7 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 9 And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”
11 But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” 14 And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.
The incident of the Israelites making and then worshipping the golden calf underlines our human predisposition toward sin. Moses has gone up to Mount Sinai to receive God’s detailed instructions, including the law and commandments written on the original tablets of stone by God himself. He sets off on his own in the middle of Exodus chapter 24 and is away for 40 days and 40 nights.
The people of Israel become restless and demand the Aaron makes gods for them who will go before them. Moses is on the mountain receiving God’s instructions. They are at the foot of the mountain and can’t wait, so they take matters into their own hands and go after other gods.
This is no surprise to God. He tells Moses that the people have become corrupt, that they have turned away from God’s commands and that they have worshipped the idol they have created. This passage includes the first mention of “stiff-necked”, which is a settled rebellion against God, a lack of willingness to submit to his sovereignty, his rule over their lives.
The result is looming disaster. The Lord announces his intention to destroy his people and instead make Moses into a great nation. While it’s not explicit in the text, it certainly appears that the Lord is using this incident to test Moses as well, to see how he will react to the sin of his fellow Israelites. Will he quietly accept becoming a great nation personally? Will he abandon his fellow Israelites to the consequences of their sin and rebellion against God?
Thankfully, Moses rises to the occasion and makes three pleas on behalf of the people of Israel. It is important to note the grounds he gives. He does not at all attempt to excuse or minimise the sin of the people. Instead, he appeals to God to protect his reputation, as well as showing his mercy and his faithfulness.
Firstly God’s reputation. By destroying the people of Israel, despite good cause, it would look as if God had brought his people out of Egypt only for destruction at Mount Sinai. The report of this event to the Egyptians would given them opportunity to question God’s motives in bringing his people out of Egypt. Did he really go to all that trouble, just to wipe them out?
Secondly, God’s mercy. Moses appeals to God to turn from his fierce anger and to relent. This is an appeal for mercy, based on God’s character, and should not be interpreted as God somehow changing his mind. God is unchanging, in contrast to people who are fickle and volatile. His unchanging character is to show mercy and love to those who don’t deserve them.
Thirdly, God’s faithfulness. Moses reminds God of his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Israel (Jacob). He reminds God that he swore by himself to make their descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and to give them the promised land.
As a result of these pleas, God has mercy on the people and spares them.
I take it that this incident is to help us as we ponder God’s will in various situations which we might face. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask for God’s will to be done, in earth as it is in heaven. These pleas by Moses are based on God’s character, on his reputation, his mercy and his faithfulness. These should be the main ways we approach God in our situations. Rather than being focused on our views, our objectives, what we think is right in our limited understanding of things, let’s focus on what really matters, which is God’s reputation, his mercy and his faithfulness. If and when we pray that God will act to show his goodness, his mercy and his faithfulness, surely this is really solid ground?! God has promised, how can anything resist his will, go against his plan to show his glory and his goodness to all peoples, as well as graciously save his people?
So as we pray, let’s consciously step back from our own cares and concerns. Instead, let’s focus on what brings God honour, those things which highlight his character and his faithfulness. Then the things of earth will grow strangely dim as we bask in his presence, enjoy his favour and watch him in action to answer prayer and make sure that his will gets done!
Tomorrow’s passage: 2 Samuel 4:7-12