Moses, the great deliverer, brought the children of Israel safely out of Egypt and to Mount Sinai via God's power. There God gave them His laws through Moses as a mediator (cf. Exo. 20:21ff). Moses was on the mountain in God's presence for over a month and had no contact with the people. The Israelites grew impatient and asked Aaron to make gods to go before them (cf. 32:1).
"And Aaron said to them, 'Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.' So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, 'This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!' So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, 'Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD.' Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play...And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, 'There is a noise of war in the camp.' But he said: 'It is not the noise of the shout of victory, nor the noise of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing I hear'" (Exo. 32:2-6,17,18).
The actions of the people here were in direct violation of the first two commandments God had spoken to them audibly - "You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image" (20:3,4).
God's wrath burned hot against them because of these sins. "And the LORD said to Moses, 'I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them" (32:9,10). It should be observed that their sin was of a religious nature. Even though a careful reading suggests they were only trying to make a physical representation of Jehovah, and not some pagan deity, they still committed a terrible wrong. They sinned religiously by doing that which God had forbidden. When one considers the rest of God's word on this subject, it seems reasonable to suggest that religious sins have always quickly kindled God's anger, perhaps more so than some moral sins (e.g., Nadab & Abihu, Lev. 10:1-3).
Many religious folks today seem to conceive of sin only in terms of moral wrongs. Thus, any religious belief or practice meets their approval. This is a dangerous way to think! To only concern oneself with issues of morality (e.g., stealing, adultery, lying, etc.) and to fail to consider issues such as how to properly worship and glorify God is presumptuous and asking for trouble. Such a mentality also ignores Jesus' teaching in John 4:24 - "God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." The Israelites did not worship God in truth in Exodus 32.
Moses' anger also burned hot against the people, and he made them drink of their own sin. "So it was, as soon as he came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing. So Moses' anger became hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the calf which they had made, burned it in the fire, and ground it to powder; and he scattered it on the water and made the children of Israel drink it" (Exo. 32:19,20). They needed to learn that setting up other gods was no small transgression. God is a jealous God and will not tolerate such behavior!
Aaron, in defense of his blasphemous actions, offered three puny and hypocritical excuses for his misconduct. First, he tried to blame the people by saying - "You know the people, that they are set on evil" (32:22). What he said was true, but he did not have to grant their request! He was the leader when Moses was away. Had he been strong and responsible perhaps this tragic event would not have come to pass. Both he and the people were responsible for the idol. Second, he tried to blame Moses by claiming that they didn't know what had become of him (cf. 32:23). This too was true, but how was that a reason to violate the commandments God had just given them? Third, he tried to blame the fire - "I cast [the gold] into the fire, and this calf came out" (32:24). If this excuse were accepted and generalized, no one would accept any responsibility for any wrong. The murderer would say, "Don't blame me; the gun did it." The arsonist would contend, "It is not my fault; the match did it." Aaron's excuses sound about as silly as some we hear today.
Unfortunately, the destruction of the idol was not the end of the matter. "Now when Moses saw that the people were unrestrained (for Aaron had not restrained them, to their shame among their enemies), then Moses stood in the entrance of the camp, and said, 'Whoever is on the LORD's side--come to me!' And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him" (Exo. 32:25,26). Some, surely not all, were still not restrained--even after Moses' discipline. In other words, they were still engaged in sinful, inappropriate behavior. Although the sin is not specifically identified here, it must have been very immoral based upon Moses' response. Moses calls those on the Lord's side to him. The Levites respond which implies one of two things: Either they hadn't approved of the making and worship of the calf to begin with or they had turned from this sin and were wanting to do what was right. Moses then proceeded to give the Lord's command - "Let every man put his sword on his side, and go in and out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor" (32:27). God is just, and therefore the punishment certainly fits the crime. The people who were put to death had sinned greatly and had not repented--even after Moses' correction. Their continued unrestrained behavior would not be tolerated! Three thousand men perished that day via the sword. This is a large number, but only about 1 in 200, proportionally. Moses then commanded national repentance - "Consecrate yourselves today to the LORD, that He may bestow on you a blessing this day, for every man has opposed his son and his brother" (32:29).
This devastating day in Israelite history is rich with lessons for us to learn.
1. SOME APPEAR TO BE ON THE LORD'S SIDE, BUT THEY REALLY AREN'T.
All the nation of Israel should have responded to Moses when he called for those who were on the Lord's side. Every Israelite was then a covenant child of God. They all were supposed to be on the Lord's side, but that was not the reality of the situation.
What about today? Some have deceived themselves into thinking that they are on the Lord's side when they are in actuality just pretenders. Let me offer some examples:
2. DEDICATED DISCIPLES ARE ON THE LORD'S SIDE.
There is a difference between being dedicated and being perfect. The Lord knows we will not be flawless, but He expects our unwavering dedication. One who is dedicated will quickly repent when he learns of a transgression he has committed and will seek to be obedient to God's commands to the best of his ability. In Exodus 32 it is unknown whether the sons of Levi opposed the idol worship at first. But, we do know this--when the sin was exposed by Moses, they were on the Lord's side ready to do His bidding! Tragically, there are many in our generation who have said, "Lord, Lord," who will be disappointed at the judgment to find that the Lord never knew them. Why? Because they did not do (or obey) the Father's will (cf. Matt. 7:21-23; Luke 6:46)! They professed that they knew the Lord, but their works denied Him (cf. Tit. 1:16).
Jesus said, "You are my friends, if you do whatever I command you" (John 15:14). Are we His friends? Yes, if we do what He says! If we're His friends, then certainly we're on His side.
In Exodus 32, being a dedicated servant of God meant raising one's sword against his family or friends. How could the sons of Levi do such a thing? How could they take the lives of some of their family and friends who were unrestrained? They could do it because obeying God was more important to them than pleasing themselves or pleasing others. Whatever God commands is the right thing to do, even when it is difficult! I know of a gospel preacher who once had to withdraw fellowship from his own son! I can only imagine how difficult that must have been, but the son was in sin and would not turn from the error of his ways. The father really had no choice if he was going to be a dedicated disciple. The father really had no choice if he wanted to be on the Lord's side. He had to obey the Scriptures, and the Scriptures instruct us as to how we ought to treat impenitent believers (cf. II Thess. 3:6ff).
3. ONE IS EITHER ON THE LORD'S SIDE OR HE IS NOT--THERE IS NO NEUTRAL POSITION.
There is no middle ground. We are either for or against. Christ said in Matthew 12:30 - "He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad." This is a fearful passage if one is not completely dedicated to the Lord.
We can tell what a man is for by what he is willing to stand against and what he is against by what he is willing to stand for. There can be no compromise. If he is for righteousness, he is against sin. If he is for truth, he is against error. If he does not have much love for the truth, then he likely will not have much hatred for error either. Because the Psalmist loved the truth he could say - "I hate every false way" (Psa. 119:104). "You who love the LORD, hate evil" (Psa. 97:10). It just works that way.
So, dear listeners, ask yourselves: Am I on the Lord's side? Am I a dedicated disciple or a pretender? Am I trying to play for both sides or be neutral? It cannot be done.
It should be understood that we may not always be able to accurately identify what side a person is on. Oh yes, it's fairly easy to spot those who are clearly living for self on the devil's side, but there are some who do an awfully good job of pretending to be on the Lord's side when they really aren't. Their fruits will eventually expose their true allegiance (cf. Matt. 7:20). However, even though they may fool us in the meantime, there is never any doubt in God's mind--He knows who is on His side and who isn't.
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.