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.
Now that phrase “their finest hour” comes from Winston Churchill, and I am sure you are familiar with it. In the early days of the Second World War, the Germans had overrun France and had trapped the British and French armies of about 350,000 men at Dunkirk on the coast of France across the Channel from England. They were able to get many of them out almost miraculously, but without any of their arms or equipment. It was a very discouraging time for the British because they knew that Hitler’s onslaught against Britain would come next.
Two weeks later, Churchill gave this great speech before the House of Commons in which he meant to rally the British people. Referring to the terrible struggle that was to come, he said, “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
For Moses, his finest hour was when he pleaded for the people of Israel before God on Mount Sinai and was heard by God, and the people were spared.
We have seen that the ceremonial law goes all the way to the end of Exodus. Yet here you have interjected into it this incident of the making of the golden calf and Moses’ intercession for the people. We saw in Exodus 24 that Moses and Aaron, Aaron’s two sons, and seventy of the elders of Israel had gone up the mountain. It was an astounding experience for all of them. When it was over, Moses went up onto the mountain to meet with God. He was there for forty days, while the people were down in the valley. As the days turned into weeks, the people grew restless and they began to say to one another, “Whatever has happened to Moses? He went up into the mountain, but we haven’t heard from him for weeks. Maybe he has fallen into a hole, or maybe he has been consumed by the God he came here to worship. At any rate, we can’t go on like this. We need a god of some sort to guide us if we’re going to get through this wilderness.” So they turned to Aaron and said, “Aaron, make us a god.”
Now that was Aaron’s great moment. You see, if Aaron had remained strong as a leader should, he would have said, “Jehovah is our God, and He is the one that brought us out of Egypt. He is on the mountain conferring with Moses, and He is giving Moses the law. And we are going to wait right here until Moses comes back down with the law of God.” But Aaron was weak, and so he compromised. He asked the people to give him their gold, and they did. He then made a little calf out of it in the fire. That word “calf” is interesting. The Hebrew word is egel, and some of the commentators suggest that it doesn’t mean exactly what the word “calf” means to us. We think of that as a young little animal. But the commentator Alan Cole said that really means a young bull in its full strength.1 If that was the case, this was a representation of Apis, the Egyptian bull god. What the people were doing was returning to the idolatry of Egypt.
When the people saw the calf, they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt” (32:4). They began to worship the calf, and it turned very quickly into an orgy. The words that are used translated in the New International Version are “revelry” and later “running wild,” both suggesting sexual immorality.
Each part of that story is filled with much to teach us, and I want to give these applications as we go along. The first great lesson of the story is that miracles do not guarantee faith or faithfulness to God. There are a lot of people who think that way and wish they had miracles. They say, “If God would only do a miracle in my life, I could believe on Him.” Or, “If He would do a miracle now, my faith would be a lot stronger than it is.” We think that way, but of course it isn’t that way. Miracles don’t guarantee anything, and they certainly didn’t guarantee anything in this case. Today there’s even a movement that goes by the name of the signs and wonders movement. It says that’s the way you are supposed to do evangelism. It talks about evangelism as spiritual warfare, which of course it is. But then it goes further and says that because it’s spiritual warfare, there is an emphasis on doing miracles to catch people’s attention and show them that the God of the Bible is more powerful than the demon gods. Thus, people in this movement were looking to identity miracles and cast out demons.
Now this story ought to teach us that miracles don’t guarantee a thing. There has never been a time in all of history when any people have seen more miracles of greater scope and in a shorter space of time than the Israelites had received in their deliverance from Egypt.
They had seen all of the plagues and had experienced God’s provision for them in the wilderness. At the very moment that they were beginning to worship the golden calf, God was there up on the mountain in an awe-inspiring demonstration of cloud and thunder and lightning, so much so, we’re told in other places, that the people actually trembled when they heard the sound. Yet it didn’t mean a thing. They turned away from it very easily.
1R. Alan Cole, Exodus, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 214.