1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” 6 And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. 7 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 9 And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”
Tony Merida has offered some noteworthy comments about the pervasiveness of idolatry in modern life and about the human propensity for idolatry in general.
A few of our pastors and interns took a trip to Boston recently to explore the idea of sending a church planting team to New England. The need for churches in the Northeast is great. One Christian leader there calls the area north of Boston “the desert.” Some estimate that it is currently 1-percent evangelical at best.
As our friends described their culture to us, they pointed out that people actually worship in the Northeast. Some people worship the Red Sox. Others, in the world of academia and research, are slaves to ambition. In Salem, Massachusetts, they statistically have more witches than Christians. The Northeast is really no different from anywhere else in the world. Left to ourselves, we will worship something other than the living God. To paraphrase Calvin, “The human heart is an idol factory.”
Because of this universal problem, we need to understand this subject. Os Guinness and John Seel comment on the how important this topic is: “Idolatry is the most discussed problem in the Bible…There can be no believing communities without an unswerving eye to the detection and destruction of idols”…
He is right, of course. Human beings have always been drawn to idols, be they the Red Sox or the moon above. In fact, so prevalent is this tendency that we are right to return again to a consideration of why idolatry is so dangerous. And we are also right to ask whether or not Guinness and Seel, quoted by Merida above, are correct when they say that “believing communities” must have “an unswerving eye to the detection and destruction of idols.” Exodus 32:1-10 would answer, “Yes! They must!”
Idolatry offers to quench man’s thirst for immediacy.
Our text offers us one of the most infamous examples of idolatry: the children of Israel worshiping the golden calf. Moses is still on the mountain with the Lord. The children of Israel are gathered below. They should have been in a spirit of worship and prayer. Aaron should have been attempting to draw their minds and hearts upwards to God. Instead, we find them mired in irritation and impatience.
1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
What is noteworthy here is how the children of Israel’s view of time differed from God’s. For while the children of Israel grow restless before what they see as a “delay,” God says this to Moses:
8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them
Do you see? Here is man’s perspective on time:
1 When the people saw that Moses delayed…
Here is God’s perspective on time:
8 They have turned aside quickly…
What the people see as a long time the Lord sees as a quick moment. Peter acknowledges this reality in 2 Peter 3.
9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
In Peter’s words we see that what we perceive as “slow” God sees as divine mercy. This is a very important point to grasp, this difference in the way we see time and the way God sees time, because man’s impatience compels him to idolatry. It does so because idolatry offers to quench our thirst for immediacy and assuage our impatient anxieties.
We grow impatient. We feel that God is tarrying too long in whatever it is we are wanting or expecting Him to do. Then, in our frustration, we say, “Fine, we’ll make our own gods.” I am not saying that this process is either explicit or conscious, but I am saying that the “idol making factory” (Calvin) that is our heart operates on this kind of selfish lack of faith. If God fails our timetable then we will find another god! But there is only one true God. This is the tragedy of idolatry: it pulls us away from God himself.
What we should do when we grow irritated that God is not operating on our timetable is not get a new god but get a new timetable. What we should do is realize that a delay to us is mercy to Him. Idolatry flies on wings of faithlessness: that lack of faith that refuses to believe that God knows exactly what God is doing!
We must check our restlessness. God is not late; we are impatient. But this much is true: these idols to which we are tempted to turn will certainly not satisfy us, for they are nothing but dumb, temporal idols! How foolish it is to turn in impatience from the Lord of all time to an idol that will not last.
Idolatry offers to quench man’s thirst for physicality.
The people were frustrated that God was taking so long. They also seemed to be frustrated that they worshipped a God they could not see or touch. Whether they realized this or not, they longed for a physical god or at least a physical representation of God. But God had forbidden this in Exodus 20:4 when He said, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Even so, Aaron appeals to the people’s desire for a physical representation in an effort to appease and calm them.
2 So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” 6 And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.
Rings. Gold. Graving tool. Golden calf. “These are your gods, O Israel…” How heartbreaking!
Let us first deal with the question of what Israel’s sin was. Specifically, is their sin idolatry or polytheism? Are they seeking to create an idolatrous symbol to stand in the place of Yahweh or are they literally embracing pagan gods in their worship of the golden calf?
Roy Honeycutt writes that the calf “reflects the almost universal equation of the bull with vigor and strength in the Ancient Near East” and that “Israel probably utilized a common symbol of vitality to represent the Lord.” In other words, it is not necessarily the case that Israel was seeking to worship a pagan calf or bull god. It is possible, of course, that they, or that Aaron, were simply trying to create a physical symbol to represent God so that He would be, in their eyes and minds, present.
The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary notes that Aaron’s words, “These are your gods,” can also be translated as “this is your god” since “the Hebrew word for ‘God/god’ is Elohim (‘elohim) and can be taken as either singular or plural.” The IVP Bible Background Commentary agrees and notes that Aaron’s “proclamation…implies that the calf is in some way representative of Yahweh…”
This is interesting but it is idolatry whether the golden calf was intended to represent some foreign god or whether it was intended to represent the one true God. It is noteworthy that Aaron seems to try to lessen the offense by using the golden calf as an invitation to a feast day unto the Lord. What is going on here? Most likely Aaron is trying to have his cake and eat it too, to appease the people and their desire for an idol on the one hand yet to tell himself that they are really worshipping the Lord on the other. In this we see an example of a compromised leader (or, if you will, a compromised pastor) who seeks to appease the people’s worldly desires while simultaneously saying that he has not sold his soul.
But Aaron had sinned greatly in this. The true and ugly nature of what was happening here became evident in the revelries of the people that followed the creation of the golden calf.
6 And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.
The need for a physical god, a god to please the senses, leads unsurprisingly to a carnival of sensuality. Discontent with the God of Israel who is too great to be contained by any paltry physical object they create a physical god and debase themselves before it. What a tragedy!
I ask you, upon what physical object have you attached your worship? What physical thing has become your god? Read carefully and heed the warning of Israel! We turn to physical things when we grow discontent with the God who cannot be contained within the physical.
But idolatry will always rob God’s people of vitality and blessings.
The most tragic aspect of idolatry, however, is how it robs the people of God of the blessings of God and invites instead the wrath of God.
7 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 9 And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”
It is a terrifying picture. The Lord’s anger burns hot against Israel. He refers to Israel as “your people” when speaking to Moses. They are, after all, acting like anything but His people. The Lord proclaims that He has seen their wickedness and that Moses should leave Him alone. Why? So “that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”
In addition to being a chilling picture of divine wrath, we see the principle established in these words that the people of God cannot receive the full blessing of God so long as they have given themselves to idols. Only if God judges the idolatry of His people can He “make a great nation of you.” Put another way, idolatry erodes and renders greatness impossible.
God desired to make a great nation of His people! He desires to make a great people of His people even today. When we forget this and turn to our paltry idols we remove ourselves from the possibility of this happening. God will not force greatness upon a people who have turned their backs on Him. He loves us enough to do whatever He must to bring us home.
See the devastating effects of idolatry! See the awful tragedy of a people who remove themselves from the good things that God has planned for them. See and tremble! For what was true for Israel is likewise true for us.
What great blessing or calling or task or honor from God are you missing because of your enslavement to some paltry thing, some absurd idol? Why do we do this? Why do we forego the blessings of our great God and choose in their place…nothing? For this is what idols offer: nothing.
These things we bow down before, these things we chase after, these things we toil our best years away in order to obtain…they are nothing.
All the while, God in Christ is calling to us. He is calling to us to trust His timetable and to trust His priorities. He desires to bless His people! Will you turn away from the blessing of God?
When we speak today of “iconoclasts” we are speaking of people who smash cherished things. The term comes from the old iconoclasm controversies in the history of the church in which some people would smash religious objects they deemed blasphemous or inappropriate. These people were called “iconoclasts.” I am not concerned about the historical events behind the term. I am concerned, however, that all of us evaluate our own lives, under the illuminating ministry of the indwelling Spirit, and ask ourselves whether or not there are any objects towards which we need to take the posture of the iconoclast. What objects in our own lives—our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our relationships, etc.—need to be smashed? What idols need be thrown down from their high places?
Let us make no mistake. Our great God contains a holy jealousy that will not permit the presence of any other gods among His people. Either you smash the idols or He will. If you are a believer, you already have something greater than any idol can give! You have Christ Jesus the Lord! Is He not beautiful enough for you? Is He not great enough for you?
Has Jesus proven Himself untrustworthy to you? No, He has not! He is always on time, even when we struggle to understand His time. He has never failed us. Even when He seems to tarry on the mountain, He is doing so for our own good. He knows what He is doing. Do not turn to idols!
Church, smash the idols! Tear down the golden calves! Do not grow impatient! Do not insist on a god you can mold to your own desires! This is not God! There is only one!
God is calling to you. Turn away from your idols and heed His voice. Set down your golden calf and take up instead a cross of wood. Take it up and follow the Jesus who loves you and who laid down His life for you.
 Merida, Tony. Exalting Jesus in Exodus (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary) (pp. 191-192). Kindle Edition.
 Roy L. Honeycutt, Jr. “Exodus.” General Articles, Genesis-Exodus. The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol.1. Revised (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969), p.434.
 Bruce Wells, “Exodus.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Gen. Ed. John H. Walton. Old Testament vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), p.258-259.
 John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p.115.