Exodus 32:15
Then Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back.
The Swift Decay of LoveAlexander MaclarenExodus 32:15
The First IntercessionsJ. Orr Exodus 32:7-15
The Return of Moses to the CampJ. Orr Exodus 32:15-25
Judgment and MercyJ. Urquhart Exodus 32:15-35
It may well be believed that it was with deeply agitated heart that Moses, stunned by the tidings he had just received, rejoined his faithful attendant, and as speedily as possible descended the rocky sides of the mountain. Great was the contrast between the things heavenly on which for forty days and forty nights his eyes had been uninterruptedly feasting, and the scenes he was now to witness. Even the light of common day could hardly seem otherwise than strange to him, emerging from his ecstasy. His bodily aspect, too, would be considerably altered. But in his spirit there is a stored-up energy, the product of his long rapture, which it only needs the sight of Israel's sin to kindle into awful heat of wrath.

I. THE BREAKING OF THE TABLES (vers. 15-19). The downward journey was a silent one. Moses refrains from communicating to Joshua the news he has received. He is absorbed in his own thoughts. And while he muses, the fire burns (Psalm 39:3). So soon as they approach the camp, sounds of revelry are heard. Joshua, with his soldier's instinct, thinks at once of war, but Moses can tell him that it is "not the voice of them that shout for mastery," nor yet "the voice of them that cry for being overcome" that he hears, but "the voice of them that cry" (ver. 8). Even Moses, however, is unprepared for the spectacle which presents itself, as, pursuing the descent, some turn in the road at length puts before his eyes the whole scene of folly. The tables of testimony are in his hands, but these, in his hot anger, he now dashes from him, breaking them in pieces on the rocks (ver. 19). It was an act of righteous indignation, but symbolic also of the breaking of the covenant. Of that covenant the tables of stone were all that still remained, and the dashing of them to pieces was the final act in its rupture. Learn,

1. The actual sight of wickedness is necessary, to give us full sympathy with God in the hot displeasure with which he regards it.

2. The deepest and most loving natures are those most capable of being affected with holy indignation. Who shall compete with Moses in the boundlessness of his love for Israel? But the honour of Jehovah touches him yet more deeply.

3. It is right, on suitable occasions, to give emphatic expression to the horror with which the sight of great wickedness inspires us.

II. THE DESTRUCTION OF THE CALF (ver. 20). Returning to the camp, Moses brought the orgies of the people to a speedy termination. He had little difficulty in restoring order. His countenance, blazing with anger, and exhibiting every sign of grief, surprise, and horror, struck immediate dismay into the evil-doers. No one, apparently, had the courage to resist him. The idolaters slunk in guilty haste to their tents, or stood paralysed with fear, rooted to the spot at which he had discovered them. He, on his part, took immediate steps for ridding the camp of the visible abomination. "He took the calf which they had made and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it." View this -

1. As a bitter humiliation. What could be more humiliating to these idolaters than to see their god ground to powder, and its dust made into a nauseous mixture, which afterwards they were compelled to drink? But is not this the end of all sin? The instruments of our sin become the instruments of our punishment. Our sin turns to bitterness. The golden sheen by which it at first allured us disappears from it. It ends in humiliation and degradation.

2. As a righteous retribution. Why was the calf thus ground to powder, and given to the Israelites to drink? It was no mere act of revenge on Moses' part. It was no hasty doing of his anger. It was a just retribution for a great sin. It was a method deliberately adopted of branding idol and idolaters alike with the print of the Almighty's judgment. It suggests to us the correspondence between sin and its punishment; the certainty of our sins coming home to roost; the fact that sin will be paid back to us in its own coin. Sin and retribution hang together. We "receive the things done in the body" (2 Corinthians 5:10).

3. As a prophecy of worse evil to come. Bitter as this humiliation was, it was not the whole. It was but the mark put upon the deed by God, which told those who had committed it that they must abide by it, and be prepared to eat the fruit of their doings. The drinking of the dust had its sequel in the slaughter and the plagues (vers. 27, 35). Even so, the bitterness and humiliation following from sins in this life do not exhaust their punishment. They warn of worse punishment in the world to come.

III. AARON'S EXCUSES (vers. 21-25). The first duty was to destroy the calf. This accomplished, or while the work was proceeding, Moses addresses himself to Aaron. His words are cuttingly severe, - "What did this people unto thee?" etc. (ver. 21). Aaron, on his side, is deprecating and humble. He is afraid of Moses' anger. He addresses Moses as "my lord," and proceeds to make excuses. His excuses are typical, and deserve consideration.

1. He falls back upon the old, old plea - as old as Eden - that the blame of his sin rested on some one else than himself. "Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are bent on mischief. For they said to me," etc. (vers. 22-24). It is, as we say, the old, old story of all evil-doers - "It wasn't me, indeed it wasn't; it was those wicked people who made me do it." It is the weak, childish excuse of all who, having been tempted into sin, or having through their own irresolution fallen into it, have not the honesty or manliness to make at once a frank avowal of their fault. An easy way this, were the excuse admissible, of getting rid of our responsibility; but transgressors were early taught that they will not be allowed to avail themselves of it (Genesis 3:12-20). It is not a plea which will be held valid on the day of judgment. All, more or less, are conscious of pressure exerted on them by their circumstances. There is, however, no fatality binding us to yield to that pressure, if yielding means sin. The pressure is our trial. Aaron's sin lay in his unmanly fear, in his not having the resolution to say at the critical time, No. Probably Aaron would have urged that if he had not yielded, the people would have killed him. "Then," Moses would have answered, "let them kill you. Better a thousand times that they had killed you than that you should have been the means of leading Israel into this great sin." Yet how often is the same species of excuse met with! "I couldn't help it;" "The necessity of my situation;" "Compelled by circumstances;" "Customs of the trade;" "If I hadn't done it, I would have offended all my friends;" "I should have lost my situation," etc. It may be all true: but the point is, Was the thing wrong? If it was, the case of Aaron teaches us that we cannot shield ourselves by transferring the blame of what we have done to circumstances.

2. If Aaron's first excuse was bad, the second was worse - it just happened. He put the gold, poor man, into the fire, and "there came out this calf!" It came out. He did not make it; it just came out. This was a kind of explaining which explained nothing. Yet it is precisely paralleled by people attributing, say, to their "luck," to "chance," to "fate," to "destiny," what is really their own doing. Thomas Scott says - "No wise man ever made a more unmeaning or foolish excuse than Aaron did. We should never have supposed 'that he could speak well,' were we to judge of his eloquence by this specimen." Note -

(1) The right way of dealing with a fault is frankly to acknowledge it.

(2) Though Moses so severely rebuked Aaron, he could yet intercede for him (Deuteronomy 9:20). The future high priest, who truly had "infirmity" (Hebrews 5:2), needed, on this occasion, an intercessor for himself. The severity of Moses was the severity of aggrieved love. - J.O.

Moses besought the Lord.
We find him in succession —

1. Highly privileged.

2. Deeply grieved.

3. Raised to a holy frame of mind.

4. Visibly answered.

5. Abundantly strengthened.

I. Many events have taken place since Moses, at the Lord's command, drove back the waters of the Red Sea, and the song of deliverance voiced forth from heart and mouth of many myriads. Amidst the sound of thunder and of trumpets, heaven has already spoken to the earth, and Israel's camp has now for weeks been gathered round Mount Sinai, waiting patiently till Moses shall return. Return! Where is he, then, you ask, and where can Amram's son remain with more advantage than amidst the people, who, as is already fully evident, cannot remain without his help and guidance for another single day? Where? As if Moses could have been himself had he been always living in the abject sphere in which this Israel moved; as if a man to whom the Lord Almighty has vouchsafed a look into celestial mysteries should hasten back to earth again! The story of those forty days is written in heaven's register; and if Moses were himself still here to give his witness as to what occurred, perhaps he would repeat the words of Paul regarding the most blessed hour of his experience, "Whether it took place in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell — God knoweth." It is enough for us that he receives the law there through the medium of angels; that at this time he may have had withdrawn from him the cloud, which hitherto had quite concealed from human eyes God's counsel in its grand development, as now revealed in these last times; that there is now made known to him, not merely the grand principles of law to regulate the Jewish commonwealth, but God's express appointments as to everything relating to the life, both civil and religious, of the chosen nation, even to minute details; that he is now allowed (and this, the greatest privilege of all, I mention last) to pray in such a way that he most truly lives in close communion with the Infinite. Oh, happy Moses! who shall tell in what a stream of deep enjoyment you must then have bathed; how much refreshment your soul must have drawn from the full cup of God's delights; and how oblivious you must have now become of all the troubles which so often, like a leaden weight, oppressed your soul on earth? How high stands this great man of God above the carnal Israelites, who long for nothing so incessantly as for Egyptian flesh! Among those born of women, there has not been one, belonging to the days of the Old Covenant, that stood in such an intimate relation to Jehovah, except, it may be, Abraham alone: in this respect, then, we look upon Moses as a happy man. But the greatest privilege which Moses had at Sinai — confidential intercourse with God — is granted to each one of us who know Him in His Son.

II. Yet do not think that such a privilege exempts you from a multitude of struggles on this earth; rather, when you but look at Moses' case, and find how deeply grieved he was, the contrary seems true. He is still standing in God's holy presence, raised above the dust of earth, when suddenly he hears the words addressed to him, "Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves." "Thy people": these are bitter, cutting words. Is it not just as if Jehovah meant to say, "A people such as this can no more be accounted Mine"? What has occurred to rouse the Holy One to wrath? "These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt." Oh, wretched nation, thus, when not much more than called to liberty, to stretch their hands out for the fetters of unrighteousness, and, as it were, before the eyes of that Jehovah who touched yonder mountain-top and made it tremble, thus so quickly to transgress the first requirement of His holy laws! But we may also readily imagine what unutterable grief it was to Moses in particular, that even while in the immediate presence of his God, a dark cloud rises on His face. Is this, then, the reward for all the faithfulness with which he has devoted his whole energies to such an arduous work as Israel's deliverance? Is this the seal confirming what the people, scarcely forty days before, declared, "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do"? Where are the songs of thanksgiving that echoed all along the shores of the Red Sea? They now are changed into the shouts of a rebellious mob. Where is the spoil that the dismayed Egyptians gave up? It has been spent on the adorning of an idol. Where is the prospect now of national prosperity to be enjoyed if men observed the ordinances of the Lord? "I have seen this people, and behold it is a stiff-necked people; now, therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them." "Let Me alone!" How well we recognize in these few words the living God, who glories in omnipotence combined with faithfulness, and who will not even let His anger burn without forewarning this His faithful servant of the dreadful work He is about to do. But ye should be in something like a proper state to understand the depth of this man's sorrow — ye who had saved your dearest child from certain death, and who, just at the very moment when you fancied all was safe, beheld the one whom you had rescued rushing wilfully into the jaws of death. But which of us, my fellow Christians, has not at some time had experience like Moses' in that memorable hour? We may have deemed ourselves blest in our fellowship with God, when suddenly the harsh, discordant sound of sin was heard — the clash of weapons in the struggle of this life. For the disciple always finds even yet, as did his Lord of old, that the desert where he undergoes temptation immediately adjoins the Jordan of self-dedication; yea, just in proportion as, like Moses, we are placed in higher station, and more privileged than other men, we often find our trials too are heavier. Like Moses, too, we often see our noblest efforts for the good of men in general rewarded with most base ingratitude; or, in a few brief hours, what we have raised by dint of sweat and toil, continued through successive years and months, is broken down through careless weakness on another's part. In utter disappointment, we pour out our grief before the ruins of the edifice we reared so carefully; and when we would continue to rejoice in hope that God will yet fulfil His promises, it seems as if God hid His face from us, and we are terrified.

III. Would that we all were but of such a holy frame of mind as was the servant of the Lord, whose utter disappointment you have hitherto been witnessing. Does not the simple fact that Moses, at a moment such as this, betakes himself to prayer say very much for him? But which of us that suddenly perceives what deeply grieves us is at once inclined to pray, and not, instead, disposed to cry out in despair, but most of all disposed to silence and to utter inactivity? Now, it is well for him that he still lingers at the top, not at the foot, of Sinai, for he is near that God to whom he never called in vain. Moses pours out his supplications in the quiet solitude — for whom? Is it for himself, that God may give him strength to bear the burden of such oft rejection by the people? But wherefore should he think about himself, when his heart is filled with the thought of Israel's salvation? Why should he think of men in their rejection of himself, when they so shamefully provoked the Lord? Nay, here the lawgiver becomes a mediator, interceding for his people in their sins, with but his prayers for an offering; words fail me in attempting to describe his true nobility of soul, which comes out in his prayers and pleadings here. Does it not seem as if love were exhausting all its energies in trying to find out, not some slight palliations of the shameful conduct which must be pronounced quite inexcusable, but some good grounds for not requiring, in this case, full satisfaction for the vast amount of guilt incurred? Now he reminds Jehovah of the great deliverance He has already wrought for Israel, and asks Him if He really intends to bring destruction upon His own handiwork. Then He points out to Him what the Egyptians and the other nations well might say when they would learn that the object of their hatred was destroyed. Again, he lays before Jehovah His own promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and he asks what must become of that, if He do not turn from His wrath in time. And, finally, he earnestly entreats the Lord, if it must even be so, to take away his life, if Israel's life, now forfeited, cannot be bought at any other price. In the full strength of interceding love he can be quite oblivious of everything except the sinful Israel; nor does he leave the mountain-top till he brings down with him the promise that the sentence, merited even though it is, shall be delayed at least, if not repealed. Does not a holy rapture seize you when you listen to a prayer like this? Here, we deliberately say, there is one greater even than Abraham when pleading in behalf of the guilty Sodom; for those wicked men had not rejected Abraham, at least in person, and the patriarch did not express his readiness to give his own life as an offering for sin. Who does not feel that prayer like this truly deserves the name; while, on the other hand, so much of what bears that fair name is little more than a mere mumbling over of some forms, and that, too, in a way the most mechanical — if it be not: indeed, but covert sin? Nay, it is not enough that you should cry to God for help whenever your own want and misery oppress your soul; Moses calls loudly, "Pray for others too" — and the more earnestly for them, as they are more unfortunate, more sinful than yourselves, and more unthankful and unkind to you! Neither is it enough that you present to Him your own and others' miseries; for Moses says again, "God's honour must be made the one great object in your prayer"; woe to the man whose prayer is but self-seeking who does not endeavour to extol God's majesty! Nor yet, again, is it enough that you should raise your heart at special times in prayer, but soon abate your zeal; Moses cries out to every one who strives on earth, "Continue, persevere in prayer; the faithful friends of God are the best friends of men!"

IV. But does not this still further and more plainly show itself when you perceive how Moses was heard in prayer? There is (may I express it so?) something beyond description, human or Divine, in these words found in ver. 14: "Then the Lord repented of the evil which He thought to do unto His people." Nay, what man could expect by prayer to make God alter His decree? what godly man could wish to have such power? God has determined at all times to show His grace to sinful men, but He is gracious only to the humble prayer; and now, when Israel themselves neglect to pray that He may take away impending judgments, Moses puts himself in the position of the sinners; and no sooner does he venture on his intercession than he obtains God's pardon for them all. Moses has prayed for grace, but grace does not in every case mean quite the same thing as impunity; and Moses himself is fully conscious that the nation must atone for its own sins, even when it is not visited according to its sins. "Thou wast a God that forgavest them, though Thou tookest vengeance of their inventions." These words, penned by the Psalmist, form the motto of God's dealings with Israel. When God exterminates some hundreds, He acts like the surgeon, sparing not the knife though it inflicts much pain, nor hesitating to remove most precious, yea, important, members, that the body may itself be saved from otherwise inevitable death. Yea, what is it that prayer cannot do — humble, believing, fervent, persevering prayer? It opens up the treasures hid in God's paternal heart, and shuts the flood-gates of His penal judgments; it brings blessings down upon the head already laden with the curse of sin; nor has it lost its power, although the mouth of him who offered it is long since silent in the dust of death. And is the history of the Israel of the New Covenant less rich in illustrations of the truth that God desires to have entreaty made to Him, not merely by, but also for, His people, so that He may pity them? Run over, then, yourselves the annals of Christ's reign, and ponder specially the record made of your own history. What keeps the sword from Peter's head when that of James already is removed? The Church sends up in his behalf a constant prayer that keeps the rock from falling down. What has the Christian Church to thank for her great teacher, ? The prayer of Monica; because a child for whom so many tears were shed could not by any possibility be lost. Christians! if you most truly seek your brother's and your own salvation, persevere in prayer!

V. "Your own salvation" — yes; it is just here that our own interest, which we so fully understand, combines most beautifully with our brother's too. Come, look at Moses, in the last place, fully strengthened after prayer. Let us once more look to the sequel of the history. When you behold the man of more than eighty years descending from the mountain of the Lord with all the fire of youth still full in him, do you not recognize in that the power of fellowship with God in heaven? What calmness in his eye, what firmness in his gait, what firm decision in his actions, and what strength combined with moderation, as this very page can testify! Surely you do not disapprove of what he did, when, in a boiling rage, he cast away the tables made of stone, so breaking them, and strewed the dust obtained by pounding down the golden calf upon the water used to quench the thirst of Israel? "See my zeal for the Lord!" So Moses might have said with better right than Jehu did in later times, for his was anger without sin. And we confess that we would scarce have looked on him as Moses — yea, would almost have despised him — had he not on this occasion cast a single glance of deepest anger upon the abomination now committed by the Israelites. What would have been the meaning of such intercession for a race of sinners if the intercessor had esteemed the sin itself as trivial? Then, even though the world be all opposed to us, the Lord, in His eternal faithfulness, remains upon our side; though even our dearest friends may fall, the Friend who cannot die still watches us; although the head may bend through weariness, the heart that still can pray renews its youth. Behold in this the explanation of the mystery why two men, both engaged in the selfsame life-struggle, may yet fight in ways so utterly dissimilar, that while the one sinks under wounds he has received, the other issues from the fight victorious; the one required to carry on the war at his own charges, while the other had Omnipotence itself upon his side. On Sinai Moses prays for a rebellious nation; on Golgotha you hear Jesus pleading for His executioners when He was being crucified. Moses invokes God for His grace towards Israel only; Jesus for that same grace to sinners of all tribes and tongues, peoples and nations — yea, even towards you and me, in all our guilt. Moses but offers to make his own life a sacrifice for sin, while Jesus actually gives His life as a ransom for many. Moses obtains for Israel no more than mitigation of the penalty, not full forgiveness; Jesus can bestow a full salvation on all those who come to God by Him. Moses expires when he has watched and prayed for forty years, seeking the good of Israel; but Jesus ever lives, appearing in God's presence for our interest. Nay, Israel, we do not envy you of this your prayerful mediator; we thank God that we look unto a higher One.

(J. J. Van Oosterzee, D. D.)

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