By Ligon Duncan
Moses had been on the mountain, in the presence of God, receiving instruction from the mouth of God for forty days and nights. During this time the Lord had been giving him detailed directions for Israel’s worship (Ex. 25-31). After all, Israel had been brought out of Egypt to worship the Lord (Ex. 3:12, 18; 4:23; 5:1, 3). The worship of the one true God was their supreme privilege and responsibility. But the people of God were impatient (Ex. 32:1). Thus ensues one of the saddest tales in the history of Israel. But it is more than a gripping and depressing narrative, it is a world of instruction for us (as Paul reminds us in 1 Cor. 10:1-11). Indeed, as Alan Cole says, “It is because Israel is so like us in every way that the stories of Israel have such exemplary value.”
Exodus 32 records the grim account of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God (and Aaron’s participation in their wickedness), even in the very shadow of Sinai, after the Lord had given to them the moral law. But it also records for us the faithfulness of Moses, Joshua, and the Levites, and the amazing intercession of Moses in which he asks the Lord to forgive the people. There are many salutary warnings and rich encouragements to be found in this passage.
We have here a stern admonition regarding the danger and attraction of idolatry. It is clear that the central sin of the passage is idolatry — one violating both the first and second commandments. But it is the people’s willfulness and lack of trust that lead them to this idolatry, and the idolatry itself opens the gates for immorality and debauchery. In other words, idolatry always involves a web of sin. It springs from pride and unbelief, and entails our own degradation. Paul makes this clear in Romans 1:18-27.
Moses had been on the mountain for along time, and the people quickly grew impatient, for, a long time, and the people quickly grew impatient, for, If I may put it sarcastically, the Lord had kept them waiting. They demanded the creation of a representation of deity to lead them into the Promised Land, and they wickedly discounted the faithful service of Moses, God’s chosen instrument in the Exodus from Egypt (32:1). One never would have guessed that such a desertion could have occurred in such close proximity to the time and place in which God had revealed Himself and His Law with thunder and lightning.
Notice how the impatience and willfulness of the people contributed to their Idolatry: “Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’” (Ex. 32:1). They were tired of waiting for the Promised Land, tired of waiting for Moses to return, tired of waiting for the divine regulations on religious worship that Moses even then was receiving on the mountain. And so, in their pride and impetuosity, they took matters into their own hands. Idolatry inevitably results from such a spirit, for the one true God does not operate on our schedule, or at our convenience. Self-will is the root of idolatry. As Pat Morley has said, “There is a god we want and the God who is, and the two are not the same.” This is, in fact, why our wise Puritan forebears called idolatry “will-worship,” and one reason it is so important for us to worship God in strict accord with the way He has revealed in His Word. We must worship according to His good pleasure, not ours. This is a fundamental problem in our entertainment-oriented, “user-friendly” church.
Notice also that there are two ways to commit idolatry. You can worship anything or anyone that is not the true God and be an idolater (breaking the first commandment), or you can worship the true God in the wrong way and be an idolater (breaking the second commandment). Israel broke both commands in Exodus 32. Even though, in Egypt, God had demonstrated His superiority over all gods represented by idols, the people called for an image, a representation of deity, to be made. They directly violated God’s will by worshiping a false god or gods in the form of the young bull. Some no doubt were still infected with polytheism, while others made the God of Israel after their own fancy, and thus became worshipers of a god that didn’t exist. In these ways they transgressed the first and second commandments even as they were being explicitly delivered to Moses.
God’s stricture against idolatry was and is vital for the purity of worship and for spiritual growth. If we worship God according to our own designs and imaginations, instead of in accordance with His Word, we inevitably become idolaters. Furthermore, idolatry undercuts spirituality (though it often claims to enhance it). For, if spiritual growth means being transformed by God’s grace into His moral likeness, then worshiping Him in a likeness that is not in accordance with His Word necessarily derails the process of sanctification. In fact, idolatry always leads to sub-human behavior (Rom. 1:21-32).
We who live in an age when church leaders host conferences on “re-imaging God,” and when the Bible’s teaching about God is altered to make Him more politically correct and culturally palatable, dare not dismiss these warnings against idolatry. We may feel ourselves far too sophisticated to be capable of idolatry, but A. W. Tozer warned us many years ago, “An idol of the mind is as offensive to God as an idol of the hand.”
Ligon Duncan serves as Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi.
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