GOD REVEALS HIS ANGER Exodus 31–34
“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Ex. 33:14).Aaron responded to popular demand and made an idol for the people to worship. Israel was about to discover that punishment as well as divine enablement is a work of God.
God enabled Israel’s craftsmen (31:1–11), and emphasized the Sabbath obligation (vv. 12–18). Yet as Moses met with God on Mount Sinai, Aaron cast an idol (32:1–6), arousing God’s anger and bringing swift discipline (v. 7–33:6). Moses was shown God’s goodness (vv. 7–23) and was given new stone tablets on which God Himself had written His commandments (34:1–35).
Understanding the Text
“Filled him with the Spirit of God” Ex. 31:1–11. It’s a mistake to suppose that all spiritual gifts are listed in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. Every special ability God gives can contribute to worship and enrich the lives of others. The person with “skill, ability, and knowledge in all kinds of crafts,” as well as the preacher and evangelist, exercises a spiritual gift, and is to rely on the Spirit of God. “Between Me and the Israelites” Ex. 31:12–18. Is the Sabbath for Christians? The text clearly states that the Sabbath is a sign of God’s covenant with Israel. From the beginning Christians have met on Sunday, not the seventh day of the week. While the Sabbath commemorates Creation (v. 17), the first day of the week commemorates Jesus’ resurrection (Matt. 28:1; Acts 20:7). What links the two is that each is a day of rest and worship. And each serves as a weekly reminder to believers of their personal relationship with God. The golden calf Ex. 32:1–33:6. Calf and bull figures cast in metal often served as idols in Syria-Palestine. The figures represented the virile power of the god. In some cases the bull or calf seems to have been viewed as a throne on which an invisible deity stood or was seated. Making such a figure was an overt rejection of God. Even worse, in saying, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt,” the people credited pagan deities with the saving work the Lord had performed! How could such a thing happen in the very shadow of Sinai, where thunder and lightning testified to the presence of the Living God? Our only explanation is that sin so corrupts human beings that anyone is capable of ignoring evidence of God’s existence. Even “proof” cannot change the heart or mind of an individual who is determined not to believe. “Aaron answered them” Ex. 32:2. Aaron and Moses provide us with contrasting insights into spiritual leadership. When the people demanded that Aaron make them gods, Aaron did what they said (vv. 2–3). Leaders are supposed to do what God requires, not what people demand. Aaron went even further. He “saw” their reaction to the golden calf (v. 5). He then took the initiative and constructed an altar. Like a modern politician who relies on polls to discover what people want, and then promises it to them, Aaron sensed where the Israelites were going and hurried to get out in front! At times each of us is tempted to take Aaron’s “easy way out.” Going along with the crowd may appear to be a way to avoid uncomfortable conflict. It isn’t. It’s a way to become guilty of our own and of others’ “great sin” (v. 21). “The Lord said to Moses” Ex. 32:9–14. While Aaron was weakly surrendering to the shouts of the Israelites, Moses was courageously pleading with God. The Lord told Moses what had happened in the valley, expressed His anger, and threatened to destroy Israel. He would establish His covenant with Moses alone. Moses’ appeal reflects two concerns: destroying Israel would cause the Egyptians to misunderstand God’s motives in delivering the Israelites; and God must remain faithful to the promises He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “Whoever is for the Lord” Ex. 32:25–35. When Moses saw Israel’s idolatrous worship for himself, his reaction was much like God’s. He was so angry and upset he broke the stone tablets on which God had inscribed the Law (v. 19). Then Moses called those who were “for the Lord” to come to him. When Moses took a stand, he found that he wasn’t alone. It’s the same today. Teens, and adults as well, often feel alone in their commitment to what is right. “I’m the only guy in my class who’s still a virgin,” one 17-year-old complained. Yet when he took a stand for what he believed and stood up to the ridicule directed at him in the locker room, he found that he wasn’t alone after all! Others who had been afraid to speak out came and told him they agreed. Moses took that public stand. His courage moved the Levites, who had not participated in the others’ sin but who had stood by silently, to join him openly. When conscience convinces us that something is wrong, we need to follow Moses’ lead and take an open stand. And if someone else takes the role of Moses, let’s be ready, as the Levites were, to “rally to him.” “Brother and friend and neighbor” Ex. 32:27. Moses told the Levites to pass through the camp and kill those who had engaged in pagan worship. The incident points up a vital Old Testament principle. Believers are responsible to maintain holiness in the community of faith, even when this means standing against those who are near and dear to us. God must come first. No relationship can have priority over our commitment to the Lord. “When the time comes for Me to punish, I will punish” Ex. 32:30–33:6. God forgives. But God also punishes. For the first time Israel, which had ratified the Law covenant and promised to obey God, realized that there is a penalty for disobedience! Stripping off ornaments (33:6) was a sign of mourning and repentance in the ancient world. At last Israel was impressed with the seriousness of sin. Christians are likely to make one of two errors in reacting to personal sins. One error is to be so stricken with guilt and fearful of punishment that we fail to appropriate the forgiveness promised us in Jesus. If this is our tendency, we will punish ourselves unnecessarily. The other error is to so emphasize the love of God that we ignore His holiness, and act as if sins are nothing at all. If this is our tendency, when the time comes for God to punish, He will! “My Presence will go with you” Ex. 33:7–23. The Israelites couldn’t see what transpired within the tent of meeting when Moses met with the Lord. But these verses do tell us. Moses sought to learn God’s ways and know Him better (vv. 12–13). Moses appropriated God’s promises and affirmed his dependence on the Lord (vv. 14–17). Moses expressed his yearning to see God more clearly (v. 18). These are helpful guidelines for our own times of private prayer. When we meet with God face-to-face, we too should focus on being taught His ways, on appropriating His promises, and on knowing Him more intimately. “He passed in front of Moses” Ex. 34:1–9. On Sinai again, Moses chiseled out new stone tablets. God Himself wrote His Law on them. God did show Moses His goodness, summed up in one of the Old Testament’s most famous confessions: The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation (vv. 6–7). The second half of this confession is important. God’s compassion and love must be seen against the background of His obligation to punish sin. The God who “does not leave the guilty unpunished” is first of all the God who displays overwhelming compassion and grace. Some have questioned God’s fairness in punishing children for the sins of the fathers. It’s best to understand this and similar expressions as a revelation of reality. The fact is that sin affects not just the sinner but his descendants. Research has shown that those who abuse their children were typically abused when they were young. The pattern established by the parents is repeated in the children. In this way sins of the fathers do bring punishment on their children, for the children tend to commit the same sins. “A veil over his face” Ex. 34:29–34. Being in God’s presence caused Moses’ face to shine radiantly. No visible change may occur when you or I spend time with God. But regular meetings with the Lord do make a real difference!
It’s clear from Exodus 32 that while the Israelites were in awe of Moses, they had little respect for his brother Aaron. As high priest, Aaron had an official religious position. But position alone is never enough to command respect. Many qualities made Moses a strong spiritual leader. He was courageous. He sought to please God rather than men. He was willing to take a stand. He rallied support. He both prayed for sinners, and yet was willing to confront them. But the secret of Moses’ greatness is found in the “tent of meeting,” where Moses met the Lord face-to-face. The text tells us that “whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent.” No one knew what went on within the tent, though the pillar of cloud came down to stand by the tent door when Moses was inside. Yet the very fact that Moses met there with God instilled awe, and the evidence of God’s presence caused the people to worship the Lord. You and I have constant opportunities to influence others. These others include our own children, our neighbors, and coworkers as well as members of our church. Like Aaron, we may have a position, such as “parent,” that implies authority. But the only way we will truly influence others is to follow the path of Moses and meet God regularly face-to-face. Our impact on their lives will be directly proportionate to the time we spend face-to-face with God. Others won’t know what happens in our private time with the Lord. But the aura of God’s presence will go with us. Being with God changes us—and the change God works in us is the key to our ability to influence others to worship and obey Him.
Spiritual power is only a prayer life away.