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10. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Pt. 2, (Ex. 32:15-34:9)

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This is a continuation from the last message titled, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Last time we covered part 1 (Ex. 32:1-14), the overall teaching of which I summarized as follows: We are so prone to forget God and turn to new gods of our own making. But God does not change – his grace remains.

Today we are going to cover part 2 (Ex. 32:15-34:9). Our subject again is: “The sin of idolatry.” The summary of this message is: If we sin, there is a process for restoration.

The theological principles that we noticed in part 1 were:

I. If You Lose Sight of God, Idolatry Can Easily Overtake You (32:1-6).

II. If Idolatry Overtakes You, You Will Incur God’s Anger (32:7-10).

III. If You Incur God’s Anger, Your Only Recourse Is To Plead For God’s Grace (32:11-14).

Now notice principles IV, V, and VI...

IV. God’s Grace Does Not Exempt You From The Consequences Of Your Sin (32:15-29)

“Then Moses turned and went down the mountain” (32:15). There is no record that God told Moses what to do, so what’s Moses going to do or say? How can he restrain these people who were in a state of uncontrolled frenzy?

Moses has been on the mountain with God for some 40 days. While there, he has received (1) God’s law written on tablets of stone by God himself, and (2) God’s plans for the tabernacle, God’s house. During that short period of time, the Israelites have (1) turned from the living God to worship a new god of gold; (2) turned from Moses their leader to Moses’ assistant, Aaron; and (3) turned from crediting God with bringing them out of Egypt to crediting their new god with bringing them out.

Now Moses displays the true power of his leadership. He already knew what had happened even before he saw it with his own eyes because God had told him on the mountain. Evidently, Joshua (whom we have not heard about since Ex. 24:13) was either with Moses on the mountain or had met Moses part way up the mountain, because now he accompanies Moses down. Before they ever see anything, they hear the noise of the frenzied party below, and Joshua says to Moses: “There is a sound of war in the camp” (32:17). Joshua seems incredulous: “Whatever could that noise be? It must be war.” And Moses says: “It’s not the sound of a victory cry and not the sound of a cry of defeat; I hear the sound of singing!” (32:18).

When they come close enough, Moses sees what’s happening. He saw the golden calf and the people dancing, the orgy, the unrestrained behavior, acting like pagans. Just as God’s anger grew hot, so now does Moses’ anger (32:19-20). He throws down the precious tablets of stone, the only copy of the written word of God they had, breaking them in pieces. They had broken their covenant with God, literally and symbolically – literally, in the way they behaved, and now symbolically, in the breaking of the stone tablets. Their relationship with God was shattered just like the two tablets.

Moses’ anger here is a reflection of God’s righteous anger. He tears down the golden calf, throws it into the fire, and pulverizes it into powder, just as God had said they should do to the Canaanite idols (Ex. 23:24). Destroying the idol was an act of total abhorrence. Grinding it into powder prevented them from ever remaking it again. Then, he mixes the powder with water and makes the people drink it (32:20), just as some mothers used to punish their child by washing out the child’s mouth with soap if they said something bad. Making the Israelites drink the contaminated water gave them a taste of the bitterness of their sin, as the bitter liquid passed through their bodies.

Moses chides Aaron (32:21): “What did these people do to you that you have led them into such a grave sin?” (Ex. 32:21). “How did they get you to do this? Why did you give in to them?” The truth was they had done nothing to Aaron. He had easily and quickly capitulated.

Then, Aaron tries to pacify Moses with excuses (32:22-24). Just as Moses once made excuses to God (that he could not speak properly), so here is Aaron’s excuse to Moses: “Don't get mad with me. You know what these people are like – rotten sinners that they are. They’re impossible, set on doing evil.”

That was true, but it was no excuse for his actions. Just because others want to act sinfully is no reason you should concede to it or condone it. Rather, a godly leader will resist the people’s sin, expose it for what it is, and lead them in a right direction.

How hypocritical is Aaron’s response? “They are the sinners, not me. They talked me into making this golden calf because you were gone so long. They didn't know what happened to you. I just did what they demanded. And anyway, I merely threw the gold into the fire and, bam, out came this calf. How bizarre is that, Moses!” (32:22-23).

Aaron is the antithesis of a godly leader. He doesn't oppose the people, doesn't chastise them, doesn't intercede for them. He obviously couldn’t care less about them – just took the easy way out. Just did what they wanted. Didn’t care if they died under God’s judgement.

What a contrast between Aaron and Moses. Aaron’s words of defense and his actions condemn him. Aaron, the public speaker, responds pathetically; the great assistant becomes so weak. But Moses, the meek man, becomes so powerful and decisive; the inarticulate man becomes so eloquent.

There is no limit to how far sin will go. No limit to how far sexual lust and lewdness and nakedness and drunkenness will go if you start down that path. It’s so easy to get caught up in the emotion and frenzy of a larger group. Loss of spiritual control leads to loss of physical and emotional control.

This kind of behavior is satanic. If you are under the control of the Spirit of God, your behavior will be marked by self-control, self-discipline, God-honoring behavior. We are called to be disciplined people and to do all things decently and in order.

Moses sees that the people were “out of control” (32:25a). Even worse, Israel’s unrestrained partying “made them a laughing stock to their enemies (Ex. 32:25b). Now. they were no different than the Canaanites. It appears that they were still carrying on with their indecent behavior even after the drink of gold powder. If so, the degree to which they were out-of-control is even more shocking.

Is it any wonder why, when the world sees Christians engage in sinful behavior, they say of us, “They’re no different than we are. They drink like us, curse like us, divorce like us, fight like us, watch movies like us. So why bother being a Christian?” When the world sees sinful behavior among the people of God, dishonor is brought on the Lord’s name, derision and shame are heaped on Him.

Moses challenges them to make a decision (32:26). He now does what Aaron should have done. Aaron’s failure to restrain the people contrasts with Moses’ call to commitment: “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me” (32:26). Everyone in the camp could have come and been spared judgement, but only the sons of Levi responded to the call. And Moses sent them throughout the camp carrying out the death sentence on brothers, friends, and neighbors – no favoritism. This was God’s command: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says (32:27). Three thousand men had to die before order was restored and God’s name was cleared (32:28). Only then did they realize the seriousness of what they had done and stop the debauchery. That’s what it took!

That’s what it took then and that’s what it takes now sometimes – the severity of God’s judgement. That’s what it took at Corinth where some died under God’s judgement (1 Cor. 11:30). And that still happens today. Back in the late 1950’s the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in New York had to deal with a race issue in the church, where 85% of the members were against the integration of whites and blacks in the church. After months of teaching on the subject, all but eleven members agreed with him that blacks could and should be equal members of the church with whites. Of those eleven members, seven said they would still support him even though they were against integration. The remaining four opposers all died and were buried by the pastor buried within six months. That’s the judgement of God!

Once the discipline had been carried out, only then did Moses talk about God’s blessing. “Today you have been dedicated to the Lord, since each man went against his son and his brother. Therefore you have brought a blessing on yourselves today” (32:29).

Ironically, there’s a blessing for carrying out God’s discipline. There are times in the life of the church when discipline is necessary to honour the holiness of God, to protect the credibility of the testimony of the church, to cleanse the church of sin, to warn others of the dangers of sin, and to maintain the purity of the Lord’s table.

So, the provision of God’s grace does not exempt you from the consequences of sin (32:15-29). And…

V. The Only Relief From Sin Is Confession And Forgiveness (32:30-35)

Remember our thesis: If we sin, there is a process for restoration. Carrying out discipline is right and necessary, but the people still have to get right with God, have to be restored to a right relationship with him. Notice the order that Moses deals with this.

First, Moses confronts the people with their sin. 30 You have committed a grave sin. Now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I will be able to atone for your sin. 31 So Moses returned to the Lord” (32:30-31). Now, he acts as their priest before God. What must the people have thought as they saw Moses go one more time up the mountain? Would God grant his forgiveness? Could their relationship with God ever be restored? Their only hope was that Moses was their mediator and that God would be gracious. Here we see true intercession. First Moses confronts the people with their sin...

Then, Moses confesses their sin before the Lord: “Oh, these people have committed a grave sin; they have made a god of gold for themselves” (32:31). Notice that true confession of sin involves naming the sin specifically.

After confronting them with their sin and confessing their sin before the Lord, Moses asks for forgiveness for their sin: “Now if you would only forgive their sin” (32:32a). This request for forgiveness is based on sovereign grace alone. There was nothing they could do to earn it. If God does not grant forgiveness, then Moses offers to be their substitute: But if not, please erase me from the book you have written” (32:32b). This is the heart of a godly leader: “Take me as a substitute for them if someone has to die.”

And God responds: 33 The Lord replied to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me I will erase from my book. 34 Now go, lead the people to the place I told you about; see, my angel will go before you. But on the day I settle accounts, I will hold them accountable for their sin’” (32:33-34). Everyone is responsible for their own sin - there’s no such thing as a group sin - and the penalty for sin is death (Rom. 6:23; Ezek. 18:4).

But notice that God’s judgement is not carried out immediately. Although Aaron had not restrained the people, God’s grace restrained his sentence of death. His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob needed to be fulfilled first. So, God’s angel will go before them, they will reach Canaan, but when the punishment is carried out, they will die for their sin. “And the Lord inflicted a plague on the people for what they did with the calf Aaron had made” (32:35). In the interim, they suffered from the consequences of their sin and subsequently they died because of what they did. That entire generation died in the wilderness and a brand new generation went into Canaan.

We must take sin seriously, the same way God does. Don't try to downplay it or excuse it or deny it. We must deal decisively and lovingly with those who sin and we must quickly judge sin in our own lives.

We must hate sin, just as God does. This applies to our families and the discipline of our children. You do not love your children if you tolerate their sin. And this applies to the church as well. God’s judgement may be delayed but it will come. It will come on sinning believers who do not confess their sin. And it will come on unbelievers who do not turn to him in faith. These Israelites sinned over and over again during the next 40 years. Many of them were not believers and they died, but this didn’t prevent God from fulfilling his promises.

Thank God that we, as Christians, have a Saviour who has died to wash us from our sins, so that we do not live under the cloud of coming judgement - we have the assurance of eternal life. Thank God we live under a new and better covenant. We know that our sins are forgiven – past, present, and future. We do not face the wrath of God, for that has been dealt with at the cross by our Saviour. He has atoned for our sins. We have been declared righteous because of his righteousness.

Thank God we have a great High Priest, the sinless Son of God. Our high priest is not a sinner like Aaron, who would become Israel’s first high priest and offer annual sacrifices of atonement for his own sins and the sins of the people, annual sacrifices which never did or could atone for their sins. Those sacrifices only cleansed them ceremonially until the next time. Those sacrifices only delayed the judgement of God for another year. But our high priest is not a sinner like Aaron. Our High Priest is the sinless Son of God, the once-for-all substitute for us, the perfect sacrifice for our sins, a sacrifice that never had to be repeated, a sacrifice of infinite and eternal value.

So, the provision of God’s grace does not exempt you from the consequences of sin. The only relief from sin is confession and forgiveness. And then…

VI. After Confession And Forgiveness, We Receive God’s Assurance (33:11-34:9)

If ever Moses needed assurance from God, it was now. The people he had led out of Egypt were in a shambles; they had turned from God to idols (contrast Thess. 1:9). Moses must have felt isolated and alone. The job of leadership was getting harder with time, not easier. Moses had offered to give his life for the Israelites and God had temporarily delayed his judgement on them, but what now? What he needed now was assurance from God, that God’s grace still rested upon him. Well, God “remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). His angel would still go before them (32:34), and the proof of that would be the manifestation to Moses of God’s way and God’s glory. If he could see the ways of God and the glory of God, then he would know that God’s favor rested on him and this would give him renewed courage and perseverance.

Moses is the consummate intercessor. Moses’ first intercession in 32:11-14 is why God should not destroy the people. His second intercession in 32:31-35 is his plea for God’s forgiveness of the people’s sin or else take Moses’ life.

Now we come to his third intercession with God (33:11-17). Here is recorded one of the most fascinating conversations in the Bible between God and his servant-leader, Moses. The people have repented and shown the reality of their repentance in removing their ornaments (33:4-5), those symbols and reminders of their former pagan gods. Now Moses meets God outside the camp at a special tent of meeting. “The Lord would speak with Moses face to face, just as a man speaks with his friend” (33:11), with intimacy, warmth, trust, confidence, transparency.

Moses’ intercessory appeal for assurance has two parts. First, Moses asks God for the manifestation of God’s ways. “Now if I have indeed found favor with you, please teach me your ways, and I will know you, so that I may find favor with you. Now consider that this nation is your people” (33:13). The concrete evidence that Moses had favor with God would be for God to show him His “ways,” show him God’s standards, purposes, methods, plans. Moses says, “For the sake of this nation, your covenant people, show me your ways, so that your people will know that you are still faithful to your promises, so that I can enter into a deeper relationship with you and understanding of you, so that I can be reassured of my standing before you – that I have found grace in your sight.”

And God replied graciously and reassuringly, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (33:14). That’s all Moses needed – the assurance of the Lord’s presence with him as it had been from the beginning.

To know the Lord’s ways is to have the Lord’s presence. That’s how it had been throughout the wilderness journey. The presence of the Lord went with Moses and showed him the way in a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. We cannot know the ways of God without the presence of God. The Lord’s “presence” implies not only accountability and guidance but also security and “rest.” “I will give you rest,” the Lord says. Rest is the necessary result of the Lord’s presence. The Lord’s presence grants rest, for when we take his yoke on us we find rest for our souls (Matt. 11:29).

Don’t you find yourself crying out for a renewed assurance and experience of the Lord’s presence? Are there not times in your life when you feel you are dry spiritually and you hunger for more of God? What we desperately need is a renewed experience of God’s presence, just as Moses cries for here. As D.A. Carson puts it, “What any people must have is the presence of the living God. It is not enough in any church simply to have the right rituals and the right sermons and the right kind of music. If God does not manifest himself in some way; if he is not present, then what is the point of the whole exercise?...There’s no point in merely being different because we have rules. We must have God. (D. A. Carson, The God Who Is There, 67).

When we gather as the body of Christ, do we “have God”? Or, do you sense that God is not there. Do you ever get the sense that church worship has become so routine, you’ve done this for so long, that you no longer expect to meet God there? Or, have you allowed things into your private life that have robbed you of the manifest presence of God? What we need more than anything else is the presence of the living God among us, active and powerful, changing us, shaping us, drawing us to himself, filling us with awe and wonder and adoration.

We don't come together to maintain religious form or because that’s what Christians do or just to make it look good to our neighbors. We come together to experience the presence of God and when we experience the presence of God, we find rest and peace and forgiveness and reconciliation and hope.

If your presence does not go,” Moses responded to him, “don’t make us go up from here” (33:15). In other words, “there’s no point in taking one step more toward the promised land if you are not with us. That’s the only way that the Canaanites will know that we are your favored people. That’s what makes us different from all the people on the face of the earth” (33:16).

“The Lord answered Moses, ‘I will do this very thing you have asked, for you have found favor with me, and I know you by name’” (33;17). God says to Moses, “I will do exactly what you ask. My presence will go with you for you have found grace in my sight and everyone will know it by my manifest presence with you exclusively.” To “find favor in (God’s) sight” is to know the grace of God experientially, to have concrete proof of it. For God to know you “by name” is to have personal intimacy, relationship, and fellowship with God.

First, then, Moses asks for the manifestation of God’s ways. Second, Moses asks for the manifestation of God’s glory (33:18-23).Then Moses said, “Please, let me see your glory” (33:18). This is ultimate boldness. Surely God’s presence and rest and favor should be enough. Clearly Moses was desperate for renewed assurance. After all, perhaps the idolatry of the people had permanently severed their relationship with God. Perhaps they had permanently lost the marvel and experience of God’s glory. Perhaps “Ichabod” was written over the people of Israel. Perhaps God’s glory had departed from them. Could God’s wrath be yet assuaged? Or, was all hope of reconciliation gone?

That’s why Moses wanted a further manifestation of God. Yes, God had shown himself powerfully at the Red Sea and Sinai. But was all that for nothing? Had it all been squandered by this rebellious and stiff-necked people? Moses needed to know God in the most intimate, powerful way possible by seeing his glory. And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim the name ‘the Lord’ before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (33:19). God’s goodness is God’s glory – it’s the overpowering aspect of who God is. He is good and He is sovereign. In his sovereignty God expresses His grace and compassion to whomever He wishes. God says to Moses, “I will do what you ask, Moses. I will grant your request. But remember, that no matter how much you see and know of me, no matter how much of myself I disclose to you, no matter how close we are, always remember that I am the sovereign Lord. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” In other words, “You cannot bargain with me, Moses, nor force me to do anything. Remember, I don't need you, but you need me.”

“But (the Lord) added, ‘ 20 You cannot see my face, for humans cannot see me and live.’ 21 The Lord said, ‘Here is a place near me. You are to stand on the rock, 22 and when my glory passes by, I will put you in the crevice of the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take my hand away, and you will see my back, but my face will not be seen’” (33:20-23). God says, “It’s one thing to converse with me, Moses, as a man converses with his friend, but it’s quite another to see my glory, for no one can see me and live. You will see my back, Moses, but not my face.” Moses had pushed God to the absolute limit of his self-revelation. Moses would see all that can be seen of God’s glory. Remember, God is the sovereign, supreme One. He alone determines who will receive his grace and compassion (33:19). He alone determines how much he will reveal of himself.

So, how and where will this manifestation of God’s glory take place? Here are the Lord’s instructions (34:1-9). First, “Cut two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke” (34:1). Sometimes in shops that sell breakable items you see a sign: “Break it and you’ve bought it.” That’s not how God dealt with the broken stones. In his grace, God gives Moses a new set.

Second, “Be prepared by morning. Come up Mount Sinai in the morning and stand before me on the mountaintop” (34:2). No one else could come with him nor even be in sight (33:3). So, “Moses cut two stone tablets like the first ones. He got up early in the morning, and taking the two stone tablets in his hand, he climbed Mount Sinai, just as the Lord had commanded him” (34:4). And once again, “The Lord came down in a cloud, stood with him there, and proclaimed his name, ‘the Lord’” (34:5). Moses was in the crevice of the rock and the Lord passed by him (34:6a).

Though Moses’ sight of God is limited, what he hears is an incredible self-declaration as to the character of God (34:6-7). This is who God is: The Lord—the Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth” (34:6b). That’s who God is. What God is revealing to Moses in word is far more than in sight. God tells Moses who he is and what he is like. This is awesome! This is more than had ever been directly revealed by God and about God before - not in the 10 plagues, not in the vanquishing of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, nor at the first Mt. Sinai experience.

And then, this is what God does: “…maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation” (34:7). Moses received more than he had bargained for. He didn't just see a partial manifestation of God’s glory, he heard a full revelation of God’s character – a character that would one day be seen in Jesus.

On the one hand, God is love. He is a God of compassion and grace. He is merciful, gracious, longsuffering, forgiving. On the other hand, God is holy. He is a God of justice and truth – “He will not leave the guilty unpunished,” even to the point of bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren” if they continue in their fathers’ sins and do not repent. God will not turn away from pursuing and judging sin. Those who are guilty and do not repent will be judged and punished by the God who is absolute holiness.

You can’t defend yourself with: “But I was born this way.” Or, “It runs in the family - my father lived like this and his father as well.” No, you will have to do with God. So, how will you meet God? Will you meet him as your Saviour – the God who is love. Or will you meet him as your judge – the God who is holy. What we need is mercy, not justice. According to God’s justice he could condemn us all to hell, but according to his mercy he has provided a way of escape.

And Moses responds: (He) made haste and bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped (34:8). That’s what worship is – our response to who God is. And Moses said, “My Lord, if I have indeed found favor with you, my Lord, please go with us (even though this is a stiff-necked people), forgive our iniquity and our sin, and accept us as your own possession” (34:9). Whoever said there is no grace in the O.T.! What a prayer of intercession this is! Moses identifies himself completely with his people and pleads on their collective behalf. May that prayer be ours also!

Final Remarks

What a contrast between the godly leadership of Moses and that of Aaron. Notice these ten contrasts in their leadership styles:

(1) Moses represented God; Aaron represented the people.

(2) Moses told the people God’s message; Aaron told the people what they wanted to hear.

(3) Moses led the people; Aaron capitulated to the people.

(4) Moses led on principle; Aaron led on pragmatism (by what worked).

(5) Moses called the people to obedience; Aaron aided the people’s disobedience.

(6) Moses kept the people under control; Aaron was controlled by the people.

(7) Moses called the people to act for God; Aaron permitted the people to do what they wanted.

(8) Moses worked with the minority; Aaron wanted the approval of the majority.

(9) Moses trusted the word of God; Aaron was swayed by the words of the people.

(10) Moses trusted the power of God; Aaron succumbed to the power of the people.

Remember our thesis for this passage: If we sin, there is a process for restoration. We need to confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness and then walk in the assurance of God’s presence. It’s simple but so often we don't want to follow it. If you need to get right with God, why not do it now and rest in the sweetness of his presence and the confidence of his ways?

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