Before Whom All Hearts Are Open
Impatience is a danger to the people of God. It always – as all our sins do – wears a pious mask but essentially it is a mindset that we know better than God the schedule for our lives. And this means that impatience is a form of idolatry. Moses ‘was delayed’ (by whose timetable?) and they took this to mean that they had to take matters into their own hands. The first thing they say after the covenant commitment in 24:7, where they said “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient,” are the words of 32:1: “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses (could they be more dismissive?) who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” They wanted something to be happening, signs of progress, the trappings of visible success.
Much of leadership is standing firm in the commands of God in the face of the idolatry and impatience of those led. Aaron caves in immediately. Perhaps he thinks he can “manage” impatience into something like the worship of God. He calls for the sacrifice of all the golden earrings that the Israelites were wearing, throws it into the fire, and shapes the molten gold into a calf – a symbol in the ancient world for power, strength, military conquest. “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” the mob shouts in fervour. The idolatry is deep seated, shadowing itself in its proximity to the truth of God, and even uses the words of the LORD (20:2) in addressing the calf, breaking the command of 20:7. The worship mimics the covenant making feast, and the “rising to play” was probably not so much an unbridled sexual orgy as a kind of military tattoo.
The LORD knows – our idolatry is never hidden from His eyes; He knows our hearts through and through. Moses is sent down by the LORD to this “stiff-necked people,” away from Him so that His anger may burn hot against them. But Moses stays with the LORD and away from the people – not for his own sake, nor even primarily for theirs, but for the glory of God. And the LORD relents.
Then Moses goes down, carrying the holy writ, the tablets written by God. He sees the worship, and his anger burns hot, and he dashes the stones to pieces at the foot of the mountain. Then he ruins the festival by destroying the idol and making them drink it. He calls for any who are on the LORD’s side to take up arms and deal with the rebellion’s ringleaders. And the next day he confronts the people with their sin, before returning to the LORD to seek atonement for them. He will bear their judgment too if the LORD will not forgive. And so begins Moses’ great intercession for this sinful people…