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9. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Pt. 1, (Ex. 32:1-14)

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Our last study in this series was titled, “A 40 Day Meeting with God” (Ex. 19:1-25). At that meeting Moses received from God the ten commandments and additional laws (Ex. 21-23) that would regulate the life of the nation of Israel.

Then, “Moses came and told the people all the commands of the Lord and all the ordinances. Then all the people responded with a single voice, ‘We will do everything that the Lord has commanded’” (Ex. 24:3). Notice the emphasis here on “all.” There was full disclosure, full agreement, full commitment, and full unity. And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord and built an altar at the foot of the mountain (24:4). Young men offered burnt offerings and peace offerings there and Moses sprinkled half the blood on the altar and put half the blood in basins (24:5-6). Moses then read from the Book of the Covenant and, again, the people affirmed their obedience to the covenant (24:7). Then, Moses took the blood from the basins and sprinkled it on the people (24:8). They were a holy people set apart for God.

But notice how quickly everything changes, from unity and commitment to rebellion and idolatry. Our subject is “The sin of idolatry.” And the overriding message that we learn from this passage (Ex. 32:1-14) is this: We are so prone to forget God and turn to new gods of our own making. But God does not change – his grace remains. Notice firstly that…

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

Moses’ meeting with God lasted a long time, close to 6 weeks (ch. 24-32) and the people got impatient. At last they gave up hope of ever seeing Moses again (32:16). They didn’t believe he was coming back. Clearly, they mistrusted Moses as their leader. They thought that he had abandoned them: “We don’t know what has happened to him” (32:1). Moses’ lengthy absence probably confirmed in their mind what they had accused him of all along, that he had brought them out into the desert to die. So, their allegiance to Moses and Moses’ God was abandoned. “Let’s start over,” they probably said. “This is a new day.”

That’s when they turned to Aaron. They wanted a new leader and they wanted a new god. That’s how fickle people are. If their leader is absent for an extended period of time, they soon give him up and all that he stood for, and they soon turn to someone else to lead them. They give up their leader and their leader’s God. All that Moses had done for them – gone. All that Moses taught them – gone. All their commitments to keep God’s covenant – gone. How soon people forget and turn after other leaders and other gods. We are so prone to forget God and turn to new gods of our own making.

Perhaps Aaron became proud that they had turned to him. Maybe his popularity went to his head, after all this was a big position over so many people and we know from the rest of the story that both he and his sister, Miriam, resented Moses’ leadership position. Perhaps Aaron reasoned: “I am as good as my brother anyway, so why not take over? The people are right – Moses isn’t coming back. We just have to get on with our lives – we’ve waited long enough.” So, they appoint Aaron as their new leader with a new god.

At the top of the mountain Moses was receiving God’s instructions about the design and construction of a tabernacle where they would worship the one, true living God. While at the foot of the mountain, the Israelites and Aaron were discussing the construction of a new, inanimate god of gold. This was a direct violation of the commandment that they had just received (Ex. 20:3-5, 23). And this was a direct violation of the covenant which they had just made – namely, “We will do everything that the Lord has commanded us” (Ex. 24:3).

There’s no more talk or thought of the God of the mountain, the God whom they could not see, the God whom they could not approach on top of a mountain which they could not even touch. No, they wanted a god they could see and touch. So they reduced God to an idol of their own creation, just like the idols of the pagan Canaanites all around them. Idolatry quickly and easily overtook them when they turned away from God and God’s leader.

This sudden reversal comes as such a shock to us. The reversal of Israel’s covenant with God, rejecting God and turning to idolatry. And the reversal of Aaron’s loyalty to Moses without so much as even a hesitation about becoming their new leader and providing their new god. This sudden reversal came less than 40 days after they had initially made their covenant with God. Moses had barely gone back up the mountain than (1) Israel turned their back on him and adopted a new leader and (2) Israel turned their back on God and adopted a new god. Evidently, the absence of godly leadership was the primary factor in Israel’s practice of idolatry. When Moses was present, he kept them connected to God, for he was the mediator between them. Any previous talk of abandoning God and going back to Egypt had been counteracted by Moses. But not so with Aaron. He made no attempt to restrain them.

So, the opportunity to apostatize was there. Moses was absent and the opportunity and motivation for rebellion and idolatry were present. Perhaps the volatility and violence of the people scared Aaron into doing what they wanted. This was, after all, a protest movement as the people “gathered around Aaron” (32:1). This was like a mob scene, an “Occupy Sinai!” movement, a riot.

Israel’s sudden rebellion against God should not amaze us. Such a sudden reversal in their relationship to God springs from what is common to man – viz. human depravity. Human depravity is rooted and manifested in disobedience, self-will, rebellion. And that’s the problem to this day. We don't want to submit either to God or to God’s leaders. We want our own way.

The sudden fall of the Israelites can be true of us. As our thesis states: We are so prone to forget God and turn to new gods of our own making. Just give Satan a moment’s advantage through your sinful flesh and you’ll find out how suddenly your relationship with God can change. It’s not a long process. It’s not necessarily the end of a long path pursued - it can happen so quickly. That’s how it is when our sinful flesh is allowed to be active.

So, “whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). You can utter such spiritual talk and be so devoted today and yet utterly fail God tomorrow. I’ve seen it. The human heart is “more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). We must understand and acknowledge that. So, don't trust yourself but stay close to God, for, as Moses told the Israelites, “the Lord your God is the one who will go with you; he will not leave you or abandon you” (Deut. 31:6).

So, the opportunity to apostatize was there and Aaron capitulates. He did exactly what they wanted. He capitulates to the invitation to be their leader and he capitulates to their demand for a new god: “Come, make gods for us” (32:1), they said. Aaron would be a replacement for Moses and the new idol would be a replacement for God. This was to be their new mascot. Moses had “brought them up from the land of Egypt” (32:1) but from here forward the new idol would lead them to conquer and populate the new land of Canaan. This was to be their new life! Forget about Egypt and Pharaoh and the Red Sea. “Let’s live the good life with food and drink, play and religion. That’s what life’s about!” or so they thought.

Idolatry always seems to lie latent in the human heart, ready to spring up at any moment and take control. It was so in the history of Israel (cf. Josh. 24:14; Amos 5:25-26; 1 Sam. 8:8). Lack of faithfulness to God was always just beneath the surface and could be triggered by the slightest provocation. And isn’t it just the same with us?

Aaron now leads them in the new direction that they demanded. “Take off the gold rings that a are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me” (32:2). There’s no evidence of any thought given to this, no consideration of the consequences. This is not wise, godly, thoughtful leadership. The idea of a calf was Aaron’s, the mode of making it was Aaron’s, the actual fabrication of it was Aaron’s. So, they willingly donated all their earrings and Aaron melted them down and carved it into a golden, molded calf.

And they said the most heinous, blasphemous, rebellious words you can imagine: Israel, this is your god that brought you up from the land of Egypt” (32:4). No longer was it Moses and Moses’ God who brought them up from Egypt, but this graven idol has completely taken their place. Aaron solemnized the whole occasion by building an altar of sacrifice, just as Moses had done for God in Ex. 24:4. And Aaron proclaimed a solemn “festival to the Lord” (32:5), just as Moses had done in Ex. 24:11. Can you imagine!

The people are so excited, that “early the next morning they arose, offered burnt offerings, and presented fellowship offerings” (32:6), just as they had done in Ex. 24:5. But this is not godly, reverent worship like that in ch. 24. Now, “the people sat down to eat and drink and got up to party” (32:6). The outward appearance of a worship service degenerated into a disorderly party, perhaps even an orgy with illicit sexual activity and drunkenness (that is certainly the implication).

Sometimes, religious gatherings can have the appearance of worship but underneath be blatantly evil. You can have a form of godliness but deny its power. You can make your external behavior look ever so good but when the heart is unrestrained, when there are no godly leaders to give orderly oversight, then the evil of the human heart soon manifests itself in all its unvarnished ugliness.

The Israelites here were really no different from the ungodly Canaanites whose land they would inhabit. Their pagan behavior was identical to the pagan Canaanites. We need to take heed of this, that we don't take pride in our form of gathering while abandoning in our hearts the One to whom we are gathered, that we don’t parade the external trappings of religiosity while nurturing internal spiritual rottenness.

Picture the scene that is painted for us here. At the top of the mountain - the fire of God’s glory, the object of worship is the living God, a solemn meeting concerning the law of God written in stone, and the plans for the tabernacle where God would dwell among his people. While at the foot of the mountain, a fire for melting their gold, the object of worship is a dead idol, and the meeting is one of an undignified frenzy of uncontrolled people.

This is idolatry. Idolatry is the replacement of God with something else to which you bow down as though it were God, the replacement of the invisible God with a visible substitute. So, who or what are you following? Are you devoted to following God no matter what? Are you following the faith of godly leaders? Or, have you abandoned the old paths for something new? If you do not remain true to God, idolatry will overtake you. And…

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

The all-seeing eye of our omnipresent, omniscient God knew all that was going on at the base of the mountain. There is nothing hidden from God’s eyes. You may think God can’t see you, but he can. “No creature is hidden from him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account” (Heb. 4:13).

Israel had forgotten God and his great deliverance, but He had not forgotten them. God knew that they had turned away from him to an idol. “‘Go down at once! For your people you brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly’” (32:7) God said to Moses. They are not a holy nation anymore; they are a corrupt people. “They have quickly turned from the way I commanded them” (32:8a). They had turned away from God, abandoned Him.

Sin quickly manifests itself in disobedience. Sin quickly turns us away from God, for God and sin cannot coexist. Sin blinds our minds such that God’s grace is so quickly forgotten, God’s redemption is so quickly forgotten, the joy of God’s salvation is so quickly forgotten.

They had replaced God with an idol. “They have made for themselves an image of a calf. They have bowed down to it, sacrificed to it, and said, ‘Israel, this is your god, who brought you up from the land of Egypt’” (32:8b). How quickly the living God is replaced by a dead idol! How quickly the miraculous works of God are attributed to a golden calf!

Remember: We are so prone to forget God and turn to new gods of our own making. This is all due to the sinful condition of their hearts. “They are indeed a stiff-necked people” (32:9). This is the root cause of the trouble. God has put his finger on the problem - the will. This is not only the Israelites’ problem - it has been the problem of the entire human race beginning with the fall. Disobedience! Rebellion! Debauchery! Idolatry! They all go together. This is the sin of self-will. What they were doing manifested who they truly were. This wasn’t something new or startling to God. He had seen and heard their attitudes ever since he brought them out of Egypt.

God knew they had turned away from him to an idol and He became angry with jealousy. The consequences of the sin of idolatry are (1) separation from God - they are no longer God’s people, but Moses’ people (32:7) – and (2) the judgement of God, because God is a jealous God who brooks no evil, tolerates no divided loyalty. God in effect said, “That’s it, Moses. I’ve seen enough of this stiff-necked, stubborn, rebellious, thankless, idolatrous people. “Now leave me alone, so that my anger can burn against them and I can destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation” (32:10). This is what God threatens to do – to destroy them, wipe them out and start over again, promising to Moses what he had originally promised to Abraham to “make of you a great nation” (32:10). Was this just? Yes it was! Did God do it? Not immediately.

Why did God not do it immediately? Evidently because he did not intend to or else he would not have told Moses about it and then tell him to go down to them. This is like a warning shot across the bow, which in God’s grace gave them opportunity to repent. “Leave me alone, so that my anger can burn against them and I can destroy them” (32:10). But Moses didn't leave God alone and as a result God’s anger did not reach boiling point and the people were not destroyed – at least not right away. God gave opportunity to Moses to intercede for Israel based on which God’s anger was assuaged, for now.

First, if you lose sight of God, idolatry can quickly overtake you. Second, if idolatry overtakes you, you will incur God’s anger. Third...

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

Now we read in 32:11-14 the words of a great leader, an intercessor, an advocate at God’s right hand. Notice, Moses makes no appeal to the recently ratified covenant. He didn't remind the people of the covenant they had just signed, nor does he express amazement at how quickly they had abrogated the agreement, nor does he remind them of the covenant’s terms and conditions, all of which were clearly spelled out. Why? Because the covenant would only condemn them - they would never be able to keep it.

Moses’ only appeal was to the character and grace of God. That’s the only place we can fly to when we sin – not seeking to be justified by works but by faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 2:16). We cannot possibly live up to God’s standard; the law will always eventually condemn us. We can only cling to the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ revealed most fully at the cross. Remember our thesis: We are so prone to forget God and turn to new gods of our own making. But God does not change – his grace remains.

Now listen to one of the greatest speeches ever made. Moses pleads with God on behalf of the people not to destroy them (32:11-14). He advocates on their behalf, acts in their defense. He says, “They are your people, God (not mine). You brought them out of Egypt (not me) with great power and a mighty hand.”

Moses’ Argument #1: “If you abandon them now, what will the Egyptians say? They’ll say that you brought them out of Egypt to do them harm, to kill them, in fact, in the mountains. They’ll say that you delivered them from Egypt to wipe them off the face of the earth” (32:12).

Moses unspoken aside is: But that’s not what you said to Pharaoh, is it? That’s not why you brought them out at all, is it? You brought them out of Egypt so that they could be your exclusive people, one nation under God, who could worship you in the desert. So, God, please turn from your fierce anger and relent concerning this disaster planned for your people” (32:12).

Moses’ Argument #2: “What about your promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? ‘You swore to them by yourself and declared, ‘I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and will give your offspring all this land that I have promised, and they will inherit it forever’ (32:13). What about that, God?”

Moses’ intercession is based on the character of God. God would not fail to keep his covenant with Israel, even if they failed. God would not let his character be ridiculed by the Egyptians. God would not fail to keep his promises to the patriarchs. God would not wipe them out because the Messiah could not come through Moses - he was of the tribe of Levi and the Messiah would come through Judah (cf. Ex. 2:1-2 vs Gen. 49:10), so God would not wipe them out.

God delights to relent from his judgement in response to an intercessor, a mediator. Just as Jesus interceded before God as our Mediator, so did Moses on behalf of Israel. God responds to our Kinsman Redeemer.

This teaches us something about intercessory prayer. When we recount the facts to God, make the arguments to God, and plead with God to “turn” (32:12). Then, God responds to the effective fervent prayer of a righteous person (James 5:16). Thus, Moses’ intimate knowledge of God enabled him to present a powerful argument to God and thus to mediate God’s forgiveness and the people’s restoration. This just shows the value and power of knowing God!

Moses knew full well that God would not destroy the people he just saved, despite their disobedience and idolatry. God would not abort the work he began – he will complete what he begins. He will lead them victoriously into Canaan. He cannot deny himself.

And so God relented. A powerful argument by a powerful advocate is followed by a powerful response from an all-powerful God. “So the Lord relented concerning the disaster he had said he would bring on his people” (32:14). Don’t ask me how this works - how God’s man can intercede on behalf of God’s people and God himself relents – but that’s what happened. That’s the efficacy of intercessory prayer.

Final Remarks

Remember my sermon-in-a-sentence that I stated at the beginning: We are so prone to forget God and turn to new gods of our own making. But God does not change – his grace remains. If you take your eyes off God, you can easily fall into idolatry. Don’t think that the Israelites’ sudden transfer of loyalties from God to idols couldn’t happen to you, because it could. Don’t think that the Israelites’ debauchery and party behavior couldn’t happen to you, because it could.

In fact, perhaps there are idols already in your life. They might not be physical idols of wood or stone but idols that you have set up in your heart. Anything that comes between us and God is an idol. Anything that prevents God from having first place in our life is an idol. That makes this passage a bit more personal doesn’t it?

Perhaps we all need to examine our hearts in order to identify anything that has priority over God in our lives - be it our money, our jobs, our ambitions, our leisure, our recreation, our attitude - and we need to judge it before the Lord and get rid of it. We serve a jealous God who does not brook divided affections. We serve a jealous God who does not tolerate lukewarmness. The Thessalonian believers “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). Let’s make sure that we do not turn from God to serve dead idols.

Praise God we serve a God who is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and great in faithful love” (Ps. 145:8), a God who is 4 rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us,” a God who 5 made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses” (Eph. 2:4-5). Thank God that “where sin multiplied, grace multiplied even more” (Rom. 5:20). Thank God that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).

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