The return of Moses to the camp.
It may well be believed that it was with deeply agitated heart that Moses, stunned by the tidings he had just received, rejoined his faithful attendant, and as speedily as possible descended the rocky sides of the mountain. Great was the contrast between the things heavenly on which for forty days and forty nights his eyes had been uninterruptedly feasting, and the scenes he was now to witness. Even the light of common day could hardly seem otherwise than strange to him, emerging from his ecstasy. His bodily aspect, too, would be considerably altered. But in his spirit there is a stored-up energy, the product of his long rapture, which it only needs the sight of Israel's sin to kindle into awful heat of wrath.
I. THE BREAKING OF THE TABLES ( Exodus 32:15-19 ). The downward journey was a silent one. Moses refrains from communicating to Joshua the news he has received. He is absorbed in his own thoughts. And while he muses, the fire burns ( Psalms 39:3 ). So soon as they approach the camp, sounds of revelry are heard. Joshua, with his soldier's instinct, thinks at once of war, but Moses can tell him that it is "not the voice of them that shout for mastery," nor yet "the voice of them that cry for being overcome" that he hears, but "the voice of them that cry" (verse 8). Even Moses, however, is unprepared for the spectacle which presents itself, as, pursuing the descent, some turn in the road at length puts before his eyes the whole scene of folly. The tables of testimony are in his hands, but these, in his hot anger, he now dashes from him, breaking them in pieces on the rocks (verse 19). It was an act of righteous indignation, but symbolic also of the breaking of the covenant. Of that covenant the tables of stone were all that still remained, and the dashing of them to pieces was the final act in its rupture. Learn,
1 . The actual sight of wickedness is necessary, to give us full sympathy with God in the hot displeasure with which he regards it.
2 . The deepest and most loving natures are those most capable of being affected with holy indignation. Who shall compete with Moses in the boundlessness of his love for Israel? But the honour of Jehovah touches him yet more deeply.
3 . It is right, on suitable occasions, to give emphatic expression to the horror with which the sight of great wickedness inspires us.
II. THE DESTRUCTION OF THE CALF (verse 20). Returning to the camp, Moses brought the orgies of the people to a speedy termination. He had little difficulty in restoring order. His countenance, blazing with anger, and exhibiting every sign of grief, surprise, and horror, struck immediate dismay into the evil-doers. No one, apparently, had the courage to resist him. The idolaters slunk in guilty haste to their tents, or stood paralysed with fear, rooted to the spot at which he had discovered them. He, on his part, took immediate steps for ridding the camp of the visible abomination. "He took the calf which they had made and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it." View this—
1 . As a bitter humiliation . What could be more humiliating to these idolaters than to see their god ground to powder, and its dust made into a nauseous mixture, which afterwards they were compelled to drink? But is not this the end of all sin? The instruments of our sin become the instruments of our punishment. Our sin turns to bitterness. The golden sheen by which it at first allured us disappears from it. It ends in humiliation and degradation.
2 . As a righteous retribution . Why was the calf thus ground to powder, and given to the Israelites to drink? It was no mere act of revenge on Moses' part. It was no hasty doing of his anger. It was a just retribution for a great sin. It was a method deliberately adopted of branding idol and idolaters alike with the print of the Almighty's judgment. It suggests to us the correspondence between sin and its punishment; the certainty of our sins coming home to roost; the fact that sin will be paid back to us in its own coin. Sin and retribution hang together. We "receive the things done in the body" ( 2 Corinthians 5:10 ).
3 . As a prophecy of worse evil to come . Bitter as this humiliation was, it was not the whole. It was but the mark put upon the deed by God, which told those who had committed it that they must abide by it, and be prepared to eat the fruit of their doings. The drinking of the dust had its sequel in the slaughter and the plagues (verses 27, 35). Even so, the bitterness and humiliation following from sins in this life do not exhaust their punishment. They warn of worse punishment in the world to come.
III. AARON 'S EXCUSES (verses 21-25). The first duty was to destroy the calf. This accomplished, or while the work was proceeding, Moses addresses himself to Aaron. His words are cuttingly severe,—"What did this people unto thee?" etc. (verse 21). Aaron, on his side, is deprecating and humble. He is afraid of Moses' anger. He addresses Moses as "my lord," and proceeds to make excuses. His excuses are typical, and deserve consideration.
1 . He falls back upon the old, old plea—as old as Eden— that the blame of his sin rested on some one else than himself . "Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are bent on mischief. For they said to me," etc. (verses 22-24). It is, as we say, the old, old story of all evil-doers—"It wasn't me, indeed it wasn't; it was those wicked people who made me do it." It is the weak, childish excuse of all who, having been tempted into sin, or having through their own irresolution fallen into it, have not the honesty or manliness to make at once a frank avowal of their fault. An easy way this, were the excuse admissible, of getting rid of our responsibility; but transgressors were early taught that they will not be allowed to avail themselves of it ( Genesis 3:12-20 ). It is not a plea which will be held valid on the day of judgment. All, more or less, are conscious of pressure exerted on them by their circumstances. There is, however, no fatality binding us to yield to that pressure, if yielding means sin. The pressure is our trial. Aaron's sin lay in his unmanly fear, in his not having the resolution to say at the critical time, No. Probably Aaron would have urged that if he had not yielded, the people would have killed him. "Then," Moses would have answered, "let them kill you. Better a thousand times that they had killed you than that you should have been the means of leading Israel into this great sin." Yet how often is the same species of excuse met with! " I couldn't help it;" "The necessity of my situation;" "Compelled by circumstances;" "Customs of the trade;" "If I hadn't done it, I would have offended all my friends;" " I should have lost my situation," etc. It may be all true: but the point is, Was the thing wrong? If it was, the case of Aaron teaches us that we cannot shield ourselves by transferring the blame of what we have done to circumstances.
2 . If Aaron's first excuse was bad, the second was worse— it just happened . He put the gold, poor man, into the fire, and " there came out this calf !" It came out. He did not make it; it just came out. This was a kind of explaining which explained nothing. Yet it is precisely paralleled by people attributing, say, to their "luck," to "chance," to "fate," to "destiny," what is really their own doing. Thomas Scott says—"No wise man ever made a more unmeaning or foolish excuse than Aaron did. We should never have supposed 'that he could speak well,' were we to judge of his eloquence by this specimen." Note—
Judgment and mercy.
I. THE DESCENT or MOSES THE EMBLEM OF THE LAW 'S ENTRANCE INTO A WORLD OF SIN ( Exodus 32:15-29 ).
1 . He came with tables written by God's own finger. The Divine origin and claims of the law are still attested by its own nature and by man's conscience.
2 . He was met by the exhibition of gross and defiant sin. The law does not come to a people waiting to receive the knowledge of God's will, but busy with their idolatry and breaking what they already know to be his will.
3 . The law's advent, therefore, is in wrath ( Exodus 32:19 ).
II. THE INTERCESSOR .
1 . His deep consciousness of the evil of their sin ( Exodus 32:30 , Exodus 32:31 ). The intercessor cannot make light of man's iniquity. He who bore our burdens felt their weight and terribleness as we have never yet done.
2 . His love. Though he hates their iniquity, his life is bound up with theirs ( Exodus 32:32 ).
III. THE TERRIBLENESS OF SIN AS SEEN IN THE MIRROR OF THE DIVINE ANGER .
1 . The impossibility of ransom. "Whosoever hath sinned against me him will I blot out of my book." There is but one sacrifice which avails, and that reaches the heart of the sinful and changes it.
2 . Mercy to the unrenewed only means a delayed judgement: "Nevertheless, in the day when I visit I will visit their sins upon them."— U .
1 . It was the people's fault, not his; they were "set on mischief."
2 . It was a fatality—he threw the gold into the fire, and "it came out this calf." We are not surprised, after this, to read in Deuteronomy, that "the Lord was very angry with Aaron to have destroyed him," and was only hindered from his purpose by the intercession of Moses
Let not the anger of my lord wax hot . Aaron's humility is extreme, and the result of a consciousness of guilt. He nowhere else addresses Moses as "my lord." Set on mischief . Or "inclined to evil" (Kalisch).
We are all ready enough to condemn Aaron for his insincere and shifty answer; but do not the apostle's words occur to any of us?—"Therefore, thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest, for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things" ( Romans 2:1 ). Do not we all, when we are taxed with faults, seek to shift the blame of them elsewhere? e.g. :—
I. ON THE PEOPLE WITH WHOM WE LIVE . Society, we say, is corrupt—is "set on mischief." Its customs are wrong, we know; but it is too strong for us. We must conform to its ways. There is no use in resisting them. Public men say—"Such and such changes in the law would be bad we know it—we admit it—but the people ask for them, so we must lend ourselves to their wishes, and take steps to get the changes made." Or again—"This or that war would be unjust, iniquitous, a flying in the face of Christian principle. To engage in it would be a crime—a disgrace to the age we live in." But let the popular voice call for the war a little loudly—and the public man yields, silences the remonstrances of his conscience, and becomes an active agent in bringing the war about. And the case is the same in private life. Ask a man why he spends on entertainments twice as much as he spends in charity, and he will immediately lay the blame on others—"every one does it." Ask him why he wastes his whole time in frivolous pursuits, newspaper-reading, club-gossiping, card-playing, party-going, and his reply is the same. Descend a little in the social scale, and ask the manufacturer why he scamps his goods; the shopkeeper why he adulterates; the ship-owner why he insures ships that he knows to be unseaworthy and sends out to be wrecked—and his answer is parallel—"every one in his line of business does the same." They compel him to follow their bad example. Descend again, ask the confidential servant why he takes "commission" from tradesmen; the cook, why she hides fresh joints among the broken victuals; the footman, why he purloins wine and cigars; they defend themselves with the same plea—"It is wrong, they know: but their class has established the practice." "We are all the victims of our social surroundings; it is not we who are in fault, but the crowd that pushes us on."
II. ON THE NATURE THAT GOD HAS GIVEN US , ON THE CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH WE ARE PLACED . Sins of temper and sins of impurity are constantly set down by those who commit them to their nature . Their tempers are naturally so bad, their passions naturally so strong. As if they had no power over their nature; as if again, they did not voluntarily excite their passions, work themselves up into rages; "make provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof." In thus doing they construct the mould into which the sins run. Sins of dishonesty are commonly attributed to circumstances : the temptation came in their way, men say, without their seeking it, and was too much for them, was not to be resisted. So with drunkenness, idleness, and the other sins connected with evil companionship; men's plea is they were brought into contact with persons who dragged them, almost forced them into evil courses. Had they been more happily circumstanced it would have been different. As if a man did not to a large extent make his own circumstances, choose his companions, construct his own way of life. We are not forced to company with any men, much less any women, out of business hours. We are not compelled to go to places of public amusement where we are tempted. The "circumstances" which lead to sin are usually circumstances which we might easily have avoided, if we had chosen, as Aaron might have avoided making the mould, or even asking for the ornaments.