Exodus 32-34: The God who is merciful

When you meet someone new, how can you learn about them? (What their character is?)

One way is to WATCH them. (See the things they DO. What they like and don’t like. How they treat people.) Like two people going on a date together. Doing things together, so they can get to know each other.

The OTHER way is to ASK them. Ask questions. Then let them TELL you about their personality, their priorities, and their preferences. And that’s REALLY where you get to know someone. Because you don’t have to INTERPRET their actions. Actions can be MISUNDERSTOOD. Instead, they can TELL you why they did something. They can TELL you about their character. About their dreams and plans. What they’re passionate about.

Doing things together is ONE level of getting to know someone. But it’s LONG, unguarded CONVERSATIONS when you REALLY get to know a person.

And it’s the same with knowing GOD. And in Exodus 32-34 we see BOTH ways. We WATCH him, and we LISTEN to him. We’ve got a story ABOUT him. (How he ACTS). That’s chapter 32. But Moses wants to know MORE about God. So he ASKS him. That’s chapter 33. Then in chapter 34 God TELLS Moses what he’s like. And the STORY and the SELF-DESCRIPTION AGREE. They COMPLEMENT each other.

In fact they do it SO well, there’s probably no other passage in the Old Testament that better shows us God’s character and nature. In fact, verses 6 and 7 of chapter 34 are the MOST-QUOTED VERSES IN THE WHOLE BIBLE. They really get to heart of WHO GOD IS.

So listen carefully, because if you do, you’ll know God better. You’ll REJOICE at his MERCY and FAITHFULNESS. You’ll be GRATEFUL that he ABOUNDS in love in faithfulness, but is SLOW to become angry. That his basic orientation is FOR you, not AGAINST you. You’ll be HUMBLED at your sinfulness, but at the same time you’ll GROW IN CONFIDENCE that you’re FORGIVEN and ACCEPTED. And you’ll be ENCOURAGED to PRAY MORE BOLDLY.

We’re picking it up in chapter 32. Last week we were in chapter 20, with Moses up on Mt Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. But not just the Ten Commandments. While he’s up there, God gives him a bunch of OTHER laws. First, from chapters 20 to 23. Expanding and applying the Ten Commandments. And then, again, from chapter 25 to 31 there are instructions about building the tabernacle.

There’s lots for Moses to write down. In fact, ch 24 v18 says he stayed on the mountain FORTY DAYS AND FORTY NIGHTS. Which sets the scene for chapter 32. V1 begins. When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

The people are so dependent on Moses, they don’t know what to do when he’s GONE. Moses had led them. (Gone BEFORE them) Now they want Aaron to make GODS to go before them. So, v2, Aaron collects their gold jewellery, makes an idol in the shape of a calf, builds an altar in front of it, and announces, v5, “Tomorrow there’ll be a festival to the LORD.”

And that’s what they do, v6. They’re KEEN – they get up early, and offer sacrifices. Except it’s not to GOD, it’s to a statue of a golden calf. Which they were told NOT to make. Or to worship. And except, afterwards, they had a great party, which almost certainly included some behaviour God had just FORBIDDEN.

God’s promised if they keep the covenant, they’ll be his treasured possession. And they promised they would. Twice. 19:8 and 24:3. (Promised they’d obey everything he commanded). But they don’t even last SIX WEEKS.

V7, the scene switches to God and Moses up on the mountain. God says, “Go down, the people have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them.” V9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

It’s interesting the number of references to BODY PARTS in these chapters. Israel are STIFF-NECKED. Like cattle or horses that won’t be turned in another direction. They’re STUBBORN and unteachable. It’s an expression that’s crossed over into English. But the way GOD’S described HASN’T made it from Hebrew to English. He says to Moses, “Leave me alone, “for MY NOSE IS HOT against them”. A hot NOSE means God’s ANGRY with them, and he wants to destroy them. They DESERVE to be destroyed. God would be entirely consistent with his covenant promise and his character to wipe them out.

But notice what he says to Moses, “LEAVE ME ALONE so that my wrath may burn against them.” It’s almost an invitation for Moses NOT to leave God alone. A hint that God’s character is more about FORGIVING than it is getting ANGRY. A hint that if Moses was to ASK, God would calm his anger – cool his nose.

And that’s what Moses does. V11. “Why should your nose burn against your people?” And then he gives God two reasons why he shouldn’t destroy them: Because if you do, v12, the Egyptians will say you brought them out of Egypt on PURPOSE to kill them, and Because, v13, you promised Abraham, Isaac and Israel that you’d make their descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. (Because of his REPUTATION and his FAITHFULNESS). And he pleads, v12, “TURN from your fierce anger; RELENT and do not bring disaster on your people.”

And if we’ve been following the way God’s acted with his people SO FAR, we should be surprised he DOES JUST THAT. V14. “Then the Lord RELENTED and did NOT bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”

It’s hard to work out how God can be SOVEREIGN and controlling and planning and knowing EVERYTHING. And yet, it seems like he CHANGES HIS MIND. PART of the answer’s explained in chapter 34, where God says he ABOUNDS in love and faithfulness, but SLOW to become angry. His natural inclination is to LOVE. He’s easily convinced to keep forgiving. The natural, simple way of reading it is that Moses’ prayer caused God to change from the path he’d suggested.

We may not UNDERSTAND it, but we can REJOICE in it. It means we can pray, confident that our prayers are HEARD, and EFFECTIVE. Somehow, they’re part of God’s purposes for his world.

So, v15, Moses heads down the mountain to check out the damage. He’s carrying the two stone tablets. When he gets to the camp, v19, he sees the calf, and the partying. And he throws down the tablets, and they break into pieces. It’s what ISRAEL’S done to God’s covenant. They’d agreed to KEEP it, but then they SMASHED it. And Moses destroys THE CALF – burns it and then grinds it up for good measure. (God might be slow to get angry, but MOSES isn’t)

And then, v21, he turns his attention to Aaron, who he’d left in charge. He’s destroyed the TABLETS, he’s destroyed the CALF. I wonder whether Aaron thinks HE’LL BE NEXT. Look at his weak reply, v22. “Don’t be angry, my lord. You know how prone these people are to evil.” Which is TRUE. “They said ‘Make us gods’. So I said, v24, ‘Take off your jewellery’. I threw it into the fire and OUT CAME THIS CALF!” What a ridiculous piece of blame-shifting! It would be HILARIOUS if it wasn’t so SAD!”

Meanwhile, v25, the party continues to rage out of control in the camp. They’re running wild. And Aaron hasn’t STOPPED them. And Moses realises the nations who hear about it will LAUGH. God’s NAME will be ridiculed. His reputation will suffer. So he stands at the entrance to the camp, and shouts out for volunteers, v26. And all the Levites join him. And they go through the camp and kill those involved in what was probably an orgy. And that day THREE THOUSAND died. It seems like that finally stops the party. And, v29. Moses commends the Levites for defending God’s honour.

But we can’t help wondering if he did the right thing, or not. Is it what God wanted? The narrator doesn’t make it obvious.

Either way, it’s not the end of the matter. For Moses, OR God. V30, the next day, Moses tells the people, “You committed a great sin. Perhaps I can make atonement. Perhaps I can satisfy God’s anger.” Is he thinking about the punishment he’s just performed? Or about the offer he’s about to make to God? Again, it’s not clear.

So Moses CONFESSES the sin of the people, v31, and asks God to FORGIVE. And then he adds, “but if not, then BLOT ME OUT of the book you’ve written.” He’s offering himself in place of the people. That if God WON’T just forgive their sin, he’ll take Moses’ life INSTEAD.

But look at God’s reply. V33 “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.” 35 And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.

On the one hand, God says it’s not up to Moses to make atonement. No one can pay for another person’s sin. Everyone has to pay for his own sin. That’s JUSTICE. And God will look after his own justice. Which he DOES. In time. Because he’s SLOW to become angry. What Moses COULDN’T do, in God’s timing, JESUS DID. When he died as the atoning sacrifice. God himself satisfies his own justice in paying for the sin of the world.

I wonder if there’s not a slight rebuke here, too, against Moses’ action of quick action. (Of immediately delivering the death sentence on the people). God says, “Your job is to lead the people into the land. I’ll do the blotting out. You don’t need to do it. When the time comes for me to punish, I’ll punish. And then v35 describes a plague against the people that comes some time later.

We know Moses is impulsive and quick to act. (That’s what started the whole process back in chapter 2, when he killed the Egyptian.) And he’s jumped straight in to execute Israelites. In contrast, in chapter 34 God tells Moses that he’s SLOW to anger, whereas it seems Moses has been QUICK to anger. Despite the people DESERVING it. Despite them failing the conditions of the covenant. God PERSEVERES with them. (Into chapter 33), he tells Moses to lead the people into the land he promised.

And that’s section one. (The STORY. We’ve watched how God’s ACTED.) In section TWO we’ve got the SELF-DESCRIPTION. (God TELLING Moses what he’s like). Jump down to v7 of ch33. Moses would meet with God in a tent set up on the outside of camp. And v11, the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.

And what Moses wants MOST is to KNOW GOD BETTER. Perhaps he’s been slightly puzzled, like us, with how God’s ACTED. So he wants things cleared up. It’s what he needs if he’s going to lead them properly. He says, v13, If you are pleased with me, TEACH ME YOUR WAYS SO I MAY KNOW YOU and continue to find favor with you.

He wants to know what guides God’s actions. What lies at the core of his being? And, v17, God AGREES. He says, “I’ll do the very thing you’ve asked, because I’m pleased with you.”

To which Moses has ANOTHER request, v18, “Now show me your GLORY.” The GLORY of God is something like A VISIBLE REPRESENTATION of God. The people saw it in the pillar of cloud that led them, and that settled on Mount Sinai.

But look at what God offers INSTEAD. V19. “I will cause MY GOODNESS to pass in front of you. And I will proclaim my NAME, the LORD, in your presence. I’m MERCIFUL, and COMPASSIONATE. But you can’t see my FACE, or you’ll DIE.” God reveals himself, his CHARACTER, most clearly IN WORDS, not in what he LOOKS LIKE. He’s a God who SPEAKS.

And then, v23, he promises that he’ll pass by Moses, but he’ll protect him in a split in a rock, so he doesn’t get destroyed. He’ll cover Moses with his HAND, so he only sees God’s BACK and not his FACE. (once again, more body parts)

And that’s the way it seems to have happened. Into ch34. Moses makes two more stone tablets. To replace the ones who broke. And he heads up Mt Sinai. Again. And then, v5.

Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

These are the verses quoted more times in the Bible than any other. They’re God’s answer to Moses’ two requests, “Teach me your ways”, and “Show me your glory.”

What is God’s character? And how does he ACT? On the POSITIVE side, he’s MERCIFUL – withholding punishment we deserve. And he’s GRACIOUS – giving us good things we DON’T deserve.

And he’s SLOW to anger. In Hebrew, he says he’s LONG OF NOSE. Remember after the golden calf, how he told Moses to leave him alone for his NOSE WAS HOT against Israel? But here he says he’s LONG OF NOSE. THAT’S his character. That’s why Moses was able to pray for God not to destroy them. And God DIDN’T. And instead of getting ANGRY, he’s more like to show steadfast, reliable, consistent LOVE, and truthful FAITHFULNESS. And, v7, when that’s applied to his dealings with humanity. He shows steadfast love to thousands of generations, and forgives their sin.

But, on the OTHER hand, that’s not ALL he is. He does have LIMITS. As SLOW as he is to anger, there comes a point where his justice falls. Where his patience will run out. He will CERTAINLY punish the guilty. Israel mustn’t ABUSE his patience. But in comparison to how long his LOVE is – to a THOUSAND generations – his PUNISHMENT runs out of steam after THREE AND FOUR generations. Because he’s compassionate and gracious.

And, v8, Moses bows down to the ground. And WORSHIPS God. And so should WE. As quick to sin as we are, God is quick to FORGIVE. As slow to repent as we are, God is slow to BECOME ANGRY. As faithless and wandering as we are, God is faithful and reliable. As lying and dishonest as we are, God is truthful and consistent. Yes, God is just and will punish sin. But he’s overwhelmingly FOR us, not AGAINST us. He’s PATIENT, not wanting ANY to perish, but ALL to come to eternal life.

And, v10, God RENEWS his covenant with Moses and Israel. And down in v28, Moses writes all the words down on the SECOND pair of stone tablets. And he’s there ANOTHER forty days and nights. And when he comes down, his face is GLOWING because he’s MET WITH GOD. And the people are AFRAID.

What an incredible event! That the LORD would speak with Moses face to face, as a man speaks with a friend. And reveal his CHARACTER – his GLORY – to him. And show him his WAYS. No wonder it’s the most quoted paragraph in the Bible! But as clear an explanation as it is of God. There’s an even CLEARER one. When God speaks about himself IN HIS SON. The Lord Jesus.

Fittingly, the beginning of John’s Gospel calls him THE WORD. God’s self-communication. He was WITH God in the beginning, and WAS God. And then we get to v14. Exodus 34:6-7 are pretty special. But v14 is EVEN BETTER. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Jesus made his dwelling among us. Literally, he TABERNACLED – pitched his TENT – among us. Just like GOD did when he came down on the tent of meeting and met with Moses. And John says, We have SEEN HIS GLORY, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father. The only one who could reveal God’s magnificence is the only one who’s come from the Father.

Moses asked to see God’s glory. And God hid him in a split in a rock and protected him with his hand, and showed him his BACK as he passed by. But John and the other eyewitnesses SAW the GLORY of God himself in the God-man, Jesus. He walked and talked among them. And while God revealed himself to Moses as abounding in love and faithfulness, Jesus revealed himself as FULL OF GRACE and TRUTH. (Overflowing with generous mercy and reliable consistency) The same characteristics as God. Because he’s GOD HIMSELF.

As UNIQUE as Moses’ experience was, the eyewitnesses to Jesus saw God EVEN MORE CLEARLY. John adds, in v18. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.

Not even MOSES saw God’s face. But John and the other disciples have seen JESUS, and through him, God himself. And what’s TRULY amazing is that we get to DO THE SAME. We look over their shoulders, listening to their testimony. And see GOD HIMSELF, revealed in the person of Jesus. Jesus, full of grace and truth. Merciful, forgiving, reliable.

But more than that, through him, we can KNOW GOD. Not just know ABOUT him. John says, in v12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-

Sons and daughters of the God who’s compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. And that, out of ALL the things God’s told you about himself today, is the BEST piece of information of ALL!

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