The following is an excerpt from the Bible study Explore the Bible: Exodus, Steve Gaines, general editor.
In Exodus 32–34, the Israelites were camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. While Moses was on the mountaintop meeting with God and receiving the law, God’s people became impatient. Chapter 32 records perhaps the most flagrant act of idolatrous rebellion in all of Scripture. How sad it is when we so easily abandon the God who continually delivers us!
Thankfully, there’s more grace in God than sin in us. When Israel was unfaithful, God was faithful to His promises. What can we learn from the Israelites’ rebellion?
Impatience Leads to Idolatry
The true God of creation delivered His people from Egypt, but now they were creating and bowing to a calf representing the false Egyptian god of creation. Hadn’t the Israelites just declared in Exodus 24:3 that they would do everything the Lord commanded them? Yet they quickly forgot God their Savior, the One who did great things in Egypt (see Ps. 106:19-22).
It’s easy to be drawn away from God toward idols, especially when we get tired of waiting for Him to act. We were made to worship; if what we worship is anything or anyone other than God, it’s an idol. Idolatry destroys vibrant Christian faith. As Christians, we find joy, security, peace, identity, and salvation only in Christ.
Idolatry Leads to Foolishness
People become fools when they exchange the one true God for idols. Exodus 32:8 says Israel quickly turned aside from God’s ways. Moses declared that they were “a stiff-necked people” (v. 9). We become like the object of our worship. The Israelites became stiff-necked, like a wild or untrained cow. They wouldn’t obey.
When people worship idols, they become blind to their sin and receive their just reward of foolishness. Sometimes God’s most fearful judgment in this life is to give us exactly what we want.
Idolatry Leads to God’s Wrath
God’s wrath burned hot against His people. Although God is jealous for His people’s worship, He’s also just and holy. As the only, all-powerful God of creation, He alone is worthy of worship.
God had every right to judge, and even destroy, His people. He initially determined to destroy them, but Moses interceded on behalf of the people, appealing to God’s faithfulness. Moses called on God to remember His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.
God is Faithful to His Promises
Because of His promise to His people, God relented from destroying the Israelites. The word relent conveys God’s being moved to pity and having compassion. In His longsuffering, God takes on Himself the evil done against Him. God’s relenting reveals not only His desire to be true to His character and promise, but also His steadfast love for His people. The Lord’s unchanging promise held back His judgment. God turned His wrath away from His people and extended mercy to them.
Christ Interceded on Our Behalf
Just as Moses mediated between God and the people, Jesus stands in the gap between sinful people and a holy God. Jesus is greater than Moses because He took God’s wrath upon Himself, satisfying God’s wrath against sin and demonstrating God’s love toward sinners.
Now in Christ the church is called to intercede on behalf of others, asking God to open their eyes to their sin and their need for repentance. The good news of the gospel is that in Christ, we have more than we need to meet our heart’s deepest desires. The only way to destroy our idols is to set our affections on Jesus and enjoy Him above everything else.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers®. Used by permission. Christian Standard Bible® and CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.