held him responsible for what had taken place in the camp. Aaron tried to pass the blame on to the people rather than admitting his own complicity in this sin. Aaron’s feeble attempt to exonerate himself included telling Moses that he knew what these people were like and that they had a propensity to do evil.
Then Aaron told Moses, “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” (32:24). Aaron explained that the golden calf had just popped out of the fire all by itself. Amazing! Aaron was shocked too! And I can imagine Moses saying, “You mean to tell me, Aaron, that you collected the people’s gold, then you threw it in the fire, and a calf formed and walked out?”
However, in this chapter we read that Aaron “fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf” (v. 4). What Aaron told Moses was an out-and-out lie. If Aaron had stood against the people and taken a stand for the Lord and done what was right, he wouldn’t have needed to lie. Instead, in defending his actions, he added sin on top of sin.
Who Is on the Lord’s Side?
“And when Moses saw that the people were naked; (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies:)
“Then 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 gathered themselves together unto him” (Ex. 32:25-26).
Some of the people were still carrying on without moral restraint and with licentious behavior, which was a direct result of Aaron’s lack of leadership. So Moses stood in the camp gate and called out, “Who is on the Lord’s side?”
“Who is on the Lord’s side?” was an opportunity for Israel to reaffirm their commitment to the Lord after their great sin. When Moses made this call for loyal followers of Jehovah, the tribe of Levi responded. They were on the Lord’s side.
What about you? What is your answer this question by Moses? In this current culture that is devoid of any moral restraint, will we determine to take our stand on the Lord’s side? Have we made a settled decision to be on the Lord’s side and follow what is good and right according to His Word? In the midst of so many teachings which mix truth with error and follow the traditions of men, will we take our stand on God’s Word, rightly divided? When the world has gone crazy, will we resolve to be on the Lord’s side and follow Him by faith?