Have you ever heard the statement, “Men are from Mars, and women from Venus”? The fact is that men and women are different in many ways. One man published a 200 page book entitled, “What Men Understand About Women.” All of the pages were blank. While we may not always understand each other, we have learned to live together and to appreciate the differences … or to turn down the hearing aid volume when necessary.
When it comes to the way that God thinks, there are times when we humans are unable to understand God’s ways. The Lord reminds us in Isaiah 55:8-9 that “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” However, the more we read the Bible and meditate on it, the more we begin to understand why God does what He does.
In Exodus 32, we will see three times when God’s ways were different than those He was dealing with. Let’s take a moment and look at what God showed His people.
- When God’s timing is different than our own (Exodus 32:1-14)
If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you know that God’s timing is often different than our own. When we pray, we want the answer to be good and to happen immediately. But God has his own time table for when things should happen. This is something that the Israelites had not learned yet or submitted to.
a. Impatient People (32:1-6)
Moses had been on the mountain for 40 days. The Israelites became impatient and even wondered if Moses would ever come back. So they asked Aaron to make them gods to lead them forward.
“In suggesting that Aaron make them gods, they were not asking for gods to replace Yahweh but for a visible, tangible object to follow. This explicitly violated the second commandment (20:4-6; cf. 20:23), which the people had already received from God verbally through Moses” (Hannah 155).
Aaron told the people to bring him all their golden earrings. He then melted them and made a golden calf to represent the One who had brought them out of Egypt. Aaron also proclaimed a feast to the Lord and offered burnt offerings and peace offering to the Lord.
Why did the people request a statue to worship? If you recall, the people had been in Egypt for several hundred years. In Egypt, the natives worshiped a variety of gods and had statues all over the place. It was natural (but not right) for the Israelites to want something similar to what they had seen in Egypt. Instead of having simple faith in God, they wanted something to look at.
The people, though, took advantage of the situation and turned the feast into a wild party. “Their activities led to revelry (cf. 1 Cor. 10:7; sahaq suggests immorality). This violated the seventh commandment (Ex. 20:14). Singing and dancing were included (32:18-19) and they were ‘running wild’ (v. 25). Immorality often accompanies idolatry (Rom. 1:22-24). Yet they were worshiping the true God!” (Hannah 155)
Aaron should have stood up against them but instead he made the idol and then announced that it was this calf which had brought them out of Egypt. “His not taking this resolute stand, and in humble trust in God braving all consequences, but … yielding to their importunities, gave a kind of public and official sanction to the whole proceeding” (Bush 211).
b. Angry God (32:7-10)
While they were pleasing themselves, God was displeased. The Lord, who had done so much for the Israelites, was angry with their quick turn away from His ways. He viewed their actions not as acceptable worship to Him but a sinful replacement of Him.
“Giving themselves up to licentious mirth, they thought only of the present moment. But here we learn how the matter was viewed on the mount. This ought in fact to have been their chief concern—not how they regarded it, but how it was looked upon from above” (Bush 214).
The Israelites were so concerned with what they wanted to do in worship, that they disregarded what the Lord had told them He wanted. It’s kind of like a husband buying his wife a present of something she previously said she didn’t want. This ought to make us think twice about what we present as worship to the Lord. It is not what we desire but what He desires that is acceptable.
He was so angry that He “refused to claim the people as His own or even to claim that He delivered them from Egypt” (Hannah 155) and was ready to destroy them all and make a new nation from Moses’ descendants.
The Lord even told Moses to leave him alone. “Moses had not yet opened his mouth, but God foresaw” (Bush 215) what Moses was going to say on behalf of the Israelites. In other words, God was angry enough not to listen to even his trusted servant, Moses.
c. Pleading Moses (32:11-14)
If you were there hearing the Almighty God speak of destroying an entire nation, you might have hidden behind a rock in fear. But Moses didn’t do that. Instead, he pleaded with the Lord. He asked the Lord why he was so angry. He then reasoned with the Lord why He should destroy the nation so quickly.
(1) If the Lord killed the people, the Egyptians would have a wrong picture of why God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt. Instead of great love for them, it would look like the Lord only brought them out to kill them. That would be a bad look for the Lord’s reputation.
(2) Next, he asked the Lord to relent from harming His people. He pointed out that the Lord had chosen these people as His own, and even if they were currently doing wrong, they were still His people.
(3) Finally, Moses reminded the Lord of his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. To each of them, the Lord had promised to multiply their descendants and to give them the Promised Land.
The end result was that the Lord relented and chose not to destroy the people. This brings up a deep question. Does God respond to our reasoning during prayer? This passage seems to indicate that the Lord does respond to our fervent prayers. Remember what James said in the New Testament? “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Somehow, God listens to our prayers despite Him already knowing what the best action is to take.
Keep this in mind the next time you are talking with God. We often joke about Joanne’s prayer about a rock, but “if we would talk honestly and frankly to God, prayer meeting would be the most exciting meeting in the church. … When Moses prayed like that, it moved the arm of God” (McGee 301).
- When God’s justice is different than our own (Exodus 32:15-29)
In this part of the chapter, we see how God had Moses respond to those who had rebelled. Their punishment was very severe as we will see, but it was exactly as God would have it.
a. Angry Moses (32:15-20)
Although Moses had pleaded on behalf of the people, he was very angry with them. When he saw the golden calf and the dancing people, he became so angry that he broke the two tablets of stone. “They had broken the covenant itself, and Moses as a sensible sign of the awful fact breaks the monumental tables in which it was inscribed” (Bush 219). When he was close enough, Moses took the calf, burned it, ground it to powder, and scattered it across the water. “By this action he demonstrated both the powerlessness of the calf-idol and God’s wrath” (Hannah 156). He also showed his great displeasure in what they had done.
But was it really such a big deal? Today, we see religious people wearing religious jewelry, planting a religious statue in their yard, or placing a religious picture on their car? Isn’t this a good thing? No, from this passage, we see that God doesn’t want any graven image used to replace spiritual worship and devotion. It actually makes Him angry. Remember what Jesus said. “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” God doesn’t want us to look an object to worship him. Instead, he wants hearts that are devoted to Him and show it by their loving obedience.
b. Lying Aaron (32:21-24)
When Moses confronted his brother about his sin, Aaron (1) deflected the guilt to the people. You know how sinful they are. He also (2) blamed their action on impatience due to Moses’ long absence. Aaron then (3) made up a story about the golden calf suddenly appearing after the gold was cast into the fire.
Aaron had been left in charge of the people while Moses was on the mountain communing with God. But he failed miserably. And we learn later that the Lord was very angry with Aaron.
Deut. 9:20 – “And the Lord was very angry with Aaron and would have destroyed him; so I prayed for Aaron also at the same time.”
He had the opportunity to stand up for the Lord, but he gave in to the people and attempted to accommodate them by merging idol worship with sacrifices to the Lord. This mixture of good and evil was not acceptable to God and Aaron should have known better and done better.
c. Lethal Justice (32:25-29)
The people had become wild and unrestrained. One translation says that they were naked. This “probably denotes a dissipated … disorderly state, in which the people had thrown off discipline and restraint and given themselves up to every excess of reveling and riot” (Bush 222). Whatever the case, they were uncontrolled and acting shamefully. Moses had to handle their apostasy from God with lethal justice. He called for those who were on the Lord’s side to kill those who “persisted in idolatry” (Hannah 156). The Levites did what they were told and about three thousand men were put to death for their rebellion against God’s clearly outlined covenant with them.
“Those that were guilty were slain, and that cleaned up the camp pretty well. Many people are apt to say that this was brutal. Look at it this way. Was it better to cut out the cancer now and save the nation or let the cancer grow and destroy the nation? Think of the men, women, and children in the camp who were not guilty. If the men who had led Israel into idolatry had been allowed to live, the nation would never have entered into the Promised Land. That, of course, is what is happening in the church in many places. I see church after church lose its importance and influence and become useless because it allowed liberalism to creep in. We are soft and sentimental and silly. Sometimes we are even stupid in the way we handle evil” (McGee 302).
While it seems strange to us today to hear of people being executed for rebellion against God, it was necessary to do this in the nation of Israel because of their direct, covenant relationship with the Lord. Allowing the rebels to continue to rebel against God and to lead others to follow would have been disastrous. They chose to disobey God’s clear instructions and were given the prescribed penalty.
The other application is our understanding of eternal punishment. When we read about God’s plan to judge unbelievers to eternity in the Lake of Fire, we may cringe. It seems so severe. But as the penalty, so is the crime. Those who willfully reject the love extended to them by the Lord are guilty of a serious crime. And this rejection affects every part of their being. Inside they are saying, “I will run my own life and I don’t care what God wants.”
God’s view of sin is different than our own. And his view of the appropriate punishment for sin is also different than our own. Instead of trying to argue about what God should do, we should submit to His will and seek his forgiveness so that we can escape the coming judgment.
- When God’s plan is different than our own (Exodus 32:30-35)
As you can tell from the previous verses, Moses was appalled at what the rebels had done. They had so quickly backed out of the things they had promised to do! But as their leader, he wanted to plead with God for mercy. As he headed up the mountain, he thought of what he could say to the Lord.
a. Mediating Moses (32:30-32)
When he finally arrived, Moses divided his thoughts into two topics.
He admitted their sin. First, Moses admitted to the Lord that the sin of the Israelites was very serious. They had made an idol of gold in direct opposition to what the Lord had commanded in the Ten Commandments. This was sin.
“If you want to get along with God, you will have to agree with Him about sin. … Moses spelled out the sin before God. And, friends, when we confess our sin to God, we should spell it out. Tell God exactly what it is” (McGee 303).
The New Testament instructs Christians to do this on a regular basis. It is not confession to a religious leader but a regular confession of our sins to God. Consider what is said in 1 John 1:8-10.
“ If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”
What Moses did was a confession of the sins for the people. This is what Daniel did in his prayer to God (Dan. 9:5). But we must also remember to confess our own sins to God so that our relationship with Him can continue to be good.
He stood with the sinners. Second, Moses offered to remove his name from God’s book if He would not forgive the people. What exactly was this book? “Some say this was the book of life (Rev. 20:15; 21:27) that lists believers names but, more likely, it was the census of the people” (Hannah 156) or “the custom of having the names of a community enrolled in a register, and whenever one died, or erasing his name from the number” (Bush 225). He wasn’t offering to give up his relationship with the Lord but was expressing “the wish rather to die than the witness the destruction of his people” (Bush 225). “Moses said, ‘I take my place with the people. I identify myself with them, and if You intend to blot them out, blot me out also'” (McGee 303).
This is a good example of a leader who loved the people he was leading. Despite their constant complaining and their current disobedience to God, Moses loved them and wanted them to live and have the opportunity to repent and try again to be God’s people.
b. Our Just God (32:33-35)
The Lord patiently listened to Moses but was unwilling to punish Moses for the people’s sin. The Lord is good like that. He held the Israelites responsible for their own sin. Those who had sinned against the Lord would face His judgment. This He did by sending a plague on the people. Their judgment was complete.
Does sin only affect sinners? There are times when the sin of an individual affects innocent people. Think of Achan and the 36 men who died because of his sin (Josh. 7). Sometimes sin affects those around us. But in the broad scheme of things, “God deals individually and personally with sin” (McGee 303). This was the case in this instance. Those who sinned were judged by God. Three thousand were put to death and others were judged by a plague.
How did this affect the other people? When the rest of the people saw how God judged the rebels, how do you think they responded? They must have been awe struck with the seriousness of sin. God does care about the way He is worshiped. God does care about how we live our lives. God does want us to be devoted to Him. Let us learn the same lessons from this chapter.
This might be a good time to think about your own sin and God’s justice. If we were to stand before God and be evaluated by the way that we have thought, acted, and spoken during our lives, none of us would be able to look God in the eye. We all have sinned.
A Christian preacher recently told the story of a Jewish man who asked him,” Why do I need Jesus?” He responded by asking the man if he could ask him a couple of questions. The first was, “Do you believe that crimes should be punished?” The man was a lawyer and agreed to this need. The second question was, “Have you ever done anything wrong?” The man agreed again. The point was that all of us have sinned against God and deserve the punishment prescribed by God, which is eternity in the lake of fire. The only person who doesn’t deserve it is Jesus, the perfect Son of God. He willingly took the punishment for our sin when He bled and died on the cross. His payment for our sin was accepted by God as evidence by God raising Him from the dead after three days.
Why do you need Jesus? You and I need Jesus because we are sinners who will one day face God’s judgment. Either we can reject Him and face eternal punishment or accept what God has lovingly done for us through Jesus. Which will you choose?
Bush, George, Notes on Exodus, Vol. 2, Minneapolis: James & Klock, 1976, orig. 1852, pp. 209-226.
Hannah, John D., “Exodus” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1989, pp. 155-57.
McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. 1, Genesis through Deuteronomy, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1981, pp. 300-303.