The Fickle and the Faithful


Introduction: As Paul looked at the disobedience of Israel in his first letter to the Corinthians, he pointed to the specific events of Exodus 32 as “examples for us that we might not desire evil as they did.” He quoted Exodus 32:6 and commented, “Do not be idolaters as some of them were” (1 Corinthians 10:6, 7). Calvin wrote that “the human heart is an idol factory.” It is quite striking that while Moses is on the mountain receiving the 10 commandments (cf. Exodus 20:1-4), the people are engaged in an egregious violation of the entire first table of the commandments.


I. Anatomy of Idolatry – How quickly the human heart descends to idolatry is one of the major sub-themes of Scripture. In Romans 1, Paul described in terms of the intrinsic hostility that fallen humanity has to God. “By their unrighteousness” fallen humans “suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). “Though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1:21). The story of salvation by grace largely is a story of release from idolatry: “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:9. 10).

A. The Tyranny of the Immediate

  1. They dismissed the evidence of God’s power and his choice of Moses. In 14:31, we read, “Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” Now they say, with an irony that they did not seem to recognize, “As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” The events of Sinai with thunder, lightning, smoke, and trumpet blast accompanied by warnings and clear evidence that Moses was to ascend the mountain to receive words from God—all this had faded from their minds (Exodus 19:16-25).
  2. They forgot the former affirmations of worship arising from their powerfully-wrought deliverance: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; . . . the Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will exalt him. … Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Exodus 15:1, 2, 11). When our worship or our profession of trust in God arise only from the power of a moment and is not deeply seated in our affections and conscience, it will evaporate in a time of testing.
  3. They substituted present desire and imagination for divine revelation. When we fail to recognize fully our fallenness and consequent self-destructive tendencies, we become content to substitute our desires and imaginations for the truths of divine revelation. “Up, make us gods who shall go before us.” Their perception of plurality was disastrous to any idea of true deity. That the gods would be made shows that they could not in any sense transcend mere human creativity and perceptions. These supposed gods would have no attributes beyond those imposed on them by the people, for they were not based on any revealed truth.

B. An intimidated leader capitulated to the ignorant and evil desires of the people. Moses personal reticence to go as the Lord originally had called him introduced Aaron into the equation. He served both for help and for harm.

  1. Note how his report includes a judgment on the people that they are “set on evil” (22). True enough, but in this case knotted only to deflect the anger of Moses from him.
  2. Note also the fantastic lie that he told—“I threw it into the fire and out came this calf” (24). The text is clear that Aaron “fashioned it with a graving tool.” He was unable to resist the idolatrous demands of the people and then unable to bear the guilt of his actions or the displeasure of Moses.
  3. How easily he succumbed to their aggressive desires for these gods is a matter of sober warning to us. Even with the astounding works so recently accomplished, to which he was personally party, the pressure of the moment made him collapse. Aggressive disbelief can intimidate the resolve of a believer. We must bear in mind the admonition of Paul to Timothy, “Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in the suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8) This must arise from a deep-seated persuasion of the goodness and certainty of the eternal purpose of God (2 Timothy 1:12.).
  4. We see this phenomenon sometimes in churches where a minister bends to the cultural religion held by ignorant and unspiritual power brokers in a congregation. Rather than sound, consistent teaching from the treasure of divinely revealed truth, they want a diet of predictable religiosities and moralisms, idols of their own desires. Like the Israelites on this occasion, they want the familiarity of Egyptian paganism rather than the holy, righteous, and covenant making God who took them out of Egypt.
  • Under this pressure there is very little exposition of Scripture and a heavy dose of stories and advice. Formulas for success and winsomeness replace the sobering calls to repentance of Scripture.
  • Sound doctrine gives way to tradition. Resolute clarity on divine sovereignty in providence and redemption must yield to the fuzzy quasi-Christianity of a God locked in by human inviolability.
  • An inculcation of moral absolutes based on biblical principles yields to the cultural mandates of a secular mind set.

C. Idolatry set in when the reality of divine spirituality is compromised.

  1. Paul says that the first step to idolatry is the rejection of a knowledge of God’s “invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature.” (Romans 1:20).
  2. The Pauline doxology of 1 Timothy 1:17 says, “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.” Again in 1 Timothy 6:15, 16, Paul praises God as “he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion.”
  3. Some Christian groups locate the saving efficacy of God’s actions toward us in material things. The Roman Catholic sees the mass as the conversion of the material substance of bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ so that the power of grace is infused into the recipient in the physical taking of those elements. Several Christian denominations believe that the water of baptism carries saving power. These violate the fundamental principle that true worship is in Spirit and in Truth. The saving power of the Holy Spirit does not depend on any material substance but is an immediate encounter with the human soul and impartation of redemptive light to the mind and affections.

D. Enthronement of Personal desires. Idolaters want a god that they can put in a particular place, placate by a self-invented offering, limit his influence to a particular sphere of life, and who has no prerogative to hide himself. He can be located easily, can be easily managed, and, if he were truly a god of love, will serve our personal interests and be the best version of ourselves. He will endorse our pleasure seeking and will hold forth no wrath based on immutable principles of holiness.


II. Foundation of Preservation from Destruction

A. God is justly wrathful (7-10).

  1. God described the events of unfaithfulness and of disgusting idolatry. The fact that this apostasy had been accomplished “quickly” after such impressive displays of power and glory was enraging. The fact that their offense was not a mere mistake of mental or spiritual ignorance but that it involved violation of a specific command (“out of the way that I commanded them”) made them peculiarly susceptible to immediate destruction.
  2. The Lord does not claim at this time that they are his people but looks to the personal instrumentality of Moses as the means by which they came up out of Israel—“Your people whom you brought up.” This probably was a strategic presentation of God to give Moses a sense of personal investment in the preservation of the people, and also to cause him to remember that in fact it was not he, but the strong hand of God who did this. God himself should be more deeply invested in their preservation than he. Moses had hesitated from the first moment and had pled several excuses. God was the one who was insistent on this rescue and who had acted in sovereign determining power throughout.
  3. Not only does he remind Moses of his responsibility in bringing them out of Egypt, but he places Moses in the position of a protector and intercessor: “Now therefore, let me alone that my wrath may burn hot against them.”
  4. He proposes that a new people be developed from the loins of Moses himself, a man of the tribe of Levi—“That I may make a great nation of you.” This would mean of course that the nation would not be the sons of Israel,( Jacob) but only from the tribe of Levi, through one man, Moses.
  5. Surely God is testing Moses and at the same time impressing him with the exceeding importance of his duty to lead this people faithfully and firmly. This allows Moses to internalize the importance of this task and possess the covenantal character of it as an issue of the glory of God.

B. Moses intercedes for the people. As he considered the implications of what God was proposing, he did not offer a personal alternative, but brought before God all the issues that God himself had invested in the rescue and molding of Israel.

  1. God already had brought them out of captivity and they were no less fickle and sinful then. Moses did not bring them out, so Moses recalled; God did. When he did it the tendency toward grumbling, resistance to hardship, easy discouragement, and unfaithfulness already were evident. If God were not going to follow through with his plan for the sons of Israel, then he should never have brought them “out of the land of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand” (11). This was not Moses’s investment; it was God’s.
  2. If God destroyed them, the Egyptians would win (12). Though God had saved them from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, and destroyed the Egyptian army in the process, yet he was powerless to follow through with the exodus? Their pertinacious obstinacy proved too difficult for God, and so, the desire of the Egyptians triumphs after all. A bold prayer came in the wake of this observation: “Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people.”
  3. Consider that God’s favor toward a people is not from their worthiness but from his purpose conceived in the eternal covenant (13). If God had acted on this righteous sense of destroying the people, then the entire fabric of his covenantal arrangements for redemption would have been forsaken. The Messiah’s appearance through the line of Judah (Genesis 49:8-12) would be impossible. Perhaps by this time, Moses already had written the book of Genesis, or at least had gathered material for its construction. If so, the problem posed by such an action by God would immediately have come to his mind. His appeal to God was pointing to a concern for God’s own character and the faithful execution of his promises.


III.  God reveals his nature to Moses. God reveals himself to Moses as the one who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-8).

A. In his speech to Moses, God had seemed quick to anger and on the verge of contradicting his faithfulness. Had he followed through with the judgment of pure justice on that people, no place for the display of mercy and grace would have been found. Moses, from his knowledge of God’s previous actions, had assumed these attributes to be true of God. Now in this special revelation to Moses he gives a verbal description of certain pertinent aspects of God’s propensities concerning holiness and justice as well as those radiating from mercy and grace.

B. This revelation sets the tension of redemption. How can God be merciful, filled with forgiveness and at the same maintain the just standard of not clearing the guilty. We find the meeting of these seemingly contradictory attributes in the propitiatory death of the Son of God rendering God’s intentions of forgiveness and lovingkindness consistent with his justice (Romans 3:21-26).

C. When we pray for those about whom we are concerned, we do not pray in accord with their goodness or their worthiness. We may call upon God’s attributes of mercy, grace, lovingkindness, and the glory of his status as a God who forgives and that he will magnify these in the salvation of particular sinners. We may point to the death of Christ and the glorious reality that God can be just and yet justify the ungodly. It is this that brings glory to him and honors his faithfulness to the substitutionary death of his Son and sets him forth as a God of mercy and grace, those attributes that led the list in his revelation to Moses. We may appeal to the certainty that God will save people in order that there may be an exceedingly large number of the redeemed singing praise to the Lamb that was slain (Revelation 5:6-14).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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