Earlier, we were talking about the ironies of the story. On the preceding day, before Moses had come down the mountain, God had made that great offer to him. He had said to Moses that He was going to destroy the people, save Moses, and make a new nation of him. Moses went down the mountain, and he met with the people. He realized that he still loved them in spite of their sin. Then, Moses goes back up the mountain, and makes a powerful intercession for the people. He asks God to save the people and destroy him. As far as you and I know, there’s never been a greater offer made by any human being in all of the course of history.

Third, he called those who had remained faithful to God, and he commissioned them to execute a limited judgment on the people. He asked who was on the Lord’s side, and the tribe of Levi came forward. Then he told the tribe of Levi to take their swords and kill. It doesn’t say it in so many words, but he must have meant for them to kill the leaders. There were probably several million people, and they didn’t kill that many. What is stressed is that they were to execute judgment even on those who were members of their family, their friends, and their neighbors. And the Levites did it. They showed that they were faithful to God.

Moses began to plead for the people, and he had two very impressive arguments. First of all he said to God, “What will the Egyptians say if you destroy your people? What they’ll say is this, ‘It was with evil intent that you brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth.’ Therefore turn from your fierce anger, and relent and don’t bring this disaster on the people.” If God were to destroy the people, the Egyptians will win after all. No one wanted the Egyptians to win.

The second lesson from the story tells us of the problem with images. God had just given Moses the Ten Commandments, and one of the things we learn from them is this: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the image of anything in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down yourself to them or serve them.” It goes on to explain how the punishments of God will come upon those who do, even to the third and fourth generations.

There are always moments in the life of an individual or even in the life of a nation which provide an opportunity for greatness. And if they are seized, they lead on to great things. And if a person or a nation fails to seize them, they lead to defeat and discouragement. Exodus 32 was a moment like this, and it’s what I call the finest hour in the life of this most outstanding man, Moses.