By J.R. Miller
Moses continued long in the Mount receiving instructions from God concerning the institutions of religion which were to be established in Israel. Meanwhile, what were the people doing in their camps at the foot of the Mount? While God was providing for them with such wise and loving thought, planning for their national life and giving them laws for their government, they grew weary of the absence of their leader, became restless and began to look back towards their old life. This shows the influence that Moses had over the Israelites and how much he meant to them. So long as he was with them--they were willing to follow his counsel and obey the Lord. But when he was absent and when his absence, though on their behalf and for their sake, was long continued, they forgot his teachings and in their hearts began to tire of serving the Lord.
Many people are good as long as another good person is beside them to influence and direct them. But when their friend passes out of their life they drift away into wrong ways. Many a boy begins a downward course--at his mother's coffin or by his father's grave. Many a Sunday-school scholar drops out of a class and begins to drift towards the world--when a faithful teacher goes away. Many departures from God begin--when a young man goes out from his old home and from under the influence of the household life and associations. The losing of a friend--is ofttimes the beginning of decay in moral and spiritual life.
There is a story of a man who had formed the drinking habit. One day he met a friend and said to him: "When I am with you I have no desire to drink, and if I come into your presence when the desire is upon me--it is instantly overcome. If I could come to you always when I am tempted--I would not fall." The friend told him to come to him at any hour of the day or night, and he would gladly help him. The invitation was accepted, and again and again a little talk in the friend's office and a little prayer--sent the struggler with temptation out brave and strong for victory. For years the young man never once fell. At length his friend died. Then when the temptation came again he had no place to go and found no voice to cheer him, no hand to hold him up--and fell back into his old sin!
Whatever human friends may do to help us, we need Christ, too. A man is often a hiding-place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest--but we need more than a man, else when the man is missing, there will be no one to help. The strongest human friendship will some day pass out of our life, and then if we have not Christ--we shall fall.
The Israelites had been used to seeing other nations worship images, and they longed, too, for some visible image of God. The worship of the Lord they had been taught was pure and holy, while idolatry gave license to human passions. Discouraged by the long absence of Moses, and their hearts turning back again towards the world's ways, they came to Aaron, saying: "Up, make us gods, which shall go before us." We can easily find fault with the Hebrews--but are we much better?
We make our covenants and promises to serve God--do we keep them? In young people's societies the members pledge themselves to do certain things, and each month renew their pledge at their consecration service. Are none of these covenants ever broken? Christian people solemnly dedicate all they have and all they are to Christ. At every communion service they renew their promise and pledge of consecration. Do they never forget these promises and violate these covenants?
Of course, there are temptations--but temptations are meant to be opportunities for victory and growth. Instead of yielding, we should be victorious through God's help, and in every victory we gain we shall become stronger ourselves. Temptations are never reasons for falling. They are only testings of our faithfulness, and everyone of them ought to be an occasion for victoriousness. When God permits as to be tempted--He does not want us to yield and fall into sin. His thought for us, is that in the testing, we shall endure and be proved true; and that in the resisting, we shall gain new experience and new power to stand faithful.
Aaron showed strange weakness in this crisis. Those who are set to be leaders of others have a tremendous responsibility. Other eyes are upon them, and for them to falter or prove weak--will be to draw other lives with them downward. One fine qualification was mentioned in Aaron when he was appointed to help Moses, "He can speak well." But eloquence is not enough in one who stands for God. Moses was slow of speech--but he could stand like a rock. If he had been in Aaron's place that day--the people would not have dared suggest a calf of gold, or if they had done so--they would have been met by such an answer that they would never again have thought of such a departure from God.
Aaron, however, seems not to have offered even a word of opposition or resistance to the suggestion made by the people. He assented to their request without even a protest or a single effort to keep them from sin. "Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden rings . . . and bring them unto me." Some writers suppose that Aaron thought the people would not grant the request he made for their jewelry. But if this is true, it still shows Aaron's weakness. It is never safe to parley in such a case as this.
In the absence of Moses, Aaron was the responsible leader of the people. If he had boldly told them of the sin they were thinking of committing, speaking out with stern denunciation of it as Moses would have done--he would certainly have turned the tide of feeling, and saved them from their great sin. By yielding, however, even though he hoped to defeat their intentions in some other way, he showed his own pitiable weakness, and opened the way for the great flood of evil which came in upon the nation. We should learn to stand like a rock in all matters of duty or principle. We are all leaders of some others. People come to everyone of us with their questions about this or that thing, which they are thinking of doing. If it is wrong--we should unequivocally tell them so, and refuse to lend our encouragement to the sin.
The people were so eager to have the golden calf--that they did not hesitate to do as Aaron requested. The women loved their jewels--but in their enthusiasm, they were ready to give them up. "All the people broke off the golden rings . . . and brought them unto Aaron." When the work of Christ demands self-denial or sacrifice, no matter how costly--we should be ready to make it. When the things we love most deeply and cherish most sacredly are asked of us--they should be given up at once for God. Idolatry, wherever it is practiced, shows a measure of devotion and a spirit of sacrifice--that are not always found among the followers of Christ.
When the idol was ready, the people said to each other: "These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" They, did not mean to turn away from the Lord--but to worship Him under the visible form of the golden calf. What they claimed to be doing, was the making of an image to represent the true God who had blessed them so much, and whom they wished to honor. It was the second commandment, not the first, therefore, which they specially broke. They had been forbidden to make or to worship any graven image. God desired purely spiritual worship. It is not likely that any of us will make images and worship them as gods--but whatever we put in the place of God in our hearts, as the first object of our thought, love and obedience, becomes an idol to us! We should guard carefully against this sin. God alone should be worshiped.
The incident of the golden calf shows how easy it is to turn away from God. The way of obedience is a straight and narrow way. It lies along the path of the commandments. The Israelites turned aside from this path--and walked in ways of sin. God has made the way still more plain for us. We have conscience, the Bible, Christian friends and teachers, and the presence and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and we certainly know the way. Yet many of us are continually turning aside. God is then grieved--and trouble and sorrow come upon those who forget Him.
The story of God's anger and the intercession of Moses for the people, as told in this chapter, is full of instruction. We see what a fearful thing sin is. Moses hastened down when he was told that the people had corrupted themselves, and in his anger dashed the tablets of stone from him and broke them, when he found the people engaged in heathen rites. "When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain!" He then destroyed the calf, rebuked Aaron, and calling for those on the Lord's side to gather about him, he sent them to slay the leaders in the idolatrous rebellion.
Moses' faithfulness in dealing with the people after their sin, teaches us a great lesson. "You have sinned a great sin! I will go up unto the Lord; perhaps I shall make atonement for your sin." They had broken their covenant with God, and in doing so had forfeited the favor and blessing which God had promised them on the condition of obedience. There was only one hope--Moses would intercede for them.
When we break our covenants with God--we have the same way--it is the only way--to get back into divine favor. It is a privilege to have human friends who will go up into the mount of prayer and plead with God for our forgiveness when we have sinned. The Lord's words to Moses when he told Him of the people's sin, reveal the almost omnipotent power of intercession. "Let Me alone," God said, "so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them!" If there had been no intercession, if God had been left alone, they would have been blotted from the earth because of their great sin. It was only the pleading of Moses for them that saved them.
We cannot know what blessings come to us, and what woes and penalties are averted, through the intercession of our friends. No duty of love is more sacred, than that of praying for those we love. Especially should we pray for them if they have sinned, that they may be forgiven. Not to make intercession for them, then, is to leave them to receive the reward of their evil-doing without any plea on their behalf. But precious to us as are human mediators and intercessors, there is something better yet--Jesus Christ ever lives to make intercession for us. When we have sinned, He is our Advocate with the Father.
The pleading of Moses for the people, shows what a great heart of love he had. "But now, please forgive their sin--but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written!" It is doubtful if Moses himself knew precisely what he meant when he prayed thus. The prayer came out of a great heart bursting with sorrow and with love. So much we know, however, that Moses was willing to make any sacrifice, even to lay down his own life, that he might save his people from the doom which their sin had brought upon them. Jesus Christ not only was willing to lay down His life--but actually gave His life, making Himself an offering for sin, that He might redeem His people!
Sin brings sorrow. "The Lord sent a great plague upon the people because they had worshiped the calf." The sin was forgiven--but not all the consequences were averted. God spared the people--but He punished them for their wickedness. It is always so. The pardon of God does not save us from all the effects of our sin. The wounds may be healed--but the scars remain. Many a good Christian bears all through his years--the marks of his early sins. God forgave David's sin--but the forgiveness did not take away all the consequences. The child of Bathsheba died, and then through all David's life, retribution followed him, the same sins which he had committed reappearing in his own family, leaving their blight and curse upon his home!