Following God’s instructions, Moses had gone to the top of the mountain where he waited to receive all God’s instructions: the guiding principles of the Law, the application of the Law and the plans for the building of the Tabernacle (or Tent of Meeting), God’s appointed place of worship; and it is recorded that the time spent in the mountain was forty days <Ex.24:17-18>. To the people this was a long time and they were not sure if their leader would ever return, for they had seen God’s glory appear as a consuming fire and could have presumed that Moses was no longer alive. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain” <Ex.32:1 (NIV)>; the leaders (tribe or clan) of the people went to Aaron (who had been appointed as the High Priest) with a request – “Come, make us gods who will go before us.” <Ex.32:1 (NIV)>. There are times on our wilderness journey when we become impatient with God because His answer or response in delayed, so there is the attempt to make a decision on the assumption that this is the way that God intends. The people had soon forgotten, or failed yet another test, returning to their old ways that were learned in Egypt. “So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”” <32:3-4 (NIV)>; this was most likely intended to represent God (the Egyptians worshipped a living animal a Bull), making this a substitute for God who had led them out of Egypt and across the desert to the foot of Mount Sinai <see Ex.13:21-22>; and this, unfortunately, was in violation of the second commandment <Ex.20:4-5>.
Pagan gods introduce pagan religious worship and practices, for no sooner the calf was made Aaron constructed an altar and the people offered sacrifices, “Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” <Ex.32:6 (NIV)>. What is revelry? Revelry – noisy (boisterous) festivity (or merrymaking); reveling. (from Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language), far removed from the order of worship that God had introduced for His people. As soon as the sinner is redeemed by God and brought into His fellowship, Satan introduces a substitute for worship. Many years later in their history God punished the nation by sending them into exile for committing the sin of idolatry <see Deut.8:19-20; 1 Kings 12:28-30; Ezek.8:9-16; 10:18-19; 11:12>. There is always an excuse for doing wrong and for Aaron it was no exception, accusing the people of his sin <Ex.32:21-23; cf Gen.3:12-13>.
In disobeying the commandment, the people had to be punished by God, and Moses was aware of this, so he offered himself to bear the punishment; but God sets the standard for His judgment, for He has declared that “The soul who sins is the one who will die” <Ezek.18:4b (NIV)>, but shows that His judgment may not be an instant occurrence “But now, please forgive their sin — but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” The Lord replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. ….. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.”” <Ex.32:32-34 (NIV)>. The only substitute that God has provided to free an individual from the penalty of their sin is the Lord Jesus Christ <Jn.3:16>.
What then is the lesson of the golden calf for us today? The commandment given to the people thousands of years ago still applies; “”You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” <Ex.20:3-5 (NIV)>. So often for each of us God is substituted with a god of our creativity, and this can be anything that replaces God and our worship of Him. It can be legitimate to our life in general; work, hobby, an item that we possess or an event that we are involved in, that causes us to spend less or no time in the worship of God; and the second commandment is violated making the individual guilty of the whole Law of God. God has declared that no individual has an excuse for such a violation of His commandments, for He has revealed Himself to all individuals on the face of this earth, and we should be aware that although His judgment has been delayed, we do suffer the results of our sin in this present life, just as the Israelites did after they violated His commands; “And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.” <Ex.32:35 (NIV); cf Rom.1 :18-32>.
Let us not be fooled by Satan to create for ourselves a “golden calf”, for in so doing we will be under the judgment of God. This also unfortunately applies to the believer in Christ, and although a believer will never fall under God’s judgment for sin, a believer who does sin will suffer the loss of God’s blessings both in this life and the next if such sin is not confessed and forgiven by our Lord Jesus. The unfortunate effect of this is that such behaviour finds its way into the Church and the New Testament warns us of this and the consequences, since the introduction of idol worship regardless of the form will only lead to revelry of some form, causing the individual or Church to be guilty of leaving their “first love of Christ” <see Rev.2:4-5; 1 Jn.1:8-9>. Unfortunately, there are many “golden calves” that have been introduced into our personal and corporate worship today, impeding our vision of God because something or someone blocks our vision of God, and such has robbed us of the real blessings of worship, since genuine worship has been substituted by some object or person <see Jn.4:23; 1 Tim.2:5>. We can only worship God through the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, who takes our offering and presents it to God.
As you contemplate this, reflect on who or what is the “golden calf” in your life.