It was the incident of the Golden Calf. In the days before this event that took place at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Israelites had just been delivered by the powerful hand of God from four hundred years of slavery in Egypt. In their exodus from that land of slavery, they had witnessed God’s great power in the ten plagues that he had brought upon the Egyptian nation and on Pharaoh, finally forcing the Pharaoh to agree to let Moses lead the Israelites out of the country.
But Pharaoh later changed his mind about this, and sent his vast army to pursue the Israelites. As God’s children fled before the armies of Egypt, they saw the Red Sea open before them so that they could pass through. When the Israelites had crossed the sea, they looked back and saw the water close up again to swallow up the Egyptian army. The army had been right on their heels in their pursuit when they had entered the sea.
But those events were behind the people of Israel now. They were entering into a new relationship with God, and Moses was the man whom had been appointed by God to be their representative. At one point not long after the people had escaped from Egypt, Moses climbed Mount Sinai with Joshua to meet with God and to learn of God’s vision and plans for this new nation. It was to be a meeting that would last many days.
In the meantime, the people at the foot of the mountain were growing tired of waiting for the return of Moses from the heights of the mountain. It turned out to be forty days and forty nights before Moses finally did come down (Exodus 24:18). During that period, the people had grown increasingly impatient for him to return. The Israelites had expected a lot more from Moses and apparently wanted it a lot sooner. They were restless.
An Impatient Demand Made
The account that we have of the whole affair of the golden calf is very much abbreviated. I find myself wanting to know more. I find myself wishing that I had some additional insight into what the Israelites were thinking. It seems amazing to me that the people, after so recently witnessing such a wondrous and powerful deliverance by the miraculous hand of God, should so quickly be willing to abandon the Lord God. Nevertheless, that is what happened.
Moses and his assistant Joshua were on the heights of the mountain receiving their instructions from God. While they were there, the people at the foot of the mountain gathered around Aaron. They took the opportunity of the absence of Moses to say to Aaron, “Make us a god who will go before us.”
Their impatience was obvious. They said to Aaron, “As for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1 NAS).
Their reasoning, of course, was only made in convenience. Certainly, they did know what had happened to Moses and they must have known that he would eventually come down. It is true that forty days is quite a long period of time to wait to hear what Moses would bring them, but the central fact is that the people were impatient.
“Make us a god who will go before us,” they demanded of Aaron.
The Rationalization of Aaron
It was not in Aaron’s mind, I think, to make an idol. I believe that Aaron thought that this would be an aid to their worship to the Lord God. Perhaps neither was it even in the mind of the people to have an idol—at least at first. It is true that they did say make us a “god,” but to give them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they thought that they would look upon this idol their representative before the Almighty God.
But even with that, this is a very delicate point and one very easily perverted. Even if the people did not know what the end result of their petition would be, their desire was enough to put them on a path toward spiritual ruin. Once they began, the momentum of the decision itself seemed to hurl them downward and out of control. It was for this reason that, in giving the commandments, God first quite firmly establishes a fact.
“I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” He told them. “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:2-4 NAS).
Nevertheless, the people had very quickly forgotten this clear declaration from God. Aaron told the people to “tear off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters, and bring them to me.” Aaron then took this gold and cast it into an image of a calf, also carving it with an engraving tool.
When the people saw what Aaron had made, they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”
What was perhaps originally intended by Aaron to be an aid to focus the worship of the people upon God, suddenly itself became the object of veneration. It became an idol.
Contemporary Golden Calves
I also have witnessed and questioned what might be called a similar ambiguous distinction between what some consider an “aid to worship” and what actually is worship, but in other circumstances. I have lived in and visited many places where people who considered themselves to be Christians commonly had images and small statuettes in their homes to which they paid homage of some kind.
In one country where I once lived, I would often see a little statue of a doctor as a protection for their health. Many areas in different countries had their own special saint, for whom they built statuettes or had a picture. There were special saints to be the protectorates for their children, for instance, and many other images to cover the various aspects of their lives.
“We do not worship these,” they told me, “but we pray to them that they should act on behalf of God.”
Perhaps—but I still say that it is a very delicate balance. If one prays to an image, thanks an image for protection, and maintains a candle burning before the image to represent continuous homage, does not that constitute worship? Only the heart of the person and God really know.
However, if I myself were to do this, it would seem to me that it would go directly against what God has said about not making for oneself “an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.” This at least is my own conviction.
An Imprudent Decision Made
But Aaron apparently made the decision that he would do this. For him, things went from bad to worse. He, at first, may have thought the whole thing would be quite harmless—little more than a diversion. When Aaron heard from the declaration of deity that the people expressed about the calf, he built an altar that stood before the golden calf.
Again, I will say that I believe that Aaron’s thinking was somewhat unclear. To once again give him the benefit of some doubts, I do not think that the purpose of this altar was for worship of the calf. Rather, it may have been that Aaron had hoped to direct the worship to the Lord God.
Aaron made his own proclamation. “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD,” he said (Exodus 32:5).
It is significant that the people and Aaron were using two different words for their worship. The people were saying “this is your god,” and Aaron was proclaiming a feast to the “LORD.” The people were using a generic term for a god, but Aaron used the Great and Mighty Name of Yahweh, the Great “I AM.”
At this point Aaron was still trying to steer the people into worship of the LORD, and he perhaps saw the golden calf as means or a channel to direct worship to the higher God. His thinking may have been somewhat like the thinking of my friends who see their prayers to the images in their own homes as simply a means and channels by which they are depending upon and worshiping God.
However, in Aaron’s case, this was a grave error. The feast did not end up being one for the LORD, but one where the people gave themselves over toward every type of excess. Once the Israelites began down their path toward excesses in their behavior, Aaron simply lost control of the situation. There was no longer any means by which Aaron would have been able to direct their worship to the LORD. The celebration had turned into an uncontrolled orgy. Aaron was at a loss as to what to do.
“What did this people do to you,” Moses later asked him, “that you have brought such great sin upon them.”
Although Aaron may not have been in agreement with how what he had called “the feast to the LORD” turned out, it is significant to note that Moses laid the blame upon him instead of on the people— at least the direct blame. As the authority over the spiritual aspect of the Israelites, the actions of the people became Aaron’s responsibility.
A Party in the Midst of Battle
While all this was occurring, Moses and Joshua were still on the mountain, speaking with God. Suddenly, God broke off the conversation.
“Go down at once,” God told Moses, “for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.”
As Moses and Joshua descended on the mountain path, the younger ears of Joshua were the first to detect a noise that was coming from the camp of Israelites below them. It was actually the sound of singing and dancing that he was hearing, but that was not how Joshua interpreted the meaning of the noise coming from the camp. He heard something beyond the outward sounds.
“There is a sound of war in the camp,” he said to Moses.
It was a war. It was not a war consisting of hand-to-hand combat with swords and spears, but a more serious one that was of a spiritual nature. Unknown to the Israelites, they were in the midst of a battle for their spiritual allegiance. More rapidly than one could imagine, the people were abandoning the Lord God and being swept away by the enemy.
The battle raged, and even from the heights of the mountain, Joshua knew that his own people were in grave danger. Even though he was not present in the camp, from what Joshua could hear, he knew that the danger was more serious than even Aaron, who was present at the foot of the mountain, was aware.
Joshua knew that the danger was grave because, in hearing the sounds of a battle, the sounds that he was hearing were not those of victory coming from his side. This is what one would hope to hear. But that is not what Joshua heard.
Lacking victory shouts, in the midst of battle, one at least hopes to hear sounds of his fighters recognizing the strength of the foe, but bravely battling with all their might. However, neither did Joshua even hear of this.
“It is not the sound of the cry of triumph,” Joshua said as he listened, “nor is it the sound of the cry of defeat; but the sound of singing that I hear.”
When one considers a battle, this sound of singing must be the worst of all possible sounds. As the Israelites sang, a battle of eternal consequences was being fought at the foot of the mountain, but they were completely oblivious to it. In the midst of a battle for their very souls, the children of Israel were partying!
Decisive Action Taken to Restore the Vision
I am afraid that this same sort of situation often continues to be the case in our own day. All around us there are battles raging, even within our very lives. We are looking for answers, but we have grown restless and are unwilling to wait in order to see the matter from God’s perspective. We have become tired of waiting for God to come and we have begun to look for something that will give us instant gratification. We look for alternatives to what God has already told us. In it all, our spiritual ears have become deaf to the realization that there are battles raging.
We have ignored and become oblivious to the reality of what is happening. Instead, life has become a party for us. In many ways, our society is no different from what the Israelites did that day on the foot of Mount Sinai. As the people did in that day, we have also given ourselves over to excesses.
But all parties eventually must come to an end.
When Moses came to the camp, with his eyes he saw what Joshua had heard. Unknown to the people and perhaps even to Aaron, there was a great battle taking place. Quick and decisive action needed to be taken. Moses took the calf and burned it in the fire and then ground the gold into dust, which he scattered over the surface of the water. Then he made the sons of Israel drink it. It was a clear and decisive statement to show to them that this was not a god.
Moses next turned to Aaron for an explanation. Aaron, like a schoolboy looking for an excuse for why he did not have his homework done, told Moses that the people had given him the gold, which he “threw” into the fire. “And out came this calf,” he said. This excuse was indeed on the level of “my dog ate my homework.”
A Lofty Vision
“Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained,” the writer of the Proverb says, “but happy is he who keeps the law” (Proverbs 29:18 NAS).
What Aaron failed to do was to properly instill in the hearts of the people the vision of the holiness and the exclusivity of the Lord God. He alone is worthy of our veneration. That vision of holiness can only come from hearing and from obeying the words of God. To know the sovereignty of God is to know fulfillment, for we understand our position as his children.
At the foot of Mount Sinai, it was the people themselves who had begun to decide what was proper. It was they who took upon themselves to set the pattern of worship. They did this apart from the word and the sovereignty of God. When this happened, it was as the writer of the proverb said, they became “unrestrained.”
But that is putting it mildly. God put it a bit differently. He told Moses that the people had “corrupted themselves” (Exodus 32:4).
One needs to maintain a proper vision of God. This all-important vision is the ability to see things from the perspective of God. At ground level, the people saw only a party. From the lofty vision of Mount Sinai, Joshua knew that it was the sound of war.
If we allow ourselves to become preoccupied with only the perspective that we see at ground level, we may find ourselves in the midst of a battle, yet be completely oblivious to that fact. Only from the lofty viewpoint of God himself are we able to see what is truly important. Lacking that vision and unwilling to wait for it, we leave ourselves open to the excesses of the world. At ground level, we may be looking for happiness, but in the end we find it only turns into idolatry.
True happiness can only come from the perspective of God.
The Search for Happiness
How are we to obtain that perspective? The writer of the proverb tells us. We can only find it by keeping the law of God. When he says this, he does not mean that we merely try to follow the Ten Commandments. What he is talking about is the entire Word of God. In that Word, we learn to live by the grace of God. To gain the perspective of God, we need to read what he is telling us.
God is speaking to us from eternity. He sees things and understands things that we could never determine from our perspective. So lofty is his vision, that there is much in the Bible that simply is beyond our ability to comprehend, but the more that we study and read, the more comes into our vision as well. We begin to see the matters of this life more from God's perspective. Our understanding of eternity grows.
We begin to see that much of what is happening around us has greater consequences than are immediately apparent. It was from the heights of Sinai that Joshua was able to distinguish the sound of battle in what was outwardly the singing of the people. Likewise, it is only by waiting for God and then viewing life from the perspective of his privileged panorama that we can see the reality of our own lives.
At the end of the incident of the Golden Calf, Moses told the people, "You have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the LORD. Perhaps I can make atonement for your sin" (Exodus 32:30).
Likewise, Jesus has made atonement for our sin.What is more, it is only when we have been in his presence that we can find a happiness that has substance and depth.