The Lord has delivered the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt; he’s brought them safely through the Red Sea; he’s leading them to the Promised Land; on the way, he’s provided them with food to eat and with water to drink; and he’s protected them from their enemies; he’s led them to Mount Sinai where he made a covenant with them; and in this covenant he promised to be their God and to treat them as his treasured possession; and he gave them his law to guide them and to show them how to live as his people; and in turn, they promised to do all that the Lord commanded them. And why wouldn’t they do what the Lord commanded, because the Lord has been good to them? So, why wouldn’t they obey him?
And yet, while Moses was meeting the Lord on the summit of Mount Sinai, and receiving from him instructions about how to construct the Tabernacle and everything in it, the people down below grew impatient and they quickly turned from the Lord and from keeping his commandments and they made for themselves a golden calf and bowed down to it and worshipped it. And so, they broke the first commandment, to have no other gods before the Lord. And they broke the second commandment, forbidding them from using idols and images when they worship the Lord. Though they had said they would do all that the Lord commanded, they very quickly forgot what they said and they disobeyed the Lord who had redeemed them from their captivity.
And we’ve seen that this is a warning for us and for all God’s people, because in every generation we’re tempted to corrupt the worship of the Lord; and instead of worshipping the Lord according to his word, we think we know best how to worship him. Instead of worshipping the Lord according to his word, we think we can make it up on our own. And instead of doing what God wants when we meet to worship him, we do what we want. And so, one person says:
This is the way I like to worship.
And another person says:
This is the way I like to worship.
And a third person says:
This is the way I like to worship.
But instead we should ask:
How does God want us to worship him?
The Israelites very quickly turned away from the Lord and from doing his will. And believers in every generation are warned to watch out lest we end up doing the same as they did.
The last time we spent our time on verses 1 to 6. Today we’ll go on to study the rest of the chapter. And I want to divide up the remainder of the chapter into four parts. In verses 7 to 14 we read how Moses interceded for the people. In verses 15 to 24 we read how Moses was angry with the people and with his brother. In verses 25 to 29 we read how the Levites sided with Moses and the Lord. And in verses 30 to 35 we read how Moses again interceded for the people. So, let’s look at those four parts now. —
Verses 7 to 14
And so, in verse 7, we read how the Lord spoke to Moses about what the people where doing down below. The Lord sees all things and he knows all things and we cannot hide our sins from him. Therefore he was well aware of what was happening down in the camp. And so, he commanded Moses to return to the camp, because, he said, the people have become corrupt. Notice how the Lord distances himself from the people. He doesn’t refer to them as ‘my people’, but as ‘your people [i.e. Moses’s people]’. And he doesn’t say ‘the people I brought up out of Egypt’; instead he says ‘the people you brought up out of Egypt’. He’s distancing himself from them, because, of course, they’ve broken the covenant with God. The terms of the covenant said:
You shall have no others gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol.
But they have’t kept to the terms of the covenant; and so they’ve broken the covenant, this solemn agreement with the Lord. And so, as a result, he distances himself from them: they’re not my people; they’re your people, Moses.
And the Lord goes on in verse 8 to say that they have been quick to turn from what he commanded them; and they’ve made for themselves this golden idol which they’ve bowed down to and worshipped. And instead of praising the Lord for bringing them out of Egypt, they directed their praise and worship to this golden idol.
And so, in verse 9 we have the Lord’s judgment on them. He says he’s seen them and he’s seen that they are a stiff-necked people. Well, that’s an idea drawn from the farm. The farmer wants to put a yoke on the ox in order to plough the field. But instead of bending down to receive the yoke on its neck, the ox stiffens its neck and refuses to yield to the yoke. And that’s a fitting image to use here, because instead of humbling themselves and receiving God’s law, the Israelites have refused to yield to his law and they have refused to accept it and to do it. They’re being stubborn and unruly. And so the Lord tells Moses to leave him alone, so that his anger can burn against them, because he intends to destroy them.
And what does he now propose to do? Well, instead of making the Israelites into a great nation, he’ll start again with Moses and he’ll turn Moses into a great nation, by multiplying his offspring so that all the blessings he had in store for the Israelites — including life in the Promised Land, that Eden-like land, flowing with milk and honey — will be taken from the Israelites and given to Moses and his descendants.
What an offer! Moses could have kept silent and received from the Lord one blessing after another after another for himself and his descendants. But instead of thinking of himself, and all the good things he could have received from the Lord, he instead pleaded with the Lord on behalf of the Israelites. Instead of thinking about what was best for himself, he thought about what was best for them. And so, he pleaded with the Lord to show them mercy. And he based his plea for mercy on three things.
Firstly, he based his plea for mercy on what the Lord has already done for them. And so, in verse 11, he asked the Lord why he let his anger burn against them when he’s already done great things for them. After all, he’s already rescued them from Egypt with great power and a mighty hand. So: you’ve already done so much for them; won’t it be a waste of all that effort to destroy them now?
Secondly, he based his plea for mercy on what the Egyptians would say about him. And so, in verse 12, he says to the Lord that the Egyptians will only misunderstand and that they’ll say the Lord is evil; he’s evil because he only rescued them in order to destroy them. The Egyptians would say:
The Lord isn’t good; he’s wicked.
So, Moses is saying:
Don’t let them say such a terrible and blasphemous thing about you.
And thirdly, he based his plea for mercy on the promises the Lord made with Abraham and with Isaac and with Jacob who was also known as Israel. Moses is saying to the Lord:
Remember your promises to them. Remember you promised to make their descendants like the stars in the sky so that there would be so many of them, they can’t be counted. And remember you promised to give them the Promised Land to live in. Remember what you promised them. Don’t go back on your word. Don’t break your promise to them. Don’t make yourself a liar, but remain true to your word to make this nation into a mighty nation and to bring them into the Promised Land.
And so, Moses pleaded with the Lord and he interceded for the people. And look at the outcome in verse 14:
Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he has threatened.
Instead of destroying them, which is what he threatened to do, he relented. Because the Lord is merciful and gracious and slow to anger, he’s always willing to relent from sending disaster on us. And though they had not kept the terms of the covenant, though they had broken the covenant, nevertheless — for the sake of the promises he made before to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob about these people — he will not destroy them or abandon them, but he’ll show them mercy.
Instead of thinking only of himself, Moses was concerned for the people and for what was best for them. And therefore he points us to Christ the Saviour, who did not look to his own interests, but to ours when he hung on the cross and died there. Instead of avoiding the suffering of the cross, he willingly took upon himself the guilt of our sin and suffered and died in our place, so that now — instead of destroying us in his anger, which is what we deserve — God pardons us and all who trust in his Son. Instead of destroying us, he shows us mercy. And he’s able to show us mercy and forgive us because of Christ who, like Moses, did not look to his own interests, but to the interests of others, when he gave himself up to death on the cross.
And furthermore, just as Moses interceded for the people, so Jesus Christ intercedes for us and for all his people. So, he stands before the Father in heaven and continually reminds his Father that he has paid for our sins in full, so that he ought to pardon us and not hold our sins against us. And the Father listens to his Son and forgives us again and again and again because of Jesus Christ the Lord.
And so, just as the Israelites owed their lives to Moses who pleaded for them so we owe our life to the Saviour who died for us and who now lives and intercedes for us. And since we owe our life to him, we ought to give thanks to God for him; and we ought to live our lives in grateful obedience to him. And so, instead of living our lives for ourselves, we ought to live our lives for him.
Verses 15 to 24
Let’s move on now to verses 15 to 24 where we read how Moses was angry with the people and with his brother, Aaron. And so we read how Moses turned and began to make his way down the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands. These two tablets were two copies of the Ten Commandments which form the terms and conditions of the covenant. And we see in verse 16 that these tablets were very special documents, because they were not written by Moses, but by the Lord who engraved them himself.
Joshua met Moses on the way; and when Joshua heard the sound of the people in the camp, he mistook the noise for the sound of war. Had their enemies attacked them? Well, Moses knew better; he knew that this was not the sound of war, but the sound of singing in the camp, because the people had begun to run wild. And so, when Moses approached the camp, and saw with his own eyes the golden calf and their dancing, he was filled with anger and he threw those two special tablets — engraved by the Lord himself — he threw them to the ground, breaking them into pieces.
This is not so much a fit of rage, because though Moses was angry, he was acting very deliberately. You see, just as we might tear up a contract which has expired, or which has been terminated, so Moses broke the stone tablets to make clear to the people that they had broken the covenant they had made with the Lord. He broke the tablets, because they had broken the covenant.
And then we read how he burned the golden calf and ground what remained of it into powder. And the powder was scattered on their water supply so that whenever they drew water and drank it, the water they drank contained bits of this golden calf which they had made for themselves.
Moses was angry with the people, because of the golden calf. And he also was angry with his brother, Aaron, who had been left in charge of the people, and who had failed to prevent them from going astray. And look how weak and pathetic Aaron is, because he makes it seem that there was nothing he could do to stop the people; and he makes it seem that the construction of the calf had nothing to do with him. He was saying to Moses:
I’m not to blame for what happened.
But he was their leader and he was responsible for leading them in the right way and for keeping them from wandering off from the true path. He was their leader, but he did not stop them from going astray.
We ought to pray to the Lord for our own leaders — the elders of this congregation — asking the Lord to ensure that they will fulfil their calling and oversee us faithfully and diligently, warning us when we’re in danger of going astray, teaching us the will of the Lord, guiding us along the right path and towards greater obedience to the Lord. Like the people of Israel, we are prone to do what is wrong, because we’re sinners. But the Lord has given us his word to guide us; and he’s given us his Spirit to help us; and he’s also given us the elders to watch over us and to warn us and to guide us. So, let’s pray for them; and let’s be ready to follow their advice and to do what they say out of reverence for the Lord who was placed them over us for our good. And let’s pray that God will raise up godly elders for all his congregations throughout the world to oversee his people and to warn them about error and to guide them along paths of righteousness.
Verses 25 to 29
And that leads me to the next section, because in verses 25 to 29 we read how the Levites sided with Moses and the Lord. We read in verse 25 that Moses saw that the people were running wild; and that Aaron had let them get out of control. Isn’t that a terrible thing? Imagine if the Lord looked down from heaven and saw that the elders of his churches had let the people get out of control, so that instead of worshipping him according to his will, they did whatever they liked; and instead of being careful to obey him, they followed their own evil desires. What a terrible thing that would be!
And look at what else we read in verse 25: they had become a laughing stock to their enemies. Instead of living upright and godly lives, noble lives of self-control and obedience, they had fallen into sin and shame and they had become foolish in the sight of their pagan neighbours.
And so, we read in verse 26 how Moses stood at the entrance to the camp and called out:
Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.
And all the Levites responded to his call. And then he said to them that this is what the Lord says:
Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbour.
And the Levites did what the Lord said and about 3,000 people died that day.
That strikes us as a terrible and brutal thing, but we need to remember that they were carrying out the Lord’s command; the Lord was the one who ordered them to do this. And furthermore, it’s likely that what they were being asked to do was to kill only those who remained stubborn and who refused to repent. If anyone repented, they were spared. That’s why only 3,000 were killed out of a total of many hundreds of thousands of men. And, of course, the Levites needed to do this and they needed to act decisively, because if unbelief and idolatry were tolerated, these sins would only spread through the camp and infect them all. So, it was necessary, for the purity of the people to act swiftly and decisively and to remove from the camp anyone who remained stiff-necked and stubborn and who refused to yield themselves to the Lord.
When we turn to the New Testament, we learn that while God has given the governing authorities the power of the sword and the right to use force in order to punish evildoers, he hasn’t given the power of the sword to the elders in the church. No one in the church has the right to use force. However, the elders of the church are still to exercise discipline; and they’re to act swiftly and decisively to rebuke those who claim to follow Christ, but who are guilty of scandalous sins.
And so, in 1 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul had strong things to say to the members of that church, because one of their members was doing something scandalous; he was sleeping with his step-mother. Now, that was bad enough, but what made it worse was the fact that none of the members of the church had done anything about it. Instead of removing this man from their membership, they were tolerating his sin and they were letting him carry on like that, doing something that not even their pagan neighbours would dream of doing. They were tolerating this scandalous behaviour which was bringing shame and dishonour on Christ’s church.
And so, Paul warned them that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough and infects it all. What did he mean? That unless they acted quickly, his sin will spread like yeast and soon it would infect the whole church with other sins. Sin will spread like yeast unless it’s removed from the church.
While we have no right to use force against one another — as they did in the days of Moses — nevertheless the elders of the church today are to exercise church discipline in order to preserve and protect the purity of Christ’s church. So, once again, you ought to pray for our elders and for all elders, that the Lord will give them courage and wisdom in order to exercise appropriate church disciple so that the church remains pure and Christ’s name is not dishonoured by the sins of his people.
Verses 30 to 35
Finally then, we come to verses 30 to 35 where Moses once again interceded for the people. And so we read in verse 30 that the next day Moses went back to the Lord on Mount Sinai. And he said to the Lord:
Oh, what a great sin these people have committed!
Notice he’s not trying to minimise what they did, or hide it, or excuse it. When someone points out our sins, we try to defend ourselves, and excuse ourselves. But Moses doesn’t do that here, and none of us should do that when we confess our sins before the Lord. We shouldn’t minimise them or excuse them, but we should acknowledge them and confess them.
So, Moses said:
Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold.
So, he confesses their sin. But then he pleads with the Lord to pardon them. He said:
Now, please forgive their sin.
And then he adds:
but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.
What’s he asking? Well, it’s not altogether clear. Some commentators think that he’s saying to the Lord is:
If you won’t forgive them, then punish me in their place. Blot me out and pardon them.
However, other commentators think that he’s saying:
If you won’t forgive them, then punish me as well. If you’re going to blot them out, then blot me out with them.
It’s not altogether clear which option is the right one. However, both of them make clear how Moses was willing to identify himself completely with the people. Though they had done wrong and had acted wickedly, he was prepared to associate himself with them and to bear their punishment.
And, of course, that’s what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for all his people. Though he is the sinless one who never did anything wrong, he identified himself with us by becoming one of us and by taking upon himself the guilt of our sin and by suffering and dying on the cross in our place. Though he is the sinless one who never did anything wrong, he was willing to identify himself with us and to take the blame for us so that we can be forgiven by God.
But look what happened here. The Lord replied to Moses:
Whoever sins against me I will blot out of my book.
What book does he mean? Well, every government keeps a record of all its citizens. And the Lord is saying here that he too has a record of all his people. But — and this is a very frightening thing — he will blot out the names of any who have sinned against him. By saying he’ll remove their names, he’s saying that whoever sins against him cannot be a member of his people. And then, in verse 34, he spoke about a time in the future when he will punish the people for their sin. And the plague we read about in verse 35 was probably a temporal punishment which he sent on them at that time in order to teach them of the greater punishment that awaits all those who sin against him.
This is why we need forgiveness, isn’t it?
Whoever sins against the Lord, I will blot out of my book.
There’s not one person here who can claim to be without sin. We’re all sinners who sin against the Lord continually. And therefore, since we have sinned against the Lord in so many ways they can’t be counted, then according to the Lord’s own words, our names should be blotted from his book. That’s why we need forgiveness.
And, of course, the good news is that the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And he doesn’t deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. So, instead of blotting out our names — which is what we deserve — he’s willing to pardon all who trust in his Son who died to pay for our sins and to make peace between us. And so, though we deserve to have our names blotted out of the record of God’s people, nevertheless — for the sake of Christ — he’s willing to pardon us and to make us his people and to give us everlasting life.
The Lord declared to Moses:
Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book.
But — for the sake of Christ who died for sinners — God promises to blot out the guilt of our sins for ever so that we can live with him for ever. And so, we’re to believe in his Son who died for sinners. We’re to believe in his Son, because despite all our sin and shame, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.