Exodus 32:31 Commentary - Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae (Old and New Testaments)
MOSES INTERCEDES FOR ISRAEL
Exo 32:31-33. And Moses returned unto the Lord, and said, Oh! this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold! Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written. And the Lord said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.
WELL may it be said, “Lord, what is man?” Truly “his goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew that passeth away.” If we did not see it verified in fact, one would scarcely conceive it possible that man should be so frail and mutable as both history and experience attest him to be. The Israelites were now at the very mount where they had beheld Jehovah shining forth in all his terrific majesty, and had heard him proclaiming in most tremendous sounds his holy law. They beheld also upon the mount that very same cloud, the symbol of the divine presence, which had led them in their way from the land of Egypt to that place: yet, because Moses, when summoned by God to come up to the mount, abode there longer than they expected, they cast off him, and God also; and desired visible gods to be made for them, that they might in future commit themselves to their guidance and protection. It is this, which Moses so pathetically laments in the words before us.
The whole history is very instructive. That we may have a concise, but comprehensive, view of it, let us notice,
The sin of Israel—
This was a dreadful compound of ingratitude, folly, and impiety—
[The people had already forgotten the numberless mercies which they had received from God, through the ministration of his servant Moses: they thought that they themselves could form an image which should supply the place of all other benefactors, human and divine: and in direct opposition to the most express commands [Note: Exo 20:4; Exo 20:23.], to which they had so recently promised the most faithful adherence, they made a golden calf, and appointed it as the representative of the Deity, and offered sacrifices to it as their deliverer and their guide: yea, so bent were they upon having a visible god to go before them, that they at the very first proposal gave up their ornaments, in order that of them an image might be formed, which they might worship after the manner of Egypt. But most of all are we surprised, that Aaron, the divinely appointed colleague of Moses, should, at the first mention of such a device, assent to it, and be the very person to form the image, and to proclaim a feast unto Jehovah in honour of it: and that, when reproved for his wickedness, he should attempt to justify it by such frivolous and even false excuses [Note: 4.]. Well might Moses lament before God, “Oh! this people have sinned a great sin!”]
But the greatness of the sin will be more easily imagined from the indignation which both God and Moses expressed against it—
[The wrath of God, we are told, was “fierce, and waxed hot” against the offending people; and he threatened instantly to destroy them. The anger of Moses also “waxed hot” as soon as ever he beheld their impiety: and the indignation he manifested clearly shewed his opinion at least of their conduct.
First, having in his hands the tables of stone, whereon God had with his own finger written the precepts of his law, he dashed them in pieces before their eyes. This was no rash expression of intemperate wrath, but a holy and significant emblem, representing to them the crime they had committed. God had condescended to enter into covenant with them to be their God; and they had covenanted to be his people: and these tables of stone contained, as it were, the terms of the agreement; and were a pledge, that God would fulfil to them all that he had spoken. But this covenant they had entirely annulled; and all their expectations from God were utterly destroyed.
Next, he reduced the idol to dust, and cast it on the water, that all the people might be compelled to drink of it. This was well calculated to shew them how much they had debased themselves, in submitting to worship that as a god, which they must swallow with their food, and cast off together with it.
But lastly, he made them feel, as well as see, the marks of his displeasure. He called the Levites, who notwithstanding the defection of Aaron had remained faithful to their God, and commanded them to go through the camp, and without favour or pity to slay all the ringleaders with the sword. Thus were three thousand of them punished on the spot: there needed no formality of trial: they were caught in the fact; and the judgment of zeal was deservedly executed upon them.]
That no part of Moses’ anger was of a sinful kind, or expressed with undue severity, is evident from his tender compassion for the offenders, whilst he hated and abhorred their offence. To elucidate this, we notice,
The intercession of Moses—
No sooner did he see how God was displeased with them, than, notwithstanding the prohibition given him, he began to intercede for them—
[The prohibition, “Let me alone,” operated on his mind rather as an encouragement to intercede; because it seemed to say, If you intercede for them, my hands are tied; and I cannot execute upon them my threatened vengeance. He fell down instantly before God, and urged in their behalf every plea which was suited to the occasion.
He reminded God of his relation to them. Though God had appeared to disclaim them in that he had called them Moses’ people, Moses pleaded, that God himself had brought them out of Egypt, and had signally marked them as his peculiar people. He reminded God also of his promise to their fathers, which, if they were utterly destroyed, would be violated. As for having another nation raised up from his loins, he did not desire that honour: all he wanted was, to avert from this offending people the judgments they had merited. He further expressed his concern to God respecting his honour among the heathen. Lord, what will the Egyptians say? What opinion will they form of thee? Will they not represent thee either as weak, and incapable of carrying this people to the promised land; or as cruel, and bringing them out hither on purpose to slay them? Lord, if thou regardest not them, have regard for thine own honour, and spare the people for thy great name’s sake.]
After reproving their iniquity, he returned again unto the Lord, to renew, more fervently than ever, his intercession for them—
[He confesses humbly the greatness of their sin; well knowing, that for the obtaining of mercy, nothing is so efficacious as humiliation before God. He then implores pardon for them, if pardon can be extended to so rebellious a people. But, if some atonement must be made, and if some signal mark of his displeasure must be given, then he entreats that the judgment may fall on him, and not on them. He desires to be excluded from Canaan, and, as far as relates to this life, to be blotted out of the list of God’s peculiar people, in their stead: that so the enormity of their sin, and God’s abhorrence of it, might be made manifest, and yet the transgressors themselves be living monuments of God’s mercy [Note: It were absurd to think that he proposed to subject himself to eternal misery for them: for this would be more than even Christ himself has done for us.].
What a bright pattern is here of zeal for God, and compassion for men! And how desirable is such an union of them, as will keep us from palliating sin on the one hand, or hating and despising the sinner on the other.]
How far this intercession prevailed will be found in,
The reply of God—
God condescended to remit the punishment of their iniquity—
[At the very first intercession of Moses, God repented of the evil which he had thought to do unto his people [Note: 4.] ; and, in answer to the last, he renewed his commission to Moses to lead them to the promised land: and, though he withdrew himself from them in a measure, he commanded a created angel to guide them in the way [Note: Compare 4 with ch. 33:2, 3.]. He declared indeed, that, if by a continuance of their rebellions they compelled him to punish them, he would then visit for this sin together with the rest; but, if they were truly penitent, and observant of his will in future, he would remember it against them no more.
What an amazing view does this give us of the condescension of God, and the efficacy of fervent prayer! The prayer of one single person availed for the procuring of pardon for two millions of people, and for Aaron at their head, notwithstanding the peculiar enormity of his sin [Note: Deu 9:20. Read that whole chapter.]: yea, it prevailed at a time when God was so incensed against them as to forbid any intercession in their behalf, and to declare that he would “blot out their name from under heaven.” Surely the remembrance of this single instance is sufficient to encourage all the world to implore mercy for themselves, and to make continual intercession also for others.]
He declared, however, that at his future tribunal justice should be strictly administered to all—
[Rewards and punishments are often national in this world, and consequently partial: sometimes the innocent are involved in the punishment of the guilty; and sometimes the guilty escape without any punishment at all. But at God’s tribunal in the last day no such inequalities will be found: there every one will answer for his own personal transgressions, and stand or fall according to his own personal conduct: “The wicked will go into everlasting punishment; but the righteous into life eternal.” Multitudes in that day will be found, who, in name and profession, were the Lord’s people: but, inasmuch as they “had only a name to live, and were really dead,” God will blot them out of his book, and disclaim all relation to them or regard for them. Solemn indeed, and most worthy to be impressed upon our minds, is this declaration of God: it relates, not to that people only, but to all that dwell upon the face of the whole earth. Intercession may prevail in this world for the averting of temporal judgments even from the impenitent: but, in reference to the eternal world, nothing will prevail but personal repentance, and humble affiance in the Lord Jesus Christ.]
From this subject we may learn,
What an evil and bitter thing sin is—
[The Israelites might have excused themselves by saying, as the Papists do respecting their images, that they did not intend to make a god of the golden call, but only to use it as the means of bringing the true God more forcibly to their minds. But what would such sophistry have availed them? Would either God or Moses have altered their estimate of the crime, because they chose to veil it under specious names [Note: It is expressly called idolatry, 1Co 10:7.] ? And to what purpose is it for us to extenuate our crimes? We have soft imposing names whereby to conceal the evil of covetousness and sensuality; but does not God declare both the one and the other to be idolatry [Note: Eph 5:5; Php 3:19.] ? Does he not speak of men having “idols in their heart [Note: Eze 14:3-4; Eze 14:7.] ?” and is not this the essence of all idolatry, to “love and serve the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for evermore?” We may attempt also to extenuate our guilt, as Aaron did, from our acting under the influence of others, and not designing to do exactly all that we did: but this could not deceive Moses; much less can it deceive God. Moreover, both the people and Aaron might even think that they were honouring Jehovah; for they kept the feast professedly unto him: and when they had eaten and drunk of their sacrifices, they might think it well became them to indulge in mirth. We too may keep our feasts, and fasts, and Sabbaths, professedly to the Lord; and may conclude we have ground for cheerful security: but God may, all the while, be as wroth with us, as he was with them, and may have determined to blot out our unworthy names from the book of life. O that we would duly reflect on these things! O that we would consider that sin, however extenuated by us, is hateful to God; that he sees it wherever it is transacted, and under whatever veil it may be concealed; and that, finally, the time is quickly coming, when he will execute judgment upon all according to their works! Then will sin appear in its real colours; not in the temporal destruction of a single nation, but in the everlasting destruction of all, who have died in impenitence and unbelief.]
How much we are indebted to the Lord Jesus Christ—
[The intercession of Moses for the Jewish nation was typical of the yet more effectual intercession of our great Advocate, the Lord Jesus Christ. We may in a measure picture to ourselves the benevolent exercise of Moses, whilst the thoughtless Israelites were revelling in security. In that then let us view what has been taking place in heaven on our behalf. We have been sinning against God, a stiff-necked and rebellious generation: and many times has the decree gone forth, “Cut them down; why cumber they the ground?” But the Lord Jesus, presenting that most efficacious of all pleas, his own atoning blood, has said, “Spare them, O my Father! spare them yet another year.” Yes; had it not been for his intercession, we should not have been now in this place, but in that place of torment from whence there is no return. O that we might learn to estimate our obligations to him! O that we might go to him ourselves, and entreat him to obtain for us converting grace, and everlasting glory! Were but our eyes duly turned to him, our expectations could not be too large, or our confidence too strong.
But we must remember that nothing can supersede our own repentance: not even the blood and intercession of Christ will avail for those who die impenitent. The declaration of God shall never be reversed, “Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I (if he die impenitent) blot out of my book.” There are two fatal errors which pervade the great mass of nominal Christians: the one is, that they shall be saved by their repentance, though they trust not in Christ; and the other is, that they shall be saved by Christ, though they do not personally repent. But neither of these things can ever take place. The impenitent may be spared for a time; but they shall perish for ever: but the penitent, who believe in Christ, “shall never come into condemnation, but shall have everlasting life.”]
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Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae (Old and New Testaments)
Charles Simeon (1759 - 1836) was an English evangelical Anglican cleric.
Horae Homileticae reflects the rich source of Biblical understanding of Simeon, a towering figure in the history of evangelical theology.