Verses 15-20 (Exodus 32:15-20)

Here is, I. The favour of God to Moses, in trusting him with the two tables of the testimony, which, though of common stone, were far more valuable than all the precious stones that adorned the breast-plate of Aaron. The topaz of Ethiopia could not equal them, Exod. 32:15, 16. God himself, without the ministry either of man or angel (for aught that appears), wrote the ten commandments on these tables, on both their sides, some on one table and some on the other, so that they were folded together like a book, to be deposited in the ark.

II. The familiarity between Moses and Joshua. While Moses was in the cloud, as in the presence-chamber, Joshua continued as near as he might, in the anti-chamber (as it were), waiting till Moses came out, that he might be ready to attend him; and though he was all alone for forty days (fed, it is likely, with manna), yet he was not weary of waiting, as the people were, but when Moses came down he came with him, and not till then. And here we are told what constructions they put upon the noise that they heard in the camp, Exod. 32:17, 18. Though Moses had been so long in immediate converse with God, yet he did not disdain to talk freely with his servant Joshua. Those whom God advances he preserves from being puffed up. Nor did he disdain to talk of the affairs of the camp. Blessed Paul was not the less mindful of the church on earth for having been in the third heavens, where he heard unspeakable words. Joshua, who was a military man, and had the command of the train-bands, feared there was a noise of war in the camp, and then he would be missed; but Moses, having received notice of it from God, better distinguished the sound, and was aware that it was the voice of those that sing. It does not however appear that he told Joshua what he knew of the occasion of their singing; for we should not be forward to proclaim men?s faults: they will be known too soon.

III. The great and just displeasure of Moses against Israel, for their idolatry. Knowing what to expect, he was presently aware of the golden calf, and the sport the people made with it. He saw how merry they could be in his absence, how soon he was forgotten among them, and what little thought they had of him and his return. He might justly take this ill, as an affront to himself, but this was the least part of the grievance; he resented it as an offence to God, and the scandal of his people. See what a change it is to come down from the mount of communion with God to converse with a world that lies in wickedness. In God we see nothing but what is pure and pleasant, in the world nothing but pollution and provocation. Moses was the meekest man on the earth, and yet when he saw the calf, and the dancing, his anger waxed hot. Note, It is no breach of the law of meekness to show our displeasure at the wickedness of the wicked. Those are angry and sin not that are angry at sin only, not as against themselves, but as against God. Ephesus is famous for patience, and yet cannot bear those that are evil, Rev. 2:2. It becomes us to be cool in our own cause, but warm in God?s. Moses showed himself very angry, both by breaking the tables and burning the calf, that he might, by these expressions of strong indignation, awaken the people to a sense of the greatness of the sin they had been guilty of, which they would have been ready to make light of if he had not thus shown his resentment, as one in earnest for their conviction. 1. To convince them that they had forfeited and lost the favour of God, he broke the tables, Exod. 32:19. Though God knew of their sin, before Moses came down, yet he did not order him to leave the tables behind him, but gave them to him to take down in his hand, that the people might see how forward God was to take them into covenant with himself, and that nothing but their own sin prevented it; yet he put in into his heart, when the iniquity of Ephraim was discovered (as the expression is, Hos. 7:1), to break the tables before their eyes (as it is Deut. 9:17), that the sight of it might the more affect them, and fill them with confusion, when they saw what blessings they had lost. Thus, they being guilty of so notorious an infraction of the treaty now on foot, the writings were torn, even when they lay ready to be sealed. Note, The greatest sign of God?s displeasure against any person or people is his taking his law from them. The breaking of the tables is the breaking of the staff of beauty and band (Zech. 11:10, 14); it leaves a people unchurched and undone. Some think that Moses sinned in breaking the tables, and observe that, when men are angry, they are in danger of breaking all God?s commandments; but it rather seems to be an act of justice than of passion, and we do not find that he himself speaks of it afterwards (Deut. 9:17) with any regret. 2. To convince them that they had betaken themselves to a God that could not help them, he burnt the calf (Exod. 32:20), melted it down, and then filed it to dust; and, that the powder to which it was reduced might be taken notice of throughout the camp, he strewed it upon that water of which they all drank. That it might appear that an idol is nothing in the world (1 Cor. 8:4); he reduced this to atoms, that it might be as near nothing as could be. To show that false gods cannot help their worshippers, he here showed that this could not save itself, Isa. 46:1, 2. And to teach us that all the relics of idolatry ought to be abolished, and that the names of Baalim should be taken away, the very dust to which it was ground was scattered. Filings of gold are precious (we say), and therefore are carefully gathered up; but the filings of the golden calf were odious, and must be scattered with detestation. Thus the idols of silver and gold must be cast to the moles and the bats (Isa. 2:20; 30:22), and Ephraim shall say, What have I to do any more with idols? His mixing this powder with their drink signified to them that the curse they had thereby brought upon themselves would mingle itself with all their enjoyments, and embitter them; it would enter into their bowels like water, and like oil into their bones. The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways; he shall drink as he brews. These were indeed waters of Marah.

- Matthew Henry's Complete Commentary