Moses reminds them of many instances of their rebelliousness by which they had provoked the Lord, from the time of their escape out of Egypt until their arrival in the plains of Moab. Their rebellion began even before they had wholly escaped from their oppressors, before they had passed through the Bed Sea ( Exodus 14:11 ). Even at Horeb, where, amid the most affecting manifestations alike of the Divine majesty and the Divine grace, just after the Lord had spoken to them directly out of the fire, and whilst Moses had gone up to receive the tables of the Law, on which the covenant of God with Israel was based, and whilst that covenant was being struck, they had sinned so grievously as to make to themselves a molten image, which they worshipped with idolatrous rites ( Exodus 31:18 -32, 6; cf. Deuteronomy 24:12 , etc.).
The clause, Then I abode … water , is a parenthesis; the sentence runs on from. When I was gone , etc; to Then [not And] the Lord delivered unto me, etc.
A six-weeks' religion; or, emotional religiousness not vital godliness.
The homiletic treatment of the incidents referred to in De 9:1—10:5, will require a careful comparison of these chapters with the fuller account in Exodus 32-34. The special object, however, which Moses has here in view, is to show how entirely God's mercy to Israel was a self-moved one, and that it was not due to any virtue on the part of the people, So far from that, they had been wayward from the first. Even in Horeb (for such is rather the force of the particle rendered "also" in Exodus 34:8 ), "Even in Horeb, ye provoked the Lord to wrath." Here is suggested our first study of this sad incident in Israel's history. Its occurrence was on this wise—
About fifty days after leaving Egypt, they were gathered beneath fount Sinai, to receive the Law from the Great Supreme. They reverently watched when Moses went up; they saw the bounds put, beyond which they must not pass; they trembled at the majesty which was before and above them, and awaited the words which should be spoken. The words of the vow went up from their lips, "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do." Having received the Law, Moses went down and rehearsed it to them. A second time they responded, " All that," etc. This was not enough. The Law was to be written, and read over to them, that their vow might be neither blind nor rash. And a third time the same response was returned. Whereupon the covenant was ratified with blood, which was sprinkled on the book and all the people, saying, "This is the blood of the covenant, etc. (see Exodus 24:3-8 ). It seemed as if a fair start had been made. Egypt had been conquered, the people had thankfully accepted the new state of things on which they had entered, and nothing was wanting but the carrying out of that allegiance they had so repeatedly vowed. Moses, however, has yet to be a while in solitude with God, to receive further instructions; hence, having made arrangements for the conduct of affairs in his absence, he again ascends the mount, and is there for forty days. Unable to understand the reasons for so long a delay, the people think that Moses has disappointed them, or that he is lost on the mountain, or has perished in the flame! The thought, once conceived, gathers strength, and the very people who a few weeks before had seemed so impressible for good, are now as inflammable for evil! They rush upon Aaron, saying, "Up," etc. They wish for something to strike the senses. The pure conception of an unseen God they were not cultured enough to retain. Aaron was far too easily wrought upon by them. If it be thought that he expected the people's love of finery to be stronger than their idolatrous propensity, and that they would withdraw their demand when he made his for their ear-rings, etc; we save Aaron's principle, but at the expense of his judgment. Anyway, the calf is made. It is not the calf, however, that they worship, for they proclaim a feast to Jehovah ; it is the second commandment they are breaking, not the first. Alas! alas! their triple vow, ratified with blood, they break, and in less than six weeks they are openly and riotously setting at naught the very Law they had sworn to obey! How can such a fearfully rapid retrogression be accounted for? If we regard it as a mere piece of history, with which we have no concern, we shall miss the intent of the writer (for see 1 Corinthians 10:1-12 ). Here are men who at one moment bid so fair, yet so shortly after upsetting all! The theme thus opened up to the preacher is surely this—" Emotional religiousness not vital godliness ." No one with much knowledge of human nature, and certainly few pastors of any lengthened experience, can have failed to observe cases far too nearly resembling that before us, of a merely transient emotion in religion, raising the hopes of anxious observers one day, only to disappoint them ere many days are over, and compelling the plaintive words, "Your goodness is like the morning cloud and the early dew, it goeth away!" And, maybe, the change is as inexplicable to themselves as it is disheartening to others. It may be helpful if we try to remove the perplexity by a study of several inquiries which such cases suggest.
I. HOW FAR DOES THIS EMOTIONAL RELIGIOUSNESS GO ? There may be a" receiving the Word with joy;" giving to it, not only a respectful attention, but even mental credence, gladsome admiration, and a profound conviction that the gospel message exactly meets the need of guilty, sinful man. And when the beauty, purity, and triumphant issue of a genuine Christian life are set forth, there may be an eager desire awakened to know its blessedness, and an inward resolution formed to serve the Lord. The young inquirer seems, perhaps, at such a stage to have been wafted, as by a Divine breath, to a region of halcyon calm, and with the sincerity and dash of a Peter says, "Now I am saved; though all men should deny Christ, yet I never will!" And such a case is looked at with tender, glad, yet anxious hopefulness, by some that are watching for souls more than they that watch for the morning. And yet, notwithstanding all, there is a grievous defect, not yet apparent to human eye, but destined ere long to reveal itself to the bitter disappointment of many a thoughtful friend!
II. WHAT IS THERE DEFECTIVE IN THIS CASE ? There is:
1. Defective knowledge of self.
2. Defective knowledge of what the Christian life is, as one of "patient continuance in well-doing."
3. Defective knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus.
4. A non-apprehension of the Lord Jesus Christ as the sole Source of life, energy, and power.
5. Emotion is mistaken for principle, and feelings about religion for a real surrender of heart and life to God.
III. SEVERE TESTS AWAIT SUCH A ONE . (cf. Matthew 13:20 , Matthew 13:21 ; Luke 14:27 , Luke 14:28 .) Days in which all things run smoothly are not those which test of what stuff men are made. No one's life, however, is made up of smooth days only. There are occasions which put every part of a man on the rack. And there are testing times in store for the young emotionalist.
1. Affliction for the Word's sake will come.
2. Persecution may come.
3. Skepticism, or cross-currents of public sentiment may disturb.
4. Or abounding worldliness may bring a chill or even a blight.
Some trial or other will surely come to test each and all. It may come suddenly as a storm of wind on a lake, or may act slowly yet surely as the waters wear away the stones. Somehow or other, come it will; and where there is profession without possession, sad will be the end, for—
IV. SUCH TESTS WILL BE FATAL . Only forty days after their vow, Israel broke down. The terrors of Sinai could not maintain Israel's loyalty. Nor will even the pathos of Calvary, of itself, avail now. The following results will follow, sooner or later, if beneath the outward vow there has been no surrender of heart and life to God.
1. Emotion will die out. Men cannot live at fever heat; it is not desirable that they should. If beneath the emotion there is living principle, though the emotion lessen, that will strengthen. But if there is no such living principle, the emotion will leave naught behind it but sadder lack of it than ever.
2. External membership will come to be rested in, as if it "covered a multitude of sins."
3. There will be a growing indifference to the higher and more spiritual work of the Christian life—both in private, social, and Church duties.
4. There may even be a collapse into a state of more thorough worldliness than before any profession whatever was made; and "the last state of that man is worse than the first." Of all the members of Christian congregations, those are the hardest to move who made a profession in a swell of emotion, without quickening of conscience or the renewal of the heart!
V. WHAT IS NEEDED IN SUCH CASES ?
1. Deep and genuine conviction of sin and repentance before God; a quickening unto righteousness, which is born of the Spirit.
2. Heart-surrender to God; this cannot be brought about through being borne along in a crowd as on a wave of religious ecstasy, any more than the patients in a hospital can be cured en masse .
3. New life towards God, created, sustained, perpetually increased by the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, renewed by faith, and aided by communion with God.
CONCLUSION . Let all beware of trusting to "frames and feelings." Emotion is not devotion. And on the other hand, let us take care not to fall into the opposite error. "Ah," say some, "see what comes of religious excitement. It is time there was a protest against it!" But we make no protest whatever against excitement, but against mere excitement, which is a very different thing. Because a blaze cannot be kept up without fuel, that is no reason why, with plenty of fuel constantly supplied, a fire should not be kept ablaze! It is true that if there is naught but emotion, it must die out and be followed by a collapse; but that is no reason for letting real life be attended with so little emotion, that others see scarcely any signs of the life at all. Ah! what we all want, and always want, is a fullness of life, direct from him, which only he can give, and which, through the cross, and by the power of the Spirit, can alone be maintained, perfected, and glorified!
The sin at Horeb.
Moses dwells on this sin, alike as memorable in itself, and as illustrating the proposition that the people had again and again forfeited their covenant standing by their acts of disobedience.
I. THE ENORMITY OF THIS SIN .
1. It was a sin committed immediately after solemn covenant with God ( Deuteronomy 9:9 ). The transactions recorded in Exodus 24:3-9 were not yet forty days old. The people had literally heard God speaking to them. They had acknowledged the solemnity of the situation by entreating Moses to act as mediator. They had formally, and under awful impressions of God's majesty, pledged themselves to life-long obedience. Yet within that brief space of time they broke through all restraints, and violated the main stipulation of their agreement, by setting up and worshipping the golden calf. A transgression showing greater levity, temerity, deadness to spiritual feeling, and perversity of disposition, it would be difficult to conceive. Perhaps the case is not a solitary one. Can none remember instances of solemn vows, of sacred engagements, of deep impressions, almost as soon forgotten, almost as recklessly followed up by acts of flagrant transgression?
2. It was a sin committed while Moses was in the mount , transacting for them ( Exodus 24:9-12 ). Moses, for an obvious reason, rehearses the circumstances of his stay in the mount, and of his interview with God. He had gone to receive the tables of the Law. He recalls, as in striking contrast with the levity of the multitudes below, his rapt communion of forty days and nights. Sin needs a background to bring it out in its full enormity. That background is furnished in these details. The people are pointed to the tables as the rule of the obedience they had pledged themselves to render. They are reminded that their sin was perpetrated at a time when God was yet transacting with them, and when their minds ought to have been filled with very different thoughts. Do we reflect on the aggravation given to our own sins by the presence of our Mediator in the heavenly mount, and by the ceaseless and holy work he is there conducting on our behalf?
3. It was a sin of daring enormity in itself . The making of the golden calf, after what had happened, can only be characterized as an act of shocking impiety. The worship was doubtless accompanied by profane and lewd revelings. This under the eye of their God and King.
II. THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE SIN .
1. It involved the forfeiture of covenant privilege , signified by the breaking of the tables of the Law ( Exodus 24:17 ). This was the first light in which the Israelites had to view it. It refuted their idea that they got the land in virtue of their righteousness. True, the sin had been committed by the preceding generation, but the covenant being national, and laying obligations on all, involved them as well as their parents in the consequences of disobedience. If they stood still in covenant relation, it was of God's mercy which had restored them. For a time that covenant was actually broken. Nor, if that argument was necessary, had they failed in their own persons to renew the deed of apostasy (verse 22). Every believer feels that his standing before God is likewise of pure grace. Were sins imputed to him to his condemnation, he could not stand a single hour.
2. It provoked God to hot displeasure (verses 19, 20). As all daring and presumptuous sin does.
3. But for Moses ' intercession , it would have involved them in destruction ( Exodus 24:14 , 19, 20). This was no mere drama acted between God and Moses, but a most real wrath, averted by the real and earnest intercession of a godly man. Had Moses not interceded, the people would have been destroyed. Not that we are to conceive God as swayed by human passions, or as requiring to be soothed down by human entreaty. But sin does awaken his displeasure. There burns in his nature a holy wrath against it, which, when he decrees to consume his adversaries, is not to be laid aside save on such ground as we have here. It is the existence of wrath in God which gives reality to propitiation and meaning to his mercy. Learn:
Human memory a repository of guilt.
The memory of man is a book of God; and, though the entries may be temporarily obscured, yet the light of eternity will make them all legible. The present tendency of sin is to weaken memory; its effect, to obliterate recollection. Our profoundest gratitude is due to the man that reminds us of our falls.
I. REMEMBER SIN IN THE LIGHT OF ITS OBJECT , VIZ . OF GOD . Discourtesy to a king is a graver offence than discourtesy to an equal. Sacrilege is worse than common theft.
1. This was sin against a known God . The evidence of his existence had been made as clear to them as noonday. The main attributes of his character had been plainly revealed, especially power and justice and goodness. They could not wear a mask of pretended ignorance.
2. He had been to them a most generous God . For their release signal power had been displayed. The course of nature had apparently been interrupted. To deliver them hosts had been destroyed, and the majestic hand of God had supplied their daily meal.
3. He had been a much-suffering God . They had been like petulant, discontented children; and he had been to them a pitiful and indulgent Father. In the midst of needful supply they had been basely unthankful. They had wounded him in the tenderest parts of his nature, insulted his majesty, spurned his laws, and covered him with contempt. Yet he had spared them. He had imposed on himself strong restraints, so that righteous anger should not break forth. The noblest features of human love are but feeble reflections of his patient compassion; and against such a God their sin was hurled.
4. He had been a God in covenant with them—their God .
II. REMEMBER SIN IN THE LIGHT OF RIGHTEOUSNESS . We perceive things best when placed in absolute contrast.
1. There was the sin of inattention . God had deigned to speak, but they "would not hear." The ear had been fashioned for this special end that they might hear God's voice; they had abused and injured the delicate faculty. They that will not hear shall not hear.
2. There was the sin of ingratitude . We can conceive of no baser sin than this. 'Tis a double crime—a violation of heart and conscience.
3. There was the sin of disbelief . The God of truth had promised, but they had treated his word as a lie. They had enjoyed ocular demonstration of his faithfulness, yet they trusted their own fears and fancies rather than their God.
4. There was the sin of overt rebellion . They professed to regard God as their Leader and King; yet, as soon as service was irksome to flesh and blood, they resented his authority. Once and again they chose human leaders in opposition to the Supreme King.
5. There was the sin of self-will . Their characteristic sin was "stiff-neckedness." "Our wills are our own," said they in substance; "who is Lord over us?"
III. REMEMBER SIN IN THE LIGHT OF SPECIAL PRIVILEGE .
1. Theirs was sin against the light . While others had only the light that comes through nature, they had possessed the light of special revelation. They had not appreciated the light. In various measures they had preferred the darkness.
2. It was sin against the inner light of conscience—sin against personal convictions of duty. They had trifled with the regal voice of conscience, and bribed it to be silent. They had encouraged appetite and passion to speak, and their clamorous voices had prevailed.
3. Theirs was sin against faithful warning . The penalties of contumacy had been prominently set before them. The hints of nature and the dark presages of conscience had both supplemented by the clear announcements of Divine warning. For the fascinating fruit of present pleasure they risked expulsion from the garden—loss of the great inheritance.
4. It was sin against covenant engagements . They had made an overt treaty with God to serve him. When the Voice from heaven had spoken at Sinai, they had quaked and said, "All that the Lord our God shall speak unto us will we do." Every step in their deliverance had been taken on the understanding that they would be loyal servants of the heavenly King. Thus every element of wickedness was mingled in their conduct. And is it not in ours also?
5. It was sin in the very presence of God—sin at Sinai .
IV. REMEMBER SIN IN THE LIGHT OF EXPERIENCE .
1. They had seen the direful effects of disobedience in others . Their eyes had beheld what God did to the Egyptians for their impious arrogance. They had seen their own comrades die for their petulant murmurings. They had seen a host of people slain for idolatry. Poisonous serpents had slain a myriad. The earth had opened and swallowed the sons of Korah. Their own memories contained abundant records that the fruit of transgression was death. Yet they sinned still.
2. They had seen the rewards of obedience among themselves . So long as they had followed the precepts of Jehovah they had prospered. They had sprinkled their doorposts with the Paschal blood, and the angel of destruction had spared their firstborn. They had crossed the Red Sea by a perilous path, and had gained a mighty triumph. They had followed Moses into the wilderness, and had been daily fed by a miraculous hand. It was obvious that obedience secured blessing. They had seen Moses exalted to regal power by virtue of his unwavering faith in God.
3. They had felt the scourge of Divine anger for their own follies . For eight and thirty years they had sojourned in the wilderness beyond what was needful, because they would not believe God's promise. A thousand ills had afflicted them, every one of which was a chastisement for sin. Yet they dallied and coquetted with the accursed thing, as if it were a pleasant toy. And are we any better than they? If unpardoned, memory is preparing a scourge of scorpions with which to chastise us. "Son, remember!"—D.
Following up the idea of their waywardness, Moses proceeds to recall instances of it. The remembrance of sin is salutary, if it induces humiliation; but detrimental, if it induces a repetition of the sin. When assured of its forgiveness, we should forget it, so far as the remembrance would provoke repetition. Moses here recalls sin, that it may be salutary in the remembrance.
I. THEIR REBELLION HAD BEEN CONTINUAL . ( Deuteronomy 9:7 , Deuteronomy 9:24 .) It would seem that the pilgrimage of the people had been one long rebellion—God manifesting his mercy, man manifesting his ingratitude. And may this not be said of all the Lord's people? They have been rebellious in the midst of manifold mercy.
II. THE SIN AT HOREB WAS A SPECIAL PROVOCATION . ( Deuteronomy 9:8-12 .) So grievous had it been that God threatened them with destruction. It took place while the media-tot was, through fasting and prayer, receiving the Law. The circumstances made it more aggravated. And it is well to remember our special provocations of God, if we are thereby strengthened against a repetition of them.
III. THE DANGER INCURRED BY ISRAEL WAS VERY GREAT . ( Deuteronomy 9:13 , Deuteronomy 9:14 .) God proposed to consume them in a moment, and to make of Moses a nation greater and mightier than they. It was at once a testimony to the enormity of their sin and a test of the magnanimity of Moses. Instead of accepting the great opportunity, he set himself to intercede for the pardon of their sin.
IV. IT INVOLVED THE BREAKING OFF OF COVENANT RELATIONS . ( Deuteronomy 9:15-17 .) The two stone tables were the sign of the covenant existing between God and them. Moses had just been negotiating the settlement. But now one party had proved unfaithful, and so he had them broken before their eyes. Their idolatry had broken the commandments, and so the relations between God and them were meanwhile at an end.
V. THE INTERCESSION WAS PROLONGED AND SUCCESSFUL . ( Deuteronomy 9:18-21 , Deuteronomy 9:25-29 .) The intercession of Moses was even more severe than the previous mediation. The second period of forty days and nights was a most severe ordeal through which to pass. It shows that intercession is most laborious duty, if adequately discharged. It shows, moreover, that the intercession of Christ, of which that of Moses was typical, is a most serious and severe service. It has been very properly called the prolongation of the atonement; just as the atonement is a most magnificent intercession. The two are complementary. The agony of Moses on the mount must have been most severe and trying—death under ordinary conditions is nothing to it.
VI. OTHER REBELLIONS OF A MINOR CHARACTER MUST ALSO BE NOTICED . ( Deuteronomy 9:22 , Deuteronomy 9:23 .) Taberah, Massah, Kibroth-hattaavah, and Kadesh were all scenes of rebellion against the Lord. The history was a sad one, but the remembrance of it would humble them, and fit them for that complete reliance upon the Lord on which their triumph must rest.
"Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, and he will exalt you in due time." "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted." This is the law for nations as well as for individuals. Salvation and victory are through paths of humiliation, which make all the sweeter the blessing when it comes. Sin is thus sanctified in the remembrance when it leads to humiliation and victory beyond it.—R.M.E.