In last week’s devotional, we saw that the people had sinned in the making of the golden calf. Moses had intervened on their behalf, and God had postponed the judgment. God had even promised to go with the people and not abandon them. One of Moses’ pleas was that God had made an eternal covenant with His people, the covenant made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and, therefore, that Moses wanted God to keep the covenant. God answered that he would keep His covenant and bring the people into His land. God said that He would send His presence before them. Perhaps He was referring to the cloud or an angel or something of that nature, because He said, “I myself will not go with them, because this is a stiff-necked people. And if I go with them and they sin again, my anger might break out against them and I would destroy them” (Ex. 33:3).

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.