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Exodus 32-34: Responding to Sin Print E-mail
Sunday, 20 September 2009

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The book of Exodus has shown us God’s redemption of His people.  It has revealed to us His provision for them.  He has given them what they needed to survive.  Likewise, He has given them His law so that they can live as His people reflecting His character.  We have seen all of this and more in this book.  We have seen the demand for consecration and the provision for sin with the priesthood.  The Lord has told them what His character demands and shown them how He will provide for those demands.  Yet, how will the Lord respond to flat-out rebellion?  How will He respond to the sin of Israel in chapter 32?  Indeed, how should we respond when God’s people get it so wrong?

Make no mistake about it: the sin of Israel is great.  Look at 32:1-6.  The people have grown tired of waiting for Moses.  Thus, they have Aaron make them gods that they can see and worship.  Aaron agrees to this and makes for them a golden calf, or young bull.  They proclaim: These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!  It is hard to know if they are completely denying Yahweh’s work of delivering them from slavery, or if they are simply setting up this calf as representative of Yahweh.  Either way, they are obviously breaking God’s commands and worshipping in a way that He has strictly forbidden.  They even go so far as engage in sexual acts as part of their worship before the calf.  Their sin is great.  Thus, we must ask the question: how will Moses and the Lord respond to such sin?

Before we seek to answer this question, let me offer a word of caution.  We must not press this text further than we should as Christians.  As we have noted before, Israel is living before the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.  We must keep this truth in front of us as we seek to understand and apply this text to our lives.  On top of that, there are portions of the narrative that are difficult to interpret.  We have already seen one example of this (i.e. was Israel replacing Yahweh with the calf or simply representing Yahweh with the calf?).  Thus, we must be cautious in drawing applications from this text for our lives.  Nevertheless, we can learn much about God’s character and how we should respond to sin among His people and as His people from this text.  So then, let’s consider how Moses and the Lord respond to Israel’s sin.

I want to approach answering this question a little bit different than we have normally in our series on Exodus.  Rather than simply stating the answer and showing it to you from the text, I want to try and walk us through the text together and show how the answer flows out of the text.  The difference is minor I know, but hopefully by doing it this way, you will better be able to do this for yourselves as you read through other Old Testament narrative passages.  Also, I think this narrative in particular lends itself to such an approach.  Although this may seem like a running commentary at points, I want to avoid getting too bogged down in certain spots by keeping the overall goal in mind, namely identifying how Moses and the Lord respond in chapters 32-34 to Israel’s sin in 32:1-6.

Chapter 32:

Let’s begin in 32:7-10.  Look at that passage with me.  The Lord responds to the sin of Israel with the threat of His wrath.  Their sin is so great that He threatens to start over with Moses.  He will make him into a great nation.  Yet, look at how Moses responds in 32:11-13.  Moses intercedes on behalf of the people and asks the Lord to turn from His wrath.  He does not defend the people’s actions or pretend like their sin is no big deal.  Rather, he asks the Lord to turn from His wrath for the sake of His own Name, in order to keep His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.  How does the Lord respond to Moses’ intercession?  Look at 32:14.  The Lord relents.  He will not bring the disaster on Israel that He had threatened. 

What do we do with this?  Some see this text as implying that the Lord does not know what His people will do.  He just does the best He can with the knowledge He has and responds accordingly.  Yet, not only does that interpretation completely contradict other passages, it also goes way beyond what this text actually says.  Rather than draw these erroneous implications, I think a better interpretation can be offered.  It seems that instead of teaching us about the Lord’s limitations, this passage is teaching us about the importance of intercessory prayer.  The people sin and Moses prays for grace on their behalf.  Such prayers are powerful and we need to know that. 

One of my commentators notes: “Now, while it is true that he does not change, there is at the heart of his changelessness a ‘mystery’, a ‘revealed secret’, that the sovereign, unchangeable God accomplishes his purposes through the prayers of his people…Prayer is one of the ‘laws of God’ by which he runs the world.”1  Prayer is one of the means that God uses to accomplish His plan.  Even though some of the ‘mystery’ remains in this passage, we cannot help but see the power of intercessory prayer.  God’s people are to respond to sin with intercession.

Going on in chapter 32, we see Moses coming down from Mount Sinai.  When he sees the sin of the people first-hand, he throws down the tablets that the Lord had written on, grinds the calf into powder and mixes it with water, and then has the people drink the water as part of their consequences for their sin (verses 15-20).  He confronts Aaron, and after listening to his explanation, addresses the people.  Look at 32:26-28.  By the Lord’s command, the Levites kill three thousand of the men, further consequences for the people’s sin.  Moses accepts these consequences and carries out the Lord’s commands.  Chapter 32 ends with Moses once again interceding for Israel, even offering himself in their place.  Rather, the Lord tells Moses that He will deal with those who have sinned and sends further consequences in the form of a plague.

Chapter 33:

Chapter 33 returns to the theme of God’s presence among His people.  How will His presence be impacted by their sin?  Just as the Lord threatened to destroy the people in chapter 32, here He threatens to not send His presence with them.  Look at 33:1-3.  This is devastating news.  The Tabernacle was to be built so that the Lord might dwell in their midst.  Yet, now it seems that another consequence of their sin will be the withdrawing of His presence.  The people mourn this idea in verses 4-6.  Then we read of Moses going to another tent of meeting that preceded the construction of the Tabernacle.  He meets with the Lord there and once again intercedes on behalf of the people.  We read of such intercession in verses 12 and following. 

Look at 33:12-13 with me.  Moses prays and asks for the Lord to go with him.  The Lord answers in verse 14.  Look at that with me.  The ‘you’ in this verse is singular.  The Lord is saying that He will go with Moses.  So Moses responds in verse 15.  He knows that the only thing that really distinguishes them as the true people of God is God’s presence with them.  Without that they are just another nation, just another people.  So he asks the Lord to relent of the threat and be present among the people.  How will the Lord respond?  Look at verse 17.  Moses intercedes and the Lord answers.  Going on, Moses prays to see God’s glory and the Lord tells them that I will make all my goodness pass before you.  He states His sovereignty: And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.  And He tells Moses that He will hide him in the cleft of a rock and reveal to him His back.

Chapter 34:

Moses prepares again to go up on Mount Sinai.  The Lord tells him to bring two more tablets and to come alone, which Moses obeys.  Then He reveals Himself in 34:6-7.  Look at those verses with me.  We again see tension.  Just as the Lord is sovereign and yet relents in response to Moses’ prayer, so is He gracious and loving yet without clear(ing) the guilty.  Moses responds with worship in verse 8 and offers one more intercessory prayer in verse 9.  Look at those with me.  Once more Moses prays for the Lord’s presence.  He prays for God to forgive the people’s sin and to dwell with them.  The Lord has made it clear that He is sovereign in His mercy and compassion, that He is just and righteous, and that He hears the intercession of His people.  So Moses prays and begs God for mercy. 

And how does the Lord respond?  Look at verse 10.  The Lord will not withdraw His hand from Israel.  His presence will go with them.  Moses can be sure of this because the Lord will renew the covenant, which He does in the rest of the chapter.  Likewise, we know that the Lord does not withdraw His presence from the midst of the people because in the remaining chapters of Exodus the Tabernacle is built and placed in the middle of the camp.  We will look at this more next week.  Chapter 34 ends with Moses coming down from the mountain with a glow.  He has been in God’s presence and interceded on behalf of the people.  He has seen the goodness of the Lord pass before him.  And according to the text, his face shone, so much so that he had to wear a veil at times.

So then, what can we say about Moses’ and the Lord’s response? 

Well, I would say it this way: Moses responds with intercession and acceptance of consequences.  Moses prays fervently for the people, even joining himself with them.  He begs the Lord not to destroy the people and not to withdraw His presence.  At the same time, we see in chapter 32 that he accepts the consequences that the Lord deems necessary, namely the killing of the three thousand men and the plague. 

And what about the Lord’s response?  The Lord responds with grace and consequences.  The consequences of their sin are real and they must face them.  Yet, they are not as bad as they would have been if the Lord had chosen not to show them mercy and compassion.  In His grace and love, He does not destroy them and He does not withdraw His presence from them.  No, He renews the covenant and promises to go with them.

How then should we respond to sin?  Let me close with three ideas.  First, if we are the ones who have sinned, then we must respond with repentance.  We must ask God for mercy and grace.  Second, we must accept the consequences for our sin and even the sins of others.  Third, we must intercede on behalf of others.  We must lift them up to the Lord just as Moses lifted up the people of Israel.  We must cry out for mercy and grace. 

Yet, what assurance do we have that any of this will be effective?  Our assurance comes from the character of our God and what He has done for us in Christ.  We repent knowing that Jesus has paid for our sins and will graciously forgive us.  We accept the consequences knowing that He will be with us no matter what comes our way.  And we intercede because we believe in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to save and forgive.  God’s character that is being revealed in Exodus 32-34 is the character that He put on display fully in the person and work of Christ.  Thus, may we repent of our sins, accept the consequences, and intercede for others, trusting in our great and glorious God.  Amen.

1 J. A. Motyer, The Message of Exodus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), p. 303.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 29 September 2009 )

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