This past Lord’s Day we returned to the book of Exodus, just in time for what was surely the spiritual nadir of the Israelites’ time in the wilderness: worshiping the golden calf. As Moses was about to come down from Mt. Sinai with the two tablets in hand containing the 10 Commandments, the Israelites ran out of patience with their absent leader and took matters into their own hands. They demanded that Aaron make for them gods who would “go before” them, that is, lead them into the promised land. Aaron consented, making for them a “golden calf” (probably an image of a young, virile bull), building an altar for it, and calling for a feast day to their freshly-minted god. After the people brought offerings to their impotent idol, they “… sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play” (v.6). Given this was idolatrous revelry, they didn’t rise up to “play” a game of duck-duck-goose. You can bet they indulged in all manner of debauchery, the likes of which would have made the frat boys of Animal House blush with shame.
It’s easy to pass judgment on these foolish Israelites, so quickly abandoning the Lord and reverting to the pagan worship they practiced in Egypt. They saw first-hand the Lord’s power, they heard with their own ears the Lord’s voice – what were they thinking? But the Israelites were just being human, that is, human in our sinful nature. As sinners we are born idolaters; it comes as natural to us as walking and talking. Whether it’s money, sex, pleasure, power, personal autonomy or any other god of our age, in our sin we are as prone to serving idols as were the Israelites in the desert. Ours may be more sophisticated than a golden calf, but the result is the same: we exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). What an evil exchange! We reject the living God for dead idols, and in the process we become dead, too (Psalm 115:8).
But the gospel is a glorious exchange. Jesus takes the guilt and pollution of our sin, and in return gives us his innocence and holiness. He takes our death and gives us his life, eternal life. He is a better mediator than even Moses, whose fervent prayer saved the Israelites from being utterly destroyed by the wrath of the Lord (Exodus 32:14). Jesus saves all who believe in him from eternal destruction.
The golden calf is not just a lamentable episode from Israel’s past. It reveals the awful truth about our own hearts – since we cannot escape the imperative to worship someone or something, rather than worship the God who made us and made us to have joy and life in knowing him, we worship the things he has made. And to our own destruction. But thankfully, we have a greater Moses who interceded for us at the cross to save us from our foolish idolatry and to make us worshipers of the true God.
Soli Deo Gloria!